Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Raptor Rapture

            I'm no expert, I'm not even a birder. At best I'm a would-be, a wannabe birder. It's intimidating. Not the birds, but the identification.
            Oh look, I say, those red tips on the tail. Definitely red. I'm calling it a red-tailed hawk. They're the most common ones around here anyway; the most common big ones at least. And this bird is big. We get to know just how big because we are passing directly underneath it in order to enter the Webster wildlife sanctuary through a little hut. He's perched on the peak of little shelter's wooden roof.
            We can't stand in the parking lot watching him all day. I have to take my eyes off of him to walk through the open door and pass under that roof. He flies off when the third of us, my son, passes beneath. I don't see this take-off, but I feel his shadow. Something's changed in the world. He's gone; we don't see him again.
            I have walked beneath a perching hawk before. It's not like walking beneath a robin, or a crow, or a bare branch. You can't tell if they're watching you, though they surely know you are there. They don't swing their heads or flutter anxiously. They do not grow nervous as you come closer, pass underneath their perch and then re-appear on their side, your back turned. Except that you turn your head to look back, and up, to see if they are watching you. Who's nervous now? Are they tempted to drop down, land on your head, let you feel their claws?
            The hawk hasn't moved; he gives you the sidelong glance. His world. He stays; you go.
            I'm not sure what they are, what they do. How they change the quality of the air you breathe, the silence you hear, when they're nearby. They are very different, very strange. They turn the universe around them into something strange and ancient, into their world, not yours.
            Birds are creatures that can sit on a perch for an hour, leave in an instant. We'll never know why.
            I saw a hawk sit unruffled in a large, mostly bared deciduous tree in autumn while the entire tree filled up with comparatively small black birds covering every branch. Starling sized; maybe they were starlings. Not crows, I know that much. They perched on every bare branch, hundreds of them, and not quietly. Let's all make a lot of noise, the flock said in a hundred voices, until he goes. They chattered, filling the air with ceaseless noise like a crowded cocktail party in a high-ceilinged room. They kept up the noise, "scolding" it the word people usually use, aggressively. But they can't chant together, they can't get their voices all together and shout in unison "Hawk Go Home." They  bark, yip, jeer at their own rate, and all the squawks mix together forming a kind of white noise. It's meant to be aggressive, but it's kind of cheering, enlivening too. It's a river of birds.  
            A few of their number even flew up at the hawk, intruded on the hawk's personal space, hovered, squawking their derision, before dropping down again. The most daring of them aimed a peck at his feathers before dropping back, like youthful warriors running up to hurl a spear at a woolly mammoth in order to prove their courage. The hawk moved not a muscle, not a feather, paid no attention even to the little creatures trying to peck him and drive him off. I will sit here, the hawk said, as long as I choose and leave when I am done sitting. Perhaps he was digesting.
            I have turned a corner on a twisty path in a salt marsh in Quincy and come face to face with an owl in a tree. Once even with a very large bird I took to be an osprey. I wasn't too sure. He left in a hurry. Was it something I said?
            Another time, in a more wooded place, a park in Plymouth where I regularly walked at the end of the day and just as regularly encountered no one, I came around a bend in the trail through a screen of branches and found myself facing an owl sanding straight in a small patch of cleared ground. He was a truly good sized creature, about the size of the largest plush owl toy you would buy for a child's bedroom -- a rather absurd practice when you think about what the real ones are like, but we like to domesticate the wild. He seemed to be eating something. We looked at one another and I sensed a reluctance on his part to take his leave. I was busy with my mouse, he seemed to be thinking; now you're here.
            But I had nowhere to go but forward. After a beat or two the owl lifted, or perhaps extended his wings and appeared to float upwards in absolute silence to nearest convenient branch of a nearby tree. He moved the way vampires move on TV shows. No wasted motion, no fluttering, no apparent effort. No exertion, as if he could press a button and float upwards. I could tell his eyes were on me, though I couldn't really see them. I wanted to apologize for disturbing him. But it is hard to walk away when you are that close to an owl, a large owl, in daytime, when you are not supposed to be seeing an owl, and you have no knowledge base for telling one owl from another. After a few more seconds, as I stood and stared, the owl considered and decided that I wasn't leaving fast enough, or he wasn't far enough away, and performed the same soundless, effortless ascent that took him up higher into the trees, through the leaves to a place where it was harder to see him, though I still knew where he was. I took the hint and walked on.
            I heard him, or some other owl, hoot in the dusky woods for weeks that year. 

[P.S. the photo of a great horned owl is a public domain image]

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What To Do in August: Smell the Late Summer Roses (Carefully)

           Here are some good ideas for "what to do in August" for your garden. I got this list from an unimpeachable source and will now proceed promptly to impeach it.
            Number one. "Mark the location of your bulbs," which have probably already disappeared but you may still remember roughly where they bloomed by thinking hard (and, to be sure, looking back at the pictures you took when they were looking good), "and also perennials" that will be going dormant -- that should be easier since some part of these plants is still discoverable in most cases (though not all) -- "by," and here's the fun part, "sticking colorful plastic golf tees in the ground" to remind you where these plants were before you put a spade in the ground to plant something else in exactly the same spot and kick yourself later for ruining a perfectly good tulip or spring perennial.
            In fact, I can see why this advice calls for the use of colorful golf tees. Forgetting where you planted something in prior years does in truth have a lot in common with playing golf because in both cases you frequently want to kick yourself. I knew my days of playing golf (a brief and almost entirely forgettable diversion) would eventually prove useful in life's other endeavors, but I never realized that the important part was saving the tees. I thought it was saving the golf balls. This is why when as I searched all over the rough for my own ball, as frequently happened, I pocketed weathered-looking golf balls lost by others so far from the fairway that their owners gave up on them. Lose a few, find a few.  
            It turns out I should have been paying attention to the tees, which golfers regularly leave behind after howling in disgust over a lousy drive.
            Or, you can draw a map of your garden and carefully mark where you've planted what and consult it faithfully next spring. There's probably a computer application that you will help do this. Called "FlowerPlay" or something. Or use the GPS on your smartyphone. (Some of us may never be smart enough for a smart phone.) So far I have to admit I never see people using their smartyphones while gardening.
            Number Two on the to-do list. Cut off the flower stalks when they have finished blooming. For goodness sake, don't cut them off before they have finished blooming, unless you mean to bring them indoors and stick them in water in an attractive vessel suitable for the purpose. I've just let another perfectly good weekend go by without doing exactly that.
            It's the close calls that make "number two" harder than it seems. I have some plants, notably a few snapdragons that I planted a year ago and which pleased my expectations by coming back all on their own and blooming again this summer. But it's not always easy to tell whether they are going to push another few blossoms out of the top of their flower spikes. My advice: cut those old stalks whenever you're good and tired of looking at them and scale your expectations back to that sleek, severe, subdued late summer look.
            The other thing you are likely to do in August is to think about getting some new repeat-bloom or ever-bloom varieties of your perennials. The limitations of this subdued, restricted late summer palette is why gardeners endure close combat with their roses year after year. This brings us to helpful hint number three.
            Three: Clean up fallen rose and peony leaves that can harbor disease over the winter if let them just simmer there on the ground. Rose disease happens. It's as predictable as the midsummer drought. I will now recite the advice for coping with roses in August: remove all the affected leaves first, discard these in a closed container (where the spores can't creep out in the night and infect other plants), and then spray remaining leaves, if you have any left. (OK, I've editorialized a little.) The reason you grow rose bushes is because many fine varieties are truthfully described as ever-blooming. We have some plants that start flowering in late May and keep it up through October. It's hard to find other perennials that can match that production.
            But if you try to follow this very good advice and remove all the "affected" leaves,the ones with with brown or black spots that will soon turn yellow and relentlessly spread the infection to their neighbors before spraying or taking other measures, you stand a good chance of removing all the leaves on your plant and spilling a pint of your own blood in the process.
            So don't put off spraying while you nickel and dime yourself with the spotted leaves. Here are the three widely recommended organic applications to "control" powdery mildew and black spot: RosePharm, Neem Oil, and Serenade.Then concentrate on seeing the rose blossoms and ignoring the bare branches. Chances are your plants will grow back at least some noses.
            So don't hesitate to smell the ever-blooming roses, even in August. But don't get too close them without wearing your thickest gloves.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The First Monarch

         The first monarch. Leading to a close meet-up between child and butterfly.
        I was trimming a rose bush late Friday afternoon, a thing I do in August because the rose disease begins working its way through the leaves, gradually baring the branches. I take off the discolored infected, brown-spotted leaves, as many as I can stand (you always get thorn-pricked doing this), then start clipping the bared branches to hide the ravages. Then I feed the plants rose food dissolved in water, something I meant to do months ago. Basically, I say to the roses, start flower production all over. In the past, I am happy to say, they have always complied.
            Monarch butterflies are constantly starting over as well. But we have been worrying about them this year. They lay eggs on milkweed; perhaps, experts speculate, milkweed is losing ground to development. Perhaps some interruption in their food sources has taken place between summer time up north and winters spent in Mexico, Central America, Texas and who knows where else.
            Still, I have been picturing in my mind's eye the familiar delicate winged presence of the monarch somewhere among the butterfly bushes (so named, frankly enough, for their service) in the garden in front of the house where we saw them for several weeks last August. When I looked up from my rose bush trimming and saw one flying around the taller butterfly bushes, a few feet to my right and about two feet over my head, a part of my heart leapt up as well.
            I called Larry, the next door neighbor over, to take a look. I called Anne out of the house and when she reached the porch the monarch settled down on one of the blooms on the lower bush on the left side of the walk, where they had made themselves particularly at home last summer. I’d take a picture I told Larry, but we’ve misplaced our camera. A few minutes later he came back with his smart phone to take a photo, Anne popped out with hers too but left us with frequent reminders that she wasn’t sure how to get the pics “off” the camera.
            Larry, who was the parent home watching his daughter that afternoon, as he frequently is, called her over (let's call her Em) to show her the butterfly, who was still hanging onto a blossom that extended from the bush out onto the sidewalk. Then he put Em into the picture.
            If there is anything you can do to improve a picture of a monarch butterfly resting on your butterfly bush, it is putting a little girl into the frame.
            Larry emailed me the result, for which I am grateful.
        A few minutes later, still trimming roses, I drew my hedge clipper back from the plant, out of the thorny jungle of half-trimmed branches, and find myself staring at a praying mantis perched on the flat of the blades. I carry my insect passenger carefully away from the front garden, where the butterflies hang, to the first really dense bush in the back, a tall phlox, and deposit him there.
            No photo yet of this year's praying mantis. Like the monarchs, we see them every year. Never mind, he’ll be back. I hope to say the same thing about our camera.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Alone With the Loons

            We got up close and personal with a family of loons last weekend on a lake in the Adirondacks.
            We had heard them (possibly these loons, possibly others) but not in the night as we had some years ago, their voices engraving a lasting impression. There's a call, haunting, quivering, that sounds so distant it must be coming from another country, and yet at the same time gets so close to your soul you think you must be related to the creature that's making it -- and of course, taking the long view, you are.... And then, sometimes, though I think we heard this part only once or twice, the voice breaks into the impossibly loud cartoonish crazy-man laugh (an unreproducible rapid-paced heh-heh-heh-heh-heh in a far more varied and bizarre tonality than words can mimic), the call that gives this migrant water bird its common name.
            So, this is what we need to know about loons. They're worth hearing.
            They're worth going some distance to hear.
            Their call was not the main reason, of course, we drove up into the Adirondacks. The reason was my sister Gwen, who has a summer place up there with her family on Seventh Lake, in the town of Inlet, part of the Fulton Chain of Lakes.
            It's a magical place with a porch view on the lake like a front row seat at a Broadway show. The show in this case, however, is the natural world in a place where there is a lot of it out there and relatively little of us. The world is always a mixture of some part nature, some part us. As opposed to where almost all of us live our daily lives, the proportion in hard-to-tame places like the Adirondacks, and mountains generally, is strongly tilted toward the natural.
            Seventh Lake, strongly present in your view of life from my sister's summer house (or "camp" as these mountain lakeside retreats are locally termed), is often home to families of loons in the summer. I may have seen or heard a loon somewhere else but without realizing it or paying it much mind, but the camp on Seventh Lake is the only place I have knowingly observed them or heard the call that was magically transforming the landscape.
            We first heard them a few years back when Anne and I visited Gwen and Dave's new summer place. Dave made a bonfire after dark just a few feet from the lake. We sang some songs, fortunate to have a couple of guitar players among us, and one night at least made up stories by carrying a tale from person to person. Then, in a silence, we heard those distant but incredibly resonant notes, sounding as if the entire lake was pumping body and soul through the voice of the loon. And then that just-so-crazy laugh, as if the universe were letting you in on a secret too truly absurd, and absurdly true, to be believed. And in fact it must be heard to be believed.
            We didn't hear the loons either night last weekend, but I heard them, somewhat faintly, on the last morning. Maybe this daylight call was different, not so haunting, but it woke the desire to get a look at them.
            Some time in late morning Dave took us out in his boat and cruised the lake looking for the haunts where they dive for fish during the day. We motored slowly under a bridge onto Sixth Lake, where they'd last been seen, couldn't find them, then cruised the opposite shore until, suddenly, one of the parent birds appeared before us. We followed, found the other parent and the baby (well probably adolescent by now), and trained our glasses on them. Gwen passed me the binoculars she took from the house and shared another pair with Anne. Dave killed the motor, we drifted toward them. At our nearest we could see by the naked eye their spotted backs, the purplish black of the head, the contrast of the light and dark colors on bird's broad back. (The photo was taken by my brother-in-law Dave Eichorn.)
            One of the parents dove to fish and emerged farther away. Following, the current, Dave concluded, as we motored back beneath the bridge to Seventh Lake. We followed him (as we tended to call this adult) as he dove and disappeared and we scanned the full horizon to find his next appearance, watched as he rose out of the water to shake his wings. The family met up again, perhaps communicating, calling perhaps, too softly for me to hear, moving their heads all the while, scanning, ever alert.
            The birds are well accustomed to boats and people on their lake. Maybe we are part of the show for them as well.
            Eventually, we cruised back to shore. But it was almost as if we could watch them all day. Their lives appeared both hard and easy, purposeful and spontaneous, restless and restful. In a word, natural: the way of the loon. A glimpse into the heart of things. Is that why it could feel perfectly satisfying to do nothing but spy on another creature for so long?
               I also worked the voice of the loon into a poem I wrote about our attempt to see the shooting stars of the Perseids meteor shower .

            Waiting for the Perseids

No stars, but fire
And a guitar
knock-knock-knocking on the soft intrigue of clouds, visibility poor

A surge of smoke lunges like a ghost,
then twists back to the lake's black sink
The weather worker erects a tapered temple of wood,
an offering,
draws flame from his hand

An instrument is procured for the master
The strings wind upward, night-songs work free
Syllables hummed, some words part sung
rise to the chiaroscuro sky
From the dark below to the mottled cushion of the stars  

The loon calls in the morning light