Monday, January 30, 2012

Butterfly Winter

The day after most of our brief snow accumulation bled away in warm temperatures and misty rain that followed quickly after the snow, I walked in the marsh along Quincy’s shoreline which I visit repeatedly during the year. The path was squishy, with some patches lasting longer here mainly because a few of us have compacted the snow by our footsteps, so it melts slower. Otherwise, another mostly sunny, mild January day. Actually, more factually, this was an unusually warm day even for this turncoat January, and the temp would rise to about 60. It felt that warm in the marsh.
Then I saw the butterfly. It was black-winged – a Morning Cloak? Or maybe a day-flying moth. But though I cannot identify species I have observed butterflies quite a bit in recent years, they visit our garden, and I know, we all know, how butterflies move. This moved like a butterfly. I don’t know suspect it’s going to be happy with its surroundings long-term, but it flew across the trail in front of me and disappeared among the trees.
Maybe it was the recently melted snow, but the world had a fresh and shiny finish to it. The sea looked blue and creamy, as if someone had poured milk into it. The sky was a darker blue, and with so much light sent skyward off the leftover fast-melting snow it seemed deeper than winter skies usually are. The clear blue above showed autumn dense against the bare limbs of the taller trees.
Besides the butterfly, the day warmed up some other creatures. I saw birds, chickadees among them, working among the thickets, and stopped dead when my ears distinguished the characteristic woody pat-pat of the woodpecker. I could see nothing at first, but kept looking steadily at a close at hand bare-limbed tree. Finally, the woodpecker rounded a branch and leapt into focus. It was tapping not far above me, not apparently aware of me. Slowly, silently, I unzip the camera case. The thing is half out when the bird takes off. Not hearing me, in no particular alarm. It was just time to move on.
A red-headed woodpecker, I decide, with the skeletal spine-and-ribs white marking down his dark-colored back.
On my way out, almost back on the main path, I flush a rabbit out of a thorny patch of thicket, where I had no idea he was hiding just a yard or two from my path. I would not have noticed him. But he skitters away, his puffy white tail blazing his whereabouts. He shoots through the weeds and onto the main path, and is gone by the time I get there.
The marsh has attracted one more visitor this winter, a posse of Canada geese, grazing in the yellow marsh grass across the marsh in the direction of the school, the only large birds I see this day. But they see me come round a bend in the trail and stop and stare. I am far away, to far for photography, but perhaps at a shooter’s distance. Do they worry about intentions? Or do they stare at me simply because I’ve stopped to gaze at them.

Winter? That was fast

We had winter a week ago. A soft, steady, rather modest snowfall fell on a Saturday and kept up all day, leaving us about four or five inches at the end. It was a very well-behaved meteorological event, arriving on a day when it wouldn’t foul up a commute and lacking the gusty winds that make for drifts. Still, the local plow crews hit the roads early and often, as if to make up for a snowless winter in one day. We made a snowday of it as well, not moving the car from the driveway or going outside except to shovel, pretending we were snowed in.
Two days later the snow was gone. So much for winter.
A warm winter is good for keeping down the fuel costs and for anybody suffering from substandard (or no) housing. But, as we say around here, “It tain’t natural.”
In many respects, the absence of a proper winter with its deep freezes and substantial snow packs may not in fact be good for nature and, need we be reminded?, we are all natural beings. The absence of a snow pack may result in water shortages in areas that rely on it to make the rivers and streams run hard in the spring and fill reservoirs, underground streams, and aquifers.
And where is the water that ordinarily gets tied up in snow accumulations in latitudes such as ours? Remember the recent record snow accumulations in locations such as New York City and Washington, D.C.? Is that water – that weather – going somewhere else this year? Our daughter reports a rainy winter in Beirut, but winters typically are rainy there, characterized by fierce downpours. What’s different this year is no sunny days between the rainy ones. So where did Lebanon’s sun go?
Other obvious concerns. Winter kills pests – insects, microbes, germs, diseases. Our ecology needs the deep, killing frosts to reduce the numbers of those tough, otherwise invulnerable creatures that make it hard on us in summers. Will a warm winter and early spring mean the mosquitoes get a head start this year? What about all those flu germs we ordinarily put out of mind until the next “winter flu” season. Will we start having warm weather flu seasons?
We have a common “black spot” disease in our roses. I don’t know if it’s properly a fungus, or a mite, or a mildew, or any of those other distressing names I read about in gardening books (and remain mostly ignorant of), or some combination of all. But I have to think winter cold sets it back each year, enough to gives us that annual booster wave of June blooms. I’d hate be fighting it with organic sprays and shamanistic charms any earlier than I have to as it is by mid-summer.
Every gardener has a plant disease story, and none of us really want to hear them.
So let’s get on to a happier subject – spring. But even here I am worried. Spring winds up its impact from the hard-rock resistance of winter. It builds on contrast. It moves insides us because of what has come before.
I want to know when winter is over so I can celebrate, and exult, and go quietly mad over spring. But how can winter be over if it never really happened?

Monday, January 2, 2012


The first time we saw it, it loomed on a solitary tree pretending to be a fat squirrel’s nest exposed by winter’s bareness. Anne pointed out my mistake. The hawk was alone, red-tipped at the end of its tale feathers, no other living creatures in view except for us. He must have seen us, but he didn’t seem to care as I expostulated over forgetting the camera and then the two of us helplessly fiddled with Anne’s phone trying to discover the magic of the cell-phone photo function. People hold up their boxy little phones and just push-button away, I think. Happens all the time. They must be accomplishing something.
The hawk ignores us, certain he’s in no danger from this comical pair. Anne finds the camera icon, so we snap away, mostly by accident while looking helplessly at one another. Since we can’t find a zoom, the results are not promising: little spot of something against a bare tree and open sky. We move closer still. The hawk finally gets sick of us and flies, majestically, across the marsh to find a tree on the other side.
The second time I see it I am by myself. Human being-wise, I mean, because I am alerted to the presence of something by the agitated squawking of some 40 to 50 starlings occupying the same bare tree as some huge ball of gray, contoured fluff that individual members of black bird flock, undoubtedly the antsy young males, keep flying up to in order to peck at it.
Oh. Huge hawk.
Must be 50 to 100 times larger by volume than his persecutors, but he can’t be bothered to respond to any of these feeble aggressions. The combined squawking of these pygmies of the sky is loud and sustained. Little birds keep flying up to the big one, making a quick dive, and flying away. What a shot. I take my camera out of my “man bag” and hit the power button. Nothing.
I remember.
The battery is resting quietly in a comfy charger plugged into the kitchen wall socket just over my plate of toast crumbs. I am tempted to rush home and get it. But there is work to do and, of course, tomorrow is another day. I walk directly underneath the branch of the tree on which the huge red-tailed hawk takes his afternoon break, unruffled by the displeasure of the locals. He pays me no more mind than he does the starlings.
The following day, empowered camera in my bag, Saul (home for a visit) beside me, I traipse around the marsh without running into mobs of starlings or any sign of a hawk. On the back stretch we come around a curve in the trail and there he is. I take out the camera, get off a few long-range shots. We decide to keep walking, see how close he’ll let us get. We stop, close enough I think, and I take a few more. Later, I discover that even with benefit of the zoom, a large bird has been rendered very small. It’s the world that’s big.
Closer, still. The hawk spooks and I snap a few in-flight shots. Probably the best of this group.
The fourth (so far last) encounter comes some days later. I do have the camera, but it’s cold and I see no signs of anything moving in the marsh – no ducks, gulls, nothing, as I round the same bend in the trail where we discovered the big bird the last time. Then, astonishingly, from the same area – not one, but two hawks shoot out from among the branches before I can even properly see them. The larger one flies straight to a tall pine. A smaller one, deciding on the wing to follow, arrives a few seconds later and, so it appears to me, takes something from him and then flies back in my direction and disappears in the trees. The first hawk, the big one, then flies across the long end of the marsh past me (click, click), eventually crossing its width to hide somewhere in a further tree-line. I keep walking, wondering where I will find the smaller one.
When I do, she is mostly hidden behind layers of branches, I have no clear shot, but she flushes immediately and takes off the in the direction of the pine tree where she’d last seen her mate. That’s when I get the best shot.
Later, Anne managing to blow it up for me on the computer, it’s clear that something is hanging from the bird’s landing gear that does not belong to the bird. Do they fly with such long claws (legs?) hanging free below? Not reasonable. No, that can’t be bird we’re seeing hanging down. She must be holding, carrying, something. We blow it up some more.
My god, that looks like rabbit legs to me.
With this new perspective the encounter feels something like stumbling onto a crime scene and finding the evidence in the photo. Or simply interrupting dinner. Sorry, guys.