Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Wind through the Willows

The autumn winds tore through the Fill yesterday, sending all sensible creatures into cover. Birds, like other pilots, are reluctant to fly in strong wind because they know how dangerous a sudden gust or shear can be.

I, of course, was out here anyway. We Sidleses are not overly gifted with sense. Rather, we are free-range chickens, and my range is the Fill. I come here in all weathers, and I love the wind. It reminds me I am free, even though I have deadlines to meet, chores to do, and taxes to pay (now that the end-of-the-line, no-more-excuses, the government-has-run-out-of-patience tax deferral time is approaching). Sigh, oh gusty sigh.

The juvenile Cooper’s Hawks were out, too. Unlike me, they’re not chickens of any sort, but neither are they sensible. In fact, they are downright goofy, which is probably why I feel I have so much in common with them. Earlier in the year, their parents dumped them off at the Fill to fend for themselves, and they’ve been learning how to hunt ever since.

The other birds don’t seem to take them very seriously. The American Goldfinch flock that has been feeding on chicory for the past several weeks perches in the same trees as the hawks do, and they chirp at their predators. Prey are not supposed to chirp. They are supposed to flee before the fierce attack of the mighty raptors, but the goldfinches just sit there. I guess Cooper’s Hawks aren’t born with fierceness; they have to build it, one small emoticon at a time.

All three juveniles were trying to catch food for the day, but since nobody else was out and about, they weren’t having much luck. They did drive away a Greater Yellowlegs, who had hunkered down on Main Pond to forage in the mud while the storm raged above.  The shorebird didn’t want to leave its dinner table, but the hawks were just a little too present. So it finally jumped into the sky and laboriously flapped its way south, leaving the hungry hawks empty-clawed.

I was glad the yellowlegs got away this time, but I realize that the hawks have to eat, too. As a squall of rain blew in, I turned up my collar and headed for the car. I can go home to a pizza in the oven, but the birds must catch their own prey. I wished them well.

Paucity and Plenty

American CrowOn Sundays, when UW parking is free, I always drive over to Conibear Mitigation and park in the lot next to the shellhouse. I walk out on the deck where the fake, snarling coyotes twist in the wind, scaring off the Canada Geese and my husband, who thought they were real and rabid. Here, I set up my camp stool and look for bitterns and herons among the cattails of the mud islands that spatter the area.

If no waders appear, I turn my steps to the mitigation trail leading north. This is a good place to look for rails, waterfowl, and warblers. In the fall, it’s also a good place to scan for migrating shorebirds, who like to tread the lily pads as they hunt for insects. Few people come here in the early mornings, aside from an occasional jogger, so I can lose myself in nature and pretend that I am migrating, too.

In the aftermath of Husky home football games, though, this area is about as unnatural as you can get. Crows and gulls by the thousands crowd the sky, squabbling over the detritus left behind by fans. The birds arrive early, ahead of an army of garbage trucks hired to clean up the area. The humans and birds race each other to see who can get to the garbage first.

Human behavior has got to be fairly inexplicable to birds, but this particular behavior is probably the most baffling, at least to crows and gulls. Why on earth would you scrape up perfectly edible garbage and bury it in trucks to haul it away? Inquiring minds want to know, but on this day, they got no answers. The garbage workers were oblivious to the birds’ cries.

After losing the Battle of the Bilge, the disappointed scavengers perched on the grandstand seats of the baseball diamond and in the snags that rim the Lagoon. They were joined by a lone Pectoral Sandpiper, a great bird for the Fill. Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized shorebirds who breed in the tundra and winter in South America. They migrate through the Fill in spring and fall, but in very small numbers and by no means every year. I like them because they remind me of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Like the kings of yore dressed in their jeweled gorgets, these sandpipers wear a pectoral of brightly patterned feathers around their necks.

This particular sandpiper was foraging on a tiny spit of mud in the middle of the Lagoon. The spit was smaller than my ironing board, yet the sandpiper was finding plenty to eat there. As it hunted and pecked for food, minding its own business, a crow took umbrage and peeled off to attack.  Calling in alarm, the sandpiper leaped into the air and flew around the Lagoon, chased by the crow.  Eventually, the sandpiper disappeared going east, but about fifteen minutes later it reappeared on the same tiny spit. Another crow attacked, and off went the sandpiper, only to return a while later. The crustaceans on the spit must have been exceptionally tasty.Pectoral Sandpiper

It was a lesson in paucity and plenty. The crow and gull populations of the Fill have exploded, due to the fact that they find human activity helpful. We generate a lot of garbage, which crows and gulls eat. The Pectoral Sandpiper population, on the other hand, has plummeted, due to the fact that they find human activity harmful. We generate a lot of garbage, and in the process destroy a lot of mudflats and short prairie, which the birds need.

As our population continues to grow, we change more of the environment to suit us. I hope we will find it suits us very well to preserve habitat not just for avian garbage collectors, but also for this most marvelous member of the shorebird family, the Pectoral Sandpiper.

Real Life

Barn Swallow at Main Pond.

Sometimes I think my real life is lived here, at the Fill. This is where I experience my greatest peace of mind, my true connection to the natural world. It is here I feel joy, even exaltation, at the sight of a swallow spreading its angel wings over the pond, swifts shooting like fireworks over the tops of the alders, goldfinches in their hundreds taking in the rich bounty of nature and giving back to me that richness as I watch them.

I have been absent from paradise for the past five days. My son and his partner came for the 23rd Annual Block Party we host every year. When they drove up in their little car, I rushed out of the house to give them both a hug. I have not seen them for months. They and my other kids and my husband are my real life, you see, for they are the ones who bring me joy, even exaltation, because of the love I hold in my heart for them.

I housed the kids in the basement, which is also my office, and I lent my computer to my son so he could play his games, check his email, and network on his social pages. I could not write a word while they were visiting, and now I can again. Writing is my real life, you see. It brings me joy, even exaltation, to paint a picture with words, after struggling to find just the right word to paint with from the the rich palette offered by the English language.

I must have other real lives too, scattered through the corners of my time and place like the giant dust bunnies that occupy most of the corners of my house (cleaning is definitely not my real life). We all do. Perhaps one hallmark of modern urban life is this fact, that we lead many different lives, each one important but usually separate.

Birds in nature do not have this. Oh, they have many phases of life. They hatch, fledge, fatten up, migrate, and breed, and each of these phases is different. But not separate. Nature is integrated. That is why when we can connect with nature, we recapture the sense of oneness we once had but have now lost, a oneness we yearn for without knowing what or why.

Here, at the Fill, where life and death are apparent and very real, we are whole again.