Crossing the road

For several hours I watched the red-shouldered hawk nest hoping Artemis would shuffle to a new position that might afford me some photographic opportunities.  She habitually settles too deep into the nest to be visible from the ground, let alone photographed, so eventually I walked away resigned to seeing only her mate as he patrolled the area, visited her, and played cat-and-mouse with the local crow ensemble.

Walking up the hill alongside the park entrance road, home visible at the edge of the open woods, I paused at the slightest bit of movement hiding in my peripheral vision.  Something lurked on the side of the road.  I knelt at the edge of the blacktop to watch.

A male and female pair of mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) wandering through grass (2010_03_14_051464)

By no means a rare encounter as mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) are year-round residents, I still found myself intrigued and beguiled by what most would consider a pedestrian species.  Call me simple, but to my mind the common is as breathtaking as the once-in-a-lifetime.

I settled beneath a canopy of sunshine and watched them as they meandered toward me.  Amazing how nothing more complicated than ducks tending to their day can be such an entertaining show.

Finally she turned and started across the road.

A female mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) crossing a road (2010_03_14_051483)

He followed.

A male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) crossing a road (2010_03_14_051493)

But she reached the opposite side quickly even as he paused to inspect some shiny trinket.  And this allowed just enough room between them for a car to intersect their path.

Having seen me and having realized I was watching something around the bend that he could not see, the driver slowed as he approached.  This gave him the opportunity to stop when he realized the ducks were in the road.  Stopping, I should point out, which resulted in the automobile resting between the drake and hen.

And the drake did not like that.

A male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) with his head lowered in challenge (2010_03_14_051499)

He lowered his head and gave a brief charge coupled with a hiss.

The driver, an elderly man smiling with the energy of a star, recognized the predicament and reversed for little more than one full turn of the tires.  The distance was right.  The male responded with a quick prance across the road.

A male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) crossing a road (2010_03_14_051514)

Where he rejoined his mate.

A male and female pair of mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) crossing a road (2010_03_14_051516)

They wandered off peacefully, waddling down the opposite embankment and vanishing from sight.

I turned to the man driving the car, gave him a smile and said, “Thank you.”

His smile brightened such that I might be staring into the sun.  He waved as he replied, “My pleasure.”

Then we both went our separate ways.

Now days later as I relive those brief moments, I am reminded of the day a few years ago as I drove my parents to the airport to pick up Sharon, my aunt who was flying in from New York.  Mom sat in the back seat, my dad belted in beside me in the passenger seat, each of us giggling like school children in the face of constant levity.

On a rural road barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other, bright summer sunshine pouring down just as it had on these ducks, our laughs halted as a coyote dashed across the concrete in front of us.  At speed, we would have hit it.

I braked with fervency, an act that just about threw my mother into the front seat, and we came to a stop beside the coyote.  I could have tossed a feather onto the canine’s back for its nearness.

And in that moment we looked at each other, the three of us humans and one lone coyote.  None of us moved.

Stopping.  So simple an act of kindness.

We drove away after a few moments.  In the mirror I could see the coyote where we left it, still standing in the tall grass, still watching after us as we vanished in the hazy heat of the day.

“Thank you,” I heard it say.

“My pleasure.”

xenogere at NBN

Great egret (Ardea alba) standing in the lake (2010_02_20_049991)

If there’s one place on the web that represents the most enthusiastic and diverse crowd of natural history buffs on the planet, it’s Nature Blog Network.  More than 1,000 sites are represented, each a gem in its own right, and the whole spans everything from academics and backyard exploration to spirituality and conservation.  One could spend a healthy bit of time wandering the member blogs without ever seeing the same thing twice.  To be in the company of such a dedicated and enlightening group is to be a part of family.

So I was both honored and taken aback when contacted by Wren, one of the managing personalities behind the network  Why did her missive surprise me?  Because it was an invite for xenogere to be one of their featured blogs.  Wow!  That honor includes such notables as Alex Wild, Ted MacRae, Amber Coakley and Bill Thompson III.  I suddenly felt as though I was rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.

So rather than sing and dance for you here in my own crib, let’s take a stroll over there to enjoy my interview routine at Featured Blog: xenogere.  And be sure to thank the nice hosts for the bang-up job they do supporting this marvelous community of nature nuts.

[photo of a great egret (Ardea alba) waiting patiently for a meal to swim by]

Where I’m from

A few weeks ago Laura from Somewhere in NJ posted something that really struck me.  Her We are from entry is based on the Where I’m From template, something I found to be an intriguing guide through life and time given specific yet open ideas to pull from.

I ultimately decided not to read Laura’s post at that time lest it somehow sway me, the reason being I wanted to dig into this for myself.  So now that I’ve finally found the time to do it, below is a sampling of life that tells where I’m from.  And now I’m finally off to read Laura’s post…

* * * * * * * * * *

I am from drive-in movie theaters with tiny tinny speakers rattling in the night and bring-it-yourself popcorn shared from a giant bowl;  from station wagons by Datsun and Oldsmobile and Dodge, from Schlitz Malt Liquor, and from Kool-Aid and BAND-AID; and from a broken home made whole again.

I am from gentle breezes and the sound of rain drifting through open windows; from collapsible doors that lost their entertainment value after five seconds; from yards never large enough for the adventures of childhood but always too large when viewed from behind a lawnmower; and from my father’s unbreakable windows that didn’t stand up to his hammer test.

I am from fireflies caught at dusk and held in a jar just long enough to become a lantern, then released in a plume of luminescence that lit up the night; from fresh peaches that tickled the skin as much as the taste buds; from the pecan tree that gave sustenance and shade in return for our climbing embraces; from blowing on dandelions and wishing I could take flight with the shooting stars they created; and from the smell of summer rising from grass freshly mowed, wild onions adding a perfect bit of spice to tantalize and tease.

I am from the potency of goodnight kisses, playing horseshoes and Jarts and the sunburns that we gave as payment for the fun, and waiting for hours on Christmas morning until everyone else woke up; from strict discipline and immeasurable folly; from Homer and Helen; from brothers and a sister; and from family names that stretch through centuries of America.

I am from sitting around the table for hours and reminiscing, often laughing but sometimes crying, a rich and diverse history explored over and over again, each time revealing one more gem, one more mystery; and I am from country folk turned city folk turned country folk.

I am from “don’t put it on your plate unless you’re going to eat it,” “if you go outside, stay outside, because we’re not air conditioning the neighborhood,” “sit up straight,” “don’t make me stop this car,” “remember your curfew,” “we’ll get through this as a family,” and “I  love you.”

I am from solemn Baptist and fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal and the church with no name, from bedtime prayers and prayers before meals, from you will go to church and you can go to church if you want.  And I am from realizing I can be a good man without it.

I am from countless generations of hearty New York stock, from places with names like Syracuse, Rochester and Tully; I am from New York as much as I am from Oklahoma and Texas and Colorado, from rolling hills and cornfields to life on the city’s edge, from deer meandering by the back door to the sound of a highway not too distant, each being home because family lived there even if I didn’t.  I am from Mom’s lasagna, vast buffets of Mexican food eaten on Sunday afternoons until we were too heavy to leave the dining room, and backyard barbecues scented with chicken and homemade coleslaw.

I am from variety shows we kids put together and performed for the family, each full of singing and acting and dancing; from watching Lisa’s car float away during heavy rains; from Fred trying to hide an impossibly twisted-in-half truck axle on Dad’s pick-up; from skateboarding and cycling with my siblings; and from moving out on my own before I finished high school.

I am from 8mm home videos now safely stored on DVD, and from photos stored in boxes, in albums, and finally on computers.  I am from being the baby of the family, the youngest, the one called On by only one person.  I am from Mom’s paintings and Dad’s adventures, from mementos that can only be remembered but never found, and from memories that can never be lost.

Of monarchs, migrations, milkweeds and misfortunes

It rests squarely in the “No shit!” category that monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are an obsession of mine.  From the first time more than 30 years ago when I witnessed voluminous clouds of them roiling across Texas on their way south for winter, I could not help but be fascinated by the spectacle of such a giant movement of insects.  That I live in the path of their largest flyway and not too far north of where the Mexico-bound flyways coalesce adds to my ability to wallow in this superlative natural phenomenon.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) clinging to a flower (2009_09_05_028719)

In good years, perhaps up to one billion butterflies travel southward into Mexico where they overwinter.  The generation that flies south has never been there before, and these individuals suppress their normally short lives in order to survive for up to six months.  Then in spring they begin their journey northward, mating and laying eggs along the way.  Most of this traveling group will perish before leaving Texas and surrounding states, but their legacy will be the first new generation that will continue the northward march.  Up to four generations are necessary to complete their journey to Canada, at which point the last generation turns south.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feeding on wildflowers (2009_09_05_028713)

Last year I wrote a piece for The Clade discussing the perils faced by monarch butterflies.  I said then that they unfortunately stand in the cross hairs of a twofold threat: habitat loss and climate change.  Illegal logging in their winter territory has destroyed several prime overwintering areas.  In fact, NASA pointed out in its satellite analysis of the monarch reserve that “researchers are greatly concerned that the entire monarch butterfly migration and overwintering phenomenon in eastern North America may collapse in the near future if the Mexican government does not fully enforce the logging ban.”  That enforcement regrettably has yet to happen.

But the other problem, climate change, reared its ugly head with historic drought that gripped Texas for years.  It did not end until winter 2009-2010, meaning butterflies returning in spring 2009 were welcomed into a land of parched, barren earth, few wildflowers upon which to feed, few milkweeds upon which to lay eggs, and a dearth of fresh water to drink.  The expanse of the Lone Star State became one vast minefield bent on destroying what it could of these magnificent creatures.  Yet despite having no choice but to navigate this unwelcoming landscape, the monarchs completed their yearly migration and returned to Mexico in autumn 2009, albeit in smaller numbers than usual due to unfavorable conditions in the US and Canada in summer 2009.  Sadly, the assault on the monarchs was far from over, for their return to the Mexican state of Michoacan would offer them no reprieve from constant attacks.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feeding on wildflowers (2009_09_05_028737)

In any El Niño year the weather patterns over the monarch winter colonies changes, as it does over the rest of the world.  But this year the weather patterns changed into a devastating fight against the monarchs when they are most vulnerable: when the mass of their population is grouped together in small areas.  To wit:

Monarch butterflies, hit hard by strong storms at their winter home in Mexico, have dwindled to their lowest population levels in decades as they begin to return to Texas on their springtime flight back to the United States and Canada.

The monarch loss is estimated at 50 to 60 percent and means that the breeding population flying northward is expected to be the smallest since the Mexican overwintering colonies were discovered in 1975, said Chip Taylor, a professor of entomology and director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

“I think it is very clear that the butterflies lost more than half of the population,” Taylor said. “I’m hoping it wasn’t as high as 70 or 80 percent. We’ve never seen it this bad before.”

News reports abound explaining of torrential rains and mudslides that devastated the insects.  Serious interest is being paid to the number of individuals now passing through Texas, and a public information campaign has been launched to let people know what they can do to help.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feeding on wildflowers (2009_09_05_028741)

Very much unlike 2009, the generous rain and snow we received from last autumn through winter means the monarchs now traveling through Texas have discovered a world of verdant growth, with wildflowers and milkweeds and fresh water aplenty.  Yet their journey has only just begun.  The availability of milkweeds and flowers in their migration path is the only thing that can help them recover—and it’s believed it will take two or three years for them to fully recover if one assumes conditions remain in their favor.  Which they haven’t been for years.


The ground shimmered beneath a cloud of movement.  A vast swath of the meadow seemed alive with life that darted and buzzed and hovered.  I could hear them as I approached the motte around which they busied themselves.  Given their size, how well they maneuvered in the air and the noise they made, I first thought them to be bumble bees.  Though it seemed a curious thing for such creatures to be so focused on this place considering there were no flowers in the immediate vicinity.

Once close enough to see them clearly, I realized they weren’t bumble bees.  And I also realized their aerobatic legerdemain ended abruptly when they tried to land.  Not that the larger chafers and flower beetles are known to be expert fliers; however, they’re especially known to be even worse when it comes to landing.  (I’ve always said I know June beetles are out when they start bouncing off the windows and walls around the patio.)

Bumble flower beetle (a.k.a. brown fruit chafer; Euphoria inda) perched on a blade of grass (2010_03_13_051232)

Bumble flower beetles (a.k.a. brown fruit chafers; Euphoria inda).  Several dozen of them.  They settled only momentarily in the open before vanishing into the grass, then seconds later they erupted into the air again.  It tickled me to see how well they performed weaving around each other—and me—and how poorly they performed trying to get on the ground.

Bumble flower beetle (a.k.a. brown fruit chafer; Euphoria inda) lying on its side (2010_03_13_051238)

This one rebounded off the dead leaf and landed on its side.  A not too uncommon sight from what I witnessed.  It paused there for a moment as if stunned, or at least as if it was playing dead so it wouldn’t have to face the embarrassment of its predicament.

Bumble flower beetle (a.k.a. brown fruit chafer; Euphoria inda) standing on a dead leaf (2010_03_13_051242)

Yet it did right itself.  Eventually.

Photographing these critters proved a difficult task since they fly fast and free and land with a rapid devil-may-care dive.  Keeping track of them in the air was hard enough, but then I usually had a second or two at most after they landed before they disappeared between blades of grass.

Most notable about standing in the middle of their morning mêlée: with such a large crowd flying in such a small area, not one of them hit me.  They could certainly teach their cousins a thing or two about flight (but not so much landing).