Nothin’ Could Be Finer

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds: The Carolina Wren.

web 10062014_247I love wrens. They are bold, brassy, and outspoken; flitting from pillar to post with their tail upright as if in protest. I’m not sure what Carolina’s have to protest, but believe me, rebellion is in their blood.

Carolina Wren’s average about 5″ in length and weigh about 3/4 of an ounce. They are the second largest wren in the United States after the cactus wren of the desert southwest. Carolina Wrens can live to be 6 years of age and often keep one mate for their entire breeding lifespan. When a pair of wrens bond, they not only stay together through the nesting season, they remain a pair and interact throughout the year.

Although both sexes of Carolina Wren can sing, it is primarily the males we hear making their strident calls from fence row and thicket. One captive male was recorded singing 3,000 times in one day! This is news to me, as I assumed female wrens were the ones making a racket during breeding and nesting season: Sort of an, “I am woman, hear me roar,” attitude. Nevertheless, female wrens do defend their nests with great vigor and anyone approaching her brood should do so with caution.

web 04292014_085623

Baby Carolina

During the breeding season, male Carolina Wrens several nests, although only one will be used for brooding. Not only do the “dummy” nests confuse predators, but scientists believe female wrens choose the most appealing nest to use for raising young.

The hallmark of the Carolina Wren is the bold, white eye stripe that gives them a somewhat cross demeanor. If wrens come back as humans, I think many would return as stereotypical boarding school teachers. Their stern visage speaks of rapped knuckles and detention after school. There would be no talking, note-passing, or other fol de rol in the classroom of Mr. or Mrs. Carolina Wren !

web 10062014_250Carolina wrens spend the majority of their time on or near the ground searching for food, or in tangles of vegetation and vines. They also probe bark crevices on lower tree levels, or pick up leaf-litter in order to search for prey. Their diet consists of invertebrates, such as beetles, true bugs, grasshoppers, katydids, spiders, ants, bees, and wasps. Small lizards and tree frogs also make up the carnivorous portion of their diet. Vegetable matter makes up a small percentage of their diets, such as fruit pulp and various seeds. In the northern portion of their range, they frequent bird feeders.

For me, the bottom line is: I like wrens because they are small yet mighty. I admire their courage and the bold way they approach life. More often than not, life seems overwhelming to me and yet here are these wee birds who are ready to take on the world. When a Carolina is sitting on my porch, belting out his vibrant song, it gives me courage to be my authentic self, to sing my own wonderful song.

Blue Jay Weather

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds, the blue jay.

web 10022009_042742It was chilly this morning. The Canadian cold front that came through over the weekend brought in brisk, autumnal air on the wings of the north wind. It was fifty-two degrees this morning and walking was, at last, a treat rather than hard labor. The drying leaves shimmered in the breeze and carried one of my favorite sounds: The call of blue jays as they went about their morning work.

Web 09132007_195921 (1)I have always loved blue jays. Their wings, with windows of blue and white outlined in deepest black remind me of stained glass windows and their antics at the bird feeders only hint at the deep intelligence that is part of the family corvidae. Most of all, I have warm feelings for blue jays because, here in the Ozarks, they are the voice of autumn. During the nesting season, they are largely silent, but once the kids are out on their own, the woodlands ring with their raucous calls and brings forth memories of crisp days, frosty nights, and the smell of woodsmoke on mellow, restful afternoons.

I am fond of all the species of birds that make up the corvid family. I love jays, crows, and ravens with equal passion for they are the true intellectuals of the avian world. Blue jays use their large vocabulary not only to communicate with one another, but also to deceive other birds. They are great mimics and often make the cry of a red-shouldered hawk to clear the birdfeeder of competition for the choicest morsels. In captivity, blue jays can also imitate human voices and the calls of domestic cats. Blue jays also have quiet, almost subliminal calls which they use among themselves in proximity. One of the most distinctive calls of this type sounds like the swinging of a rusty gate or a rusty pump handle going up and down. The blue jay (and other corvids) are distinct from other songbirds for using their call as a song.

Blue Jays are tremendously loyal to their family members. They mate for life and defend their nestlings with the ferocity of a mother lion. One of my clearest childhood memories is watching Mom trying to get a baby blue jay back in its nest. Mom bravely climbed a rickety ladder, propped against a tree, wearing a hard hat and gloves to protect her from the attacking parents. The mission was a success, but after that, blue jay nestlings were left well enough alone.

Web 03012015_093520But now nesting season is over and the blue jays and I move into the autumn season together. As I forge ever deeper into the middle years of my life, I appreciate the blue jays’ determination as they put away their stores for winter. They are caching acorns in hollow trees and I am caching memories. The summer season of my life was rich and I don’t want to mislay a single golden afternoon or moonlit night. I want to remember it all, journal it all, treasure it all before winter takes its inevitable toll. Blue Jay inspires me to keep storing my thoughts, come what may. Some will fall on fallow ground, some will feed my soul, and perhaps a few will grow into mighty oaks – a magnum opus, a legacy for all to share.



Lighting the Lamps of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of Autumn Light.

09192011_041320 webI’ve been waiting for days now. Waiting for the moment when the sun would shift just enough to replace the brassy summer light with a mellow autumn glow. I keep track of this day in my journal and some years it has happened as early as August 8th. This year it arrived on August 17th. I was in my reading chair, finishing a chapter of Sigurd Olson’s Reflections From the North Country when I saw it: Streamers of gold filtering through the blinds on my French doors. I took up my journal and penned, in all capital letters, “THE LIGHT HAS COME!” And my heart rejoiced.

At first, the Lamps of Autumn are most noticeable in the late afternoon and it brings back memories of walking home from school. My brother and I walked almost two miles from the bus stop to our little farm. We complained about it, as kids are wont to do, but in truth, memories of ambling along the gravel road in the waning light on a chilly autumn afternoon ranks as one of the best remembrances of my childhood.

web 09292009_034631The coming of autumn light signals an end to the frenzy of summer. The harsh call of cicadas is replaced with the gentle chirp of crickets along the lane. Birds return to our feeders and fill our days with their winter-songs: A chorus performed simply for the love of singing, now that the rush of parenting is through.


This time of year slows me down too. My daily walks are easy rambles now that I am not in a race with the heat of the day or the biting bugs of summer. My dog and I stop often and drink in the rare beauty of the changing landscape as it changes from green, to gold, to grey. We take time to watch for the arrival of the first white-throated sparrow, the fall warblers, and the juncos. This is the season for reveling. The season of peace.



Walking With Giants

If I had a blog, today I would write about my friend, Big Bluestem.

09032013_180602 WebI call big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) my friend because it has been part of my life for over twenty years. Big bluestem is a native grass of the tallgrass prairie, a vast domain of largely treeless expanse that, before the coming of the white man, dipped down out of southern Canada, expanded to over 600 miles in width across the Midwest, and ran for more than a thousand miles towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Here in the Missouri Ozarks, we touch the boundary of the prairie that extended, and broadened, as it went north. Plants native to the tallgrass prairie grew here, though not in the lush abundance found to our north and east. To honor the sea of grass that once touched The Greenwood, we planted grasses and wildflowers common to the tallgrass prairie here on our farm and big bluestem is the first of the grasses to bridge the gap from summer to fall.

09212013_070226 webGrowing up to nine feet high, big bluestem was a wonder to the first settlers. In his book Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, author Joan Madsen writes “[big bluestem] was a marvel to the early settlers who plunged into it and left accounts of big bluestem so tall that it could be tied in knots across the pommel of a saddle.” I see these slender sentinels as the guardians of my homeplace, keeping watch over the long gravel lane that connects our farm to the outside world.

In August, big bluestem begins to go to seed and as it opens, reveals a three-branched seed head that has given rise to another name, “Turkey Foot.” Its unmistakable silhouette tells me fall is near.

10282011_155806 (1) webI am not the only one to await the ripening of big bluestem. From late September until November, the seed-heads are an endless bounty to sparrows, juncos, and a host of migrating birds who rely on the nutritious seeds to fuel their winter stores of fat. Driving along the lane on a fine autumn afternoon, the giant grasses are bent to the ground under the weight of feeding birds. The continual rise and fall of the stems makes it appear as though the plants are moving under their own power, bowing to the mellow sun.

09202013_181510 webThis year, the big bluestem began to open on July 31st. It will take some time for the seeds to cure, but already the sparrows are gathering, testing the crop to measure the breadth of the harvest to come.It is a welcome sign that summer’s reign cannot last and the time of harvest, then rest will come.

There are only a few tallgrass prairies left today. Most fell to the settler’s plow over a century ago, so I am proud to know the big bluestem, so see them dance, as Wallace Stegner wrote: “in the grassy, green, exciting wind, with the smell of distance in it.” I walk among giants as my forbears did and dream of what lies just out of sight, oven the next wave of green.

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

If I had a blog, today I would write about my continued experiences with faith.

Although I know it is generally considered bad form to experiment with the nature of faith, the scientist within me can’t help but look for what Hebrews 11:1 describes as “the evidence of things not seen.” A bit oxymoronic perhaps, but my “research” has yielded some surprising results!

By the Sea

By the Sea

My journey into faith has become essential, as my life is about to undergo major change. Dad will be retired from dentistry in two years and we are ready to move on from the rigors of farm life. To that end, we have decided to begin working to sell the farm so we can move to a little house on quiet beach in south Florida.

Naturally, the practical part of moving from the farm is complicated. We have horses, chickens, a duck, and cats that need new homes. We have to prepare the property for showing, which means repairs and refurbishment at the barn, in the pastures, and in the house. I lay awake nights with a zillion scenarios zooming through my head: What if the house sells before we find a new one? What if we can’t find suitable homes for the animals? What if? What if? What if?

In an effort to retain our sanity, Mom and I made a pact to put a moratorium on negative thinking and really let The Divine guide us through the tangled mass of the days ahead. So far, it appears that faith in a higher power is not just a myth.

Best Friends Rain (L) and Skeeter (R)

Best Friends
Rain (L) and Skeeter (R)

The first “OMG moment” came when I contacted the friend from whom I had purchased my horse, Rain, in 2012. She didn’t even hesitate before agreeing to take Rain and Rain’s buddy, Skeeter, under her wing. Better still, we didn’t have to worry about getting the mares out to Virginia, because Lindsay is coming through Missouri in a few weeks and was more than happy to pick the girls up on her way home.

Next, we contacted two people about the sale of the three Arabian horses we own and now they have new homes to go to as well. As with the paint horses, the people who wanted the Arabs are genuine, down-to-earth horse lovers who will give our herd a loving home.



A few days later, I made the difficult decision to list my house cats for adoption. Regardless of where we settle, our new home will be smaller and with my Labrador, Gus, in tow, two cats would be too much. I put my request on Facebook and within two hours heard from one of my closest friends. Micheline and I have been friends since we were five years old and I couldn’t imagine a better owner for my favored felines.

Then Micheline told me not only did she want Sawyer and Claudia, but she would take  my entire flock of chickens and my Runner Duck, Ferdinand!



Ferdie has been my only duck since the rest of the flock was killed by a roving pack of coyotes in 2011. At his new home, not only will he have other ducks for company, but Runner Ducks at that! Talk about an abundance of miracles!

Now for the icing on the cake: Yesterday, when I sat down to write this blog, I looked up the Scripture that describes faith as, “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is found in Hebrews, chapter 11. It may not sound like much, but the number 11 is of great significance to me. Whenever 11’s appear in my life, transition for the better is at hand.

Finally, one more bit of “OMG” happened when I sat down to watch an episode of The West Wing. I popped in the DVD and the third episode on the disc was titled, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.” I think I am on to something here.

Be Still And Know

If I had a blog, today I would write about the sacred nature of silence.

The Lord of Holiness

The Lord of Holiness

The last few days, the message of The Universe has been, “Be still.” I spent two days on a solo retreat in Missouri Wine Country, enjoying the rare privilege of reading, writing, and sitting in quiet contemplation. Originally, I had gone to the little town of Hermann to eagle-watch along the Missouri River, but when I arrived, I knew my trip was to center around restoring my spirit, not adding to my portfolio. I gave in to the urge to rest and in the stillness of those midwinter days, I found new life in the simple act of doing nothing.

Any doubts I had about forsaking my eagle project were erased this morning when I discovered a handsome bald eagle perched in a tree near the barn. I had followed my heart on my retreat and now the eagle had come to me and I knew at once the story I needed to share:

The Eagle wasn’t always the Eagle. The Eagle, before he became the Eagle, was Yucatangee, the Talker. Yucatangee talked and talked. It talked so much it heard only itself. Not the river, not the wind, not even the Wolf. The Raven came and said “The Wolf is hungry. If you stop talking, you’ll hear him. The wind too. And when you hear the wind, you’ll fly.” So he stopped talking. And became its nature, the Eagle. The Eagle soared, and its flight said all it needed to say. (As told by Marilyn Whirlwind on Northern Exposure).

My Bald Eagle

My Bald Eagle

Today the eagle assured me I can trust my heart; that not all needs are met by action. The eagle reminded me that unless I am quiet in body and in spirit I cannot hear the voice of The Divine. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to this when he wrote: There are voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.”  and still more compelling, he admonished, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.”

Going forward, I will remember to stop, to be still, and to listen, for then I will not have to go in search of Holiness; it will come in search of me.

The Quiet Season

If I had a blog, today I would write about the gifts that lie hidden in the leaf-bare November woods.

The Quiet Season

The Quiet Season

Over the weekend we had our first hard freeze. We’ve had a few chilly nights lately, but last night was the real thing: Twenty-three degrees; a certified hard freeze. Now the last hint of green in the pastures and fence-rows will turn to golden and the landscape will stretch before us like a somnolent brown beast, drowsing in the mellow sun. From now until spring, the only color will be the ruby red of rose hips and holly berries alongside the crimson and orange of ripened bittersweet.

I like this time of year, even though it is harder to find great photo-ops, but the dearth of stunning subject matter brings a type of relief. Now I have to concentrate, take my time, and become one with the land in hopes it will guide me to one of its hidden gems, resting among the crisp, brown leaves.

The Feather

The Feather

A few years ago I was on my Journey to the Solstice and came upon the feather of a great-horned owl, caught in the bare branches of a redbud tree. The pale sun lit the feather from behind, giving it a light of its own, as if a candle shone from within. I took several photos, then brought the feather home. It rests in my library now, reminding me of that day and the gifts that await those who are mindful as they enter the forest. Had the feather been dropped a month earlier, among the scarlet dogwood and golden hickory trees, I doubt I would have seen it, my mind filled with things bright and showy. It took a day without many options to bring the beauty of my feather to the fore.

In this season of thanksgiving, I am most thankful for this quiet time between autumn and the coming of the snow. It inspires me to look at the familiar with a different eye, to see more in a landscape that offers less. This is a time for listening, for watching, and for contemplating, for now the voice of Nature is most clear. As I take my evening walk up the lane or to the barn, I will be attuned to the whispering wind and unadorned trees. I am here, ready to receive the gifts that only the quiet season can bring.

Old Friends

If I hand a blog, today I would write about the comforting presence of some especially dear friends.

Things are quieting down in the woods these days. The joyful chaos of the fall migration is, for the most part, over and my birdwatching has become less about adding to my life-list and more about greeting old friends. As the autumn passes and the riot of color fades, a sense of peace settles over the woods and fields as our winter residents settle into their regular routines.

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

Along the path to the river, the white-throated sparrows have settled en masse among the pasture roses, their dark forms dipping in and out of shadow as they dine on rose-hips the color of autumn apples. As they go about their day, they sing their winter-song, a shortened version of their lyrical mating call, and it is music to my ears.

Junco in the Sun

Junco in the Sun

The juncos are working in the tall grass along the lane these days, erupting skyward in a flash of slate gray and white when they sense my presence. Later in the season, when they know me better, they will linger in my presence, but for now, they are wary, unsure if I am friend or foe.

Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee

On woodland walks, my companions are the chickadees and titmice. These are the bravest and ckeekiest of birds, daring to land on branches just a few feet above my head as they sing their familiar songs. I always feel as though they remember me and are just keeping their distance to maintain their standing among their avian colleagues.

There is a lot to be said for the new, the unusual, and the exciting, but more often than not, my soul needs the familiar, the known, and the comforting. In a world where little is certain, the cycles of the natural world give me peace. As long as I can rely on the turning of the year, the rising and setting of the sun, and the return of my feathered friends, I have hope that I can weather whatever storms may come.

Let The Games Begin

If I had a blog, today I would write about the perils of bird photography.

When I began taking photos of birds, some thirty years ago, I was embarrassed to share my work with others. Birds, I thought, were too easy a subject for a wildlife photographer in-the-making. Compared to the exquisite work of wolf-photographer Jim Brandenburg or those who stalk the grizzly bear, the cougar, and the wild game in Africa, my shots of juncos and titmice seemed rather insignificant. Songbirds were everywhere: In cities, on farms, and in the woods, my quarry was ubiquitous and unlikely to threaten life and limb, so I assumed they would be a stepping-stone; and easy way to practice my skills before moving on to “real” wildlife and real adventure. But that was before; before I knew what I was up against, before I knew I was facing the wiliest wild creature on Earth.

Birds are not stupid. They watch bird photographers as avidly as we watch them and not only do they observe, they plan and they plot, turning the tables to make us the key player in avian entertainment. Over the years, I have identified a number of games my feathered friends enjoy, keeping me on my toes whenever I enter their world (and by the way, its all their world).

The Tease (Savannah Sparrow)

The Tease (Savannah Sparrow)

First, there is The Tease: Rather than hiding the moment a photographer appears, birds coyly flutter into sight, landing on perfect, bare branches, singing their lovely songs, practically begging to be photographed. This gives the birdwatcher a false sense of hope, feeding her fragile ego and setting it up for a fall. A few good shots may be permitted, just to sweeten the deal, but then, with the skill of a confidence man, the real mind-games begin.

The Foil (Yellow Rumped Warbler)

The Foil  or Can You See The Bird in This Picture? (Yellow Rumped Warbler)

After The Tease comes The Foil: Somewhere out there exists a book on photography written by the birds, for the birds. This Rosetta stone teaches all birds the basic needs of the photographer enabling them to foil us at every turn. For example: Birds know exactly how strong a telephoto lens is so they can alight just outside this boundary, appearing as small, indistinct shapes regardless of the power or quality of one’s equipment. Birds also know how long it takes to set exposure and focus and they use this skill so they can flit merrily away or ruffle their feathers into an incomprehensible blur just as the shutter closes. This move is usually followed by the “tail-flip,” which is, in the truest sense, giving me “The Bird.”

The Icarus Immitation (Lincoln's Sparrow)

The Icarus Imitation (Lincoln’s Sparrow)

If The Foil gets boring, birds opt for The Icarus Imitation: Birds clearly understand the importance of good lighting in a photograph and do their best to position themselves so as to manipulate the sun to their advantage, not mine Woodpeckers, for example, always light on the shady side of a tree trunk and colorful birds, like robins and bluebirds, will leave a bare branch, in full sun, to glower in the crook of a limb the moment I appear on the scene. At times I suspect the sun is in cahoots with the birds, as it often disappears behind the only cloud in the sky just as my shutter closes.

The Reward (Red-Headed Woodpecker)

The Reward (Red-Headed Woodpecker)

Some individuals may see these behaviors as merely survival skills. Birds are vulnerable and humans with guns have done nothing to improve our standing with the avian world, but the regularity with which these particular actions occur makes me think there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Short of finding the Bird’s Book of Photography, I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the truth of the matter, but I enjoy my fantasy nonetheless. I know birds are smarter than we give them credit for and, to be honest, I think its only fair for them to toy with humanity when they have the chance. After centuries of predation and environmental destruction, we deserve far worse from the natural world than we get. And so, when I venture out on my bird walk tomorrow, I will take the frustrations in stride, knowing even if I fail to get the photo of my dreams, at least I have given the bird-world a few hours of well deserved mirth. Its really the least I can do.


The Mystery Bird

If I had a blog, today I would write about the importance of The Mystery Bird.

The Mystery Bird

The Mystery Bird

The ultimate objective of birdwatching is, of course, identifying what you have seen, but this year I have come to realize that the best sightings are the ones that defy identification. A few days ago, Mom and I hiked down to the river and as we approached the field we call Big Valley, a flurry of activity in the wild rose bushes caught our attention. Mom was on point with her binoculars and I homed in with my telephoto lens, trying to make sense of the shadowy forms flitting about among the thorns. We identified two cardinals, a brown thrasher, and several sparrows, but then a flash of orange and white caught our attention. The bird was robin-sized, but robin’s have no white. The body was black or dark brown, but the shade of the underbrush made it hard to tell. Was the white on the wing or the breast? Was the breast orange or was it the wing?  I took a couple of  less-than-stellar pictures to look at when we got home, but until then, identification would have to wait.

Mom and I continued along the path Dad created in the swampy river bottom and there were birds at every turn. Goldfinches picked apart the seed-pods of poppy mallow, field sparrows gleaned the tall meadow grasses, and woodpeckers chattered at us from the trees at the edge of the valley. As much fun as it was to see our well-known bird friends, my mind kept turning back to our Mystery Bird and every time I thought of him, I could feel endorphins flooding my brain. There was something magical about seeing something unknown, something that didn’t quite make sense.

On the walk home, I thought about the rapture I felt when confronted with even a small slice of the unknown and it occurred to me that we need mystery in our lives as much as we need air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink. The desire to explore, to learn, and to understand is part of our DNA, part of what makes us human.

The lack of curiosity I see in the world today troubles me. We work, we shop, we watch television, and we sleep. That is the daily round of most people. Weekends are for sleeping or watching sporting events or trying to catch up on chores. It leaves little time for awakening the part of our brain, of our soul, that craves exploration. We rush to and from work under a canopy of stars, yet we have no interest in the vastness of space. We mow the lawn and fill bird feeders, but we don’t identify the birds who depend on us, and we venture into the natural world with the goal of calories burned or miles traversed. Exploration is a dying art and with its death goes part of that which makes our species unique and beneficial to the world.

In all honesty, my 90-Day Journey to the Solstice is my way of staying awake to the world. I am as guilty as anyone of letting my “To Do List” rather than my “Bucket List” run my day, so I try to combine the two and give myself an opportunity to explore my own little corner of the world. Once I’m out in the woods, I feel dim parts of my brain light up as dormant neurons fire back and forth across their synapses; I feel life infiltrate every part of my body and, for a time, I feel part of something that defies description: A universe so vast and so full of mysteries it staggers the mind and scintillates the soul. For a time, I do not feel alone.

As it happens, our Mystery Bird was a Rufus-Sided Towhee. They are fairly common in our part of the country and both Mom and I have seen them before. On the same excursion we also identified two other newbies: The Lincoln’s sparrow and the clay-colored sparrow, also common migrants this time of year. Despite the fact that we had not discovered a new species or seen a migrant from Timbuktu, we counted our journey a success. You see, it is not the answer to the question that is important. All that truly matters is to have the willingness to ask.