Saturday, June 09, 2007


If Once You Have Slept On An Island

If once you have slept on an island
You'll never be quite the same;
You may look as you looked the day before
And go by the same old name,

You may bustle about in street and shop
You may sit at home and sew,
But you'll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go.

You may chat with the neighbors of this and that
And close to your fire keep,
But you'll hear ship whistle and lighthouse bell
And tides beat through your sleep.

Oh! you won't know why and you can't say how
Such a change upon you came,
But once you have slept on an island,
You'll never be quite the same.

Rachel Field

Oh, it is June. It is June and I should be in Maine. I should be in a tent, there should be waves crashing everywhere--I probably should be soaking wet from either getting into or out of a boat in questionable conditions and I should literally be guarding my flock. But I'm in MD. I'm at home, and trying to remind myself that I like home. Just got off the phone with a friend who IS on her island tonight, and I was fine until I heard the fog horn, and then I swear my heart broke a little, because I will never get over Maine. I will never get over Pond Island, and one day I will be a wee little old lady crying for the sea and the birds and the blasted fog horn which probably screwed up my hearing forever and the very soil of that place just as now I am thirty-one and not so old quite yet but doing just that.

This poem by Rachel Field is so sappy, but it's perfect anyway--and reading it on nights like these always makes things a little less lonesome--because she probably cried for her island too. And she probably watched terns fishing in the surf--each coming up with its own silvery fish to bring to a rolly poly chick.

OK, there has to at least be a moment of natural history here: the rocky crevices and sand dunes of Pond Island create excellent nesting habitat for terns (subfamily Sterninae, of the family Laridae). The turbulence created by the interface of the Kennebec river and the Atlantic ocean is the foundation of a booming fishery, and this unbeatable combination draws common and Arctic terns north from their wintering grounds. There.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Synaptomys spp.

Here I sit on the living room sofa. We have a living room now, in a wee-teeny house-condo-thingy. Of our own. With a yard, and a window or two, and a closet or two. To my right is my grumpy cat. She is stripy and moody and all cat-like things ending in -y. On the floor is my dog, who is licking Indian food out of a plastic container. I have questions as to what this will do to his digestion, however, we are pushing into the great unknown together on this one. Across the street are my brother, his wife, and their itsy bitsy baby. Down the road are friends; around the corner are trees and fields. Home.

I just arrived home from work. I have a job-job now. Not the kind that I usually have, that involves a tent, or mud. This job came with a desk, and a computer, and a new chair just for me, and other people with desks and computers and chairs. (I don't think anyone else notices the lack of tents and mud, nor do I think they will order any just for me.)

Today at work I learned that the Police have reunited and are going on tour. I also confirmed my suspicion (for, let's see, I started on September 3rd, or about 150 days ago--so I've probably spent about 100 days at work--so for the 100th time) that this job is not for me. Though it is a fine job. A FINE JOB. Better than most. With friendly people, smart people. With a tidy paycheck, and benefits, and all those things that people, even people like me, take jobs to get. Plus it's interesting work. I'm not kidding--this is cool stuff.

But that desk. And that chair. And the commute. I mention the Police because it was they that coined the verse "trapped like lemmings into shiny metal boxes; contestants in a suicidal race." It is probably not a good sign that I am empathizing with the authors of this song. And now, having left my home early this morning at 5:30, and returned 13 hours later at 6:30 (spending more than 3 hours in my car), I am again sitting in front of a computer. But I am home.

20 months ago I was on a boat looking deep into the blueblueblue of an iceberg. A year ago we were only just moving into our wee-teeny-home. 11 Months ago I was living in a cabin with my new puppy in a forest at a nature reserve and working with birds whose feathers are so brilliant I swear they emit light. And 8 months ago I was on an island, living in a lighthouse, surrounded by fog and waves and wings and air. Did you know that wind whistles through bird wings? Or is it that wings whistle through the air?

I think I have to be able to go again now, though I'm afraid to be without the tidy paycheck, and the benefits. I don't think I need to hear the hum of the air conditioner, or the copy machine, or the fax machine, or the clicking sound my computer makes. But those wings--soon it will be a whole year since I last heard them--and I fear doing without the air, and the whistles, and the fog, much more than the absence of a check... It is strange to make decisions based on what you fear less, or more.

I've once again tested the waters here in the world of job-jobs, and will likely have to tread water for a while longer. They still fit just like those scratchy Easter dresses my grandmother used to buy for me. I loved her dearly, but the relief when those little shoes, and little tights, and lacy layers of poof came off was almost desperate. I wore them for her; she always wanted a much girlier girl than me. Somehow here I am again, almost desperate for air, just waiting for everyone to put their cameras away and go home, so that I can pull off the pretty clothes, and breathe.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Chordeiles minor

I attended a college in the North Carolina mountains. Looking back, I realize now what a singular experience it was--it was a small school, and we lived within steps of trails that led to mountains and meadows. I don't think I'll ever stop missing that place. In the evenings my roommate and I would sit on our porch and talk, and on lucky nights just before sunset a flock of nighthawks would fly over the dorm. Their wings are long and pointed; they would swoop and glide through the air catching insects in their wide whiskered mouths. I doubt you'd see one unless it was flying. With mottled plumage they blend smoothly into leaves and branches.

As a student in a wildlife management class I was once assigned the job of creating a study skin of a nighthawk. What a strange task--and an important opportunity for me to see such a mysterious creature up close. It was hit by a car--if I could have willed that bird back to life I would have. I was distracted from the preparation work by the texture of its feathers. I remember it had a soft musky smell.

I've only seen nighthawks twice since moving to the D.C. area. I watched nighthawks circling the spot lights at a miniature golf course the first evening I spent with my future husband. And again the other day--our second wedding anniversary, circling a lake steps away from where we were married. The sight of nighthawks always transports me back to that porch, but they've become beautifully linked to my new life as well.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Brachyramphus marmoratus

I’ve spent a great deal of time here in Alaska speechless, gaping at indescribable scenery and overwhelmed with the opportunity to sink into huge expanses of wilderness. Will my eyes ever recover from the glowing blue light that icebergs emit? Will my heart ever beat the same after hearing, actually hearing, a whale breathe?

My companions here in Alaska are varied and fascinating: humpback whales, Stellar sea lions, harbour seals, varied, Swainson’s, and hermit thrushes, ruby-crowned kinglets, salmon berries and blue berries, Alaska daisies, foxgloves, forget-me-nots—it is a long and exciting list made even more satisfying by the enthusiasm and generosity of my human hosts. I've actually eaten "Alaskan wild-caught salmon" IN Alaska!

What tickles me is that a typical neighborhood walk here in Juneau yields creatures that one just doesn’t expect to see from a roadside, at least one such as myself who hails from a less remote locale. Arctic terns, my old buddies, forage here—I can sit in the backyard (yes, the backyard) and watch them dive and swoop for herring and other delectables. They have a nesting colony at the foot of a local glacier. (Did you hear that? Local glacier? “Oh, let’s see—head past the glacier a few miles and turn right—you know, the glacier by the Safeway? That’s the one…”) And marbled murrelets, birds that until now I’ve only read about, whistle and coo at each other just beyond the intertidal zone.

Marbled murrlets have an astonishing life history—a female will lay her single egg high up in a mature evergreen tree, sometimes miles from shore and their seafood sustenance. Though seabirds, their nesting habitat requirements make them vulnerable to damage inflicted by logging, thus they are threatened or endangered throughout their range. They winter at sea. Can you imagine? A winter spent among waves and winds and ice. Like other alcids they are plump, chunky, squishy, mushy, all those wonderful adjectives we humans try so hard to distance ourselves from make these football sized birds all the more endearing.

Prior to my visit here I’d never before seen miles upon miles of unbroken coastline, entire panoramas unmarred by a single house, boat, road, or powerline. Just motor away from shore for a few minutes and suddenly you are alone. I’ve always eagerly looked out of plane windows, and my eyes naturally have scanned the ground below for parks, green splotches of trees and water—but on my flight to Juneau I found that it was the human communities that were dwarfed by expanses of wilderness, and not the other way around. My explorations have always been clouded with a sense of desperation—every view of every beautiful place always requires some editing. For some mysterious reason I find myself trying to erase the evidence of people in my view and always failing. I’m finally succeeding, and it seems to be allowing me to relax, to recharge in a very deep way.

I’m no fool. I know that a conservation crisis exists here as much as anywhere. Scratch the surface of beauty and you will find trouble. Like any place ghosts of native cultures and folk tales of formerly abundant wildlife haunt Alaska. While one fishery strengthens another loses ground. Uneducated tourists harass whales and their young. Decision makers must juggle demands for development with an intense and fragile landscape. The glaciers are receeding. More people are coming to stay. But I sense that the value of Alaska today hinges in part on its priceless ratio of wild to developed lands. I sense that it would be dangerous for humans to lose access to what is essentially an alternate reality—to feel so small in the face of so much space. Few people may ever get a chance to experience this phenomenon, but simply the idea of wilderness has sustained me through so much, and I can’t be alone in this. I know that some Alaskans must despise the remoteness of their home, and who am I to question them--but I hope that the people who live here are not blinded by their own good fortune, I hope they can appreciate, can cherish what they have to offer the world. I find myself praying that Alaska’s winter darkness and fierce mountains will continue to offer it some protection. I’m trying to have faith that it will.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Colaptes auratus

As I strolled to the bus stop today, I spied a Northern flicker (of the Western red-shafted variety) bouncing along the sidewalk across the street. I can only assume he was hunting ants. I admired his lovely black bib, noted the shimmer of red along his tail, and after enjoying his company for a while I eventually turned the corner to leave him behind. Low and behold, a block later, here comes another flicker, once again bouncing along the sidewalk. Bounce bounce bounce. Hop hop hop. If that isn't blog-worthy, what is?

I am most familiar with the yellow-shafted form of the flicker, found in the Northern and Eastern U.S. The two varieties used to be considered separate species, but in fact they are simply different color morphs of one. Like other woodpeckers, they forage on trees for insect snacks, but they also spend a great deal of time on the ground in search of tasty ants and other treats. And, again, I must add that they bounce. Boing boing boing. It's hard sometimes not to add sound effects to thoughts such as these. Is this a result of reading comics, or watching cartoons? You tell me.

I write this entry from the Seattle Central Public Library. I'm not usually attracted to architecture, but this place is just plain old nifty. Even the escalators are cool--rimmed in neon green. Check it out:

Seattle, Seattle, Seattle. Even the air feels good here, and I love rain. It's the one place I've found so far where two contrasting elements of my temperament are equally at home: the part of me that craves culture, diversity, people--and the part of me that demands access to nature. Here I stroll along streets lined with the typical accoutrements of cities: trash, puddles, people with time, people with money, people with cell phones, women in tiny shoes, kids in Chucks, crumpled men in decaying army jackets, stern men in suits, arguments, kisses, markets, stuff I can't afford, cars, bikes, skater kids, dogs with big brown eyes; but then suddenly while walking along all of this is overpowered by a garden--wild with color and blessed with so much rain, or a view of the Puget Sound--complete with islands and boats, or a snow-capped volcano. An American city packed with people and flowers, ringed with trees, water and volcanoes. Awesome.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Dendroica striata

The metallic "tsst tsst tsst tsst" song of the blackpoll warbler greeted me this morning as I left the house. Numbers of warblers just passing through are dwindling, but these old buddies of mine have paid me a longer than expected visit--I've been hearing them all month. The other day I was treated to a serenade (okay he probably wasn’t singing to me) from a male perched just 3 feet above my head. His throat rippled as he sang.

Blackpoll warblers are remarkable:

  • "The song of the male blackpoll Warbler is one of the highest-pitched of all birds.
  • Part of the fall migratory route of the Blackpoll Warbler is over the Atlantic Ocean from the northeastern United States to Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, or northern South America. This route averages 3,000 km (1,864 mi) over water, requiring a potentially nonstop flight of up to 88 hours. To accomplish this flight, the Blackpoll Warbler nearly doubles its body mass and takes advantage of a shift in prevailing wind direction to direct it to its destination" (Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2005).

Two summers ago I spent seven weeks crawling through young spruce fir forests searching for blackpoll nests as part of a research team. Their nests are about the size of half a biscuit. The females are silent, striped, and brownish green. Unlike many species they do not spook when you come close to their nests--they freeze and just blend into the foliage. The only way to find them is to search every tree. Hmmm. Let's just say that the mosquitoes and black flies had the most success that summer.

So, does the "tsst tsst tsst tsst" cause me to shudder, or smile? Smile of course; it's a pretty high quality problem to have to spend your days looking for birds. Biting insects build character (!).

Tonight I heard the work that I do equated with a religion, and not in a positive way--in a contemptuous way. A contemptuous and careless rejection, delivered in an off-hand manner by someone who I wish could respect me. "The environmental religion." No matter how many degrees and accolades and qualifications are in my toolbox, some will forever write off the work that I do as anything but science, anything but thoughtful. It will always be childish and naive. It doesn't have to be a contemptous comparison: there are parallels between what I do and what a devout person does--it takes a lot of faith to push against a tide. I aspire to have the strength to dialogue about this one day with people that I fear. Put me in front of a class or an audience or in front of a computer and I'll happily debate the hours away in person and on paper. But with some people--oof. It's so dangerous, human, hopeless to crave respect--rejection catches me off guard and makes me retreat, snail like, into a constricted shell.

The annual spring migration is coming to an end. Next up: a little sunshine, a little thunder, and summer.


It turns out the misery I felt while writing this entry was the result of a misunderstanding, thankfully resolved through the miracle of email. Offense was felt on both sides, though neither meant to offend. It seems that exposing sore feelings can in fact lead to mutual understanding--perhaps next time I'm in this situation I'll remember that.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Hylocichla mustelina

Imagine. While we are sleeping, sitting in traffic, writing about Asia and generating pie graphs (who me?), there are hummingbirds flying over the Gulf of Mexico. Thrushes, vireos, hawks--they've been flowing north for weeks now and showing up in time to eat all the juicy bugs that are just beginning to hatch out. It's all happening right now--and once again as with every year I can't remember being more grateful for the arrival of spring.

Technically it's been spring for a month now; leaves have unfurled, flowers are blooming, some have already peaked, and a grayscale landscape is suddenly in full color--I've been drunk on green for weeks. But for me the action really begins when the migrants arrive. Sure enough, yesterday on my daily morning prowl I had a mini-reunion with two favorites: a wood thrush and an Eastern towhee. The towhee (aka the noisy leaf litter rhino) was kicking and skipping and rustling through the underbrush near our local creek. But the wood thrush, ahh the wood thrush, flew to a stump and looked at me, the feathers on its crown at full attention. What is it about thrushes that makes me so undone? They are so soft, so secretive, and their songs are truly other-wordly. Rather should I say, I do enjoy this world much more when there is a thrush singing. At dusk yesterday I went back to the creek and was treated to my first taste of wood thrush music this year. Amazing how one tiny bird can transform a scraggly road side forest fragment, for just a minute, into a sacred place.