January Sights

 

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Handsome Red-Tail posed outside my window one January.
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…then left with a squirrel.

 

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Chickens have become a part of our urban landscape. (Picture by Marlena Rae)

 

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Tiny January surprise in the grass.
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Another Flicker – so common it’s easy to forget how beautiful they are!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Saturday, January 27 – Watching the Bald Eagles at The Dalles Dam:

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Native American fishing platform
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Touching picture for me. The dam behind the tired remains of what had been Native American fishing village.

Learning to Walk

I had barely noticed the fields across the street from our house. Up until then, my world had been school, home, bus stops, streets, and my part time cafeteria job. If you had asked me what was in those fields, and not seeing any structures, I would have told you “nothing.”

But I had one last biology project in the spring of my high school sophomore year; collect and identify wildflowers.

Dusty looking yellow flowers in the ditch across the street from our house proved to be yarrow, my first wildflower. I realized I needed to go beyond the ditch and into the acreage and fields. Carrying the Guide to Washington Wildflowers, I walked a little farther every day. Every day I found more wildflowers. I found blue lupine, wild strawberry, and chickweed. I began to feel tenderly toward tiny blossoms I would once have crushed beneath my feet.

In a few weeks I finished the project. School ended but I kept walking. I had been bewitched by fresh air and sunshine, by birdsong, the peaceful drone of insects, and a meadow full of wildflowers. I caught myself welcoming the occasional early morning scent of skunk.

Those fields were mine that summer. I never saw another human being.

Every day I discovered something wonderful. One morning a sudden and terrifying explosion burst out of the grass only a few feet in front of me. A large bird, bigger than any I had ever seen, was furiously objecting to my presence. She fluttered and protested loudly when I moved closer and leaned over to see a dozen warm brown eggs nestled tightly together in a small earthen depression. I learned to watch for pheasant nests.

Each time I walked I pushed a little bit farther. Every step aroused my curiosity. What would I see over that next small hillock? What would I find if I climb down the steep bank and explored the brush? Where is that bird, the one serenading me from a hiding place in the bushes?

By mid-summer I had reached the forest. It was probably only five wooded acres, but it was forest to me. I’d been working my way closer for a while, hungry to know what secrets hid in those piney Spokane woods. Stepping out of the sun, through the dry underbrush, into the gentle shade, was pleasant relief on a hot day. Not twenty feet in, I stopped abruptly.

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Standing silently, I watched and listened to the soft twittering of tiny birds as they flitted from branch to branch, from tree to tree. I wasn’t an offense to their world as long as I stood still and watched. Their very indifference was enchanting.

A busy hum hung over the entire kingdom. I heard a loud jay, and the steady loud buzz of an unknown insect. I wanted to be quiet, to know this place through all of my senses.

Bright flashes of insight are not every day events for me; but that day I suddenly understood why I had walked all summer.

The fields, the woods, these creatures, had always been there. They weren’t waiting for me to discover them. They didn’t care. When I wasn’t there to observe, they were still going on about their lives.

That simple, obvious, observation comforted me. Through the spring and summer I had found peace, mystery, and a kind of order as I walked the fields and forest.

I’ve never stopped watching and walking. Eventually I saw that nature’s peace was visited by occasional tragedy. Accidents happen and predators take what they need; but there is no ill intent, and no time to dwell on misfortune.

There is only the beauty of abundant life, the will to survive, and grace.

Brain Yoga

I heard about it on the morning news, and I looked it up on the internet. Brain yoga is a real thing. Teachers are using it in the classroom and ordinary people are getting smarter while practicing brain yoga for only three minutes a day.

If I was smarter, I’d remember the French I learned years ago. I would consider Sudoku a pleasant way to pass the time. If I were smarter, I would know exactly where I parked my car every time I leave the mall.

I didn’t want to answer any questions; so I began my first brain yoga session while Dave was in the shower.

These are the instructions I found:

  •  Remove all jewelry. (I removed my Fitbit, just in case).
  • Face east – the elderly must face north
  • Put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth directly behind your teeth.
  • Extend both arms out to your side
  • Draw your left hand across your body and grab your right earlobe – send the right hand to the left earlobe.
  • Keep your tongue in place and earlobes pinched while slowly bending the knees down as you inhale.
  • Rise slowly as you exhale.
  • Do this 15 to 21 times. I did it 15 times.

Fifteen squats!

If my brain is in my backside (and it may be) it was tired and sore.

Soon after that, Dave was out of the shower and Teddy and I were ready for our long walk. First, I spent ten minutes searching throughout the house for my cell phone.

“Dave, will you give me a quick call so I can find my phone?” I said.

“Sure.”

The ringing sounded very close.

As I turned to the couch behind me, I put my hand on my tired backside. There was my cell phone, in the back pocket of my jeans.

“Got it!” I told David, “It was so close I could have sat on it!”

As Teddy and I left for our  walk in the Wild City, I promised myself I’d try brain yoga again. Next time I better do 21 squats and face north.

From Our House to Yours

Merry Christmas

Happiest Holidays

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Fall Mornings

IMG_1113.jpg     Teddy, my faithful walking partner.

When Teddy and I reached the top of the hill about a week ago, Mt. St. Helens and downtown Portland had been erased by the thick fog. The brilliant fall colors in the valley below, the spire of St. John’s Catholic Church had disappeared in the whiteness. Lately, I’ve thought about painting that view. When it’s not foggy, the splashes of green, orange, red and yellow are breathtaking. I forget that I have no talent for painting.

There was a lot of bird activity that day. I don’t know if the juncos and other small birds were staying low to the ground and avoiding flight until the fog lifted; but that’s how it felt and sounded. A pair of juncos, distracted by some kind of squabble or excitement, flew out of a bush into the street and nearly crashed into me. They landed in a small tree across the road and continued their noisy discussion.

IMG_0030 copy.jpgDark Eyed Junco

On a fir tree in open land, I saw a huge white splash of owl or hawk wash on the trunk. Although I’d never noticed it before, it is too extensive and wide to have been new.  I’m sure it’s been there for a while and it looks as though the visitor has returned to his perch again and again. I believe I was unconsciously primed to finally see it because I had just finished Urban Bestiary, a beautiful book by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Ms. Haupt had mentioned that owls prefer a regular roosting branch while hawks tend to use different spots. This might be an owl roost! So I stepped into the trees, walked through dried leaves, snagged my blue jeans on a low growing blackberry vine, and craned my neck hoping to see the magnificent great horned owl looking back at me. I didn’t see the bird, but I did see where the wash began twenty feet up the tree. If it’s an owl, if he comes back, and if I am very lucky, I will see him another day.

Sounds are different in a heavy fog. The train running through downtown Milwaukie is only about a mile away; less than that “as the crow flies.” In yesterday’s fog it sounded more distant, muffled. A sparrow was rustling in the dry leaves under a red maple and the sound seemed both contained and amplified by the fog. So did the raucous conversation of the crows.

I heard geese flying above the fog, although I could see nothing. Just the same, I raised my eyes and watched the sky. Their calls grew louder as they came closer and passed invisibly overhead. Then the sound of their calls gradually faded as they left me behind. For about ten minutes small flocks of geese passed overhead in waves. I enjoyed the feeling of standing underneath and eavesdropping on those strangers. It gave me goosebumps.

On our way back down the hill, as the fog began to clear in some areas, I saw a huge bird sitting on top of a tall fir. Was it a hawk? Was it a great horned owl? Without my binoculars I couldn’t tell.

Fall is an amazing time of year. Two or three days in a row we have drenching rains. Then the air is suddenly crisper and the sun comes out dazzling us with brilliant blue sky. The bright fall foliage seems to appear overnight. It feels like only days later we are wading through colorful leaves.

One day it was the fog, the next morning a wild wind was pulling the trees apart. I woke to that wild wind. Fir branches and cones were hitting the roof. The neighbors deep wind chimes were moving too frantically to find a tune. I didn’t want to miss one bit of it. By 6:00 a.m., Teddy and I were out the door!

We waded through ankle high piles of maple and oak leaves as they shifted back and forth across the street. I tried to keep the hood on my jacket up but the wind fought with me and won. Who cares if my hair flies wildly? Why not soak up the energy of the wind? Fir and cedar limbs littered the street so that every step brought the aroma of Christmas.

Around the corner, on Beech Street, there is a large Chestnut tree. I put a few chestnuts in my pocket so I could have their beauty and cool smoothness between my fingers while I walked. Later, when I got home, I put them on the dining table, a place of honor.

I was aware of the possibility of a flying limb or worse, a falling tree. The only birds I saw braving the wind were a few sturdy crows. I imagined all but the scrappy crows were huddled close to a tree trunk gripping a limb with naked toes holding on with all their might.

I was thrilled with these wild fall days, and I was wild.

Yes, I was wild!

 

Jeremiah

I’ve been remembering Jeremiah lately. It was the end of November last year when he disappeared. He’d shown up in our pond that spring. After having calculated ways to kill him, I should have been glad he was gone; but I’ve missed him a little.

Jeremiah was a bullfrog.

He was a big, fat, softball-sized bullfrog. His ancestors were introduced to the Pacific Northwest during the great depression. People thought the bullfrog’s meaty legs could feed the hungry. Apparently, the idea never really caught on.

He wasn’t welcome in our yard. Our tiny native frogs, and the birds who bathe in the pond and the waterfall, are tasty morsels to a fat bullfrog.

Jeremiah probably came to us from Kellogg Creek, less than half a mile away. If I took him down to the creek, I’d be postponing the inevitable. He or his friends are bound to return.

Over the summer, Jeremiah became comfortable with our family. One day, as my daughter Laura and I sat on the bench watching the fish, he swam across the pond and hung out in the water watching us. He wore a friendly smile and seemed genuinely curious.

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A true naturalist would probably kill Jeremiah. I wrestled with the idea. Killing him would be easier if our friend Terence hadn’t named him. Who wants to kill a creature with a real name?

Bullfrogs aren’t hard to catch. Or so I’ve heard. I could catch him, put him in a sack, and drop a rock on him. I could stab him while he’s in the sack. Both options are pretty gruesome. I needed something a little less messy, like luring him into the house and smothering him with a pillow.

My daughter Laura wanted him to live. My friend Lonnie wanted him to live. I couldn’t stomach the alternative.

Jeremiah stayed.

Fall came and cooler weather. The fish went to the bottom of the pond to wait out winter. Still, Jeremiah hung around. I’d step outside and see him sitting on the rocks. After a while he stopped jumping off when I walked by his favorite spot. He just quietly slipped into the pond and went right back to his place after I passed. He wasn’t afraid of me.

I saw the great blue heron several times that fall, stalking the perimeter of the pond, looking for fish, or frogs. One day I saw the heron paying particular attention to Jeremiah’s favorite rock. Ironically, I was kind of worried.

I miss Jeremiah’s great big smile. He was a good friend of mine.

 

 

 

 

Seeing Wild

 

I see wildlife. Everywhere

Once I’ve seen it, I can’t wait to tell someone else about it.

Rustling under the rhododendron intrigues me. Will it be a small bird, the Towhee perhaps, scratching around in the dry leaves? A mouse? I’m not satisfied until I’ve learned the answer and watched the creature for a while.

When I’m driving, my eyes are drawn to the blue heron flying overhead. Years ago I realized I was likely to die flying down the freeway with my eyes glued to the sky and a flock of geese. Now, I practice forcing my eyes back to the road.

Something in me is constantly searching for a subtle movement or slight sound that means another species is near. I’ve seen a terrified possum in the middle of a crowd leaving the symphony downtown. I doubt he actually sat in the audience soaking up Mozart; but he somehow ended up dodging the feet of the exiting crowd.

Here in the suburbs, I saw a rare immature eagle with a four-foot wing span sweep to the ground, snatch a crow, take it to the roof of a nearby house, and proceed to make a meal of the poor thing. This happened in broad daylight with a half-dozen children waiting for the school bus and four adults keeping them company. True, the eagle was twenty feet behind them; but not one other person had sensed the drama.

Meanwhile, crow feathers were flying and I was jumping up and down trying to get the crowd to see the amazing eagle. A couple of mothers eventually turned around, saw what was happening, and looked at me with shock and disgust.

We live only fifteen minutes from downtown Portland. I used to think we were insulated from the thrill of truly wild creatures; but wild things are all around us, precious, and knowable. They enrich our lives with their presence.

We just need to pay attention.

We’ve made our half-acre yard as hospitable to wildlife as possible. We have bird feeders and baths. We built a pond with a gentle waterfall. The next-door neighbors say they feel closer to nature when they visit. If our back yard isn’t satisfying enough, I have only to walk the neighborhood or the nearby wildlife refuge.

I plan to share my urban wildlife adventures through this blog. Some of my family will have their own tales to tell. I hope others will share their knowledge and their stories. I can’t wait to hear them all.

Maybe we can inspire respect for the ordinary crow, the squirrel, the songbirds, the deer, and the coyote. Maybe we can cultivate awareness of the diversity of life right outside our doors.

Maybe we can learn from each other.