August

 

                 Out of the Wild

When the sun sparkles on the morning dew

And sifting thru the gently shifting leaves

Creates a carpet on the path for you

To tread on as you stroll among the trees,

 

You walk accompanied by those you love,

Completely wild, but all are still quite tame.

You share the sigh of wind in limbs above.

Your paths are always new and yet the same.

 

You give a gentle tilt of neck and head

Perhaps to show us what is meant by grace

Or else to hear the words the birds just said.

I’m caught, imprisoned by your lovely face.

 

A brook flows on. A leaf adorns the wood.

The grass covers over where you just stood.

 

 

 

 

Chris and Beans, Bridge To Bridge Trail, Chester County, PA

 

 

      When we got back from the Michigan trip, I was really tired.  I thought that was reasonable and considered it to be the usual post-trip exhaustion that comes with a family vacation.  You know that trip.  It’s like when you drove eight hours to the Adirondacks, set up a campsite, hiked up a mountain with a three-year-old who refused to be carried, broke camp and drove to Cooperstown to see the Hall of Fame, where it rained and the kids’ tent got flooded, so you saved them, had a great day at the museum, and then drove home.  Of course, you loved every minute of it and wished that you could do it all again, even though at work the next day, every bone and muscle in your body ached.  Your details will  be completely different than these, but you know that vacation.

      After three weeks, when my energy had not come back, I started to think something was up.  I had not done any bird walks, except for some very short and, honestly, uninteresting strolls at Exton Park and Marsh Creek State Park.  I stopped writing and stopped the daily neighborhood walks.  When Chris developed a nasty looking circular rash on her abdomen, she went to her doctor and was immediately diagnosed with acute Lyme Disease.  Chris made Rachel and me go to our doctors the next day and even though we didn’t have rashes and our lab tests came back negative, our doctors treated us for chronic Lyme Disease.  My doctor told me that I could have picked it up on any of our trips this year, or in Chester County, PA.  Eighty percent of the confirmed cases do not exhibit the Bulls-eye rash and fifty percent of the confirmed cases show up negative in the lab tests.  So they diagnose by the symptoms.  Because Chris was probably more recently infected, she got Doxycycline for thirty days, while Rachel and I had to take it for sixty days.  

       I had heard from a person who seems to have lots of crazy ideas that turn out to be exactly correct that an urban legend has been circulating that the Lyme Disease epidemic is the result of a biological warfare experiment that escaped a lab on Plum Island in the northeast U. S.  I went to the internet to see if I could find any discussion of this.  Instead I found articles where they quoted documents written by colonial era North Americans that described a forested region teeming with ticks and colonists with diseases exactly matching the progression of untreated Lyme Disease.  After the east was clear cut, the tick population was also decimated.  Now that reforestation is occurring in large sections of the east, it appears that the shade-loving ticks are back as well.  That’s a good hypothesis, which is a smart sounding word for “guess”.  It does make sense, though.

      The very good news is that after a week on the antibiotic, I felt remarkably better.  I had been having frequent bad headaches and those were gone.  My energy was back to normal, and I picked up my binoculars and headed outdoors to look at birds.

 

Sunday, 8/4 – Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area

The tens of thousands of Snow Geese and the thousands of Tundra Swans are in northern Canada right now.  Here’s my list of some of the birds that stayed with us for the summer:

·         Double-breasted Cormorant – 9

·         Black Duck – 4

·         Canada Geese – 30

·         Great Blue Heron – 2

·         Osprey – 1

·         Crows, vultures, swallows – lots

·         A duck with a white patch on his head – oh, yeah.  Bufflehead – 2

·         Red-winged blackbirds, Goldfinches, Bluebirds

·         Killdeer – 4

·         Kingbird --2

·         Eastern Meadowlark -- 1

      The meadowlark was a huge thrill for both Chris and me.  We had been trying to spot one every time that we went to Strouds and twice saw birds that were probably meadowlarks, but not with a high degree of confidence.  One time it was dusk and we only saw his outline.  The other time, the sun was too bright, washing out his color to our eyes – and he was hiding from crows.   This time, when we stopped to see some birds in a field along the auto loop, a yellow and black, robin-sized bird landed on the fence a dozen feet in front of us.  He stayed still long enough for us both to get a really good look at him.  A meadowlark is a distinctive bird, sharply etched in black, yellow, and white.  I won’t forget him.

     

Wednesday – 8/7 – Back Yard

We got a few hummingbirds to come to our nectar feeder, which we put near our old feeder and the new butterfly attracting plants around it.  Those plants include a big clump of Black-eyed Susans, a Butterfly Bush, a rose, and several smaller pretty flowers that Lowes says attract butterflies.  This stuff works, especially the Butterfly Bush.  We’ve had lots of Swallowtails – both the yellow variety and the black – and quite a collection of small and colorful insects that will remain unidentified by me for the next few years.  We also put in four Crape Myrtles and a Red Maple just far enough away from the feeders so that they will provide some shade and good hiding perches for birds waiting to get their turn at the feeders.  We extended our side row of Arborvitaes and added a green wire fence in front of the back row to keep Beans out of that.  To alleviate a bad case of “Butterfly Envy”, which we contracted by looking at a neighbor’s extensive garden, we planned our own garden to go in front of the new fence.  We added eight new holly bushes.  We already had two pretty big Holly on the side of our property, four big oaks and fifteen dogwoods in the front, plus lots of White Pine and other trees along the edges.  You would think that the birds are well-provided at chez Gadbow for the time being.  Not so fast.  Chris brought home a book about backyard birding from the library published by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.  (F21.)  It shows several pictures of a creek and pond kit (Avian Aquatics Bird Creek Bird Pond Kit) to add running water with a shallow pond to your yard.  I need that.  Also I need to add bird houses with the exact size holes so that cowbirds, crows, and jays can’t get in and do their nastiness.  The book has some really nice comments made by back yard birders, including this by Bonnie Campion from Texas:  “There is nothing I find more lovely than a cardinal in the snow.  Last week I had one in an ice-covered pine tree, red and green and icy sparkly white.  How can you see that and not thank God for your sight?”   Some of these back yard birders are extending the science of birding.  Julia Pahountis-Opacic from Pittsburgh used a temperature probe inserted into a basket of coconut husks being used by wrens.  She measured an inside temperature of 80.9 degrees Fahrenheit on a night when it was 43 degrees outside.   She found that on average when it was 30 to 35 degrees outside, the wrens kept the basket at 65 to 70 degrees.  This is bird watching at a very high level!  The book has many photos of clever feeders that make my proud descriptions of my feeders look amateurish.  I can live with that, especially because occasionally I see more birds in my yard than on a walk in an Important Bird Area.  I still need that creek and pond kit, though.   Here’s what I saw today before leaving for work:

      Hummingbird, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Goldfinch, House Finch, Purple Finch, Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Gray Catbird., Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Blue Jay, Flycatchers that I couldn’t identify, Mourning Doves.

      There is a lot of each kind of bird and they don’t just eat my birdseed and fly off.  They take baths in my birdbath and take turns waiting on the branches of the nearby trees and on the arms of the feeders.  They usually get along in mixed groups and sometimes they have fights.  They obviously live on or near the property.  When they showed up in late spring and summer with their babies in tow, I was proud to be their host.  I was especially happy that six Mourning Doves and at least a dozen Goldfinches are back. The gentle cooing of the doves, I find to be one of the most relaxing sounds in nature.  The bright yellow finches really jazz up the yard with their beauty and their energy.  They can eat all they want.  It’s free.


 

8/8 – Exton Park – the experts giveth and they taketh away

Chris and I went on the Thursday morning walk with an All Star cast.  Sue, who leads the Tyler Arboretum walks, was one of our leaders today, along with George, who is a “steward” of the park in the classical use of the word.  Carol and Sarah were there, both expert birders and naturalists that I had met on previous walks, and also with us were four or five very proficient birders, some of whom were there for flowers and butterflies. 

      We saw a nice list of birds:  Flicker, King Bird, Mourning Dove, Barn Swallow, Peregrine Falcon, Willow Flycatcher, Catbird, Bluebird, Song Sparrow, Downey Woodpecker, juvenile Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Lesser Yellow Legs, Mallard, Great Egret, Indigo Bunting, Cow Bird, Chimney Swift, young Barn Swallows (white below, forked tail), Canada Goose, Bank Swallow (tawny), Red-tailed Hawk, Crows (heard a Fish Crow, but didn’t see it), Common Yellowthroat, House Wren, Goldfinch, Red-winged Blackbird.

      The single bird that provoked the most discussion was the juvenile Little Blue Heron (LBH).  An adult is all dark blue, but a juvenile is all white and very hard to distinguish from a Snowy Egret (SE).  The things to look for are bill color, leg color, and feet color.  Bills are greyish on the LBH and black on the SE.  Legs are greenish on the LBH and black on the SE.  If you can see the feet, and usually you can’t because they are under water, that’s the easiest difference to spot.  Those are greenish on the LBH and yellow on the SE, both for juveniles and adults.  A more subtle difference is that the back end of the heron is rounded evenly, while the egret is more fluffy.  When the bird at Exton Park flew up and perched in a tree, we got a good look at his feet – NOT yellow – set, game, and match – a Little Blue Heron.

      I interjected some controversy by asking “Why not Little Egret?”  When we got past that I knew a Snowy Egret was a “little egret” and meant a bird named “Little Egret”, they got out their Peterson’s guides and didn’t find the bird.  I had spent over an hour in Georgia trying to determine if the bird that I had a very good photograph of was a Snowy Egret or a Little Egret, which is in the Sibley’s guide.  The experts deferred this to George, who asked, “Where did you see this bird?”  I told him.

        He said, “That makes sense, but you won’t see that bird around here.  That’s not a reasonable identification considering the location.”

      When I went home, I checked my photo again and reread my guide.  You can’t see the feet in the photo and, just looking at the picture, my id of Little Egret wasn’t absurd.  But it was almost certainly wrong.  What George said about location in Exton is just as true about Georgia.  I read the Sibley write-up and realized that Little Egret is a Eurasian bird that has been seen in the U. S., but it is rare.  Adding to the likelihood that my bird photo was a juvenile LBH was that there were half a dozen mature and very blue Little Blue Herons perched in the trees above the area where my bird was wading.  So if I had actually created a “life list”, I would have to take Little Egret off of the list.

      A statement that George made later in the walk caused another take away.  We had been joking about doing an id of the Red-tailed Hawk.  Earlier, George had called out a butterfly id and commented that it might be something else, but since he couldn’t be sure, choosing the more common species would make him right at least 80% of the time.  When we saw the Red-tailed Hawk, I did the same thing, which got a laugh.  George then added, “If you see a bird that is blue and call it an Eastern Bluebird, no harm done, if you are wrong.  But if you call it a Blue Grosbeak, you better be right!” Strike two to my hypothetical life list.  I had a picture that I had taken at Strouds that showed the outline of a bird that might be a Grosbeak.  It had looked blue when I was viewing it.  It could also have been an Indigo Bunting which is more common in our area, I know now.  So – no harm, no foul – let’s re-id that bird as a possible Indigo Bunting and take Blue Grosbeak off my list.

      The expert birders had also “giveth” on the walk.  Willow Flycatchers, Chimney Swifts, and Bank Swallows were all new for me.   We had a good discussion on the ids of swallows and swifts, considering juveniles and adults.  A big gray raptor that was probably a Peregrine Falcon was a thrill.  Indigo Buntings both male and female were found in five or six different spots on the trail.  Those bright blue birds are beautiful.  Finally, George told me where I could go to see Fish Crows.

 

 

Swallows, John Heinz NWR

 

 

Saturday, 8/10 – Wegman’s parking lot in Downingtown, PA

The murder of crows that George told me about was on the edge of the parking lot in the trees between Old Country Buffet and Route 30.  There were about thirty of them and they made a lot of noise while I sat under their trees and listened.  Instead of the loud, clear, and familiar cawing of the American Crow, these Fish Crows made a shorter, more nasal sound that was definitely different.  It’s hard to describe, but is something more like “Cugh” than “Caw----“.  I used my iBird Pro app on my cell phone to compare the sounds of the birds in the field to the recorded sound.  That was helpful.  Once you hear it, it is easy to recognize again.

 

8/22 – Thursday morning walk at Exton Park

Another all-star cast:  Sue, George, Sarah, Tom R, a high school student, several other experienced birders, and Brian, who is a teacher and a great birder.  But even with so many expert eyes, there were not many birds to see.  We saw an Osprey.  We spent time on how to differentiate between the Willow Flycatchers and other flycatchers.  We saw a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, and a Green Heron, but the Little Blue Heron wasn’t on site.  A Red-tailed Hawk flew over.  Sarah heard a White-eyed Vireo, but it didn’t show itself.

      Since there were few birds, we spent time on flowers and butterflies.  Sue found an Eastern Tail which is a small pale-blue butterfly.  George pointed out the different types of skippers.  Tom showed me the three-pronged tops of the Giant Ragweed and the Common Ragweed.  I found out that Queen Anne’s Lace, one of the wild flowers that make me nostalgic for my hikes in NY as a teen, is an invasive plant.  There were lots of gorgeous yellow flowers standing up tall above the grass.  Sue identified those for me as Evening Primrose.

      Near the end of our walk, we found a small stand of trees that was more productive for birds.  It had a group of Orchard Orioles, an Eastern Wood Phoebe, a Black and White Warbler, a Common Yellowthroat, and a couple of small, round, brown birds.  Brian did some extremely good analysis, considered their probable age, their shape, and their bills and figured out that they were juvenile Indigo Buntings.  That was truly impressive!

      I had the morning off from work, so I went to breakfast with the group where I heard that Brian’s team of students had recently won the Birding World Series.  That’s a friendly competition where students compete on bird identification, monitored and verified by their coach.  That competition had generated a fair amount of publicity and I remember reading about it in a local newspaper and on-line.  Brian is also having fun participating in a site-count competition, where birders restrict themselves to certain sites and see who can find the most different birds there in a single year.  So far he is ahead with 94 species identified at Exton Park this year.  This topic and my own discomfort with the accuracy of some of my own observations led me to ask Brian and George about the tendency to id a bird as a more unusual bird because we tend to “root” for that outcome.  They responded that this is where physical evidence, like a picture, is required.  Also, independent confirmation by other birders is really helpful.  Also considered are the quality and nature of the observations and the likelihood of it being correct, as opposed to being confused with a different bird.  Sometimes unlikely and insufficiently documented identifications are rejected.  George emphasized that when you “put your stuff out there, you need to be comfortable with the comments that you are going to get back.”  Not that the comments are mean or derisive, just that they might point out that your initial conclusion is probably wrong.  He had an excellent example that he brought up on his laptop.  A stunning photograph of a hawk that was actually a Cooper’s Hawk had been initially identified by the photographer as something else.  The attached comments from a different birder went into clear and not-at-all-concise detail of what the correct id should be.  To me that seemed pretty cool.

      We talked about the Peregrine Falcon that I had seen at Tyler in the winter, and they thought that it is a possible correct id, but that a picture or some additional details were needed to be sure.  Agreed.  I asked George about the Peregrine that we had seen two weeks previous at Exton Park.  He said that it was “probably a correct id, but I didn’t claim it, because I wasn’t sure.”  Okay.  I got that.  Next we talked about the hawk that Chris and I have seen in our yard several times this spring and summer.  I have been thinking Northern Harrier, but from my description and the bird’s behavior, especially because at one point we saw it fly through our row of Arborvitae, George and Brian thought that it is likely to be a Cooper’s Hawk.

      I then described a tree, near a barn, near Exton Park where I have seen a lot of raptors perched on my morning commutes.  They knew the tree.  I mentioned that two years ago, I had seen in that tree, almost every morning for months, a big white raptor that I thought was a white morph of a Gyrfalcon.  When I put that out there, the eye brows went way up.  George has been birding here for his entire life and has never seen or heard of a Gyrfalcon in this region.  If one had been here that would have been huge birding news.  So Gyrfalcon was out.

      “Could it have been a Snowy Owl?” I asked.

      “Yes, quite possibly.  Two years ago there was an invasion of Snowy Owls in our region.”

      Also they know the lady who owns the land with the tree, and she had called George to tell him that she had a Snowy Owl.  They hadn’t seen that particular bird, but Snowy Owl seems to be a more realistic conclusion.  Let’s recap – they knew the tree, they remembered the time frame of the unusual event that my bird was probably part of, the land owner had called them about the specific bird that I had seen two years earlier.  In the words of Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy, commenting on the amazing trackers on his trail, “Who are these guys?”   

      So Gyrfalcon and Northern Harrier are off my life list and Snowy Owl and Cooper’s Hawk are on.  But I’m not going to go back and correct my errors in the previous months.  Let them stay as originally reported and corrected here.  It’s a process.

 

 

august commentary in August

The season is about over and we have started to tell people that we pass in the halls of our office buildings that it went too fast.  If you were not in such a hurry, and really did want to hear about my summer, I would tell you this.

      I’m writing a book that I hope gets one hundred readers.  I’m working on a team of brilliant engineers, some of them young enough that they could be my kids.  My own kids are launching their own careers and have already surpassed me in many ways.  I’m learning a new hobby that I hope will expand as a big part of the next phase of my life.  Everywhere I go, I am usually not the smartest person in the room – except for right now.   I’m alone in the kitchen.

      So what is this about?  Is this a bird book, a travel book, a diary, a philosophy lecture, a photo album with poems and commentary, or something else?  Although, as you have probably already noticed, being concise is not one of my talents, I will be as clear and simple and concise as I can be.  If you are a baseball fan, you probably have either read Michael Shaara’s “For the Love of the Game”, or seen the movie starring Kevin Costner.  While the Hall of Fame bound pitcher is throwing the game of his life, he keeps flashing back to memories of his broken relationship with his one true love.  Even though he achieves a perfect game which should make the day the greatest day of his life, he is miserable.  Realizing what matters to him, he finds his true love and tells her how he feels.  So the book isn’t about baseball at all.  It is full of baseball and possibly the best baseball story ever written, but it is about something else.

      I know that I’m not a Michael Shaara or a Scott Weidensaul or a Henry David Thoreau or a William Shakespeare.  I’m an enthusiastic beginner, and you’ve been warned over and over about that kind of person.  But I’m telling you about my summer, and here is what I came up with.  You go through several major passages during your lifetime and usually only a few other people notice the life-altering things that are happening to you.  My mom went through her final passage this spring, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.  My youngest daughter went through some difficult challenges as a college freshman and she came through it seeming to be stronger and more mature.  Her older sister is getting ready to graduate from college.  Like it or not, I’m in the last phase of my work career and thinking about what comes next.  Is this book about that?  Not exactly.

      I’ve noticed that when people do science, art, or religion, they explain the world around them from different viewpoints, yet ultimately arrive at the same place.  No matter how deep they dig, there is something below that they can’t explain, and there always will be – a quark, true love, God.  Giving it a name does not mean that we understand it.  Making clever statements like “I do believe in God, but I don’t think God believes in me” is a satisfying diversion, but I doubt that it helps much in attempting to understand the substance of the world or the nature of the divine.  I have gotten comfortable with not knowing.  On the other hand, it is impossible to look at the beauty and complexity of birds and their interrelationship with the world around them, without thinking about how wonderful the world is.  Miracles are things that can’t be rationally explained.  There is the “miracle of life” and the miracle that the sun appears in the sky every morning.  Part of that miracle is the movement of giant celestial bodies and part of it is the microscopic neurons that give the sensation of the sun’s warmth on our skin.  No matter whether you disagree or agree with my pseudo-scientific meanderings in the July chapter, here is a phrase that I am pretty sure is safe for you to follow: “It’s okay to enjoy a song, even if you don’t know what the words all mean.”  I’m not talking about singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” while marching to battle.  I’m talking about listening to the sounds and sights and smells of the natural world and recognizing yourself as part of it.

      That’s it.  But I have to share one last image from a classic movie, “Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off”.  Right at the end, the school-skipping high school senior looks at the camera and says, “Sometimes you just need to reach out and grab life, or it just passes you by.”   That’s what I’m doing for myself by writing this book – grabbing life.  Of course, you’ll find your own way to grab life.  That’s the point.

 

8/24 – Prime Hook, Delaware

I went back to Prime Hook with Mike, Chris, Eddie, and Beans.  The dogs had a good time, although Mike got a little frustrated at all the bad habits that Eddie picked up while we dog-sat him.  That’s to be expected, however, with our first grand-dog.

      We didn’t see anywhere near the numbers and variety of birds that we had seen in the winter.  Mike provided the highlight by spotting a Bald Eagle sitting in her nest.  We saw Great Egrets in large groups of 27, 21, 10, and many smaller groups.  A flock of ten Glossy Ibis flew overhead.  There were at least a dozen Great Blue Herons, some juveniles.  Eight or ten Forster’s Terns were fishing.  We walked a forest trail which on this day was awful because the bugs drove us nuts.  There was a flycatcher – possibly Olive-sided, but we didn’t see the white patch on its back.  There were no new birds along Broadkill Beach Road.  The walk on Broadkill Beach was fun and productive.  We saw a Willet, lots of gulls, and at least fifteen peeps with black legs and bills, dark checkered tops, white bottoms, and an obvious tinge of pink on their chests.  When we got home, I found their pictures in my shorebird book.  They were Western Sandpipers.  The pink on their breasts indicated that they were juveniles.  Since I didn’t bring my camera on the beach and missed my chance at some nice pictures, I should justify my Id.  They were not Least SP because of the leg color.  Not Semi-palmated SP because the bill seemed longer and the upperparts a little redder.  Not Sanderling because they were pretty small.  The plumage was sharp and bright, so the birds were fresh juveniles.  Sibley’s shows the fresh juvenile Western SP with rufous coloration on an otherwise white chest and belly.  The Shorebird Guide has pictures of juvenile Westerns from August in New Jersey that look like my birds.  I probably got it right.

 

Thursday – 8/29 – Chestnuts

An “old chestnut” means a well-known story.  “Chestnuts roasting o’er an open fire” and “Under a spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands” also come to mind.  That’s all I have personally for chestnut references.  That’s because I grew up in central New York in the 1950s and 1960s.  My dad might have been able to shoot off quite a few chestnut aphorisms.  He was born in Minnesota in 1921 and told me that he and his two brothers supplemented their family incomes by gathering and selling nuts each fall.  They knew secret spots where during the season they could come back each day to get as many nuts as they could carry.  The three boys would plan each nut-gathering day to keep their secret spots secret.  They would leave town in different directions, split-up, double-back, and wander through remote areas until they were sure that none of the adults were still following them.  Only then would they meet up and go after the nut harvest.  I expect that when my Great Grandma Black arrived in Minnesota riding on a Conestoga wagon that picking nuts in the fall did not require any subterfuge.  They would have been lying on the ground everywhere as part of a several billion tree forest dominated in the east by the American Chestnut whose natural range may have been extended as far west as Minnesota by pioneer planters.  She would have known the phrase, “An American lives in the arms of the Chestnut, from cradle to grave”.  This fast growing, disease-resistant hardwood was used to build cradles, houses, furniture, and coffins.  It fed Americans and shaded them.  Today only a whisper of their greatness remains.

      I felt a little of that whisper brush my cheek when I went into the Tyler Arboretum backwoods with a team of Chestnut Project volunteers.  This is the group of volunteers that I heard about in the spring and finally joined up with today.  Our intention was to inspect some native seedlings that were several months old and some others that were several years old.  All had been carefully tagged and catalogued and were surviving well.  Not far from these trees we spotted a twelve-year old American Chestnut, also tagged.  It had the blight, but still was doing pretty well.  Its eight inch diameter trunk was unscarred except for one infected patch, on one side, five feet from the ground.  For now, it is a reminder of what could be.  Still only twenty feet tall, its big leaves and smooth grey bark were the beginnings of a 100 foot tall, graceful giant.  That promise will remain unfulfilled and eventually the blight will kill the tree down to the ground, leaving the roots alive.  

      Within a very short walk, John, the project leader, located a not-so-tall, not-so-graceful Chinese Chestnut.  These blight resistant trees usually grow much shorter and spread out, but this specific specimen living in a dense forest had grown more slender.  At sixty-five feet, it was much taller than a typical Chinese Chestnut.  John confirmed that this tree was close enough to the seedlings and the twelve-year old tree to pollinate them.  Whether that was desirable in the project was a question for the next decade of volunteers. 

 

Saturday – 8/31 – Audubon, PA – where it all began

Many of us have been brought up being taught that the Garden of Eden was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia.  Other speculations have humankind originating in Africa.  Lots of cultures have very different creation stories more ancient and far more complex than these.  Try out the Hindu explanations of creation, as an example.  Not to cast aspersions on any one particular culture, I will say that they are all wrong.  It all started in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania on a hill overlooking a gentle river. 

      Well at least that’s where American bird-watching got is start when in 1750 eighteen-year-old James Audubon came to Pennsylvania to oversee his father’s plantation.  He became enthralled with North American wildlife and did what I started doing last year, focusing on birds and moving on to other things once he got that down.  Although, I have to admit, he was much better at this than I am.   His paintings of birds are precious as instructional documents for naturalists, as scientific records, and as works of art.  He was working on documenting the mammals of North America when he died.  These paintings were just as wonderful as his more famous bird paintings. 

      Audubon must have been a real hit with the ladies in colonial America.  He wasn’t an egg-head scientist.  He was an athlete, an excellent marksman, a dog trainer, and a great dancer.  He was obviously good at using his art to woo the love of his life.  A painting of a flower with a poetic French inscription that he gave to his wife is mounted on his bedroom wall.  She cherished the painting and cherished him and cherished her life with him.  In the house there is also a picture of the mansion that she grew up in.  It was an imposing edifice, many times bigger than the Audubon home.  With him, however, she had the world.  They traveled to the frontier – our mid-West – working, painting, and growing a family.  They went to Europe to publish his great book, and came back to the house in Pennsylvania.

      Their mansion is smaller than your house.  It is currently set up with a living room on the first floor where some of his paintings are exhibited, including his Trumpeter Swan.  Across the little hall is a bookstore where I bought the full-sized print of his painting of Least Bitterns.  That could be a personal strategy.  When I miss the photo, buy the Audubon print.  Or maybe I should just get a better camera.  Doing it the way naturalists like Audubon did it is not an option.  That would be shooting the bird with a gun and then using the dead bird as a model for the painting.  On the first floor, there is also a small room that was probably the dining room.  Although the four small upstairs rooms have lots of bird taxidermies, collected bird eggs, and bird nests, the dining room has the only birds on display in the house that were taxidermied by Audubon himself.  These are two Passenger Pigeons mounted in their full-breeding plumage, bright and beautiful, their pink breasts still rosy, their heads up and their bodies sleek and strong.  Mounted under a glass bubble that itself is a work of art, this piece captures the magnificence of these birds more powerfully than the large diorama in the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History.  It was done by an artist who knew the birds, had seen them flock over his head by the millions, and who loved them.

      Chris and I had come to Mill Grove early to walk the trails and hadn’t seen many birds.  Maybe that was because it was hot, or maybe summer in southeast PA is the slow season for birding.  I should probably ask someone about that.  We finished our walk more than an hour before the Audubon house/museum opened, so we sat down on two of the rockers on the back porch to wait.  Watching a flock of Goldfinches feeding in the field below, it is clear that this place still has some of its original magic.  It had a bonus surprise too.  On an Animal Planet special, the TV show producers filmed divers swimming up to Humpback Whales.  They said that there is an expression that “if you look into the eye of a Humpback, your life will change forever.”  They do not have whales at Mill Grove plantation, but they do have a Screech Owl and a Great Horned Owl.  As we left we took a stroll past their rookery, which are large comfortable outdoor cages, shady, with several perches.  The Screech Owl was sound asleep, but the Great Horned Owl was awake and curious about us.  I stood a foot from his perch and he turned his head slightly to check me out.  When I joined Chris on the farther side of the pen to get a good look at his front, the owl flew right to us and sat on a perch right in front of us.  I looked into his huge eyes with big black pupils surrounded by light olive irises.  They were clear eyes, bright eyes, eyes that can see the tiniest detail.  Did the experience change me forever?  Of course it did.  For the better?  Well that’s a man-made value judgment, so it’s not biologically relevant.  Walking away, far up the long drive, we heard his soft and low-pitched calls.  “Hoo-hoo-hoo.”

 

The rose that my teammates gave me on my Mom’s passing, three months later in August, 2013