Sunday, September 23, 2012

Autumn's First Kiss

            This evening I observed a flock of foraging Blackpoll warblers as they chipped with seeping voices amid the leaves. A bold Cape May warbler spiraled down to the grass in pursuit of an insect, an autumn leaf twirling from its tree. He dipped lightning-quick back into the branches as a sprightly bunch of Ruby-crowned Kinglets occupied the hedge line. They were quite fearless and came very close, looking at me with round, blank stares.
            A young male Common Yellowthroat sulked in the dead twigs below the kinglets, his yellow breast and throat glowing amid the darkness. His robust form dipped up and down with his olive back and black mask gently blending with the brush.
            A House Wren sneaked by in the background, careful to only show himself a few times before flitting down into the lower bushes, hidden once more.
            White-tails, with their grace and attention, mingled in the half-light of dusk by the treeline, their stares heavy on my consciousness.
            Silently overhead flew a Great Egret, washed peachy rose as he headed into the sunset.

A brilliantly vibrant sunset graced the sky and cast a soft early-autumn glow as a gently crisp breeze whispered through my hair. Standing facing a field where the sky opened up and the clouds stretched long and wide, their sunlit red underbellies giving them definition, I stretched out my arms and sighed. As I took in the cooling evening air, a breath of autumn filled my lungs. The first moment of fall. The first kiss from the most wonderful time of year.

~Peace always,

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Sea, the Shore, and Me

If ever for a moment I forget to love the sea, 
I have forgotten to love the world that has shaped and crafted me.

I have always been drawn to the ocean. Its rolling tides, the gentle lulling rush of waves as they reach the shore, the faraway endless horizon, the biodiversity concealed just under the surface. Gulls and terns patrol the skies, shorebirds prod the sands, pelicans are sentinels on the docks. Dolphins frequent the currents, whales appear amid monotonous waves, seals rest placidly on the coast...

My first love were the cetaceans, and consequently, the sea. As a younger child I was enthralled by the mystic dolphins and mysterious whales, their sleek bodies and quick minds incomprehensibly fascinating. These peoples of the waters, the tribes of the oceans, grace the depths with consciousness unparalleled (I remain as passionate about them to this day).

The Mysticetes (baleen whales) are such beautiful citizens of Earth, their colossal bodies paired with striking physical and mental awareness. In the St. Lawrence river in Quebec, Canada I was gifted with the brief yet startling presence of a Minke whale ( Balaenoptera arctorostrata ) who appeared right beside the boat. Words fail to relate the divinity of this being and his grace. The encounter was too brief for a photograph yet lasted just long enough to capture a mental image of this tiny rorqual.

Off Cape May, New Jersey, far into the open Atlantic, a massive yet careful Humpback Whale ( Megaptera novaeangliae ) surfaced suddenly, just yards from the boat. Her great nostrils expelled old air and sucked in a new breath. Her tail was closest and it milled just under the surface, displacing such large amounts of water with the slightest movement. Her long wings of pectoral fins were visible through the waves and this was the most striking sight to me- being able to see this defining characteristic of her species, almost like a peek at something that was supposed to be hidden beneath the surface.

Bottlenose dolphins ( Tursiops truncatus )in the Banana River lagoon in Cocoa Beach, Florida, were so inquisitive and energetic as they sprinted round the small boat and the nearby docks. Youngsters leapt from the water alongside the raised tails and pectoral fins of their elders. Quickly, impossibly briefly, they surfaced and breathed and dove once again into the muddy lagoon. Small family associations were clear as the pod played about. They exuded a wonderful sense of togetherness.

Orca ( Orcinus orca ) in the San Juan Islands were another sort of magic entirely. This endangered population of about 90 individuals resides in the Salish Sea off Washington's coast. Studied intensely since the late 70s, they are recognized by their researchers as individuals with names and alphanumerical designations. Target of numerous conservation efforts and recipients of worldwide fanfare, the Southern Residents, as they are known, are a unique population of their species and rich in heritage and culture. Their matriarchal society is superbly defined with much-respected female leaders. Granny, or J2 as she is known to biologists, is estimated to be 100 years old. Recently deceased K-pod matriarchs Georgia K11 and Lummi K7 were thought to be in their 70's when they passed.

L Pod members L109, L25, and L77

The mother-child bonds in Orca are especially strong, with both sons and daughters remaining with their mothers and siblings for their entire lives. Granny swims with a subgroup of J-pod which includes her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and, as of August 2012, her great-great grandchild. Simply put, Orca are remarkable. Their cultures evolve with similarity to humans' and their distinct linguistic dialects and phrases set even further parallels to humankind.

Needless to say, the Southern Residents occupy a dear place in my heart. I have unequaled adoration and respect for these beings of the island straits. I visited their home waters in 2009 and, to my utter delight, witnessed a 'superpod'; a gathering of all three resident pods (J, K, and L). I saw Granny and her son Ruffles J1 (may the currents rest his soul; he sadly passed in late 2010 in his 60's), along with many other much-loved members of the pods. Seeing Orca in their spectacular natural home only solidified my beliefs that all life should be left to live free, and not captive as many nonhumans are kept in parks, zoos, and aquariums worldwide.

The avian life dependent upon the oceans is diverse and wonderful. Terns are the fairies of the coasts and open waters, their slender wings and lithe bodies slicing through air and water.
Caspian Terns ( Sterna caspia ), the largest variety, I see often. Their rattling voices and strong wingbeats, their heavy scarlet bills and jet black caps...they are a sturdy but elegant bird.

Black Terns ( Chlidonias niger ) are zippy, their silvery wings flashing as their black bodies shoot through the skies over marshes and mudflats. They have a distinct buoyant flight that is joyful to watch. Royal Terns ( Sterna maxima )are larger and sport an orange bill and a scruffy black crown. In Florida on Cocoa Beach I saw these charismatic birds up close, and enjoyed their almost comedic character as they stood on short little legs.

In Cape May I saw many Least Terns ( Sterna antillarum )and Forster's Terns ( Sterna forsteri ); they are small and yet so skilled at fishing.  I watched as adults hovered repeatedly and plunged without warning into the waves; I was astounded by their graceful intensity.

Later I was able to visit a Least Tern nesting site where these state-endangered birds fed chicks on the light tan sand. Mated pairs rotated shifts of bringing tiny fish in for each other and their children, holding the food delicately in their pale orange bills.

Nesting alongside the Least Terns were Piping Plovers ( Charadrias melodus ), petite shorebirds widely thought of as some of the cutest. Their subtle sandy plumage and pastel slate facial markings combine with large, dark eyes to form an arguably adorable bird. They scurried about, pausing every so often, picking at the sand for prey.

Back in Cocoa Beach were Sanderlings ( Calidris alba ), little sandpipers with pleasing grey and white feathers and thin black bills. They chased the surf on three-toed feet, quickly darting stray droplets. With them a few Willets ( Catoptrophorus semipalmatus ) searched for fish. These larger shorebirds had similar colours but longer necks, bills, and legs. When startled, they lifted off on surprisingly marked wings- dark chocolate brown with white wingbars through the primaries and secondaries.

Also on stilt legs are the wading birds- herons, egrets, ibises, and their relatives. Florida was rich with all sorts of beautiful waders, including Little Blue Herons ( Egretta caerulea ), Snowy Egrets ( Egretta thula ), and Tricoloured Herons ( Egretta tricolor ). These elegant birds have snakelike necks and daggerlike bills designed for lancing fish and frogs. White Ibises ( Eudocimis albus ) and Limpkins ( Aramas gaurauna ) prefer snails, crayfish, and tiny crustaceans with their long but decurved bills with rounded tips.  Roseate Spoonbills ( Platalea ajaja ) are unique with their spoonlike wide tip to their bill, which they gently sweep side to side in the shallows for their prey.

Pelicans are curious birds; I love how they glide in militant formations over the coasts, long wings and bills distinct. They have a certain presence about them that is simultaneously comical and serious which I find intriguing. In Virginia this spring I had a special moment with a small group of Brown Pelicans ( Pelecanus occidentalis )as I ran alongside them on the beach as they swept low over the waters at early sunset.

With such diversity and majesty, it is difficult to pinpoint my favourite aspect of the oceans. Yet with a little thought and soul searching, the answer is obvious: I am in constant awe and reverence of the pure magic of the seas. I find a kinship with the beings who inhabit the waters and a lullaby in the lapping waves. As I write these words I am brimming with passion and wonderment; as eloquent as I like to think I am, I simply cannot adequately express how deeply inspired and guided I am by the seas and their residents. I believe one of my favourite poets, e.e. cummings, has found already the words:

"whatever we lose, like a you or a me
it's always ourselves we find in the sea"
-e.e. cummings, 'maggie and milly and molly and may'

~Peace always,

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Amid the Thrush's Song

With every place I visit, with every drive I take, with every bird I see, there opens in me something grand and undiscovered. I find a sense of content excitement at the beginning of every new adventure. This is the feeling of memory creation: the sense that, in some time from the present moment, I will look back on what I am experiencing right now and remember it. Remember it fondly, or disdainfully, yet vividly all the same. I can travel back in time by simply closing my eyes and thinking back to all the wonderful, frenzied moments I have lived. 

This summer brimmed with fresh faces, places, and experiences. I crisscrossed the country and had opportunities of a lifetime. I connected with inspiring beings of all species, basked in the splendor of Earth's variable beauty, and learned a myriad of new lessons, including about myself. I took only the best away from everything I encountered, and I feel invigorated by the scale of my ventures. 

To begin my travels, this June, I flew to South Dakota for my father's wedding. While out West we also visited  Colorado and Wyoming. The states were in close proximity to one another, yet offered unique possibilities for discovery. Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park is a breathtaking cathedral of nature; the winding roads carve paths through mountains, forests, meadows, and tundra, the homes of many wonderful beings of sky, water, and earth. Herds of Wapiti ( Cervus canadensis ) step their great cloven hooves in the streamside grasses and stubby tundra vegetation. Their children kick and leap in play while their mothers keep a regal watch over the games. Bulls, with their velvet-covered antlers reaching from their foreheads, gather in the fields for early evening browsing. 

Bull elk

The bulls were in an all-male herd

Wapiti cow

Young wapitis

Mule  deer ( Odocoileus hemionus ) pick their careful way between the fir trees, quietly perfecting their forest knowledge. On one of our hikes, a doe was our silent guide as we walked; we saw her multiple times along the trail. Higher on the tundra, at an elevation of approximately 11,000ft, Yellow-bellied marmots ( Marmota flaviventris ) were entertaining companions at roadside stops, as well as on the road: we witnessed a pair in a fierce scrap as they tumbled towards the side. Horned Larks ( Eremophila alpestris )  flitted about on the tundra, their calls softly penetrating the breezy lull of cold silence present at such elevation. 

Marmot surveys the tundra

Overhead, Common Ravens ( Corvus corax ) croaked and soared, surveying their mountainous realm with dignity. It was a moving sight to behold, the ravens suspended in midair over the shadowed blue expanse of lower mountains and the vast blankets of trees that covered them.

Clark's Nutcrackers ( Nucifraga columbiana ) were inquisitive and energetic as they hopped quite close to their Homo sapiens  observers. With stunningly white secondary feathers and black primaries, they glided about with their sails spread, reminiscent of their relatives the crows. They swept to a stop on boulders and dead snags with the great forests behind them. Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels  ( Spermophilus lateralis ) scurried alongside them, even climbing onto the palm of my brother's outstretched hand.

A hike near Long's Peak was a surprisingly spiritual experience; I had much trouble with the elevation and breathing became a bit difficult with my asthma, yet I decided to push through it and continue the hike. Woodpeckers with their lessons of self-care and hummingbirds with their message of joy appeared to me as I trekked. A Broad-tailed Hummingbird ( Selasphorus platycercus  ) was a life bird for me as she buzzed near the base of a tree. Steller's Jays ( Cyanocitta stelleri ), their plush ebony crests bobbing as they raauchh'd at me, were strikes of brilliant azure in the early evening light. Their white eyebrows and barred tails were stunning; I had always wished to find these birds and there, on a mystical mountain, I was visited by these sturdy forest fairies.

Hermit Thrushes ( Catharus guttatus ) built a nest by a rushing mountain stream, surrounded by the cascading trills of their fellows. The thrushes' dreamlike notes twinkled in my ears and tickled my soul. Bubbling over pebbles and past lush vegetation the stream descended as I climbed. 

At the summit, where the trees began to dissipate, a most spectacular sight awaited me: the most vast, the most beautiful, the most awe-inspiring view of the fabled Rocky Mountains awash in golden sunlight. The warm glow reached every tree, every rock, every cloud. The cerulean sky faded to a light orange-pink on the horizon as my shadow stretched forwards, down the mountainside. After the harrowing trip to the spot, I could find no better reward for my effort.The Rocky Mountains were a fantasy destination for me; somewhere I never thought I'd be. And yet, standing on the top of a sunlit mountain with Long's Peak behind me and the spiraling voices of  Hermit thrushes filling the air, I felt beautifully, remarkably alive and peaceful, content with the moment I was in, the memory I was creating. I often close my eyes and return to it, reliving that sunset as vividly as when I first saw it.

Peace always,