We had a spring teaser day today, with temps in the upper 50s so Margy and I went to Kettle Cove to take in the sun, the breeze, and the sea. We got a special treat when we saw these lovely birds in the water and on the shore. At first I thought they were ducks, because they were that size, but they were also somehow similar to Canada Geese but not quite. When I got home I searched the internet until I found them. They are Brant Geese. The Maine coast is part of their migration route. Here are some of the ones we saw. Margy Dowzer and I shared the camera, so I am not positive which photos are hers and which are mine.
We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.
In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet. So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred. More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years. Is it finally affecting our own yard?
I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around. It seems so strange and empty. Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?
All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.
There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.) Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.
Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is. We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life. So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.
So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives. And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.
I was sitting at the kitchen table, and glanced out the windows to the back, and saw a big bird perched right on our deck railing outside. When I moved to get a closer look, s/he flew up to the trees nearby to the right, in our neighbors yard.
A few moments later, s/he flew around behind the garage, and then this bird (same one or not?) appeared walking in the grass over to our hazelnut hedge.
Finally, another bird flew from around the back, and landed in a tree to my left. A juvenile, even though it was bigger than the first one. Turned out they are Cooper’s Hawks, and they like to prey on small birds and mammals. Everyone’s got to feed their babies.
Now it is time to go outside and plant our new bushes. The ground is finally unfrozen enough to dig holes.
Our bushes arrived from Fedco this week, and today we were going to plant them. Last winter, we ordered four witch hazel bushes, five spicebushes, and two winterberries. We wanted to expand our mini-forested edges in the back and on the side, and thus we needed species that grew well in the shade of other tall trees (which these do). We hope they will enhance the privacy of our yard, and also provide food for pollinators, butterflies, and birds, as well as beautiful flowers and berries to see.
We had done some preliminary work before we ordered them, to decide where they might be planted, and today Margy and I went around to confirm the spots, to make sure each bush would have enough room when full grown. We marked them with flagging and markers. We unpacked the box of young plants and were delighted that they were more than just sticks with roots. They looked healthy, and we stored them in dampened shredded paper. The photo is our witch hazel bushes.
The land in our yard has been soggy and wet for the last week. But, when I tried to dig holes, I could only go down about five or six inches before I hit a barrier of ground frozen solid. I guess we aren’t planting these today! Still, it was in the 60s out there, and it was marvelous to just be outside in the sun–and then it was too hot, so we pulled out our shade umbrella for our patio table. We turned to other tasks in the garden, and listened to birds singing, and I dug up the old kale plants that had overwintered. Before I came in, I noticed that the holes I had dug were now filled with water. I am curious as to whether the holes I dug will thaw faster than the undug ground. We’ll see. We are expecting no freezes this week.
This morning, as the sun was rising, I saw a huge bird shape in the top of the white pines at the very back of our yard. I went outside to see what it was. Looking closer, I saw that it was a turkey, and in fact, there were several turkeys perched high in trees all around us. How my heart is warmed and excited by the fellow beings who visit us here on this land!
Then I noticed that there were half a dozen turkeys on the ground behind me, near our ornamental crabapple trees. Over the next 10 minutes, one by one, the turkeys in the trees flew gracefully down to the ground. They were mostly too quick for me to capture them in flight, though I caught this one as it approached the ground in a blur.
Finally, the whole clan of turkeys gathered together and ambled toward the underbrush near the pines. I too started on my walk to the brook and around the neighborhood. In the midst of all that we face in the coming years, I pray that there will always be animal and plant neighbors whose daily lives bring us joy. I pray that we won’t forget to notice and appreciate them.
I have had the privilege of studying Wabanaki Languages this fall, taught by Roger Paul. For me it has been a small way to begin to decolonize my mind–to begin to think differently. Our final project was to make a short presentation to our class, and I was inspired by the words we had learned to talk about the animals I see and hear on my morning walk. I also drew on the Passamaquoddy/Maliseet (Wolastoqe) Language Portal for further help with verb and noun forms, and I learned some new words along the way. If any speakers of the language read this, edits are welcome! Roger encouraged us to jump in with using the language, even though we will make mistakes.
For those who do not know about Wabanaki languages, you might find it interesting that animals are not referred to as “it,” and people are not referred to by “he” or “she.” There are “animate” and “inanimate” forms, and both people and animals are referred to by animate, non-gendered verb and noun forms. A lot of information is encoded into one word. So, for example, “npomuhs” means “I walk.” “Nutuwak” means “I hear (beings plural and animate.)
Ntoliwis Mayk. Nuceyaw Portland. (My name is Myke. I am from Portland.)
Spasuwiw npomuhs. Wolokiskot. (In the morning I walk. It is a beautiful day.)
Nolokuhs lahtoqehsonuk. (I walk in the direction of the north.)
Nutuwak sipsisok. (I hear small birds.)
Nomiyak mihkuwiyik oposik. (I see squirrels in a tree.)
Apc, nolokuhs cipenuk. (Next, I walk in the direction of the east).
Nomiya kisuhs musqonok. (I see the sun in the sky.)
Nutuwak kahkakuhsok. Tolewestuhtuwok. (I hear the crows. They are talking)
Nomiyak oqomolcin kehsuwok nehmiyik awtik. (I see eight turkeys in the street.)
Apc, nolokuhs sawonehsonuk. (Next, I walk in the direction of the south.)
Npomuhs sipuwahkuk, naka nomiya motehehsim sipuhsisok. (I walk along the edge of the brook, and I see a duck in the brook.)
Nutuwa pakahqaha lamatokiw. (I hear a woodpecker a little ways into the forest.)
Wahte, nomiya qaqsoss. (In the distance, I see a fox.)
Apc, nolokuhs skiyahsonuk, naka ntapaci nikok. (Next, I walk in the direction of the west, and I come back to my house).
Nomiya munimqehs kihkanok. N’ciciya wot. (I see a woodchuck in the garden. I know this one.)
Coness, Munimqehs! Musa micihkoc kihkakonol! Wesuwess! (Stop, Woodchuck! Don’t eat the vegetables! Go back where you came from! )
Munimqehs qasku. Qasku asit kakskusik. Qasku lamatokiw. (Woodchuck runs. S/he runs behind the cedar. S/he runs a little ways into the forest.)
Toke, ntop qotaputik qocomok. (Now, I sit in the chair outside.)
Komac Wolokiskot! Woliwon! (It is a very good day. Thank you)
The other day I heard an unfamiliar racket out the window and discovered a small flock of northern flickers had come to visit the garden. They were eating bugs in the ground, and also poking their long beaks between the pavers on our patio, so I am going to guess they were eating ants. They settled in for a feast, and made themselves at home.
They are so distinctive and beautiful, a spotted breast with a black bib (and cheek patches on the males), red heart shape patch on the back of their head, and white rump feathers visible when they fly. Oh, and a bit of yellow on the tail. I also saw a plain looking smaller bird that I believed was a juvenile flicker, but then noticed it had white spots on black instead of black on white. It was clearly hanging out with the male and female flickers, but it looks more like a starling juvenile. Does anyone know if starlings ever drop eggs with the flickers to get them to raise the young starlings?
Stranger than it first appeared.
We put up the hummingbird feeders five days ago, and the hummingbirds showed up within a couple days. Today I got some photos, while sitting on the deck a few feet away. This is a male ruby-throated hummingbird, and a female came around as well. It is rather marvelous that they can find these feeders, considering the length of their travels.
Hummingbirds migrate to and from central America where they spend the winter, usually in the same place that their ancestors did. They fly alone, not in flocks, and instinctively know where to go. Isn’t that incredible? Hummingbirds have an average life span of 3-5 years, so maybe these are the same hummingbirds as those who found the feeder we put up last year, before we had the roof on the deck. Or maybe they are descendants. Now we have two feeders, and they’ve already used both. Hummingbirds are very territorial, so I wonder if we’ll see others, or these two will claim it all for themselves.
My birthday isn’t until the end of June, but Margy gave me a wonderful free-standing hammock as an early birthday gift. With all of the working in the garden, it is easy to forget to just BE–to just lie there and watch the sky and the trees and the birds. It is large enough for both of us, and on Friday afternoon Margy and I were just being in it together. Several little birds came to check us out in the trees close by–a tufted titmouse was singing, so much louder than one might expect from its small size. Catbirds, cardinals. “What is this new nest in the back of the yard?” they seemed to be asking. “What new thing are you humans doing here?”
But we weren’t doing anything. We were just being, watching, enjoying, listening, seeing. On Saturday, I came back and tried again. I especially like the symbolism of this gift, since this summer I will be retiring from my work at the church. It is a bittersweet time, because I have loved my work at the church, and I will miss the people there. But I like to imagine that in retirement I will have more opportunity for just being. The hammock is a reminder to take that time–to not get caught up in all the projects I might be doing in the yard or the house or out there in the wide world–but to be still and spacious, to relax, to observe, to delight. Thank you, Margy! I love this gift!
Yesterday, I looked out a window and saw a turkey in the driveway. When I went on the deck to get a closer look, it flew up to the maple tree in our neighbors yard. But then I looked up and discovered two turkeys on the garage roof, another roosting in the pitch pine, more in the spruce and small maple on the other side of the house–we were surrounded!
The one on the roof seemed to enjoy our conversation–it was looking at me so intently as I spoke. I wonder if this is the same family that visited often during the summer and played in the dirt in and near our future pond? They were younger then, of course. But maybe? If you look closely you can see two of them in the photo below, from their visit in September. This morning on my walk, they were out walking too. Perhaps the deep snow has disrupted wherever they were hanging out during the winter. But they look very fat and healthy. A visit from wild neighbors always makes my day!