Letting Go

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Teeny peeper sitting in the middle of a piece of lichen about the size of a quarter

 

Every year I bring back wood frogs, peepers or toads to this property to increase my amphibian population… this year with a drought underway the peepers captured my heart because a bizarre heat wave hit Maine just after the coldest freeze I ever remember. The poor peepers froze and then steamed and fried under a relentless solstice sun, their vernal pools rapidly disappearing from under them.

 

Intervening, I scooped up about a thousand and took them to the pond, brought some here to the shaded vernal pool that I dug here many years ago. Amphibians are the most endangered species on earth and I liked the idea of providing a temporary home for some.

 

This year I decided to raise seven peepers in a fish bowl something I had not done for a number of years. The ones in the vernal pool had kingfishers, herons, and a raccoon to deal with on top of drought – with these odds who knows how many would survive to become adults. The prognosis seemed grim.

 

On a whim when I added five toadpoles to my bowl of seven tadpoles I wondered if they would be eaten, but happily I was mistaken. So now I had twelve rotund bodies with wiggling tails, blobs with discernable eyes that watched me through the glass any time I sat with them. It was impossible not to reach the conclusion that these tadpoles were as interested in me as I was in them. One of the peepers disappeared within two days, and I knew from prior experience that he had died, becoming a source of protein for the others. Nature knows a lot about recycling.

 

Because I have no aquarium I have to scoop out the water and refill it with microbe rich bacteria pond water twice a week, a labor-intensive job that I have been doing for more than a month as of this writing. I feed my tadpoles bits of homegrown torn lettuce that they demolish with incredible speed and gusto. I have been anxiously awaiting back legs to develop because when this happens I know that their final ordeal is almost upon them. Transformation is never easy. (When I hear folks casually discussing transformation as if it was some sort of fun process I cringe. Transformations of any kind are fraught with danger and difficulty).

 

None of the toadpoles have legs but about 10 ten days ago I noted the first of the peepers were sprouting some. One little fellow turned almost transparent as his body shrunk, his head increased in size as frog eyes appeared as protuberances, his mouth grew wider. When tiny nubs emerged and developed almost instantly into front legs and his tail began to shrink this little character made a mysterious exit one night.

 

Since there are no predators on the porch where I keep the fish bowl I had deliberately provided him with an escape by leaving a long piece of wood leaning against the inside of the bowl that stuck out a few inches just in case a transformation occurred during the night. The purpose of the wood was to give the little emerging frog a stable place from which to hunt his first bug. Although I searched the porch I could not find him. Perhaps he slipped through a crack in the door to freedom. I hoped so. After this experience I was determined not to miss the next show!

 

When the second little tadpole began to change I transferred him to another bowl without as much water, one with a floating piece of wood in its center. This time I was rewarded. I watched carefully as his tail shrunk trying to judge when he would re absorb it because this would be his final food source until he caught his first insect. I watched him alternately coming to the surface to breathe air and then sinking back down to the bottom of the bowl to gulp water. He seemed to be struggling a bit and I was worried. By evening his tail had diminished. When I looked in the bowl he was sitting on the floating wood gazing at me expectantly as if he knew I was his route to freedom. It was time.

 

I prepared a protected place in my flower garden, putting a shallow dish of water with a few stones under the greenery, and added another wooden island – just in case he might still need to rest. When I picked him up and opened the door he squirmed a little. As soon as I bent down in the greenery, placing him in the dish he leapt out and disappeared into a mass of green foliage! His journey had begun. I was shocked to feel so bereft. Even though I had raised him from childhood I was, after all, celebrating his new life…How is it that I had forgotten that raising tadpoles always carried a cost?

 

I suspect the process reminded me of losing my own children to unseen forces; but perhaps it wasn’t only that. It may be that nurturing (and usually I raise tadpoles from eggs) puts me in touch with the inevitable pain that is always associated with love. I reminded myself that I needed to learn this life lesson over and over. And that Letting Go is an art form.

 

Postscript:

 

As of this afternoon I have three froglets living in my flower garden. When I took the second one outdoors he leapt so high into the foliage that I was stunned. Remember these tiny peepers are only about a quarter inch long.

 

The third one was waiting for me on the floating wood, eyeing me with particular intensity this morning. I spoke to him, commenting on the fact that his tail was still quite long, but he seemed to be telling me that this was fine. It was time to go. I complied, and although he did spend a few moments floating in the dish, he also vanished into the giant green jungle…

Electric Green Damselflies!

 

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Today it was 90 degrees and I spent most of the afternoon with a friend wading in my brook – a body of clear mountain water that flows under a graceful canopy of trees, trees that sheltered us from the brutal Summer Solstice sun and kept the surrounding air moist and cool as well as almost unbearably fragrant. Oh, I am never more appreciative of the forest than on a day like this one. We haven’t had a soaking rain for almost two months and although the humidity provides a little moisture for thirsty trees the forest floor is drying up, the mosses are losing color, lichens are crispy. Fire is an ominous threat, and piles of slash have become a real danger… We were discussing these worries when suddenly three amazing apparitions interrupted our conversation.

Catapulted into the present we both watched in wonder as electric green damselflies darted back and forth below the waterfall, barely lighting on the lacy ferns for seconds before darting away. Emerald sticks shimmered and shivered as they soared after prey.

No other insects symbolize summer quite like this group of colorful, primitive-looking predatory insects. Often we confuse the two species calling both dragonflies. In the late summer garden, both damsel and dragonflies resemble tiny animal fighter jets, fierce-looking with bulbous eyes and gossamer wings.

Just the day before I was kayaking on the pond and had a number of the latter landing on my bow with their outstretched wings. I also noted strings of dragonfly – damselfly (?) eggs attached to reeds floating under water.

Damselfies and dragonflies are closely related. These members of the insect order Odonata include roughly 5,900 species – about 2,600 damselflies and 3000 dragonflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies are both predatory flying insects that look primitive and ancient because they are. Fossil records indicate that prehistoric species are quite similar to those we see today. Modern dragonflies and damselflies are most prevalent in tropical regions, but some species can be found in almost every part of the world except for the polar regions.

In all fairness it is easy to see why dragonflies and damselflies are often confused with one another because they share many characteristics, including membranous wings, large eyes, slender bodies and small antenna. But there are also clear differences. Damselflies have longer thinner bodies that look like needles. In general, dragonflies are sturdier, thicker-bodied insects Once you the difference in body shape most folks can easily identify the two. What is easiest for me to remember is that damselflies look like flying needles while dragonflies resemble small aircraft especially when they land. Damselfly wings are held vertically while dragonfly wings are flat while the insects are at rest.

Both species come in a wide range of sizes and colors. Some are subdued, others dazzle the eye with their brightly metallic hues of greens and blues. Damselflies have the widest range of sizes, with wingspans ranging from about 3/4 inch (19 mm) in some species to 7 1/2 inches (19 cm) in larger species. Some fossil ancestors have wingspans of more than 28 inches! One of the first winged insects, dragonflies have inhabited the Earth for more than 300 million years.

Both damselflies and dragonflies lay their eggs in or near water. Hatched larvae go through a series of molts as they grow, and begin predatory feeding on the larvae of other insects and small aquatic animals like tadpoles. One year someone gave me some dragonfly eggs and forgot to tell me they would eat my tadpoles. Naturally, I was deeply upset when I discovered the trick and was quick to remove the offenders. The Odonata larvae themselves also serve as an important food source for fish, amphibians, and birds. Larval damselflies and dragonflies reach adulthood in as little as three weeks or as long as eight years, depending on species. They go through no pupal stage, but near the end of the larval stage, the insects begin to develop wings, which emerge as useable flight organs after the last molt of the larval stage.

The adult flying stage, which can last as long as nine months, is marked by predatory feeding on other insects, mating, and finally laying eggs in water or moist, boggy areas. As adults dragonflies and damselflies are largely immune to predators, except for some birds. These insects are our friends! They consume large quantities of mosquitoes, gnats, and other biting creatures. Damselflies and dragonflies are visitors we need to entice into our gardens!

In some folklore green dragonflies are supposed symbolize abundance and the greening of the earth. To see these magical flying beings on the afternoon of the summer solstice seemed prescient. I couldn’t help wondering if their timely appearance might suggest that this turning of the wheel might bring us some relief from the difficulties that we are facing on a personal and collective level.

 

Postscript:

The picture that I have included shows a Sparkling Jewelwing damselfly. Only the tip of the wings is dark, making it easy to differentiate from the more common Ebony Jewelwing. Many areas of the east coast are blessed with these magnificent insects.

The Endearing Phoebe

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The Phoebe that helped me solve a mystery

 

Last year when I returned from New Mexico I found an Eastern Phoebe’s nest under the eaves above my front door. I witnessed the three nestlings mature with deep pleasure, happy because the phoebes have only nested on the house once before, though this little valley has been home to these endearing birds ever since I built the house. Every year I watch them hunt from the wild apple tree with its golden apples that spans the entire southern wall of the house and overlooks the brook. In fact I am watching a phoebe hunt as I write these words. In years past I always looked forward to their arrival in the early spring after a long Maine winter.

This spring the phoebes chose another nest site, probably one of their old ones, perhaps because last year I removed the dormer that protected their nest; I can’t be sure.

Two days ago I watched a phoebe fly from a nearby crabapple towards the very spot above the door where the birds had their nest last year. I was baffled by this strange behavior and when I investigated I found the answer. Phoebe was hunting hungry mosquitos – there was a whole cloud of these little monsters that had convened there apparently while waiting for me to open the door! Insects are smart, and this convocation is a perfect example of insect brilliance. No wonder the bugs were getting in. I thanked my little friend for his help before rubbing peppermint oil on the wood to discourage the mosquitos, who then vacated the area. Because I am repeating this application the phoebes are no longer hunting around the front door, but have returned to their previous hunting ground, the apple tree. When I posted a couple of phoebe pictures my friend Carol Bondy mentioned that she had some nesting on their house. I hope at some point to see some of her pictures.

In Abiquiu I hear phoebes in the gracious Cottonwoods during the winter but I rarely see them and whenever I do it is always just a glimpse of a wobbling tail or bobbing. After hearing about Carol’s experience it suddenly occurred to me that these New Mexico phoebes might be a different species. And of course they are. The reason I had never thought about this issue before is because their calls sound alike to me although the literature states that there are distinct differences. I was baffled by this apparent inconsistency. When I actually listened to the two species singing I noted that The Says phoebe has a shorter call or peep, though it sounds similar to the call of the Eastern phoebe, a sound I have heard all my life. At least one of the sources I consulted said that the ranges of these two species can overlap Is it possible that both species inhabit the Abiquiu area? If they do I would love to know.

The primary difference between the Eastern phoebe and the Says Phoebe of New Mexico is that the former have a pale belly as opposed to the cinnamon – washed belly belonging to the latter.

Both species of flycatchers migrate north in the early spring and are noted for being early arrivals. Unlike many other birds both species reuse nests. With that much said it is also true that Phoebes that are breeding in the Southwest do not migrate and are present year round.

In the east the phoebes place their mud-and-grass nests in protected places like houses, barns, under bridges or around here in nests placed close to the brook (the one on the side of the cabin was made with a lot of moss). They gravitate to protected woodlands.

The Says phoebe will also nest on houses and buildings but otherwise “is an open country bird”. The literature says these phoebes perch on fence posts and pasture wire but I have not seen this behavior although both wire and fence posts border the casita on the riverside. It seems to me that phoebes in Abiquiu would be drawn to the Bosque because this is where there are more insects to eat. Out of season they are fond of berries. They are supposed to lay two clutches of two to six eggs. Here, the family that nested under the eaves only raised one.

Both species seem to tolerate and even befriend humans who pay attention to them. This has been my personal experience with the phoebes that hunt from the wild apple tree. They watch me through the window with beaded eyes while bobbing up and down and wagging their tail feathers in that characteristic phoebe way. They do not fly away, even when I approach them; they respond to the sound of my voice with apparent interest.

Happily, according to Audubon both species appear to be maintaining a stable population.

The Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern phoebe’s leg to track its return in successive years.

The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her. I didn’t find similar information about the Says phoebe but my guess is that the two behave in much the same way. I never glimpsed more than one at a time in Abiquiu.

Say’s Phoebes have been in the U.S. since the late Pleistocene. Paleontologists discovered Say’s Phoebe fossils in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas dating back to about 400,000 years ago.

The Say’s Phoebe also breeds farther north than any other flycatcher and is seemingly limited only by the lack of nest sites. Its breeding range extends from central Mexico all the way to the arctic tundra.

I know from personal experience that befriending these little birds is a worthwhile endeavor providing the viewer with hours of entertainment – sometimes at the expense of work that has to be done! The little fellow outside my window keeps interrupting my train of thought with his aerial dives.

Ruffed Grouse – A Mother’s Day Gift

 

 

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On Mother’s Day just before dusk I saw an amazing sight just outside my front door. It had been a cold gray wind driven day, so the birds at my feeder were scarce, even here in the hollow. To see the male grouse displaying his beautiful feathers on my front step brought tears to my eyes. Such a lovely visitation!

 

I had been listening to the grouse drumming for a few days. Every year this beautiful woodland bird calls from the same direction in the deciduous part of my forest. This practice began the first year I lived here – many years ago now. Some years the female nests very close to the house and I am treated to a family parade of fluffy miniature grouse pecking their way through the high grasses during the late afternoon. I deliberately leave high grass close to the brook for these ground – loving birds – turkeys appreciate the cover too.

 

The plumage of the Ruffed grouse is subtly and exquisitely marked in a way that blends so well with their habitat that even when you see one it can disappear before your eyes. The broad black band of the fan-like tail feathers and the patch of dark feathers on both sides of the ruffed grouses neck can be expanded into an umbrella-like ruff. In the field, it is supposed to be possible to tell the difference between a male and female by tail length – the male’s tail appears longer. However, unless I see chicks or witness a display I find the two sexes indistinguishable. There are two color phases of ruffed grouse, red and gray. The gray phase is predominant in Maine, although I have seen both phases here.

 

We have another grouse in this area (Grafton Notch), the Spruce grouse, that folks say can be confused with the Ruffed grouse, although to my mind the two are quite different with the former having a more spotted look and red eyebrows. The Spruce grouse also lacks a crown at the top of his head.

 

These two related species are considered sympatric because they exist in the same geographical area. Initially these two interbred and then split off into separate populations.

 

In many areas across the country, the birds are disappearing. In some states there has been a 50 – 60 percent decrease in grouse. Additionally, because of Climate Change the remaining birds are moving north. It is expected that by 2050 the lower 48 states will no longer have a population of Ruffed Grouse. With this trend in place it is hard for me to understand why the fish and wildlife folks would advertise Maine as “the state” to come to in order to shoot grouse. Grouse are the number one game bird in Maine. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to conserve the population we have? Roughly 500,000 grouse are being shot by hunters in Maine every year.

Grouse need early successional forests, or stands that are growing back to maintain their populations. Hardwood dominated mixed growth, softwood dominated mixed growth, upland hardwoods, lowland hardwoods, old fields, and orchards comprise the best habitat. Stands of aspen as also favored. Because of the small home range of grouse, good habitat must meet all food, shelter, and drumming requirements within a small area.

 

Ruffed grouse are omnivorous; they eat green leaves, fruits, and some insects. During winter, when snow covers the ground, they live almost exclusively on the dormant flower buds or catkins of aspens, birches, and cherries. Aspen (or poplar) is generally regarded as the most important single year-round food for ruffed grouse in Maine.

 

With the onset of spring, male ruffed grouse defends an area of woodland approximately 6-10 acres in size. Male grouse then advertise their location to females by drumming (Adult males drum again in the fall, to re-establish their rights to their territory). Females are receptive to, and mate with, displaying males for only a few days. After fertilization occurs, they leave the male and seek nesting cover. Most ruffed grouse nests are located at the base of trees in open hardwood stands, the base of stumps, or under bushes. The clutch normally numbers 9 – 14 eggs, which are laid over a period of approximately 2 weeks. The eggs are incubated about 24 days, and all the eggs hatch within a few hours of each other during late May and early June. Young ruffed grouse are able to move about shortly after hatching. Grouse chicks begin their lives by feasting on insects and other invertebrates, but they will also eat plant shoots and young leaves. And they won’t pass up small frogs or anything else that might fit in their beaks!

 

A casual woodland stroll in June or July might result in a grouse sighting. By this time the chicks can fly into the lowest branches and although I never do this deliberately I often come upon a little family making its living in the woods. The chicks are adorable!

Bluebird Spring

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When I arrived home in Maine seven weeks ago my friend Kathy who lives down the road already had eastern bluebirds coming to her feeders. Because I think of bluebirds as being insectivores (although they love berries too) their early arrival seemed unusual to me until I did a little research and discovered that bluebirds as a species are expanding their winter range as Climate Change continues to push them northward. I didn’t know that some have been living year round in Massachusetts for some time.

 

Most Eastern bluebirds who breed in northern climates do migrate, gathering in large numbers during November to fly south. In March, April, and May they move north to summer breeding grounds. In Florida where there is a stable population the bluebird may breed as early as January. Putting up nest boxes for bluebirds is helpful because these birds have lost so much habitat. Around my house here in Maine all snags have been left intact, as have all the trees so I have many natural cavities for all kinds of birds to nest in. But except for my field I have little open space. This year a friend of mine is making me a nest box, so perhaps I can attract a bluebird couple of my own.

 

Wherever these birds breed, the male initiates courtship often providing his mate with a tasty morsel or two while delicately fluttering his wings. The female lays four to six eggs that are a stunning shade of blue. Here at least, two broods are raised during one season. While the female sits on the second set of eggs, the male takes charge of the nestlings.

Caterpillars, spiders, and insects of various kinds provide the young with protein. Newly ploughed fields are an excellent source of insects and grubs. As previously mentioned bluebirds are also fond of berries and other ripe fruits. During the late summer and fall, bluebirds pounce on grasshoppers from the tops of mullein, an herb that is so common in natural fields. In the west hundreds of bluebirds might gather to feed on juniper berries. My guess is that they could do the same around here.

 

When I glimpsed bluebirds perched on my telephone wire a couple of weeks ago I got a chance to watch them through binoculars. I noted that the subtle coloring of the females varied as did the vibrant blue of the males.

 

I was also struck by how similar these eastern bluebirds were to those western bluebirds that I had glimpsed during the spring and early fall months in Abiquiu. I knew that I would probably not be able to distinguish one from the other unless I could identify the blue patch on the western male’s belly; the eastern bluebird has more white. Another identifying marker is that male western bluebirds have blue throats, while the male eastern bluebirds have orange or rust colored throats. I also didn’t know that the two species were so closely related that they interbred, or that both eastern and western bluebirds nested in the Rio Grande Bosque.

 

Around the casita I watched what I thought were western bluebirds (!) perch on the fence wire overlooking the field. When spotting tasty prey they sometimes took insects from the air; occasionally, they flew to the ground. By late fall these birds were gone.

 

Both eastern and western bluebirds prefer semi –open terrain; orchards, farms and ranches are excellent places because they are often surrounded by pine, oak, ponds for cattle, and streamside groves. Both eastern and western bluebirds tend to avoid hot dry regions during the summer but in the west they will nest in pinyon – juniper forests.

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(Fledglings)

 

Overall, the eastern bluebird is also in decline for the usual reasons. In recent decades, the western bluebird numbers have fallen dramatically over much of their range. The use of pesticides and controlled and uncontrolled burns destroy masses of habitat and are creating havoc for all southwestern bird species. Because western bluebirds have also become relatively common Bosque breeders over the past two or three years, it is more important than ever to protect our precious Rio Grande Bosque.

 

Bluebirds are important in the traditions of many Native American cultures. In particular, Bluebird is a symbol of spring. In Iroquois mythology, it is the singing of the bluebird that drives away winter. Bluebirds are also associated with the wind by the Cherokees, and were believed to predict or even control the weather. The Navajo and Pueblo tribes associate bluebirds with the sun; in some Pueblo tribes, Bluebird is identified as the son of the Sun. The Hopi see the bluebird as a directional guardian, associated with the west.

 

I close this narrative with a personal memory…

 

When I was a little girl I would sit on my grandfather’s desk, (the same one that I write on now) and look out the east window to watch the bluebirds enter and leave their nest boxes. My grandfather had ten homemade boxes positioned across the large and open field. Each year the bluebirds returned and my grandmother, my little brother, and I loved to see the fledglings leave the nests for the first time. I was always afraid the little ones would fall and my grandmother would have to remind me that I had never seen one get hurt –not ever.

 

 

 

May the bluebirds live on!

 

 

 

 

Tribute to Grizzly Bear Expert: Charlie Russell

(1941 – 2018)

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“Learning entails more than the gathering of information.

Learning changes the learner.

Like dwarf pines whose form develop with winter’s design, the learner is shaped by what he learns.”

 “Talking with Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell”   Gay Bradshaw

 

 Learning from Nature;

A Personal Reflection on Charlie Russell

 

Naturalist Charlie Russell never went to college. Instead he spent his youth backpacking through the Canadian wilderness with his family. Nature was his mentor and home.

 

Charlie was a life-long student of Nature*. Although I never met him personally I read his astonishing books, Spirit Bear and Grizzly Heart. By the time I watched the Canadian Film about his work with grizzlies “The Edge of Eden” I recognized a kindred soul.

 

Charlie dedicated most of his life to befriending, studying, and educating others about Black and Grizzly bears. He spent 11 years in the Russian wilderness raising orphaned grizzly bear cubs and interacting with adult grizzlies, demonstrating to the public that these animals are not dangerous to humans unless they are hunted down by them.

 

Charlie never carried a gun and never had an altercation with a grizzly; he did carry pepper spray that was only used to protect the cubs he was raising from adult bears who sometimes prey on the youngsters. Most pictures show him walking in the wilderness with a wooden staff.

 

I was profoundly impressed by Charlie’s respect, deep humility and endearing compassion for the bears he encountered. He allowed bears to educate him through keen observation, keeping an open mind, asking challenging questions, reflecting, drawing his own conclusions and sticking to them, (a way of being that mirrors my own process).

 

Charlie Russell life’s work may someday change the way humans perceive bears. Charlie understood what it meant to love a bear and how this ability shifted the relationship between humans and bears to one where mutual respect developed into deep abiding friendship.

 

Charlie spent his life as a truth seeker. He wanted to understand how bears think and was capable of looking at behavior from the bear’s perspective. In addition to having a keen, discerning, open mind, he acted on his intuition and used all of his senses to educate himself about the bears he studied.

 

In Conversations with Bears Charlie states that learning changes the learner; the learner is shaped by what s/he learns.

 

Learning about bears certainly shaped Charlie into a remarkable human being.

 

Charlie understood that bears needed respect just as humans need it; that bears responded positively to apologies, just as humans do, that bears needed to be loved just as humans do – and if these criteria are met people have nothing to fear from bears.

 

Conversely, if the need to slaughter is on the mind of humans, a bear will pick up on the threat. Most bears choose retreat as a strategy when threatened but occasionally one will attack, and it is those bears that feed man’s fear and hatred of nature, while terrifying images of giant blood soaked teeth and jaws keep the NRA in business.

 

As Charlie stated, bears don’t become dangerous without a reason. If a bear is frightened or hunted down by people or by dogs s/he might retaliate. The same might be true for a bear that is separated from his food by humans, or a female grizzly with cubs that is cornered. Dwindling habitat and a sustained policy of shoot on sight has created a situation in which traumatized bears – bears who have witnessed their mother’s being shot or being targeted for the kill generation after generation – is taking a terrible toll on these animals, who left to their own devices would befriend humans only too willingly.

 

Charlie’s dedication to bears, his extensive life experience living in peace with bears (even as a rancher), his love, respect, and deep compassion for Ursus provides us with a model the rest of us could follow. Bears and humans could co –exist peaceably if humans would only allow them to.

 

To this naturalist who has not had any encounters with grizzlies or polar bears but has developed extensive knowledge of Black bears, thanks to the bears themselves, who taught me most of what I learned, Charlie was a beacon of hope and sanity. Personally, he was the one person who helped me the most to trust my intuition, my senses, the truths of my body, when working with bears. When Charlie asked questions I heard my own silent queries verbalized.

 

To be educated and shaped by nature like Charlie was allows us to re-enter the Circle of Life, a way of being in the world that would end the existential loneliness that so afflicts our modern population.

Little Foxes

 

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(little foxes – note facial differences)

I am hiking through the woods one day with my dogs when we hear a rustling. Investigating the sound we are all astonished when three little foxes shoot out of a pile of oak leaves to greet us. My little Chihuahua Lucy wags her tail – everyone wants to play until Hope (2nd Chihuahua) barks at which time the foxes dive for cover. I call out “hey little foxes” a few times and two reappear but don’t emerge completely from the den. I snap two pictures.

A couple of days earlier on the same hike I had seen an adult fox scurrying up a hill hugging a stone wall at mid day; now I knew why. I returned to the den area each day around the same time and called out “hey little foxes.” I believed I could teach them to respond to my voice. It didn’t take long. On the fourth day as soon as I greeted them one emerged. To say that I was thrilled is an understatement. Yesterday I was amazed to find a good sized dirty baize egg dropped outside their door. One of the parents must have brought it home?

Because I feed foxes here I am used to seeing both reds and greys bringing in their kits to snack on birdseed later in the spring (from June on). But because they are older, they look more like their parents. One of the dens on this land can be viewed through binoculars but it is not the same thing.

These little characters wore dark brown coats and I soon learned that this coloring identified them as young grey foxes. They were about five weeks old and I was so excited because I had never had an opportunity to visit with young kits on a regular basis in such close proximity. I hope I am writing this article at the beginning of a long spring journey to learn more about grey foxes…

All animals like routines, so I visit each day at the same time and hope to get some more pictures as time passes. These delightful children are so curious and unafraid. At this point in their lives no human has yet threatened them.

Gray foxes are the only member of the canines that can climb trees and have retractable claws like a cat. They are sometimes mistaken for red foxes, because they have some reddish fur, but gray foxes have a black stripe and black-tipped tail; Reds wear black stockings and have a white-tipped tail. The latter are found from southern Canada southward to Venezuela and Columbia, except in mountainous areas of northwestern United States, parts of the Great Plains, and the eastern coast of Central America.

Gray foxes thrive in forest and brushy woodland areas – they choose habitat with hollow trees or logs, rock crevices, or hillsides they can use for dens, places that have access to water. They have adapted to living in close proximity to humans.

Gray foxes have several natural predators, most notably coyotes, followed by bobcats, but great horned owls, eagles, and cougars also prey upon them. They are territorial among themselves, yet they share these spaces with red foxes, enabling both species to make use of mutually desirable habitat with minimal conflict.

Their “unnatural” predator is man who shoots and traps them and whose most egregious act is fox penning, a canned hunt of foxes that are trapped in the wild, placed within fenced areas, and then set upon by dozens of dogs who are let loose to hunt them down (they do the same thing with bears and deer). The live foxes are literally torn apart by the dogs, dying in massive pain and agony. This disgusting behavior on the part of man makes a powerful statement about the extent of human cruelty that is impossible to ignore.

Gray foxes are solitary most of the year, but while their kits are young both parents share in caring for them. Keen vision, hearing, and sense of smell help them hunt for cottontails, tree squirrels, voles, mice, wood rats, black rats, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. By adding fruit and mast to their diet in autumn, they become helpful as seed dispersers.

Sometimes gray foxes will rest on high branches or in the crotch of a tree. To climb trees, they rotate their forearms, enabling them to hug the tree, while pushing upward with their hind legs. Once in the canopy, they are nimble enough to leap from branch to branch. Coming down is a bit trickier than going up… it’s either a slow and careful tail-first descent or, if the angle is not overly steep, a speedy headfirst downward run. A low center of gravity and four well-clawed feet make the latter option less scary than it sounds. These foxes also like to swim if denning near water.

According to the literature breeding occurs in January or February and the kits are born in March or April. They begin to emerge four or five weeks after birth. I met these little foxes the third week in April. Gray foxes dig their own dens or enlarge dens that other animals have used before. They have a number of entrances.

Both gray and red foxes are supposed to be nocturnal; however this has not been my experience perhaps because animals know I am not a threat. It is more common to see adults hunting during the day while they are raising young. I can attest to the fact that little foxes love to play around their dens during the day.

I am already getting attached to this family and hope to meet the parents one day soon.

The Croakers

 

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(Frogs mating – note the one who didn’t make it! Eggs in upper right)

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(Look at those golden eyes!)

 

The most exciting part of arriving home in early April is that signs of spring are everywhere. This is truly the season of new beginnings. I listened for the croaking quacking wood frogs at every ditch, puddle and vernal pool and was rewarded by one croaking male wood frog on April 12th.

Two days later in the same place I discovered one couple mating and laying; a few clumps of jellied eggs were scattered close to the frogs who were still clasped together. The frogs vanished the next day. I realized then that in this place there should have been many couples, not just one…All frogs and toads are the most threatened species on earth, our canaries in the coal mine. They absorb pollutants through their skin – human induced poisoned air, earth, and water. We are currently in the process of losing the species for good.

 

I happily scooped up the newly laid eggs to bring home to scatter in various vernal pools on this property where the have a better chance of surviving, grateful that I had not missed wood frog emergence. Normally they begin to croak before ice –out in late February March (March around here). So I am a bit puzzled by their current behavior.

 

Wood frogs are native to our Boreal forests in Alaska, Canada, and throughout the Northeast. Wood frogs are the only frogs that live north of the Arctic Circle.

 

Wood frogs are omnivorous, and eat a variety of small, forest-floor invertebrates. Adults consume a variety of insects including spiders, beetles and moth larvae. The tadpoles feed on plant detritus, algae (they also like lettuce) and also eat the eggs and larvae of other amphibians.

 

Similar to other northern frogs that enter dormancy close to the surface in soil and/or leaf litter, wood frogs can tolerate the freezing of their blood and other tissues. Urea accumulates in tissues in preparation for over wintering and liver fluid is converted in large quantities to sugars in response to ice formation. Both act to limit the amount of ice that forms and reduces osmotic shrinking of cells.

 

Amazingly, these creatures can survive many freeze/thaw events during winter if no more than about 65% of their total body water freezes.

 

After wood frogs emerge from hibernation they begin a yearly migration to the nearest vernal pool for breeding, starting in late February or March. This species is often described as an explosive, short-term breeder which means that the window for survival is minimal. In this region, breeding often takes place over just a few days. Males search for a mate by hugging other frogs until they find one who is round enough to be carrying eggs. Females lay approximately 1500 – 3000 eggs, often in the deeper sections of the pools. Out of the large amount of eggs deposited only about 4 percent survive. The egg mass retains heat, and those eggs located near the center of the mass have a higher survival rate.

 

Communal egg masses are sometimes attached to vegetation within pools. The ones I have found in ditches are free floating. Eggs will hatch in 4 to 30 days. Temperature is a factor. Around here the eggs I have hatched have become tadpoles in 2 -4 days.

 

In four to sixteen weeks, depending on water and food supply, wood frogs have completed their growth cycle. My tadpoles become frogs during the month of July. Maturity may be reached in one to two years, depending on the sex and the population of frogs. A wood frog’s lifespan in the wild is usually no more than three years.

 

In my eyes the glorious sight of a wood frog (now very rare) is cause for celebration. I used to see a few each summer, but no more. They are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. Most of the time the frog lives close to the ground, hiding under leaves in woodland areas.

 

A wood frog’s most distinct characteristic is the black marking across its eyes, which has been said to resemble a mask. The bodies of wood frogs can be varying shades of brown, red, green, or gray, with females tending to be more brightly colored than males (note picture). These frog hues sound dull but each has an iridescent sheen. Adults can reach about three inches. The ones around here do not.

 

It seems to me that everyone loves to eat wood frogs from eggs through adulthood…Herons maneuver their way into my vernal pools for a snack even in the deep woods! My kingfishers love them. A variety of snakes eat adult wood frogs. These creatures fall prey to snapping turtles, raccoons, skunks coyotes, and foxes. Beetles, turtles and salamanders feast on eggs and tadpoles.

 

In the amphibian world, wood frogs may be the species best able to recognize their family. When many tadpoles are in the same place, siblings seek each other out and group together (my guess is that it is the only species that has been studied). My observations of all frogs confirm that the young like to be close to one another.

 

Wood frogs are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. They spends most of their time on the ground in woody areas except for during mating season when they are breeding.

 

I am anxiously awaiting the birth of these tadpoles hoping that my attempts to scatter the “Croakers” around my property will lengthen the time they remain on Earth.

Canada Goose

Canadian Geese have been on my mind a lot lately. This past winter I have missed the skeins of geese that fly back and forth up and down the river appearing every single morning like clockwork. In Abiquiu when winter turned to spring I noted that the geese were behaving in much the same way the Sandhill cranes did before they migrated, splitting into pairs or groups of three and flying erratically. I was puzzled. I didn’t recall witnessing such behavior before this year. I wondered about migration patterns. Were the geese shifting their flight patterns too? Or perhaps the small groups I saw were staying year round? Some days it almost seemed as if these water birds were confused by something.

 

I saw three Canadian geese on the last predawn walk I took to the river/Bosque – just an hour or two before leaving for Maine. I knew that a perilous journey was ahead because we were driving. The C/virus was a frightening threat though I brought all food, and planned to camp/use woods as bathroom. The first morning after my arrival at home I saw and heard three geese honking over my head. I was struck by the odd synchronicity remembering the mother goose tales of my childhood – and later as a graduate student when I learned about their mythology.

 

Mother Goose is a benign and loving image of the ancient mother goddess* that is present throughout world mythologies. I like to think that the presence of geese at both ends of a challenging cross – country trip were harbingers of the safe passage…

 

The Canadian Goose is native to North America and it breeds in Canada and the northern United States in a wide range of habitats. By the early 20th century overhunting and loss of habitat decimated populations almost to the point of extinction, but with the help of preservation programs most populations have recovered.

 

In some areas these birds are regarded as pests. Many are routinely shot. I find this behavior sad and ironic because the root of this problem belongs to humans who have killed off the birds natural predators, as well as the fact that people have created an abundance of man made bodies of water near food sources like those found on golf courses, manicured green lawns, public parks, lakefront cottages, and beaches in planned communities. Geese love succulent grasses, sedges, aquatic vegetation, cultivated grains, seeds and berries. They also eat insects and some crustaceans.

 

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Geese mate for life; life-long pair bonds are formed during the second year. Offspring remain with their parents for about twelve months traveling together in large flocks of family groups. The female chooses the nest site, which can be found in unlikely spots like cliff ledges as well as on elevated hummocks. Geese need good visibility to protect their eggs and young goslings. The male defends their territory with elaborate displays well worth watching!

 

Some geese don’t migrate at all and live year-round in the southern part of their breeding range, which includes both coasts and parts of northern Mexico. When the geese fly over in their characteristic “V” shaped patterns I am compelled to stop to watch this astonishing sight.

 

If they do migrate, geese tend to breed in northern areas in the US and Canada. Sometimes geese fly to Alaska or the sub – arctic to raise their families.

 

When migrating, if one Canadian goose falls injured, immediately two companions accompany the goose to the ground and do not leave until the bird either recovers or dies. I have observed evidence of this kind of animal compassion throughout nature in every species I have ever studied.

 

The geese that migrate return to the exact nesting and overwintering locations every year. In fact, migrating geese use various stop-off resting points when they travel, and these remain largely the same, too. When geese fly south to overwinter, they usually settle somewhere in the middle or southern continental US. The geese that you see every spring or fall are probably the same geese that were around your home the year before.

 

Since my return a week ago I have seen a few more geese – not the V shaped skeins but small groups that are flying or swimming in nearby ponds. During the late spring I look forward to seeing the parents with their fluffy waddling toddlers feeding at the water’s edge. I am perpetually amazed at how fast the youngsters grow. Geese have beautiful feathers and every summer I collect a few. This year when I find my first flight feather I will be thanking Old Mother Goose for her help.

 

Postscript:

What is goddess spirituality?

“Goddess spirituality understands nature (or the world) to be the body of the goddess and affirms this world as our true home. This world is understood to be an interconnected web of life shared by humans and other than human beings.” (International scholar/writer Carol Christ)

This earth -based way of being in the world allows us to be present for human and non – human species in a compassionate way – a way that is not based on ‘power over’ and privilege but on respect and equality. The Indigenous Way.

Elder – Berry Musings

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I first became interested in herbalism as a young mother who kept a small herbal garden outside her back door. There is nothing better than fresh herbs to spice up any dish (as any good cook knows well) and baking my own bread, making homemade granola, etc., like gardening, was simply part of what I did. In retrospect, I see that cooking served as a highly creative endeavor that helped me to create some balance between the millions of mundane jobs associated with single motherhood and my need for creativity…

It seemed quite natural to begin to explore herbs for medicinal purposes. I first experimented with plants that grew wild near my house on the island on which I lived. I sensed that developing a personal relationship with the plants I was using mattered, an intuition that continues to inform my growing and preparation of herbal remedies to this day. If I don’t have the right growing conditions for an herb I need, I wild craft responsibly. Until recently I have never used store bought preparations.

When I studied with medicine folk in the Amazon thirty years after first using herbs for culinary and then medicinal purposes, I learned that each healer only used his/her own garden grown herbs and preparations differed based on the knowledge that each medicine person received directly from the plants, so perhaps the importance of having a personal reciprocal relationship with individual plants is tied to their efficacy – my sense/experience is that it is. The ways of the natural world are not well understood by most westernized people.

Tinctures are my preferred method of medicinal preparation because they are simple to make, requiring gathering the ripe fruit, plant, or root and steeping in alcohol for a minimum of 6 – 8 weeks. Today, of course, herbal preparations – creams – syrups – tinctures etc. can (or could be) be purchased almost anywhere.

Although Indigenous peoples have been using plant remedies for millennia to combat a whole range of ailments, and folk medicine has been popular amongst country people throughout the world, western medicine for the most part has dismissed herbal efficacy, an attitude that defies logic because most of our medicines originally came from plants.

With the spread of the Coronavirus increasing exponentially each day it might be time to take a look at Elderberry, an herb that I have grown in my yard and wild crafted around forest edges in Maine. I have used the berries to make a tincture for a number of years to help me reduce the chance of becoming ill with colds or the flu, and until I came to New Mexico without it and got the flu the second winter I was here I sort of took the herb for granted.

Research Director Dr. Jessie Hawkins and coauthors (Complementary Therapies in Medicine) undertook the first meta-analysis to study Elderberry because so little research has been done by the scientific community as a whole. (How much this prevailing scientific attitude has to do with the pharmaceutical companies and their outrageous pricing is an ongoing question for me).

Because the studies were varied, researchers were able to apply a random effects model to evaluate the effect of Elderberry. Calculations yielded a large mean effect; Elderberry does substantially reduce the duration of upper respiratory symptoms in colds and flu.

Additionally, the researchers learned that getting the flu vaccine didn’t significantly alter the effects of Elderberry. They also discovered that it not only reduces the symptoms of colds and flu, but that it works more effectively for flu symptoms than for cold symptoms.

Other Researchers performing in vitro studies (done in a lab) confirm that Elderberry is active against human pathogenic bacteria as well as influenza viruses (HINI) In separate clinical trials, investigators also demonstrated that Elderberry reduced the severity and duration of cold and flu-like symptoms.

A recent study by a group of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering researchers from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering and IT has determined exactly how Elderberry can help fight influenza.

The group performed a comprehensive examination of the mechanism by which phytochemicals from elderberries combat flu by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both the viral attachment and entry into the host cells. Elderberry compounds directly inhibit the virus’s entry and replication in human cells,

The phytochemicals from the elderberry juice were shown to be effective at stopping the virus infecting the cells. However, to the surprise of the researchers they were even more effective at inhibiting/blocking viral propagation at several stages of the influenza cycle when the cells had already been infected with the virus.

They also discovered that Elderberry stimulated the cells to release certain cytokines, which are chemical messengers that the immune system uses for communication between different cell types to help them coordinate a more efficient response to an invading pathogen.

Additionally, the team also found that Elderberry’s antiviral activity is attributed to its anthocyanidin compounds — phytonutrients responsible for giving the fruit its vivid purple coloring.

In another placebo-controlled, double-blind study conducted by virologist Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu, 93 percent of the people taking Elderberry reported significant improvement in flu symptoms within 2 days of starting it, compared with the 6 days it took for the placebo group to see improvement.

A similar randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study performed in Norway demonstrated that Elderberry that was given to patients who reported having flu-like symptoms for less than 48 hours had similar results.

Researchers have also found that people who have taken Elderberry have higher levels of antibodies against the influenza virus, indicating that not only may Elderberry be able to treat flu symptoms it may also be able to prevent influenza infection.

Collectively, this research indicates that use of Elderberry presents us with an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections. Additionally Elderberry use is a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.

Of course, at this point, we have no way of knowing whether the deadly new Coronavirus would be inhibited by the use of Elderberry. However, the fact that it has been used as a folk remedy to treat colds/flu by Indigenous/country peoples throughout the world for millennia combined with new research and my own previous experience with this herb, suggests at the very least, Elderberry might be worth a try.

On a personal note, because I have been in New Mexico during Elderberry season I have not made a new tincture for myself for the last four years. The result is that I haven’t been using the berry as a preventative measure. I’ve been sick here a lot. Recently, I purchased a commercial tincture to use as a preventative measure. I can only hope that the Berry Lady hasn’t forgotten that I love her well.