Friday, August 27, 2010


During a recent amble along a nearby streamside path, I passed from dense shade beneath floodplain sycamores into an opening where Jerusalem artichoke gleamed yellow in a narrow wedge of sunlit glade. Several bumblebees were working the bright blooms. As I watched, a whirring fly-like creature simply snatched a hovering bee in midair. An attack that came out of nowhere, quick as lightening, deadly as a gunshot to the head. One moment the bee was going about its nectar-gathering business, the next it was being carried off to become a flying carnivore's lunch.
The perpetrator was a giant robber fly, a predatory insect also—unsurprisingly!—sometimes called a bee killer. In fact, the oversized assailant looked rather like a cross between a long-bodied horsefly and some sort of wasp—sporting spiny legs, large complex eyes, a hairy thorax, and yellow bands along the abdomen. The formidable aerial assassin was easily an inch long.
There are several thousand species of robber flies worldwide, about 1000 species in North America. The one I saw and later photographed is probably in the Promachus genus. Giant robber flies are voracious, and will catch and eat practically any other bug that flies—from bees to dragonflies, even butterflies! If they were the size of pit bulls, they'd nab us, too, and summarily suck out our fluids, and we'd wind up nothing more than rattling bones in a wrinkled bag. Not a pleasant fate to contemplate.
I watched as the big robber fly devoured its latest meal. Nature isn't always pretty; the real world outdoors isn't scripted like a Disney feature. Times are quick and hard, life and death have equal billing, and scenarios get pretty messy sometimes. I don't think you have to dwell on this when writing about nature, but I do believe you need to be honest.
Is a robber fly any less fascinating than a bumblebee? Whoever named it certainly must have thought these winged attackers worthy—in fact, they were in obvious admiration because the genus name, Promachus, comes from the Greek, promachos, which means "fighting in front," a champion, a "defending deity." Quite the honorific…unless you're a bee.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I've been awake since 4:00 a.m., and up almost that long. It is still dark out; night hangs around longer and longer lately and now, even when I arise at my usual 5:30 time, I still have to wait for the dawn.
Today's high is only supposed to reach the upper-70s. My kind of temperatures! I'm no fan of hot and sweltering summer, although the implication of such cooler days is that of time's eternal and relentless passage…and that does bring a twinge of the bittersweet because as much as I look forward to fall and winter and spring beyond, I know that I'm only allotted so many turns around the great seasonal circle, and each passage ticks one more off my personal list.
Ahh-h, forgive me; I don't mean to be so weighty. Blame it on the clinging darkness and my early rising—and the fact that I'm gong to have to make a certain decision in the next few days which I make reluctantly, even though it is the right and wisest course to follow. One of life's constant truisms is that when faced with multiple choices, the hardest one is most likely to be the path to follow. I've been struggling and worrying about this for several days now. Which probably explains why I couldn't sleep. But I guess I've known for some time what I needed to do, and just had to finally admit it to myself. There's no joy in this, however, and little comfort. But nevertheless, it must be done.
Now it is time to take Moon the dog out for her morning ramble…time to check on the river and spend a few minutes watching the first light bloom in the east. Later on, I hope to visit a local meadow and woods, make a few photos, take a bit of a walk. Try and reconcile my heart and mind. Listen to birds, watch butterflies, inhale the sweet breath of grass and leaves and sun-baked earth.
I can use a good dose of beauty…

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Wednesday morning, and the first day of the last week in August. Both month and season are fast winding down.
The river upstream from the cottage gleams reddish-gold in the burgeoning light, as if the mirrored water were preparing itself for the flaming reflections of the patchwork leaves a few weeks hence. As Carolyn over at Roundtop Ruminations mused recently, fall is sneaking in. Yet the view of the corridor woods up or downstream is still of an unbroken green swathe lining both banks. Certainly not as variegated in shades of green as back in May, nor as vibrantly lush as the green of June. And not even the tired and dusty looking green I expect to see come September. Just the near-monotone green that has dominated the eye through all of July and will continue through August.
And yet…something's coming. I know it without question. I can't see it or hear it or smell it—but I can feel it. Change is afoot.
Carolyn takes her reassurance of this fact from the birds—the local migratory patterns of hawks and warblers, among others. My familiarity with such avian behavior as related to a specific place is not nearly so finely tuned. Truth be told, I lack the organizational discipline for such critical record keeping, not to mention the gypsy wanderlust that has kept me on the move too much to be an astute stationary observer, never following the round of the year repeatedly from the same viewpoint.
Instead, I'm purely intuitive—part augur, part diviner, with a dash or so of backwoods soothsayer. I listen to wind and water, watch the light, heft the occasional riverstone…try and catch the music of the stars late at night when fogs spirits float over the pool and bats sift the damp darkness. I'd like to think there are still a few drops of druid blood flowing through my veins—maybe a distant diviner grandfather, or goose-bone prophet.
I'll bet the old ones simply knew, too. Knew from some place deep within. Just as I, standing in the red-gold light of another morning, beside my beloved old river, also know—and know unequivocally: time is on the move, the great seasonal wheel keeps turning.
Change is coming.

Monday, August 23, 2010


"Monday, Monday," sang Mama Cass, "Can't trust that day…"
But if you thought your Monday turned out bad, just look at this rare scarlet-phase pigmy vulture…a.k.a. plain old cardinal.
What a difference a few feathers makes!
You have to wonder what this normally natty ol' redbird would think if he could see himself in a mirror. Would he be aghast? Would he try and roost with the buzzards in the sycamores across on the island? Do chickadees flee in terror while pileated woodpeckers double over in laughter every time they see his ugly mug?
Molting is such a drag. No wonder most of his feather-regenerating time is spent hiding in the underbrush. Yet a feller has to eat; the occasional daylight foraging excursion must be made…and as luck would have it, there's always some member of the paparazzi waiting to snap your photo and slap the unflattering shot up on the Internet. Just ask those chagrined movie and T.V. folk who simply popped out for a double dip of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, sans makeup, comb-over, and tummy-tucking jeans, and a week later found full-page screaming color images of their sorry-looking selves plastered all over the supermarket tabloids.
Of course it doesn't help when one assumes a doltish, rather guilty expression. Where's that noble redbird visage—the patrician beak, the regal eyes, the striking red-and-black neck and facial cloak, the glorious crest? Who's the doofus with an oversized honker worthy of a parrot?
I almost feel ashamed posting this…almost. But hey, it could be worse—the vulture look could be permanent instead of just temporary. Count your blessing!
Now, if I were you, I'd skedaddle back into the underbrush.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


The morning is cool when I step onto the deck—68 degrees according to the thermometer mounted on the wall by the window. Cloudy, too, with wisps of fog coming off the pool in front of the cottage. Pale tendrils that seem to be reaching from the water, gently testing the soft air above the surface, as if something below might be considering rising out.
Moon the dog ambles into the yard for her usual reconnaissance. I take a seat in the rocker and turn to sit my mug of coffee on the small table near the stone wall…and notice the tiny feathered lump. Another bird fatally fooled by the reflective illusion of the window.
Even in death the warbler is beautiful. It's dainty cloak a mix of black and gray and white, with a bold splash of bright yellow under the throat. It is this rich yellow patch that gives the bird its name, Yellow-Throated Warbler. A common summer species in these sycamore-lined riverine woodlands. Also one of the season's earliest fall migrants. Yellow-Throated Warblers are often making their southward journey by the last week in August.
Was this little fellow so engaged—an innocent traveler on his way to winter quarters? I saw a Yellow-Throated Warbler at the seed feeder day-before-yesterday. This same bird? Did my free eats cause it to hang around too long?
Birds call from every direction—Carolina Wren, Cardinal, Blue Jay, Titmouse, Chickadee. Wind stirs through the treetops, fluttering the big green sycamore leaves. The river slips steadily along, burbling softly as it finds its way over riffle stones.
Life and movement goes on, as it always does. Though not for all.
I notice the fog above the pool has dissipated. Whatever might have been stirring below the surface apparently changed its mind and curled back into the turbid darkness. Or so I imagined on this Sunday morning.

Friday, August 20, 2010


One of the joys of working from this riverside cottage is that in the midst of my daily stint slaving over a keyboard, while trying to herd words into sentences that resonate with poetry instead of falling onto the pixel page as though made of lead, I can always glance out my deskside window at flower beds, various trees, what passes for a lawn, and the sparkling river beyond.
Of course this blessing is also a sort of curse when it comes to getting work done and meeting deadlines. Quite regularly I find myself staring meditatively through the glass at the beckoning world beyond. Being of the literary sort, I like to say I'm musing, but I'm really just daydreaming.
Alternately, I'll be typing away and a flash of movement catches my eye. I look up, check out whatever it was that distracted me, perhaps grab camera or binoculars…and when I eventually return to my patient iMac, the little digital clock says I've just frittered away twenty minutes! Do this a few dozen times and that article or column which should have taken an hour or so to write has gobbled up most of the day!
No, don't bother suggesting I install a window blind. There's one already…and the last time it was lowered was when I tested it right after installation four years ago.
Equally pointless is any hint that I might at least show a bit more restraint regarding distractions and a shaky work ethic. I say temptation should at lest be considered, and providing it is not immoral, illegal, or fattening, probably given a whirl just to make sure it isn't something worthwhile. The interesting goings-on beyond the window are the main reason why I moved into this place, so why shouldn't they be given high priority?
Still…yesterday was a case in point of how pleasurably intrusive my window view can be, thanks to a steady stream of rubythroat hummingbirds who kept feeding on and fighting over a scarlet canna lily bloom located perhaps thirty inches beyond the glass.
The task at hand was a final revision of a column due on the editor's desk sometime during the day—a job which takes under an hour. I usually do a read-through right after breakfast, and have the piece polished, an accompanying letter written, and the whole package zapped off before I finish my coffee.
I've doubtless mentioned this before, but this summer there's been a rubythroat boom here along the river. I have out only two feeders filled with sugar water—same as last year and the summer before. Yet this time around the feisty little hummers have arrived in droves—squeaking, squabbling, zooming around like warp-speed warriors. As best I can count, there are at times—flying, feeding, and perched on twigs in the big box elder where I've hug the feeders—a dozen or more hummingbirds. And that's not counting any which might be investigating or sipping blooms in the nearby beds.
Too, the tiny birds—and especially the males—are probably now beginning the fueling process before their upcoming migration to wintering quarters in the tropics.
At any rate, a never-ending procession of hummers came to the canna lily bloom nearest the window yesterday—which provided countless minutes of exquisite distraction, lots of gaping in wonderment, and the occasional attempted photo op. I believe it was going on 2:30 p.m. when I finally manage to get my column off.
(And aren't you amazed? I had so much fun, I haven't once whined or griped about how near-impossible it was to get my camera to auto-focus through the glass, or how much I detested my messed-up vision with these malfunctioning contact lenses. Nope, not a single complaining word.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


First off, here's my double disclaimer: I admit not a single one of these three shots is any great shakes as a butterfly photo. Also, I'll again confess (sigh!) I don't even know exactly which species of butterfly I've photographed—simply that it's an obviously common swallowtail.
But with that said, I'd like to state firmly that in the top photo, I simply love the spattering of palest blue covering the rearward half of the wings. Why? I have no idea. I just like it. I know, too, it's likely a result of light scattering off individual wing scales. Moreover, I also like the orange splotches and especially the yellow half-moon markings along the wings' outer edges. And I'm rather pleased by the way the bright light rakes across the top of the wings, revealing both wear and their velvety charcoal coloring.
Photo two, of the same butterfly on the same field thistle bloom, is more of a butterfly-as-stained-glass shot—somewhat backlit, and showing the translucence of the delicate wings.
The third shot (same butterfly, same thistle flower) is again backlit, but from a different angle, and reveals the folds and interior structure of the wing, along with their sheerness and delicacy.
I again beseech anyone who is better at identifying butterflies than I—which is doubtless every reader not living on foreign soil—to set me straight on what I've photographed. And in the way of personal news…I'm going to the optometrist again tomorrow, with high hopes that he can use the results of this deplorable fitting—and a possible threat or two from a riverbank hulk—to make one final attempt at a viable prescription.
Wish me luck…

Friday, August 13, 2010


Painted Lady (I think) on purple conflower head,
and so far as I'm concerned,
as pretty a butterfly as…uh, flies.
There's a patch of prairie just up the road from the cottage. You have to look close to see it, and even then I'd guess the majority of folks zooming along on the asphalt merely view the handful of shaggy acres as a glorified weedfield with color—though one man's weeds is often another guy's wildflowers. Especially if that fellow happens to be totin' a camera.
A prairie in bloom is photogenic in every direction—
all you have to do is point and shoot.
For too many days in a row, it's been hot and humid along the river—sweltering, actually, with temperatures in the 90s˚F, and humidity just this side of wringing wet. As uncomfortable as that sounds, the some places feel even worse. I know, because yesterday, at high noon, just after visiting the optometrist again, and receiving another "tweaked" pair of progressive contact lenses for a new tryout, I decided to vent my frustration by shooting things (photographically!) on the prairie.
Bee on three-lobed coneflower.
Purple coneflower…one of my favorites
and a quintessential prairie species.
Rather than belaboring my litany of woes, let's just say that between not being able to see well enough to focus critically, and the fact that from the moment I mushed my way from the parking area to stand in the middle of the prairie, I swear I immediately began melting in place like one of those wicked witches in Wizard of Oz.
A new umbel of Queen's Anne's Lace,
still showing some pink.
Now, my Mama didn't raise no fool…at least not one who requires a terribly excessive amount of discomfort before his common sense kicks in. So before being unceremoniously rendered into a greasy puddle, I hastily revised my photographic plans and bolted for the shade of the truck—where I doffed my sweat-soaked tee-shirt and drank about a half-gallon of water. Rehydrated, I decided I'd perhaps wait for a break in the heatwave before trying an encore. Call me a wuss if it makes your feel better.
This one has me stumped—it looks a bit like vervain,
but I don't think that's correct.
However, before these overcooked days came to pass, and before my vision became professionally messed up by an optimistic optometrist who believes clarity is still just a fitting away, I spent a few evenings at this same prairie seeing and making photos. Since I can't show you what I didn't photograph yesterday, I'll show you what I did capture back then.
Common teasel in bloom.
The prairie has aged a bit (haven't we all!) in just these few weeks. Purple coneflower is now fading. Sunflowers are bigger. But most of the rest of what I saw then is still around, including the butterflies. At least that was my quick take on the situation yesterday, though between the new lenses and the sweat in my eyes, I didn't look long or hard.
Evening sun through big bluestem.

Monday, August 9, 2010


A few minutes ago I found this fine green inchworm suspended from it's silken thread in my doorway. The little inchworm—actually more like an-inch-and-a-half in length—dangled like a spelunker who'd come to the end of a too-short rope while descending into an abyss. It's hot here along the riverbank today, pushing 90˚F, and only the occasional slight stirring of a breeze came whispering along to barely spin the hanging creature. Things looked perilous
Inchworms are the caterpillars of Geometridae moths, a family that contains upwards of 35,00 species worldwide. They have three pairs of legs at their front end and two pairs at the rear—at least this one did, though some inchworms only have a single set on the back end. Their unique way of moving—rearing on their hind legs, lunging forward, then "inching" their rear-end forward as their mid-body slackens to form a humped-up loop—is quite distinctive and gives them their other common name, "measuring worm."
Inchworms can be a pest in the garden, nibbling the leaves of various plants and trees. They often use their "threads" as a safety rope, dropping from a leaf when faced with danger, where they then hang suspended. Their silk, similar to that of a spider's, hardens while they're waiting. When the threat has passed, the inchworm climbs back up it's safety line and resumes eating.
I found myself identifying with that little green inchworm. I've been there, too, both literally and metaphorically…at the end of my rope, dangling, spinning slowly, just hanging on by a thread, waiting for danger to pass and hoping I could somehow climb back up.
We all have our inchworm days.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Cabbage White on leaf near the cottage.
Posts from the riverbank have lately been sparse. I blame it mostly on my ongoing contact lens issues, which still have not been resolved, though I've had several follow-up visits to the optometrist. New lenses—an entirely new prescription, design, and fitting, in fact—were ordered a week ago yesterday, and should have been in Wednesday, but failed to appear. They'll likely arrive this week and we'll begin round two.
I believe this an Orange Sulphur.
In the meantime, impaired vision makes good photography problematic, which is putting it mildly. Auto-focus stuff comes out okay, but a lot of the close-up work I so enjoy now depends on luck and numbers more than eye and skill. The other day I shot 78 images of the same grasshopper on a bluestem shaft and threw them all away once I uploaded the files to the computer and took a look. Not a single one was in focus. (Of course, one of those tossed shots might actually have been in acceptable focus, except I can't really see well enough to tell if the call is marginal—even on a 21 inch screen.)
A hairstreak, I think…but which one?
I know…I've whined about this before. But I'm frustrated and miss being able to see.
These recent butterfly shots may or may not be in pristine focus—but I like them and gave 'em a passing mark. They also may well be misidentified—only in part because of the handicapped eyesight. The truth is, my butterfly I.D.-ing skills are poor. I can usually fake my way with a good field guide and sufficient images (or a specimen in hand), presuming I can see whatever distinguishing features. So I'm now facing both technical ability and plain old incompetence.
One of the coppers?
Feel perfectly free to comment with a correction or any additional information. I won't be in the lest offended, and will welcome the feedback. I'd also like to hear recommendations on a favorite butterfly book or field guide; all I have currently is one put out by the Audubon Society: Field Guide to North American Butterflies.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Recent conversation between a certain grizzled blogger and a local metropark employee. The setting, an intersection along one of the more remote loop trails, whereat the smaller trail, rather overgrown, sports a sign which says: DO NOT ENTER - TRAIL RESTING.
Metropark Employee (MPE): That trail is closed to the public.
Grizzle Blogger (GB): I don't blame you. Can't have the unwashed masses traipsing willy-nilly all over their park.
MPE: Huh?
GB: All that tramping about. I can see how a path would become exhausted.
MPE: Uh, well anyway, you can't go in there.
GB: Wouldn't dream of it. But I presume it was all right to exit?
MPE: Huh?
GB: The sign says "Do Not Enter." It says nothing about exiting.
[The metropark employee mulls this conundrum over momentarily. His double-negative reply is delivered with a haughty smirk.]
MPE: You couldn't have been on that trail if you hadn't ignored the sign.
GB: What sign?
MPE: [Gesticulating emphatically.] That sign!
GB: You can't read its message from the backside. Besides, the directive is inapplicable.
MPE: Huh?
GB: Depends on whether you're coming or going.
MPE: You're not making any sense.
GB: Actually, I believe I am. However, let me put it another way. To effectively close a linear trail, you need to put a "Do Not Enter" sign at both ends.
[Whereupon a moment of presumed cogitation by the metropark employee is followed by his dawning embarrassment.]
MPE: [Quietly chagrined.] Oh.
GB: But there were lots of blackberries along the way.
MPE: Public berry-picking is not permitted along the trail.
GB: I thought that trail was closed?
MPE: It is! Or will be when I get a sign up at the other end. But you can't pick berries in the park.
GB: You're the one who brought up picking.
MPE: Well, that looks like berry juice at the corner of your mouth.
[The grizzled blogger removes a bandana from a pocket, moistens the corner of his mouth with the tip of his tongue, mops up—then stares intently at the patterned dark-blue square of cloth.]
GB: I don't see anything.
[The metropark employee, exhibiting an exasperated "why me?" attitude, resignedly shakes his head. The grizzled blogger grins conspiratorially and points.]
GB: However, I do see that gallon bucket you've been holding unobtrusively to your side, and note what appear to be possible recent blackberry stains therein. Given the fact you're technically NOT a member of the public, when coupled with your proximity to this blackberry-laden pathway…I must say I have my suspicions.
[In either a moment of blushing guilt, or a simple flushing caused by the 90-degree August heat, the face and neck of the metropark employee turns beet red.]
MPE: Uh…well…I gotta go. I'll see to getting that sign up. Have a good day.
GB: You, too. And if I might offer a word of advice…the berries under the trees are kinda sour—the sweetest ones are along the meadow section of the trail.