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

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Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight

There has been a lot of talk lately about Amelia Earhart’s fate.  Did she crash into the sea, or land on a desert island and die, or fall into Japanese hands (the worst possibility, as the proprietors of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere were not kind to their prisoners)?  Just lately, conveniently close to the recent July 2 80th anniversary of her disappearance, a picture was released that claimed to show Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan, and her damaged Lockheed Electra 10E.  Trouble is that the figures are all distant, and the photograph’s resolution is less than excellent.  “Earhart” has her back to the camera, so she has to be identified by her garments and her haircut, neither of which can be seen clearly.

It seems to me that investigators have overlooked at least one, possibly two, other probable fates.  The more likely one is that Noonan was not what he seemed.  One of the close companions of the Prophet was one Nu’man bin Bashir.  One of the prominent characters of the Arabian Nights is a powerful Persian king named Omar bin al-Nu’uman.  It seems likely that the name “Fred Noonan” is a clever Anglicization of “Firdawsi al Nu’uman,” and that Earhart’s so-called Chicago-born navigator was actually an Islamic terrorist.  A few hours after they took off from New Guinea that July 2, they sent a message that all was well.  Then a half-hour later Amelia sent a frantic SOS, just about the time they were supposed to be landing on Howland Island to refuel.  Clearly, “Noonan” had wrestled the controls from her, and was deliberately crashing the plane.  She was too good a pilot to miss that landing strip.  It is said that the earliest radio transcriptions of the SOS contain Noonan’s muffled “allahu akbar” (“Allah is great”) in the background, but that portion was immediately redacted by the Secret Service, Because the US wanted to maintain good relationships with Middle Eastern oil producers in light of the anticipated warfare which indeed began a couple of years later.

amelia and her plane

Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed Electra 10E

It’s worth noting, by the way, that a popular ballad called “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” has been sung by many a bluegrass, folk, and folk-rock band.  But almost all of them leave out the second verse of four.  The third verse, usually performed as the second, begins “A half an hour later an SOS was heard.”  A half-hour later than what?  Without the missing verse, the action has no context.  Why do this?  Because three verses, with the chorus after each one, and one-verse-long instrumental solos in between, add up to about three minutes, about as long as a song could be in the old days of 78 RPM records.  Hats off to the Greenbriar Boys, who include the real second verse:

She radioed position and she said that all was well,
Although the fuel within the tanks was low.
But they’d land on Howland Island to refuel her monoplane,
Then on their trip around the world they’d go.

One musically engaging performance among many is given by the Country Gentlemen, whose lead singer, Charlie Waller, had a wonderful tenor voice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9KLJsvjPXM

A less likely but interesting theory about the disappearance involves the possibility that Noonan’s muffled cry was actually “Ollie’s Auk Bar.”  This bar was a legendary hangout in Iceland, where some of the last Great Auks lived before their mid-19th century extinction.  The bar’s first proprietor, Oliver J. Pendragon, served roast Great Auk as the flagship dish of the place, with local Auk Ale (“Now that’s a great “Auk”!) to wash it down.  In this theory Noonan was actually a descendent of natives of Iceland, and his surname is a slangly English translation of his pagan Icelandic name, which literally means “he who worships the sun at its zenith”: “Noon ‘un.”  In this theory Noonan is lamenting his lost Icelandic past, since Ollie’s Auk Bar became less popular after the demise of its namesake meal.  Crashing the aircraft into the shark-infested Pacific would be the ultimate expression of the futility of life, the rendering of the aircraft as flightless as the extinct Great Auks of his far-away ancestral homeland.

Just a couple of theories, but they make as much sense as any of the others.

© Arnold Bradford, 2017

“The Sweet and Merry Month of May”

This has been an unusually cool and rainy month in northern Virginia, as recorded in the average air temperature and the rainfall total, which should surpass 8” for the month before the end of the day.  Nights have been cool, many afternoons so chilly that I’ve worn a sweater over long sleeves.  The cats have had little sun to loll in, neither on the screen porch in the early morning or late afternoon, nor by the storm door in the front.

When we got home from recent travels we had long grass, encouraged by the cold and wet, and hard to mow because it was wet.  But we attacked it and got it done.  Not, however, without the mower leaving big clumps all over the lawn like an incontinent cow.

I was working clean-up duty, raking the clumps before they matted and spot-killed the lawn, on a rare sunny afternoon when I realized the other day that May, which Elizabethan composer William Byrd called the “sweet and merry month,” is truly just that.  Hot, and sweaty in the sticky air, I stopped to rest on the porch steps for ten minutes.  First, a tiny butterfly, looking for all the world as if it had commandeered a piece of sky to color its wings, fluttered leisurely across the patio, exploring random small weeds, leaves, clumps of dirt.  It was almost certainly a Spring Azure, though different butterfly sites provide very different structures of classification.  Next, a fox kit trotted nonchalantly into the yard from the back hedge, angled over into the neighbors’ azaleas, and was on his way.  He saw me, but neither paused in surprise nor hurried away in fear.  Then there was the “wild rose tree,” actually an ornamental holly tree that is now full of rose vines and looked simply splendid in the bright sunshine.  This simple wild plant is a free bounty, just eager to express its own beauty with its deep pink blossoms and yellow center, and with its gentle rose scent.

roses in bloom

Our wild roses in full bloom

Finally, sometime after my rest, I found a small bird’s nest in the arbor vitae.  It was a shallow concave thing, woven together with grass and pliable twigs, neatly and securely.  It evidently had served its purpose, but was a symbol of the simplicity of the needs of songbirds, the care with which they use what nature provides, and the procreational urges of the season.  Much to be thankful for in the “sweet and merry” miracles of nature, right in my own back yard.

©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.

Comfort Zones

A couple of weeks ago I took to my bike again, following a long patch of rainy weather that necessitated my riding my indoor trainer, and a week away from home.  The later spring blossoms along the way included blackberry and wild rose, their natural copious abundance increased by cool weather and rainfall that assured they’d “pop” once we had a couple of days of seasonal sunshine.

Normally they crowd up to the edge of the W&OD Trail, leaving no doubt of their presence.  But this year the Regional Park Authority spent a lot of time in the early spring cutting back trailside brush to about 15’ to 30’ along both sides of the trail, except in places where it cuts through terrain in a way that results in steep inclines immediately off the pavement.  The result looked very “scorched earth” in March, but now it has mellowed a little bit, despite the herbicides used to dampen [even they could not “halt”] bamboo growth.

Still, for old berry pickers like me, foragers from the ‘70s era of Euell Gibbon’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus, comfortable access to blackberry bushes is a nice perk.  We’ve had a few trailside quarts here and there.  And this would have been a good year, given the 7.43” of rain recorded in Vienna this May.

Wild rose

Wild rose blossoms.

The bushes were still close enough for me to enjoy my late-May rides, because the seasonally humid, close air concentrated the fragrance of the roses.  I’d be riding along, and there would be a stretch of a couple of hundred feet where the air was richly laden with the deep, sweet aromas of the roses’ perfume.  As I wrote here some years ago, it’s easy to tell roses and blackberries apart if you know what you’re looking for.  Both have five white petals in each blossom, and both have clusters of blossoms in similar patterns.  But blackberry blossoms are more slender and ever so slightly greenish, while the broader rose blossoms are equally slightly pinkish.  Likewise, blackberry leaves are on the bluish side of the green spectrum, while rose leaves are inclined, again ever so slightly, to the yellowish side.

While smelling the roses literally, I have been smelling them figuratively as well.  A couple of days ago I took a quantum leap by increasing my riding range from 15 ½ to 21 ½ miles.  I hadn’t really planned to go that much farther, but it was a great day, cool, sunny, dry, and the place I had planned to turn around offered no place to rest.  So I just went on.  Luckily, the terrain between Wiehle Ave. and Van Buren St. is relatively flat, with only one dip and one overpass.  My new turnaround is only about a mile and a half from my old standard turnaround on the W&OD going in that direction, so it may not be too long before I am doing my whole “old normal” ride.

That said, I’m probably only about 75% of normal strength, but a lot of that is just building conditioning back.  I still am fatigued more quickly, and my overall pace is a couple of ticks slower.  But I’m already motivated to push the envelope of my new comfort zone.  And pretty much the whole summer lies ahead!

©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