Wednesday, September 1, 2010


As Christopher Robin said,


Monday, February 1, 2010

Lords and Ladies

The Harlequin Duck that I discovered on the Farmington River on January 12 (read about it HERE) has continued to be seen almost daily, with the exception of a few days when warm temperatures and heavy rains raised the river and smoothed out the turbulent waters favored by this bird of the mountain streams. I’ve been busy with a large research project and haven’t had a chance to go to see it for three days, but I’ve been following the online reports and enjoying the photos and video that other birders have posted. (I’ll compile a list of those offerings soon and post it here.)

In the few minutes I’ve had for pleasure reading (as opposed to the technical reports that cover my desk this week), I’ve been indulging my “Harlequin Romance” by perusing some older books about birds that had been in my parents’ library. This description of the Harlequin Duck, by Edward Howe Forbush (Birds of America (ed. T. Gilbert Pearson, Garden City Books, 1917), is a good example of the more flowery, less scientific language that was typical of natural history books of a century ago. (Forbush was State Ornithologist of Massachusetts at the time the book was published.) The illustration, taken from the book, shows the accompanying painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927), a leading American ornithologist and one of the foremost bird artists of the time. The pair of Harlequin Ducks is at the lower right of the illustration; King Eiders (top) and Common Eiders (lower left) complete this set of northern ducks.

Harlequin, well named! Fantastically decorated, but still a thing of beauty. Delightful in color, elegant in form, graceful in carriage, rightly are its little companies called the “Lords and Ladies” of the waters. This is the loveliest of the Sea Ducks, but its beauty is reserved mainly for the cold and inhospitable North, and the wave-lashed rocks of isolated ledges in the wintry sea. It breeds principally in the Far North along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean. Yet, strange as it may seem, some individuals prefer the glacial streams in the mountains, and follow the higher ranges as far south as California, where they rear their young amid snow-clad peaks and disport themselves in the foaming mountain torrents until the rigors of approaching winter drive them to the sea. [We now know that the Harlequin Duck breeds only on fast-flowing mountain streams and rivers and winters almost exclusively at rocky coastal areas.] … They are fond of swift waters, mad currents, tide rips and flowing seas; are tremendously tough and hardy, and feed largely on mussels, which they get by diving, often to considerable depths.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On the Flight of Eagles

A young Bald Eagle has been hanging around town in the past few weeks, in all likelihood drawn to the large numbers of waterfowl that have been congregating on the big river that runs through the area. (The lakes and ponds have been frozen for weeks, forcing the wildfowl to the open stretches on the river.) It was a glimpse of this young dark eagle by the river two weeks ago that led me to find the rare inland Harlequin Duck that made such a splash in Connecticut in recent days. (You can read about it HERE and HERE).

A first-year Bald Eagle is mottled brown and ivory over its entire body; the rich dark-brown body feathers and familiar white head and tail won’t be fully developed until the bird reaches its fourth year.

I saw the young eagle yesterday morning as I loaded groceries into the car outside the supermarket. I grabbed the binoculars from the front seat and got some great looks as the bird worked its way along the river behind the shopping plaza. Always take the binoculars when you leave the house…you never know what you might see, even on a routine grocery run. (In fact, it was in this very spot in November 2008 that I happened to look up while loading the groceries in the car and spotted a Golden Eagle. I had sustained, clear views of this single bird flying steadily, heading very directly due south, clearly on a migration flight.)

This morning as I was stopped at a traffic light near the river, the young Bald Eagle flew past, following the water just above the tree line. As I watched it winging westward, I was aware that my jaw was hanging open with wonder at its grace and sheer wonderfulness. I was happy just watching it fly and was sorry when the light turned green and I had to head in the opposite direction.

What is it about seeing hawks and eagles that fills me with such delight and well-being? I’ve pondered this question often over the years…could it be as simple as this: That the stark beauty of a bird’s wing against the sky is sufficient for joy? That the eagle’s long unfettered flight inspires us to soar, if only in our imaginations? That in the act of looking up, we are uplifted?

As I did yesterday in my essay about crows (HERE), I turn to Henry David Thoreau:

April 23, 1854. Saw my white-headed eagle again... It was a fine sight, he is mainly - i.e. his wings and body - so black against the sky, and they contrast so strongly with his white head and tail. He was first flying low over the water; then rose gradually and circled westward …. Lying on the ground with my glass, I could watch him very easily, and by turns he gave me all possible views of himself. When I observed him edgewise I noticed that the tips of his wings curved upward slightly the more, like a stereotyped undulation. He rose very high at last, till I almost lost him in the clouds, circling or rather looping along westward, high over river and wood and farm, effectually concealed in the sky. We who live this plodding life here below never know how many eagles fly over us. They are concealed in the empyrean. I think I have got the worth of my glass now that it has revealed to me the white-headed eagle.

Thoreau on Birds. Compiled and with Commentary by Helen Cruickshank. New York: McGraw-Hill, c1964.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thoreau on Crows

After having written about our commuting crows yesterday (read it HERE), I was reminded of these words of Henry David Thoreau, excerpted from his diary:

December 31. [1859] Crows yesterday flitted silently, if not ominously, over the street, just after the snow had fallen, as if men, being further within, were just as far off as usual. This is a phenomenon of both cold weather and snowy. You hear nothing; you merely see these black apparitions, though they come near enough to look down your chimney and scent the boiling pot, and pass between the house and the barn.
And this:

March 4. [1859] We stood still a few moments … and listened to hear a spring bird. We heard only the jay screaming in the distance and the cawing of a crow. What a perfectly New England sound is this voice of the crow! If you stand perfectly still anywhere in the outskirts of the town and listen, stilling the almost incessant hum of your own personal factory, this is perhaps the sound which you will be most sure to hear rising above all sounds of human industry and leading your thoughts to some far bay in the woods where the crow is venting his disgust. The bird sees the white man come and the Indian withdraw, but it withdraws not. Its untamed voice is still heard above the tinkling of the forge. It sees a race pass away, but it passes not away. It remains to remind us of aboriginal nature.

Thoreau on Birds. Compiled and with Commentary by Helen Cruickshank. New York: McGraw-Hill, c1964.

Monday, January 25, 2010

As the Crow Flies

Each afternoon during the winter, the crows begin their evening commute, heading home after their day’s work. Thousands on thousands make the trip, flying in small flocks or singly, their dark shapes contrasting sharply against the pewter-grey clouds of late January. The flight, which begins with just a few birds at mid-afternoon, quickly grows to form a steady stream of black glossy crows hastening to complete their journey before dark.

Their route is exactly opposite of that of their human counterparts, for the crows spend their days foraging in the suburbs and outlying agricultural areas, and roost in a large flock in downtown Hartford. In late afternoon the crows converge upon the city, coming from every direction to their central roost, while on the highways below, human commuters head out of Hartford back to their homes in the suburbs.

Crows roost communally only in the winter months; during the spring, summer, and autumn they are busy raising their young and tend to stay in small family units. For the past three years or so, a family of crows has made its home in our backyard. I can tell when the chicks have hatched, for at that point, an adult (I think it’s the mother) starts coming to our suet feeder regularly, taking chunks and flying off with them to the large trees at the back of the yard. A few weeks later, the young crows come too, parading around the yard while they take lessons in finding good things to eat. I can tell that it’s the same family because the mother has a crooked feather in her right wing. (I call her “Wingtip.”)

Our crow family has been around the yard this winter, too, eating suet as well as some meat scraps that I put out for them. They loved tearing apart the leftover Thanksgiving turkey carcass after I had cooked all its flavor into soup stock, and they picked up all the scraps of fat and rind from the ham I baked for the choir party.

Scientists have suggested several reasons why crows form large roosts in winter. Massing together helps to foil predators, of course, especially the owls that prey on the roosting crows at night. (The roost in Hartford has been estimated to be as large as 20,000 birds, though in recent years it has formed several smaller flocks of “only” about 6,000 birds in each group.) There is some evidence that crows cannot see well in the dark, so it’s possible that they make their night-time roost in the city where artificial lights are present. The urban environment is warmer than the outlying areas and has the added benefit of providing opportunities for the crows to socialize. And if you’ve ever heard a really large flock of crows “socializing,” you’ll agree that they love to chat.

Scientists also believe that the crows’ commuter lifestyle – fly to work in the suburbs and then fly home to the Hartford “bedroom community” – has supported a substantial increase in the crow population. The crows can easily fly 5, 10, or 15 miles each morning to reach their foraging areas: dumps, agricultural fields, commercial areas with restaurant waste, etc. If they roosted in the countryside, they would surely lose more of their numbers to natural predators, especially the younger, weaker birds that would be more vulnerable to predation. The greater safety of the communal city roost has led to increased survival rates and breeding opportunities.

On my own morning drive, I look for the crows, flying west from Hartford in groups of two and three, spreading out over the greater Hartford area for their day’s work. I see them around town during the day: the half dozen or so outside the high school; another half dozen at the library; a large flock of about 100 in the farm fields, and the little family of three or four in my own neighborhood.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Patch Work

Nearly a week has passed since I spotted the rare Harlequin Duck near where I live. You can read about it here:
and here:

During the week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people enjoy birds. After I reported the find to the Connecticut birding community, I expected some birders to drive to the area to see this rare bird, but I confess that I was really surprised to see how many people came, and surprised that people would drive so far on the chance that they might see one individual bird which could take off at any time. Birders came from all corners of Connecticut, of course, but I saw a Massachusetts license plate among the many, many cars that streamed through the little cemetery during the week, and I know of at least one person who came all the way from New York. I also went to the riverside two or three times during the week to see the bird, but I live about a half mile away and can stop in on my morning drive.

On one of my stops there, I chatted briefly with two birders from the southwestern corner of the state who had driven 60 and 70 miles, respectively, on the chance that they might see the bird. “Oh, this is great,” the woman said happily. “Now I can check this off on my state list.” She didn’t say a word about the bird. Nothing like “I’ve never seen anything like that slaty-blue plumage” or “Isn’t it amazing that it can dive and feed in that turbulent water?” or “I wonder how it ended up here?” Her very next comment to me was “Seen any Rusty Blackbirds?” She drove for two hours in rush hour traffic to tick the bird on her list, and that was it; I watched her pack up and drive away to look for the next bird on her list.


In a private note sent to me via email, a well-known Connecticut naturalist congratulated me on the find, saying, “Great discovery. That's what the crazy Brit birders call ‘working your local patch.’” When I responded that the Harlequin had been a lucky find and that I felt hugely privileged to have seen it, he replied “Because of the way you bird, no way was it luck. You earned it.” His comments got me to thinking about how we bird.

Working the patch, patch birding, birding locally, call it what you will, it's true British birders have embraced this eco-friendly approach more than we Americans have. “Patch birding” means finding or defining an area, usually near where you live, where you concentrate your birding efforts. And sometimes that concentration on areas that aren’t the “big” birding areas can pay off, since daily observation provides opportunities to spot rarities that pass through.

I rarely drive any distance to look at birds. My “patch” includes my yard and neighborhood and about a half dozen spots around town, including one really good spot just over the border in a neighboring town. As I’ve written here, I stop here and there on my morning drive, and I have discovered some great birds in the variety of habitat we have around here. As the years go by, I grow more interested in behaviour and less in an hour spent watching one great bird is good enough for me.

Part of the fun of patch birding, is of course, seeing how many different species can be identified in each area. But what I like about visiting each place repeatedly is that I really get to know the habitats and rhythms of each little haven, even to the extent that I can recognize individual birds (especially raptors). Because I visit the same spots several times each week over the course of a year, I have the chance to observe seasonal changes, watch migrants come and go, and enjoy seeing the local birds raise their families. And since I’m not in a rush to check birds off a list, I have time to just sit and look.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that I liked: "Think globally, bird locally."

I described my birding “patch” in two recent posts:

Morning Rounds Part 1: My morning drive takes me past several “birdy” spots with a variety of great habitat. Depending on the weather, the traffic, and my schedule, I’ll stop at two or three of these havens; I rarely have time for them all….

Morning Rounds Part 2: Yesterday I wrote about several spots on the first part of the route. Here’s a rundown on the second part of my commute.

And I’ve written about my “listless” birding:

Listless: There are many ways to enjoy birds and birding. Some people travel all over the world to log as many species as possible on their life lists. Some keep several lists, tracking the bird species they’ve seen in their yards, towns, counties, states…. Some track birds by date, noting the species they’ve seen on each date, in each month, in each year…

Here, I described just some of the beauties that visit my back yard:

Daily Delights: I love birds. While it’s exciting to travel far afield to seek out rarities, the familiar birds in my own yard provide daily riches of beauty and interest….

There's a lot on this blog about my other interests and activities (particularly choral music), but all the bird posts are in two categories:

Birds in My Backyard


Birds Out and About [my “patch” outside my backyard]

As the number of essays about birds increases here, I’ll probably add a few more indexing terms, such as “Bird Behavior” – my favorite bit of “patch work.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Feeling Ducky

Reflections on finding a rare Harlequin Duck on the Farmington River, as told

Feeling Ducky

Though the winter cold made me shiver,
and quake, and shake, and even quiver,
I went birding down by my favorite river,
for I was feeling lucky.

I like to visit this pretty place
where time slows down to a gentler pace,
where I often find ornithological grace,
for here, I often get lucky.

At the bend of the river the water slows;
sometimes it riffles, sometimes it flows;
I like to watch it, however it goes.
I always see something lucky.

Amid icy edges and tiny ice floes,
ducks, geese, and mergansers repose.
Some eat, some preen, and some even doze.
They don’t mind if it’s mucky.

This day, I played “Duck, duck, goose,”
scanning the flock to try to produce
a rarity in the rushing sluice:
Looking for something lucky.

Duck, duck, goose– duck, merganser–
Hey, there’s a duck that’s like a dancer!
And right away I knew the answer:
Yes, today I was lucky!

I couldn’t believe my great good luck:
I’d found a rare inland Harlequin Duck!
An elegant bird of grace and pluck.
Oh yes, I sure felt lucky!

The Harlequin Duck’s a beautiful bird;
though its spots and dashes may look absurd,
it’s the delight of every real “bird nerd.”
It makes any birder feel lucky.

Another thing about the Harlequin:
It’s agile and active. It makes me grin
to watch it dive, and bob, and spin!
This little bird is plucky!

Playful, like the river otter,
it dove in the rushing river water
(though in winter it usually prefers saltwater).
(It doesn’t think larvae are yucky.)

I called the experts to spread the word.
Soon, people were flocking to see the bird
in this unusual spot where it had occurred.
Lots of them got lucky!

Lots of birders braved the chill
by the river’s edge and the old grist mill
to look for the duck. They got a thrill!
They went home feeling lucky.

Though it was hard to share my “patch,”
this duck is such a good “list” catch
that I’ve been sending a daily dispatch
so more folks can get lucky.

Three days later, I’m floating on air.
I can’t believe that duck was there!
How wonderful to find something so rare.
I guess I’m feeling…ducky.

© 2011 Quodlibet. Dissemination, re-use, or duplication prohibited except by express permission of the author.I pay attention and I will find you if you cite, republish, or use my work without credit or without attribution.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


.Yesterday I wrote about having discovered a Harlequin Duck on the Farmington River, a rare inland record. You can read the story here:

It is extremely unusual to find one of these colorful birds inland in winter, when one would expect to see them only in ocean waters. Read more about the Harlequin Duck, and see range maps, here:

As I related yesterday, within a few minutes of finding the bird, I was able to get the word out to the Connecticut birding community (thanks to D!). You can see how the story unfolded in the online discussion list:

There’s some interesting discussion in the postings about the possibility that the bird might have been an escape from a captive population, but the expert opinion, bolstered by my observation that the bird was not banded, was that it was indeed a wild bird.

The bird also made top billing in the daily report of special or rare birds sighted in the state:

I drove through the area several times yesterday and today, and it was interesting to see the many cars and birders who had traveled from all over Connecticut to see the bird. I saw a Massachusetts license plate, and I know of at least one person who came all the way from New York.

I received a number of nice messages from birders in the region, plus this interesting note from a Maine naturalist who is collecting information about the Harlequin Duck: “Even here in Maine which is the center of the eastern wintering population there are only about 8 inland records. Most of these were like your bird, on the ice-free section of a large river in winter.”

Greg Hanisek, a naturalist who blogs for the Waterbury Republican-American, said that "They’re quite uncommon in Connecticut, even in their favored winter habitat. Finding one inland was completely unexpected." You can read his write-up here:

At Greg's blog you can see a photo of the Farmington bird, swimming with a pair of nifty Hooded Mergansers. Many more photos of the Farmington bird, plus shots of the spiffy Ring-Necked Ducks that were also in the area, may be seen at the online gallery of Connecticut birder Don Morgan (in the gallery list at the left side of his site, click on "Harlequin Duck - Farmington"):

Don also posted his thoughts on the bird's probable age:

Nick Bonomo posted a photo of this "exceptional inland find" on his blog, Shorebirder:

All this interest and additional information reinforced the general consensus that given the unusual inland location at this time of year, this is a really special bird.

And I guess plenty of people stopped by here at Quodlibet, too, so that was fun. By the way, all the bird-related posts at this blog are indexed under one or more of these headings:

Birding (about the activity of birding)

Birds in Literature and Art

Birds in Migration

Birds in My Backyard

Birds Out and About [my "patch" around town, outside my backyard]

The Harlequin Duck made quite an impression in my visual memory; I actually dreamt about it last night.

By the way, if you’re wondering about the title of this post (“Histrionics”), you’ll find the answer at the end of yesterday’s post:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Down By the Riverside

.As I’ve written here before, and as every birder knows, finding good birds has a lot to do with luck. Such was the case, again, this morning.

On the first leg of my morning drive, I noticed a very large raptor perched over the river at the rear of the town cemetery. Big one, I thought. Probably the big female red-tailed hawk that lives in there. But hmmm, she’s really big. Distance, lighting, and the need to get where I was going prevented a closer look.

On my way back through that part of town a half hour later, I decided to pull through the cemetery to see if the raptor was still there. Yes, there it was, in a tree overhanging the river. Closer, drive as silently as possible. Lower the window before you get there so the sound and motion doesn’t attract the bird’s attention. Creep forward. Be invisible. (A car makes a great blind.) Oh nice…a Bald Eagle. A first- or second-year juvenile, dark brown mottled with white, but with the unmistakably massive bill of an eagle. I was able to get very close and had a chance to really study the plumage and contours of this wonderful bird. Though eagles have made a comeback and are no longer really rare, still it’s a treat to see one, especially up close like that.

As I watched the eagle, I noticed that the ducks and geese gathered below on the water and icy edges were silent and still. Eagles will take ducks and even geese if they can, though they probably prefer fish and even carrion. After a few minutes, the eagle flew down river, and the geese resumed their conversation. I scanned the flock, knowing that interesting ducks and rarer geese will often associate with the large flocks of Canada Geese. Safety in numbers, and all that. It's always worth looking closely at every bird in a large flock. On this day, in addition to the expected Mallards and Black Ducks, I spotted some spiffy Common Mergansers, three Ring-Necked Ducks, and a pair of Wood Ducks. Bonus on the day.

Scan, scan, scan….it’s worth scanning the flock closely several times, in case you missed anything on the first or second passes….It's like playing Duck, Duck, Goose. Scan, scan, scan, duck duck, goose. Ring-Neck, Mallard, Merganser, Harlequin Duck, Merganser…. wait, what? Harlequin Duck?! HARLEQUIN DUCK!

I’ve seen a Harlequin Duck only once before, and that was a single drake off the rocky Maine coast last May. The Harlequin Duck, endangered in our part of the world, breeds on turbulent mountain streams and winters in coastal waters. Seeing one in May on the Maine coast was rare; in fact, my sighting was included in Maine’s Rare Bird Alert that week. The Harlequin Duck is a very rare winter visitor to Connecticut, and even then it is seen only on the coast. So finding this bird at all in Connecticut, and finding one so many miles inland at that, is a rare treasure. So rare, in fact, that from my car I called D at his office so he could contact the CT birding community to report the find. Here are excerpts from the report I later sent in:

I observed the bird without interruption from about 8am until 930am. It seemed quite settled in the area. It is a bright male bird, very beautiful.The Riverside Cemetery … is a good place to see waterfowl in the winter; there are always Canada Geese (coming and going), Common and Hooded Mergansers, Mallards, Black Ducks, etc. This morning there was also a 1st-year Bald Eagle, 3 Ring-Necked Ducks (2m, 1f) and a pair of Wood Ducks. I have also seen Red-Breasted Mergansers, Common Loons, Scaup, and a good variety of land birds as well. Good place for raptors and woodpeckers year round. The Farmington River curves around agricultural fields here (Tunxis Meadows), narrowing and providing the swift, turbulent areas favored by the Harlequin Duck. The bird was spending nearly all its time around or behind an old, large fallen tree trunk on the west bank, where the water was most turbulent. ... The duck fed in the swift water, diving under and usually coming up pretty close to where it had submerged. It also spent long periods resting and preening, often perching near some Common Mergansers nearby. It has a mottled grey belly and grey legs and feet, not shown in my field guides. The slate-blue-grey-black color is quite beautiful, set off by the white markings and chestnut sides. At one point I think I heard its whistling call.

The Harlequin Duck sports incredible plumage:

This colorful little duck is named for Arlecchino (in French, Harlequin), one of the colorful characters in the Italian Commedia dell’arte tradition. Its species name, Histrionicus histrionicus, is from the Latin histrio, meaning actor. Arlecchino typically dresses in a bicolor costume, which the duck’s slaty-blue-with-white spots recalls. But the character of Arlecchino was also noted for his physical agility and nimbleness, just like the little Harlequin Duck that dives in and out of the rapids so easily and nimbly.

It was a good morning down at the riverside.

Post Scriptum. This afternoon, I dropped by the cemetery to see if the duck were still there, and to see if any birders might be there. I was very sorry to see that four people with scopes, cameras, binoculars etc. (birders?) had climbed down the river bank right into the middle of the area where the geese and ducks sleep and rest (the gravel bank). The duck was easily seen and photographed from the road, making it unnecessary to approach so closely or to make the geese and other ducks leave their usual resting area. There are no leaves on the trees, and there are plenty of open areas where the bird can be seen clearly. Why stress the birds, and perhaps scare off the rare one, just to get 50 feet closer? The circumstances of this sighting – the unusual inland location, the late migration date, the fact that the bird was resting and feeding in one place all day long despite the very close approach of four people – indicate that the bird may already be a bit stressed and in need of rest. I wish people would just watch from a distance and be glad that this wonderful bird is there for us to see at all.

Post Post Scriptum. Here's a link to a very short video of "my" Harlequin Duck, taken by a Connecticut birder. Copyright is his.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Grey Ghost

I really didn’t have time this morning to look for, or even to look at, birds. My desk is piled high with work and I’m already falling behind even though the New Year is hardly a week old. But on my morning drive this morning, my bird-radar-instinct told me that it would be worth stopping in, just for a moment, to scan the big farm fields near the center of town. I pulled off the busy road, turned on to the smaller road that quickly degrades from pavement to broken pavement to dirt, and before I was even parked, a Northern Harrier floated into view, dipping and soaring low over the snowy fields. My instinct had been right.

My arrival may have spooked the Harrier, for almost immediately it rose above the trees at the edge of the field and headed north, out of sight. Thinking that it may have been headed for the golf courses and fields on the other side of the main road, I turned around and headed out. I rarely, if ever, “chase” birds, but this bird is a special one and one of my favorites, and there was a good chance I could see it again nearby and watch it hunting.

The Harrier, an especially lovely kind of hawk, was not at the golf course or in the surrounding fields, but recalling that there is great Harrier habitat just a few miles north, where agricultural and athletic fields provide open hunting areas, I drove on. And I was well rewarded, for as soon as I arrived at the new location, I spotted the Harrier, hunting low over a field where the dried grasses and snow made a beautiful backdrop for the bird’s white and grey plumage. I’m quite sure that this was the same bird I had seen 10 minutes earlier.

The Harrier is an elegant hawk, slim and buoyant in its flight. Like owls, harriers hunt for prey by listening for movements on the ground. And like owls, harriers have facial disks – concave feathered areas around their ears – which gather sounds and help them pinpoint the location of their prey (frogs, mice, etc.). The harriers tip and tilt as they fly to “point” their ears in various directions. When they hear or see prey, they drop to the ground with a quick twisting motion, extending their legs and talons, and broadening their wings to slow their descent. Their graceful flight appears effortless and almost balletic.

With silvery-grey plumage, snowy-white rump and underparts, and black wingtips, the adult Harrier, like the one I saw this morning, is known affectionately by birders as a “Grey Ghost.” And it really iseems ghostly as it flies low over the field, dipping below the grass now and then, leaving an impression of a silvery wraith. This effect was even more pronounced this morning, as the white bird dipped and floated over the snowy fields and rose briefly against the pewter sky.

For several minutes, the Harrier hunted busily, pouncing into the grass several times but coming up empty-taloned again and again. In the next field, three crows swaggered about, picking at the grass; soon, one of them lifted into the air and started chasing the Harrier around. (Harrying, it, I guess!). The Harrier shook off the Crow and continued hunting, then perched on a low post to rest for a few moments. Almost immediately, the resident Red-Tailed Hawk, which had been observing the scene from a high perch in a tall tree, swooped down on the Harrier, and the two engaged in a brief mid-air struggle before the Harrier gave up and winged away over the lake and behind the island. I turned my attention to the big dark Red-Tail, which immediately flew to perch on same post where the Harrier had been. (That’s my post! Go away!)

After a few minutes, I noticed that the Harrier was back; it was perched on the ground in the next field, eating something held in its talons. Good, I thought, that hungry bird has finally found something to eat. The meal didn’t last long; the three crows harassed the hawk, forcing it into the air again and again until it dropped its prey and flew away, headed south to another adjacent farm field. Two of the crows gave chase, while the third crow (clearly the smartest one) stayed put and ate the Harrier’s breakfast. Meanwhile, the Red-Tailed Hawk had gone back to its usual high perch, perhaps to wait for an unsuspecting squirrel or vole to venture out to feed.

I couldn’t help but notice how large an area the Harrier required for its hunting; in the space of just a half hour, I observed it over four large fields, its favored habitat, where it finds suitable prey and has room to maneuver. Harriers breed on the ground in fields and marshes. As more of our open areas are developed and built over, our open-land birds, such as the Harrier, Meadowlark, Bobolink, and American Kestrel are forced out…but to where? When they cannot find open land for breeding and hunting, they do not produce young and so their numbers continue to decline.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Pecking Order

For the past few days, a gorgeous male Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has been visiting our suet feeder. It was just about this time last year that a Sapsucker, perhaps the same one, settled in our yard for a few weeks. The bird defended “his” suet vigorously against all comers, as I reported here: This year’s bird displays exactly the same behavior; there’s a good chance it is the same individual.

D asked me today if the Sapsucker was still at the top of the pecking order. Yes, it chases away the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, stands its ground when the Red-Bellied tries to get to the suet, and even scares off all the Blue Jays except one big one, which simply lands on the suet feeder and forces the Sapsucker off.

Early this afternoon I looked out at the tangle of poison ivy and bittersweet that hangs between two trees on the side of the yard; I’ve spotted a Hermit Thrush and the Sapsucker feeding there in the past few weeks, as well as the expected Robins. I wondered if there were any Northern Mockingbirds still lingering…and about a half hour later I saw one, posted like a sentinel in front of the berry-loaded vines. The Mockingbird chased off every bird that tried to grab a berry, even, a second Sapsucker (a female) that flew from across the yard and tried to get in to the center of the poison ivy vines. (Sapsuckers like to eat fruit, too.) There was a small scuffle, after which the Mockingbird returned to its post and the Sapsucker flew away into the neighbor’s yard. It seems that in the berry vines, anyway, the Mockingbird rules the roost.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers seem to be increasing in our part of the state. Keep an eye out for these plump, quiet, woodpeckers. They are very beautiful.

Out with the Old, In With the New

One of the most important, most-used items I own is my small, black personal pocket calendar. Even in our small family of three, there’s a lot to keep track of: school events, appointments for doctors, dentists, optometrists, and orthodontist; rehearsals and performances for the many choral and theater ensembles in which we participate; board and committee meetings; performances and arts events we attend as audience members; vacation and travel plans; and family and social events. Over the years, I’ve developed a shorthand by which I can cram a lot of meaningful information into each tiny space. And I learned long ago to write only in pencil. I guard my date book zealously. Don’t touch my date book!

(I keep a separate, larger planner in my office to keep track of business projects and appointments.)

Each September, I purchase a new date book for the following year, and mark in all the dates that I already know about (three of the choral ensembles in which I sing distribute season schedules and/or contracts in June). I wrote a bit about that process here:

Thus, during the autumn months, I maintain two date books, one for the current year and one for the coming year. I guard them zealously. Don’t touch my date books!

When the old year turns and the new one arrives, I face a small emotional crisis as I abandon the past year’s date book and take up the new one. Yes, the old year is past, and much lies ahead. But the old date book is the record of our lives, for good and ill: Our participation in many wonderful musical and theatrical performances, and the satisfying and enriching rehearsals by which we prepared for them…Attendance at the symphony and theatre…Dinners with friends…Board meetings...Committee meetings… Stimulating book group discussions…Steve and Paul’s wedding, and David and Tom’s surprise anniversary-wedding!!...Illnesses and my hellish autumn-winter...Maine (and the fall that left a stunning scar on my leg)…Our Shakespeare Summer…D’s cycling centuries!...Visits to family, and the associated worries…Deaths…Camping with D and K… A series of very difficult doctor appointments and a cancelled vacation…K’s second triumph in summer Shakespeare, and the happy entrance of E on the scene....Our Christmas guest!

My 2009 date book will end up in the wastebasket today or tomorrow…or next week. Lots to look back on!

But the 2010 book is already crammed with appointments and new adventures. Much to anticipate!

And Another Thing…!

.Fact: Lots of people, especially younger ones, drive while they’re texting or talking on their cell phones. Research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, 2009), indicates that though drivers of all ages use their phones while driving, young people age 20 and under are the worst offenders

Fact: As people age, their driving skills are compromised by limited mobility, slower reaction time, dimming eyesight, and dulled hearing.

Scary Thought: Just think of all the aging distracted drivers we’ll have in thirty or forty years! As today’s large group of young distracted drivers ages, we’ll find ourselves with a large group of old distracted drivers. Now that’s frightening!

Hang up and drive!!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Things You Might Be Surprised to Know About Me

A lot of personal blogs are very, well … very personal. I do enjoy using this space to air my opinions or to share my experiences in general activities such as singing and birding, but I try not to write much about myself personally. But to start off the New Year, I thought I’d share a few things that some of you might be surprised to know about me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I have climbed Mount Washington. Yes, on foot. Yes, all of it.

I think Stevie Ray Vaughan is a genius and perhaps one of the most virtuosic musical performers in recorded history. If you don’t know who he is, find out. Listen. Watch a video. This is visceral musicianship at a level higher than most of us can even imagine.

I’m the eighth of nine children.

When I need to clear my mind, I play Bach fugues on the wonderful piano that was my mother’s. I play Bach pretty well.

I grew up on a farm and loved it. I won a blue ribbon with my favorite hen at the 4-H fair when I was about eleven years old.

I'm a published poet. Sonnets.

I’m really more shy than you might think. For example, at the top of this post, I was going to share why I posted this list, but I changed my mind. Too revealing.

I love the Beatles.

I enjoy driving very, very fast. (I mean very, very quickly, of course, but “fast” sounds better in this context.) My favorite car ever was the fast, fast, fast 1972 Datsun 240Z that D and I had when we were married in 1982. Dark green two-seater, black leather, five-speed, look out.

Oh, I also won a blue ribbon at a different town fair for a killer chocolate cake that I made. (I was about 16.)

Most of the time, I want to be in Maine. With D and K.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Happy New Year

I wish you all a Happy New Year with one of my favorite mid-winter carols:

A Happy New Year

1. The old year is past and the new year is come,
And all the jolly soldiers are a beating on the drum.
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year!

2. Here's a health to you in water, I wish it was in wine,
And all the money you have got I'm sure it's none of mine.
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year!

3. Here's a health unto our Master and Missus likewise,
And all the pretty family around the fireside.
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year!

4. We wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,
You pockets full of money and your barrels full of cider.
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year!

This song was collected with others in 1904-1909 by Cecil Sharp from Frederick Crossman from Huish Episcopi, Somerset. Crossman was a market gardener with an “inexhaustible repertoire of folk-songs gathered in his childhood from the withy-strippers in Wagg Drove. He spent his money at Bridgwater Fair buying ballad sheets sold by the ballad singers who had been driven away by the noise of the new roundabouts.” Read a little about Fred Crossman, and see a picture of him, at

[#368B, p. 506 in Vol. II of Cecil Sharp’s Collection of English Folk Songs, Maud Karpeles (Ed.), Oxford University Press, 1974]

Performed by “Nowell Sing We Clear” on their album Just Say Nowell (Golden Hind Music, 2000).

Nowell Sing We Clear:
Golden Hind Music: