Thursday, December 10, 2009


A red-tailed hawk swooped low over my car as I drove out of the park this morning. She was diving for some unfortunate something cowering in the ditch along the road. I didn’t stop to see if she succeeded—but only because I was in a hurry. I don’t mind the bloodshed. I love watching hawks kill things. I get queasy at the sight of a cat dispatching a mouse, and I even feel a little sorry for the bugs that get caught in spider webs, but the bloodlust of raptors is beautiful to me. I think it is the hawk’s single-mindedness I like. Mammalian predators are so unfocused by comparison. Even when they (we) are actively stalking something, distraction comes easily. Not so for the hawk. Once she zeroes in on her victim, she never waivers. She’s pure killing machine. I aspire to her perfect sense of purpose.

Into the changes of autumn brush
the doe walked, and the hide, head, and ears
were the tinsel browns. They made her.
I could not see her. She reappeared, stuffed with apples,
and I shot her. Into the pines she ran,
and I ran after. I might have lost her,
seeing no sign of blood or scuffle,
but felt myself part of the woods,
a woman with a doe’s ears, and heard her
dying, counted her last breaths like a song
of dying, and found her dying. ...

From "To Kill a Deer" by Carol Frost. The complete poem is here.

Photo by John Harrison from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

An unexpected bird

I got to the park early Saturday morning and headed down toward the lake, hoping I'd see the big flock of juncos that usually feed in the tall weeds near the water. The juncos continue to boycott my feeders, but at least they let me enjoy them on neutral territory. As I got near the lake I saw something moving in the grass up ahead. It was white with a vivid spot of red. My first thought was Oh my god, that's a chicken, but I immediately contradicted myself. It couldn't possibly be a chicken. What the hell would a chicken be doing miles from the nearest house? It was probably a bag of trash some lazy fisherman left behind.

But no, it was, in fact, a chicken--a white Leghorn rooster, to be precise. He was pecking around in the grass, but he seemed a little uncomfortable and disoriented. He fled when I approached, but didn't go far, just hunkered down about 20 feet away. I doubt he made his way to the lake by himself. Domestic ducks and guinea fowl will wander far from home, but as far as I know, chickens generally don't. If I'd seen him closer to town, I'd assume he had escaped from one of the Mennonite farmers who sell chickens on the roadside, but somebody must have deliberately carried him to such a remote place. Most likely, he was nabbed out of someone's yard and dumped, either as a prank, or maybe by an irate neighbor who was tired of his crowing.

I was certain he'd be a coyote's dinner last night, but this morning he was still there, in almost exactly the same spot. He seemed even more freaked out than yesterday. He was hunched down in the grass and kept absolutely still until I was almost on him, then he ran a good distance. I noticed he'd lost his tail feathers, so maybe he had encountered a predator and escaped.

It's a sad predicament for the bird. He's pretty much doomed. Even if I could catch him, which is doubtful, he'd be no safer at my house than in the park. There are coyotes all around my place, not to mention the free-roaming neighborhood dogs. If he's still there in the morning, I may ask the park staff if they can rescue him, though I don't know how interested they'll be. A stray chicken doesn't rate very high on the sympathy meter.

(The photo is a Leghorn hen--wrong gender, but I like her attitude. You can see some Leghorn cocks at My Pet

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The air was still and cool...

The air was still and cool this morning, the sky gray. The deep green cedars and leafless oaks were perfectly reflected on the glassy surface of the lake. As I came around a curve in the shore, a beaver greeted my appearance with a tail slap that produced a 5-foot plume of water. The sound echoed off the ridge above the opposite shore. I stopped to watch the expanding ripples. The chill subdued the little waves, so they moved outward gently, without breaking the mirror. A couple of does bounded away from the water as I approached, and flashes of white through the trees told me I had also startled some of their companions.

I followed the trail away from the lake, into dense woods. The moss along the path was vivid green, as bright as grass. Otherwise, the world was brown and gray. The only sounds were the burble of the creek a few yards away and the occasional rasp of a wren. A large buck with a spectacular rack of antlers stepped onto the trail ahead of me. He faced me down for a moment, but when I kept coming he thought better of it and departed in a few effortless leaps.

I came to a thick bramble that had shaped itself around the root clump of a long-ago fallen tree. A female downy woodpecker was skittering up and down the trunk of living tree nearby. Pausing to watch her, I became aware of the many little lives inhabiting the darkness of the bramble. Most were just unidentifiable shadows, but a few came out to show themselves: a squirrel, a pair of titmice, a solitary female cardinal. I wondered what might be burrowed in the earth beneath the natural shelter, sleeping the winter away while the birds were busy overhead.

As I backtracked up the trail on my way to the road, the quiet gave way to a persistent rustle that grew louder. Something was coming my way through the deep carpet of leaves. I thought it must be more deer. But no, it was a flock of wild turkeys—a huge flock, several dozen birds, marching in single file through the trees. They kept their column in perfect order, absolutely silent except for the sound their scrawny feet made. The birds passed by without noticing me, focused on a destination only they knew.

Photo of cave art at Lascaux. (Click on the link for a virtual tour of the cave.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sleepy time

Why, you ask, is this sleeping princess adorning a Turn Outward post? Because sleep is on my mind, and I had no desire to go looking for a not-too-cute image of sleeping critters. I love this beauty in all her finery, and the lure of sleep this time of year is as powerful for palace-dwelling humans as it is for the inhabitants of the woods.

It's hibernation time, and I'm missing the creatures of summer. A few weeks ago I saw a pretty box turtle who was hanging out at the base of a tree. It was a rainy day, and he was nestled under a mushroom that was easily three times his size. I immediately felt sad when I saw him, because somehow I knew he would be my last turtle friend of the season. There's always something poignant about the annual disappearance of the reptiles, even though I know they will return when the time is right. Same for my resident woodchuck, who disappeared sometime in October. I mourn the loss of her companionship, and look forward to the happiness I'll feel when she emerges in the spring.

Much as I miss the hibernators, though, I like to think of them curled up in their safe and restorative sleep. I long for sleep myself when the days get short, and sometimes I think the man-made world ought to accommodate that desire a little more. We toy with the clocks, but we don't change our lives much to suit the somnolent season. On the contrary, most of us are busier and work harder in winter. I'm not sure who decided we'd arrange things this way, but personally, I think they were misguided. I protest. I'm going to bed. Good night.

The Sleeping Princess, Frances MacDonald McNair, 1910

Go here to read about bad things that happen to turtles who don't get their beauty rest.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


The deer have begun to gather into their wintertime herds. It amazes me to see them collectively decide to do this every fall. One day they’re grazing alone or in small groups of three or four, and then the next day a threshold is crossed. The daylight diminishes to a precise point that cues them to form gangs of a dozen or more. I disturbed three sizable mobs as I walked along the trail this morning. I don’t like to distress them, but it is fun to watch their white tails flashing through the trees as they scatter.

I arrived at the park at the same time I always do—right at sunrise—but since Daylight Saving Time ended last night, the clock said it was an hour earlier. Consequently, the access road to one of the trails I really enjoy hiking was still gated. Park rangers are sticklers for schedules, so I had to choose another route. I envied the deer their subtle, sun-ruled sense of time. The clock is such a crude substitute. It is a shame to live under the tyranny of an abstraction.

I'd write more about time but my body is telling me it's an hour later than the clock claims. I'm weary. Go here if you're in the mood to think a little more about time.

Deer in the Wood, Paulus Potter, 1647.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sight and sound

Remember the Dude? Well, he's back, and as solitary as ever. I thought he'd gotten himself a girlfriend last summer, because I kept seeing a pair on the lake near his usual spot. I tried to photograph them for the blog but could never get close enough for a good shot. It's possible the Dude did find a mate and now he's lost her, but I'm more inclined to think I mistook another bird for him. (Just between you and me, Canada geese look a lot alike.) Still, I feel pretty certain the bird I met this morning was, indeed, the Dude. There's something about his melancholy haughtiness that distinguishes him. A beaver was swimming close by and gave a loud tail slap when I appeared, but the Dude never moved from his place, as if he wouldn't deign to heed a warning from a rodent. It'll be interesting to see if he spends another winter alone here.

Aside from my encounter with the beaver and the Dude, it was pretty quiet on the trail this morning. It was cloudy and chilly, and the woods were damp from all the rain we've been having. The moist air carried scent well, so I got wonderful whiffs of decaying leaves, pine needles and wood smoke from someone's campfire. Most of the leaves have turned but some are still green, so a walk along the trail created a kaleidoscope effect. The world was bright gold, scarlet, green and amber by turns as I passed beneath different clusters of trees. The streams were all running just high enough to create a pleasing babble. There was no other sound except for a few churring wrens, and off in the distance, a red-bellied woodpecker's sharp complaint.

Autumn Rain, Julian Alden Weir, 1890. (I love this painting. Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The crows

There was frost on the kudzu this morning but at least the sun was bright. The birds all slept in, except for a flock of crows that commenced an exceptional racket when I was about halfway through my walk. I tried to follow the sound, hoping I could see what had them so excited, but they kept moving just ahead of me. In fact, I never actually saw a single crow. They were like noisy spirits in the treetops.

Le corbeau et le renard, Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard, 19th century. (If you don't remember the fable, it's here.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"...what gathered in the gloom?"

A lot of the trees are still green and we're a long way from first frost, but the darkness of autumn has really begun to close in. It's about 8 o'clock in the evening here, and it's been raining lightly since before dawn. The day never got bright. It was utterly gloomy. I find myself exaggerating the sound of that word in my mind: gloomy. The gloom is pervasive, as if gloom were the existential state of the world, the essence of being--everything we can know arises from the gloom, rests on the gloom.

The autumn gloom is not to be confused the dark states of the human mind. It's not a reflection or a source of sadness. It's the life-giving darkness, primordial. As I walked through the woods this morning, the deer stared at me through the darkness. Their coats have taken on the shadowy gray of winter, they are part of the gloom. The bright mushrooms are rotting into the fallen leaves, darkening and returning to the decay that produced them.

O gardener of strange flowers, what bud, what bloom,
Hast thou found sown, what gathered in the gloom?
What of despair, of rapture, of derision,
What of life is there, what of ill or good?
Are the fruits grey like dust or bright like blood?

From "Ave Atque Vale" by Algernon Charles Swinburne. The complete poem is here.

Mushrooms, Jan Fyt (1611-1661)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

In case you were wondering...

...about the lack of posts at Turn Outward, the reasons are partly practical, partly spiritual. I've been very busy lately with writing assignments and the general business of life. I still find time to hike almost every day, but not much time to write about it, or even hunt down fun links about the flora, fauna and natural phenomena hereabouts.

The spiritual difficulty is hard to explain, but let's just say that a trail I thought was true and beautiful hit a dead end. It happens. Finding a new trail takes a lot of hunting and hacking through the brush. I have to do that psychic grunt work before I can let my mind wander and make up words.

Fortunately, the woods still offer me beauty and comfort, and I hope to get back to sharing them with you soon. Meanwhile, in honor of the orb weaver who's currently living in my car, I suggest you go here to see an amazing collaboration between people and spiders.

John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 1490-95

(J the B is not one of my heroes, but I love this image.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

No fight zone

As I type this, a brown thrasher, a cardinal and a goldfinch are hanging out together atop the chain link fence in my back yard. I've been watching them for a few minutes now, and they have been perfectly serene companions. Normally, the thrasher would make it his business to chase away any bird within chasing range, but he's just looking at the other two as if he's curious about what they might do. The cardinal seems happily tranquilized, like a guy halfway through his third beer after a long day. The goldfinch is rocking back and forth on the fence. He looks as if he's considering whether to make a comment on the weather.

I don't know if it's the unusual cool snap or some happy alignment of the stars, but for some reason, peace has broken out among the feathered residents here. No more mockingbird wars, no feeder raids--even the hummingbirds are making nice. I like it. I know potential conflict is always lurking in the background, as in Hicks' painting (click the image to enlarge it), but even a brief season of harmony is beautiful.

Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, c.1834.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


For the past couple of weeks I’ve been admiring a large flock of Canada geese that have taken up residence at a house near mine. The place is a mini-farm with a pasture and a pond, so it’s an ideal stop for migrating waterfowl. I haven’t noticed it attracting many birds in the past, but this year it’s goose central. There are always at least three dozen geese strutting around the property when I drive by in the morning. Occasionally they go for a group nibble on the grass across the road, forcing drivers to slow down and edge through the crowd. The folks who own the house seem to be the tolerant type. I haven’t seen any sign of them trying to evict the birds—but as it turns out, they didn’t need to. I drove by yesterday morning on my way to the park, and there was not a goose in sight, nor any sign that they’d been there. Same story today. Apparently, the anserine rapture arrived.

The absence of the geese made me feel a little sad, so I was happy to encounter a woodchuck when I got to the park. I love woodchucks. This one was standing up in a grassy area near a picnic shelter. He let me get within about 30 feet of him, then he turned around and ran toward the trees in that loping, faster-than-you’d-expect woodchuck way. He came to a narrow sidewalk beside the shelter and abruptly disappeared—just vanished, like Alice down the rabbit hole.

Woodchucks are burrowers, but they like to make their homes in sheltered places, usually along the tree line. I couldn’t believe this one had dug his hole right out in the open. When I got to the spot where he disappeared, I couldn’t even see a hole. I hunted a while and finally discovered a tiny opening under the sidewalk, clearly a rodent excavation. It seemed way too small for a fat woodchuck, but he had to be in there. I peeked inside carefully (woodchucks bite!), but it was too dark to see him, and he didn’t stir. I marveled at his brilliance. A concrete bunker might lack the charm of a burrow under the trees, but no coyote or bobcat will ever successfully invade his space.

As I type this, I can see “my” woodchuck rooting around under the bird feeders in the back yard. I worry about her safety, but I doubt she’d make use of a concrete bunker if I provided it. I suspect it’s hard to impose innovation on a woodchuck.

Groundhog photo by EIC from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Battle ready

I just looked at my Blogger home page and realized it's been a full week since I posted anything here. That's pure neglect on my part, since it's certainly not for lack of things to report. Mid-to-late summer is the best time of year for critter watching. In the past few days I've encountered 4 spotted fawns with their mamas, a half dozen turkey families (baby ducks and geese have nothing on turkey chicks for cuteness), and one glorious summer tanager that defeated all my efforts to photograph him.

All those sightings were in the park, but the best show has actually been going on outside my kitchen window, where the adolescent mockingbirds are learning how to do what mockingbirds do best--and no, it's not singing. Mockingbirds do sing a lot, but like many humans who are eager to sing, they don't do it very well. Anyone who has ever been unlucky enough to have a male MB park himself nearby during mating season can tell you that "pleasing" is not the proper adjective for the mockingbird voice.

What mockingbirds do best is fight. They're particularly feisty during the nesting season, but they remain ready to rumble all year long. They love to fight each other, but they will happily fight other birds, squirrels, dogs, and occasionally people. Even felines are not safe. A few years ago we had a gray warrior at the house who would dive and snatch at cats whenever they made the mistake of wandering into his territory. You'd think a cat with any self-respect at all would have made short work of him. But no, the kitties invariably ran away, looking very put upon. Don't mess with the mockingbird.

All the teenage birds in my backyard these days are flexing their muscles and figuring out how much fun it is to win. They bully for the sheer joy of it. Jays and starlings will stage a feeder raid so they can hog the food, the mockingbirds will swoop down to terrorize the sparrows and finches just so they can perch on the post and spread their wings in victory. Yesterday I saw a mockingbird chasing a slow-moving black vulture across my neighbor's field. As far as I know, vultures present absolutely no threat to mockingbirds. I think Junior was just getting a kick out of harrassing a bird so much bigger than himself.

Of course, there's no blood shed during these encounters, and not even a meal at stake. Still, it strikes me as a little odd that I find all this violent behavior so charming in the mockingbirds. I'd despise it in a human being, or even a dog.

Photo of Northern Mockingbird from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, July 27, 2009

'Shroom crazy

What, another mushroom post? Sorry I can't resist. There seems to be an interesting specimen everywhere I look lately. We're having a milder, wetter summer than usual, which I suspect is the reason for the abundant fungus. I took all these pictures in the past two days.

This dainty white mushroom was nestled in a heavily shaded spot near a little-used trail. Please don't take my word for it, but I think this is a parasol mushroom, an edible species.

This red beauty was standing all alone in a mowed strip along the road. It was very small, just about 2.5 inches high. The photo doesn't fully capture the sheen on the cap. I though this was a very sexy little 'shroom.

There are a lot of these freckled, gray mushrooms under the tree canopy, mostly in very damp places. I think they may be a more mature form of parasol mushroom. The ghostly color is beautiful against the brown weeds.

This variety of cup-shaped mushroom is big and showy, with a cap about six inches across. The gills give it the look of something that belongs on the floor of the ocean.

And in case you're interested in an update on the magical 'shroom garden, I documented its fate. After a few days of maturing and a heavy rain, the "petals" softened and spread, almost as if the mushrooms had melted.

And then something--probably a hungry deer--demolished them. All things must pass. I hope the deer enjoyed them.

All photos by me, and you're welcome to share them freely. In case this post hasn't sated your desire for mushroom pictures, check out David Fischer's American Mushroom Gallery.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Just me and the crows

I was in a section of the park this morning that is so desolate I think of it as "the dark wood." These dead toadstools I came across seemed like a good image for documenting my visit. I've never been able to figure out what makes the area so grim and deserted. It has the same terrain as the rest of the park, the same canopy of trees, and there’s water nearby; yet most of the animals seem to avoid it. I never see deer there, never a turtle or a turkey. Not even a squirrel. The only creatures that seem to like it are the crows, and they don’t congregate there in the ordinary way. I never hear a noisy mob of them, just the random cawing of two or three. Otherwise, it's oddly quiet.

There are days I wouldn't dream of walking in this dreary place, and other days when it lures me. I loved being there this morning. I take joy in all the beauty the park offers, but sometimes beauty can be unbearably sad. Joy always carries a promise of grief. When the moment comes to make peace with that promise, it is comforting to walk in a dark place.

Monday, July 20, 2009

'Shroom garden

We've had a few cool, clear days here, very unusual for July. The low temperatures keep the irksome bugs quiet, but the spiders still build their webs every night. The heavy dew and the light of the rising sun make jewels of their intricate death traps. A thin mist lingers among the trees in the early morning, and the birds are much noisier than they usually are in the heat of late summer.

All these little shifts from routine give the woods a hint of enchantment, a promise of the unexpected, so I was delighted but not surprised to come across a beautiful fungus bloom this morning. It had popped up under a tree not far from the road, out in the open as if it were a perfectly ordinary thing. My photos, as usual, don't do it justice.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Close encounter

I can feel the Dog Days coming on here. The leaves have lost the lush, green color of early summer. The woods seem a little dusty and worn. The air is muggy, and the yellow jackets are out. This morning, I heard a fierce buzzing in the leaves that turned out to be a yellow jacket locked in a death embrace with a winged beetle. Yellow jackets are primarily scavengers, but they also hunt. It looked as if the beetle was destined to become larvae food, but he was putting up a pretty good fight. He was quite a bit bigger than the wasp and kept trying to get airborne despite the predator locked onto his belly. He finally surrendered and lay still. I could see the yellow jacket gnawing into the area around the beetle's head, legs kneading his prey's torso in a sensual way that made me think of human lovers, or a nursing baby. It was beautiful and revolting at the same time. I couldn't resist trying to get a closer look. I moved some of the leaves aside, and as I did the yellow jacket lost his grip. The beetle, his body damaged but his survival instinct intact, suddenly returned to life, broke free and flew away. The yellow jacket was left crawling over the ground, disoriented, groping for his victim.

Photo by Hartmut Witsch from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two chases and a rescue

On Monday, my walk in the woods couldn’t have been more peaceful. The big event was watching a group of eight sliders hang out together in the middle of the lake. I love those little monsters, but nobody could accuse them of being exciting. They floated motionless in the water with their heads just above the surface. When they made a collective decision to dive, they did it slowly, reluctantly, as if it they were pretty sure the effort wouldn’t be worth it.

Tuesday was a different story. I wandered down a narrow trail I’d never been on before. I wasn’t sure where it would take me, but I had plenty of time and I like getting lost. I had just entered a pretty, dark hollow where the hummingbirds chattered in the trees when I was startled by a loud bleat from a buck. He was about 30 feet away, and his initial outburst was followed by a full-out hissy fit. He snorted and stomped and wheezed for all he was worth, and since I couldn’t see another buck around, I assumed all that aggression was directed at me. Chill out, buddy, nobody’s bothering you, I thought. But I was wrong, because a few seconds later two more deer came bounding out of nowhere, pursued by a hefty coyote. The buck ran off in another direction. The coyote seemed to hesitate, then resumed chasing his initial victims. I hollered at him—pointlessly—as they all disappeared through the trees. It’s very unlikely that a solitary coyote could make a meal of an adult deer. It’s possible that they had a fawn with them that I couldn’t see, or maybe they were trying to lead the predator away from one.

When I finally made it back up to the main road, I found another pursuit in progress. Some of the park rangers were in a huddle near the trailhead, talking to a group of sheriff’s deputies and some other species of cop in an unmarked car. As I walked up, one of the rangers stopped me to ask if I’d seen “a couple of teenage boys wearing black” wandering around. I said no, I’d seen no one except for a group of runners who are park regulars. I wondered what two teenage boys could have done to merit so much law enforcement attention. I decided I probably didn’t want to know the answer to that question, so I didn't ask it.

On my way home, there was a box turtle crossing the busy highway. The oncoming traffic prevented me from swerving to miss him. I had to straddle him with my car—a maneuver that always makes me hold my breath, for fear I’ll miscalculate and hit the little guy. He was fine when I looked in my rear view mirror, and the driver behind me succeeded in missing him, too. I usually leave the welfare of road-crossing turtles to the hands of fate, but not this time. Maybe it was my failure to stop the coyote, but I felt an urgent need to save him. He was crossing near a little restaurant, so I parked the car there and jumped out. Lucky for the turtle and me, there was enough of a lull in the traffic for me to run out and pick him up. He seemed like a surprisingly old turtle to be taking such a jaunt. His shell was worn and his skin markings were faded. I carried him to the side of the road and set him down in the grass. He was completely unperturbed, didn’t even withdraw into his shell. As I hurried back to my car, I realized there was a group of people standing outside the restaurant watching the whole thing. I’m sure they’re still laughing about the crazy lady who dodged morning traffic to rescue a box turtle.

Coyote photo from Wikimedia Commons


It's sunny and warm. The mimosa tree we planted a decade ago is 25 feet tall now. It's covered with pink blooms and butterflies, and the hummingbirds are zooming through the branches. The sunflowers are luring a crowd of goldfinches. The blackberries are plentiful and sweet. I have to fight the hornets for them, but I don't mind. I love summer.

Summer Landscape, Pieter Gijsels (1621-1690)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

After the rain...

...the bats come out in force. There were six cavorting in the back yard this evening. The hummingbirds were flitting around, too, which made for a lot of aerial action. There was a crowd of lightning bugs floating just above the ground. I could hear mockingbirds squabbling even as the darkness came on. I sat on the swing and marveled. Summer is a gift.

Go here to see an adorable bat on Flickr.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Long time, no see

I saw a kingbird perched on the power line behind the house today. They used to be regular visitors here, but disappeared a few years ago for reasons unknown. Their name is apt--they're such regal little birds. They'll sit motionless until a tasty bug comes along, swoop up instantly to catch it, and return to the perch as if nothing happened. It's adorable to watch. I'm glad they're back.

Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1901. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Even though...

...the air is too humid to breathe, the ticks and poison ivy are everywhere, and the flies are as annoying as the perfume SAs at Macy's, today was still a glorious day to walk in the woods.

Wendell Berry explains why.

Photo of a surviving segment of the Natchez Trace from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The new woodchuck

There's a wild cherry tree behind our house that always produces a lot of fruit. The same woodchuck used come every summer to snarf up the cherries. He was a big, fat guy, and it was touching to see him get a little slower as each year passed. All the sources I've checked say that 5 years is the average lifespan for a woodchuck. If so, our chubby friend was exceptionally long-lived, because I watched him for at least 4 summers, and he was no cub when he first appeared.

Chuck went missing a couple of years ago. We were having a terrible drought at the time, and it may have been too much for an elderly woodchuck. Or he may have fallen less peacefully, to the coyotes or our gardening, gun-loving neighbors. I've missed him, so I was very happy a few weeks ago when I saw a cat come flying out of the brush under the treeline, pursued by an angry woodchuck. Kitty was probably after the woodchuck's babies. This new Marmota monax is a much more petite specimen than her predecessor, but she scared the shit out of that cat.

I've seen her several times since then. She's currently out there every day, getting her fill of cherries, so I feel as if we've definitely got a replacement groundhog-in-residence. I just hope she steers clear of coyotes and armed humans.

Maxine Kumin wrote a very fine poem about woodchucks. You can listen to her read it here. I should warn you, it's a sad poem. The hungry heart of the woodchuck is no match for human selfishness.

Groundhog photo by April M. King from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The owl children

I'm pretty much back to my regular hiking habits after my little Memorial Day mishap. It feels great to be spending hours rather than minutes outdoors. Aside from the contemplative benefits, clocking more time in the woods increases the chance of encountering something interesting, charming or just plain weird. Today I found charm, in the form of three juvenile barred owls. They were huddled together on a fallen tree just off the trail. They were making a lot of noise, squabbling and pleading for food. I could hear Mama but she didn't let herself be seen. The chicks spotted me and flew off to separate perches a short distance away. I watched them for a while, and they watched me watching them. They had such wonderful expressions, exactly like curious children.

Click here for a fine, poignant poem about some 18th century owlets. The video below is part of a series on barred owls, which you can see here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Weed eating

Not much time for blogging today, but I thought I'd share this article on why it's better to eat your garden weeds than poison them. I love all the greens mentioned, especially sorrel, but I was surprised that the author said nothing about dandelions. The leaves are delicious cooked, and the flowers are a great salad ingredient. Happy gathering.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The featherweights

Our resident hummingbirds have arrived. We've had a steady stream of transients since April, but I can always tell when the nesting birds are here, because that's when the fighting starts. The hummers' aerial combat puts the best wire-fu epic to shame, and they're always eager to mix it up. Males fight males, as you'd expect, but the battles often involve both sexes. Hummingbirds have no sense of chivalry. Unlike many other birds, the male hummers don't court prospective girlfriends with gifts of food. They'll drive their mates, and even their own offspring, away from a feeder. It's a little hard to understand how this dedication to selfishness promotes the survival of the species, but the little guys seem to be doing just fine.

Photo by Joe Schneid from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Conditional love

This week I moved my walks from the rural state park near my home to a nature preserve in Nashville. This was not a happy choice, since I really prefer the big park. The paths there are rougher, there's more wildlife, and during the week I rarely meet another person on the trail. Unfortunately, the heavy rains we've had lately have created perfect breeding conditions for mosquitoes, and being the lone hiker for miles around makes me absolutely irresistible to them. Why should they bother tormenting the deer and the birds, with all that troublesome fur and plumage, when they can chow down on a thin-skinned human? They nearly drained me dry on a couple of outings early this week.

So for now I'm getting in my car and driving 35 environmentally irresponsible miles to the city green space, where there are precious few mosquitoes. Nashville has had as much rain as my home town and ought to have just as many of the tiny bloodsuckers, but since the first West Nile scare a few years back, the city has been spraying and using larvicide to keep the population down. The program is actually pretty moderate in its use of pesticides, but it seems to have had a dramatic cumulative effect.

My home county doesn't have the money to spray for mosquitoes, and it's the sort of thing that paranoid anti-government types (we have a few of those) would be quick to protest. Actually, I've got a little of that anti-government paranoia myself, not to mention an opinionated inner tree hugger who disapproves of poisoning a creature that happens to be an essential food for bats, dragonflies, and other delightful beings. Nevertheless, I am literally voting with my feet in favor of a more controlled--and more toxic--environment. I fear this makes me a fickle and neurotically demanding nature lover. I do not want to share my blood with Mother Earth's pesky children, even if it's only natural for them to desire it.

If you're wondering why there's a picture of a firefly on this post about mosquitoes, it's because last night, as I watched the fireflies float around my front yard, it occurred to me that these pretty glowbugs always appear around the same time each year as those miniature vampires. That's the justice of nature for you. All the pleasure in the world is tied, in one way or another, to a curse. You can't have one without the other, and most attempts to make it otherwise cost us dearly. Firefly populations appear to be dropping dramatically in many places around the world, mostly because of our distortion of the environment with artificial light, deforestation, and yes, pesticides. You can read more about the issue here and here.

Firefly photo by 6th Happiness at Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Missing the narrow fellow

The whole purpose of walking in the woods is to leave longing behind. I walk to take pleasure in what the world offers, not make demands or chase fantasy. I try to avoid making my time outdoors a hunt for interesting specimens or experiences. My task is simply to be there and accept whatever gifts come my way.

And yet, lately I find myself yearning for an encounter with a snake. I investigate every rustle in the grass with a little hopeful flutter in my chest. Any snake would do. A 4-inch ringsnake crawling across the trail would satisfy me. It seems unfair that I haven't met one. They've been out and about for weeks. I see them along the highway nearly every day, and a good-sized black rat snake turned up in our front yard (dead, alas), but they've been AWOL in what should be their proper habitat. One will probably appear as soon as I stop looking, but I can't seem to banish the craving in the meantime.

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

by Emily Dickinson

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him - Did you not
His notice sudden is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy, and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me –
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality –

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

Text from Poetry Foundation

Snake Charmer, Henri Rousseau, 1907

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A morning with the turtles

There had been a storm with heavy rain before dawn last Wednesday, and it was still drizzling when I got to the park around 6:00 a.m. The air was warm and the trail was a soggy mess, which made conditions perfect for the box turtles. I came across one every fifty yards or so, and they were all moving along at a pretty brisk pace by turtle standards, heads up, looking alert.

I was really enjoying the turtle parade, thinking how nice it was to see so many emerge at once, and then I came across the star-crossed lovers. Boy had succeeded in meeting girl, but something had gone haywire with the consummation. Normally, the male mounts and enters the female from behind, and hooks his rear claws into the edge her shell. Sometimes he flips over on his back, which looks like this. They can stay that way for hours.

The necessary contortions of love seem a little challenging for a turtle under the best circumstances, but this particular pair had failed completely. When I found them, the female was on her back, completely withdrawn into her shell, and the male was upright with one foot hooked into her leg opening--on the wrong side, no less. Worse yet, they had fallen down into a little crevice along the side of the trail, and were wedged next a 2 X 4 that had been pushed into the hillside as a support.

I’m not sure whether the trouble was male incompetence or female recalcitrance—probably a bit of both. In any case, things weren’t looking good for baby turtle production, and I wasn’t entirely sure they would be able to get themselves out of their predicament. The male’s foot was twisted at such an odd angle I wondered if he could let go even if he wanted to, and it seemed unlikely that the female could right herself if he remained attached.

So, with some reservations about violating the Prime Directive, I picked them up as a unit and set them down on the path. I gently prodded the male’s foot, trying to get him to release the female, but he hung on tight and didn’t even retreat into his shell. He had found his woman, and he was damn well going to keep hold of her. There were at least two other males nearby ready to move in if he surrendered the field, so I suppose his determination was understandable.

Hoping they’d work things out on their own, I moved about 10 feet away, to a spot where neither of them could see me. And waited. A long time. He didn’t budge a millimeter. She never made any attempt to turn over, or even poke her head out. As I stood there, it dawned on me that a) it was still raining and I was getting extremely wet; and b) if turtles can fuck for hours, there was no reason to think they’d be in any particular hurry to abandon a troubled attempt.

So I gave up and went home, feeling stupid for interfering, but also frustrated that I lacked the patience necessary to witness the resolution. Did she finally relent and give him a second chance? Did he give up and let his competition take over? Whatever happened, the uncooperative female survived it just fine. I recognized her unique shell markings when I saw her at the same spot on the trail yesterday. She was calmly munching on some delicacy she'd found in the leaf litter. Her determined boyfriend was nowhere in sight.

Illustration by John Edwards Holbrook, 1842. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Passing season

May arrived here with heavy rain that knocked the last of the blossoms off the dogwoods. The woods are littered with fallen petals. The photo above is one of our trees at its peak, around the 3rd week in April. It's always a little sad to see all that beauty disappear, but the fading spring has some special pleasures of its own.

The rose-breasted grosbeaks have been showing up at our feeders for the past couple of weeks. There were 4 gorgeous males squabbling over the sunflower seeds today. The grosbeaks are late migrants through these parts. They don't stay to nest, and since they don't breed here, we rarely get to hear them sing. Their too-brief appearance is a sure sign that summer is not far away.

I always look forward to the reappearance of the box turtles. They don't get out and about until the weather is reliably warm. I saw my first lovable monster of the season last week. It was a large male (I think), parked right in the middle of the trail as if he owned it. He didn't even bother to retreat into his shell when I stepped over him.

And of course, one of the sweetest things about the passage from spring to summer is the arrival of the first babies. This morning as I walked the trail along the creek, a tiny, fluttering creature dropped out of the trees ahead of me. I thought it was a butterfly, which seemed bizarre since butterflies don't generally cavort in the rain. It turned out to be a chickadee fledgling, just out of the nest. He landed on a tree root sticking up from the path and perched there, slightly dazed.

Chickadee youngsters look like smaller versions of their parents, but this one still had a couple of wispy bits of down sticking out of his black cap. I tried gently to encourage him to move off the trail, where he'd be less likely to get stepped on or attract the attention of some hiker's dog, but he refused to budge. I considered moving him myself, but in my experience a chick that is picked up and relocated will immediately head straight back to the spot he chose. So I left him there to get on with his confused but determined navigation of the world.

(Click here to see some photos of chickadees in the nest.)

Photo of dogwood flowers by BitterGrace. Grosbeak photo by John Harrison from Wikimedia Commons. Chickadee photo by Ken Thomas at Wikimedia Commons, and box turtle photo by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The beautiful natives

There are often beautiful surprises lurking in the woods, but the dwarf crested iris is one of the loveliest. It has just begun to bloom here in the past couple of days.

This tiny one managed to struggle out from under the leaves. I had to push aside a mess of poison ivy to get a good look at it.

This one is much larger, and has a number of companions nearby that will be blooming soon. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you can see the spider clinging to a petal. I didn't even know she was there when I took the photo.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The wrong will

Last night, Dave and Nio were sitting out on the deck having a beer. Nio doesn’t actually get a beer, though I’m sure he would enjoy one. He just hangs out and chews his Nylabone while Dave does the drinking. They do this every evening when Dave’s in town. It’s their special man time. I was puttering around in the kitchen. Dave hollered at me to come outside—“Come listen to this bird.”

I was a little annoyed because I assumed he was summoning me to listen to the vocal antics of a mockingbird. We have scads of them and they never shut up this time of year. Dave has a tendency to find novelty where I don’t. But when I got out there I discovered that it really was something a bit novel. A bird somewhere along the tree line behind the house was repeating a sharp, loud call.

“Is that a whip-poor-will?’ Dave asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard one.”

Whip-poor-wills aren’t rare, but we’ve never had them in our yard. They’re ground-nesters, so they tend to prefer more heavily wooded areas where there aren’t a lot of people (or roaming cats.) I agreed with Dave that we were listening to a whip-poor-will, but something about its call was not quite right. I have a pretty poor ear for birdcalls, and I thought maybe this whip-poor-will was just a little eccentric.

Just to be sure, I hunted up an online whip-poor-will call. Yep, it was slightly different from our bird. I kept hunting, and discovered that we were actually being serenaded by a chuck-will’s-widow. They’re as common as whip-poor-wills, and I’m sure I’ve heard them many times without knowing it. It would be nice if this one would stick around so I can get a good look at him. He’s welcome to eat all the insects he wants while he’s here, though I hope he leaves our bats alone.

Watercolor of a male chuck-will's-widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis) by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, from Bird Lore, 1926. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The best thing about walking in the woods is that there aren’t any ghosts there. Most of the world is filled with ghostly chatter. Disembodied voices speak to us everywhere we go. Tinny singing haunts the marketplace. Belligerent spirits shout at us through the radio. Giggles and screams of pain come from the TV. People who aren’t really on the other end of the line—sometimes computer-generated people who never existed at all—cajole us on the telephone. The familiar voices of people we know are set free to race around the planet and speak intimately in our ears, even though their owners are thousands of miles away.

No matter how sophisticated we think we are about technology, I suspect our brains cannot quite credit the reality of a voice with no immediate source. When we can’t make eye contact with the speaker, can’t touch or smile at him, all that ethereal gab becomes pretty much indistinguishable from our own internal dialogue. Ghost voices, even though they fill the air around us, actually pull us away from our environment. They make us draw inward. We hear the sound, but we hear as we do in dreams. It all seems to be our creation, and the only awareness that counts is our own.

Listening to the voices of the forest is like waking from the dream. Every bird song or frog call comes from a creature who is right there, enjoying the same sunrise or being drenched by the same storm. Maybe your companion does a good job of staying out of sight, or maybe he’s equipped to speak his mind from a couple hundred yards away; nevertheless, you know he lives. His heart is beating along with yours, he’s gathering his breath from the same air that carries the scent of pine and wet leaves to your nose. Every sound he makes defies the power of the ghosts.

Mockingbird photo from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Resentment, and other fine feelings

The warm spring weather is back now, but winter returned for a couple of days earlier this week. It even snowed a little. The pretty dwarf larkspur, which is very plentiful here, has gone a little droopy and sad as a result, but the blooms have survived. Wildflowers are tough.

No matter how many times I remind myself that it’s absurd to resent the weather, I can’t stop feeling irritated when I have to haul the winter coat back out after I thought I had put it away for the season. It seems unfair to be given a taste of warmth and light, only to have them snatched away. I assume most people feel the same way, since everybody whines about the cold. It’s a craziness we all share, this grudge against nature. Sometimes I think peevishness was our principal reason for inventing God--not so we’d have an explanation for consciousness or what happens when we die, but so we could feel that someone is responsible for all the annoying glitches in earthly life. The faithful like to praise God for creating a beautiful world, but somewhere in the back of their minds they’re ranting at him about late freezes and fire ants.

The cold snap silenced the birdsong and the frogs went back to sleep. The squirrels stayed out, along with the deer, and I saw a quartet of turkeys marching single file through the trees on the morning it snowed. I wonder how they felt about the cold. I know they suffer from it, but do they ever resent it? Do they think the day should be warmer, or even conceive that it could be? It seems ridiculous to suggest that they might, but animals certainly make qualitative judgments about their environment. One of my dogs hates the wind. If you make her stay outside on a breezy day she gets very crabby and snaps at the other dogs. How is she different from me, when I get in a snit about the unseasonable chill?

Even after the thousands of studies of animal behavior, the emotional lives of animals are still opaque to us. We don’t know anything about their passions, about their interior experience of life. One morning before the temps dropped, I watched a mating triangle being worked out among downy woodpeckers. The trio flew from one tree to another, chasing and chattering with the intensity you always see in courtship rivalries. Even when the intruding male tried to retreat, the other two kept chasing him, not wanting to let go of the fight. It certainly looked as if they were feeling all the fury and anxiety humans feel in the same situation. I wonder if they were. And if they weren’t, I wonder what that says about us.

Photo of dwarf larkspur from Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide.

Photo of downy woodpecker from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"To be free and be close to god"

I said those words, years ago, to a shrink who asked me what I wanted most in life. Reading it now, I realize it must have sounded very pompous or just phony, but it was what popped into my head at that moment and it was—is—the truth.

I suspect the phrase is one I read somewhere, a philosophy of life acquired secondhand from a poem or some self-help bible, but Googling it just now only got me a slew of instances of “close to god”—or rather, “close to God,” since most of the discourse on the ‘net concerns that god. Freedom never seems to appear in conjunction with him.

Wherever it comes from, my credo isn’t useful or warmhearted. It doesn’t preclude action or caring, but it doesn’t demand them either. I know I feel closest to fulfilling it when I am ambling along the trail and spot something beautiful and ordinary, like the little foamflowers in the picture above. They have just started opening up here in the past few days. The blooms are tiny and intricate, so perfect they are a little shocking.

The moment of perceiving common beauty is a sacred moment, and creates a sense of liberation I never know any other time. I stop feeling stranded in the psychic hinterlands, resenting the limitations of my flesh-and-bone prison, yearning for a knowledge that is beyond me. Every possibility condenses to the form and matter of a plant, a bird; and all of those possibilities are fulfilled. The experience of immanence contains flawless love of crude existence--a thrilling paradox.

For a virtual stroll through Tennessee wildflowers, go here and click on the "Wild Flowers" tab.

Photo of Tiarella cordifolia from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

They're back!

The frogs, that is. We often hear the little peepers in February, but I haven't heard the real springtime frogs until today. Judging from the Herping with Dylan video below, I think I was hearing primarily chorus frogs. Whatever they were, their calls made a beautiful counterpoint to the birds' chatter. All the racket disturbed the serenity of the lake in the best possible way.

This clip runs a bit long, but I can never get enough of Dylan, and the end credits are cute. The frogs he's cataloging are in Illinois, but we have many of the same species in Tennessee. (You'll find a nice page devoted to Tennessee's frogs here.)

Click here to see all the HWD videos.

Monday, March 23, 2009


I expressed my inner ferret this morning. I had decided to do a little off-trail exploring before the ticks and poison ivy take back the woods for the season. I was trudging up a leaf-covered hillside and stopped to look at some sort of orange fungus that had sprouted on a fallen tree. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a patch of leaves move. At first I thought they were just being shifted by the breeze, but then they moved again. Something was definitely under there.

I generally try not to harass the creatures I come across on my daily walks, but I felt an uncontrollable desire to go after that mysterious, quivering bump. I grabbed a strip of bark and pushed aside the dry top layer, but the thing—Vole? Lizard? Mega-sized wood roach?—moved away from me, down into the damp, rotting leaves. I kept digging, thinking C’mon, I just want to see what you are. I’m not going to eat you or anything. The object of my desire, however, recognized my predatory compulsion for what it was. It kept moving, and soon it was clear that I had lost my quarry.

I got a nice little consolation prize, though. As I was headed back down the trail I saw a veery perched on the bare branch of a dogwood tree. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a veery before, but I recognized it immediately, thanks to all the time I’ve wasted poring over bird books. The veery is a migrant here, and never comes to feeders, as far as I know. This one was a birdwatcher’s dream. She posed prettily for me, turning around a couple of times as if to say, Get a good look, lady. I’m just passing through.

Ferret drawing from Het Leven der Dieren, A.E. Brehm (1829-1884) via Wikimedia Commons

Veery photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Shy and secretive

The trail is like a progressive peep show right now. The squirrels are especially busy--playing their erotic chasing games, chattering dirty to each other. I keep wondering when one of them is going to fall on my head as they leap from tree to tree. It’s all very sweet. One of the charms of spring is all the procreative energy it sets loose.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised recently when I saw a used condom draped over a rock. It was lying next to the trail along the lake shore, a delicate remnant of transient shared frenzy. (I hope there was shared frenzy. I hate to think of some poor woman hiking all the way out there for nothing.)

It was only after I thought about it for a while that I realized I’ve never seen a discarded rubber in the park before, and how odd it is that I haven’t. This park is in a rural area, not many miles from the little town where I grew up, and anyone around here can tell you it has always been a favorite refuge for horny teenagers, or any couple looking for an alfresco tryst. Virginity loss, infidelity, casual prostitution, not to mention good ol’ recreational sex—it’s all going on in those woods.

And yet, in spite of all the hours I spend out there, wandering down side trails and exploring the secluded spots along the creeks, I never saw any direct evidence of human sex until a couple of days ago. It’s not as if people are disinclined to leave other signs of their presence. They leave beer cans and cigarette butts, fast food wrappers and used Kleenex. Anglers are the terrible about dumping bait tubs and tangled line. But the fornicators are a tidy bunch. If they were as careless as everybody else, the park would be fairly littered with condoms, their wrappers, forgotten thongs, etc.

For all the complaints about our porn-soaked, hypersexualized culture, we’re still very secretive when it comes to the real thing. Unlike those skunks I blogged about a while back, and the squirrels cavorting through the treetops, we crave privacy for coupling, and even hide anything that might give us away after the fact. What a shy, quaint species we are.

Angélique et Médor, Agostino Carracci (1557-1602). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


It’s been wet and gloomy here for several days. We’ve had enough rain to push all the creeks up a few inches. Streams meander throughout the park where I’ve been walking lately, and the sound of rushing water can be heard everywhere, accompanied by a steady drip from the trees. While the water’s voice fills the air, moisture softens the carpet of leaves and stifles the usual rustle of wind and wildlife. Twice in the past two days I have startled large groups of white-tailed deer, and they’ve bounded away like ghosts, their hooves silent against the soaked ground.

The sounds in the woods shift constantly as the weather and the seasons change. Listening to them is a big part of the pleasure of hiking for me. The birds’ songs are pretty, of course, and their drumming, rasping, crying and honking engage the ear; but I think what I enjoy most are the more subtle noises. It’s easy to miss the skittering of a squirrel’s tiny feet, or the faint burbling pop of ice along the lake’s edge in midwinter. Even on a fairly windless day, there is always a delicate creaking in the high branches of the trees. I find I have to make a conscious effort to tune my hearing toward the small sounds, but when I do, they fill the aural space as completely as the din of the crows or the woodpecker’s laugh. I feel a little like a spy at those moments, listening in on a hidden conversation.

Mountain Brook, Albert Bierstadt, 1863

Friday, February 27, 2009

The seamless world

I am always astonished by the connectedness of things. Nothing is discrete. Every action, thought or sensation is embedded with all others. The work of consciousness is selecting which connections to value, which to ignore.

Today I went hiking after a heavy rain, and when I returned to my car I found that a wolf spider had taken up residence in the cup holder of my car. I suppose she was looking for a dry spot. I like wolf spiders, so I let her stay and she rode around with me all day. I went to a violin lesson, made a grocery run, met Dave for coffee, drove the 40+ miles back to my house--and the spider stayed right there in my cup holder. A couple of times she climbed up to the edge and waved a leg in my direction, but mostly she just hung out at the bottom of the well, happy with her new home. I won't be surprised if she's still there in the morning.

My new buddy seemed to beg for a blog post, so I went looking for a spider poem, but couldn't find a good one that seemed appropriate. The way she hitched a ride made me think of hitchhikers, so I switched to searching for hitchhiker themes, and found the outstanding Diane Wakoski work below. One of the reasons it caught my attention is its recurring image of the mountain ash tree. I recently had an exchange about the fruit of the mountain ash--also known as the rowan tree--with Olfacta at her blog.

I love that perfect circle of event, art and memory.

They burn you
like the berries of mountain ash in August,
standing by the road,
clearly defined,
Autumnal brilliant, heads
scorched from waiting
in the sun.
How can
you pass them up?
But you do,
and dream each night of a hell,
where you are a hitchhiker,
and no one will ever stop to pick you up.

From "The Hitchhikers" by Diane Wakoski, 1977. Complete text at Poetry Foundation.

Photo of wolf spider carrying her young on her back by Clinton and Charles Robertson, from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Measured resistance

Fights between hawks and crows are usually noisy and brutal. Crows generally gang up to attack a lone hawk, and I find it disturbing to watch, even though I know the crows are only defending themselves. I can't help identifying with the predatory hawk, just trying to survive, all alone against the mob.

But today I saw a squabble between a Cooper's hawk and a solitary crow that made me think about the beauty of restraint, and the intimacy of conflict. It was early morning and overcast--prime hunting conditions for the hawk, since everyone is out in search of breakfast, and the clouds mean he casts no warning shadow. I heard the familiar battle cry of the crows, and looked up to see a half dozen of them chasing the hawk along the tree line.

Normally, they would all have stayed on him until they drove him out of their territory or onto the ground, but that didn't happen. Once they had him safely away from their roosting spot, all the crows but one turned back. Then the hawk and the sole defender flew in a wide circle for several minutes, the crow diving, the hawk smoothly dodging him. Cooper's hawks are not much bigger than crows, and the pair's movements were so unhurried and graceful, a casual observer might have thought he was seeing two crows at play.

The crow was persistent and the hawk did eventually retreat, but the crow didn't seem victorious, nor the hawk vanquished. They both left the field of battle slowly, calmly. I got the sense that they had simply agreed to cease hostilities. Members of enemy species, they had colluded in peace.

Photo of Cooper's hawk by Mdf from Wikimedia Commons.