Spirits of the Forest

In Forest Presence

I listen,

 leaves

and needles rustle

Voices 

Hum inside

Hemlock bark

 sounding 

if only humans

 would listen

Incantations

 erupt beneath

the forest floor

wrapped

in a tapestry of threads

millions of miles

of white

 cottony intentions

made manifest

by Raven and

Owl

I listen….

Rapture

Is Stillness

within,

without

Only then

 do birds

reveal

the Secrets

we crave

Spirits of the Forest 

Oh yes,

I listen.

Teresa of Avila writes: “If we learn to love the earth, we will find labyrinths, gardens, fountains and precious jewels! A whole new world will open itself to us. We will discover what it means to be truly alive.”

This has certainly been true for me.

Little Red Deer

At the forest 

  edge,

twigs rustle, 

papery leaves

betray

a vision of grace

  emerging

from behind 

my chair.

Staring intently

liquid coals

will me

to turn…

You nibble 

a few grasses

at my feet

without fear.

We meet

on pine strewn paths

or when I trim

 cherry or rose

plucking old thorns.

At dawn you stand

outside my window.

I encounter you on

the road.

You must be following me

 for a reason.

Between us,

Kinship exists, 

 a mystical bond

not bound

by time –

a silvery thread

woven between

species in gold –

Your choice

not mine.

Too thin –

almost gaunt

from hunger?

Do I imagine

Deep Longing?

Our bond

a fragrant flower

 bone

to bone.

anemone

You dined

 on my anemones

nibbled 

sweet honeysuckle

lilies too. 

If

sharing flowers

with you

helps those

ribs to recede,

then take

what you need.

Please! 

Friendships

are scarce –

vanish

without reason

in a field

of dreams.

 I treasure

this meeting

of soul and body

burnished red skin

your peaceful 

countenance, 

  ears that listen.

We are present

for each other

in that place

beneath words.

I wonder if

you mourn

  lost forest

 as I do –

or is it a dead

fawn that

was taken

from you?

Either way

Peace abounds

when we share

field and stream

 trees bearing fruit

 in this

finite oasis,

Our Beloved Home.

Winds of Change

young hemlock bristles with lime green needles


Hemlock hiding
in the gorge
Spring seeping
Needled twigs
Greening.

Abandoned nest
Waxing light
Fledglings soar
Summer’s dawning.

Moon summoned

tides
 blossoming
 pearl loosing

golden pollen.

Sun slipping low

bittersweet change

 abrupt reversal 

flips flaming

orange round.

Postscript:

I think the young hemlock tree demonstrates how the waxing of the light has been accomplished before the summer solstice and before summer begins. The pines are raining needles, the maples spiral wings – both will transform; some enriching the earth. Others will sleep away three seasons in rich moist ground until next spring…

The Bang Bang Boys

Mad wolf boys bay
a waxing solstice moon 
to Bloom

PTSD 
Violence
is the Gateway
Nowhere to hide

Bang Bang

Warblers sing on


Fright
fragments
innocence
Nerves strung too tight
contract
Guns batter
Forest Peace

Bang Bang


Warblers sing on

Nighthawk soars

Uncertainty 
Change

Flaming bombs

explode 

Screaming cells

beg for relief.

Bang Bang

Warblers sing on


Acceptance
Is full of magic
Prepare
A feast of gratitude

hold tight to Flight

Let go

breathe

into Crazy

stretch credibility

Plan Escape.

Bang Bang 
 

Warblers sing on

Robin sits
on her nest
warming blue eggs
Peering 
through Cedar’s
Fragrant eyes-
Black Pearls
have wings
Just like the 
Hemlocks
against
whose ribbed trunks
I lean
Amazed. 

Bang Bang

Warblers sing on


 Waving at me 

with urgent needles

fluttering leaves

trees tell me

most will die
In one hundred years
who will

be left to care?

Bang Bang

Warblers sing on

 
Rooted
in moist earth.
rotund trunks
branch low. 
Step ladders
to the sky

turn blue
hemlocks breathe 
   mourning tears

needles showered in

 gold and green

transform in
morning  light.

Bang Bang


Warblers sing on…

Commentary:

Terry Tempest Williams writes “ animals continue to live with an integrity of purpose even as the ecosystem to which they belong to is unraveling”.

This is one point I am trying to make in this poem.

If the poem just strikes the reader as discordant I have made my point. As we approach the summer solstice, deep greening shading us from the heat, we enter the summer season living a split between nature’s intentions and those belonging to so many humans. 

 Richard Powers states:

“To see green is to grasp the Earth’s intention.”

Isn’t Greening is all about celebrating light as the trees photosynthesize creating the oxygen most species need to breathe? 

At summer solstice the waxing of the light has been accomplished. At the solstice the sun stands still and then begins its slow journey south decreasing in intensity. For nature, summer is a time of increasing abundance heightened by glorious flowers and pollinating bees and butterflies flooding fields and gardens. The mating songs of birds are fading into softer summer melodies. Berries ripen, seeds have  already been set by early spring flowers; others will follow. Birds are laying eggs; some are fledging. The scent of summer is intoxicating for birds, mammals and trees, all of which have keen noses of one kind or the other. (Yes, trees can smell and communicate through scents by air!)

The heat slows most of nature down. By noontime the trees are shutting down photosynthesis for the day as temperatures increase. Now trees begin to transpire releasing moisture that may or may not bring in a summer shower. Brooks and streams lose water, vernal pools dry up as tiny toads and frogs seek the comfort of wet leaf litter or an overgrown garden to hide in. Birds cease most afternoon singing. Early mornings and late evenings allow the fox and coyote to hunt. Bears emerge from bogs and the tree frogs begin their evening symphony, perhaps punctuated by an owl’s hoot or a kingfisher rattle as the latter fishes the brook for trout. The night sparkles with the cool green light of a few fireflies…

Unfortunately, many people seem pitted against this season of grace and plenty. Frantic partying, roaring boats, motorcylces, four wheelers, trucks, speeding cars scream so loud that nature’s sounds are drowned out. It’s no wonder the 4 percent of animals that are left on this planet hide. Bright spotlights light up the night so stars, migrating birds and fireflies disappear. I often wonder if these folks see anything that is connected to the planet that supports them.  So much beauty wasted.

The issue of making as much noise as possible may be one way to drown out all salient thought – a powerful form of denial. The other of course, is spending so much time pursuing “busy” as recreation, even if it’s rabid mountain climbing or racing down a woodland trail.

I won’t bother to address our addiction to shopping and technology.

Most disturbing is a trend that I have been following for about 20 years. The noise is getting louder; yes we have more people, but TV and Video games have also become more violent. Why are so many addicted to explosives of one kind or another be it video games, fireworks, murders, mufflers, bombs or guns? Noise pollution has become endemic to the culture as a whole.

An urgent question for me is to ask what this noise may be doing to the cells of our bodies/minds whether we think we are sensitive to noise or not? 

Many studies show that as the temperatures heat up more familial abuse (rape especially) and murders seem to occur. Of course this is a complex issue, but I invite the reader to google some of these disturbing studies. When I finally did they confirmed that my senses were not deceiving me.

For those of us who need quiet time to think, to dive deep to write, to allow our bodies to decide when to wake and sleep, to move with the rhythms of nature, life becomes an uphill struggle as we are forced to live by a (deranged?) human clock. Even if a person doesn’t suffer from PTSD like I do, finding peace is a challenge. I am graced by having a place to go to hide. I can fall asleep and rise with the birds, but what do others do?

My poem juxtaposes bird song with explosives mirroring the fact that song birds like warblers sooth the human soul and probably that of all non – human sentient beings while highlighting an ever growing dramatic split between the rest of nature and humans .

The use of boys is deliberate. Adolescent Male aggression  (regardless of age or even gender) appears to peak at this time of the year. I see the solstice as reflecting the apex of destructive male power, a radical view that I have not seen expressed elsewhere.

I’d like to know what others think.

NOTE: wordpress once again butchered poem – I let it be

Afterthought:

I wrote this piece and didn’t stipulate that some adult men and women use guns responsibly, and do not choose violence and aggression as a way of dealing with frustration or solving problems but the destructive cultural tendency is increasing. What scares me the most is how many perceive themselves as ‘good’ and decent people.

I also think that there is a direct relationship between creating/seeking noise and distancing oneself from the plight of the planet. I hope I made that clear.

Waxing Moon at Refuge

Waxing moon
pierces
fringed Hemlocks
Starbursts
blink in and out
Owls converse
from Needled Crowns
bathed in
Air and Light.
Refuge Tree
soothed by
Familiar calls
sighs deeply,
soaking
In the Night.

Refuge Tree


Refuge incarnates as Aphrodite… 

In the forest I slip into a lime green skin with the help of one hemlock, under whose feathery wings this transformation takes place. I breathe her sweet scent through my supple membrane.  Standing beneath Refuge, whose roots claw the edge of a steep slope that bows to the river, I can barely see the crown of the tree, maybe 150 feet in the air. This hemlock towers over the rest. Moss and lichen adorn her limbs and the tree’s deeply ribbed reddish brown bark is an invitation to touch that I can never resist. Scrambling down the slope with care I lean against the tree and listen, always hoping… sometimes I think I hear a low hum if the wind is still. Perhaps I’m imagining.


diversity created by hemlocks

This one tree stands like a sentry in a forest that hugs a stream. I habitually stand under her boughs peering up her massive trunk. I stroke her red ribbed bark tenderly as I query unconventional thoughts and tell her she’s beautiful. Trees don’t have ears but they hear sounds so she is listening…I can only hug half of her at a time. S/he has a circumference of ten feet and six inches. Surrounded by many other hemlocks not as old, all line the waters edge and must be relatives. Behind them, the spongy duff of the forest floor is covered with young hemlock seedlings of various ages that are being fed underground by their elders.

healthy young hemlocks…

Further up the steep bank these spreading boughs create space for white pine, spruce, birch and other deciduous trees that make up the rest of this mixed forest. A witch hazel grows at Refuge’s feet on the stream-side, while an inch high seedling sprouts in the center of the base of her trunk on the side closest to me. This one- inch seedling has doubled her size this spring –Lime green needles sprout from every teeny twig! A Lilliputian marvel.

the littlest seedling

Hemlocks define whole ecosystems, their nitrogen rich needles cover the forest floor, sprouting a plethora of seedlings around their roots that will be nurtured by nearby mother trees. It must be noted that although I call Refuge tree a she, she is also a he! Both female and female cones are borne on a single hemlock, and all are mother trees, that are pollinated by the wind. An understory grows up underneath the spreading boughs and limbs creating a branching step-ladder that can reach the stars. Delicate cones bow and drop from the ends of the fringed twigs, some each fall. 

 During the day Refuge is framed by cobalt blue, dove gray or charcoal and deep green in summer. Deciduous leaves – maple and beech lime the forest. With so many roots entwined this woodland organism developed awareness a long time ago and is engaging in conversation that probably moves us beyond what we can ever know.
Hemlocks like all trees support us by providing the oxygen we need to breathe and by storing masses of carbon. Hemlocks in particular purify waters, supporting trout by keeping streams and rivers cool, deflecting heavy rain so that soil will not be lost, lower forest temperatures keeping the air more stable…these facts we know. Hemlocks also flood the air with fragrant terpenes, chemicals that relax us, heighten mood, and can heal damaged lungs. To me this sweetened air is Aphrodite come to life at the edge of summers turning…

Trees like hemlocks demonstrate Love in its purest form bycommunicating with kin and neighbors, nurturing young, protecting and providing homes/ protection for the birds, and accepting with grace the seasons as they pass…  even while dying these trees send nutrients to support future generations. Aphrodite lives…

Trees of Green Peace and Flowing Waters…

yellow throated warbler – some warblers like the blackburnian, black throated green warbler, blue headed vireo, hermit thrush, ovenbird, blue headed vireo, Acadian flycatcher, Saw Whet owl nest no where else or prefer hemlocks

 

 

Fern Hollow

I awaken to the common yellowthroat warbler’s song. A light breeze wafts through the open window intensifying the scent of wild honeysuckle. Phoebe chimes in followed by Ovenbird, another warbler. Mama phoebe takes flight from her nest as I open the door. I peer out into emerald green – sweetly scented hay ferns define the edges of the mixed conifer and deciduous forest that overlooks a mountain brook. My home. A canopy of leafy limed branches protects the house from what will become fierce heat from the noonday star… summer is almost upon us. But not just yet. For now I am still living in the space in between. Fern hollow is an edge place, etched out of olive and jade.

sensitive fern

Seduced by moist air, stillness and dove gray cloud cover I follow my Forest Muse wandering down to the protected field through the pines. The mountains are still shrouded in mist. Lupine spires and lemon lilies peek out above a raft of sensitive ferns. Deep blue iris startle sensitive eyes. I breathe in the intoxicating aroma of the last flowering crabapple as I examine unfurling ostrich ferns. Always the spiral. The Wild Goddess lives here. Once, just after I moved here, She rose up out of the field to embrace me, told me that I was loved… She spoke through pure feeling in that place beneath words. Now She comes to me through the trees…

one of my paths leading to the field

Approaching the brook I experience a momentary chill. The noticeable drop in temperature is due to the spreading boughs of the Eastern Hemlocks who protect this brook (as well as other streams and rivers) from warming, so that trout can thrive. These remarkable trees slow summer storm run off, purify waters, add nitrogen to the soil through their needles, and create a moist microclimate that supports rich avian and plant diversity. As if to confirm my thoughts the call of a Blackburnian warbler reminds me that some warblers will only nest in this particular tree. Because of their trunks tendency to split, loggers left the “redwoods of the east” behind, and some hemlocks are probably 150 years old (maybe older) although this forest was cut about 40 years ago, primarily for white pine. Hemlocks can live for 500 years or more. Because they are the most shade tolerant trees of all hemlocks can survive on the moist banks of rivers and streams for many years waiting for the moment when enough light penetrates the forest floor; then they shoot up spreading their graceful boughs wide enough to create a cool understory where tender wildflowers thrive, and deer and rabbit browse.

 Another warbler is singing, a high – pitched fluted call, this one is a black throated blue warbler. Migration is winding down and I wonder how many of these birds will actually stay to nest and raise young. 

 Taking another path up the hill I drift back into that space of belonging, my animal senses stilling all thought.

 Green Peace.

Trillium rock totally covered with brocade moss and starflowers

 Approaching Trillium rock I am once again pulled into mind, reflecting upon how quickly golden lime brocade moss covered the entire boulder once a few dead trees came down. Starflowers adorn brocade, the same moss that phoebe used to construct and line her nest…

Phoebe and her brocade nest

A morning dove is calling in the distance. Mourning and Morning belong together. Just as Thinking and Being do – humans are capable of moving back and forth between the two, but because being is not honored we must re- learn how to do the latter.

Starflower

 One way to frame living through difficult and uncertain times is to perceive oneself as Entering the Mystery (Martin Shaw). When I align myself with the rest of nature I lose myself in the mysterious, utterly fascinating present, develop strength to go parallel with what is, and can give thanks with all my heart for the gift of being alive.

Crowning the Mother Tree

my beloved phoebe

Crown the trees

that feed 

the bees,

 one more

keystone species.

Crown the trees

 that purify  

 poisoned air,

  ground, water,

create clouds

for rain,

return fish

 to streams…

Crown trees

that shelter birds

as they turn

light to sugar 

releasing oxygen

so that we may

breathe

Abundant Greening.

During this month

of her Crowning

let us gather round

The Mother Tree

 to accept communion.

 at gnarled old feet.

me, leaning against my favorite Hemlock in the forest

June is the Crowning month for the “Mother Tree” who is getting ready to set her seeds and fruit. This is the time when luminous (numinous?) lime leaves and needles are reaching towards the fiercest solstice light, photosynthesizing each morning until the heat from the noonday star begins to sizzle. At this point trees begin to transpire creating the clouds we need for rain. Underground their roots commune seeking millions of new connections; mycelia produce points of light, store masses of carbon, warn one another of predators, favor their kin, send precious minerals, water, carbon, other nutrients to those trees that are dying, even as the receivers in their weakened state offer whatever they have left for the next generation to live (this may sound like some kind of fantastic story telling but every point I have made is science based). 

Above ground trees also actively converse by releasing volatile chemicals. They make communal decisions about the present and the future. For example, they send new predator warnings through the air. They also decide when they will next offer a bounty of nuts and fruits to wildlife. 

They provide protection, food, and homes for birds. Trees have been around for 400 million years while songbirds emerged from Australia about 34 million years ago when giant conifers, a plentiful understory and the first flowering plants provided adequate shelter and food.

 I don’t think that it is any accident that so many images of the Tree of Life have birds perched throughout the branches. There is a complex relationship between trees and birds that we know almost nothing about beyond the fact that we are losing both. We have lost three billion songbirds. In the United States we have less than three percent of old growth forest left, and yet we seem determined to wipe out the last Old Ones before we are forced to put down the saw.

The loss of ancient tree wisdom brings me to my knees.

The slaughter of so many forests has put more carbon in the air than all the modes of transportation on earth. Twice as much carbon is released into the atmosphere by falling trees… 

In this Crowning month of the Mother Tree, the prognosis for trees and birds is dire.

As Richard Powers states so eloquently, “The Forest is a threatened creature.” 

May; a Reflection on Time and Trillium

Phoebe and nest

With May coming to a close in a few days, I am feeling nostalgia. This month is both elusive and dramatic – from bare trees to lime green, and now lilacs so heavily laden with blooms that some are bowed as if in prayer.  Wood frogs and peepers bring in the night and the first toads are hopping around my overgrown flower garden; in the forests I surprise them when peering closely at small flowers. Gray tree frogs trill at dusk. Violets of every hue grace the earth outside my door along with robust dandelions, forget – nots, rafts of deep blue ajuga, delicate bells of solomons seal, mayapple umbrellas, false solomon’s seal, wild columbine and golden celandine all nestled in long grasses and moss. No mowing happens here! 

On my woodland paths starflowers and Canada mayflowers are now so thick I fear treading on even one, as if one foot could destroy the whole. Down by the brook white trillium bloom on, both painted and purple are setting seed, while bloodroot, arbutus trumpets and delicate anemones have transformed into leafy memory. Ostrich and hay ferns are unfurling, creeping blue phlox and dames rocket are budded or blooming; pink and white lady slippers are beckoning both here and in the woods. June is in the air.

I have spent the whole month with one foot here at home and one in the deep forests, the ones that have been allowed to thrive on their own.

Northern Parula

 This year I promised myself I would do nothing except watch and listen for birds and spend my time with wildflowers. I have been busier than I ever could have imagined! I feel deep pleasure as each of my ‘regular’ summer birds return and prepare for nesting. In the last week alone I have identified 16 migrating warblers, spent hours in the field listening for migrating birds, checking sources for accuracy, and have been enthralled by Phoebe who is setting up housekeeping on a precarious ledge over my front door. There is so much to do that I feel as if I am living with Winnie the Pooh at Pooh Corner. No room for practicalities!

Eastern Hemlock – an Elder

 In the forest I scan the floor for new arrivals while keeping an eye out for lady slippers and blue bead lilies that often grow close to each other. Giant yellow bumblebees are a frequent sight always buzzing close to the ground because they know where ephemeral nectar can be found! Twisted stalk with its tiny pink bells appeared two days ago on one of my regular trails. My favorite woodland fern is sending up new shoots;  Christmas fern will stay forest green until mid –winter. Frilled swords spread out from a central rosette that hides rhizomes beneath fragrant moist leaf litter. Here too, carpets of Canada mayflowers and starflowers are blooming in abundance.  None of these delicate beings can tolerate being trod upon so it is necessary to stay on a trail. The key to the profusion of wild flowers, is of course, a healthy diverse forest and light foot traffic. The forests I visit are thick with hemlock, pine, oak, ash, birch, maple, to name a few. This rich diversity creates soil that is rich and spongy, offers wild flowers protection from the sun, and before leaf out, still provides enough light for spring ephemerals to begin to bloom. 

Reflecting on this elusive and magical month I am struck by how I experience time. In one sense I have been so present to each day/each moment that I experience May as being timeless; on the other hand as June approaches I feel the poignant swift passage of time. As I breathe in terpenes I wonder if trees experience this turning as a celebration. Trees have survived five extinctions; my sense is that they may know things humans do not… 

 

White Trillium

If the weather cooperates and heat waves don’t shrivel tender blossoms some trillium will still be blooming into June if one knows where to look for them. In a healthy forest these ground stars with their three pearl white petals, some inked in rose, often appear in large clumps surrounded by many young ones not yet in bloom. Although purple trillium has set seed others are bright with shining faces. Large white trillium startle the discerning eye. I like it that there are exceptions to the flight of ephemerals!

There are 39 species of trillium in the United States and all belong to the lily family They are native to temperate regions of North America and Asia. Trillium are extremely long lived if not disturbed (Twenty five years). 

 Like most wildflowers Trillium have become endangered because of machine traffic, logging, and habitat loss. Although their tendency is to spread quite naturally by way of rhizomes, without protected forests, or small patches of forested land like mine where nature is allowed to make her own decisions trillium simply disappear. Trillium seeds are also spread by ants. After blooming, an oval capsule forms that eventually becomes a fruit. Ants take the fruits to their nest where they eat them and add the seeds to their garbage bin, which then becomes a rich medium for future trillium germination! 

Here I notice that the first trillium break ground on earth day, every single year. Each spring I have a few more plants and flowers although it will take years before the youngest ones bloom. In the forests I visit, emergence occurs a bit later. I am tuned to unfolding of all the ephemerals, but trillium begin the wildflower season and often end it. While they are stunning to look at, picking trillium seriously injures the plant by preventing the leaf-like bracts from producing food for the next year killing the trillium and ensuring that none will grow in its place.

In pre Christian European lore the presence of three lobed trillium like flowers signified the emergence of the earth goddess in her most magical form, a legend that seems to have at its core the literal greening of spring.

Eastern Phoebe Ushers in a Symphony

Phoebe awakened me at 4:45 AM with his raspy two – syllable call. Winter wren, Ovenbird, Robin and the Magnolia warbler followed almost immediately; they were all trilling at once. What symphony! Entranced, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Unlike the other birds that I couldn’t see, Phoebe called repeatedly for the next half an hour sitting on his perch just outside my window.

Every spring a pair of Eastern phoebes arrive here in mid April. For a week or two they court around the cabin, and then to my utter frustration they end up nesting somewhere down by the brook.

Until this year.

Eastern Phoebe (Cornell)

It is May 20th and these birds have been courting around the house so enthusiastically that I believed that this season might be different.  When one began to deposit brocade moss on a narrow inaccessible ledge just above the door I peered at its width uneasily. The ledge wasn’t even 3 inches wide. Why there, when phoebe had all these wide enough log corners to nest upon? But the brocade moss kept coming and soon moss covered the ledge extending the length of the door. Bits of brocade landed on my head as I came in and out of the house. Strands of old hay followed.

 I was utterly baffled until I spoke to bird expert James Reddoch of Mahoosuc Land Trust (he would never call himself an expert but he is). James told me that a male phoebe could decide to build a false nest to impress his mate. Although I had done some research on my own, none of the sources I consulted had included this bit of information. 

Two days ago this curious behavior ceased as quickly as it began. Both phoebes still hunt around the eaves but are also flying around down by the brook. The male continues to perch outside my window to call up the dawn each morning.

To say that I am disappointed about the phoebe’s decision to nest elsewhere is an understatement. I have had robins and wrens nest on the cabin’s top logs in the past. I am wondering if the amount of squirrel activity might be an issue for the phoebes because I am inundated with squirrels, both reds and grays.  Perhaps this might also be a reason the male chose this particular spot for a pretend nest? Any squirrel would have a tough time getting to that place. Just in case, I am going to add a little extension to the ledge and see what happens next spring.

my phoebe just outside my door

The Eastern phoebe, a flycatcher, is one of the earliest migrants arriving in northern climates as early as March in some areas from as far south as Texas. Their breeding grounds extend well into Canada, and nests are built under bridges, houses and barns, an adaptation that has endeared them to people like me. If the original nest sites were on vertical stream banks or small rock outcroppings in the woods with a niche providing support and some protection from above (Audubon) then where do my phoebes nest? I have never found a nest in all these years.  From what I have read they are constructed with a mud base, and then lined with mosses, grasses and animal hair.

Surprisingly, one male may have two mates and may help to feed the young in two nests at once according to the Cornell bird site. Unlike most birds, phoebes often reuse their nests, or renovate an old robin’s nest laying anywhere from two to six eggs that the female incubates. Both parents feed nestlings who are ready to leave in a couple of weeks. Phoebes raise two broods a year. These little characters habitually flick their tails in the most engaging way as they perch and hunt from low branches. No one seems to know why. 

In addition to the characteristic phoebe call these birds also emit sharp peeps. They have short sword -like bills, an adaptation that allows them to capture insects easily. Phoebes make brief flights to capture their pray often returning to the same perch in seconds.  Some bugs are caught in mid – air, some are snatched from branches, and others from the ground. I lose time watching them hunt. The kinds of insects vary and include ticks (!), small wasps, bees, beetles, flies grasshoppers, spiders, and millipedes. Phoebes also eat berries, probably a staple of winter diets.

Research done at Cornell by Frank La Sorte has raised a fascinating issue. There is a group that includes the Eastern phoebe, the Hermit thrush, the Yellow Rumped warbler and Red eyed vireo that have developed a physiological adaptation that allows them to switch from a diet of insects during spring and summer to berries and seeds in fall. From insectivore to omnivore.

 La Sorte’s research, using eBird data and weather radar images of massive flocks of birds, provided the first documented evidence that these insectivores-turned-omnivores migrate on the omnivore’s later schedule, with a migration window that extends into November. That is, these birds enjoy the omnivore’s advantage of waiting for just the right nights for flight”

That diet is a factor driving migration makes a lot of sense because the ancestors of these birds started flying long distances in order to follow available food. Insectivores must leave when insects decline, omnivores like sparrows cans stay on and so can this third group that includes phoebes because of this digestive adaptation that allows them to change their diets as the season shifts. Amazing!

I was upset to learn that phoebes are on the decline. Audubon projects that the species will move further north as the climate continues to warm and more range is lost to the south. Wildfires are a growing threat throughout the country. Spring heat waves put chicks at risk and of course, insecticides and habitat fragmentation are endemic to the loss of all birds including phoebes.

What can we do? Encourage phoebes to nest around the house especially if you have no land by putting up nesting boxes. Stop using pesticides and herbicides. Let lawns grow into wildflower meadows that encourage more insects. Support individuals and organizations like land trusts that champion unbroken forests, our one hope for the survival of all wildlife including all birds. Birds and forests belong together. Imagine stepping out your door into Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’. Just the thought is enough to bring me to my knees in grief.

Toading at the Pond

toads under water

During the Wildflower Moon it rained for the first time in almost a month.

 Ovenbird, chickadee, phoebe, robin, grosbeak, cardinal, oh so many helped me greet the dawn, reaffirming how much birds appreciate a few drops of liquid silver. I soaked in a palette of lime, sage, emerald, rose, lavender, and purple that stretched across a canvas of gray. This was the day the earth turned green. S/he’d been a lady in waiting… Each year I celebrate this ‘greening ‘day whenever it falls. Ash, beech, maple, oak, willow, alder, hobblebush, cherry, apple and crab all compete to be seen at once. Every tightly budded blossom, unfurling leaf and fuzzy catkin is a source of beauty, wonder and amazement. 

As always I am stunned by nature’s artistry.

  Overall, dry windy weather has dominated May, this second month of ‘Becoming’. Wildfires have broken out and the threat of fire remains high. A three-day heat wave coaxed the toads into spring mating and me into my first kayak voyage to visit the source of that compelling hum. 

I paddled towards the cattails listening to a deafening trill. Ah, to discover a collective love nest hidden in the reeds is a thrill. Listening and watching, all senses on high alert, I skimmed the shallows barely dipping oar to water; the ear splitting trilling ceased completely. I hugged the small cove; stilling the kayak. Within minutes, the hum began again; toads approached floating on glassy water like desiccated leaves. Only bright gold-rimmed bulbous eyes gave away amphibious intentions.

 

watcher!

The toads eyed me one by one curious about this intruder. This keen interest of theirs surprised me because, after all, it was mating season, which only lasted about three or four days. I did note that it was mostly males that floated my way. The females, much larger than the males, if not already carrying a male on her back, seemed to prefer staying submerged. They blended so well with pond detritus that the toads were barely visible underwater. Amplexus is the term used to describe mating toads; the males develop dark horny pads on their first and second front two toes that allow them to close their limbs around the female’s abdomen. When the female lays her 4000 – 8000 eggs (!) the male releases his sperm to fertilize them externally. A spring ritual was under way.

  Many females already had mates. Others, either floating or swimming, were being chased by a number of suitors. I had no idea how particular these females were! Some literally leapt out of the water to escape an unwelcome mate; others appeared to acquiesce only to throw the offending male off at the last minute! I couldn’t help laughing. The competition was fierce and I kept looking for a reason why the females chose the males they did but my observations turned up nothing.

note the size difference between female and male American Toads

 There was so much activity occurring all around me at once that I didn’t know which way to look. Except for the few kayak ‘watchers’, Bufo Americanus was on the move. I zeroed in on a few that were humming. One male toad inflated his throat balloon and trilled for about 7 – 11 seconds before deflating his sac. He then appeared to breathe rapidly, the loose sac acting like a pump for about 10 – 20 seconds, before the toad ballooned and bellowed out the next trill. A female invariably appeared as I watched this one and then others; sometimes two females would float nearby listening to the music coming from the water. Did some tunes intrigue more than others? I certainly couldn’t tell. How did a female decide if this was the one? When a male stopped singing and swam towards her, possible last minute rejection still loomed!  Conversely, sometimes one female toad would be buried under maybe 5 or 6 suitors at the same time! A pile of nubbly toads, creating a mountain in the water. I was transfixed… 

toad mountain!

Returning from my reverie to stiffening back muscles I realized I had been sitting here for more than an hour. When the heron flew low overhead I could feel the air move under the whish of his prehistoric feathers. I assumed that toads were not on the heron’s menu because of the bufotoxins. The two largest parotoid glands were located behind each toad eye. Some sources suggest herons do eat toads but not enough research has been done on this behavior to know. Hawks, raccoons and crows that predate on toads rip the glands out before ingestion. Snakes get around this problem by swallowing the toad whole (garter snakes have immunity). 

 Not surprisingly, toad tadpoles repel would be predators, because they also carry the same poison in their skin. Toad tadpoles also band together in groups and engage in kin recognition.

loon

  The two loons approached so close I was able to discern red eyes only visible during breeding season. A sleek muskrat swam by about a foot away, apparently on his way to deeper water where a passing mallard couples’ feathers shone iridescent in the sun. Toads began more humming beneath the boat. A vireo sang, hidden completely from sight in a thick tangle of berry bushes. Redwings flashed by, flames on the wing. Just ahead of me sitting on a floating log I spied two orange streaked painted turtles sunning themselves on emerald moss…

I was hot! Time to go.

 As I maneuvered the kayak out of the reeds I thanked the toads for allowing me a glimpse into their world while thinking about the strings of toad eggs that I would be collecting in a day or two to raise at home. All amphibians are critically threatened species; they are our ‘canaries’ alerting us to grave danger. The polluted air and water that are killing them are a threat to us as well. 

 One my way back to the dock I saw two huge – 24 – 30 inch bass swimming alongside the boat.  I stopped by the beaver islands but noted that there had been no activity this spring that I could detect. It was too early in the season for pitcher plants and orchids to appear out of the sphagnum, but pearl – white blueberry bells were being pollinated by enthusiastic bumblebees. I wondered where the beavers had gone. 

toad

As I pulled the kayak out of the water I was already imagining the tiny toads that would be populating my wild unkempt garden in August after the eggs hatched (2 -12 days) and tadpoles matured in my pond …For now I would provide them with algae and bits of raw spinach until the herbivores grew lungs and legs turning into carnivorous terrestrial beings that ate thousands of insects a day.For that reason alone everyone should raise a multitude of toads!