April 25, 2012
This morning I drove with a friend to do some birdwatching at Radnor Lake, one of the birding hot spots in the Nashville area. Nashville is about 90 miles from where we live, so this was no small undertaking. It turned out to be a quiet day. We saw a few things at the end of our walk — a singing male Prothonotary Warbler, resplendent in brilliant yellow; a furtive Northern Waterthrush, which is not an easy bird to find; a singing male Summer Tanager, bright red and very cooperative. But we had hoped to see more. This is the height of Spring migration, and Radnor is known for turning up rarities. We didn’t find any.
It would have been easy to feel that we had wasted the day and the long drive. But it was a beautiful morning, breezy, warm, sunny. There were Wood Ducks all over the lake. We saw thrushes and managed to find Scarlet Tanagers — common but gorgeous — Swainson’s Thrushes with their ascending, ethereal, flutelike song, Nashville and Blackburnian and Yellow-throated Warblers. I had some nice time with a good friend. And I was outside, smelling wild roses and the sweet scent of Sycamores.
There was nothing wasted, no reason to be disappointed. Sometimes adjusting expectations is the key to enjoying oneself. Today was a perfect example.
April 18, 2012
Spring bird migration has come early to the Cumberland Plateau. Usually mid-April is when birds start trickling in — swallows swoop and dart across fields, gnatcatchers and White-eyed Vireos scold from overgrown thickets just beginning to leaf out, the first warblers — Black and Whites, Black-throated Greens, Yellow-throated — sing from still-bare branches of oaks and poplars.
This year, though, is different. With the uncommonly mild winter and early spring, everything leafed out early — most of the flowering trees are done flowering; nearly all of them have leaves. My wife’s garden is weeks ahead of where it normally is. And the birds, somehow sensing this on their wintering grounds in Central and South America, have already started streaming through in earnest. Tanagers and orioles, grosbeaks and buntings, thrushes and several species of vireo — all are here. And in the past few days the warblers have arrived in numbers. Hooded, Tennessee, Nashville, Yellow, Cape May Palm, Prairie, Blackburnian; Ovenbirds and Waterthrushes. I’ve seen more than twenty species of warbler already this year. No doubt more are on the way.
If you’ve never seen a warbler, you owe it to yourself to look for them, or at least Google “Blackburnian Warbler” (as a for instance) and look at the photos that pop up. These are gorgeous birds, decked out in smart suits of yellow and black, blue and gray, green and brown and red. They winter in the tropics and even the dullest among them look exotic. They are tiny — each could fit in the palm of your hand. And their songs — they offer a repertoire of trills, sweet whistles, chips, and bouncing melodies that, for me at least, is the true herald of spring’s arrival.
But this is a limited time offer. The birds pass through on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern forests of New England and Canada. So look for them soon, or wait until next year.
February 12, 2012
I was never a huge fan of Whitney Houston’s music — I was into a different sound, a different style. But I was always, always a fan of her voice. Tonight, we were watching the opening moments of the Grammy’s, and they played a clip of Whitney singing at the awards ceremony back in the early nineties. And watching her, listening to her, my older daughter muttered, “Oh, my God.” It wasn’t something she said for us. I’m not even sure she was aware that she was saying it. It just happened, like the soft intake of breath upon first seeing the Grand Canyon or the Aurora Borealis. Whitney was that good. Her voice was a wonder.
Her life story, sadly, was the stuff of tragedy; her end was sordid and hollow. I want to say that she deserved better, but it seems that so much of the misery of her final years was self-inflicted. What a terrible loss for her fans, an awful blow to her family and friends. And how sad for all of us that her voice was silenced at so soon.
January 12, 2012
After mild temperatures and rains that made it feel more like March than early January, winter has finally returned to Tennessee. And the old man seems ticked off. The rain that was falling earlier has coated everything with a thin but treacherous layer of ice, and the wind is howling, blowing hard, sharp shards of snow in every direction.
I think this will be a great night to start a fire, open a bottle of red wine, and settle in with a good book. Wherever you might be, I hope you’re keeping warm.
January 6, 2012
Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge just outside of Dayton, Tennessee (where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place back in 1925) is located at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers in east Tennessee. Every year during the winter, thousands of Sandhill Cranes stop here, congregating in the rich waters of the refuge and feeding in nearby cornfields. In recent years, a few Whooping Cranes, among the rarest birds in North America (there are only about 500 left in the wild) have joined the Sandhill Cranes, making Hiwassee Refuge a birding hot spot. And this year, a single Hooded Crane, a species endemic to Asia that has never before been recorded in the U.S., has been seen feeding with the other cranes.
Today I drove out to Hiwassee to see if I could catch a glimpse of this once-in-a-lifetime bird.
Most of the Hiwassee Refuge is closed off to visitors, but the observation deck offers excellent views of the river and the surrounding corn fields. It was a beautiful day. Clear, warm, breezy. Sandhill Cranes were everywhere, their guttural trumpeting calls filling the air. Hooded Mergansers, Gadwalls, Ring-Necked Ducks, and even a few Snow Geese floated on the smooth waters. Half a dozen Bald Eagles — two adults and several juveniles — patrolled the skies, and at one point one of the adult birds caught a fish that would have made any angler proud. It was huge; five eagles fed on it.
A single Whooping Crane — a young bird — made an appearance, and strutted in and out of view throughout the day.
But all the birders there today were hoping to see the Hooded Crane. There were dozens of us on the viewing platform — there have been dozens there every day since the Hooded Crane first appeared. Usually, even with its deserved reputation as a great birding spot, the refuge attracts a fraction of that number. Birders are friendly people, and this crowd was no different. We waited for hours for the bird to show up, and even as our impatience grew, the mood on the platform remained friendly and fun. I met a couple who had come to Tennessee all the way from Chicago (people have come from all over the U.S. to see this bird; some people have visited from Europe). I never learned their names, but they were great to hang out with all day.
I would love to say that the day ended magically, that the Hooded Crane swooped down into the river late in the afternoon and gave us all great views of a true rarity. But the bird didn’t show up. I suppose that in a way that makes the day a disappointment. But that’s not how it felt. I saw Sandhill Cranes and Bald Eagles, ducks and geese, Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. A kingfisher, resplendent in blue and white and rust, entertained us with acrobatics over the water. Bonaparte’s Gulls, their wings flashing white and gray, wheeled and glided above the cranes. Great Blue Herons waded solemnly in the shallows. Sometimes the rare birds show up; sometimes they don’t. But at Hiwassee, there is always something to see.
September 19, 2011
Today’s post can be found at http://magicalwords.net, the group blog on the business and craft of writing fantasy that I maintain with fellow authors Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, Stuart Jaffe, and Edmund Schubert, among others. The post is called “On Writing: Interveiw wth L. Jagi Lamplighter.” Jagi talks about Shakespeare, her new book, and other writerly things. I hope you enjoy it.
February 9, 2011
There’s a beautiful snow falling right now. The past few storms we’ve had have been violent affairs — stiff winds, frigid temperatures. Nothing gentle about them. But there is no wind tonight, and the air is cold but not biting. Sounds are muffled, peaceful. Already we’ve got close to an inch, and though the forecast is for two inches or so, I think we’ll wind up with more. It’s clinging to branches and tree trunks, so that the lights on the house make it seem that the trees are glowing. It’s been a long winter, and many of us are ready for an early spring. But this is lovely.