Snowy Comes to Maine

 

 

719e8726-ac9c-11e3-bdba-8d0644e09485-850x478$large.jpg“who whoo WHOOH…”

I will never forget the first Snowy owl I ever saw… I was living in Andover, Maine when a huge white bird appeared in January and soared over the lower fields. It was a very cold winter in 1993 and a pair of these birds became part of my winter bird watching. Their courtship call is quite distinct – three hoots with the loudest whooh at the end. I heard other sounds too but don’t remember the details. When I got my first close up look at one of these magnificent owls I was stunned by their beauty – intense yellow eyes, a black beak and oh, all those pearl white feathers. One had mole brown bars. The Snowy is one of the largest species of owl in North America, and is on average the heaviest owl species. The adult male is virtually pure white, but females and young birds have some dark spots; the young are heavily barred. I believe it was an adult male that I saw at close range. Occasionally one would fly ahead of the car as I drove out of my solitary mile long driveway, a behavior that intrigued me…

Well, Snowy owls are back in Maine! At the Portland Jetport, as many folks know, these owls and those that love seeing them are causing a “problem.” The owls are just trying to make a living but humans are apparently blocking emergency exits.

Many of us will recall that there was a boom in the Snowy population starting around 2011. One owl could be seen perched on a telephone pole between Bryant Pond and South Paris for much of the winter. Recently these birds are becoming uncommonly common! They have popped up in Aroostook County, the mountains of Acadia in Maine, and have been seen as far south as Florida and Hawaii and this year Snowy has made it as far south as New Mexico!

The Snowy owl is typically found in the northern circumpolar region, where it makes its summer home. However, this species is also nomadic because lemming population fluctuations force it to relocate to find food. Recently we have learned that the Snowy has been known to breed at more southerly latitudes

Snowy owls “normally” (is there such a thing today) nest in the tundra of Northern Canada and Europe. Snowy owls are attracted to open areas like marshes, open fields, coastal dunes, and prairies that appear somewhat similar to tundra. During the years when they are found in the Northeastern US, juveniles frequent appear in developed areas so keep your eyes out for a sighting. All ages spend a fair amount of their time over water in the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean, mostly on ice floes.

When perched Snowy owls often face the sun; Snowy owls appear to orient themselves into the sun or wind depending on prevailing weather conditions. No doubt they are happy to bask in whatever source of heat comes their way.

This species of owl nests on the ground, building a scrape on top of a mound or boulder. A site with good visibility is chosen, such as the top of a mound with ready access to hunting areas and a lack of snow. Abandoned eagle’s nests and even gravel bars are used for nesting. The female scrapes a small hollow before laying the eggs. Breeding occurs in May to June, and depending on the amount of prey available, clutch sizes range from 3 to 11 eggs, which are laid singly, approximately every other day over the course of several days. Hatching takes place approximately five weeks after laying, and the pure white young are cared for by both parents. Although the young hatch asynchronously, with the largest in the brood sometimes 10 to 15 times as heavy as the smallest, there is little sibling conflict, a fact that I find fascinating and somewhat unusual. Both the male and the female defend the nest and their young from predators sometimes using distraction as a ruse. Males also defend the nest by standing guard nearby while the female incubates the eggs and broods the young. Both sexes will attack approaching predators, dive-bombing them!

As previously mentioned this powerful bird relies primarily on lemmings and other small rodents for food during the breeding season. They are opportunistic hunters and prey species may vary considerably, especially in winter. Some of the larger mammal prey includes rabbits, hares muskrats squirrels (we could use lots of these birds) raccoons moles and mice. Birds preyed upon include ptarmigan, ducks geese shorebirds and songbirds as well as other owls and raptors. Most of the owls’ hunting is done in the “sit and wait” style; prey may be captured on the ground or in the air; fish may be snatched off the surface of bodies of water using sharp talons. Unlike most owls that hunt at night Snowy owls are diurnal hunting in darkness and in light.

Snowy owls, like other carnivorous birds, swallow their small prey whole. Strong stomach juices digest the flesh, while the indigestible bones, teeth, fur, and feathers are compacted into oval pellets that the bird regurgitates 18 to 24 hours after feeding. Regurgitation often takes place at regular perches, where dozens of pellets may be found.

Previous population estimates of about 200,000 individuals are now regarded as substantially overestimated, and a total population size of 28,000 individuals is probable.

Catastrophic Climate Change guarantees that unless we radically reverse carbon emissions in the next twelve years Life as we know it will be over. The absence of Snowy will become just one more statistic on a planet that has lost its animal populations. So, if you are fortunate enough to glimpse one of these magnificent owls, remember to say goodbye.

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Midnight Musings

It was damp.

Cloud heavy skies

spit silver raindrops…

When I awakened

to overflowing drainpipes,

and an unfamiliar voice

I wondered if

you were out there

hunting, or

singing love

songs to wet ground,

laying low in thick green –

Toad, lover of deep night.

I marveled,

picturing your image…

a throbbing throat

your tightly pinched face –

amber bejeweled eyes

wide ample body

nubbly pale skin,

a cream stripe

running down your back.

You had shed an old skin.

In the white heat of the day

I murmured endearments.

Could you feel

my joyful body thrumming?

 

Now I wondered

if you were calling.

When

signature hoof prints

marked

the driveway

at dawn

I believed you had.

Deer

bridge worlds

binding one

to the other

as you bridged mine

that day

with the gift

of your presence –

a toad dream come to life.

May we

share this bountiful river,

cottonwood canopy,

red road,

and meadows

replete with visits

from occasional bear and deer,

thick with burrows for you to hide in?

This mud house

needs a Toad –

one wed

to the ground way

of seeing.

She who tunnels

underground

transforming

with each sloughing

of wrinkled skin,

one that hugs the Earth.

Owl songs sweeten the night,

slice through poisoned air with silent wings

but rarely touch ground in flight.

Will you befriend me

and stay a while?

What I can offer

is the promise of

a little extra moisture

to help protect you

from too much sun…

That, and my love.

 

 

 

*Awi Usdi is a mythical white Cherokee deer who is a ‘justice maker” intervening in the lives of both animals and people to re-dress imbalances between the two.

 

Working notes:

 

Two days ago I wrote a toad story about a remarkable encounter between a giant female western toad and myself. The toad appeared in 92 degree heat and in three hops bounded into the only available moist ground. Within minutes she had dug herself into the hole as I covered her with leaves, branches, and cottonwood bark to protect her from the heat. I had been palpably longing for a toad to join me here all summer and had even built a small rock pool for one so this “visitation” seemed quite miraculous.

It wasn’t until after the toad appeared that it occurred to me that her unexpected arrival might mean something more than seeing a beloved friend.

“The Old Woman” is coming to life in me, and Toad just might be the ally I need.

The amphibious part of my life remains unresolved. Toad and frog thoughts pull me back towards the lush green of my past life along a woodland brook rich in riparian diversity. I am homesick and hungry for fog and mist, warm summer rains that last for days, toads trilling and grey tree frogs singing from the tree tops. Cool, cool nights. Are these thoughts keeping me present to myself helping me to complete the mourning process of leave –taking so that I can finally shed my old skin? Or are they warning me not to make another mistake?

Perhaps I need to live in both worlds after all.

I have to keep reminding myself that most people do not make the kind of radical life changes that I am in the process of making – leaving one whole life behind, house and land I love, along with absentee children, loneliness, and harsh winters, moving more than half way across a country to live in the high desert along Red Willow River, a place I love, but also on the edge of what will surely become ‘true desert’ before long. Drought, intolerable heat, and wildfires are bringing the terrifying effects of climate change into the daily world I inhabit here.

The knowing is excruciating.

I have come through my first summer in New Mexico scorched by the unrelenting heat, with strange and debilitating bodily symptoms that seem to come and go without rhythm or reason leaving me enervated and in a state of perpetual confusion. I feel as if I have literally become allergic to the sun. What can this mean? I have been ever so fortunate and deeply grateful to find a “home” here but as thankful as I am, I am also wary of what my body may be trying to tell me.

My body seems to be screaming and I don’t seem to know how to listen.

I may think that living here “permanently” is what I need but if so why is my body in such misery?

I have no answer to this question, which is why I think I need a Toad Woman to intervene…

Yesterday after doing some extensive research on the western toad I was devastated to learn that according to a number of academic sources these toads have already been extirpated from the only area where they once thrived in New Mexico – along the Rio Grande river and its tributaries in Rio Arriba County which is where I live. Because I have seen two western toads in two years I know this information is not correct – at least not yet. But the trend is alarmingly clear. It won’t be long. Dams, the artificial raising and dropping of river water, drought, chemicals, UV light, farming, fertilizers are all culprits, as is habitat loss and human indifference. So this longing I feel for toads has both truth and loss at its core because we are losing this species. Now. Next year, the year after, or a few more years and the last western toads will be gone. Forever.

Ever since I learned that western toad extinction is immanent all I can feel is heartbreak. I am used to feeling helpless in the face of ecological destruction. Every creature I love is under threat and I am living with what is, grieving as I go. But this story has a deeply personal aspect, because part of me thinks I need help from a toad to stay here and what happens to me if they are all dead?

This is where the power of an archetype becomes important. My encounter with the toad transported me into another dimension. Toad is more than a toad. She is also an ancient archetypal pattern that is aligned with, and embodies the Earth Mother (in both life and death aspects) in Mexican, Mesoamerican, and South American mythology (as well as in Asian mythology). I think I tapped into that pattern when I encountered my giant toad. If so, this experience has transpersonal aspects to it and help may be on the way.

As heartrending as it is to learn that live toads are disappearing, the pattern remains and I can still choose to align myself with it. I need a Toad Woman to ground me in the dark generative powers of the Earth Mother – to help me shed an old skin, to help me breathe through mud and lack of clarity. I also need access to more effective protection from the powers of the sun…

This morning I had a dream that made it clear that returning to my old home and land (both of which are for sale) is not an option for me even for a brief time. This dream -body response clarifies what not to do, but does not solve the problem of how to survive New Mexican summers. Next year maybe my longing to go north to Minnesota to be with Lynn Rogers and my friends the bears for two months will become reality. And then I could come “home” to New Mexico to bury my body in the mud for a month or so like Toad does until it cools off for good. Perhaps this would be a “both and” solution for my amphibious self because Ely is on the edge of the Northern Wilderness where lakes and moisture abound. There I could listen to summer rain and visit with my friends the toads and frogs that are still in abundance- for now.

Today while watering my wildflower oasis I discovered the first baby sagebrush lizard I have ever seen here. For the second time in a couple of days I felt that thrill of being present for amphibian and reptilian Life. My two house lizards have a tiny two – inch long son or a daughter that is presently hanging out with them on my adobe walls. Just seconds later I noted that the toad’s hole (which was located just below the place where the lizards bask) was no longer empty but was now occupied by someone who had dug herself in and pulled the dirt in over her head!

Matriarchs of the Bosque

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Every morning I walk down to the river’s edge to watch the sunrise. In late April the sky and trees are buzzing with hummingbirds, the mournful cooing of white winged doves, and the trilling of red winged blackbirds. As I wait for that pinpoint of light to blossom into a golden orb I look to the gnarled trunks of cottonwood trees (Populus delitoides wislizenii) that stand out against a background of blue slate marveling at the shapes, size, and trunk texture of such magnificent rapidly growing shade trees, trees that I have come to love so much, now drooping with male and female russet catkins (each on separate trees). I think about the heart shaped leaves that will soon grace bare branches rustling in the slightest breeze and the birds and small animals that will find safety under the massive canopies of these (egalitarian) Matriarchs of the Bosque. And I think about their future…

 

The Rio Grande Bosque is a system of wetlands, oxbow lakes, sandbars and woodlands that supports the growth of cottonwoods and willows, one of the most critically endangered habitats in the world. Seasonal flooding once cleared debris and enriched the soil allowing new seedlings to germinate, but over the last century large scale agriculture, irrigation systems, livestock grazing and logging have created soil erosion and extremes in flooding. Dams were built to control floods and wetlands were drained.

 

Mature cottonwoods have roots that can reach down to the water table, but young cottonwoods cannot germinate or grow unless they have enough water available to them near the surface.

 

The cottonwoods I love are “elders” but young cottonwoods are scarce or completely absent except in a few locations near the river (my friend Iren’s Bosque is a small but healthy ecosystem that is flourishing with the next generation of cottonwoods but this riparian area still floods in the spring). Whenever I gaze up or sit under one of these magnificent trees that are dressed in such golden splendor in the fall, I wonder how many people are aware of the fact that these gracious matriarchs will disappear from the landscape within less than a century even without assistance from climate change.

 

This year severe drought has added another layer of distress to an already critical cottonwood situation. All trees have access to food through their complex underground root systems and their relationship with certain fungi but trees cannot deal with ongoing thirst.

 

Groundbreaking scientific tree/plant research indicates that when trees are threatened with lack of water, food production and growth cease. The trees that suffer the most are the ones like cottonwoods that grow in soils where moisture is most abundant. Deeply distressed thirsty trees send vibrations through their trunks when the flow of water from the roots to the leaves is interrupted. These vibrations could be understood as cries of thirst, a sobering thought for anyone who loves cottonwood trees (or any tree for that matter) and sees them as sentient beings as I certainly do.