Friday, May 30, 2014

Misty Morning

After a nice run of fair weather to advance the spring we awoke one day last week in a fog. Without highlights and shadows to sharpen images and locate tiny birds in tall trees my intended camera quests were nullified, but an excursion around Halibut Point brought serendipitous alternatives.

The mood seemed to imply consolidation more than progress, a maintenance day. The gulls seemed to be as limited in their aerial reconnaissance as I was in photographing warblers. We all refocused our plans to the advantages of the moment.

The headlands were eerily quiet, a far cry from yesterday's riot of birdsong. The pulse of the morning was as diffuse as the light. As long as I kept my mind off missing out on flashier ephemeral subjects, the visual world was pleasantly soothing. Some of the regulars just went back to bed.

It was so quiet that I wondered if the songbird migration had moved on. I shifted periodically between states of reverie and of pondering for logical explanations. Was the silence a result of inactivity brought on by diminished light, or had the gloom deflated the songsters' emotional spark? A mourning dove's plaintive notes keynoted the atmosphere. 

I came to realize that there actually was bird sound around me, just not bird song. Messages on the order of "I'm over here, where are you?" resonated here and there. But a lyrical quality was missing along with the sunshine.
A towhee tried to get things going with repetitions of "bang, bang, ch-ch-ch" from a lofty perch. I interpreted it as a wistful gambit on his part, akin to "How about if I lay down the first song?"
A voice responded in the grayness with a spirited mimicry of various other birds currently silenced by the day. A catbird. A new hero. Perhaps in the shame of its personal meow voice it has developed a supplemental repertoire of musical 'covers' from avian neighbors, phrases it reiterates somewhat tediously on your average day, but most enchantingly in the flatness  of the fog. 
There was the catbird silhouetted in full throat, newsy and vaguely melodious like the town crier, or like a tipsy fellow joyous in imagined after-hours company. I thank you, friend, for the smile you bring forth pro bono. If I can't repay you directly I can at least listen more fully. 
It's seeing that whetted my expectations for the day and listening that gave sight.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bud Ballet

Bayberry stirring

Each one of the woody plants on Halibut Point has devised a way to over-winter its tissues within bark and its growth points within buds. These armored plates resist outer forces but give way to vital surges come spring. The buds become plump with succulence and the tints of desire.

Sumac, the drum major
Sumac leads the charge into the new year. It colonizes irrepressibly, preparing for the advance of the more reputable trees and shrubs. The hardwoods break bud with the force of a grenade and the gesture of a lover. A drama of life is under way.

Red oak bud opening
Red oak revelation

Red oak curtsey

Red oak flowering
White oak flowering

Shagbark hickory bud birthing,



The patterns of destiny released from the bud shimmer with dawn energy. Every cell is sanctified with purpose. The leaf unfolds toward the light that will sustain its life processes.

Grape vine intimacies

Friday, May 16, 2014

Shad Week

If you need a gauge for spring, a reference point for nature's progression, look to the blooming of the shad tree. Then your system for anticipating other events becomes "Shad +/- ___ days."
Whatever you are encountering in our current week is happening at Shad Time.

Kingbird pair in a shad tree
Fly-catching kingbirds have returned because the warmth that brings the shad to bloom also prompts bugs to hatch. These events depend on the weather and are not precisely correlated to the calendar. They coincide with the arrival of their namesake shad fish coming to spawn in natal brooks and rivers.

Shad variations
Halibut Point is home to green-leaved and red-leaved species of the shad tree. Visually speaking, the foliage tints rescue the whiteness of the flowers from strident collision with the blueness of the sky over head. The leaves substantiate the petals in space where they would otherwise be too ethereal to comprehend. The inflorescences do fine by themselves on misty days, or against dark patinas on a quarry wall.

Mutual illumination
The flowers express a delicate counterpoint to granite surfaces, fleeting kisses blown to enduring processes etched on the stone, neither more nor less miraculous. They contribute to the organization of time and materials we appreciate as the rhythms of beauty, an interplay of appearances and disappearances.

Episodes in time
Shad Week means conditions are right for apple blossoms to begin to open on trees that have naturalized throughout the area, descendants of the fruit first introduced by European settlers.

Apple blossom advent
Just now towhees take to the treetops to advertise their homesteading plans, intoning chewink, chewink or pweet, pweet. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's description of this bird as "a strikingly marked, oversized sparrow of the East" suggests a feathery conclusion by a committee of the arts and sciences.
Towhee singing

"The strikingly marked, oversized sparrow"
Warblers are now on the move, often at dizzying and elusive speed. It is said that the neon-colored redstarts flash their feathers to scare insects, which they then catch in the air.
Redstart warbler
Luckily for birdwatchers the warblers' movement through our area to northern breeding grounds occurs just before tree foliation would make our view of them much more difficult. Many of the warblers depend on finding insects emerging along with the leaves.
Black-throated blue warbler
By the end of the week the most delicate of floral displays has ended in the litter of shad petals whose significance was incomparably greater on the tree than on the ground. In emergence the petals confirmed  the unfolding of spring in the landscape and the first phase of the tree's reproductive season that will bear fruit -  shad berries - for the continuity of its species.

Fallen petals
On a pond surface multitudes of micro-organisms are waiting to digest shad petals into their cosmos. While they served the tree the flowers were protected by its vitality, but detached, they return to ooze in the secret life of water.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Sitting Still

Where the trail to Halibut Point opens by a small quarry a fluttering in the cedar trees caught my eye. They had to be sizable birds to be noticed from this distance across the pond, herons I quickly realized from their indignant croaks as they lifted off while I tried to focus my camera. Probably black-crowned night herons. They circled overhead resolutely waiting for privacy. I had no sensible counter-move but to move on.

Herons circling
Hunters have learned to sit still and let the game approach. I settled down on a comfortable rock beside another pond, out of the wind that muffled bird sounds. Almost immediately a brassy kingfisher flew in, flashed his belts and crest, and departed with a scolding lecture on fishing rights.

A pleasant waiting station
From a point to my right buoyant notes streamed out of the stillness, a mockingbird I supposed. The irrepressible stanzas poured down from a tree top. The soloist was much too proud to abandon his station to an inquisitive cameraman. I saw that it was actually a brown thrasher, delivering the warm-up of an entire orchestra from one talented throat. He broadcast the terms of his nesting territory with admirable diligence and melody.
Brown thrasher
Even as the thrasher carried on, a newcomer flew into the glade. It signaled 'woodpecker' by clinging vertically to a tree trunk. It immediately put its chisel beak to work on woodpecker business. My zoom lens gave me a lovely look at the downy breast feathers that presumably account for its name, but no glimpse of the inner anatomy that makes its occupation tolerable.
Downy woodpecker
The enjoyment of so many avian sounds quieted for a bit my acquisitive impulse for more sightings. Sea gulls zipped by above my shelter, heads tucked in like freewheeling cyclists, ballistic birds racing the air as it picked up speed around "Haul-about Point." A fly free-danced over the ledge.
The granite dell captured sunlight's warmth to accelerate seasonal developments. At my feet a tiny aspen leafed out from a fissure in company with poison ivy, both well ahead of their kin in more exposed sites. The baby-skin glow of their foliage accentuated the achievement of organisms coming to fullness among the unconcerned elements of their anchorage.
A grey birch's male catkins
Nearby a grey birch exemplified the vigor of a pioneering plant in its prime. It had gained this foothold in a rocky zone sterilized by the quarrying industry. The tree was preparing to increase itself in the same way that it had originally come to be. Its profusion of male catkins  will pollinate the female cones whose seeds adapt to germination in dry infertile soil.
Palm warbler
I moved to a wooded habitat, with some open sight lines over a pond.  Early vanguards of the warbler migration occasionally flitted through the brush. One of them perched long enough for a portrait and identification as a palm warbler, en route to nesting grounds in northern Canada.
Moving about was clearly essential to visiting a variety of birding venues, but sitting still made this photograph possible. The warbler knows I'm there but isn't alarmed to the point of escape. A little luck brought me a clear view with a minimum of  camera fidgeting. Now if only those herons will likewise accept my benign intentions....

Friday, May 2, 2014

A Black Racer in the Wild

Sam Bevins on Cape Ann snakes
Very rarely do I see a snake without hearing it first. I'll take a few steps into the grass and rattle things around a little bit to see if I can get one of them to make a move. I listen for a constant movement of their body sliding against the leaves, compared to something that's hopping or scampering.
Garter snake
Here we go. You see him? A garter, sitting right up. That's a perfect one. Posing for you. I wish I got lucky like that all the time.
Ribbon snakes
Garters and ribbons can be tricky to tell apart. I go by the head a lot. Ribbon snakes have a whiter chin. Garters will be more yellow. Ribbons are long and slender. On ribbons the top of the head is brown, garters are more black. I find ribbons tend to be a little more flighty than the garters.
Milk snakes are common on Cape Ann too, when the weather gets warm. Last year I thought I saw a black racer dart across the trail. They're a beautiful smooth color like steel. This is prime black racer territory. They're great climbers and they're really, really fast. They can shoot through the trees to catch a bird.
I saw one when I was six years old at Plum Cove baseball field. It was a really magnificent snake, about 6 feet long. I followed after her, not knowing what she was, following her tail. It must have been close to her nest. She stopped and reared up to something like three feet off the ground. I got the message. Mom and Dad saw it too. We looked it up when we got home. I'm hoping to see it again. I'd really like to catch one.
Sam stalking a snake
Here's a good sized garter female. The males are pretty wiry at this time of year. She's thicker, and probably has babies inside her. They're live bearers. Look at the beautiful red and black tongue.
Capturing a snake
You'd be surprised how much they can expand their mouth. They're opportunistic feeders. If it's too big, they'll try to eat it anyway. I saw a garter snake trying to swallow a large toad. The snake had it by the leg. The toad would hop away, the snake would pull it back. Eventually the toad got free.
The garter snake swims away
There she goes. All snakes can swim from the minute they are born. They look really nice when they swim, very sea-serpent-like.
When they bite it's like a little pinch. It might break the skin and draw a drop of blood. I've been bitten by snakes for a long time now. But I would take a thousand snake bites before one bee sting.
A local milk snake
Our Vernal Pond Team keeps a lot of snakes. Rick doesn't always have time to hold them to make sure they grow up to be good show snakes. If you don't give them attention they'll be like a wild snake and bite you every time you pick them up. I try to give them all special attention to prepare them for our shows.
A lot of the kids know me from seeing me with snakes at events like the Sidewalk Bazaar. Practically everyone from Gloucester High School walks by. "Hey Sam!" I've got the boa constrictor wrapped around my neck and they come over to hold it. Our involvement with the youth has really grown.
Earth Day at the Essex County Greenbelt Association
I'd like to catch a 6-foot black racer in the wild. It's the only snake we have in Massachusetts that's that powerful. I would do anything, at all costs, to be able to catch one. I'd hopefully have a pillowcase on me, because we could always use a big racer for a show.
Usually I try to disturb snakes so they can make their move. But with the racer you can't do that, because you're never going to see it again. I have to see the racer first and figure out how to get away from his face. I'd probably just dive for him. I'd grab any part of him. If I can get the head that would be great so I can try to get control. But if I get the tail and drag him out I'll be able to grab a stick and push on the back of his head so I can get him behind the head. If he bites me I'd deal with it.
Black racer
Google image
That six-foot racer that I saw when I was six years old is the only wild snake that ever truly terrified me. I'm glad I didn't catch it. The thing probably would've tried to eat me. But if I could find another one I'd like my revenge. I would love to hold it and enjoy it, to say finally I got one back. We'd be "tied up at one." I let one get away, and now we'd be even.