“Daily Sightings” A Blog

A measure.

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Something I read once: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.”

This bit of literary BS was written by a guy named TS. I’m not a fan. But, sometimes you read a thing and it sticks.

The line occurred to me in a forest when October sun hit the trees sideways, and you could see they were full of fall warblers.

I thought to myself: a guy could say he’d measured out his life in fall warblers.

I wouldn’t be that guy.

But I had the thought. And it’s kind of true. Every year around this time, if you come to a place like this, they’re there.

Many fall warblers molt into drab colors as they migrate, and are hard to identify. But when the sun’s low and bright, you can make out okay.

The Black-and-White Warbler, a favorite, is easy even in fall. And the Yellow-rumped still has a yellow rump.

A favorite.

A favorite.

I like the names Black-and-white and Yellow-rumped. They’re honest. The word “warbler” is not honest. These nervous birds make buzzing sounds, but don’t warble.

I saw Wilson’s Warblers, Magnolia and Connecticut Warblers; faded Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers.

As an aside, there were other birds: a Red-bellied Woodpecker (also misnamed) had a red head that matched some fall leaves.

There was a White-crowned Sparrow on the trail. A hawk was passing overhead, and could’ve been anything. I’m guessing Broad-winged.

In any case, the trees belonged to fall warblers, and so did this moment, this time of year.

I saw Blackburnian and Blackpoll Warblers. There was an Ovenbird on the ground, an American Redstart and a Palm Warbler. Other warblers were hard to identify.

That’s okay. I don’t care about identifying them. I guess I just care about their showing up every year.

Heroes.

Monday, September 26th, 2011

The movie, “The Big Year,” is due out in October. This got us thinking about our year.

We’ve seen Gray-headed Juncos, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Horned Grebes, Williamson’s Sapsuckers and most of the woodpeckers, tanagers, buntings, blackbirds, kingfishers, gulls, herons, sparrows and raptors you’d expect.

But our count is shabby by Big Year standards. The guys profiled in that book, and in the upcoming film, are two-fisted heroes.

Our big year has been one of two-fisted hero sandwiches.

We’re at two-hundred-thirty something, but not really counting. We have one on most days in our local Subway while reading a book during lunch.

hero

Deli meats, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, cukes, green peppers and chopped jalapenos.

This is of no importance to anyone. What is of importance is that “The Big Year” movie reaches a lot of people.

Our whole philosophy around here is that the world needs to get it straight that birders are not nerdy.

The stars of “The Big Year” are regular guys. Jack Black’s cool. Steve Martin’s a banjo pickin’ stud. Owen Wilson’s got a broken nose.

And those are just the actors. The guys they play are real Indiana Jones types. That’s why there’s a movie being made about them.

Meanwhile, our own big year continues. Today it involved a turkey sighting. On Italian, with the works. Tonight, there might be some long-necked brewskies to be counted.

And in October, we’ll be looking forward with relish to a movie about two-fisted bird watching.

Boring birds?

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

House Sparrows, the most common birds in the world, can be boring.

While other bird watchers were seeing Storm Petrels blown inland by freak weather, I saw House Sparrows.

But they were doing something unusual.

I was walking along the Hudson River near New York’s Meatpacking District, a funky neighborhood of skinny girls who work in fashion and not-skinny guys who work in meatpacking plants.

In the water, brown from a recent hurricane, there were clusters of old wooden pylons sticking out.

While barren at first, they were descended upon by a gang of House Sparrows. What the hell?

You expect these city birds on sidewalks, alleys and garbage cans. Not on slippery wood. No sea birds were around to see. Just surprising sparrows.

Habitat of a subspecies?

Habitat of a subspecies?

They were boring their wet beaks into crannies on the soggy wood.

The beaks of House Sparrows are suited for cracking, but they were boring anyway.

Not pecking. Boring. Pushing and twisting, rooting out some edible crap, undoubtedly from the sushi family of foods.

They reminded me of the way Sanderlings stick their longer beaks into wet sand for seafood bits. They also reminded me of woodpeckers, flickers and sapsuckers, the way they held on and bored in.

These birds seemed more upbeat than House Sparrows on the streets. They were into spray, algae, dead fish, Atlantic storms. They were waterfront-tough.

If they keep at it, maybe they’ll constitute a subspecies some day. River Sparrows. Fish Sparrows. Hudson Sparrows. Marine Sparrows.

I mentioned this to a two-fisted birdwatcher I know. I said sparrows were boring into the wood of old river pylons.

The guy seemed doubtful, and said, “House Sparrows aren’t boring birds.”

I thought about it. And said: “Exactly.”

Male call.

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

A little two-fisted birdwatcher came into the world near the wild shores of the Hudson River this morning.

He had two fists, okay, clenched tough-guy style.

He also had what it takes for the people around him to know he was a he, right off the bat.

Further up river, there are Bald Eagles and they don’t have it so easy. When it comes to identifying gender, there’s nothing that stands out.

Both male and female look the same from eaglet-hood on through adulthood. Yeah, there are hard-core ornithologists who can, maybe, catch subtle differences.

The female’s often a little bigger than the male, and might have a slightly thicker beak.

But when you see just one Bald Eagle out there over the Hudson, flying low, snagging fish, is it a guy or a girl?

Male or Female?

Male or Female?

No way are you going to know the answer.

But that brings up a better question: how do eagles themselves know who’s the opposite sex?

They clearly do know. They fall for each other, bond up, do the whole mating thing, then build a heavily engineered nest of branches.  And begin raising kids.

Which raises another question: When a little eaglet hatches, and the parents look at it coming out of its shell, how do they know what they just had?

What do they tell the relatives?

Boy eagle or girl eagle?

If there’s an easy answer to this question, we don’t know it.

Meanwhile, we’re glad that the little guy who came on the scene near the Hudson today was a human boy sporting all the evidence needed to make the identification quick and easy.

Work birds.

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

My sighting today was an ad for a part-time forest ranger.

It caught my eye, because the job would involve working in a wildlife area that I spend time in anyway. And it would involve seeing birds.

Then I thought: not interested. Don’t need extra work. Besides, any job can involve seeing birds. Birds are where you find them, and they’re everywhere.

I remember past jobs, and birds I saw while at work…

In student years there was a blue-collar period during summer breaks involving factories, garages, cabs, even an amusement park. Then a period working in downtown hi-rises with suits, keyboards and conference rooms

When I operated a milling machine in a deafening factory, I’d take a lunch break on the loading dock with a brown bag. Birds would come around, mostly English Sparrows, but once I saw Dark-eyed Juncos mixed in. Now when I see a junco I think of that junk job.

Working the expressways.

Working the expressways.

As a cab driver, I spent a lot of time on Chicago’s expressways. I’d see Red-tailed Hawks on roadside posts. They made the trips a little more interesting. Now, when I see Red-tails in the wild I think of their city cousins, and my time in the cab.

When I worked in an amusement park, a pair of House Wrens built a nest in the rigging of our merry-go-round. I wondered if the spinning made them crazy. I still wonder that when I see House Wrens. I say to them: you’re lucky you don’t live in a merry-go-round.

Even when I worked in the skyscraper world, I saw birds. During spring migration, there was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker improbably clinging to the building outside my window. I was in a 23rd floor ad agency. There were a lot of suckers up there, but you wouldn’t expect to see a sapsucker.

I figured the bird was paying me a visit. He knew then what I know now: You don’t need to look like a forest ranger to find birds. You just need to look.

Predator.

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

I was hoping I wouldn’t see my favorite bird today, and I didn’t.

This time of year, male Scarlet Tanagers undergo a change that signifies the movement of time. I don’t like the movement of time.

Spots of green invade the red...

Spots of green invade the red...

I’ll admit that as a kid in school, I couldn’t wait for time to drag its sorry ass to the end of the day, the end of the semester.

Now, time is a pollutant that makes beards gray, computers outdated, parents senile and cars worthless.

If I could, I’d put a thumbtack into the clock to stop its hands. But there are no hands. Clocks got digital. Besides, we have I-phones.

As leaves turn from green to red, Scarlet Tanagers do the opposite, turning from red to green.

This means another year is over. More water under the bridge, more never being able to step into the same river twice.

As Omar Khayyam said, “The bird of time has but a little way to fly—and lo! the bird is on the wing.”

What’s a chunk of ancient verse doing on a two-fisted website? Look past the poetry and hear the meaning. It’s brutal.

I was in the hot, quiet August forest near my house.

Ruthless predator

Ruthless predator

All I saw was a Praying Mantis, hunting for grasshoppers. It’s an evil-eyed space alien with barbed claws and big jaws.

I used binoculars on it. It glowered back, its bug eyes saying: “Hate you, human!”

Meanwhile, the trees hid Scarlet Tanagers in late-summer molt.

I saw such a tanager once, and it was mottled. Hot red mixed with olive. Soon, the whole bird, except for its black wings and tail would be greenish.

This unstoppable change symbolizes another summer turning sour. A red bird losing redness. A conveyer belt riding us out of here.

But I didn’t see a molting tanager. Just a Praying Mantis. It didn’t symbolize time, but it symbolized a ruthless predator.

Same thing.

Prospecting.

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

This time of year, in this place, birds lay low. But in a nearby prairie, when afternoon sun is also low, there are American Goldfinches.

I see six from where I’m standing.

They remind me of my days as a guy who wrote beer commercials. More about that in a moment.

Meanwhile, the late-day sun is strong. It’s shining on the goldfinches, which are not rare, but reliable.

goldfinch

There’s also a Red-bellied Woodpecker in a tree. And a Marsh Wren, but mainly there are goldfinches, impossible to miss.

Like I said, they’re not rare, just reliable. I’ll take reliable over rare any time.

They remind me of an ad slogan I wrote for a beer commercial: “Gold at the end of the day.”

It was a reference to “gold at the end of the rainbow.” But updated to be about beer at the end of a workday.

Did the client buy it? He was a surly bruiser, usually under the influence of his product.

He once told me he liked to pop guys in bars. I made him define “pop.” He said, “You know, punch out their lights.” He looked like he wanted to do that to me, his longhaired ad writer from a different world.

But the guy was all beer gut, and had to be slow. I stared back like he was nuts, and said nothing. A comment by author Raymond Chandler came to mind, about life in an advertising agency being “…an elaborate waste of human intelligence.”

My TV script about gold at the end of the day got jammed into a file with a hundred others. I left that job for a better one.

Now I’ve got a six pack at the end of this day: bright goldfinches in late afternoon sun. Unlike clients, they’re reliable. I’ll drink to that.

And when I get home, there’s another six pack waiting.

Cold beer

“Whew!”

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

I was driving at night in a woodsy part of town, and a white owl swooped into my headlights, then over my windshield, barely avoiding a collision.

It was white, but not a Snowy Owl, not this time of year.

Its sudden appearance, coming out of the dark like that, made me say “Whew” as we just missed each other. “Whew!” Which is to say: “Close call.”

As I drove on I thought, “Whew,” sounds a lot like “Hoo.”  Or even “Hoot.” This got me thinking: maybe the idea that owls say “Hoo,” or that they “Hoot,” is wrong.

"Whew!"

"Whew!"

Maybe owls got tagged with those words because when early man saw them jump into his face at night like I just did, he said: “Whew!”

The more I thought about it, I realized that the Great Horned Owl outside our nighttime windows doesn’t really go “Hoo-hoo-hoo,” like we always thought.

Truth is, it’s going, “What-what-what?” As though peeking in, and muttering, “What are those creatures doing? What? What? What?”

Yeah, a sudden owl shooting toward you in the night might cause you to say “Whew.” So, maybe people called these somewhat scary birds “Whew” owls.”

Then, as  time passed, we assumed that this was based on the sound they made. And we started associating owls with words like “hoo” or “hoot,” which was all a mistake.

So, what’s the truth? Who knows?

Right time.

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

A Belted Kingfisher and a mink showed up at a small green lake near here. And they did it together.

It was always the right place to spot them. But, until now, it hadn’t been the right time.

The kingfisher’s not rare. I’d just never seen one here. Mink live in the nearby river valley, but they’re secretive.

I saw minks when I was a kid. They were dead, though, and wrapped around the shoulders of old great aunts. The intact pelts had glass eyes and dangling feet.

Cell phone trophy

Cell phone trophy

A disturbing sight. If these had been on a Stone Age savage, I’d have gotten the point. Sort of a trophy.

The mink at our lake became a better trophy: My wife got a cell phone photo of it.

Shortly after the mink, I saw a Belted Kingfisher there. Another example of the randomness of wildlife sightings, which are mostly dumb luck.

If you want to see a kingfisher…or a mink…you need to do more than be at the right place. You need to be there at the right time.

I’ve watched this lake for 14 years, and never seen a Belted Kingfisher or a mink. I’ve seen Phoebes, Great Blue Herons, Spotted Sandpipers, Mergansers, a Loon and Pied-billed Grebes.

Saw a Caspian Tern take a few turns and leave town. I’ve seen muskrats, coyotes and snapping turtles covered in leeches.

Female Belted Kingfisher

Female Belted Kingfisher

At 3 am, lying in a rowboat I saw bats against the stars. But I never saw a kingfisher or mink here. Until the time was right.

First the mink. Then, the big female Belted Kingfisher.

Females can be bigger than males in the kingfisher family. That same peculiarity applied to the great aunts in my family.

Those mink-draped women were bigger than their husbands, who looked not only small, but kind of scared.

“I’m never not happy here.”

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

“Rocky Mountain High” isn’t a song by John Denver. Well, yeah, it is. If you remember that far back. But, mainly, it’s a feeling, and a fact.

We went to the Rockies recently, as you might know from our July 29th post about Gray-headed juncos.

The high mountains, with their pines, peaks and canyons, can take a flatlander’s breath away. Literally. But you get used to that.

On the trail at eight or nine thousand feet the scent of evergreen is strong. There are running streams and lots of rocks. These mountains aren’t called the Rockies for nothing.

There’s snow on the gray granite heights, even in summer. Some mountains, especially near the little town of Basalt, have stratified stone that’s surprisingly red-orange.

There are birds you probably won’t see back home. Red-naped Sapsuckers and Red-shafted Northern Flickers, Black-billed Magpies, American Dippers, Ravens, Western Tanagers, Golden Eagles.

People who are lucky enough to live in the Rockies will tell you how much they appreciate their place in the world. That’s a big part of having a good life: appreciating your place in the world.

We know a literate, smart and well-spoken Colorado guy who said, “I’m never not happy here.”

That may sound like a double negative, sort of, but it’s not. We understand. A while back, we wrote a little piece about “never seeing nothin’.”

When the sky suddenly cleared in the afternoon of a day that had been mostly overcast, the guy’s wife added, proudly: “The sun never doesn’t shine at least part of the day.”

What a freakin’ great sentence.

Sounds wrong. Sounds quirky. But it’s exactly right. “The sun never doesn’t shine at least part of the day.”

Man, that’s a place I’d like to never not visit.

Gray-headed in Colorado

Friday, July 29th, 2011

I should have left my over-confidence back in Chicago. But I took it with me into the high Rockies.

I figured I’d know the birds there. Wouldn’t need a field guide. Not even binoculars, although I picked up a cheap pair before heading into the mountains.

I’m sitting on rocks jutting through an opening in the forest about 9,000 feet up. The snow-capped continental divide is in the distance.

The sun is strong, and so is the smell of pine.

I’m all eyes for the birds, as usual, but I’d have liked to see a mountain lion or black bear. Signs posted on the trail said to watch for them.

I did see Ravens, a Western Tanager and a Red-naped Sapsucker. Then I saw…what the hell were they? Towhees?

No. But they were towhee-like. Similar shape, and they liked being on the ground. Still, I knew they weren’t towhees.

Gray, with a patch of rusty red on their upper backs, ending just below their heads. Cool-looking birds, landing and taking off in small flocks.

You probably know what they were. But I had to search out an old bird book in a ranger’s cabin down the trail.

grayheaded junco

They were a regional variation of the Dark-eyed Junco, a complex group of birds with several subspecies.

This Colorado subspecies is called the “Gray-headed Junco.”

The illustration nailed it. And the text said that these juncos are found in the high pine forests of the Rockies.

That’s where I was. That’s where they were.

There was that cool click you feel when information in a book matches information in the real world.

Smartass pals of mine might be tempted to say: hey, two kinds of gray-headed birds on the same mountain.

In spite of what lying cameras say, the description only works for the juncos. At least, that’s the way I see it.

Hot news.

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

It’s a sunny day in mid-summer. Sure it’s hot. It’s a sunny day in mid-summer.

Then I heard the news: Temp, 104, heat index, 130…Rolling blackouts in Detroit, Chicago summer-school kids sweltering, thousands of turkeys dying in Minnesota…fistfights in steaming New York subways…

Watch out. We’re in the hot seat.

I drove to a weedy drainage ditch where you can get into wilderness without much walking. Saw Blue-winged Teals. A skinny Common Egret. And a Black-crowned Night Heron, fishing.

These birds were doing what they’d do on any day, and looked happy. But they’re in water.

I moved to a dry, wooded area. A Phoebe was there, doing his job as usual. He flew out to grab a bug. Then headed back, repeating as needed.

Birds were acting pretty normal. Could it be because they don’t see the news? Nobody tells them about a heat index, or about killer humidity.

Had a thought: If you didn’t know how hot it was, how hot would it be?

While visiting a recent Cubs game, Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks told an interviewer, “If you didn’t know how old you were, how old would you be?”

Mr. Cub…Always Mr. Positive. You can simply turn his observation about age into one about weather.

The birds never got the news. For them, it’s just another sunny day in mid-summer. And I wondered: Are news reports—horrific as they may truly be—making us all into a bunch of weather sissies?

I also wondered how I would’ve acted today if I heard no news, saw no thermometer. I might’ve gone about my business, no sweat. Well, maybe some sweat.

Noticed a Cardinal as I got near home. It looked hot, but that was probably because of its redness in the sun. I don’t think the Cardinal worried about weather reports, or anything we worried about.

Might be cool to live news-free.

Available beasts.

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Two-fisted bird watching was born out of a sensible compromise. Fierce beasts aren’t found around here, so you take what you can get.

You’d prefer a jungle where there are lions, panthers, rhinos, cobras, bone-crushing gorillas, all the dangers you grew up watching in jungle movies, or reading about in Kipling.

“You like Kipling?” I asked a girl on a first date. “I never kippled,” she said. First & last date.

You could go to Yellowstone where grizzlies walk, and that would be fun.

Not around here.

Not around here.

Or you could be like the late Hemingway in Africa, with a big gun, and shoot at lions in an over-compensating, bullshit craving for manliness.

Hemingway’s .577-caliber Nitro Express rifle should’ve been in his novels, not in his hands.

If you were a kid exploring prairies in the shadow of Chicago’s steel mills, you didn’t get to see lions. Your beasts were birds.

I saw Purple Gallinules and Ring-necked Pheasants. Three kinds of herons. Yellow-billed Cuckoos and every kind of migrating wood warbler, although screw their picky little names.

Around here.

Around here.

I saw Red-tailed Hawks. And Barn Owls flying quietly through our nighttime alleys. I saw two kinds of unbelievable tanagers, Scarlet and Summer.

Turkey Vultures, too. Our steel mills and garbage dumps drew these vultures. The dumps for obvious reasons. The steel mills for the promise of early death in the air we all breathed.

Avian beasts weren’t jungle monsters, but they were available. A Blue Jay with white-tipped feathers said: wild! It wasn’t part of the engineered world of humans and their crap.

If I ever go to Africa, I’ll try to watch hyenas, cheetahs, gnus and tsetse flies, maybe a spitting cobra. I won’t care about birds, there, unless I see a Honey Guide, the coolest bird in Africa.

Meanwhile, I’ll stick with our available beasts.

No “sh!”

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Saw a show on Smithsonian channel about the Goshawk. This bird has a name you might misread. But it’s got a stare nobody can misread. It says: “You’re gonna get your ass kicked.”

A sharp stare is a clear prelude to aggression. You don’t have to be a bird to know this.

what-you-lookin-at

And you don’t have to come from a tough neighborhood, either. When somebody, anywhere, zeroes in, eyeball to eyeball, you get ready for fight or flight.

Penetrating stares, fights and flights are a big part of this Smithsonian documentary. It’s called, “Goshawk: Soul of the Wind.”

Stop saying “Gosh Hawk.” There’s no “sh” sound in this word.

More about that in a moment. But first, back to the bird’s stare. All raptors have heavy-browed, angry eyes that bore into you. But a Goshawk’s are especially memorable.

They express the naked aggression you see in the eyes of those looking for trouble in taverns, or in territories patrolled by fighter jets.

Goshawks in the documentary were shown weaving through the woods at blistering speed, like Luke Skywalker on one of those speeder bike rockets in “Return of the Jedi.

Wait a second: You know, maybe this bird’s name should be changed to “Skywalker.” Just a thought.

The U.S. Navy has a jet called the T-45 Goshawk. But the bird itself is a much more maneuverable machine. A chase-you-down, rip-you-up machine.

We know what the Goshawk can do. What we might not know is how to pronounce its name. Not “gosh hawk,” as many people say.

It’s “goss….hawk.” This is derived from the Old English “gos,” meaning goose, and “hafoc,” meaning hawk.

“Goose Hawk.” Yeah, you can picture one of these guys getting a fat goose in its sights and locking on.

Maybe its name should change to Goose Hawk. Or, like I said earlier, Skywalker. Either would be an improvement over Goshawk.

See, you just said it wrong again, didn’t you?

The Buzz.

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

In an Illinois field, I saw a Dickcissel. A pretty damn bland thing to say. Two thousand miles away, a guy was killed by a grizzly in Yellowstone. That, I saw on CNN.

Got me thinking about the whole predator-prey relationship. And the buzz you feel when you’re the prey.

As it happens, my wife and I had hiked through that same part of Yellowstone, near Wapiti Lake trail. We disregarded “bear alert” warnings posted in red letters on trees.

I’d brought an air horn on the advice of those who said grizzlies wouldn’t attack if they hear you coming. Felt damn stupid tooting that horn.

But we felt the buzz. I wondered if you always feel it when you know you’re not on top of the food chain.

Once, while wading through tall prairie grass around here I stepped on a Red-tailed Hawk that was killing a pheasant. I didn’t see them until they flushed, flapping wildly in my face, then going their separate ways. There was blood on the ground. Hell, I’d saved a pheasant’s life, and pissed off a hawk.

I wondered if pheasants and other prey spend their lives feeling the buzz, knowing there could be a predator dropping in at any time.

In high school, I went to my car after a ball game, and a big kid was sitting on the hood.  Without looking, I said “Off.” Then I saw who the guy was.

He had a reputation; top of our South Chicago food chain. Police record, switchblades. He was a tattooed, scar-faced badass, older and twice my size.

I got the buzz then, and always remembered it. But the guy said, “Okay, okay…” and left. No problem.

I thought about all this while staring through binoculars at a drab Dickcissel. Screw the Dickcissel and his stupid name. My thoughts weren’t on that bird.

They were on Yellowstone, the buzz, and a line from an old movie called “The Big Lebowski.” It goes: “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.”

Double negative.

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

I never see nothin’ when I go to the woods.

Bad English? A double negative? Not so fast. It’s not the ignorant rant of an ignorant dropout.

It’s the ignorant rant of a guy who means what he says. I’ll explain in a moment.

On this dead quiet, hot & muggy day in the middle of a July 4th weekend, I went to the woods at noon, a stupid move.

I thought, maybe I’d spot a tanager in the trees. A meadowlark in the fields. A Cooper’s Hawk watching from a branch. Cormorants at the river.

But I felt the vibe as soon as I drove in: there’d be nothing. Mid-summer, mid-day, mid-nineties; it wasn’t smart to expect much.

Wildlife was off the clock. No birds to hear or see. No deer, fox, skunk, raccoon, coyote. No wind moved the trees or weeds. The place was like a still photograph.

I thought: sure, the freakin’ holiday weekend. What d’you expect? Even nature’s outa town.

I hiked anyway, sweating in the airless heat. There was nothing to see. But, as I said earlier, I didn’t see it. Nothing, that is.

As I walked, a big spider moved across the trail in front of me. It’s not a Pileated Woodpecker. But it’s not nothing.

I bent to take a good look. Interesting. If I’d seen one like that in my bedroom, I’d have had to remove it or never get to sleep.

Might’ve been a female Black Widow. Had a round abdomen with a fleck of red.

I watched it move safely off the trail and disappear into a woodpile. I was glad for the company.

And it proved that when you go into the woods, even on the dullest of days, you never see nothing.

“Tick…”

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

I’d rather get bit by a cougar than a tick. With a cougar, you don’t have to wait to find out you’ve been attacked.

This morning I saw an Eastern Bluebird fly into a part of the woods I don’t normally enter.

But, it might not have been an Eastern Bluebird. I only got a quick glance. Its throat looked blue, which meant it could’ve been a Western Bluebird. Or something else.

I followed it, using a trail that’s little used. Knee-high grass was unavoidable. Further in, things got muddy.

Sometimes, you find yourself in an unvisited part of the woods, and it has a different quality of quietness. You feel that even animals and birds don’t come to this spot.

The deer and coyotes you’ve seen are in the usual places, near trails and open areas.

Birds, too, are back there, on the territory you know. Kingbirds, Summer Tanagers (sometimes), Indigo Buntings, cowbirds, several kinds of prairie sparrows; circling hawks and vultures.

But in this back-alley jungle, it was dead. No birds, no animals. Just high grass, heat and stillness. No mysterious blue bird, either.

When I returned to the main trail, I found a tick on my jeans, and brushed it away. I wondered about the ones I didn’t find.

Hate ticks.

A friend recently wrote in an email that “the ticks on the clock are getting faster and louder.” He meant time’s flying, and we better do something with our lives already.

His word “tick” comes back to me now. I picture the guy’s watch covered with ticks, the kind I found on the trail today.

Hate ticks. But, they’re a part of our clocks, and our woods. You have to live with ticks, both kinds. I’d rather have cougars.

Although, if you were pounced on by a cougar and you were holding his snapping jaw inches from your face, your fists filled with folds of his fur…know what you’d see?

Ticks. In his ears, around his eyes, crawling over your fingers.

Fork.

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

I’m in Illinois but it feels like the Amazon.

I’m deep in the woods on a trail that’s not marked. There have been times when I didn’t like unmarked trails. You can get lost on them. But that won’t happen here; I know these woods.

Bird activity is modest. Mid-summer came in early summer, and the place is quiet.

I come to a fork in the trail. I stop. Stopping is good. When I blend into the stillness I see birds.

Swainson’s Thrush. A Catbird. A Red-eyed Vireo. A Great-crested Flycatcher, although its crest isn’t great and it’s not catching flies.

There’s a raccoon hole in a tree, high up. Young raccoons are peeking out. Better there than in my attic.

Mosquitoes have figured out that I’m not moving, and have come in to bite. Gotta get going. But which way?

Do I want to head down toward the river where there will be beaver sign and maybe a beaver to see?

Or, do I want the trail that runs along a pasture where I’ll see grouse and maybe a coyote who will look back over his shoulder, as he’s done before when I’ve seen him in the pasture.

This coyote’s steady gaze said, “Screw you, two-legs, and get out of here unless you’re going to lie down and become edible.” The eyes of a coyote speak eloquently.

Speaking of eloquent speaking, this decision about which trail to choose reminds me of a poem, “The road not taken,” by Robert Frost.

It was an easy metaphor about Frost’s decision to live a life of art. At the moment, I don’t care about his life of art, or his poem. There’s only so much room for poetry on a website called “two-fisted.”

I pick the path that’ll take me toward the river. It’s a good day to see beaver dams, and some colorful Wood Ducks. I don’t care if they’re not there. I’ve seen them before.

What I care about is walking this trail in the Illinois Amazon, being part of the green quiet, and making decisions that can’t be right or wrong.

fork

Medium Rare.

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Saw a Sora.

That’s not a tongue twister. It’s a bird. Sora. A kind of rail, a small swamp bird.

Soras aren’t rare. Still, people don’t see them much. I call them medium rare, like a good steak.

This gets me thinking about rareness. And, by contrast, the ordinary birds I notice.

Tree Swallows, Eastern Bluebirds, Indigo Buntings, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Northern Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Cardinals and Blue Jays.

Friends in the serious birding world are yawning.

They’re out with scopes, going after Dunlins, Kittiwakes, Purple Sandpipers, Anhingas; lost or adventurous birds that are really rare.

I rarely do that.

Have I become lazy? Is that the two-fisted way? Hell, the two-fisted way is any way you want.

You tramp around in the wild, and mainly don’t play into a stereotype. (See “Ain’t me” on North American Birding).

Sometimes, you spot rare birds. I saw a Smooth-billed Ani on gray pebbles in the Bahamas. A beak to remember.

I saw a Kiskadee in Bermuda. Guillemots in Alaska. Brazilian Cardinals and Indian Mynas in Hawaii.

Okay, anybody can see exotic birds in faraway places. But I saw the Sora near Chicago.

In the same suburban forest, I saw two other medium rare birds on different days: an American Woodcock and a Summer Tanager.

My hikes in these local wilds aren’t rare, themselves. So I usually see the usual cast of characters.

The Tree Swallows, Eastern Bluebirds and others I mentioned at the top. I also see vultures, kestrels, kingbirds, goldfinches, orioles…

These birds don’t blow up your skirts, as they say in the ad business.

But I keep wandering in the same buggy, muddy, wild-smelling timeless old woods and fields, and I’m fine with them.

Sometimes I see a Sora. And I think: Hey, medium rare.

Tardy.

Friday, June 10th, 2011

I grew up in a big city where the only wildlife we had were pigeons, rats, and kids who broke windows with rocks.

On the way to school when I was eight, I saw a Cardinal and followed it. I went through alleys. I climbed fences. Lost track of time. Lost sight of the bird.

I was tardy getting to school. That’s a weird word, tardy. The only place you hear it is in a school.

But I knew why I followed the Cardinal, and felt no apology was necessary. To teachers or anybody.

It was wild. The closest thing in the city to a wild animal. If it had been a lion, I’d have been happier. But I took what I could find.

Now, after a lifetime of noticing birds and chasing them around, I realize that the city and suburbs are full of these wild animals.

Recently, on the way to work, I noticed a deer carcass at the side of the expressway. It had exposed ribs with shreds of meat on them, and there was the bumpy spinal column.

I figured coyotes, foxes, crows; all kinds of opportunists had been at work on this car-killed deer. It’s good to know there are animals in the night that make a living off such things.

As I drove further, I saw a Turkey Vulture down on the roadside grass before the next exit. It might’ve been resting there, its belly full of venison.

Aw, hell. I swerved onto the exit ramp.

I had to get to a meeting downtown, something about making TV commercials, something pretty important. But screw it. I wanted to see this vulture up close.

When I circled back to the spot where I’d seen it, nothing. The big old vulture must have spread those big old wings and took off.

But it had been there. It made the city and suburbs a better place, less humanized. A little more like a jungle movie, my favorite kind.

Okay, no vulture. I headed back. But, a U-turn wasn’t possible, so I was forced to drive miles out of my way.

I realized, when I finally got on course and was speeding toward the city skyline, that I was going to be late for my meeting.

I thought, hey I’m going to be tardy. Screw ‘em. Nobody uses that word any more.

*     *     *

This appeared in April on North American Birding. Meant to put it here, too, but have been tardy about that. Until now.