Archive for the 'It’s Only Natural! Birds, Geology, Wildlife & More' Category

Nov 19 2013

Streams in the Desert: Wildness in Man’s Shadow

America is no longer a rural nation. Most of us live in cities or somewhere on the expending penumbra of suburban development. Breaking free from the familiar landscape of the work week takes both time and money, and for many of us, one or the other of these is almost always in short supply. So we live (and save) for our annual vacations. The rest of the time we make do with what we can get: the canned images of television nature shows and the canned sweat on offer in the neighborhood fitness center.

There is another way, however. If we only look, we can find opportunities for exercise and wildlife-watching right on our doorsteps. Even a drainage ditch at the edge of a shopping mall is probably home to someone. Wildlife is drawn to water like metal filings to a magnet. So the next time you set out on your daily commute or embark on the weekly trek to the mall, put down the cell phone, leave the supersized coffee cooling in the cup holder, and ease up on the accelerator. Look around you whenever it’s safe to do so. Better yet, ride along in someone else’s car, or take the bus or trolley. Or ride a bike. And if you can, bring your binoculars with you, too. Now open your eyes. You’ll be surprised by what you see.

I was reminded of this during a 6,000-mile bus trip in which I crossed—and then re-crossed—the North American continent. It was a bit like scouting a river from headwaters to mouth and back again, in fact. I left Canoe Country in the midst of a lake-effect snowstorm, only to pass from winter into fall and then from fall into summer, ending the outbound leg of my journey in Southern California. Cross-country bus travel is a curious hybrid. You’re not a prisoner behind the wheel, as you are when you drive long distances in your car, but you’re not exactly a free spirit, either. Life on the bus is dictated by a printed schedule, and the hours of compulsory idleness are broken by brief intervals of frantic activity at station-stops. Still, you have lots of time to think — and plenty of opportunities to take in the passing scene. My latest bus trip took me south and west, through the heart of the Great American Desert. Imagine my astonishment, then, when I discovered paddling opportunities nearly everywhere I looked. Not for the first time, I wished I had a folding bike and an inflatable boat stowed in the luggage hold beneath my seat.

At first, however, there was little that wasn’t familiar. New York is a well-watered state, and I was rarely out of sight of swamps, streams, ponds, and lakes, many of them old friends. But Ohio’s bumper crop of kettle lakes was new to me. Some could even be spotted among the oaks and maples on the median that divided the Interstate’s east- and west-bound rivers of asphalt. Countless globular, leafy nests—the homes of gray squirrels—occupied commanding heights in the trees that towered above the little lakes, while migrating waterfowl rested and ate along the sheltered shores. Deer and foxes slaked their thirsts at the water’s edge, too, and herons strutted in the shallows.

All of this passed before my window. As day faded into soft dusk over a swamp not far from Indianapolis, the dying light silhouetted a flight of ducks setting down on a weedy slough, safe from shot for one night. Freshly peeled and neatly trimmed limbs floated on the water near a beaver lodge. It was as wild a scene as any I’d ever witnessed. Yet this was no wilderness. The headlights from a steady stream of passing cars and trucks swept down the frontage road that paralleled the Interstate, and the glow of Indianapolis did battle with the dark. Further down the road, the Embarras River flowed beneath the highway. It was a river in name only here, no larger than many New York creeks. But the dabbling ducks drifting in its current gave no sign that this bothered them.

The bus continued westward with the night. Before long, we’d put the Ozarks behind us, and the arid plains of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle lay ahead. I was sure that I’d seen the last well-watered land. But I was wrong. The rising sun disclosed a tattered cloak of scrub and shrub, nourished by seasonal rains and irrigation canals. Flocks of geese wheeled low over the cotton fields outside Amarillo, while the warm morning light disclosed the nest holes of thousands of bank swallows, strung out along the red bluffs flanking the Llano. Miles passed. The hours ticked by. But when we reached the desert Southwest, it, too, revealed unexpected treasures. Even here, amidst the buttes and dry washes, there were scores of pools, each with its attendant guard of ducks and songbirds. We crossed the Pecos, Gila, and Colorado Rivers. And who would expect to find wetlands in California’s Mojave Desert? Not I. But they were there, thanks to irrigation agriculture. These weren’t wild waters, to be sure, but I didn’t once hear the snowy egrets and herons complaining. Like Blue Duck, the arch-villain in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, they asked only that their water be wet.

Soon we were climbing the rubbly shoulders of the Coyote Mountains. The Pacific coast lay just ahead, but now, for the first time in my journey, the land along the highway was truly arid. Cacti and spiky desert shrubs competed for each drop of ground water, and taps bloomed at intervals like iron flowers to replenish the radiators of overheated RVs, if not to refresh their thirsty drivers. (Signs repeatedly warned, DO NOT DRINK THIS WATER!) Still, far out to the west, I saw the first hint of the cloud bank associated with the humid air mass known as the “marine layer”—unmistakable evidence that the hydrologic cycle was alive and well.… Read more…

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Oct 12 2013

The Scent of Apples: A Roadside Treat for Backroads Cyclists

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.

—  Robert Frost, “After Apple Picking”

This is another banner year for wild apples, and that’s good news for the birds and animals who depend on nature’s bounty to make it through the approaching winter. The apples are a gift that keeps on giving, too. The fruit which isn’t eaten in fall and winter freezes right on the tree. Then, come springtime, returning songbirds find the table already spread and waiting for them, offering a much-needed chance to recover from their arduous journey north before the demands of the breeding season begin in earnest.

Given the apples’ importance to wildlife, I don’t often eat them myself. (I’m a guest in the wild creatures’ home, after all, and no host wants a glutton for a guest.) Still, I do allow myself one or two treats now and then. And what treats they are! Wild apples don’t look much like the perfect specimens stacked up in bins at the HyperMart, but looks aren’t everything. One bite will show you what we’ve lost in making the transition to industrial agriculture. Of course, you need to discard your preconceptions. Wild apples are often small and irregular, with tough skins and frequent bruises. (That sounds like a lot of cyclists I know, come to that, including the one I see in the mirror.) They haven’t been waxed and polished, either. And you’ll probably find a worm in your apple at some point. Think of it as a protein supplement, if that helps. But what flavor! Sweet, subtle, and complex. Once upon a time, all apples tasted like this…

Wild Apple

But we’ve moved on. And speaking of moving on, a good apple year is also very good news for country-lane cyclists, who can often pick up a bite to eat right off the ground along the roadside.

Stopping for an Apple

The intoxicating perfume of ripe apples also makes a welcome change from the signature stink of suburbia, that all-too-familiar witches’ brew, compounded from equal parts of car exhaust, incinerated beef, and dryer-sheet effluvium. The only hard part for the cycling gourmet is stopping at one apple. But I do. I’ve missed more than my share of meals, and I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be hungry when there’s nothing in the house to eat. So in my menu plan, wild apples are a rare and valued treat, not a dietary staple. And when I finish off the one apple I allow myself, I always remember to toss the core into the tall grass, well off the road, where the seeds will make a feast for some foraging mouse or squirrel.

Who knows? One seed may escape the hungry mouths long enough to take root and grow a new tree, which in due course will drop still more apples to delight cyclists yet unborn. Now that’s a legacy worth leaving, don’t you think?

Road Apples

This article was originally published in a slightly different form on September 20, 2011.

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Sep 10 2013

The Small, Intricate World of Photographer Pat McKay

Back in the day, when America was still smarting from its failure to impose democracy on a tiny Southeast Asian nation by force of arms, a book entitled Small is Beautiful enjoyed a few minutes of fame. It hit the stores in the same year that the Arab oil embargo saw many Americans spending long hours waiting in gas lines in order to fill the big tanks on their big cars so they could travel the big distances between work and home. This unwelcome annoyance came as something of a shock to many Americans. Bigger, it seemed, was no longer better. But the lesson — if that’s what it was — didn’t really take. America was soon back in bigness again, and it’s bigness as usual to this day, despite the occasional headwind. (Can you say “too big to fail”?)

Which, to my mind at any rate, is too bad. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against big dreams, whether the dreamer is a kid or a country. But I also think it’s a mistake to ignore the beauty (and utility) of small things. And it seems that others agree. Take TNO Contributing Photographer Pat McKay, for instance. He’s done plenty of Big Things in his life, and he’s done them well. Yet he does Small Things, too. Moreover, he does them with grace and style.

Anyway, the following photos are only a sample of his work. Whether he’s exploring the world on a bicycle or in a kayak, Pat keeps his camera close at hand. But he doesn’t limit himself to snapping pictures. He observes his small subjects closely in the process. Gets on first-name terms with them. Tries to see the world as they see it. And I think his photos reflect this. That said, it’s not really important what I think. Spend a few minutes looking at things through Pat’s eyes. Then you can make up your own mind.

 

Let’s start our tour of Pat’s small, intricate world with a look at the flora — to be specific, some lovely begonias:

Pat McKay Begonias

Of course, flowers also attract insects, like this dronefly (Eristalis tenax) flitting between roadside daisies:

Pat McKay Eristalis Tenax Dronefly

And here’s a snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), also known as the bumblebee moth, tanking up on milkweed nectar (there are no gas lines here!):

Pat McKay Snowberry Clearwing

Or take this painted lady, one of the Cynthia group of butterflies:

Pat McKay Painted Lady

Often the butterflies compete with the flowers for top honors in the visual stakes. In this photo, a variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) is highlighted against a backdrop of brilliantly colored — and aptly named — butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a species of milkweed:

Pat McKay Variegated Fritillary and Butterfly Weed

Which isn’t to say that other milkweeds don’t draw their share of butterflies. This common milkweed has attracted a tiger swallowtail, and also what appears to be a common housefly:

Pat McKay Tiger Swallowtail

OK. Flowers attract butterflies. But water — and its attendant mosquitoes and blackflies — serves as a magnet for the equally diverse, and equally beautiful, winged predators we call dragonflies. Here, for example, is the familiar blue dasher:

Pat McKay Blue Dasher Dragonfly

And here, an uncommon painted skimmer (Libellula semifasciata):

Pat McKay Painted Skimmer

And speaking of predators, no matter how fearsome dragonflies must appear to other, smaller, insects, they’re little more than tasty snacks to larger animals. This female bullfrog, for instance, would like nothing better than to have a dragonfly stay to dinner:

Pat McKay Female American Bullfrog

And this eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) looks like she, too, wouldn’t mind a winged treat:

Pat McKay Eastern Fence Lizard

Many birds also find insects tasty, of course, including this eastern phoebe, easily identified by the characteristic tail twitch when perched:

Pat McKay Eastern Phoebe Shakes a Tail

So much for the birds and the bees (or at least the bumblebee moths), not to mention the butterflies and dragonflies. All are common sights along rural roads — at least in the days before the mowers go through. But how many cyclists have had occasion to brake for a crayfish? Pat has. He found this pugnacious specimen crossing the road ahead of him:

Pat McKay Make My Day

By the way, after making this portrait, Pat moved his protesting subject to safety. I, too, frequently find myself stopping to carry creatures out of harm’s way, and as the days grow shorter and the fall dispersal picks up, I’ll likely be doing it more often.

But nothing lasts forever, and summer is no exception. Before too long, snow will blanket the Adirondack hills, and town roads will be transformed into ribbons of salty slush, empty of all signs of life. And unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s when I’ll find myself revisiting this page again and again, to renew my acquaintance with Pat’s small, intricate world.

Pat McKay Dandelion Fluff

 
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