Fair Summer Day in New England

Last Wednesday the sun rose at 5:53 a.m. in Old Saybrook, CT.  Our bedroom window faced east, though, so we were probably aware of the approaching day before then, “first light” being at 5:23.  Time enough to roll over and snooze a bit more before breakfast.  Then a walk along the shore road to get muscles loose and blood flowing.

I sat for a bit of a rest on a bench looking out over Long Island Sound, as the tide continued its slow surge in.  Not more than five feet offshore, a cormorant dove and surfaced, dove and surfaced, submerging for just a few seconds.  Every time he came up with another bite-sized fish.  Often it shimmered silver in his beak for a second before he swallowed.  After about thirty or forty such bites, the bird made its way at a more purposeful pace, swimming toward the pointed rock where he and some of his friends hung out, drying feathers, scouting for food, and adding another layer of “whitewash” to their perch.  One of the ospreys from South Cove soared overhead, coming from behind my right shoulder, hanging a left over the shoreline, and winging away to the east.  It circled a couple of times, but did not do the hell-bent freefall dive of a fish hawk that has spotted prey.  Gulls and terns glided, wheeled, squawked; swallows silently pursued insects invisible to me.  The water was nearly calm close to shore, and just slightly rippled further out.  Later there would be whitecaps, as the almost-still wind freshened to a brisk onshore breeze and the flag on the pole by Seacrest Road rippled out due north.

river scene with boat

Connecticut River at East Haddam

By midmorning we were on a tour of the scenic area around Essex, Haddam, and other nearby towns along the Connecticut River.  Essex is one of the most beautiful river ports I’ve ever seen, with its shady old clapboard houses and their large trim lawns, jam-packed marina, and picture-perfect waterfront views.  We were glad of the lighter midweek traffic; apparently it’s hard to navigate on summer weekends.  Cruising on through small towns and rustic scenery, I got the sense I’ve often had that these landscapes are distinctively recognizable as New England.  Partly it’s the authentic Colonial architecture: wooden siding (not plastic or aluminum), with the boards laid close together (not 10” or 12” wide) to keep out wet and cold, shutters that still work or at least simulate that function, brick or stone chimneys atop functional fireplaces.  There are more evergreens and different deciduous trees from those where I live in Virginia.  I’m not sure what else goes into it, but the difference is unmistakable.

nest on bridge

Osprey Nest on East Haddam Swing Bridge

We stopped to stretch our legs near the East Haddam Swing Bridge, a truss structure over the Connecticut between East Haddam and Haddam.  From the shore we could see the osprey nest atop one of the bridge towers.  That pair has an unparalleled view up and down the river, and easy fishing.  The lot we parked in serves the Goodspeed Musicals building, an elegant early Victorian ex-opera house, which does a brisk summer business.

At lunch time we went to the Pizza Palace Restaurant, an exception to the excellent cooking offered by our hosts, Henry and Anne. But I was in pursuit of fried clams, and they said this was the place.  It was!  Anne and I shared a heaping plate of fried whole clams, with French fries and a mound of the best fried onion rings ever.  (Do you catch a “fried” theme here?)  Henry and Jane shared a pizza.  All of us left full and happy.

A lazy summer afternoon, with sun and sea breeze, led to another treat: a concert on the Old Saybrook Town Green.  We ate at home for convenience, but took some wine to sip.  It was a family event, starting at 6:30.  When we arrived, a number of families were already there.  Some were picnicking, others just talking.  Toddlers visited each other between family groups.  Two girls shot baskets on a court behind the green (and would still be doing it when we left).  Kids ran, walked, or rode tricycles on a paved path around war memorials, one for the “War of the Rebellion,” the other for the wars of the 20th century.  (It is to be noted that most French hamlets lost double or triple as many men in WW I as Old Saybrook has lost in all wars put together.)  In a large gazebo a three-man band warmed up.  Evening sun glowed warmly on a huge old butternut tree that presided over all.  The musicians were headed by a performer well versed in the rock-and-roll of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  We heard the songs of such artists as Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Del Shannon, whose hit “Runaway” opened the show and set the tone for the evening.  The lead man had an excellent voice for this kind of music, and his guitar work was impressively professional.  The music echoed through our youthful memories, and got my toes tapping.  Others, one couple in particular, went literally a few steps farther and danced in front of the stage.  The show went on, the kids quieted down and slept, the sunlight on the butternut tree faded.

When it was almost 8 o’clock, we picked up to head home for a nightcap.  We’d had fair weather and an excellent summer day.  The sun set in Old Saybrook at 7:56 p.m.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017

The Bald-Faced Hornet

The other day we were doing a quick walk-around of the house with a handyman.  We’d hoped to hire him to take care of a couple of relatively minor yet urgent jobs—and we did so.  But while surveying the back yard we noticed a bees’ nest.  Tucked up against the edge of the sunroom, attached to the downspout, gutter, and facing board, was a big gray papery mass.  We assumed this must have been built over the last couple of weeks.  We’re out in the back yard pretty regularly in the summer, even when it is persistently hotter than normal like this year.  It wasn’t perfect porch weather, but we’d spent significant time there, in a place from which one could have seen the nest easily.  We’d mowed, watered, picked basil and rosemary, and raked out there.  The nest couldn’t have been there very long.

Bald-Faced Hornet

A Bald-Faced Hornet, so called because of the white markings.

Since we have a pest control contract to ward off carpenter ants, termites, chipmunks, and other pests (sadly it does not cover white-tailed deer, the pest of pests in our neighborhood), we called the contractor the next morning.  A meeting time was set up for the following day, and at the appointed hour Nixon, our main man, who I reckon to have been born between 1968 and 1974, arrived.  Nixon knows about all sorts of critters, and he took one look at our nest and said “Bald-Faced Hornets.”  We thought he said “Bold-Faced,” which would serve equally well.  He sprayed as a precaution, though he doubted that there were any live bees there.  “But it’s been there only a couple of weeks,” we explained.  Nixon took the nest down, gaining access by our stepladder.  There were many layers of papery gray sheets, with the asymmetrical yet harmonious shapes of so many natural objects built by living creatures.  They left a pattern on the siding; I’ll need to go back and wash them off soon.  Inside the torn-open structure the brood cells lay bare, caps gone, empty.  The last hornets had departed long since.

nest

The nest on our house

Clearly we had just not seen the nest for the several months it had been there.  Looked at it, probably, when it was full of activity, with hornets passing in and out of the large hole near the bottom on the side facing away from the house.  But never saw it. It’s hard to imagine being so oblivious to such a vivid and dangerous life center in our own yard.  On YouTube are several videos in which people try to stir up a hornet’s nest, and for the next several minutes the camera, many feet from the person taking the picture, is under constant attack by angry, buzzing, stinging insects.  Turns out Bald-Faced Hornets are very common, even though I’d never heard of them before.  They are actually a type of yellow-jacket, not a true hornet.  They are very aggressive and persistent in chasing off attackers.  They eat other insects, including yellow-jackets, and in the fall they die off, except for young fertile queens, who hibernate and breed new colonies in the spring.

Later that day, Jane observed a Downy Woodpecker pecking away intensely at the place where the nest had been attacked.  I figured that the bird was probably attracted to whatever small vermin had been left behind when the nest was removed.  The following day on my walk I heard a pecking noise up in a nearly leafless maple tree.  Sure enough, there was a big, beautiful Bald-Faced Hornet nest, hanging from a limb free and perfectly formed.  On it was a Downy Woodpecker hammering away.  A week earlier the sight would have meant nothing to me.  But then it seemed like a train of thought had come full circle, that I understood a little more about my world than I had before.

© Arnold J. Bradford, 2016

 

Nature Report

Last Saturday my ride launched at about 11:30 in 77˚ weather.  It had been cloudy and even threatening for part of the morning, but finally things broke up into bright sun and copious cumulus clouds.  The sun was as yellow as the button in the middle of the asters by the side of the trail, the clouds as white as the circular doilies of Queen Anne’s Lace in the meadows nearby, and the patches of sky in between those clouds as blue and intense as the first blossoms of the copious Cornflowers that were newly opened everywhere.  All felt fresh and new after the midweek downpours ensuing from a slowly moving frontal boundary.

It being Saturday and school being newly out, every Weekend Warrior and their whole family—Warrior spouse, kid on a bike, and toddler on a tricycle—was out on the trail, so one had to ride with one’s eyes open.  The line for the light at Maple Avenue was about ten people long.

Apparently the animals felt the same way about the coming of nice weather.  Outbound from Vienna, along Difficult Run, I spotted a terrapin on the trail ahead.  It was traversing at a testudinarian pace from right to left, and had almost reached the center line.   So I veered slightly to the right to pass.  Just as I got to the terrapin a rider coming the other way stopped smack in the middle of her lane, reached down, and picked the reptile up to help it complete its journey safely.  The angle of her lean, however, brought her head, shoulders, and arm onto my side, and I just avoided a glancing blow.  Weekend warrior behavior.

I went on all the way to the skateboard park at the west end of Herndon, but I promised not to further discuss this topic, so I will not report that it was my first ride to my former regular westbound turn-around point.  On the way back there is a long downhill stretch from Michael Faraday Ct. to Hunter Mill Road, featuring a speedy, leafy descent from Sunrise Valley to Buckthorn Lane, with a short, steep rise just before Buckthorn.  Along that stretch an animal ran right into the buzz-saw of my front wheel.  I suspect it was a squirrel, because they characteristically cross roadways in frantic, demented dashes, featuring instant 180˚ turns if they see a vehicle coming in mid-dash.  Could have been a chipmunk.  In any case, this one dashed straight into the spokes from about 20” away.  Why it didn’t see me coming I can’t imagine.  But the spokes were revolving so fast—I was probably traveling at about 22 mph—that it made a fur-muffled bump sound and bounced straight off again, grazing my right shoe, which was on the downstroke.  I barely saw it, because needless to say I was focusing on the road ahead.

Immediately I heard an approaching rider exclaim “oh dear.”  I didn’t brake or stop pedaling, because it would have been to no avail.  I have no veterinary skills, nor do I carry needles with units of tetanus vaccine, or leather gloves.  I am not equipped on any level to render assistance to wounded wild animals.  I assume it was the worse for the collision.  If it died, my major regret is that it did not live out its role in the food chain by providing a meal to some hungry predator, a hawk or a fox.

About a mile inbound from Hunter Mill, headed for Vienna, I saw another Weekend Warrior stopped in the lane ahead of me.  I reckoned it was somebody on their cell phone, or with a mechanical.  As I approached she was looking ahead, not at me, so I said “on the left” and swung around her.  Then I saw what she was looking at: a long Black Rat Snake, wriggling again from right to left, crossing the trail ahead of her.  Its head was in the grass on the far shoulder and its tail just past the center line, with a set of slithering S-curves worthy of the Shenandoah River.  Straightened out, it would have to have been at least 5 feet long.  Too late to stop, I swerved back to the right in front of her and just missed the snake.  I said “sorry, I didn’t see that!” as I passed.  She laughed and said “neither did I at first.”  So glad not to have injured a large reptilian eater of vermin and (less happily) bird eggs and baby birds.

runner lunge

Department of Silly Walks: Runner Lunge

After all that action I didn’t know what to expect today, equally warm and sunny, though a bit more humid.  But I found: nothing.  The closest I came was the mundane, familiar domestic scene of an immature English Sparrow, now fully as large as its parent, standing in the middle of the trail, flapping its wings, chirping helplessly, demanding to be fed (before going back down to the basement to play more video games).  And then there was the exerciser, in tank top, spandex pants, walking shoes with low socks, and a pink baseball cap with an oversize brim about as big as the one Jayson Werth wishes he had yesterday.  She was blending yoga and walking by making each step a Runner Lunge.  As I passed I was SO tempted to say “Perfect for the Department of Silly Walks!  John Cleese has nothing on you.”  But I didn’t.

Still, you never know what you’re going to run into on the W&OD.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

A few days ago, in the late afternoon sunlight, I noticed a bird alight on a branch outside my second-story home office window.  I was preparing for an online class, moved up from the usual 7 p.m. start time by a Maundy Thursday church service.  A glance told me this might be something unusual; something about the coloration and the posture took it out of the realm of an ordinary songbird.

I grabbed the binoculars that always lie at hand, and checked it out.  Sure enough, the posture was upright, the beak was hooked, the breast feathers were in distinct vertical barring.  This was a hawk!  The amazing thing about it, though, was that it was barely bigger than a Blue Jay, that familiar perky, pesky, raucous songbird cousin of crows.  I checked other identifying marks, too.  The feathers on the upper back seemed greyish, and a few had white spots.  The rest of the back was more brown.  The beak was black, the eye yellow, legs yellow, and tail obstructed from view by the shape of the branches.  The bird sat there for several minutes, while I googled bird ID sites.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has the best one by far, a fact I proclaim with an alumnus’ pride.

sharp-shinned

Immature Sharp-shinned Hawk

And what I found was not simple.  There are two hawks that look like this; the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk.  The Sharp-shinned is the smallest hawk in North America, while the Cooper’s is just enough larger to be described as “medium.”  To put this in perspective, adult Sharp-shinneds are 9 ½ to 13 ½ inches long, have wingspans of 17 to 22 inches, and weigh all of 3 to 8 oz.  Coopers range from 14 ½ to 15 inches (male) / 16 ½ to 17 inches (female), span 24-35 inches (m) / 30 to 35 inches (f), and weigh 8 to 14 ½ oz (m) / 11 ½ to 24 oz (f).  So a large Sharp-shinned is nearly the size of a small Cooper’s.

Both have red eyes and breasts that are horizontally barred as adults, and both have yellow eyes and vertical bars as immatures (immatures can also be recognized by their inclination to be socially awkward, act silly, and wear makeup badly).  Both species feature songbirds as a major dietary element, so both hang around bird feeders.  (And we thought cats were the primary danger at feeders!)  Both can fly at lightning speed through dense branch coverage, and tend to do so to surprise their victims.  The Cooper’s Hawk is more common, but the Sharp-shinned is present during migration season.

The Cornell site even has a whole section with excellent photographic evidence comparing and contrasting the two.  The Cooper’s has a longer neck and a longer tail; that’s why I regret the obstructed view of the tail I had.  I did not observe the bird in open flight either; after a few minutes he or she just took off on a straight line, and was out of sight in a second.

The evidence that convinced me that I saw an immature Sharp-shinned is its truly diminutive size, its “no-neck” look, and the heaviness of its barring, which is more persistent on the Sharp-shinned.  I’m going to keep my eyes open, though.  Cooper’s Hawks are apparently abundant in suburban areas of this region, and are simply not noticed as often as more brightly colored or flamboyant birds.  Seeing one would give me a chance to verify by comparison and contrast that it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk I saw this time.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016

Days of the Garter

Honi soit qui mal y pense.
I offer warm accolades to all readers who can (a) translate this sentence accurately, (b) provide its historical background, factual and legendary, and (c) relate it to the title of this blog.

Of late we’ve had some real fall weather, as it is understood in this climate. Nighttime temperatures have dipped into the 30s and even upper 20s, bringing the first frosts, though not killing freezes yet. The neighbors’ mysterious oriental vine (their ancestral home is Tibet) is now limp and ruined, hanging slackly from its elaborate support structure of string and wood. But our own potted geraniums, tucked snugly against the house on the front stoop, are still thriving, bringing forth a resurgent growth of red blossoms. Yet we know their days are numbered, perhaps in single digits.

Daytime temperatures soar into the sixties to mid-seventies, a full 40-degree jump, with a few notable exceptions. We attended Ben’s baseball game on late Monday afternoon, and thought we were going to get frostbite in the nippy upper-40s breeze as sunset descended on the diamond. The chill made us think that if they had only flooded it they might have been able to play hockey.

With the sun setting ominously early, and the dawn creeping in ever later, there’s a basically chilly affect even if the sun warms up for a few hours and makes us all feel good. The cats seek out those sunny squares of warm light on the carpets, squirrels keep their metabolism up by squirreling away nuts for the winter, people find the sunny benches in the parks and along the bike trails, the same ones they had avoided all summer as they sought respite from the blazing heat. Now any bit of warmth is good.

snake

Eastern Garter Snake

And so the season is reflected on the bike trail. The tarmac warms up in the middle of the day. Where the trail courses close to Piney Branch and Difficult Run on the way from Vienna to Hunter Mill Road, the creatures living in the woods and wetlands adjacent to the trail are drawn to its warmth. While the cool air lurks in the lowlands and hollows, the W&OD becomes an oasis of blissful heat. Thus it was that yesterday I saw not one, not two, but three snakes in separate places along the trail. As I encountered them, they were moving in sinuous frenzy to escape the imagined menace of my 15 m.p.h. approach. But surely they had been stretched out on the asphalt, every bit of their cold-blooded reptilian being enjoying the autumnal solar heating.

I am pretty sure they were all garter snakes, because they had that dark green and yellow longitudinal striping. One of them might have been a queen snake. Two of them were big, healthy specimens in the vicinity of 20” long (give or take 3 or 4 inches), the other maybe more in the 14” range. My powers of observation are only approximate as I am concerned at these moments with not harming the snakes, keeping my bike on course, and only then garnering a more precise observation of the critter itself.

One thing I love about cycling is the constant reminder of the ongoing presence of wildness around us. I am grateful for the protection of that wildness provided by creeks and their flood plains, and by these old rail trails and their right-of-ways. They all help assure that many creatures can coexist alongside 1,140,000 suburbanite human beings who inhabit Fairfax County.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015.

Barred Owl

A couple of evenings ago I was grilling chicken breasts for supper. I’d made a late-summer ratatouille to go with it, though this wonderful Provençal vegetable stew suffers a bit once decent tomatoes are off the seasonal market.

While the ratatouille was simmering, I fired up the grill and removed the meat from its several-hours marinade of oil, lemon, basil, and wine. When the chicken went on the grill rack it was deep dusk, thanks to the breathtakingly rapid rate at which we lose daylight around the autumnal equinox.   In the gathering quiet of late, late evening, a bird call rang out. Not once, but repeatedly: three “hoo”s (the last one short), pause, three more “hoo”s, the last one long and trailing off both in volume and pitch. Over and over, in the high trees off in the direction of the bike trail, for several minutes. This obviously nocturnal bird was announcing the beginning of its “day.”

Barred owl

Barred Owl, putting on the full “wise old owl” look.

After the flavorful supper I did a little research with ambiguous results, and yesterday I did some more internet surfing, in search of a good recording of what I had heard. Turns out it was a Barred Owl, often called a “Hoot Owl.” And with good reason, I’d say. I was reminded (from the Wikipedia article) that these are the owls the National Forest Service wanted to kill in the West because they were invading the habitat of the Spotted Owl. I do not believe this misguided policy ever went very far. They are a little over 2 feet long, with a four-foot wingspan, so they are good sized. They have a variety of calls, with different individuals sounding quite diverse. Their prey includes a variety of small mammals, and they even have been seen taking domestic cats. And they hunt at dawn and dusk, just when I heard the hooting two nights ago.

This surely is one of life’s little triumphs! To identify a bird from its call, to be reassured that the wild, alien wonder of nature is alive and well in our tidy suburban world. In the nearly twenty-five years we have lived here, I’ve only heard two or three owls, and never seen one. Yet one suspects they are around, silently gliding at night in search of a meal. May it always be so.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015

The North Wind Doth Blow, or, The Robin

The old nursery rhyme about robins in winter goes:

The north wind doth blow
And we shall have snow
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing,
He’ll sit in the barn
And keep himself warm
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

Poor Robin

Poor robin, European style

This ditty refers to the European robin, or Erithacus rubecula. That’s obvious, because that insectivorous, passerine bird, specifically a chat (as Wikipedia tells us), is “sedentary” over its range. It’s around all year, summer and winter, spring and fall.

The American robin is Turdus migratorius, or “migratory thrush.” Unlike the cute, tiny, truly red-breasted European robin, the American robin is over half again as large, rather bumptious, with a breast that is reddish-orange. Clearly as close as the English settlers of the Atlantic coast could find to their beloved national bird, but not the same thing at all, really.  They are not passerine, but eat invertebrates, fruits, and berries.

And they are migratory. In fact, the return of the robin was known as the early harbinger of spring in New England, where I grew up. Thoreau, who in Walden wrote perhaps the most universal and simultaneously the most intimately local of all books, talks of the robin in Chapter 17, “Spring”:

I heard a robin in the distance, the first I had heard for many a thousand years, methought, whose note I shall not forget for many a thousand more — the same sweet and powerful song as of yore. O the evening robin, at the end of a New England summer day! If I could ever find the twig he sits upon! I mean he; I mean the twig.  This at least is not the Turdus migratorius.

Meaning that the first robin of spring, portending the ones he will hear on summer evenings, is an individual bird, not a generic species. I am convinced that the version of the nursery rhyme that my dad used to recite was written in America about American robins:

The north wind doth blow
And we shall have snow
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing,
He’ll sit on the branch
Of a tropical tree
And laugh at us under his wing, tee hee.

It is accurate, but also has a peculiarly American sardonic quality. Those robins don’t suffer, nor do they deserve our pity. They live it up in the Caribbean, and come back in the spring.

Our backyard holly trees, now a good 25 feet or more high, are getting a once-over from a flock of some 30 or 40 robins this week. In a couple more days, the berries will be entirely stripped. It used to be that we always had trees full of berries until after Christmas, so we could cut colorful red-and-green ornamental sprigs from them. Then when it got really nasty in January the winter birds, especially cedar waxwings, would eat the berries in times of severe needs.

But now the robins get them early.   You’d think that they were fueling up for their annual fall migration. The trouble is, these birds do not migrate!   They have learned that in our increasingly temperate winters, they can survive quite well. I saw them all last winter, branded harsh and difficult by those who do not know what winter is, grubbing around under the already-stripped hollies for food. Why fly over a thousand miles when you can get by locally?

Now, in consequence, we have no harbingers of spring. Or at least we’re thrown back on less cheering, less reliable measures, such as the response of a pestiferous rodent, the groundhog, to his shadow or the absence of it. This bothers me, because it reflects the reality of climate change, and because one of the greatest human losses as the environment shifts under our feet is the loss of ageless patterns, the very measure of our time, our mortality.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.