Thursday, August 28, 2014

Colorful Blackbirds

Blackbirds appear in kids' earliest drawings, marching around the terrain like they own the place. They get our attention by being noisy, argumentative, kibitzing, often flocking in great numbers. Their behavior is colorful. We kids could represent it with a single bold crayon - black.
We knew about crows, the big blackbirds. They showed up in folklore with elements of wisdom and mischief. We had the feeling that crows were talking about us up there in the treetops. They were smart enough to tell each other apart even though they all looked alike.

The smaller blackbirds looked like gangsters that would take over whole fields or telephone wires. If you saw grackles in the right light they sported magical colors. But you couldn't reasonably say that a blackbird was blue. There wasn't a solution for that in the crayon box.

I looked up iridescence on Wikipedia. It said that peacock feathers are actually brown, made vivid by various internal surfaces microscopically structured to interfere with visible light, sometimes in combination with pigments. Out of that comes decorative hues with glossy, metallic sheens.
Over at Halibut Point I took a closer look at cowbirds to see if there might be more to them than basic black. Bronzy mantles distinguished the heads of the males.

Blackbirds with flashier accessories come foraging to Halibut Point from the cattail swamp across Granite Street. Red-wings were probably the next step we took with crayons, adding a vivid splash at the shoulders.
It turns out that ornithologists classify grackles, cowbirds and red-wings together within the icterid family, next to crows. Icteridae refers to yellow feathers in Greek. The family includes orioles.
Female Baltimore oriole
Orioles don't look particularly black. Gloucester's Chris Leahy offers a calming overview of these relationships in his essay on "Systematics" in The Birdwatcher's Companion. Members of the blackbird family diverged relatively recently from common ancestors. 'Adaptive radiation' continues all around - and within - us.
Then we have a black bird that is not a blackbird. Taxonomically, the starling resides in the sturnidae family alongside but not within the icteridae. Its compact sturdy body suggests a different lineage. In the right light its colorful iridescence helps to compensate for its swarming vulgarity.
Back on apparently firm black ground the crow anchors the corvid family, the third branch of blackbirds. Like the others corvidae are considered songbirds even if their caws and other chatter don't appeal to us musically. Crows are smart and social. The fellow pictured above interrupted his preening routine about every twenty seconds to send a message to compatriots in the neighborhood.
Crows have meaningful complexities in their coloration that help distinguish the sexes and individuals. The patterns that are invisible to us include their ability to see ultraviolet and iridescent subtleties that organize crow life. They know who's who in crowdom.
Blue jay
The corvid family has transcended black by engendering magpies and jays, who fully retain the family's rascally nature and its near-human brain-to-body weight ratio. Like most colorful creatures blue jays enjoy their own splendor and provide a loquacious account of their doings.
I walked about Halibut Point pondering the mélange of coloration and classification that assigns black and blue to the same family. When a flock of jays screeched overhead in tenor variations of a crow's honest 'caw-caw-caw,' I understood the pairing straight from the corvid's mouth.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Wait-a-Minute Vine

If you're going to contend with briers, cover as much of yourself as possible with the protection of canvas and leather. My advice pertains to casual walking as well as to contests of land control.

I've encountered briers at significant stages of my adult life. Down in Georgia when we got tangled up during night patrols in Ranger School we heard it was called the 'wait-a-minute vine.' We didn't always refer to it with the congenial irony of the backwoods folks.
At the beginning of my landscape career I matched wits with briers in our conflicting claims to a nine-acre woodland garden on Folly Point, adjacent to Halibut Point. I was taking courses at the Arnold Arboretum at the time in the heady world of botanical taxonomy where this brier was placed among the liliacea, the lily family! That set off a curiosity in my mind that I hope to satisfy more fully in the course of this essay.

Smilax rotundifolia, green brier
A good part of taxonomy is based on flower characteristics, which frankly had never occurred to me in the case of briers. So I went looking for them this past June. They were sweetly suspended among the thorns, somewhat resembling lilies-of-the-valley, not so different in appearance from the more probably liliacea flowers of Solomon's seal....

What sorts of tricks of Nature endowed this lily relative with the ability to climb and draw blood? Entertaining a question like that is enough to bring into consideration some of the thoughts worth thinking about in life. Altogether it has been a Job-like focus for me professionally as well as existentially.
Fire alone doesn't permanently win battles with the brier. The ambitious roots replace any stems cut, chewed or burned. From subterranean armored hubs they send out acquisitive runners in all directions. They envision an impenetrable colony crowning all the world's trees, shrubs and boulders, anything that stands still overnight. Their clever instinct for dominion is, first, to close all paths and trails to evict troublesome humans.

Fruits form another dimension of the brier's expansion plan that enlists birds in seed dispersal. Flowers and bees meet as partners in a seduction that leads to pollination, species vigor, and territorial extension. 
Recently, in a lapse of judgment, I meandered unarmed through thickets at Halibut Point where briers were boss. The sun was setting. Forward progress was becoming more and more painful. Retreat was, well, retreat. It was an uneasy moment. I'm pleased to say that I eventually emerged exhausted and perhaps wiser.

Most people I know call it 'cat brier' rather than the book name 'green brier.' That probably refers to its claws - or to a feline temperament to toy with victims. Green brier is too innocuous a term.
Last fall I witnessed a caterpillar getting the best of a cat brier leaf. The vine was in a weakened state at the end of its valiant season. The shorter days and lower angle of the sun had reduced its energy. As it prepared for seasonal rest it conceded the leaf to the grander cycle.

The sun settled lower in the sky. Nearly horizontal rays backlit the leaves along the shoreline. I thought, wait a minute, perhaps there's room for both of us.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Coffee at the Cedars

I have a favorite early morning perch at Halibut Point for bird photography. Back-warming light floods onto the cedars where the birds will visit. At this hour the light and air mix tangibly to enhance visibility just when the birds are most active.

I settle into a glacier-smoothed pocket on the quarry rim to make myself into a human tripod, one leg draped over the ledge, the other propped up to support elbows and camera. It's so cozy the coffee levitates all the senses.
One regular companion usually looks the other way out over the quarry from a dwarfed cedar growing in a nearby crevice. This kingbird values unobstructed sight lines for bug hunting just as I do for photographs. It jets off now and then to catch something in midair or on the water surface.
Fox sparrow
 In the upland direction various unidentifiable flitterings resolve into a portrait when a small brown fellow takes to the cedar-top and comes into focus as a fox sparrow with rufous wings and tail.

Young starlings
A pair of juvenile starlings show the social nature of their species that can aggregate into the vast flocks we sometimes see maneuvering as a singular cloud of birds. One of the pair has begun to feather itself in the dark iridescence of an adult.

Eastern red cedars (juniperus virginiana)
The cedars rise out of a grassy heath from thin soil on the granite. The open terrain is rich in berries, seeds and insects.

Brown thrasher

The trees give a good vantage point to ground dwellers like the brown thrasher that want an occasional look-around.

 A mockingbird presides over the realm, not so much regally as a garrulous jester, a proprietorial scold. He was the first to take to the air in combat when a hawk appeared on the scene.
Baltimore oriole
Brightly-colored orioles that are harder to see within the leafy canopies of their usual deciduous trees stand out in the crown of a cedar.

Cedar waxwing
The iconic avian of the cedars is the cedar waxwing, a study in gradations of taupe and masked élan. Come winter these birds include cedar berries in their diet, hence the name.
Cedar berries
  As for me, berries of the coffee tree help to pass the winter agreeably.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Halibut Point Rocks

This is the story of how rocker Willie "Loco" Alexander played Halibut Point State Park a few years back. I wish I'd been there.
John Ratti photo
Park Interpreter John Ratti set it up. He'd heard Willie at 'The Rat' (Rathskellar) in Boston's Kenmore Square in the Seventies. Now Willie was back living in Gloucester. John felt he would add "a certain amount of provenance" to the Park's concert series, "a legitimacy, hopefully, because of his enormous and significant musical history. Willie to me is just the greatest."

John Ratti photo
Willie was pleased to be asked. "You're open to the elements. It seems more conductive. Maybe that's the magic part of it. And there's birds. You can play along with them. They can play along with you. It's the world-famous seagull opera, here in Gloucester, always."

"We had complete freedom. It was great. You see families. You get to play for babies. You get to play for senior citizens. You get to play for whoever shows up. It's always good to win the kids over, because they can either take you or leave you."

"Sometimes that will inspire you, to get 'em going, to see the smiles on their faces or a kid dancing, or a person tapping their feet. To me, that's why you do it. You're doing it for communication. When you get that chance, make the most of it."

John Ratti photo
The following year John added into the program Rockport's father-son saxophonists Rikki and Alek Razdan, "because who wouldn't want to play with Willie Alexander? Here we had the young up-and-coming generation, the local noteworthy musician, and the old punk rock & roller whose history goes back to the Nineteen Sixties with such significant bands - Velvet Underground, The Bosstown Sound, The Boom Boom Band - all of that! You had both ends of the spectrum."

Yes, sitting in with a rock icon sounded good. Rikki recalls, "we showed up there, and oh wow, it was really cool. The natural beauty of the place is staggering. It was a memorable gig. I've played thousands of them, and that's the one I remember."

Moose Savage photo
The concert led to other collaborations and to their current recording project. "Playing with Willie is great. He's one of those people where nothing can go wrong. Even if it sort of does, it all comes back and is okay....With Willie we don't think about chords and keys and notes. There's a vibe going on that you play into, which is really fun. Once you've had it happen a few times you want it always."

"Having the Razdans come down and play - it couldn't be better. I'm so happy to be part of that family. It seems like I'm an unofficial Razdan."
John Ratti photo
"I may change direction at any moment. I'm just going along for the ride myself. I don't know what's going to happen. Usually the mistakes are what drives the thing, makes it good....It's a thrill for you to make that contact and actually win somebody over, make somebody like your music that never heard you before."
August 13, at 7:30pm the Gloucester Writer's Center will present

Willie Alexander’s One Night Only Rock & Roll Songwriting Workshop
See the GWC website for information and registration.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Bloom with a View

Shoreline flowers gracing Halibut Point this summer.
Yucca filamentosa, Spanish bayonet
Helianthus divaricatus - woodland sunflower
Rosa virginiana, Virginia rose
Eupatorium dubium, Joe-Pye weed
Lythrum salicaria, purple loosestrife with cattails
Daucus carota, Queen Anne's lace
Hieracium canadense, Canada hawkweed