Friday, January 29, 2010


What an amazing sight!

At about 5:00 p.m. yesterday, as day gave way to night, something odd occurred in the western sky…a genuine jaw-dropping phenomenon. Giddy with astonishment at being witness to such a moment, I dashed for the camera and made a quick shot least no one believe me later on. Luckily, the photo came out. I've posted it above.

What's that? You're right, it is a picture of a colorful sunset. Huh? Well, yeah, that's the sky phenomenon I was referring to—around here lately, just seeing the sun has become a phenomenon. For weeks on end, the sky has mostly been the color of an old gym sock badly in need of a good dose of bleach. Sunrises and sunsets with or without color have been nonexistent. Carolyn, over on Roundtop Ruminations (see blog list) was just remarking on this absence a day or two ago.

Typically, you can count on January to serve up some of the finest sunsets of the year—certainly the best sunsets of winter and usually the best sunsets seen since the previous November. Coming and going weather fronts, frigid air, and broken clouds late in the day are contributory factors—none of which have been the case this January. Snows and frequent passing storm fronts, arctic temperatures, or sunny days have not been our lot. Instead it's been relatively mild, light in snow, some rain, more dampness than real cold, and cloud, clouds, clouds. Most days you had to take on faith the notion the sun—though currently invisible—was actually up there somewhere. But after awhile, you do begin to wonder…

Last evening's sunset, perhaps not the most spectacular one ever, was nevertheless pretty enough to dazzle me with its beauty…and like a drink of water after a day in the desert, greatly appreciated.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


A few minutes ago I watched this starling lose a turf battle to a red-bellied woodpecker who insisted it was, indeed, his suet feeder and was willing to back his claim with deranged fortissimo squawks and jabs from his lancet beak aimed directly at his opponent's speckled head. If I'd have been that starling, I have wilted under such a nasty barrage myself.

Share and share alike has no meaning in Bird World! Neither does sportsmanlike behavior. Survival of the fittest is as much in effect among the feeder set in your own backyard as it is on the veldt of Africa.

Which isn't to say anarchy rules. Okay, I know it seems that way among a gang of starlings, but trust me on this…they're not all squabbling all the time. If constant fighting and disorder prevailed, no one would get anything done, such as eat. Birds are like high RPM motors, their metabolism runs at a frantic pace. This requires near constant feeding—and especially so during winter, when it takes more calories to keep the internal furnace going. Sometimes, with some species, a singe day without sufficient food can spell death.

So, birds have worked out a sort of social hierarchy, a who-sits-where at the dining table. It's partly physical and partly tactical, with a certain measure of chutzpah thrown in. Some species, such as cardinals, want to belly up to the seed feeder and eat undisturbed, and they're not much willing to share the space—regardless of the feeder's size—with titmice, finches, or whoever else tries to join the meal. Chickadees, by contrast, are like highly efficient bank robbers…get in, get out—the longer you linger, the greater the risk. Nuthatches prove that size doesn't matter, they'll just flap in and unceremoniously stab anyone big or small. Even red-bellieds leave the nuthatches alone.

Starlings are like street-gang ruffians, at their most intimidating best when they're in a bunch. They'll still peck and protest when alone, but it's mostly bluster. Which is what I think the bird above forgot when he tried to defend his breakfast.

If you're going to talk-the-talk, you'd best be able to walk-the-walk.


Starling and female red-bellied woodpecker have a glaring contest…

The lady RBW ups the mean and moves his way…
…the starling knows his bluff has been called.

Male RBW tries to be nice—look what it get him…
…a starling in the face.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


It's a bird!…It's a beast!……It's a pileated woodpecker!

Way, way, waaaaaaay back in those antediluvian pre-digital, pre-computer, pre-Internet days, I doubt there was a better device for wasting winter hours than a bird feeder. Not that I think watching birds is a waste of time, mind you. I do think it's all too easy to spend half a gloomy, snow-spitting January morning watching a pair of pileated woodpeckers hang onto your suet feeders, jackhammering at the blocks of
pressed food you put out less than an hour earlier.

I don't know about you, but no matter how often I see one, I still can't get over a woodpecker the size of a crow that looks like a red-headed pterodactyl. I gape in disbelief every time. And while we each have our own style, I do my best gaping when I'm sitting down rather than, say, washing the breakfast dishes. If the woodpeckers continue to hang and hammer, I can happily gape through a couple cups of coffee.

Of course, watching pileateds eventually leads to trying to photograph them, which is a whole 'nother category of time-wasting. Careful! If you've never tried sneaking to the window, camera in hand, and firing off a few frames before a sharp-eyed pileated spots you…you simply ain't seen spooky in a bird. Pileated are practically prescient. I firmly believe that just thinking about taking their picture often sends them
bolting. Attempting to photograph these admittedly spectacular and photogenic woodpeckers can turn from disease into addiction. My advice is to not start. Just say no to pileated portraiture.

If you must, then be forewarned…you can look forward to regular frustration, frayed nerves, humiliation, rug burns on your kneecaps (When's the last time you crawled through a house?) and possible subsequent issues with strong drink.

Yes, indeed—success of a sort is possible. I've been playing this hide-and-seek game for several years. I've managed a few semi-good photos. Even a blind hog finds the occasional acorn. I've also faced my inadequacies, and divested myself of any notion of becoming a viable candidate for winning the Pileated Stalker of the Year award. So far, I've resisted swapping my Nikon for a case of scotch…but there have been days when I've wondered if they hang up bird feeders at the better
rehab facilities.

If so…do they consider them a waste of time—or therapy?

Monday, January 25, 2010


Look up…is that the moon we see?
Can't be, looks like the sun to me!
—Ricky Nelson, 1959, "It's Late"

Late, early, or possibly a miracle, seeing the sun this morning—however briefly—has been an unexpected blessing; soothing balm for the winter weary heart. Not to mention a genuine surprise. According to the National Weather Service's latest area forecast, today is supposed to be cloudy and overcast, with snow showers this afternoon. Not exactly news, except for the possible snow part. Otherwise, dense overcast has been the norm for what seems like days on end. For suffers of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) the unrelieved gloom has made them them depressed, listless, sleepy, craving sweets and starches, and moody as rats in a box. This morning's brief shot of actual sunlight was doubtless refreshing therapy.

Sycamores upstream from the cottage,
their white trunks lit dramatically.

When the sunshine came, suddenly, just as I sat down at the desk having returned to my work room following breakfast, the light looked odd, almost spooky—a bright beam, coming from a low point on the eastern horizon and sweeping westward across the yard and river. Dramatic sidelight which lit the trunks of the sycamores leaning along the far bank upstream from the cottage. The trees' white bark absolutely glowed again the dark backdrop of sky.

The riverbank critters—feathered and furred—certainly seemed energized by the sunlight. Bird traffic at the feeders increased noticeably within moments of the sun's appearance. The Cooper's hawk executed a flashing pass-through around the cottage, temporarily scattering the early meal party, but otherwise doing no damage. I think he may have just been showing off, or perhaps gave in to a moment of devilment, hoping to frighten the breakfasting crowd—like a teenager jumping out of a closet at a roomful of kindergartners and yelling, "Boo!" Squirrels chased each other through the treetops. The Carolina wren cut loose with his merry Sweet 'tater! Sweet 'tater! Sweet 'tater! Sweet! song. The pileateds over on the island began yammering maniacally. I hustled out and made a few photos. Moon the dog took herself a little di-do run across the grass.

The first green daffodil shoots—so encouraging!

Looking around, I noticed a bit of green near the cottage wall and ambled over for a closer inspection. Oh my! The green proved to be the first tentative shoots of some of the spring bulbs I've planted all along the foundation—probably the earliest variety of daffodils. A handful of green here, another there. Several dozen plants sticking their emerald periscopes up for a precursory survey. Oh, my! Though I didn't think the few minutes of sunlight had simultaneously popped those green tendrils from their underground beds, I do know they weren't up and visible Saturday because I filled the nearby seed feeder then, and would certainly have noticed such an eye-catching reassurance of the season's progression.

On this planet, light and life are all but synonymous—at least to the majority of plants and animals along the riverbank. I don't mind a week or two of dingy gray days; but I also didn't realize how much I would enjoy even a few minutes of strong sunlight.

Ahh-h-h, sweet sunshine. Neither predicted nor expected, but welcomed by one and all.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Practically the first thing I do every morning is feed the birds. Like a good cowboy or farmer, I believe a man takes care of his stock first, before sitting down to his own meal.

Most days, unless a seed or suet feeder needs refilling, all this really entails is tossing out a few scoops of cracked corn for the ground feeders. I step onto the deck where the big shiny metal trash cans holding the various birdfoods are stored, lift the corn bin's lid, scoop-and-fling a couple of times, visually check the other feeders, and scuttle back inside—desperate for that first sip of life-inducing coffee.

I'm an early riser, and thus an early bird feeder. It is usually still dark out as I fulfill my corn-flinging chore. Those of you who seldom check an almanac in regards to sunrise times might be surprised to learn today's sunrise came only five minutes earlier than sunrise on the morning of the winter solstice, way back on December 21st. (Yes, the days are indeed getting longer—this evening's sunset is 34 minutes later than on that same solstice day. But as we head toward the summer solstice, the initial lengthening of daylight's span occurs almost entirely in the afternoon/evening; dusk is noticeably delayed, the lingering light accounting for the bulk of our gain, while dawn still seems caught in a trap, unable to make much headway.)

Because it is still dark as I do my feeding, there's nothing much to be seen—the rough lower trunk of the big box elder, as lit by the waning pool of yellow porchlight; the shadowy bulk of nearby bushes; the ghostly glow of sycamores along the bank; the glint and shimmer of the river's moving ribbon beyond; and thataway, an invisible presence, the island across the channel.

However, while I can't see, I can hear…and so I listen. To the hoot of a far-off owl or the wavering yip of a coyote. Or maybe the wind stirring through the treetops, though not usually so early; wind typically arrives with the dawn. I might hear rain or sleet, or the quiet tone of snow sifting earthward. Always, of course, there's the sound of the river—whispering, murmuring, infrequently roaring.

I can also hear birds. Not just any birds, for birds have a definite schedule. Some arrive for breakfast in the gray first light of dawn. Others a few minutes after, with the real light. Some don't put in an appearance until the morning is definitely underway. Still, I don't have to be able to see to know the early birds here wear scarlet. The cardinal's quick whistled chert, chert, chert is easily identified. And this morning, even with a heavily overcast sky and an end-of-night darker than most, I could actually see their silhouettes—little bird-like clumps, sitting in the nearby trees, caught between the porchlight's feeble glow and the black-velvet darkness.

If I'm running on schedule or late, the redbirds are already in the nearby trees, awaiting my corn tossing. If I'm a bit early, I'll hear them chert, chert, chert over in the cedars and junipers, as if passing the word to one another that breakfast is now being served. That calling is quickly followed by the whir of their wings as they fly across the short distance into their ringside perches.

The minute I'm back inside, the cardinals are on the ground and eating—breakfasting by porchlight. I'm not sure if they're hungry, gluttonous, or just hoping to beat the sparrows. The early bird not only gets the worm, it also gets first dibs on the cracked corn. I do know cardinals are invariably the first to appear in the morning and the last to disappear when twilight turns to darkness. How they find their way back to their safe night roost in the cedars and junipers is amazing.

All cooks love seeing their food eaten with gusto. I know I do. And I get the same pleasure feeding my redbirds early and listening to them chert, chert, chert excitedly up there in the darkness.

I like it, too, how each of us gleefully anticipates the other.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Whitetail deer, glad to find the snow cover gone,
graze in a field up the road last Saturday.

The snow has melted and the last formations of ice in the riffle have vanished. All that's left of winter's first hurrah is the border of shelf ice along the river's edge—and that is shrinking daily; if it weren't for night temperatures below freezing, it would have disappeared already.

In less than a week we've gone from wonderland white back to basic brown, a visual reminder that winter doesn't always look like its storybook persona. But then, does any season really? All of spring is not spangled with wildflowers. Summer can be cool or rainy. Autumn runs the gamut from sunburn to frostbite, and those dazzling leaves aren't colored up the entire period—in fact, the last weeks of the season there usually aren't any leaves at all on the trees. Why should winter be expected to present any less variety?

It doesn't help that the sun has hidden itself behind a thick veil of clouds for the past few days. Without that bright illumination, the light is flat and dim, making the world in brown attire seem dull—at least to those who prefer their days sparkling. But again, this is simply another of those winter characteristics we conveniently forget.

Too often we idealize nature. We fixate on one aspect and disregard the rest. Seasons, however, aren't stage managed by Walt Disney, the Nature Channel, or those art directors who selected the snazzy photos for that fancy calendar now hanging on your kitchen wall. Seasons are too broad to be dictated except in the most general terms. One winter can be mild, the next harsh. We can't even predict months. You can have a snowy December, sunny January, and a February wet with rain. The next time around might be just the reverse. So we "average" things out…except that no month is ever average; they're all individuals, all typical only of themselves.

Such contrariness on the part of nature wreaks havoc on the sensibilities of those who like things orderly. They would have years and seasons and months on as strict a timetable as a railroad—all laid out and meticulously planned. Why, you'd be able to set the date for a picnic in May and never consider the possibility of rain. Or book that ski trip to Aspen and know you'd be boot-deep in fresh powder every day!

Wouldn't the world be wonderful? Well…no. Not so far as I'm concerned. When the round of the year ceases to be a daily adventure—a voyage of discovery with a surprise around every corner—then I'm ready to get off the bus. The joy of life is in the living, the capacity to learn and grow and encounter unexpected wonder. I don't want my days all mapped out and outlined like the plot in some trashy formula novel.

Nature is messy, cluttered…and sometimes, disturbing. I've not mentioned this before, but a day or so after Christmas, as the high water we'd had over the holiday subsided, a dead deer was revealed on the bank just across the channel from the cottage. How it ended up there is anyone's guess. Did it run across the island, plunge off the bank and into the water and break its neck? Or simply drown while attempting to swim the swollen river? Might it have been hit by a car somewhere, made it to the water where it succumbed, and washed downstream to become lodged in the bankside debris? It is a story forever unanswered.

I was going to write a piece earlier and post a photo. This notion of the photo appalled Myladylove as being too insensitive to those who might not wish to see a picture of a dead deer. She was right. Nature in the raw is sometimes too raw, too disturbing. And yet, it is a part of nature, part of the natural world and the natural cycle, whether we like it or not. There's blood and gore aplenty in nature; even a robin is a fearsome beast if you're an earthworm. If my beloved turkey vultures who roost nightly in the island's big sycamores hadn't temporarily gone south, they'd have a buzzard's equivalent of breakfast in bed. I would post those photographs!

To all things there is a season.

Day and night, winter and spring, life and death. One velvety-green morning in April I'll look across the channel to the island and see a doe standing, nuzzling her newborn spotted fawn. The fabric of our days is woven from many threads. The world keeps on turning.…

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Judging by the overcast sky and an awful lot of decades of looking upwards and trying to decide how the day ahead is going to shape up, my weather forecasting intuition says gray, gray, and more gray.

A quick check of the National Weather Service site bears out the hunch. Of course yesterday evening, when Rich, friend and fellow father-in-law (his son, my daughter) and I planned a photo outing, the official prediction was partially sunny. Partially sunny is better, photographically speaking, than gloomy gray. Especially in winter when the most recent snow has mostly melted and and what you're left with is a landscape of dank, dismal, brown. Flat light and dull wads of leaves and dreary tufts of grass aren't especially photogenic.

On the positive side, the current temperature is 32˚F and set to rise another ten degrees. Which eliminates any worry of freezing my derriére off—though it all but assures the likelihood I will slip in the slick mud and fall on that aforementioned derriére, muddying myself up in the process. Not an unfamiliar scenario.

A few minutes ago I heard a large flight of geese pass over the cottage. It sounds like the string I saw a several evenings ago, heading in the opposite direction, probably to wherever it is they bed down for the night. A "guesstimate" count put that bunch at 200 birds, give or take. That's a pretty big flight for around here—though a few years ago, when I spent a week in western Kansas proving ringneck pheasants do not exist in that state, in spite of what the tourism boards claim, I watched flight after flight of Canada geese that could easily have numbered ten times the number passing overhead this morning. You could see those huge flights coming several miles away, starting as nothing more than a dark smudge on the distant horizon. A wild and wondrous sight which filled me with awe no matter how many times per day it happened. When those geese were on the wing and heading my way, pheasants were forgotten; I only wanted to stand and gape, watching that smudge turn into dots and the dots into birds, hearing their distant cries, listening and watching as sounds grew louder and the great flight drew ever closer. Those gees were worth the trip.

While it will be years before Canada goose numbers hereabouts ever approach those I saw in Kansas—if it ever happens, given Ohio's increasing urbanization—the ducks on my river seem to be on an upswing. At least my flock of mallards has gone from fewer than a dozen birds to something over twice that in a few short weeks. If this were stock market, I'd be bullish on ducks. Moreover, I'm hoping this burgeoning flock can help me with a little clean-up problem. You see during the recent days of snow, when I went out in the morning and tossed the day's ration of cracked corn for the ground feeders—ducks included—some of the broken grains inevitably disappeared into the snow…out of sight, out of mind. Now that the snow has suddenly melted, however, the ground where I did the feeding is covered with corn—unsightly and apt to mould if it remains too long in the damp. I believe it is a situation ideally suited to hungry ducks, plenty of free eats for the pecking.

So, as Rich and I head off to see what sort of creative photography we can manage, we'll see how well those freeloading ducks handle their responsibility.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


"Earlier in the morning, puffy white clouds crowded the sky."

My riverbank world is lively today—sound and motion and everywhere.

The river is sparkling under a welcome dose of sunshine. Light dances in the riffles. The moving water looks like a smoky green mirror, though it's really so clear that in the shallows I can see stones on the bottom. I've been thinking how much fun it would be to put a canoe in somewhere upstream and spend a few hours floating back down to the cottage.

Earlier in the morning, puffy white clouds crowded the sky. Now those clouds have evaporated and the sky is a single sprawling canopy of baby blue.

"…so clear that in the shallows I can see stones on the bottom."

Squirrels are chasing one another at high speed around the yard, up the trees, across their aerial paths high in the upper branches. Play or mating…or a mix of both? Either way, they're great fun to watch.

"…great fun to watch."

Icicles along the eaves are dripping, falling. The snow is wet, catching and reflecting the bright light. Sometimes I hear a patch on the roof slip loose to come swooshing down and off, like a miniature avalanche.

"I took that ol' redbird's portrait."

Icicles along the eaves are dripping, falling. The snow is wet, catching and reflecting the bright light. Sometimes I hear a patch on the roof slip loose to come swooshing down and off, like a miniature avalanche.

"Icicles along the eaves are dripping…"

Birds are steadily working the feeders and scattered corn. A few minutes ago, just limiting myself to the birds I could see from my deskside window, I made a quick count and came up with 23 species. I likely missed one or two. Probably a hundred birds in view all told.

"Light dances in the riffles."

One particular cardinal keeps coming to the feeder that hangs under the eave a few feet from my desk. He plucks a sunflower seed through the mesh, pops it open and extracts the meat, then stares haughtily at me through the glass, as if he's a patron in a fine restaurant and I'm a window-peeping vagrant watching him eat. I took that ol' redbird's portrait.

Just downstream, a heron is waiting patiently in the shallows. A kingfisher has been repeatedly diving into the pool below the house. Every time the bird emerges from the water, I hear its rattly chitter. Crows are cawing at something on the hill. Every so often, the Carolina wren cuts loose with a burst of song.

I'm still thrilled about yesterday's bald eagle…but life goes on.

Today brings its own magic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Since moving to this old stone cottage, one of my foremost dreams has been to one day see an eagle here on the river. My hopes were high, but I'll admit my faith was—at best—only middlin'…and being a frugal Celt, I wouldn't have placed much of a bet against the odds.

Well, this morning—either as a belated Christmas gift, or a really, really early birthday present—that wish came true. While the photo may not rate much technical or artistic merit, it gives me a proof-positive way to share my joy! THAT'S A SURE-ENOUGH BALD EAGLE! SITTING IN THE SYCAMORES ACROSS AND DOWN FROM THE COTTAGE! OHMYGOD!

Actually, Milady saw it first. I was in the kitchen, fixing an omelet, when she suddenly began yelling: "Eagle! Eagle! I just saw an eagle!"

Seeing as how she spent a number of years living on an island in Alaska, where eagles were common, I had no doubt she knew what she'd witnessed. I dashed into the front room in time to see the big bird flapping several hundred yards upstream, where it then turned and disappeared into the woods. However, that brief glimpse cleared up an overnight puzzle.

Just at the beginning of twilight yesterday, I'd glanced out the window in time to see some large bird flying downstream. I thought I could see some white, plus whatever it was didn't seem to be flapping along like a goose or great horned owl, or even a blue heron. But seeing as how it was at some distance, and in dim light, I figured I was simply mistaken. I told Milady about it afterward, and made a mental note to keep an eye on the river today. The possibility of a bald eagle never crossed my mind.

Almost certainly, however, yesterday mystery bird was this morning's bald eagle. As I watched the eagle flap upstream, I was sure the flight rhythms were identical.

An hour after breakfast and Milady's sighting, I stepped onto the deck to take a photo of a squirrel. I had a 200mm zoom on the camera. Moon the dog ambled along the edge of the river's bank, snuffling through the snow. Suddenly a movement caught my eye…the eagle, coming my way! The bird settled in a tree about 60 yards from where I stood. Luckily, it landed on a limb visible through the tangle of trees and branches. I made a quick photo. Then I looked at the eagle another few moments and made another shot. That may have spooked the bird, or it may have simply been moving along checking out the open pools—anyway, it hopped from the limb, caught the wind beneath its wings, and flew off downstream.

Bald eagles aren't unheard of in Ohio. The south shore of Lake Erie has always had a few pairs of nesting bald eagles—though by the end of the 1970s, after DDT problems decimated the numbers of so many birds of prey, the count of Ohio's Erie eagles was down to 4-5 pairs. Now, thanks to the elimination of DDT and decades of work by the Division of Wildlife, those nesting numbers are back up and continuing to increase.

That, however, is the Lake Erie area of the state, about as far geographically as it's possible to get from where I live and still be in Ohio. Inland Ohio has never had many eagles. A few down along the Ohio River and up its major tributaries. Fewer still around some of the larger, man-made inland lakes. For all practical purposes, though, bald eagles were rare almost to the point of myth. In spite of my state-wide roaming, I never saw a bald eagle anywhere during my growing up and young adulthood, and never met anyone who did.

About thirty years ago I was tooling down a foggy Ohio road nearly a hundred miles from here, on the way to a day of partridge hunting in the southwest hill country. The fog was so thick that at times I could barely make out the edge of the blacktop. When I looked at the indistinct form of an old tumbledown barn near the roadside, I saw the unmistakable form of a bald eagle sitting atop the peak of the sagging gray structure. That was my first-ever bald eagle sighting.

It has always been possible to stumble upon a bald eagle anywhere in the state, at any time of the year. Sometimes one will show up on a Christmas bird count. You might look up on a summer's day—or during any other season—and see this huge bird with a shining white head soaring overhead. A matter of pure luck. I saw an eagle just this way a few years back—looked up, saw what I first thought was a vulture, got the binoculars on it, and realized it was a bald eagle. Even with the binoculars it was so high in the sky that if the light hadn't been just right, I'd have never spotted its form or been able to ascertain the bird's identity.

Now and then a bald eagle might decide to hang around a bit of water for a day or two, or even a few weeks—fishing, resting, and generally thrilling the bird-watching community to no end. Late last winter a bald eagle became a temporary resident of a pond not too far from here…though, alas, I learned of this only after the bird had moved on.

The good news is that Ohio's eagle population is increasing. Nesting eagles have are now reported from several inland counties throughout the state, as well as along Lake Erie and the Ohio River. This summer, for the first time in perhaps the last century, a pair of eagles nested in the county—though miles from my river. Wildlife officials rightly set up a safe parameter around the parenting birds. From a nearby roadway, it was possible to view the nest and occasionally an eagle through a spotting scope. But the setting of crowds and traffic had little appeal, didn't fit the notion I had of how I wanted to see an eagle, so I passed.

My dream was simple…I wanted to see a bald eagle with my own eyes (not through a spotting scope or even binoculars) and if I could have a perfect setting on the details, I wanted to see the eagle along "my" stretch of my beloved old river.

This morning, my dream came true.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Have you ever been stunned by beauty? Not just noticed something pretty, had your head momentarily turned, your attention briefly diverted—but literally encountered something so blindingly lovely you found yourself stopped in your tracks?

Well, I have. In fact, it happened to me yesterday morning.

The mercury stood at a measly 3˚F when I stepped outside to toss the ducks and ground feeders their breakfast scoops of cracked corn. Yet my involuntary gasp and sudden halt was not due to the cold, but rather to my first sight of the scintillating white world I'd abruptly and unexpectedly entered.

White on white on white!

White snow-covered landscape. White sheets of ice along the edge of the river. White canopy of winter sky. White exhalations of breath. White-barked sycamores leaning thoughtfully over frozen white pools. Even the air itself seemed to have turned white.

Of course, hereabouts you expect to see white come winter. Ohio winters are white, and January is perhaps the whitest winter month. But this was a special white, a magical fairy-tale white—like the snow-globe white of a child's picture book. Because sometime during the night, the riverbank had been touched by the additional natural magic of hoar frost.

Now, every branch and twig on every tree and bush was also white. A softly glowing, radiant white. Only the upright trunks, a few large limbs, and the river's gray-green water offered any contrast, while simply emphasizing the overall whiteness of the world in every direction.

The effect was so extraordinary and dazzling, so breathtaking, I simply couldn't take another step. Sometimes, you just have to stop and experience the gift of allowing beauty to overwhelm your soul

Saturday, January 9, 2010


We've started this Saturday morning off with a nice flurry. Should it persist long enough to prove meaningful, we'll reclassify it as a genuine snow. But it has to earn that title. New snow to layer atop the older half-inch dusting that fell yesterday morning, which itself covered the six or so inches put down on Thursday.

As I look out the window toward the river, I'm quite pleased to see this nice wintery landscape. I expect January to be cold and snowy. What's an Ohio winter without a few weeks of white?

As much as I like a snow-covered landscape, I like a lively snowfall even more. Nature in flux; visible changing. Which may explain, at least in part, why I like all sorts of "weather," from pouring rain to scudding clouds. A darkening sky preparing for an oncoming storm fills me with energy. Thunderclaps and rolling booms are signals for delight. I love it when the wind stirs through the woods or sweeps across a tallgrass prairie, or sends the big waters of the Great Lakes into rollers and whitecaps that crash upon the shore. I even like it when a blizzard howls and moans like a banshee, or a searching boreal wind sobs around the eaves like a crying child.

It's the difference between active versus static—nature alive, in motion—and is part of the reason why I live by a river instead of a lake.

Of course a lot of these changing weather situations are more pleasantly observed from inside rather than smack in their midst. Though I can't think of any sort of severe weather phenomena of the Great Lakes or Midwest that I haven't been caught out in more than once, including tornados. Still, that delicious feeling of holed-up coziness simply adds to the enjoyment. We all like to feel sheltered and secure, safe—and if we can expand that to include real comfort within our refuge, then it's even better.

One of my favorite books is The Wind in the Willows. And perhaps my favorite part of that charming tale is where Mole gets lost and frightened in the Wild Wood. Ratty comes to his rescue. Then, in the dark and amid a snow storm, the two little animals wind up at Badger's front door—and are welcomed in, warmed, fed, given snug and comfortable beds for the night. It is all a scene of perfect domestic security, of homey warmth and friendly respite. The juxtaposition of the genial and civil, the dangerous and elemental. And it often seems to serve as an unconscious model for my own attitude and actions when weather and situation allow.

As the snow poured down on Thursday, we built a nice hearthfire before breakfast, and laid in wood sufficient for the day. Nothing beyond the riverbank cottage required our presence. It was milady's day off. I'd already shuffled desk work to accommodate, and the only meeting I had in town was duly canceled due to road conditions; errands we'd planned were put off until the weekend. She got out her box of turquoise and silver, onyx, jade, fire coral and carved bone, and began working on a necklace. I settled down with a small stack of books. Snow piled and blew, swirled and fluffed. The feeders did a brisk business.

Midmorning, I cut up a couple pounds of beef and started it slow-cooking. I thought beef and barley soup sounded like the ideal hearty fare for such a day. A couple of hours later I added carrots, celery, onions, garlic, split peas, and seasonings. The barley went in after that—and the pot was set to simmer until everything was done. Thirty minutes before we ate I stirred up my mother's cornbread mix, and when the oven reached 480˚, added buttermilk and poured the thick batter into the old iron skillet that once belonged to my great grandmother. A skillet well over a hundred years old; so old it's a collectible antique.

I sometimes wonder how many cakes of cornbread this old skillet has baked—gold and crisp on the outside, yellow and steamy fragrant inside when you slice it open to slip in a pat of butter. Were Grandpa and Grandma given it when they got married in the late-1800s, and Grandpa began hewing out logs for their one-room cabin in the head of Bear Branch? I know Grandma gave it to my mother upon her wedding (this and a coffee pot being their only cookware) and I know they carried it with them through their years of Dad's school teaching and travel—all the way to a cabin on the high headwaters of the Entiat River near Wenatchee, Washington, where they picked apples in addition to Dad's teaching.

Yep, that old iron skillet has been around…and a lot of those places along the way were places where winter came with a deep mantle of white. I'll just bet my latest round of cornbread wasn't the first one it has turned out onto a plate on a snowy January day.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I saw a piece on CNN this morning about a county in California which is overrun by squirrels. It seems the local squirrel population—both ground squirrel and tree squirrel species—is so numerous the little bushy-tailed critters are wreaking all sorts of havoc. Eating everyone's garden vegetables, landscaping flowers and bulbs. Gnawing power lines. Invading attics. Even tunneling under roadways, which causes the paving to break apart and collapse.

The local citizenry seemed to view this squirrel glut as a problem, though I admit my first thoughts were quite the opposite. Attitude is, as I'm often reminded, a matter of perspective. One fellow's disaster can be another's bonus.

Being of hillbilly heritage, and growing up with kith and kin amid a culture where the results of hunting, fishing, and all manner of wild foraging regularly ended up on the supper table, I have to tell you my initial reaction was to see this squirrel boom in terms of meal potential. I thought the best way to handle any squirrel excess would be to lay in a few extra boxes of number 6 shot for the ol' 12-gauge, and get out the family recipes for squirrel dumplin's and burgoo stew. What you had here wasn't a small-animal calamity, but an unexpected opportunity for finer dining.

Naturally, the good folks of the Golden Gate State, tofu-eating tree-huggers to the core, saw things differently. Though being a kingdom of fervent environmentalists, the plan they came up with was acceptably Green, in a bloody-red sort of way. And when you thought about it closely, not all that different from my idea, except it didn't didn't involve firearms and the need for cornbread to sop the gravy.

They way they saw it, hawks and other birds of prey were the answer to the surplus squirrel issue. And so they've built a couple dozen "raptor towers" and installed them throughout the country's rather open countryside, adjacent to the worst squirrel-infestation hotspots. These raptor towers are said to be the latest in man-made perches for a hungry hawk looking for a comfortable rest spot with a high overview, suitable for squirrel bushwhacking. If you've never seen one of these marvels of modern avian engineering, imagine a wood telephone pole with wood crossbeams atop, but no draping wires.

I guess, being part of the Land of Moviemaking and all, they're taking their cue from "Field of Dreams." You remember, that old Kevin Costner flick about an Iowa farmer who's apparently spent just a tad too much time atop the John Deere, hatless under the hot sun. While walking across his cornfield, he hears a voice whisper, "If you build it, he will come." The "it" is a baseball field. He does and "he" and they do come…eventually.

As I say, this is the California concept for squirrel control—build the raptor towers, the hawks will come, and eat, (presumably these will be gluttonous hawks) and presto! problem solved. What they'll then try and attract in to control their leftover plague of hungry hawks once the squirrel surfeit runs out, I'm not sure—pterodactyls, perhaps?

Anyway, it might actually work. Who knows? If anyone can pull off such a plan, it will be those Californians. While those raptor towers aren't exactly natural features stuck onto the landscape, they're not altogether unattractive, and they will make good lookout posts for the squirrels who get appointed to guard duty.

As it happens, too, I've been conducting my own version of raptor-assisted squirrel control. Well, actually, I haven't done anything except watch, and the raptor—a juvenile Cooper's hawk—hasn't controlled a single squirrel or titmouse or sparrow. So far. But I give the bird real credit for persistence. The hawk has stopped by the riverbank regularly over the last few days, perching in the box elder by the door, glaring in every direction in a most predatory manner. If I were a chickadee, I'd be scared witless.

Being young, it's not quite as alert as an adult Cooper's, which makes for easier photography. And the bird is fun to watch, even if it isn't quite the lethal threat it appears. Since it isn't starving, I have to figure it manages to catch at least the occasional meal. I just hope it doesn't get wind of that CNN report and decide to head west. My ratty old box elder simply can't compete with a spanking new raptor tower.