Monday, January 31, 2011


Today began with sunshine. Moreover, the whole morning remained sunny. A nice change. Even now, a half-hour after noon, though a wispy overcast has recently moved in, the sunlight is only slightly diffused and still streams through sufficiently to create strong shadows. The blue sky is gone, though. Still, the bright sunlight won't be around for too much longer, as there's a big storm brewing to our west, scheduled to arrive this evening, bringing with it ice in the forms of freezing rain, sleet, and snow. More of the same is predicted for tomorrow, as well. The National Weather Service has issued a "winter storm watch" through Wednesday morning. But unlike the folks in Chicago, who are looking to receive a snowfall of potentially historic depth, our total accumulation is not expected to exceed a couple of inches. I don't know whether I'm pleased about this or jealous.

When I stepped outside an hour or so after the sun came up, the river was still mostly in shadow, but with a golden wealth of early light reflecting off the pools. Tomorrow's photo ops are apt to look quite a bit different.  

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Before breakfast, I stepped out into the pre-dawn darkness to attend to my bird-feeding chores. I was surprised to look up and see several stars overhead. Surprised because lately it has been cloudy every morning…and in fact, cloudy most days throughout, from dawn until dusk. I can't recall when I last noticed stars—but the fact was sufficiently thrilling that I paused for a moment to enjoy their bright glimmer through the tangle of interlaced treetops.

Not only were the heavens clear and spattered with stars, but a weary waning moon, like a sliver of clipped fingernail, hung low in the southern sky. Venus trailed close behind, the dazzling Morning Star now at its yearly brightest.

We had clear skies yesterday evening, too—though only for about fifteen minutes right at dusk. I was working at my desk when a movement on the river caught my eye. I looked up and saw a great blue heron flapping along, about five feet above the water's surface. The big bird made a banked turn, gained a dozen feet of altitude, reversed directions again, still climbing, and landed on a sycamore limb high above the stream. 

Just as the heron was settling onto its night roost fifty feet up, a bit of sun broke through the cloud cover to the west. Gold-tinged light began pouring into the island's woods. I thought I might manage a nice shot of the high-perched heron and grabbed my camera. From the front deck, the warm profusion of light was reflected by the river below, while the snow lining both banks appeared a pale violet. I made a shot of that, then aimed downstream and made a photo of the heron. However, quick as I was, at that point the western clouds were redrawing their curtain, the magic light fading.

This morning's clear skies also lingered only briefly. Long before the burgeoning dawn turned into full daylight, clouds had again pulled overhead like the drawing up of a gray blanket. Now the light is flat and neither river nor snow carries a sparkle. But that's okay. A couple of doses of clear light, however brief, were sufficient. It can't remain cloudy forever.

Friday, January 28, 2011


It snowed last night—not much, perhaps a half-inch or so of fluffy white. Just enough to partially fill in the various tracks of birds, cats, squirrels, dogs and people who, over time, had all contributed to make such a messy hodgepodge in the several inches of snow that fell a few days ago. Now, everything is softened, sharp edges are once again rounded.

Some might refer to this snow as a "dusting." But in my growing-up household, a distinction would have been made—my mother and father, and my Grandpa Williams, would have thought it too much snow to use the term "dusting," and instead declared it a "skift." Skift is an old word of Scottish-Irish usage. It's exact etymology is uncertain, sometimes debated; many lesser dictionaries don't even list it, while modern spellcheckers flag it as incorrect. But the word has been in usage in this country since our earliest days, and long before that in what is now the United Kingdom. Some folks say skift while others say skiff—though I use the term skiff to mean a fairly small boat. The usually definitive Oxford English Dictionary says either is correct, but adds that skiff may be a specialized use of skift—which indicates to me that skift is the older term. I do know that among people who know and use these words, the distinction is always made: skiff, boat; skift, snow.   

As I said, the amount of snow which fell wasn't much—a skift—though if you were a hunter, it be would be good news because it would prove an excellent tracking snow…all you needed to locate or trail rabbits, pheasants, grouse, foxes, or deer. To a hunter, a "tracking snow" is like an otherwise blank sheet of paper containing a highly visible record—a timeline map—of animal activity over the most recent hours. Of course you don't have to carry a gun to hunt—you can also carry a camera or binoculars—and spend half a morning or half an hour afield. 

But in even a short time, you can learn a great deal of what went on—who was out and about doing what—while you slept. Here is the delicate tracery of a mouse or vole looking for seeds. There's where the local whitetail trio passed through the corner of the yard, and the one which detoured slightly from the group to nibble a few tips off the neighbor's apple tree. This track might be a dog, or possibly a coyote—though the straighter in-line trail indicate the latter; not a fox, though, due to size and more pronounced rear pads. And here's a squirrel, sharp-edged, obviously recent; made post-dawn. There were rabbits meandering everywhere and—uh, oh…looks like one meandered into the talons of a great-horned owl; the tracks simply end, with a sort of sweeping pattern on either side where the owl's wingtips brushed aside the new snow. 

Death simply swooped silently from the darkness and snatched up the luckless bunny. So says the skift of snow. 

Monday, January 24, 2011


The breakfast contingent. Feathered freeloaders. Baggers with beaks. Whatever you call them, I consider them welcome dependents. Part of my riverbank family. Hungry habitués I willingly feed in exchange for their company.

I take their needs seriously. Theirs are usually the first mouths that get fed each morning—before Moon the Dog's, before Myladylove's, before my own. Usually…because most of the time I toss out a few scoops of cracked corn when I step onto the deck to check on the river and whatever world beyond that's visible in the pre-dawn darkness. The hanging basket of sunflower seeds and the wire cadge with the suet block seldom need changing first thing.  

However, this morning I noticed both gallon-sized seed feeders were all but empty, and that not a crumb of the pressed suet blocks remained in the cadges. Given Myladylove's work schedule, I decided to wait until after we'd breakfasted to take care of things. And I because I didn't wan't to trample the scattered corn into the fresh snow, I held off on that, too.

Not a popular decision. Even though it was still pre-sunrise when I went back out, it was light enough to see. And what I saw were droves of impatient and doubtless famished birds, perched and salivating on nearby limbs. Cardinals, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, wren, woodpeckers, finches, sparrows. Not to mention the pair of mallards paddling about in the pool below the cottage riffle, trying to act as if they were not watching for the measure of corn I toss on the bank whenever they're around. More than a few of my avian wards looked to be giving me the evil eye. 

What did I do? Well, nobody likes to be rushed by birds…but you can't reason with them, either. So I apologized and promised I'd try and do a better job of keeping ahead of things. I also informed anyone listening that yesterday afternoon, Myladylove and I made the short trek to the farm supply store, where we purchased an additional 100 pounds of sunflower seeds, 50 pounds of cracked corn, and 24 blocks of suet.

Then I hustled back indoors before I got pecked, flogged, or trampled. I wonder if Saint Francis had to put up with such cheekiness?

Saturday, January 22, 2011


It's cold out there—and looks it, with mist rising off the pools and riffles, and the water itself looking a bit congealed, filled with slush as it flows reluctantly along. Even the sun seemed to take its time rising this morning. 

When I stepped outside at 6:15 a.m. to put out scoops of cracked corn for the ground feeding birds, it was still dark and the official temperature at the nearby airport had just been announced at -3˚F, the coldest we've been so far this year. Nothing by Minnesota standards, of course—and not really a serious low for us Buckeyes. But still, cold enough that, having not put on gloves, hat, or coat, I didn't tarry in my shirtsleeves while tossing my feed scoops…nor did Moon the Dog in attending to her morning duties.

For some reason—likely the dryness in the air once the temperature has fallen below a certain point, taking with it any hint of dampness—I'm more comfortable during days of deep cold than when it's a few degrees either side of freezing. Especially when there's little or no wind. 

After breakfast, the sun having finally made it above the hill, I went out to make a few photos. THe early light was varnishing the tops of the sycamores along the opposite bank a rich orange-gold. 

There were already plenty of birds around the feeders, the usual suspects—cardinals, titmice, chickadees, tree sparrows, goldfinches, and a Carolina wren, to name just a few. But…no squirrels! I'm not sure if squirrels are smarter or lazier than birds, but squirrels never get up early for breakfast when the weather's bad or it's really cold. Instead, they huddle deep inside the high hollow in the patriarch sycamore over by the driveway. I can just imagine the whole dozen or more of 'em curled into one furry gray ball, bushy tails draped around their faces, snug and cozy in their leaf-lined nest—everyone catching an extra forty winks in order to give the sun time to warm things up for a leisurely brunch.

The weather man said yesterday that today would be cloudy—and that overcast skies would remain throughout the next several days. He also predicted last night's low at 7˚F, which means he missed by 10 degrees. Judging by the blue sky, I'd say he's 0-for-2. He did get the day of the week right, though. 

Stay warm!


Friday, January 21, 2011


"You created those shots," a friend proclaimed matter-of-factly, when I showed her a series of reflection images I'd recently made along the river.

I did not," I said indignantly. "Nature and light…God, you might say…created each and every one—I just found 'em and captured the photo."

"Nahhhh," she said, I know how you photographers can manipulate stuff digitally and make anything look incredible by jiggling colors and such around."

"But I didn't do that," I protested. "There are scenes like this all over the place if you take the time to look and find them. Honest." 

I never did convince her that I hadn't used Photoshop or some similar software program to "create" the colors and shapes—often abstract or Impressionistic—in the images. But they were just simple shots…taken straight from what I saw,  as is the one at the top of this post, which I made this morning. I'd gone out to sweep off a patch of yesterday's snow so I could scatter cracked corn for the ground feeding birds. Considering the 5˚F temperature, I wanted them to have a good breakfast. Glancing at the river, I noticed what I thought would be a neat shot. The sun was just coming up, behind and to the left of where the camera is aimed. You can see its warm orangish light on several of the white-barked sycamores which line the far bank. The angled bluish line is a another sycamore that's still in shadow. 

To give you a better idea of where I found this image, look in the lower right quarter of the photo below, taken a minute before and slightly to the left. See how the light is just catching those trees and reflecting warmly in the water? See the blue lines of the shadow trunks whose right sides are plastered with snow? Well, that's what I saw and what the camera recorded. 

A splendid reflection shot hidden in plain sight! 


Thursday, January 20, 2011


Earlier today, as Myladylove and I enjoyed breakfast, she suddenly sat her teacup down and pointed toward the fence bordering the side yard. "Look at all the redbirds in those bushes!" 

The high wooden fence marking the downstream boundary of the property, about 150 feet from cottage, is partially obscured various evergreens, saplings, and a few more mature trees—a nice brushy tangle which furnishes secret nest sites for thrashers, wrens, and cardinals during the summer, shelter for all species during winter's storms, and a fine escape hatch for feeder birds whenever the Cooper's hawk swings by looking for lunch. On the branches of several of the smaller trees, and the tips of the evergreen, I saw numerous splotches of red, like scarlet rubies scattered against the falling snow. 

Twenty, twenty-five male cardinals? Maybe—and maybe twice that number when you added in females. "I'm getting my camera," I said and headed for the hallway, knowing full well there might not be a single redbird there when I returned, though the round trip to my desk and back to the windowside table would take only a handful of seconds. Still, if you're going to call yourself a photographer, you have to try.

As I feared, a number of the cardinals moved elsewhere during my circular dash. But several stayed put…and the photo I've posted was the first frame I snapped the instant I got back to the table. You'll have to take my word that there were at least twice the number of redbirds in the same small area initially. 

You can also take my word that the above pix contains seventeen birds—ten cardinals, three titmice, two chickadees, one tree sparrow, and one starling. Or you can double-click to enlarge and count for yourself. (Here's the only hint you get—there's only one bird in the evergreen, the rest of those blobs are leaves.}

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Yesterday's breathlessly predicted spate of bad weather never quite materialized. Myladylove and I were running various errands which occupied the entire day and had us all over the county, yet all we encountered was the occasional light drizzle. It did, however, warm into the upper-30s, which melted maybe 85 percent of the snow. More snow—up to five inches—is on the way tomorrow, with temperatures plummeting to 5˚F tomorrow night. Just winter being winter…and it's probably best to keep in mind that we still have two full months of it ahead.

Today is another drippy, gray morning here along the riverbank. Since breakfast I've been watching pileated woodpeckers. As I write this, there's a male pileated whacking his way up a box elder about fifty feet downstream from the cottage—and I've just made his portrait (above) though the deskside window. Every so often he pauses in his labor to cut loose with a loud maniacal yelping, and sometimes I hear a fainter answering call from across the river. Paired pileateds keep track of one another this way throughout the day, like teenagers texting on cell phones.

Earlier, two female pileateds spent half an hour playing peek-a-boo from opposite sides of a hackberry a dozen yards upstream of the house. The birds were positioned no more than four feet from the ground on the tree. First one woodpecker would peek around the trunk, then quickly jerk back—at which point the other woodpecker did the same. This was repeated several times—peek, hide, peek, hide, peek, hide. Occasionally they flapped their wings, or shook their feathers like a dog shaking off water. Now and then they took turns yelping. They might move up the trunk a foot, or down, but essentially remained on the same confined section. After exchanging a series of peek-hides, the birds would spin around the trunk, more-or-less exchanging positions, and repeat the peek-a-boo scenario.

I don't know enough about pileated behavior to understand what was going on, but to me it simply looked for all the world like play. In my experience, pileateds rarely spend much time on or close to the ground. 

I shot several frames through the kitchen window of these carryings-on, but there's a lot of brush at the base of the hackberry and the photos don't show much. To give you a bit of perspective, the birds are actually below my eye level, and I'm shooting slightly downhill. The ground is maybe six inches below the bottom of the photo. That's the frozen edge of the river in the background. 

After half an hour, the two big woodpeckers took their goofy act a hundred feet upstream. I returned to my desk and am now trying to get some work done as I have a deadline to meet…but I'm rather prone to yielding to certain temptations, and will doubtless succumb again should my red-headed distractions reappear. 

Monday, January 17, 2011


My life flows on in endless song:
Above earth's lamentation,
I catch the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

There's ice in the riffle and rain/sleet/snow on the way. Or so they say.

I say, Give us whatever you've got, January. Throw it all in—the whole shebang. 

Hey, that's what winter's for, right? Not just a season of cold and snow and icicles along the eaves…but a weather test of the spirit; a barometer of hope and resolve.

To face and find your way through winter while remaining light of heart and bubbling in good cheer is to simply reiterate your faith in a warmer, brighter—better—world ahead.

So bring on those storms. Let the winds howl like restless banshees. My wood is split and stacked. There's food in the larder, love in my life. 

The titmouse and I remain unperturbed, joyful in our days—alive in the here and now. 

Every day is beautiful.    

Friday, January 14, 2011


Upstream from the cottage…

Gray squirrel on the box elder by the front door of the cottage. 
BTW, the missing bark is courtesy of the pileated 

A couple of days ago, Weaver asked for a few shots of the river in its current snowy state. It sounded like a reasonable request—so here 'tiz.

As you can see, yesterday was overcast and filled with flurries. Not the best day for sparkling riverside scenes. But here's what I saw during a quick foray… 

The riffle is still free of ice, except for the above-water rocks

Sycamores lean along the island.

A single sycamore leaf in the snow.

Song sparrow, fluffed and foraging. 

Icicles along the eaves, and a pale January sun 
trying to shine through the clouds

Of course, who needs the sun when you have a goldfinch? 

Heron tracks along the riverbank.

Ice shelf at the bottom of the steps near the front door.

When I was shooting these pix, I made a pact with myself that I wouldn't succumb to the easy temptation of posting a cardinal photo just to jazz things up…even if cardinals are one of Weaver's favorite birds.  

Instead, I thought I'd include a shot of this blue heron who
likes to do his fish-spotting from a perch high in a sycamore
across from the cottage. Yes, the bird has issues…between
you and me, I suspect it believes it's a kingfisher. 

Here's a better look at the same misguided heron. Of course, who am I to poke fun of another angler's fantasy?

Well, at least I managed to resist that redbird temptation…

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


We enjoyed a snowy, lovely day along the river. The snowfall—somewhere between four and five inches at the moment—began in midmorning and continued intermittently throughout, and will probably finish sometime after midnight. 

It wasn't unexpected. In fact, it's predicted coming was yesterday's big local story, along with dire warnings stopping just this side of imminent doom, and through today have furnished local media with reams of copy, outdoor standup interviews, and all the excuse they needed to interrupt any national radio or TV program every whipstitch with a "weather newsbreak"…which mostly amounted to informing us presumably cowering citizenry that they "were on the job and expertly watching the snow come down."

Heroes one and all! I can tell you I felt reassured immediately. 

Of course about two-thirds of the intrepid folks the news hounds interviewed on-air expressed alarm at the amount of white flakes falling from the sky, along with dismay and disgust that such a natural catastrophe might somehow occur in Ohio. You do have to wonder if these obviously befuddled souls skipped geography and natural science throughout grade school, or simply took a wrong turn on their way to Florida? Do they not understand the implications of winter as a season above the Mason-Dixon Line?

As it happened, today was Myladylove's usual day off. So after a leisurely breakfast, we refilled all the outside feeders, collected ample firewood for the day, started a fire on the hearth, and opened all the blinds in the great room for maximum view. Myladylove fiddled with her turquoise beadwork. I read and took Moon the Dog on various photo sorties. We munched and sipped, lazed about, watched the snow and birds and the interplay of the changing light on the nearby river—and I daresay a good time was had by all.

Monday, January 10, 2011


There is a treasure of golden light washing across the river. Some might say it is just another dawn arriving from over the little hill to the east, but I say it is a sign of priceless days ahead. 

Of course, all days are priceless—each more valuable than the one before simply because our individual allotment now has one less in the queue. After a week of various doctor appointments, an outpatient visit to the hospital, a couple of business meetings, the usual writing deadlines, and several days of intermittent Internet service—not to mention the lingering effects of my Christmas cough et cetera, which eventually necessitated a full day's bed rest, and may require another down day before I've shaken the thing—I've finally made it back to my desk…at least temporarily. I can't say I'm starting off the week bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but I'm at least vertical and optimistic.         

It has snowed again since my last post. Not much, maybe an inch or a bit more, just enough to cover the grass with an unbroken layer of white. Along with the snow came cold—15 ˚F as I write this, though early yesterday morning, it got down to 7˚F, the coldest day we've had so far this winter. River pools and back eddies are forming slush, and places where the water is still already have a mirrored lid of clear ice.

Early this morning, when I stepped out to allow Moon the Dog to go snuffling off into the pre-dawn darkness while I checked seed and suet feeders and scattered a couple of scoops of cracked corn on the ground, I noticed a surprising dampness—unusual when temperatures are this low. Typically, I only notice a dampness to the cold when it's within a degree or two of freezing; colder is drier. Maybe it's just me and my compromised respiratory system.   

Yesterday I fixed a cassoulet in the small cast-iron Dutch oven I received as a Christmas gift. Cassoulets aren't difficult, nor do they take much prep work, but they do require time. One of the secrets to this most famous of French dishes—essentially a bean and meat stew—is the hours of slow cooking which renders the beans creamy without breaking them apart, all the while melding the flavors of the various vegetables. Served with a golden pone of homemade corn bread, it was the perfect fireside meal on a snowy January day.

Monday, January 3, 2011


You couldn't ask for a more auspicious beginning to the annual journey! The sun is bright and the sky a clear blue on this first day of the first full week of the new year. Across the channel, the trunks of the island's big bankside sycamores gleam as if newly whitewashed. The river is up and slightly muddy with run-off from recently melted snow. Right now, the temperature stands at 21˚F, but there's no wind and it doesn't feel all that cold; predictions are we'll hit the mid-30s this afternoon.

With the snow cover of recent weeks now gone, the yard and woods on the island have reverted to a winter dress of various browns and grays, with only the odd bits of green—grass, briar, cedar, honeysuckle—showing to add any hint of color. After all that white, this landscape—even though brightly lit—seems strangely muted, almost dull. Moreover, without the sharp definition of contrast, the distant view through the trees and understory bushes is muddled.   

I count at least seven gray squirrels scampering around on the ground and clambering in the box elder by the front door. There could be twice that number, as my view through the window is limited to a narrow wedge of land between the cottage and the riverbank. Besides, virtually any number of squirrels engaged in being their usual morning-frisky selves becomes near-impossible to track and tally.

The seed feeders are doing a fair business with chickadees, goldfinches, house finches, and red-bellied woodpeckers, while cardinals and doves work the scattered cracked corn. But most of the feathered crowd appear to have eschewed my free meals for the fun of foraging their favorite thickets. I don't blame them—wild food must taste better than the same old store-bought handouts—the equivalent difference between another fast-food sandwich and good home cooking. 

Robins are working their way along the washed-up clutter of sticks and leaves and bits of bark along the river's edge. I can't actually see them feeding, as the waterline is out my view below the steep bank. But the flock is in constant, birds shuttling down and back up again from handy overhanging limbs to the narrow band of mud and sand where they're scratching out breakfast. 

As robins usually do, they're whistling while they work. In spite of the double-paned glass, their lilting, familiar notes come pouring through…the brightest of sounds on this bright January day.