↓ Archives ↓

Posts Tagged → nature

1,000 welcome guests

Mark Twain noted that both guests and fish start to smell bad after three days. It’s a Mark Twain joke, not meant to be taken literally, wittily observing that well-intentioned hospitality has its natural limits.

A few days ago, I had a different experience with about a thousand guests, international immigrants, migrants, actually. Undocumented visitors, and formally uninvited to America.

For about three or four hours, I sat on the porch with a large coffee on one side, a pair of binoculars around my neck, and a large, heavy book on the other side. As I sat quietly, rarely moving and never moving quickly, I watched as a myriad of neotropical songbirds flitted, hawked, pirouetted, perched, sang, and chased all around the front lawn.

The green lawn is surrounded by a large mature hardwood forest with a high canopy, making it the natural destination for brilliantly colored migratory birds from as far away as Honduras and Guatemala. Gunmetal blue, electric blue, indigo, and boring old regular blue, scarlet, orange, red, yellow, grey, green, and just about every other color combination or version in the rainbow was represented in these tiny little bodies.

Tanagers, flycatchers, orioles (Baltimore and orchard), warblers in profusion, including the mysterious Cerulean Warbler, cedar waxwings, you name it, they were all there right in front of me.

If I had trouble identifying a bird, the binoculars were slowly raised to my eyes, trained on the little bugger, and I then engaged in a promiscuous amount of voyeurism. Reaching to my left for the big Smithsonian Birds of North America book and quietly turning its well-worn pages would usually reveal what I had seen and did not know.

Oh sure, there has been an ongoing battle with a female Phoebe the past three years. She likes to make her mud-and-sticks nest on the frame ledge above the front door. Her construction methods may be fascinating, but her habits are messy. Muddy gravel splashed all over the door, the windows, the porch. Then there are the kids, the poops, and of course we cannot disturb them, so we have to go around and use the back door. Last year she prevailed and caught me at a time when I was less vigilant. Grudgingly I allowed her to sit on her completed nest above the door, and aside from the mess and the Do-Not Disturb sign there, we were rewarded with close-up photos of the cutest little hatchlings and chicks you ever did see. We got to watch them fledge, too.

This year I chased her away and I think she took up a lesser spot in the pavilion, where she alternatively gave me the hairy eye from a perch, and then bombarded the truck daily with her droppings.

Another tiny bird provided a different interaction. Whistling his own song back to him from my front row seat on the porch, I called in a scarlet tanager who perched in a young white pine about thirty feet away, and inspected my odd appearance; I was found to be definitely NOT mate-worthy.

The pleasure gleaned from this quiet, near-motionless, but nonetheless intensely active time is tough to quantify. It is a special and rare time, snuck in during a narrow window in Nature’s endless timeframe. I can say that my heart sang along with those little survivors of journeys thousands of miles long, that my spirits were lifted with each visual treat they provided by wing or by perch, or by song, and that my own singular frustrations were slowly washed away by participating in something much grander, much more important than one man’s concerns:

That deep, quiet, often nearly invisible but enormous and magical ebb and tide of living things across the planet and through our lives. Gosh, are they all magical and their processes are magical, too.

This is a feeling of smallness, completeness, an unusually peaceful sense of place and order that is much more difficult for some of us to find in everyday human life. And yet it is the “natural world.” Think about that! Does it mean that we are living un-naturally?

For hunter-gatherers of old, seeing migratory songbirds probably meant berries and fruits were on their way, and that the known but unidentified Vitamin C in them would replenish the humans’ bodies after a long and planned near-starvation winter period. That is, this incredible migration so many tens of thousands of years old must have had a deep and more specific meaning to our primordial ancestors. Food.

But for us “civilized” people, quiet time, a time and place to contemplate, reflect, and to think is food. Brain food, emotional food, necessary.

Little migratory birdies, you are welcome back to America any time, with or without identification. I hope I get to see you all many more times again in the coming years.

 

Motorcycle haiku

this peaceful valley is so beautiful

nature’s tranquil serenity is so rare

why are some motorcycles so loud?

Haiku

A Vulture’s Nose is Deep Stuff

As I am one of those many outdoorsmen who feels the presence of God most when outside in the wild (as did Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Byzantine monks, most Eastern religious founders, moved by the spirit present when interposing interference is removed), and who daily revels in the magical mysteries of nature and her myriad inhabitants, two days ago I experienced one of those affirmative moments I just had to share here.

Let me begin in a normally circuitous way.

Among our friends, the cabin frig is a notorious repository for hilarious experiments in food storage. Examples run from milk containers constantly long past the “Use By” date, which poses no boundary for me when making morning covfefe, to plastic containers containing mysterious fuzzy delicacies once lovingly stashed in misplaced anticipation of an immediate followup feed some distant time before.

So the other day, I grabbed what I thought was a container of meat pottage of recent vintage, only to discover it held the sad remains of a once-proud free range tuna fish turned to tame tuna salad some weeks prior. Upon opening the plastic container, it was clear this material could be frozen for trap bait come November, or taken to a regular dumping point deep in the forest, 100 yards from the front porch, where several trail cameras record and document the many cool forest denizens that come to explore the enticing odors thereupon.

Unwilling to risk the entire freezer contents to this nasty smelling mess, option B was followed. Taking water along to help rinse out the container only added yet more stink to the spot.

I retreated from that odorous field of battle and took up my point of respite on a chair on said porch, thinking of all the hard physical labor awaiting me, once more responsible instincts took control of my limbs. Within minutes, and I mean just a few minutes, a handful of black-headed vultures began circling the spot of spoilage, some diving down below the tree canopy to more personally investigate the enticing smell.

To me, seeing this is a magnificent experience and feeling. What a display of the incredible smelling ability of these birds!

Yes, vultures are carrion eaters, and they are supposed to be able to smell well.

Well, to me, being able to smell a few ounces of old tuna salad water dumped out in the Big Woods in the middle of a vast forest complex, from miles away, is not just good sense of smell. It is beyond imaginably incredible.

We are talking about parts per trillion of stink being immediately picked up by a winged creature far, far away. What sophistication! What finely honed senses! It is miraculous, and to me, it is a sign of the hand of God, because only God can create such complexity. Human attempts are not even cheap imitations.

Which takes me to this perhaps unexpected conclusion: I do not understand the use of recreational drugs. The free and easy endorphin “high” that my brain feels from witnessing the vultures’ display of smell capability is intense, because I appreciate what it represents. Just minutes later a beautiful ruby throated hummingbird buzzed the porch, inspecting our colorful (flower-colored) American flag gently luffing in the breeze.

Hanging momentarily a few feet away from me, I marveled at its minuscule dose of radiant iridescence.

And then as the hummingbird buzzed away at an impossibly high speed (I mean, how can such a small animal achieve such a high rate of speed so quickly? Another miracle of Creation!), my brain experienced yet another rush of self-induced stimulants. No outside drugs required. No danger, no addiction, no expense, no law breaking.

My takeaway from the vultures: Don’t take Nature for granted. She is everywhere, the handmaiden of God, here to show us The Way. If we just open our eyes and revel in the mystery.

 

The Bob Webber Trail takes on a whole new meaning

The Bob Webber Trail up between Cammal and Slate Run in the Pine Creek Valley is a well-known northcentral Pennsylvania destination. Along with the Golden Eagle Trail and other rugged, scenic hiking trails around there, you can see white and painted trilliums in the spring, waterfalls in June, and docile timber rattlers in July and August, as well as large brook trout stranded in ever-diminishing pools of crystal clear water as the summer moves along.

Bob Webber was a retired DCNR forester, who had spent the last 40 years or so of his life perched high above Slate Run in a rustic old CCC cabin. That is the life that many of the people around here aspire to, and which I, as a little kid, once stated matter of factly would be my own quiet existence when I reached the “big boy” age of 16. Except Bob had been married for almost all of his time there. He was no hermit, as he enjoyed people, especially people who wanted to explore nature off the beaten path.

That Bob had contributed so much to the conservation and intelligent development of Pine Creek’s recreational infrastructure is a well-earned understatement. He was a quiet leader on issues central to that remote yet popular tourist and hunting/fishing destination. The valley could easily have been dammed, like Kettle Creek was. Or it could easily have been over-developed to the point where the rustic charm that draws people there today would have been long gone. Bob was central to the valley’s successful model of both recreational destination and healthy ecosystem.

A year ago, while our clan was up at camp, Bob snowshoed down to Wolfe’s General Store, the source of just about everything in Slate Run, and I snapped a photo of my young son talking with both Bob and Tom Finkbiner, one of the other long-time stalwart conservationists in the valley. Whether my boy eventually understands or values this photo many years from now will depend upon his own interest in land and water conservation, nature, hunting, trapping, and fishing, and bringing urbanites into contact with these important pastimes so they better appreciate and value natural resources.

Bob, you will be missed. Right now you are walking the high mountains with your walking stick in your hand, enjoying God’s golden light and green fields on a good trail that never ends. God bless you.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Snow is magic, pretty, enchanting, a pain to drive in, a pain to shovel, and a huge boon to hunters.

Snow helps hunters (animals and humans alike) see prey better, because it creates stark contrasts. When a prey animal is moving, a hunter can much more quickly spot it.  Tracks reveal where animals have been, and where they might be again.

Today was the last day to harvest a bobcat, and while I did not try to bag one real hard, I still feel a little disappointed. Our traps went out after the bobcat trapping season, and I did not get up to our northcentral PA honeyhole spot, so I can’t say I tried hard. But still, if you read enough hunting reports, you know that all it takes is that “one amazing moment” when the cat silently appears after you’ve been calling. I had hoped for that moment.

Kind of like that other hopey-changey stuff, my own hope was misplaced.

But I did take a lot of pretty photos with snowy backdrops. The white barn, dune-like ripples in the snow across a big field, dead foxtail grass waving in the deep snow…kind of like grass waving in the dunes at the sea shore. An old loop of barbed wire sticking up through the snow, with rabbit tracks hopping by on the right. Ice sheets across the stream, or nearly across, with deer tracks testing it up til its edge, and then backing away to find another route.

As I was snuck inside a field corner woods, blowing on the dying rabbit call, a giant snowy owl erupted from the other side of the hedgerow 150 yards away.  One swoop over me, and it lit out for Canada. Not even camo fools those eyes.  The last snowy owl I saw was 36 years ago, while I was out hunting alone in Centre County, walking along a field edge.  Raucous crows alerted me to something special about to happen, and then it appeared, a majestic white owl, soaring ahead of the cawing mass.  That owl just kept on going, leaving me mesmerized.

A black weasel came darting to the call inside a small wash, while I was perched on a stump and log way above.  My mind first identified it as a black squirrel, then as a mink, and then as the weasel it was, as I watched it crouched under a fallen log, watching me with glittery eyes.  I have a weasel mounted with the wood duck I shot with John Plowman nearly 20 years ago, out on the Susquehanna.  The weasel is from Centre County, and is brown with a black-tipped tail.  This is the first all-black weasel I have seen, although I have seen both an all-black fisher (in the ADKs in November) and a mink this year.  Kind of like a three-of-a kind poker hand; the fourth must be a seal…

Nature is so simply magical.  How people do drugs, I do not understand.  The sun on the snow today was enough of a “drug” for me to last all day and night and into tomorrow.  And so yet another hunt passed, without a kill, and yet, so fulfilling, nonetheless.