The Cuteness Scale: A Poll

The Cuteness Scale: Bird Edition

Mostly just for fun, and because I wanted an excuse to go through all my cool bird pictures, I made this poll. Please take it, and rank the following 15 birds on their level of cuteness. This is a highly-scientific research study, in case you were wondering. I even have funding from the NSF– the National Smith Foundation, which provides itinerant Smith children with food and shelter while they are in-between field jobs. The only requirement is that you are a biological child of Mike and Vicki Smith, so luckily I don’t have much competition for funding.

This is just the first edition of this poll, I feel like improvements can, and probably shall, be made. I think it would be really fun to do a cute baby bird one next, but I’ll have to go on a picture-gathering mission first. Or just do a few more field jobs.

For more information on the birds included in this poll, check out these links: 

Black-capped Chickadee

Yellow Warbler

Red-eyed Vireo

Black Vulture

Brown Creeper

Anhinga

Blue-footed Booby

Florida Scrub-Jay

Cooper’s Hawk

Waved Albatross

Mourning Dove

Wilson’s Snipe

Red-naped Sapsucker

Common Raven

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Thanks for taking my poll!

Hope you had fun! I know I did.

Fairies in our nets

A male Calliope Hummingbird

A male Calliope Hummingbird.

Today we caught fairies in our nets– Calliope and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. The male Calliopes have beautiful throats, an iridescent rosy or purple color, depending on the light. Sometimes, once I gently untangle them from the mist net, they’ll sit in my hand, miniscule feet tucked up into their chests, resting. Dark limitless eyes looking all around, diminutive breast heaving as if it had just run a marathon, their colors changing in the light– only an illusion, a change of perspective. After breath-holding seconds, when time seems to stand still, their wings begin their blurred-motion movement and they buzz out of my hand and back into their world.

There’s always a moment when I wish I could keep this tiny bird forever, but every fairy has to be free. How else do they keep their magic?

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The same male Calliope hummingbird, moments before he flew away out of my hand.

What is a mist net?

A Wilson's Snipe with the Teton Range in the background.

A Wilson’s Snipe with the Teton Range in the background. Snipe use those long bills to probe in the mud for food, like insects and other invertebrates (little squirmy things without backbones).

Sometimes when I tell people that I band (and therefore catch) birds, they get real quiet and look at me strangely. Do you use a fishing pole, a butterfly net? Cages? Hold out birdseed in your hand and wait for them to land, then use super-fast reflexes to grab them? I’m working on that last one, but no. We use these nifty thingies (a scientific term, by the way) called mist nets.

I handled my first mist net back in 2005 when I was a freshman in college (oh so long ago), so I’ve sorta forgotten that most people aren’t familiar with what one is. That’s the problem when you spend too much time hanging out with bird biologist types, you can use words like “mist net” and “trammel” and everyone knows what you’re talking about, and when you get jump-up-and-down excited about a Wilson’s Snipe or a Song Sparrow they’re right there jumping with you. Some people get into sports teams, I get excited about their bird namesakes. To each his own.

But before we get in too far:

Do not attempt this at home unless you are a trained professional.

And I mean it. You have to be registered with the government (USGS) to catch and band birds, which requires a license, research permit, and proper bird-handling training. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to “take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations.” The term migratory bird here includes just about every native species, so basically: if you see a bird in the wild, leave it alone. To see a complete list of the species covered and for more information, click HERE.

A Cedar Waxwing. Note the waxy tips on his wing feathers. No one knows exactly why some waxwings secrete these tips, but they sure do look cool (and maybe help attract the ladies).

A Cedar Waxwing. Note the red waxy tips on his wing feathers. No one knows exactly why some waxwings secrete these tips, but they sure do look cool (and maybe help attract the ladies).

We are trying to gather important information about bird populations, but first and foremost is bird safety. So if you ever come across a mist net with a bird in it, leave it alone. Don’t touch it. Someone will be coming along soon to safely get the bird out, I promise. Well-meaning passersby can seriously injure birds by touching them and trying to “help.” Would you go into a hospital, walk into surgery and start poking around in a patient? No, of course not. You need training to perform surgery– which is my point exactly.

If you’d like to read a 66 page document put out by the Ornithological Council entitled Guidelines To The Use of Wild Birds in Research, click HERE. The last page also details the American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics, which are a must-know for all birders and anyone interested in observing birds in the wild.

And now, after our brief safety interlude, on to the good stuff:

What Is A Mist Net?

A mist net is a very fine net that we set up to catch birds. It looks like mist, and is a net, so we call them mist nets. Except they don’t actually look like mist. Imagine four 39.37 foot long hair nets (or 12 meters, since scientists reasonably use the metric system, unlike the rest of the US) strung between two poles, the bottom of the top one touching the next, and you have a fairly good idea of what a mist net looks like. Our nets are about 7-8 feet high, depending on how much we stretch them out, a guestimation based on the fact that we use 10 foot poles to string them on.

Picture borrowed from my co-bander Bo. Can you see the net stretching from the pole (going right)?

Picture borrowed from my co-bander Bo. Can you see the net stretching from the pole (going right)? It’s rather difficult to get a good picture of a mist net, since they are so fine and hard to see.

There are five thicker strings, called trammels, that have loops on either end and are what attach the net to the poles. Between the trammels stretch the mesh netting, which is fine enough that, once the net is spread open, is almost invisible (I’m guessing this is where the “mist” part of the name comes from). The netting forms a little bit of a pouch between each trammel, and when birds fly in they sometimes hit the net and fall into this pouch.

We use smaller-meshed netting (there are different sizes depending on what type of birds you are targeting; we’re trying to catch everything that will fly into the nets), and so larger birds usually don’t become too tangled in the mesh but instead are trapped in the pouch. Sometimes they can get themselves out before we get to them by flapping their way down the net until they get to the edge by the pole and then escaping.

The nets have give to them, so when birds fly into them they can bounce a bit, somewhat like the safety net below acrobats at the circus. I’ve watched birds fly directly into the net and bounce out, not getting caught at all.

Close-up of a mist net. Note the small mesh size.

Close-up of a mist net. Note the small mesh size. I frequently get my fingers tangled while trying to extract birds, one of the hazards of having big hands.

Smaller birds, like House Wrens and Black-Capped Chickadees, can almost fit completely through the mesh, and can become more tangled in the netting that larger birds (American Robins being an exception, the turds. And I mean that in a completely scientific way– their scientific name is Turdis migratorius, so we call them turd birds– from Turdis, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that they also they also tend to poop all over the place. The middle schoolers love it when I tell them that).

When we check the nets, we have to very delicately untangle the birds from the netting, which, depending on the species and the individual bird, can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. In my experience, warblers typically are easier, because they hit the net and don’t struggle too much and so aren’t too tangled. Wrens, on the other hand, like to thrash around, trying to extract themselves, and can sometimes spin themselves around in the net, so that they look like little balls of black netting with a head and feet poking out.

Usually we are able to quickly untangle the birds without hurting them or the net, but sometimes they become so tangled that the only way to extricate them safely is to cut the net. We carry small scissors and toothpicks, or sometimes crochet hooks, to use to slip the net off birds sometimes when our giant human fingers are too big to manipulate the thin netting off a tiny warbler or kinglet wing.

A MacGillivray's Warbler in the net. It took me less than a minute to safely extract (untangle) him.

A MacGillivray’s Warbler in the net. It took me less than a minute to safely extract (untangle) him.

There have been studies done to determine the safety of mist netting, and one study found that “Of 620,997 captures the percentage of incidents of injury amounting to 0.59% while only 0.23% of captures resulted in mortality.” They also found that birds that were recaptured more frequently were at less risk than birds only captured once. For more information, follow this link:

How Safe is Mist Netting? First Large Scale Study into Bird Capture Technique Evaluates the Risks

If you’re in the Grand Teton/Jackson WY area and would like to come out and see what we do at the banding station, join us for a Feathered Friday. There is a fee, but you get breakfast in addition to a visit with some fantastically amazing, beautiful, smart, witty, very-happy-to-be-up-at-4am- bird banders. Keegan, our crew leader, will also be there. He is just as cool as the rest of us, though maybe not quite as fantastically beautiful. (The rest of us on the crew are women, so poor Keegan has to put up with a lot sometimes).

Hope to see you around the banding station sometime, but if not some of my coming blog posts will definitely include our banding happenings, so stay tuned!

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If you’re looking for a new blog to read, check out this one by Bo D’Amato. She’s my bunkhouse mate/roommate/fellow bander, and has a cool blog called The Eco Explorer. Check it out– there’s at least one picture of my hands holding a Wilson’s Snipe on there.

A Day In the Life of an Endangered Species Intern

I wrote this for my MatadorU travel writing course, and thought it would be fun to share here. It’s about some of the field work I was doing while I was in South Carolina last year.

When I leave the house in the morning it is dark enough to use the brights. I drive my truck along a paved road, which turns to dirt. The packed dirt is first tan, then reddish-orange, then almost white. A nightjar stares me down from the middle of the road, but as I slow it flies off into the dark.

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A red-cockaded woodpecker foraging in a pine. Note the black and white barring on the back, white cheek patches, and black hood. The males will have small red patches on the back of their heads, which typically can’t be seen unless the bird is riled up and raises its feathers.

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The dark is softer when I arrive at Compartment 20, my destination. I wait in the truck, drinking tea from my thermos and listening to the radio, until the sky lightens. Just before sunrise I take one last sip and then slip into place with my spotting scope, binoculars, and notebook. I position myself about 100 yards from the nearest cavity tree and wait. The cavity I’m watching, a dark hole about 25 feet off the ground, partially hidden between branches, looks lifeless.

After ten minutes I see what I’ve come for: a red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) bursts out into the morning, chattering loudly. It forages in a nearby tree, tapping here and there on the bark, flaking off pieces that swivel to the ground. After a few minutes another RCW joins, and the two flit from tree to tree calling and foraging, taking stock of the day.

Fully grown, an RCW is the size of a robin with black and white stripes running across its back, sometimes called a ladder back. Like clowns, they have giant white cheek patches and tiny black caps. The males have red cockades, or small red patches, on each side of their black caps.

I follow the pair for the better part of an hour before I leave them to their business. Back at the truck I take a sip of now-cold tea before reading through my notes. Both RCWs were unbanded, which means they had not been captured and fitted with aluminum USGS numbered bands or colored plastic bands, which we use to identify individual birds. Because there were just the two of them, they are most likely a potential breeding pair, or a pair of mated RCWs who for whatever reason didn’t nest this year.

I was out this morning doing an early morning nest check, observing what was going on in a particular cluster of RCW cavity trees. These checks help to determine the overall breeding status and size of the RCW population on the refuge. They also mean that I get to spend early mornings in the woods staring at trees, hoping birds will show up so I can follow them and see what they’re up to.

In 2012 I spent three months as an endangered species intern, studying RCWs with the biologists at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. My internship, arranged through the Student Conservation Association, provided me with the opportunity to do hands-on conservation biology and work with government biologists to study an endangered species, a bird that few have heard of, let alone seen. My background in biology, and specifically ornithology, the study of birds, has taken me around the country to different wildlife refuges and protected areas, where I’ve had the privilege to experience many different aspects of the natural world.

Carolina Sandhills is located just outside of McBee, South Carolina, which is located just outside of the middle of nowhere.  As a local intern explained to me, towns in the region are defined by whether or not they have a Wal-Mart. McBee does not have a Wal-Mart.

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Carolina Sandhills NWR is divided into 21 compartments; each typically has 10-12 clusters of cavity trees. The maps give us an approximate idea of where the trees are, and we then find them on foot using a compass and a large dash of intuition. It sometimes took a while to find particular trees, as the maps are not entirely accurate.

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Red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) have been on the endangered species list since 1970, and the current population is estimated to be about 12,500. Like many endangered species, RCWs are closely tied to their habitat, in their case the longleaf pine ecosystem. There once were about 90 million acres of longleaf habitat spreading across the eastern United States, from New Jersey south to Florida and west to Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Only 2 million acres remain, in mostly isolated patches scattered through the southeast.

That much ecosystem doesn’t just disappear on its own. Logging, agriculture, the turpentine industry, tree farming, and urbanization, along with the suppression of natural fires, contributed to the decline of longleaf pine. Of these, burning is perhaps the most critical, because when fires are suppressed the composition of the forests changes. Fewer fires promote the growth of hardwoods, which the RCWs have no use for. They need pines, and pines need fire.

Natural fires, caused by lightning strikes, are typically low-intensity burns. These fires incinerate the fallen needles and grasses and leave mature trees undamaged. This keeps the area around the longleaf cleared, reducing competition and providing open areas for their seeds to quickly absorb nutrients from the ash. Longleaf pine forests are typically composed of just longleaf; there is an obvious lack of mid-story trees. The ground is covered with a high diversity of plants, all of which benefit from fire as well. Frequent forest fires “acted as the thread which held the longleaf pine forest together (1).”

RCWs are the only woodpeckers that nest in living pines. Connoisseurs, they prefer their trees aged: old-growth longleaf pine being most favored. The best longleaf will have red-heart disease, which softens the heartwood enough for the birds to easily excavate a cavity, anywhere from 10 to 80 feet off the ground. Longleaf pines have a high resin yield, and are very sticky trees. RCWs will open up sap wells all over the tree, which are especially good at keeping away rat snakes that will try to climb up and eat their eggs and nestlings. It is easy to spot cavity trees once you know what to look for—a large reddish section of bark midway up the tree, encrusted with sap.

Biologists (and interns) monitor most of the trees on the refuge with cavities, of which there are over 1,300. Thankfully, we only need to monitor the ones with recent activity, about a third of the cavity trees. The refuge is 45,348 acres, so there is a great deal of driving and hiking involved in this line of work.

Later in the morning, I drive to the office to fill out the official observation form for Nancy, the refuge biologist. Grabbing up my notebook and the spotting scope, I head inside.

“So how did it go out there?”  Nancy asks.

“I had two. They stayed mostly in Compartment 20, then headed towards that farm across the road off the refuge, then back towards Compartment 21.”

“That’s interesting; I wonder why they went over there. Ok, good. I thought I had heard birds out there during nest checks. Did they have bands?

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My peeper, leaning on a marked cavity tree. All known cavity trees are marked with a broad band of white paint to help not only biologists but also the firefighters who set prescribed burns on the refuge identify them. Peepers are about five feet tall and extend up to 35 feet. 

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“Nope, both unbanded.”

“What trees were you watching?”

“I was set up on 93, and the first RCW came from the cavity near the top of the tree. The other came from behind me, probably 97.”

We talk a little more about details of my observations, and Nancy shares her morning experiences in a different compartment. I fill out the official observation form, and she gives me my instructions for the day. I have five trees to inspect, checking up on nestlings we banded about two weeks ago.

“How’s your peeper been working?” she asks. Peepers are cameras on telescoping poles, which we use to ‘peep’ into RCW cavities. They keep us from having to climb the trees so we can make our observations more quickly, which means less stress for the birds, though not always for us. RCW cavity openings are about 2 inches in diameter, and directing a camera head smaller than your fist into a 2 inch hole 30 feet or so above the ground takes a bit of skill and practice. As a rule, the sun will be in your eyes, it will be windy, and/or there will be branches in the way.

“Okay I guess, but sometimes the arm that holds the camera up doesn’t stay tight, so when I pull it out of the cavity it flops straight down, and then I have to lower the entire thing and re-adjust it if I need another look, which is a pain.”

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A RCW nestling, about 7 or 8 days old. Its eyes are unopened, and the feathers are just starting to come in and poke through the skin. Their feathers grow in tracts, the darkened areas on the bird’s head, back, and wings. It takes RCW’s about 20 days to become fully feathered and reach adult size.

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Woodpecker nestlings are altricial, which means they are born without feathers, eyes closed, and are pretty much helpless. It takes about 20 days for RCW nestlings to grow in their adult feathers. Juvenile males will have the distinctive red crown patches on their temples; females’ just plain black and white. I peep into cavities and look for splotches of red, jotting down the number of nestlings and their sex: male, female, or unknown, if they are being uncooperative and sitting on top of one another so I can’t see the back of their heads.

As I drive off through the refuge towards my first cavity, I hear the chatter of brown nuthatches in the pines to my left. They sound like so many squeaky toys, jumping around in the trees like little yippy dogs. Listening closely, every once in a while I hear the “sklit, sklit” of an RCW flying overhead.

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1. Auburn Forestry site: The Longleaf Alliance

Additional Information

Blog posts about my experiences: 

Lessons From Wyoming

Or, Four Things I Learned Today

 

1. How to nest search.

In a nutshell: walk through the wild, look for bird nests. Record on nest card. Simple. (More on this later).

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Female yellow warbler on nest, Magee Marsh, Ohio (an excellent place for warblers in the spring). 

 

2. That I will always want to spend more money than I currently (or will ever) have on books, and that going into a bookstore “just to look” is never a good idea.

I don’t go into bookstores for the same reason I don’t buy Oreos, bags of Pirate’s Booty, containers of ice cream, or jars of Nutella: because I’ll eat it all at once and get sick (or because I’ll spend lots of money and expand my mind and entertain myself quietly and learn something interesting. Which isn’t exactly like eating an entire jar of Nutella in one sitting, but the two activities do tend to be tied together. Reading books, I find, is typically closely tied to consuming Nutella on Maria cookies– try it– and drinking copious amounts of tea, and then holding it as long as possible because I don’t want to stop reading long enough to pee. Perhaps the only good thing about driving across Texas twice with someone who doesn’t like stop was that it trained me to hold it for extended periods of time).

Okay, this one I knew before, but I was wandering around downtown Jackson this evening and found a really neat bookstore, Valley Bookstore, and ended up wandering in and making a short-list of about 30 different books I wanted to come back and buy once I get paid.

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3. I also found out that many people are into birds, including Mike, who helped me select a good trail/topo map of the area at Teton Mountaineeringwho also told me I need to go to Bird Club meetings, first Sunday of the month at the Visitor Center parking lot, and the man working at the Thomas Mangelsen gallery, who told me about how the crows that nest in his backyard occasionally leave food bits in his bird bath, including cookies, dead bird nestlings, and the head of a lovebird (probably someone’s pet who got loose and got eaten). His neighbor puts out bread, which attracts the crows to their yards. Last summer he had a cedar waxwing nest in the bush just outside his door, but he didn’t take any pictures because he didn’t want to tip off the crows as to the location of the nest. We chatted a while, if you couldn’t tell.

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And when not eating other birds, crows also will eat gummy bears.

 

4. That I should get a mountain bike.

And that I actually kinda want to use it on a mountain. Biking on inclines isn’t exactly my thing (I grew up biking on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath, where elevation gain is described as “minimal.” I love mountains, but they are primarily for climbing up using either two or four limbs, not two wheels. However, the hills are calling, and I think my leg muscles might be able to answer. Or at least they’re seriously considering it.

I also learned that there is a trail called Putt-Putt that’s easy but “you’ll be feeling it after,” according to the guy at Sports Authority who told me where to go to buy a bike (not Sports Authority, though the bike he recommended will be going on sale soon but I didn’t hear it from him).

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Yeah, this one’s not my picture either. It’s from the Bridger-Teton National Forest website

From Trails.com:

“Imagine combining a roller-coaster ride and a bobsled run—the result would be the Putt-Putt loop.”

Um yeah, maybe I’ll stick to the paved multi-purpose trail for a little while…

Bird Banding with the Teton Science Schools

So here I am in the Tetons, about to start a three month stint working for the Conservation Research Center of the Teton Science Schools (TSS). I am working with the bird banding crew, and our job is to catch birds at five different sites; three around the town of Jackson, Wyoming, and two in the Grand Teton National Park.

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Our sites are in both developed and undeveloped areas (the ones in downtown Jackson are interesting, as we sometimes get homeless people hanging out in our net lanes). One goal of the project is to see how songbirds respond to different levels of development, by comparing our data from site in the park (which are undeveloped) and those in downtown Jackson (located in the middle of housing developments and surrounded by busy roads). There have been 21 years of banding going on through the TSS, and it’s exciting to be contributing to such long-term research.

I’m still learning about our particular project, but if you follow the link above it will take you to the CRC website, which has a nice little description of our research. I will also be sharing more as the season goes on, so stay tuned!

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One of our volunteers, Anya, with the male sharp-shinned hawk.

We’re still in training at the moment, but official banding starts on Friday. I’m excited. Our first day is at one of our sites in the park, and Jenny, our boss, has said they typically see the most wildlife at that site, including moose, bison, bear (black and grizzly), and white-tailed deer. But don’t worry Mom, we were all issued bear spray yesterday and trained in its use. I’m hoping never to get close enough to spray down a grizzly, but it’s good to know the spray cannister works.

During our most recent practice banding session, we caught a couple of exciting birds (all birds are exciting, but these were especially so. They also might have been the only ones I remembered to take pictures of…):

First was this male Sharp-shinned Hawk

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And this older male Lazuli Bunting, who was absolutely gorgeous:

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(links in green will take you to more information about these species)

Can’t wait to see what else we catch in our nets this summer!

Winter Nap

Because we just had more than a foot of snow dump on us here in Boulder (and I think there’s more coming), I thought I’d share this piece. It was written more than a few years ago while I was in college, while sitting in a coffee shop at a Kroger grocery store, watching the snow fall outside and my friend take a nap. 

 

snow on a bird bath

 

The snow falls outside. A sleeping face. Gentle twitching in the grey light. Ruffled red feathers on the branch. The feeder sees good business on these days. Chickadees move from branch to branch to feeder. Still only long enough to select the perfect seed. Everything is covered in a white powder, white, lightly frozen air. White cold. White nothing.

The face turns. Eyes flicker, remain closed. Warm socks, hot tea. All still, save the feathers, the snow. Heat inside, cold out. Soothing breath, calm, peaceful. Dark lashes, like feathers, on a lighter face. Deep footprints, shallower, filling imperceptibly. Cold magic. Large hands folded, resting. The snow piles higher. Red, blue, brown jostle for space. Chickadees are polite, waiting their turn. Cardinals come and go as they please, leaving the others to their mess. The snow falls sideways. It sticks to the side of buildings.

black-capped chickadee at feeder

Brown eyes open to the grey, the white, the cold. They close, a more comfortable position. The foot moves, subdued by eventual rest. Footprints are gone, colors are gone, only grey, only white. On the lee side of the feeder, feathers huddle, warm air trapped tight to bodies. Steady warm breath thaws the heart, the soul. The snow falls. Birds feed. Sleeping gently as the snow whispers its way down.

Waiting for pines

Written while waiting for a friend at Ohio Wesleyan University, Spring 2009. 

Ohio Wesleyan University

There are two pine trees, stuck between two buildings, two cement squares of sidewalk. The pines are thin, an arm-span around, or so it seems. No one has hugged them to find out. They are tall, straighter than the warped, old buildings, rising up to bring nature to this between-land, reminders that there is more to the world than brick and stone. At the top, they lean towards each other, branches intertangled in the light.

A girl sits below with a notebook, waiting. Her bench is black, shiny, dark against the pale stone building. She writes, but looks up when a crow rattles in one of the trees. She hears the sound but sees not its maker, the bird sooty with an iridescent powder that makes its feathers gleam in the light. Black is not one color but all colors mixed together, a blended rainbow sitting in the tree, hiding among the green needles.

The girl smiles. She looks up, looking for the crow she knows is there, but sees nothing, just the wind and the sun on the branches and stonework of the buildings. She smiles at the confused look of a passerby, startled by the odd sound.

The girl and the crow, both alone, both waiting, for what? What is there to wait for in this life? Another crow, a partner in sound? A moment? The fleeting pleasure of laughter, the rattle of a crow in the tree tops?

She sits and waits and writes and stares at nothing, at everything, waiting.

Crow

OWU University Hall

Crow

The Flight of the Albatross

Written in 2009, about my trip to the Galapagos Islands in 2008.

Waved Albatross Galapagos Islands

Waved albatross, Galapagos Islands, 2008

There is a place where the wind blows and lifts. Cliffs on the ocean, looking down on the rocks and marine iguanas, sunning, swimming. The rocks look sharp, young, fresh. Untouchable, distant. Albatrosses walk up, a side-to-side gait, comical with their serious eyes. They reach the edge, spread broad, long wings, longer than they looked, so light, just feather and hollow bone, but strong, so strong for flight. They fall up. The wings are a parachute, the wind a friend, the air comforts, supports, pushes and pulls, holds. The giant bird floats along, moves past the rocks, the shrubby grasses, past life, from the center of vision to the periphery, a distinct form to a small dark dot, moving, moving, gone.

To follow—the urge is there. Spread arms and legs, spread dreams, spread soul, and let go. To move away from everything known, into the unknown. To trust, to fly. Is it the flier moving and the word standing still? Or the world moving past in an eye-watering blur and the flier, the bird, held in place, held frozen for a time, measurement suspended? But which way is the fall—up or down? Towards the stars or the rocks—similar, similar; just a difference of distance and iguanas. There is the other choice; to stay. The least attractive, the least risky, perhaps, for the moment.

How long does the moment last until the next? A picture does no justice, cannot capture the vitality of the actuality, the breath of the moment. There is only an idea left, a memory of a feeling, a sense of the wonder and the wild, of the perfectly regulated space of time when albatrosses fly.

Galapagos Islands albatross

Waved albatross, Galapagos Islands, 2008