Storybook Garden


This year I want to have a storybook garden. You know, the kind the neighbors and passersby look at (and envy). The perfect kind you see in stories. I’m well on my way. Yesterday, we bought and planted “Hansel and Gretel” eggplants—the varieties named on the plant markers. I thought they were an apt addition to a storybook garden.

But—here’s the thing—the reason we are planting the eggplants is that the spinach seeds failed. They didn’t come up. The truth is that we have bad luck with spinach. There was that stand back in Colorado when our kids were young, the one that’s become a legend, but that’s been a few years, and subsequent years we’ve not had good luck.

Spinach isn’t the only crop that disappointed. I just got in from replanting bean seeds. There were gaps between the small plants: seeds that didn’t germinate or seedlings that came up with deformed or missing leaves. I looked this up on Google. Chances are the corn seed maggots got to them, apparently. Maybe thrips, too.

Also, not to be picky, but the rows of plants aren’t totally straight. This bothers me (maybe a little too much). This is an ongoing topic of conversation between MEH (My Engineer Husband) and me every year—we’ve had a lot of gardens together. MEH has deep agricultural roots. His grandfather worked for the California Extension Office and he grew oranges. Not for fun or storybooks, but for real. There was an orange named after him, the Gillette Navel. MEH grew up cultivating and irrigating orange groves. He gained serious weeding skills, an even more serious work ethic when it comes to gardening.

On the other hand, I’m what you might call a fair weather, storybook gardener. If it gets too hot, if my crocs get dirt in them, if I get too many mosquito or black fly bites, or if I want to write a blog, I bolt. (MEH’s still out weeding.)

The beans had gaps...

The beans had gaps…

That’s not to say MEH is perfect in the gardening department. He doesn’t sow seeds uniformly (or in straight rows), he’s a reluctant waterer (too many California drought cycles, I’m guessing), and he is gung ho at the beginning of the gardening cycle, but by the end not so much. And MEH doesn’t like weeding. This was a surprise to me because I always thought he did. This morning was the first time I asked him if he liked weeding, and he laughed before answering quickly, “Of course not. I felt like that was my punishment as a child.”

We talked about it for a few minutes. Our memories of childhood gardening chores and how they might have impacted our adult views of gardening—how they might have impacted our life. My backyard was tended mostly by my mother and, later, by a gardener. We might have had a tomato plant or two, a fruit tree or two. Up until I graduated from high school, we had family gardening hours on the weekend when we cleaned up. But we focused on the beauty of the outdoor space. MEH’s experience was more utilitarian: weeding, watering, mowing. MEH had a lot more chores than I had. And because of his family’s dynamics, MEH was often solitary when doing his outside (and inside) chores—he was alone a lot in general.

I’ll admit that the garden has caused some tension over the years. Particularly during planting, we seem to have different approaches: form over function for me. The opposite for MEH. Probably not surprising considering our gardening roots. We’ve been known to argue when planting (those crooked rows) and for other reasons surrounding my storybook expectations. This morning we didn’t have any disagreements. We were both quiet and contemplative—we went out early to beat the bugs and heat—before we talked about our families of origin.

I left MEH in the garden shortly after—to write this blog. I had a pebble in one of my crocs, I had muddy hands, but I’d also finished weeding my half of the garden. I’m faster but less patient and less thorough, and I often leave the weeds’ roots—which drives MEH crazy. MEH’s slower and more methodical; he is more thorough. My beds look better after weeding; MEH’s last longer.

As I walked up the porch steps, I heard “the Tweedles”—dubbed by my daughter when she was home last month—a sweet House Finch family that’s nesting in the eaves. The baby birds were cheeping, and I watched as Mr. Tweedles emerged from the nest and perched briefly on the string of Christmas lights before flying out for more food. Mr. Tweedles might be the more persistent gatherer, I mused, but maybe Mrs. Tweedles is in the nest tending and sprucing. I wondered if the Tweedles chirped about this together. If they ever squabbled.

Last year we didn’t have a vegetable garden—a combination of the weather and lack of gardening gumption. It was our son’s last summer in Maine, and he missed it he said. This year we cleared and planted the garden shortly before he and his girlfriend moved to the southeast. He expressed disappointment when he realized he wouldn’t be around for the bounty, then he said he was thinking about planting a vegetable garden at their new place—“There’s a space,” he said. “I like my agricultural roots.”

I thought about that—what stories my son might tell in his garden.

After I finished my blog, I went out to check on MEH’s progress—he was almost done. I watched him carefully rake out the soil between the rows, and I realized something. Turns out we do have a storybook garden, but not in the way I thought I wanted. Not the glossy cover shot—the story goes much deeper than that.

What’s your gardening style? Are there parts of your life you’d like to be storybook?



It’s About Life

_DSC0010Long-awaited spring finally came to Maine…finally. Then we went back to winter briefly, followed immediately by a fast-forward to summer. Last week we hit the record books with one of the warmest days on that date in history: 84F degrees. The warmest day in 222 days. I was sweltering and I almost complained. (I didn’t.)

This post isn’t about the weather. It’s about spring. It’s about life.

Renewal and new life is everywhere. Daffodils in the garden. Tulips. That burst of heat brought the leaves into full bud (last week there were none). And the weeds are growing, too. MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I have been starting a spring cleanup in advance of a summer garden—there’s a lot to clean up after our long winter. A sweet House Finch couple is nesting in our porch eaves, and this morning I listened to the male singing happily while sitting on the string of Christmas lights we never took down (because of the enormous piles of snow)…now we’ll likely keep them up so we don’t disturb the nest.

Yesterday, for Mother’s Day, I had the happy and (these days) only approximately twice-yearly occasion of having both “my kids” home along with my son’s wonderful girlfriend. Bliss is not too strong a word. We had a lovely breakfast together then we went to a nearby goat farm to visit the baby goats. My daughter and I have been planning it for months, but I think my son was a bit skeptical. I’d been to the Sunflower Farm Creamery once before to “hold baby goats,” and I thought it was just the thing we all needed after a long winter of bad weather, of being indoors too much, of work, and of stresses…we’re all together because next weekend we’ll be celebrating the very exciting occasion of my son’s graduation from medical school. If you’ve read my blog for long, you may remember when he started medical school—it was the year I started this blog—four years ago. Those years have flown by (for me). For him it’s been a lot of work.

We needed those baby goats.

Did I mention that my daughter is preparing to apply to medical school? (Which in itself is a major ordeal.) She’s home—on vacation—but she’s working the whole time. Like I said we really needed those baby goats.

There were only about four families at the goat farm when we arrived, and almost every person—man, woman, and child—had a cat-sized baby goat in their arms. The goats were resting peacefully in their arms, and the people were quiet and peaceful, too. As we entered the pasture, we were immediately surrounded by bleating goats. I watched them scampering; watched the other families interact with the goats around us; watched the baby goats nibble at people, chase down their mothers for reassurance; watched even very small children quietly and gently stroking sleeping goats in their laps. It really was magical.

“Holding those baby goats really was therapeutic,” my son texted me after we parted ways: he and his girlfriend rushing to the next busy thing in their lives as they prepare to move a thousand miles away to where he’ll start his medical residency and she’ll start law school.

“I miss the goats,” my daughter said, as she settled back in front of the computer. “I wonder if I can find a medical school with a goat farm.” She put in her ear buds and turned her eyes to the screen. Next week she’ll head back to the west coast to start a new job—having her at the dining room table working for the whole week is this mother’s dream come true.

Later this month, the baby goats will head to their new homes, the woman who owns the goat farm told me. At eight weeks the baby goats go in pairs. She’s very particular about where (and to whom) they go. She has a long waiting list. My daughter and I would love to own a goat farm someday; we talked about it in the car on the way home. Someday.

Next week we’ll gather for my son’s graduation: my aunt, my father, and my son’s girlfriends’ parents will join us. It will be a celebration of life. As my son graduates, I know I’ll wonder. Where did those four years—where did my babies—go?

Then, we’ll scamper. To new homes, to new jobs, to new projects. We’ll all begin anew.

What’s new with you this spring?



This winter is about…


This winter has been trying. The coldest February on record in many parts of Maine. More snow since mid January than we get in an entire winter most years. The statistics speak for themselves.

But this winter is about more than statistics.

This winter it’s hard to get around. There are huge snow banks at the entrances to roads and driveways that makes driving treacherous. People seem grumpier. In their cars. At the grocery store. At the gym. It’s grinding us down, this winter.

This winter is about isolation and crankiness and tiredness. It’s wearing me out. Twenty-two or more days below freezing (I gave up trying to keep track), so I really don’t want to go out. I love being inside at my desk writing, but I am tired even of that. I reach out to friends, but planned outings often need to be postponed due to yet another snowstorm. For a while we were on an every-weekend then every-Wednesday snowstorm schedule. It was predictable. The weather guys on one channel who usually wear sweaters (instead of suits) for storm days stopped wearing them. They stopped playing the “storm center” music, too.

This winter is about water leaking into the house through a new window. It’s about MEH (My Engineer Husband) coming home from work early last Friday to climb up a ladder and scrape snow off the roof with a roof rake. (We have a two story house.) Then he used an axe to break ice a foot thick off the edges of our roof, all around our house, to ensure no more ice dams formed that would allow more water to leak around the roof shingles, through the walls, into our house around our windows. “The water finds a path,” MEH said before climbing another ladder onto the porch roof to shovel snow off of it. MEH spent the better part of the weekend shoveling snow off the roof.

This is usually water...Casco Bay... that's an Osprey nest out there

This is usually water…Casco Bay… that’s an Osprey nest out there on the pole

This winter is about new words and new ways of talking to our neighbors (that we see more at the grocery store than around the neighborhood). Ice dam, roof melt, roof rake, “the water finds a paths,” and “where will we put it?” become common conversation starters.

This winter is about giving up, giving in, embracing. One end of our driveway is unshoveled, unplowed. We have enough room for our two cars. Why should we shovel more? The end of the driveway (that’s not shoveled) has a five foot frozen-solid berm at the end. Snow is piled everywhere. The mailman used to avoid that end of our driveway; now he just walks through the snow and over the frozen berm.

This winter is about layers. Most winters I’ve worn fleece and (TMI?) sometimes long underwear (on top). This winter I wear long underwear (top and bottom) every day, pants and turtleneck, fleece top and bottom over that. Boots outside. Fleece slippers in. Down jacket everyday. And an indispensable lavender scarf my daughter gave me for Christmas. I often wear it in the house, while under the electric blanket.

This winter is about hats. I knit two hats in January before the historic snow season started. One for MEH and one for me. (No, they aren’t the same—color or style—I write that in answer to the question forming: “are they the same?”…a question my daughter already asked me.) I hate hats. (Especially with all the dry air creating static electricity.) But I wear that hat every time I leave the house.


These robins found the morning sun…

This winter is about appreciating…

…the sun. Last weekend we had one day of 40 degrees. We reveled in the warm weather. It was a good day. A great day. It made us remember spring. And that spring is coming.

…the landscape that looks so foreign. The water froze over between the mainland and Cousins Island (a town island connected by bridge). Then it snowed over the ice. And the ice and snow got craggy and crazy looking. I’ve loved taking photos of the unnatural looking landscape. The landscape is so foreign that sometimes when I’m driving I miss a turn and find a new way home.

…the birds. Watching the crows roost. Hundreds upon hundreds of crows flying from tree to tree at sunset, looking for a place to roost. I’ve never seen this before. It was amazing. I also watched flocks of robins…I never realized that some robins winter over in Maine. I thought a lot about being a bird and trying to survive outside in this winter.

This winter is about new terrain, new landscapes, new landmarks, new ways of thinking and feeling and acting, new sights and sounds.

This winter is (I hope) almost over.

How’s winter going in your neighborhood? What is winter about for you?

Going to the Birds


The Arctic Tern


Summertime is prime bird watching time in Maine. We get the songbirds of the meadows and woodlands, but we also get the water birds. Gulls, terns, waders like Great Blue Herons and Egrets. A lot of birds of prey too. Ospreys and Eagles and hawks, oh my.

I confess I love them all.

Yesterday MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went for a drive to Wolfe’s Neck Farm (yes it’s as beautiful as it sounds). We saw all kinds of birds. In fact on the mouth of the Little River, where it flows into the bay—on the tidal flat—we saw six Egrets along the river. It was an amazing sight. We took a few photos from afar, but when I got home I looked at them and decided none was close enough nor could be enlarged without looking blurry so I threw them away.

A hawk... I think a Broad Winged (any birders out there want to chime, er, chirp in?)

A hawk… I think a Broad Winged (any birders out there want to chime, er, chirp in?)

This is very uncharacteristic (I have almost 10,000 photos on my computer and another 6,000 on my iPhone, so clearly I rarely trash anything), and I immediately regretted it (well when I decided to write this blog). I wanted to include that distant photo of the six egrets but I didn’t have it anymore. Moral: don’t throw anything away. Better moral: Keep at least one photo of everything. Addendum: buy an external hard drive to store photos.

Anyway, last night we watched A Birder’s Guide to Everything—a sweet coming of age movie about bird watching and life. And today I went bird watching again at the Town Landing in the next town over, the place I go almost everyday. And boy was I glad I went. I immediately saw several small seabirds flitting around, plunging into the water and diving for fish. I knew they were terns, but what I didn’t know until I got home was that I was watching the Arctic Tern.

This gives you an idea of the speed these birds move. I guess they have to in order to cover as much ground as they do!

This gives you an idea of the speed these birds move. I guess they have to in order to cover as much ground as they do!

This is what I learned from the Cornell Bird site: the Arctic Tern has the farthest yearly journey of any bird. It migrates up to 25,000 miles from its Arctic breeding ground to where it winters in Antarctica. I probably could’ve stood on the dock and watched these birds all day. They were as beautiful as they were acrobatic.

Although there's no bird in this photo, it is my favorite of the week. Partly because it's so beautiful, partly because the people in the photo are friends of mine and I know how happy they are while they're out sailing together!

Although there’s no bird in this photo, it is my favorite of the week. Partly because it’s so beautiful, but mostly because the people in the photo are friends of mine and I know how happy they are while they’re out sailing together!

Although none of my photos of the Arctic Tern are that great, I still decided to include them in this post (I learned my lesson with the egrets!), because I guess the Arctic Tern may top my list as my favorite bird this year.  My all-time favorite is still the Hermit Thrush. A songbird, its song is just beautiful. (If you have time, you should follow the link and listen to the “typical voice,” well worth it!)

Are you a bird watcher? What’s your favorite bird? What’s your favorite outdoor activity this summer?



“On little cat feet…”

Yesterday's photo, taken with my iPhone

Yesterday’s photo, taken with my iPhone

(Thank you poet Carl Sandburg for the inspiration behind the title of this post!)

The last few days have been foggy off and on, which is fine with me. I love the fog—and anytime I think it might be foggy, I drive to the water’s edge (we’re five minutes from Casco Bay).

Yesterday, though, it surprised me. Sunny at my house, I drove to the Falmouth Landing—a place I go at least four times a week to take in the sights (and take photos). The dock was socked in. I had only my iPhone, but I still took a picture because it was surreal: thick fog over the water, sun and bright clouds above, dark at water’s edge.

Fog is an enigma. It gives the air a particular feel of both a lightness but also heaviness and weight. It is both lovely and also mysterious…at times it can feel dangerous. As you drive toward the coast, the fog leads you to the sea…with wisps and trails of clouds…and the scent and tanginess of salt. Standing on water’s edge, birds appear out of nowhere and boats disappear in the distance. The sky turns from white to blue gradually or the fog can blow off in seconds.

I hope you enjoy these photos!


I got out of my car just in time to see this gull landing… and today my camera was all set on the seat next to me



Stray lobster traps often dot the beach at low tide


Families of ducks float in and out of the fog


I love the way the islands look in the foggy distance. Casco Bay is sometimes called “the Calendar Islands” (because legend has it they number 365). The US Coastal Pilot says the Casco Bay islands number 136.

This post is for the birds


This post really has nothing to do with birds, except the photo that shows the sweet little sparrows that were perched on one of our skylights this morning, capturing moths and other bugs stuck to the screen in their valiant attempt to make it into our house.  MEH’s comment: “I’m glad someone’s cleaning the screens.”

No, this post really has to do with technical difficulties…again…because this month seems to be going that way. Some have been out of my control (like in my last post) but some, like today’s, self-inflicted. To wit: did you use Google reader to subscribe to and read blogs…like I did? Well, right before I went on my road trip out west, I was reminded (again) by Google that their reader was going away. Imminently. Permanently. Shortly after I returned from my trip.

Like so many things on my list, I “forgot” to do anything. I’m using quotation marks because I willfully allowed myself to forget. Sure, I checked out other readers, but I couldn’t find anything free that I was satisfied with. Sure enough, on the promised date, the reader was no longer available. And I’d done nothing. Which means that every single blog I was subscribed to—every single blog—was lost to me.

Sure, there are some blogs I remember, those that I used to visit every time there was a new post: my regular readers, my blogging friends. But I counted on my reminders. When a new blog came out, I’d see it on Google reader. That’s not the worst of it. The worst is that there were many blogs (about 50) that I’d visit sporadically. I have no idea what these were.

Am I complaining? Yes. I’m even saying I’m mad. At myself. At Google. I’m not happy that there are blogs and blogs out there I must refind and then find a way to keep track of. Or that I will never get my list back.

And I’m also apologizing. I’m sorry I haven’t visited your blogs. Or that I haven’t faithfully read them. I’ve missed you, and I’ll be back soon. But not consistently until I find a new reader that I like…that’s free…that’s easy to use.

So in addition to this post being a gripe, an explanation, and an apology, it’s also a request. If you have had a good experience with the reader you use, please let me know in the comments. I will definitely check it out. And if I’ve ever left a comment on your blog (or even if I haven’t) please leave a comment so I can find your blog again! I can’t wait.

Thank you (and cheers),


p.s. Meanwhile, it’s summer and lest you think I’m so consumed with these technical difficulties that I’m not enjoying it, I promise you I am. The bird watching alone has been spectacular (the sparrows but also eagles, great blue herons, osprey, mockingbirds, bobolinks among others), and I’m also enjoying the interesting weather that Maine has been having this summer: first we had the terrible Northeast heat wave. Then we had rain and cold. Then humidity and heat. Now cool and damp. The late planted garden is doing very well, and by very well, I mean to say that by December we should have tomatoes… or snow!


Eagles and Deer and Cats, Oh My

catAt the beginning of the road trip, my daughter and I agreed we’d go where we wanted to go—we had no plan about where we were going and when. When I told people this, not everyone understood, most notably the woman at AAA in Portland. I went there the night before MEH (My Engineer Husband and I) left Maine.

Here’s how it went down:

Me: I need some maps and trip planning books; I’m driving across the country.

Her: You should talk to one of our trip planners.

Me: No, I don’t need to…

Her: Okay, maybe you should come back closer to the trip when you know better where you’re going…

Me: I’m leaving tomorrow!

Her: [[blank look]]

Me: All I know for sure is the end point, San Francisco.

Her: [[blank look]]

Me: My daughter is starting a job and I’m taking her, then I’m driving back by myself.

Her: [[Jaw drops open, followed by…] And  you’re okay with that…

Me: Yes?

Her: I’d have to stop by 4 each day to be comfortable with that.

When I left AAA (with an assorted stack of maps and travel books), I wasn’t sure if I should cancel the trip or be mad that someone who worked at a TRAVEL DESK was such a stick-in-the-mud downer. Needless to say (a) I didn’t cancel the trip, (b) no way I’m stopping before 4 everyday or I’ll never make it across the country in less than a month, and (c) We’re having FUN not knowing where we’ll end up…

Like yesterday. Our original thought was that after Chicago we’d head south, on our way to Colorado and the Grand Canyon. But here’s the thing, we both wanted to go to St. Paul, Minnesota, where my cousin and his family live. I told my daughter we couldn’t fit in both St. Paul and the Grand Canyon (and still get her to SF in time for her first day of work).

She said: “People over places.” And so it was that yesterday we drove from Chicago to St. Paul, via Wisconsin.

And here’s where I get to the animal portion of this post. It was on I-90, going through the farmlands of Wisconsin, that we saw the single thing that we both agreed made the entire trip worthwhile. As we drove, we were sad to see deer after deer along the roadside—in all about sixteen (if you count the one coyote-wolf-deer—we weren’t sure). No, this roadkill was not what made the trip worthwhile.

It was this. As I was driving, I looked over into a newly plowed field and saw a deer walking…and I said to my daughter: “Finally! A live deer!” But then, as we were watching the deer, we saw something else. About twenty feet from the deer: a bald eagle, sitting in the field! Then the most amazing thing happened, the deer turned toward the eagle and started running toward it, and then the BEST thing happened. The eagle took off and flew. We were both absolutely stunned, to the point of shouting with absolute glee.

All this to say… if we’d stuck with the original plan, we’d never have seen this amazing “Wild America” moment. And my daughter wouldn’t have played football in my cousin’s backyard with his two kids, and we wouldn’t have enjoyed the amazing feast my cousin and his wife prepared for us in their lovely, cozy home. And we wouldn’t have gotten three important potions to help us along our journeys (long story, but thank you L and S!). And I wouldn’t have been woken up by their sweet cat Mibsy who was watching a bug flying around the room (see pic with this post).

It was one more memorable day on the road, but an even more memorable stop along the way—as we said to our cousins: “You are our Grand Canyon.”





As The Nest Turns

Watch live streaming video from cornellherons at

If you’ve followed my blog for very long, you know that I’m a bird watcher—in fact on Twitter, I’m part of a small group of writers who alerts one another about our bird watching activities—we call ourselves the bird nerds.

And this week, as a bird nerd, I found a new distraction: nestcams!

This is extreme bird watching up close and personal, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Three sets of birds—Great Blue Herons, Eastern Blue Birds, and Red-tailed Hawks, tend nests of tiny baby birds while closely watched by hundreds, probably thousands, at any given moment.

And let me tell you… this is high drama in the bird world, as high as it gets—as I wonder and worry along with everyone else: will all five chicks survive in the heron nest? (the fifth chick is a little small and runty looking—we’re rooting for you #5!). Will Mama Red-tail Hawk ever stop demanding her chicks eat one more squirrel entrail despite their obvious soporific lethargy? Will the blue bird eggs ever hatch? Tune in tomorrow…I’m telling you, this stuff is addictive!

You may think this post is about bird watching—okay, it is—but not just about bird watching. Because as I watch these nestcams, I can’t help but think about my own nest—just a few short years ago I too had a full nest—just like those mama birds on the screen. One-by-one my chicks flew the nest. And now my nest is empty….mostly.

Because here’s the thing—it’s a process, just like almost everything in my life these days. And this mother-in-progress, after all these years, is getting used to change (kind of)—I think it’s a requirement for the job. This month the nest is refilling for a while. My son is taking a class at a nearby hospital (he’s a medical student) so we’re happily seeing him more than usual, and my daughter will be coming home for a few weeks before starting an internship in another city. Then my son’s wonderful girlfriend will be here for a family birthday celebration later in the month—when we’ll go to our favorite sushi restaurant (maybe we’re not that different from the herons afterall…)

Our happy nest will be filled again—for a while—and it will be full of song, too (no this isn’t a metaphor—my kids listen to a lot of music and the house seems pretty quiet without it). And for a while, I’ll be more irregular in my writing while I slip back into my mom-routines of chatting at the kitchen table, cooking bigger meals, walks together on the beach and in the woods—setting my daily writing schedule by more than just my own whim. In short, I’ll be one very happy mama bird, tending my nest.

But then, come the end of May, when each chick flies off, our nest will once again empty. And MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I will settle back into the life of the empty nesters: our schedule rising and falling by the walks with the dog, me returning to a more-regular writing schedule, and—yes—watching the nestcams.

Then just like those mama birds when their baby birds finally fly away—I’ll take a long look in the direction my baby birds flew. And I’ll wistfully remember the lingering evenings at the kitchen table talking to my son, the wonderful cuddles on the couch watching movies with my daughter, and the sweet sweet music filling the air.



Related posts: Check out my friend Christine Grote’s great post: Early ancestors, vegetarians, parenthood, and ambivalence.

To Mumsey & Dad

Red Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes
) from Wikimedia commons
public domain, photo by Ken Thomas

This post is a writing new year’s resolution.

Here’s the thing. Last week I went to look up a bird that my friend Milli (@millivrstravels) tweeted a photo of. I reached for one of my bird books. I’m a bird nerd so, yes, I have several bird books. My personal favorite is Peterson’s Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies—a gift from my daughter about 5 Christmases ago.

And this blog is about that one particularbird book that I reached for to look up that woodpecker—did I mention it was a woodpecker Milli tweeted a picture of? I riffled through the pages of the book, annoyed I couldn’t immediately find the woodpeckers. Then I flipped to the back of the book to look in the index.

That’s when I saw it. On the inside back cover of the book, an inscription:

To Mumsey & Dad—May you enjoy identifying from Alle alle to Zenaida macroura & beyond to discovering those species “waiting” to be found. Pam/1982

I stopped looking for woodpecker in the index. In fact I stopped cold. Because a) I’ve never been called Mumsey (except as a joke), b) I was not even close to being a Mumsey in 1982, and c) I had never before seen that inscription in my bird book that was given to me by my daughter (whose name, incidentally, is not Pam and who was born 9 years after that inscription was written).

In short, I have no idea where that book came from. No idea. And yet, that book was in my bookshelf and was given to me by my daughter. Or so I thought.

I flipped through the book again. On the inside cover, another notation of a different name—again, one that was not familiar to me—and a place, a nearby island. Tucked inside the book I found three more things: an old newspaper clipping of “Maine Animal Tracks,” an old typed flier describing the best kind of bird seed to use to attract birds to your feeder, and a small sticker that said YES! and No. on it.

None of these brought me any closer to figuring out who Mumsey and Dad are and how their book got in my house. But I figure there are a few possibilities.

Something innocuous like someone left the book at my house? One of my kids borrowed it from a friend during a school project? The book was buried in a box of books that I bought at a yard sale or brought home from the Town Book Barn? Or something a little more mysterious—it was left by the last owner of our house? Old Mr. Able did have that parrot in the window.

The truth is I may never know. And this mystery will likely join the annals of the other unsolved mysteries of the Martin family. What happened to the hammer that disappeared from the back of a U-Haul truck when we moved in 1992? Where are the peat pots that disappeared from the pantry in 1997? And where did those blue bags come from?

The sticker
Even if I never find out, it’s started 2012 off in a good way, with a reminder that life is full of unexpected stories and mysteries. I just need to keep my eyes open to find them. Which brings me back to my new year’s resolution: to observe and note all that I see, to pursue my passion wholly, to fully embrace the writing life.

Like the sticker says, I can choose—YES! or No.

How are you resolving to start your new writing year?

Happy New Year!


Things in the Sky

Bonaparte’s Gull

This morning I woke up when it was still dark outside and looked out of the skylight over our bed to an amazing sight: a few wispy clouds drifting by a crescent moon surrounded by some very bright stars.

“Amazing view,” I said to MEH (My Engineer Husband), who was still sleeping because he’s a little less enthusiastic about early mornings than I am.

Nonetheless, MEH had to see. And we looked at the beautiful sky view together.

“A crescent moon, the bright stars, and a satellite,” MEH said sleepily.

“A satellite?” I looked up and saw what looked like a moving star, crossing the sky framed by the skylight window.

“Yeah, I think it’s the Space Station.”

Sure enough, when I looked at NASA’s website, the ISS (International Space Station) crossed over southern Maine at 5:01 a.m., this morning, visible only for 4 minutes. And we happened to see it—what are the odds: a cloudless morning in Maine, we happen to look up through a very small window just for the 4 minutes the ISS is traveling 17,500 mph, about 240 miles from Earth. (By the way, if you’ve never seen the ISS before, check out this NASA website to see when it will be in the skies near you—it’s an amazing and extraordinary experience.)

“Bye guys,” I said to the 6-member crew as the ISS sped from view.

A very exciting way to start the day.

(Sunday, November 20, 2011, 7:04 a.m. EST, 49 degrees F)

Less than two hours later, we stood at our usual bridge overlook to make the weekly beach video, and we witnessed another flying thing we’d never seen before. If you look closely in the video, through the Birch tree on the right, you’ll see a white bird flying close to the water. We’d never seen this bird before, so despite the high tide, we walked down to the water’s edge to get a better view.

When we got home, we compared our photos to our bird books and online resources and discovered we’d seen a first-winter Bonaparte’s Gull. This lovely bird stayed very near shore and let us take as many photos as we wanted to.

The Great Crow Experiment, Part 2

The Gang of Seven
The Great Crow Experiment is a non-scientific study conducted by wordsxo scientist-wannabes—MEH (My Engineer Husband) and me. As previously reported in MEH and the Crows (citation: wordsxo) and Science News (citation: Science News), American Crows are extremely intelligent animals. The hypothesis of this experiment is that Corvus brachyrhynchos (American Crow) has the ability to recognize individual people and individual cars. Part 1 of the experiment presented the hypothesis, materials, and method. This post, Part 2, presents Results, Conclusions, as well as opportunities for further research (i.e., things we just don’t know the answers to).

On September 7, 2011, we started to feed the crows at the sports and recreation area where we walk our dog—about 1.5 miles from our house as the crow flies.
October 7, after a month of feeding the crows, and as evidenced by the Crow Log audio below, the crows definitely recognized us and waited for the peanuts. This is especially significant because we were not at the usual location (the softball field) but were instead at the nearby baseballfield. This indicates the crows saw our car (and/or us) and came to that spot for peanuts. Other cars did not elicit this response.

Crow Log Audio: Crows recognize the car (and us?), note the excitement in my voice!! (October 7, 2011)

Crow Log 10-7-11 (mp3)

These are the incredible contrails I mentioned
in the audio recording! Gorgeous!

On October 22 we were in a nearby town (about 10 minutes from the recreation area) and the crows saw us in the nondescript white station wagon and sat in a nearby tree and cawed at us, apparently waiting for us to give them peanuts.

On October 23,when we came out of our house, there were three crows in the tree outside our back door—this is the first time we saw crows in the trees around our house. We believe these are the same crows that we feed at the recreation area.

This video was recorded on November 12; it shows the crows arriving and descending when they note our car’s departure. (MEH’s caution: people who suffer from motion sickness may not want to watch.) 


“The Gang of Seven,” a murder (group) of seven crows recognize our car; and we believe they also recognize us and our dog, too. We believe these same crows may come to our house for peanuts—although we’re not sure it’s the same crows.

Feeding crows is a fun activity, but it can be hard to stop. It can also provide amusement to family members. Our college-age daughter told me that she and her friends were talking about what their empty-nest parents were doing since their kids left for college. She said our stories of feeding the crows made everyone laugh—hence it’s all worth it. After we sent her a photo of one of the seven crows, she said: “That’s one large crow! Have you considered what happens if you STOP feeding the crows and you have 7 large and angry crows outside your house?” 

She may be remembering a similar time when I was feeding chipmunks and one of the chipmunks ended up coming into our kitchen, presumably looking for food. (Note, chipmunks look really big in the house; crows probably look even bigger.)

Further Conclusions:

  • ·      Crows are very smart and definitely recognize our white nondescript station wagon, but they do not seem to recognize our dark blue even-more-nondescript sedan.
  • ·      We think the Gang of Seven recognizes us, too, because they turn around to look at us when we’re walking at the recreation area.
  • ·      Crows are very shy. Most of them fly away as soon as our back door opens—however, there is one larger crow that I’m convinced recognizes me because he/she does not fly away when I come out the door but instead sits and watches me.
  • ·      Putting peanuts in your yard will attract crows but will also attract squirrels, chipmunks, and Blue Jays (also in the crow (Corvid) family).  All of these are less shy than crows, and will come to get peanuts while we are in the yard (crows will not).
  • ·      MEH can drive and shoot videos (backwards!) at the same time—this is not a recommended activity but he only does this on a dirt road when no other cars are around.
  • ·      Many people we’ve talked to about what we’re doing have said they don’t like and/or are afraid of crows (some associate them with danger, death, Poe, or The Bob Newhart Show).
  • ·      Dogs (at least our dog Abby) love peanuts and will eat them shells and all (crows do not eat the shells).
  • ·      Peanuts are scarce this year because of drought conditions experienced in the south—and this has driven up their price (peanuts are expensive).
Opportunities for Further Research

We still don’t know with absolute certainty that the crows we see at the softball field (the so-called Gang of Seven) are the same crows that come to our house for peanuts. Casual observation indicates they are: we see them first thing in the morning at home; then when we arrive at the recreation area (about 1.5 miles from our house as the crow flies), they arrive about 5 minutes after we get there by car. MEH says the only way we’d know for sure is if we wore a cave man mask and banded them. (Note, if you don’t know about why we would choose a cave man mask, read about that here.)

Comic Relief

This audio recording made me laugh when I listened to it, and I thought I’d embarrass myself (even) further by sharing it with one or a trillion Internet users. (Don’t worry, my eye is fine.)

Crow Log Comic Relief (mp3)

The Great Crow Experiment, Part 1


The hypothesis of this experiment is that Corvus brachyrhynchos (American Crow) has the ability to recognize individual people and individual cars.

As previously reported in MEH and the Crows (citation: wordsxo) and Science News (citation: Science News), American Crows are extremely intelligent animals. MEH (My Engineer Husband) read an article in Science News about a crow researcher who would occasionally fling peanuts and/or dogfood out her car window to stir up crow activity. After she sold her car, the new owner called and asked her why a crow was following her to work. The researcher then realized that crows recognize not just individual humans but also individual cars. By the way, the car’s new owner didn’t mind the crow following, instead just “provisioned her car with peanuts for the occasional fling.”
MEH suggested we try an experiment of our own and test the theory ourselves. This was an easy task because there are a lot of crows at the nearby park and recreation center where we walk our dog once in the morning and again in the evening.

And so it was, about two months ago MEH purchased a large bag of peanuts (a preferred crow food) and we started feeding the crows—from our car and when on foot while walking the dog.

* Peanuts
* Camera
* Video Camera
* iPhone Audio recorder (we made daily audio “Crow Logs,”  like the one you can listen to at the end of this post!!)
* The car (white non-descript station wagon)
* Ourselves (MEH and Julia)
Method and Procedure

The experiment entailed a four-pronged method:

1. Placing peanuts twice a day at specific spots around the softball field at the recreation area: specifically at portions of the fence we have called “faux gates” (because they are shorter segments so they look like gates and we decided the crows might easily see them from the air).

2. Placing peanuts on the fence posts at the recreation area.

3. Flinging peanuts out the car windows (when crows are present) as we drive away from the recreation area as well as other places we see crows.

4. Throwing peanuts in our driveway if and when we notice crows in our yard or following us home.

Crow Log November 14, 2011 (mp3)LISTEN HERE for a preview of results!!

Next blog post (Thursday): Results and Conclusions

Goose, Goose, Goose, Goose, Crow

(Sunday, November 13, 2011, 7:14 a.m. EST, 44 degrees F)

Our lovely stretch of weather continues! And in addition to the lovely scenery, this video provides a rare opportunity to hear the voice behind wordsxo. Yes, at about 37 seconds into the video, I have a very brief conversation with a passer-by, and you cannot avoid hearing my voice. 
“Pepper Pete” in better days.

Aside from this novelty, primarily geese and ducks dominate this week’s video! Also—more notably to MEH (My Engineer Husband) and me—you will see a crow fly through the video toward the end. We’re big crow fans; you can read about that in the post I wrote about MEH and the crows. And watch for more posts about crows coming up very soon!

Meanwhile in the garden…. You may recall the large potted pepper plant, nicknamed “Pepper Pete.” We had hopes of wintering the plant in the house and putting it back outside next spring. But a few days ago we discovered “Pepper Pete” is infested with aphids. So “he” has been put out to pasture on the porch. There are still peppers to harvest, and the weather has been mild enough that we may still get a few peppers! In mid-November in Maine, this is unheard of, at least in this gardening family!

Our other news is that we’ve been getting the bird feeding station ready for winter—squirrel proofing it—and putting out suet and thistle, too. We also put out corn for the squirrels and chipmunks, because I’m a fan of all woodland creatures!

This was the birdfeeder yesterday before we squirrel-proofed it. “Mr. Grackles,” as we call all
squirrels, could empty this of seeds in a day. This is the view I see out the window over my desk.

But don’t worry, Mr. Grackles is still being well fed! 


Canada Geese Take Flight on Casco Bay

(Sunday, October 23, 2011, 7:32 a.m. EST, 40 degrees F)

This morning we timed it to get to the beach overlook a little after sunrise. A few weeks ago I was there at sunset, and the sun reflected oranges and yellows on the water. It was beautiful! It was high tide, and I was hoping to capture the rising sun on the water and the same effect as I observed a few weeks ago.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out quite the way I planned, and although the video is beautiful (and I love the flying Canada Geese!) it wasn’t quite the finished product I was hoping for. As always, I do my best to plan and predict how the “video shoot” will go—to do that I always check the tide table the day before—and decide whether I want to take a video at low-, mid-, or high-tide. Then I check the time of sunrise and sunset.

But still, sometimes I can’t pull off a video I’m pleased with. And that’s how it goes in writing, editing, and in life too—no matter how much we plan and try to make things happen a certain way, reality often intervenes.

Today it was the non-reflective water, a guy sitting nearby in his truck playing loud music (at sunrise! I don’t think you can hear it on the video), lots of cars going by so it was hard to squeeze in a video when a car wasn’t going by (we stayed there for 10 minutes to get about 40 seconds of video), and finally the battery going dead on the video camera so I had to stick with a piece of footage I was less than thrilled with instead of trying again.

This week with my WIP it was the same way: I planned and thought I could predict how things would go. I had everything all set up on the dining room table. But when it came right down to it, I was distracted and had lots of things to take care of in my house and in my life. So the editing of my manuscript had to take a back seat.

This afternoon I’ll sit down with my notebook and try to make a realistic plan for the upcoming week—building in room for distractions and unexpected things that may need my attention. Then tomorrow I’ll sit down and try a little harder.

And meanwhile…. Autumn continues to wane, with the leaves “past peak,” we’re starting to see a lot more bare branches, a reminder that winter is just around the corner!

The Case of the Distractible Writer

The dog toy basket on the porch
(note the new, orange, toy)

One of the hazards of working at home is the distractions. This is true on any given day for any given work-at-home writer. Plenty of distractions.

Doing the laundry when editing awaits. Walking the dog even though you haven’t finished your blog post. Vacuuming when you know you should be finishing a draft. Cleaning the bathroom when all else fails.

But those are the normal garden-variety distractions. Yesterday I was all set to have a productive day of editing at the dining room table. But it was not to be. Yesterday was different.

First there was the dog toy. We went to take the dog for her morning walk and when we went to get “that toy,” the one she must take every morning, it was gone. Someone, some dog must have removed it from the basket on the porch where we leave it after every walk. Abby smelled all over the porch and then kept looking up at MEH (My Engineer Husband), as if to say: “Can’t you do something?”

He couldn’t and neither could I. And I was annoyed—what animal or person comes and takes a dog toy off a porch, out of a basket? And Abby, normally very easy going, was distracted on her walk. And in the car on the way home from the dog walk woods she let us know:

“Ruff ruff grrr grrr ruff ruff growl?” (roughly translated to “who took my damn toy?”)

I had no answers. And yesterday afternoon I had to go to Planet Dog and bought a new toy.

Later, after MEH left for work, I was sitting in my office—on the other side of the house from the kitchen/great roomand I heard a noise: a scrabbling-climbing kind of noise, like scraping toe-nails on wire. (Believe me I now know what scraping toe-nails on wire sounds like.) So of course I went to investigate—toe-nails on wire, for goodness sake! And I found—sawreally—a squirrel climbing up the outside of the window screen. A first. I mean the window is five feet off the ground.

The squirrel 
I did what any writer/blogger would do: I snapped a photo with my iPhone, of course.

Then? Back to work. A few minutes later, I heard a thud against a window in the laundry room. Again, I rushed to investigate. A bird had flown into the window (no, not through the window, against the glass)—and the small bird was lying outside on the grass. This always rattles me, I don’t like seeing injured animals. I went back and forced myself to concentrate on the editing at hand.

Another hour later, I heard a big crash—also from the laundry room. I go in to find the iron has fallen off the shelf where I keep it. But it hasn’t only fallen, it seems that it has leaped to the floor in some botched attempt to escape. It is now positioned on the floor about 2 feet from the shelf where I keep it, halfway to the washing machine. Is this even possible? I call MEH at work, and he muses: Maybe the ghost of Mr. Able?

But there was some good news from that trip to the laundry room: the bird was no longer lying under the window. Either it had come-to and flown away (of course, what I’m hoping) or some cat/dog/squirrel/other bird/chipmunk/person (maybe even one and the same with the dog-toy-taker?) had taken it away.

Of course by now it was time to walk the dog again. Now that she’s almost-10 she’s figured out my rhythms as a writer, and I’m absolutely certain she knows when I am the most immersed in my work (this was not one of those times, obviously!).

Does this toy belong to anyone you know?
But yesterday it may have been this… when we got outside, there in the middle of the driveway was a stuffed animal—and Abby went over to it immediately. Perhaps she heard a small child passing by in a stroller or car, calling to its mother, in some language only understood by small children and dogs:

“Gaga googie m-otha-gy stuf-otha-g fe-d ani-otha-g mal fe-otha-gll do otha-g-own. SHEESH!”

Loosely translated: “Mom, wait, I dropped my toy in that driveway! SHEESH!”

Obviously after Abby heard the plea, she alerted me in her doggie way, the only way she knew how. Pretending she had to pee. Since no child was in sight, I moved the toy to safety at the edge of the driveway where parent and child will notice it on their next trip by!

And then of course Abby pulled me down the driveway and we went on a walk—by then she had to save face and really pee, right? And why not let her take the peeing-pretense one last step? What else would a distractable writer like me do? On my way around the block, I got a pretty good idea for a blog today, and by the time I got home I wondered… is distractable spelled with an “a” or an “i”?

It doesn’t really matter, because I’m plenty distractable or distractible, however it’s spelled, believe you me.

Are you distractible? Here’s some actual scientific information I found while researching this highly-distracting post!


Quiet Stillness on the Coast of Maine

Sunday, September 11, 2011, 7:50 a.m. EST, 50 degrees F

For the first time this late summer, it was colder than 50F degrees when we got up to take the dog for a walk. I’m here to say that 48.9F feels pretty cold after a hotter-than-average summer, and I’m a little nervous about the impending winter.

By the time we got to the bridge overlook it was just 50 degrees on the water. A beautiful, glorious clear day with almost no clouds in the sky. The video is remarkable by its uneventfulness.

We talked to two birders today (first ones we’ve encountered on these Sunday mornings!): one, a young man on the bridge with binoculars and a camera with a long telephoto lens—photographing “migratory birds” he said. I asked him what kind, and he simply responded: “oh, loads.” The woman, who we met on the way down to the beach (we took our dog down to walk by the water), when asked if she’d seen anything interesting, first said…. “oh, a little,” and then casually commented on a “Pileated” (Woodpecker) that was exhibiting “weird behavior.”

I found it mildly intriguing that for the first time in seven months we met our first birders by the bridge—and this time two of them—and both independently were looking in the same direction and seemed to be purposeful in their activities. Yet both were vague with what they were looking for when we asked them and were not very specific in what they had seen. My vivid writer’s imagination kicked into overdrive.

Meanwhile in the garden….wabi-sabi is setting in, and I am trying to enjoy the late-summer overgrown and fading garden. We continue to harvest eggplant, beans, tomatoes, and many other vegetables. We made two large pots of tomato sauce this week. And we will harvest apples from our apple tree for the first time since we moved into the house more than 10 years ago—for some reason it’s apparently a good year for apples!

The row of sunflowers outside our living room window is now about 9 feet tall!

Foggy Morning Birdlife on the Coast of Maine

Sunday, August 21, 2011, 8:40 a.m. EST, 68 degrees F

The day started out with pea-soup fog. I wanted to capture a sunrise in the video because they’ve been so beautiful lately, but at 5:30 on the foggy dog walk this morning I realized there was no hope. Instead, we waited until later this morning, mid-tide, and went to the bridge overlook as the fog began to burn off. And what a reward for our waiting: just as we arrived we saw an osprey diving toward the water.

Minutes later, as we began the video a large bird, I assume a gull, lands at the very end of the point. Then about 30 seconds into the video, a Great Blue Heron flies into view and lands right next to the large bird. What an amazing, beautiful, and peaceful morning video punctuated only by the sound of a solo runner, one car, and me snapping photos in the background. This is one of my favorite videos we’ve shot because it really captures the feeling, sights, and sounds of the place: its stillness yet life.

And meanwhile in the garden…. it’s looking like late summer. Unfortunately many of the plants (black-eyed Susans, squash, pumpkin, beans, and even the tomatoes) have developed some “late blight” and other mildews—which generally means the plant will die. Harvests have been way down this year as compared to last. Still, we ate our first eggplant this week, and we are harvesting lots of tomatoes, spring onions, a few pole beans, kale, the last of the zucchini, and a few small turnips.

In the photo of the garden this week, the morning glories—volunteers from last year—have made it to the top of the basketball hoop. I love this photo because it represents the perfect garden to me, a mixture of flowers and vegetables, natural yet slightly structured. I also love having the basketball hoop as a garden framework because of the memories it invokes of happy family games.


Two Weeks with my Grandmother

Black-eyed Susan

As a child I moved frequently. My parents busily pursuing their careers as college professors—including year-long trips to Kenya and Belize where they conducted research—we moved from place-to-place. It may sound glamorous—but to a child? This child? I had no place to call home.

The closest I ever felt to home was with my grandmother at her house in Poland, Ohio, on the banks of the Yellow Creek. A quick walk across the bridge to every small-town amenity you would ever need—thank goodness, because Grandma (“Ohio Grandma” as we called her) didn’t drive. We walked all over town together: Isley’s Ice Cream, the post office, the small grocery, the library across the creek, her neighbor Mr. Steinfield’s house with all its clocks. She was from a different age and time, and when I was with her, I wished and hoped with all my might that her life would be mine.

Her house on the banks of the Yellow Creek was surrounded by gardens: vegetable, flowers, fruit, lush vegetation. Everywhere some small plant was tucked, a lovely flower or delicious berry treat. And it was here, in her beautiful world, I learned gardening basics: what plants grew where and how to care for them. To this day I cannot see some of her favorites—Black-eyed Susan, Lunaria (money plant), Swiss Chard, or Queen Anne’s Lace—without thinking of her.

Queen Anne’s Lace
But more, my grandmother taught me about what growing things need: vegetables and flowers, small woodland animals, and people too.

Every night I would lie, safely tucked into the small Jenny Lind bed in the tiny bedroom under the eaves—and I felt like one of her little plants: safe and secure. My bedroom window looked out over Main Street as well as the bridge over the creek. As I lay in bed, I could hear cars rattle over the bridge and trace their headlights across the flowered wallpaper, the same wallpaper my mother grew up with. With each set of headlights, I’d wish with all my might that it really truly was my home.

In the morning, we’d sit and eat our toast at her kitchen table. Together we’d watch the birds on the birdfeeder outside the window. She loved all the birds that came to the feeder (and even the squirrels that raided it, too!) and so began my lifelong interest in birds. Chickadees, Jays, and Cardinals—these favorites remind me of her.

Later, after a day of gardening and building dams in the small creek, we walked into the small village of Poland.  Hand-in-hand, down Main Street toward the center of town, my grandmother would stop to greet each person by name and introduce them to her granddaughter. As we walked she told me stories about my mother when she was my age, about her friends and all their adventures.

For two glorious weeks each summer I was lucky enough to be a part of my grandmother’s life. And during those two weeks she taught me about gardening, bird watching, cooking, and a little bit about life, too. 

But mostly? She taught me about home. 

Do you have special memories of your grandparents? Of things they taught you? Are there places or things you associate with home? How do these feelings or memories affect your writing?



The Great 12-hour Bird-Watching Adventure

It all started with this pretty little American Robin

It all started on our regular morning dog walk, with the picture I took of an American Robin sitting on a fence. Photo time stamp 6:06 a.m.

“I’ll post it on Twitter,” I said to MEH (My Engineer Husband). “The bird group will love it.” (I have a group of bird watching friends on Twitter—we exchange bird photos and stories.)

And that, thought I, was that, for the bird watching of the day. But boy was I wrong. We went about our Sunday business: the video of the beach overlook followed by breakfast out, then a little gardening, a little lawn mowing, a little work on the WIP (I kid you not, I really did!). Everywhere we went we saw birds: at the beach lots of ducks and shorebirds, more robins at home, but nothing out of the ordinary or noteworthy.

But all that changed at (approximately, no time stamp) 3:15 p.m. when we left to mail a Netflix video and go on a Walmart run. As we drove through the post office drive-thru lane, that’s when we saw them: a few birds in the grass—birds that looked totally unfamiliar to me. (I’m a pretty big bird watcher; so it’s rare to see something completely new.) One was a beautiful black and white robin-sized bird. The other two were gray and streaked with gray. We stopped the car to look. The birds obligingly stayed right where we could see them.

“What is it?” I said. “If only we brought the camera!” We both lamented the fact as we drove away; MEH suggested we come back later. Because, we discussed, while laughing, it’s not like a bird couldn’t go anywhere else.

At Walmart, as we entered the store, I glanced over my shoulder. A lone seagull sat on top of a car, not 30 feet from the store entrance! I pointed it out to MEH, we laughed, and went in the store.

An hour and a half later we returned home to pick up the dog for the afternoon dog walk.

The Eastern Kingbird, beautiful!
“Let’s take the camera,” MEH said. “We’ll go look for the bird at the post office first.”

I agreed, thinking there was no possible way we’d see it, but—just in case—I also grabbed the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America(my go to bird book these days) and my binoculars.

We drove around the post office to no avail. No birds at all. We drove to nearby buildings and parking lots, nothing. We spent about 10 minutes looking—until finally we spotted two birds darting through the bushes near the post office. MEH followed in quick pursuit, ending up in the exact spot where we’d seen the birds that morning.

The Mystery Bird…to be continued?
And right in front of us, at 5:18 p.m. (photo time stamp), on a stake in the ground, sat the bird. I quickly took several pictures then opened the bird book and started looking. It was an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). A bird that I really hadn’t ever seen!

Next we spotted the gray streaked bird, sitting on top of a very high light post. We tried to get a good photo—we couldn’t. And because I had to look into the sun, I couldn’t even see it well with the binoculars. This bird will remain a mystery.

The Osprey (click to enlarge)
But while I was trying to get a good look at the mystery bird, MEH spotted another bird.

“Is that an Osprey?” He said, pointing up toward the sky. And sure enough it was. The Ospredy (Pandion haliaetus) is fairly common in Maine now—but I always get a thrill to see this bird that rebounded from near-extinction in the late 1900s.

We left the post office, ecstatic bird-watchers, and we headed for the area we always walk the dog, where we’d seen the robin earlier in the day.

The Killdeer let MEH get pretty close
From the second we arrived we were surrounded by birds! First crows. Then more robins, then Killdeer (Characrius vociferus). As indicated by their Latin name, Killdeer are notorious for being very loud, usually to distract people from their nesting areas or babies. MEH walked as close as he could—pretty close!—to get a photo of the Killdeer who was doing its best to lure us away from a fledgling Killdeer we saw nearby.

(Click to enlarge)
Zoom in to see the burger in this gull’s mouth!
As we got back in the car, we agreed we’d had quite the birding day. But we spoke too soon—a crow swooped down right near the hood of our car, with a large piece of hamburger bun or sandwich in its beak. It was too fast for us to take a picture, but then, just as quickly, a seagull mobbed the crow and they fought briefly mid-air—and the seagull emerged the victor—flying away with the hamburger in its mouth! I got a picture (a little blurry, but still!).
As we drove away, we looked across the street at the herd of cows that lives nearby—just as a large flock of starlings flew around them, creating a cloud of birds. We stopped so I could get a picture, but before I could, the birds all settled down in the field.

As we sat there by the side of the road, I noticed a bright yellow spot in the nearby tall grass—an American Goldfinch (Carduelis trista). And MEH snapped a photo—at  6:06 p.m. (photo time stamp)—exactly 12 hours after I took the photo of the robin! 

The bright yellow spot: an American Goldfinch
We drove home, happily reminiscing about our accidental 12-hour bird-watching adventure!

Do you ever have unexpected adventures as you go about your regular day? Do they inspire your writing and give you new ideas to write about?

Cheers, Julia

Video Bird Watching on the Coast of Maine

Sunday, July 3, 2011, 6:14 a.m. EST, 65 degrees F

This morning we were at the beach overlook very early and at low tide—a light fog cast a magical light on everything. The bird life was amazing with more birds than I can ever remember seeing there. We saw many different gulls and ducks, and we could hear but didn’t see songbirds.

The morning’s highlight, however, were three Great Blue Herons (scientific name Ardea herodias; affectionately dubbed GBH by bird watchers). You can (very faintly) see one of these GBHs in the video, just off shore on the left side above the tree. The GBH is the largest wading bird in Maine, but it is found almost everywhere in the United States. Its wingspan is about 4 feet—and if you’re lucky enough to see one of these birds (flying or wading), they are mesmerizing.

Ardea herodias, Great Blue Heron

I was also pretty surprised to see two beach visitors I’ve never before seen: crows and a chipmunk! The chipmunk ran right down to the water!—and since they are omnivores, I wonder if it was looking for shellfish?

The new seedlings surrounded by magenta yarrow (far left),
yellow coreopsis, right, and blue-purple violas (back right);
Siberian irises are in the back (spiky foliage)

Meanwhile in the garden… yesterday we planted some new annuals in the perennial flower bed (to add a little mid-summer color): margeurite daisy seedlings, gerber daisy seedlings, and zinnia and larkspur seeds.

Happy Easter Video from the Coast of Maine

Sunday, April 24, 2011, 7:30 a.m. EST, 46 degrees F

A beautiful tranquil start to the day on the bridge overlook: mid-tide with calm waters. It was foggy first thing this morning, but the fog is clearing and it looks like it will become a bright sunny day. There are birds and ducks of many kinds, swimming and flying; and you can hear a song sparrow singing in the background, just off camera! For the first time, we are starting to see the boat moorings out, but no boats yet. (p.s. I accidentally bumped the video camera while I was videotaping, sorry about the brief shaking!)

Field Journal Memories and the Writing Life

Downy Woodpecker in the Maine woods

When I first started college, I majored in Zoology—I was pre-med, but I had to take a lot of Zoology courses, including Ornithology, Invertebrate Zoology, and Vertebrate Zoology.

Of these required classes, Ornithology (the study of birds) was my favorite. We were required to keep a field journal; and we recorded all our observations of everything-bird in this small loose-leaf notebook. We used waterproof ink with a special Rapidograph pen. There was a routine and a method to how we kept notes. And along with the notebook, in our backpacks, we always kept binoculars and the Roger Tory Peterson Guide to Birds.

I was reminded of that class this morning on our walk at the Dog Woods Trail—as I always am when I consciously take time to observe a bird. We first heard, then spotted, a woodpecker high in a dead tree. Thanks to my camera’s telephoto lens, I was able to identify the bird as a male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens).

Hairy Woodpecker in Pennsylvania
Last week when we were in Pennsylvania, I saw another similar woodpecker, which I’m pretty sure was a female Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus); my identification skills (and eyesight) are not what they once were, so I won’t commit 100% to the Pennsylvania identification, just in case a bird watcher is reading this post! The two woodpeckers are very similar, with their overall size difference and the size of their beaks being the major ways to tell them apart. We were also lucky enough to get a photo of a male Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus); we don’t have these birds in Maine!

Red-bellied Woodpecker in Pennsylvania
Identifying birds requires careful attention and observation of the “topography” of the bird, anything from beak to eye-ring to what color feathers are where—and more. One of the ways to get good at identification is through field trips to observe birds in their natural habitat.

And one of the very best parts of the Ornithology class was the weekly field trips—when we were required to observe birds and record that information in our journals. It was excellent training for writing: first, pre-field-trip preparation of research and required materials, then fine-tuned observational skills in the field, and finally writing exact descriptions, making sketches, and cross-referencing information. I use these same skills everyday in my writing life.

Sometimes we would go on an early-morning field trip to hear the “dawn chorus.” This waking-up time of the bird-day is amazing to witness. Standing in the dark, all together, clumped around the professor, we students waited for the first song of the morning—distinctly alone, that first song could be easily identified. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the very first song I ever heard in the dawn chorus, but it was probably a larger-eyed bird species. (I recently read that larger-eyed birds sing earlier in the morning than smaller-eyed species, possibly because they can begin to see sooner in the ambient light!)

These days, ornithology—or “birding”—has become a favorite, almost-automatic hobby, second nature to my daily life. Although I don’t always make the conscious choice to stop and observe, I am always attuned to the sounds of birds around me: the rustle in the underbrush, the songs, the small darting colors.

And I often think of that notebook and the thoroughness of its contents and analysis, and the skills of observation and recording that it helped me to hone.

What are some of the writing skills you learned from non-writing classes or endeavors? Do you think about these experiences during your writing day as you use the skills? Are you, like I am, a bird watcher?