Tuesday, June 29, 2010


The river was up this morning. Four or five feet higher than the near-normal level I noted at 9:30 p.m. last night when I finally made it home. Up—and, of course, muddy. A surprising rise because yesterday was bright and clear, reminiscent of an Eric Sloane landscape—with cerulean blue skies and only the occasional puffy cotton-ball clouds.
The reason for the river's rise had to be caused by a Sunday storm which arrived late, just as dusk was fading into dark. Myladylove and I were at my daughter's home, south of town, where we'd spent an enjoyable evening visiting family and friends. Someone happened to glance out the kitchen window, noting how the trees were tossing and swaying. A better look revealed a malevolent front heading our way from the west. In only a minute or two, a thick dark blanket was drawn over the horizon, blotting out the sky. Lightening flashed. Thunder boomed and shook the building. The dogs were terrified, while many of us crowded close to the windows for a better view, oohing and ahhing with the delicious glee of those who are safe and snug from any uncomfortable elements.
Like a lot of summer storms, this one seemed to be more show than substance—one filled with ear-splitting thunder-claps and blinding flashes like carpet bombs signaling the start of Armageddon…but in fact merely a histrionic drama of feigned violence; sound and fury and stroboscopic lights, but not much actual rain. At least not that we saw while at my daughter's, nor minutes later, when we were smack in the midst of it on the Interstate during the drive home. And not much evidence of its rough, drenching passage afterwards, in the northwestern precincts of the county, as we tooled along the backroads leading the final few miles to the cottage.
Judging by this morning's high water, the storm wasn't nearly so benign elsewhere. Upstream, probably a couple of counties away where the headwaters are gathered, it obviously rained quite hard. Thinking about that later on, when I pulled off the road in order to photograph a milkweed in velvety-pink bloom, I realized this was just another excellent example of the stream acting as a metaphor for life.
We never know what's heading our way from upstream. High water or bad news…either could already be bearing down. Skies may currently be blue and untroubled, with no hint of what's in store, even as a muddy torrent roars in our direction.
Worrisome? Sure…but don't forget that tomorrow's surprise can just as easily be good, the swift current carrying a blessing to deposit on our banks.
That's the point—we just don't know. We can plan and schedule, prepare in every way possible—and then we look up and the unimaginable is knee-deep in our dooryard. Rivers remind you of that and personally, I'm grateful. Too often I get to thinking I'm in charge, the master of my small universe. A regular reality smack does me good.
What I do know is this: to find courage, you must first know fear; that hopelessness is the field where faith is born; and that an empty heart can always be filled with love.
To all who've wondered over my absence (and those who, until this moment never realized I'd gone missing) let me assure you I'm fine…and back, blogwise. I've been out making photos, and as I always do, listening to the wise old river. Consider yourself warned…

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I'm not an expert birder—and certainly not an expert on tufted titmice. Oh sure, titmice are regular year-around feeder visitors. I see them every day and am quite familiar with their usual peter-peter-peter whistle. But yesterday, I was entertained during my deckside lunch break by a noisy and scrappy session of atypical (to me, anyway) titmouse behavior.
I was kicked back in the rocker on the deck, with a favorite book, eating, reading, and keeping the occasional eye on the river, the island across from the cottage, and the various hummingbird and seed feeders nearby. The bird supply was steady and varied, though mostly cardinals, titmice, chickadees, house finches, nuthatches, and every so often, a red-belied or downy woodpecker. One of the larger feeders, stuffed with sunflower seeds, hung within five or six feet of where I sat.
The scenario began with a shouting match—an odd sort of back-and-forth sparring which didn't sound at all like the usual titmouse call. Moreover, until I actually spotted the participants, I wasn't even sure the sounds were coming from a titmouse, or that more than one bird was involved. Whatever the argument as about, it was a fast-moving exchange. Within moments, a pair of titmice appeared, hopping from branch-to-branch where they'd face off for a few seconds, maybe two-to-three inches apart, each voicing their complaints—or possibly calling their opponent unflattering names—in an astonishingly loud vocalization. In fact, the loudest bird sound I've ever heard emanate from a titmouse; wren-loud and then some!
After a brief exchange of bemeanings and name-calling, the birds would scoot along the branch, or fly to another, and repeat the process. As I said, this call was not at all like the usual titmouse whistle—rather a call I've never heard before. One other thing I noted was that one bird was much louder than the other; the unquestioned cranked-up volume master—a veritable Pavarotti of the hurled insult.
Following a few minutes of close-range clamor, the pair would suddenly dart into the air, flying over the river, a dozen feet from the trees and about the same height in the air…at which point they would whirl until they were facing one another, fluttering while windmills to stay aloft, inches apart, and continue this aerial standoff, whirring wingfeathers intermingling, until they began to lose altitude and sank to within a inch or two of the stream's surface. On several occasions I believe a tailfeather or two actually got wet.
At this perilous point they would call a temporary truce, return to the hackberry branches near the seed feeder, and resume their beak-to-beak debate. This chain of events was repeated at least a dozen times. Finally, the weaker-lunged titmouse either lost the argument or his voice—or at any rate decided he'd had enough in-his-face shouting for the day, and flew off.
Most avian battles are about territory, mates, or food. I have no Idea which prompted this particular disagreement. But I do know I've never seen titmice act this way, never heard the distinctive—but different—call being used by both parties, and never heard such a big voice on so small a bird.

Monday, June 14, 2010


This post isn't about anything. Honest. It lacks any real narrative or direction; there's no adventure to recount, theme or moral, no tale worth telling…not even a minor story, insight, or conclusion.
I simply ambled briefly around my side yard, camera in one hand, cup of coffee in the other.
Occasionally I sat the cup down on a stump, stone, or the tailgate of the pickup and made a photo. Not a fussy, proper, attention-to-details photo—just a quick snap.
Then another swig of coffee.
Mostly I took pictures of flowers. There were a few birds in the bushes, but they were moving around; stationary subjects were easier.
Coffee down…focus on flower…snap…more coffee.
When the coffee was done, I headed for the back door—where discovered I'd locked myself out.
I sat both the now-empty cup and the camera down, then retrieved the hidden key. Know thyself…and don't muddle it with delusion! is a principle adopted long ago and with good reason.
After unlocking the door and returning the key to its hidy-hole, I gathered up camera and cup and came inside. Another round of coffee seemed necessary.
See…I did warn you this post wasn't about anything.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


When I ambled up the the driveway hill earlier today, Moon the dog at my heels, you could rightly say I was on a Biblical mission—at least I was heeding that directive from Luke to "Consider the lilies…"
The lilies in question were several dozen orange day-lilies, topping three-foot high stalks. They grow in a bathtub-sized clump about a third of the way down the slope from the road, and have been blooming profusely for the past ten days. Mine always begin their blooming cycle somewhat later than similar lily patches belonging to my neighbors. Why this is so remains a mystery—though perhaps it is due to something in the lilies themselves, a slight variation of their individual strain, or possibly one of several micro-climate aspects such as shade patterns, soil composition, or even an effect caused by the nearby river.
Before the rain, the stamen's anthers
are loaded with grains of yellow pollen…
Day lilies are perennials. These particular wild examples are Hemerocallis fulva, or Tawny Day Lily, originally natives of Asia, and introduced to North America in the 17th Century by early European settlers. Orange day lilies have naturalized well and wild patches are especially common hereabouts.
The lily's blooms are large, 3-4 inches across. Each flower consists of three petals and three sepals (collectively called tepals) quite similar in appearance. The flower's throat is yellow, surrounded by a banding of red, which gives way to shades of orange. The bloom's center sports six long stamens and single, even longer, style. As their name implies, each individual flower lasts only a day—though the panicle at the end of the stalk holds several waiting blooms. The long, sword-like green leaves arise from "fans" at ground level, forming a thick, graceful clump.
and after the showers, the pollen has washed off
and the anthers are dark and soggy.
Sometimes these orange lilies produce rows of black seeds in their seed capsules, but the seeds are infertile. The plant spreads through roots and rhizomes. They are hardy, and easily divided and replanted—which is how they became so widespread. It's also why you find them growing around old home sites, often being the only remaining sign that a house once stood nearby. The old folks regularly planted these orange lilies around their homes, barns, and similar outbuilding—sometimes to act as natural screening. That's why you occasionally still hear someone refer to them as Wash-House Lily or Out-House Lily. I've also heard them called Ditch Lily and RailroadLily, since they were regularly planted thereabouts, as well.
I don't much like such names…they seem too coarse, too unappreciative of such beauty; disrespectful. Orange day lilies deserve better.
Blooms yet to come…
Alas, these ubiquitous and common orange day lilies have currently fallen out of favor, and are nowadays regarded as old fashioned for modern gardens. But not here—not in my yard and eyes and heart. I've considered the lovely lilies…and remain delighted by what I saw.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Sign or portent…or just two buzzards
seeking shelter from the rain?
We'd just returned from a long, exhausting day which began with mid-morning dental cleaning appointments miles from here, and ended after multiple subsequent stops, nine hours later. The sky was heavily overcast, dimmed to a premature twilight, plus it was raining—not hard, but enough that you could get wet if you stood around more than a moment. Naturally, there were groceries and other items to carry in—quite a few, actually.
I opened the back door and let Moon the dog out, then stepped inside to deposit sunglasses, sodas we'd been sipping since our last stop, and a bag of prescriptions we'd picked up at the pharmacy. Myladylove and Moon went around to the rear of the Jeep and began grabbing packages. I headed back out as they came in, retrieved my own armload of stuff, hurried back in—again passing Myladylove at the door while trying to step around Moon who'd decided to sit in the precise middle of the small rear deck—in the dry, of course—and observe all these semi-desperate to-and-fro relays.
A moment later, as I rushed back out, Myladylove and I almost collided in the doorway. "You're never going to believe this," she said. "Grab your camera!"
Luckily, the camera with an attached zoom was sitting on my desk, a dozen feet from the door. Whatever it was that had her cranked—sasquatch, naked kayakers, a UFO on the rooftop—I was now armed and ready to take its picture. I darted back outside.
Myladylove was standing in the drive holding Moon. The rain was coming down harder now and both of them were quickly getting wet. Moon had picked up on the sudden level of excitement. In addition, she is—to wildly understate the actuality—definitely not a water dog, rather one who abhors getting wet. So the combination of excitement and the rain had her bucking like a bronco—all sixty-plus pounds worth. Regardless, Myladylove, whose grit and pugnaciousness is no match for even an excited terrier, had clamped down on her collar and was hanging on regardless of a potentially dislocated shoulder. She pointed with her free arm. "Over there—on the fence."
I looked, and in the dimness, and saw what first appeared to be two large black blobs sitting on the wood fence that runs along the side yard. Looking closer at the blobs, I realized they were turkey vultures. "Buzzards!" I exclaimed, and began shooting photos.
What makes this so remarkable is not that the birds were vultures. There's a roost directly across the river channel from the cottage; we see buzzards every day. And it wasn't even unusual to see a turkey vulture in the yard—they often sit in one of the trees overlooking the river.
The really weird aspect was that they were sitting no more than 25 feet away, looking at us, sort of idly watching…and didn't seem in the least concerned or on the verge of becoming spooked. Normally, our resident vultures retain a decorous distance between us and them—and 25 feet is at least four times closer than any previous encounter. Moreover, we had not come upon them—they'd sailed in and settled on the fence in full view of Myladylove and a bouncing dog…and continued to sit as I took my shots.
Weird behavior…even for buzzards!
[Re. the photo: As I mentioned, because of the overcast, the light level was very low, almost twilight. The fence where the big birds were sitting is located under a huge, centuries-old sycamore—and even on the brightest days is always in deep shadow. My neighbor's lot, beyond the fence, is open, with willows on the background. I couldn't use a flash without risking spooking the vultures, which I didn't want to do. I was also too dumb to really boost up the ISO. With the photo-editing software I have, I can't crank up the light on the birds without also cranking up the light throughout the image—so what you see is the open area of the neighbor's yard looking unnaturally bright, just to give a bit of detail to the birds in the deep, dark shadows atop the fence. It was really much, much darker out. The rain is really coming down, too, which is also not apparent in the picture. Not much of a photo, frankly, but the best of the lot. Guess I was more excited about seeing my beloved buzzards at close range than I thought.]

Monday, June 7, 2010


A month or so ago, I glanced into the thick growth of wild grapevine creeping its way up and around the lattice and rail of my stream-facing deck, and noticed something that didn't quite look like a vine tendril curled among the leaves. A closer look revealed a small queen snake sunning itself in the dappled shade—a visitor neither unwelcome nor unexpected.
I was pleased to find queen snakes along my home water when I initially moved to this riverside cottage. Since then I've had the opportunity of getting to observe and appreciate these gentle little snakes firsthand and quite often, and now count them valuable and delightful neighbors. [I posted about them here last year.]
Queen snakes are a non-poisonous species of water snake. They look something like a garter snake, their topside color ranging from olive-green to gray to a sort of medium red-tinged brown. A creamy-yellow stripe runs lengthways low on either side. The belly may be further striped—again, lengthways—with dark lines, though these stripes are most prominent in juveniles and tend to fade as the snake matures.
Like all water snakes, queen snakes have "keeled" scales—a tiny lengthways-running ridge on each scale. This ridge, much like the keel on a boat, helps keep the snake moving on course through the water by minimizing side-to-side slippage, which wastes motion and energy. This makes hunting and capturing prey much easier.
The queen snake's diet is almost exclusively fresh-water crayfish, with perhaps the occasion minnow or small frog. The crawfish are in the recently-molted stage—what bait fishermen refer to as being "soft craws." Because crawfish are numerous only in clean-running streams with lots of rocks along the bottom, queen snakes are thus indicators of a good quality watershed. As water quality declines, queen snakes disappear. Not every stream around can boast a resident population of queen snakes. Therefore, I view my slithering vistors as good omens.
A few days their initial reappearance, I found a small, foot-long queen snake partially hidden among the grape leaves. The skin looked vaguely different than normal. When I lifted the leaf that allowed me to see the queen snake's head, the skin's appearance was explained the moment I saw the creature's milky bluish eyes…my deckside queen snake was getting ready to shed its skin. All snakes shed their skins—at least the top layer of their skins, in a process known as ecdysis—throughout their lives as they grow. How often depends on their size. Older, larger snakes maybe several times per year; young, rapidly-growing juveniles, as often as every couple of weeks. I've since noted several other queen snakes sporting milky-blue pre-shed eyes.
Queen snakes seldom grow much over a couple of feet in length. On the day when I spotted the first queen snake of the season, I carefully scrutinized the tangle of vines and leaves hanging on the streamside of the deck. Queen snakes are docile and generally pretty tolerant of my close-up looks and photo fussing. But they have their limits. Disturb them too much and they'll promptly drop off the vine into the water. Eventually, I managed to count a total of eight queen snakes sequestered within the vegetation. They ranged in size from two feet long and the diameter of my thumb, to maybe six or seven inches and no bigger around than a pencil.
Obviously, I had a healthy population of queen snakes here along the riverbank—a fact which I found inordinately pleasing. I like my queen snakes and was glad to see they'd returned to their favorite sunbathing spot.
Since this initial return day, my resident queen snakes have put in a appearance every day when it wasn't cold or pouring the rain. In fact, I've just come back from giving the deck, rail, and what of the now thickly-leaved hanging grapevine I can still peer into, a quick look…and counted three queen snakes ensconced therein; about average for any given check. Sometimes I see them in the stream below, nosing along the pool's rocks as they search for crawfish—though not today because the water's up a bit and muddy due to rain yesterday.
While other folks might be appalled at the notion sunbathing snakes so close to their house, I enjoy having them around. Even Myladylove sees them as a good sign and is willing to tolerate them so long as they don't decide to move into the cottage. Even a gentle, retiring queen snake can't ask for more than that.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


I'm dismayed at myself to see it has been a week since my last post. I have no good excuse except to say between the long holiday weekend, spending time with family, cookouts and photo ambles, an extra day off for Myladylove on Tuesday, columns to get out, plus appointments to doctors, the dentist and optometrist—not to mention yard chores and shopping and all the rest of the drattedly necessary time-consuming stuff which eats up so much of your life—I haven't had much opportunity to daydream, laze about with a good book, go fishing…or blog.

Toward that end—making a pix for a blog post—I did spend a bit of time on the deck this morning in my favorite rocking chair, ostensibly attempting to photograph the ruby-throated hummingbirds busily working the nearby nectar feeders. However, capturing good hummer images proved pretty much a bust because I'm seriously under-lensed for the situation at hand. Plus the feeders were in deep shade during the time, making for low light and the need to crank up the ISO beyond what I consider the optimum range for quality images.

Not that I much like feeder shots, anyway. My ideal goal was photos of these tiny feathered jewels in a more natural setting—hovering in midair or perched on a handy hackberry twig. The problem with successfully managing this latter objective is that you have to pay attention, keeping your eyes and mind focused, always watching and looking among the interlaced branches overhead for movement, a glimmer of iridescent green…and, of course, being ready to get the shot before the hummingbird zips away. In other words, you have to be keenly alert and primed for quick action.

That, I admit, was the real stumbling block for me on this particular day—the lack of ability to muster any prolonged stretch of paying attention. I'd settle down and hunker in, trying to keep a watchful eye in the foliage for hummer activity…but moments later find myself gazing at the river, my mind floating about like a loose fishing bobber. Then I'd look around just as one of the bright little birds, having sipped its fill, zoomed away.

With luck, this case of galloping ennui and muddled brain-function will be cured by a good night's sleep.