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?



Photos + root canal + hornets = book?

What on earth do multiple hornet stings, bathroom renovation, root canals, and binge TV watching have to do with writing a book? Find out today on my post at Writer Unboxed, “Cooking a Book.”

I also talk about photography. While I’m waiting for my next story to come together in my mind, I’ve been taking lots and lots of photos (which you already know if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram).

Here are a few I’ve taken in the past few days. Hope you’re all having a wonderful summer!


We had a lot of fog lately… this was the day after it lifted



As the fog rolled out…sun rolled in



I love visiting docks in the early morning when the water is glassy



Cousins Island Beach last night (iPhone photo)




Inspiration as Far as the Eye Can See


Boats as far as the eye can see…

Our house is about five minutes from the coast. If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know that for the first year I was blogging, I posted weekly videos of a nearby town beach on Cousins Island, a small island accessible by bridge. (All those videos are still on youtube!)

I stopped posting those videos (I think the winter did us in—that is, MEH (My Engineer Husband) and me—it was just too cold to stand out there in the bitter wind, week after week.), but I still go someplace on the water almost every day—either to take photos for Instagram or just to enjoy the view and observe the activity and wildlife and sometimes just the smell of the water.

photo 3 copy

A lobsterman rows to his boat

Most mornings these days I’ve been going to the Falmouth Town Landing. What I love about the landing is that it’s home to commercial fishermen in addition to pleasure boats. In fact, it’s one of the largest boat “parking lots” in Maine, with over 1,110 boats at peak season.


Lobster traps on tidal flats (at high tide water will go almost all the way to the old boat house in the background)

I never know what I’ll see when I get there—baby ducks and lots of shore birds, people setting off on their sail boats, lobster boats, someone unloading bait for the day’s fishing, dinghies, dogs swimming in the water, children exploring the tidepools, and lots and lots of boats…and that’s just scraping the surface. This morning was no different.


The captain of the Nicolle Marie readies for a day of lobstering

It was busier than I’d ever seen it. Lobstermen were loading traps onto boats (the tourist season is heating up). I talked to a few of them about their day (and mine…we’ve had a lot of clouds and rain lately and they all commented on what great weather it is for photography).

After an hour at the dock I was (kind of) ready to come home to tackle the writing day… although I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there is a part of me that wishes I could stay all day to watch and soak in not just the sun but the flavor of life on the dock. One of these days I just might!

What are some of your favorite places to go for inspiration?



p.s. If you’re on Instagram and want to follow me (or even if you aren’t on Instagram, and you just want to check out my photo gallery) I’m @juliamunroemartin





Slowing Down to Notice

photo 1

The inlet MEH and I were driving by….

The other day I realized that I haven’t blogged recently about Maine—about the natural beauty of the area where I live. This was followed quickly by the realization that I barely notice where I am. Truth is, there are whole days and probably even weeks that go by when I rarely think about my natural surroundings at all.

The small town I live in is located in southern Maine, on a small harbor on Casco Bay. A beautiful river runs through town (at the current time its banks are steeped in autumn colors) and it’s a short hop to the coast, to the bridge where I used to take videos every Sunday during the first year of this blog.

In August, when I was writing at a local coffee shop every morning, I’d leave for home at around noon. One day, instead of heading straight home (a five minute drive), I headed east, toward the bridge where I used to shoot those videos. I crossed the bridge and got out of the car and just stood, smelling the salt air and marveling at the beauty I rarely thought of on most days.

For a while, I’d drive out there everyday. Finish writing and visit the bridge. Just stand there and notice. It felt great. Not so much what I was seeing, but the fact that I was seeing. I was slowing down enough to see, to notice.

Like most of us, I got busy again. I think one day I had to go to the store immediately after the coffee shop or I was meeting a friend—I’m not sure which. Then MEH (My Engineer Husband) lost his job and I got really distracted. (You can read about that here on Writer Unboxed.)

photo 2

A few minutes later…

Then the other day MEH and I were coming back from Portland—about twenty minutes from our small town—and MEH was driving while I looked out the car window, and I noticed we were crossing a small inlet. I asked MEH… was he like me? Were there times he didn’t even notice? Yes, he said, many. And we just marveled. At where we live, at the things we drive by almost everyday. At the natural beauty surrounding us.

The more I paid attention, the more I noticed…the small things, the nuances. The more I noticed the better I felt. More connected to my surroundings but also to the moment. More aware. More alive. Better. Just noticing, just knowing, that out there—outside myself—is a whole big world. Of beauty, of nature, of nuances, of life.

And it reminded me that I really need to pay attention and to slow down enough to just notice.

Do you, like me, sometimes go through life blindly without even noticing your surroundings? How do you get yourself to slow down enough to see, to appreciate? I’d love to hear your ideas!



The desert is a wonderland


My first view of Melissa’s amazing desert location. Note the trestle bridge in the background–I had to see this landmark Melissa frequently writes about!

There are certain things I’ll miss for a long, long time about my roadtrip across the country. For one thing, the week in the car with my daughter. For another, the endless hours and miles to think.

But something else, too. I’ve spent a lot of my life in the plains and in the desert—I grew up in California and lived in Colorado, too, and I’ve even lived on the savanna of Kenya. When I moved to Maine I thought I wouldn’t miss anything about the relative dryness, and I never thought about it again, in fact I embraced and loved the green of Maine, the trees and the forests.


The view from Rojo Diablo on our first outing in the desert. Gorgeous.

As I drove across the country, though, farther and farther west, I started remembering the beauty of the plains. The golden fields of grass blowing in the breeze, the wide-open feeling, the big skies.

“Aren’t the skies big?” I asked my daughter in South Dakota. I marveled at the stretch of blue from horizon to horizon, with no mountains or trees in sight. In Maine you could never see that far—all those trees get in the way.


A trip to Melissa’s neck of the desert would not be complete without seeing the mighty Saguaro…it was the first thing I read about on her blog…and they are an amazing sight to see!

But it wasn’t until I left Shary and Lola and headed into the desert, to blogging/Twitter friend Melissa Crytzer Fry’s, that I really realized how much I missed the southwest. When I was a kid, we’d visit my Aunt May on her date (the fruit) ranch in the Arizona desert, and I hadn’t been there except to drive through since then. I had been looking forward to the visit—in fact, from the day I first talked to my daughter about driving west, I knew I’d be visiting Melissa. We’d been talking about it, how fun it would be to meet in person after being friends online for almost three years. We’ve talked about how our two locations couldn’t be much different: the lush green coast of Maine and the hot dry desert.



Melissa and I share a love of nature, though, and I couldn’t wait to see the desert sights she’d been writing about on her blog, on Twitter, and in her emails: the hummingbird nest, the Saguaros, the trestle bridge, the desert birds and reptiles and mammals, the mountains, the rocks, the old ranches and fences, her desert vehicles—Betty and Rojo Diablo. There was so much to see, and I only had one day to squeeze it all in. And of course, there was also the talking. I knew we’d need about 24 hours for that alone.

I wasn’t wrong. About the chatting or about squeezing it all in. We met at a restaurant about 40 minutes from Melissa’s house, and from the moment I stepped out of my car, Melissa out of her truck, we talked nonstop: about the waitress (see Melissa’s blog about our first meeting, our first conversation, the “mystery” we found in short order—like only writers can), about books, about writing, about the desert, about everything. I even had a chance to meet and get to know her wonderful husband (he made an amazing dinner from the crockpot flank steak Melissa cooked).


I love this shot–really captures the feel of the morning when we saw the owls–if you look very closely (click to enlarge), you can see one of the owls on the hillside, next to the third bush from the left (counting from the base of the hillside).

But the highlight of the visit—as I knew it would be—were our outings in first Rojo Diablo (her red Polaris Ranger) and then Betty (yes, we talked—and laughed) the whole time during these outings, too. I have to admit, I was a bit timid in Rojo at first, worried about both speed and incline, so I put on my seatbelt (we laughed about that…), but I quickly got more comfortable and only occasionally held onto the handle above my head…right, Melissa? Riding around her beautiful property, Melissa showed me the plants and birds of the desert. We saw an amazing variety of vegetation: the mighty Saguaros, the hard-to-pick-out Night Cereus, the frightening Cholla with its dangerous burrs, the delicate paloverde. But it was the animal life that really stood out… at one point I heard Melissa scream then felt Rojo surge forward as she stepped on the gas, yelling something about “Rattlesnake!” That’s all I needed to grip her arm. Hey, I thought it had leapt into Rojo!

I told Melissa I felt like I was on a desert safari and she was my guide…

The next morning we continued the safari, out early, first in Rojo, and Melissa showed me her running route (let me tell you, she is one brave woman—I might never leave my house if I lived in such a wild area!). We went further and saw five Great Horned Owls, one after another. I have only seen one owl in my life, and that was a long time ago—it was amazing and magical to watch the large birds take flight. I took a lot of photos, then I stopped. I just wanted to enjoy the moment. I wanted to remember, not with photos, but with how I felt—surrounded by the intense beauty of the desert.

Later in Betty, as the heat rose (it would reach 109 degrees that afternoon), we went first on the main roads to see Melissa’s daily haunts, then onto the back roads where we saw natural springs, more gorgeous scenery, the places Melissa hikes and camps, and the amazing geography of the area.

Then back to Melissa’s for more chatting and lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant, before I hit the road again… but not before Melissa invited me (and I promised) to return to her desert wonderland. It will stay in my heart for a long, long time.

Have you ever visited someplace after a long absence, to see it through new eyes, and come to realize how much you missed it without even realizing it? And/or have you visited a blogging friend to see the places she writes about?

Also, if you leave a comment on Melissa’s blog before midnight on Friday, you could win a copy of Desired to Death, my mystery novel!



Wisdom from my daughter

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“The Mountain Goat is not really a goat.” Somewhere in Massachusetts I read those words to my daughter, initiating one of the funniest and, perhaps, most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had with her.
We were hurtling down the Mass Pike at the time, on one of our mother-daughter road trips. These eight-hour trips have become a wonderful byproduct of her attending college many states away. We’ve had some great conversations. Some very serious, but most very, very funny. At times giddy; the giddiest are on the way home from a long semester after a very-low or no-sleep night for my daughter.

On this particular road trip our conversations had already ranged from the critical: the location of the nearest rest stop (we always talk about this oftensince copious amounts of caffeine, in many liquid forms, are consumed on every trip), why it’s against the mother-daughter code of road trip conduct to ever listen to an Adele song, how to prepare yourself for a rear-impact car accident, how to choreograph a car dance to Kelly Clarkson’s Catch My Breath, why Adam Levine was literally like the third passenger in our car, and why literally and trilla-anything (think trillasecond) are literally every other words out of either of our literal mouths.

To the more mundane: the classes she’s taking next semester (hey, I’m not a bad mom, she’s a senior in her last semester, so she’s got this nailed), a recap of our favorite holiday memories, the kind of suitcase she needs to replace the one that broke as we loaded it into the car, and reminisces of past road trips. It was a long trip, okay?

But then we got to the Mountain Goats, and like I said, it was one of my favorite ever. Turns out, like I read out loud in that NPR article, 12 Half-Truths we Live With, the Mountain Goat is not really or literally a goat. The ensuing conversation had nothing at all to do with the validity of the statement—it was not even a point of discussion—we both readily accepted it as a fact. (Although we did read the associated link explaining why the Mountain goat isn’t really a goat.)

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. Turns out (unbeknownst to me after being her mother for over 21 years), my daughter (her words): “is obsessed with how mountain goats give birth.” Literally.

I was laughing so hard when she told me just that, so I asked if I could please record the rest of her rant for posterity (and to blog about), and she agreed; thank goodness for the iPhone! She answered an emphatic “no,” however, when I asked if I could include the recording in my post, but she did agree that I could transcribe it, and here it is, literally word for word (she was driving at the time):

“…I’m concerned about the Mountain Goats giving birth because they’re just going to…I’m afraid they’re going to…what are they called, kids? Are they still called kids even though they aren’t related to goats? I’m afraid the kids are going to go shooting out of their uteruses and off the mountain. Because where on earth are they going to give birth? Have you seen pictures of where the Mountain Goats live? It’s like on these jagged edges. There’s literally nowhere to give birth to these Mountain Goats. And then what do they eat? Lichen is not very hearty or healthy, and there’s absolutely nothing except for snow, and you can’t live off of that. And also they’re just going to be toppling. How on earth can they stay balanced? They just can’t, and I think they are just too dumb to realize the imminent risk they’re in. That’s my analysis of everything… And when they fight? Oh my God. They ram their friggin’ heads into each other, and they just shoot the other one off the mountain. It’s so gruesome. It’s weird. I just get concerned.”

There. Now you know, too, why my daughter is obsessed with Mountain Goats. And neither you, nor I, would ever have known if it weren’t for that road trip. Sadly there are some things a mother just can’t make right, and this is one of them. All I could do was listen, laugh harder than I have in a long time, and do an Internet search on how Mountain Goats give birth—turns out they go “into cliffs,” as one article said, to which my daughter replied:

“That article was literally written by a fifth grader. How can you go intoa cliff?”

If there’s a takeaway, it’s this: start early taking road trips with your daughters and/or sons. There’s nothing better. You learn a lot from them and not just about Mountain Goats, take my word for it.


‘Can Do’ Tomboy Lessons

“I saw only two vehicles this day – both as I was heading home. Both men with surprised looks on their faces when they saw me.”

Today I am very happy to have Melissa Crytzer Fry as a guest on my blog! Melissa was one of the first writers I connected with in the blogosphere. We became friends over our mutual love of writing, photography, and the natural world around us—even though we see very different parts of the world: she in the middle of the desert and me on the coast of Maine. Her blog, appropriately called What I Saw—helps me really see and think about what I see every day around me. If you haven’t read it, you definitely should. It’s an amazing combination of great writing, beautiful photography, and wonderful observations about nature (and life). Please enjoy this small sample from one of my favorite bloggers… 

‘Can Do’ Tomboy Lessons by Melissa Crytzer Fry

My dad wanted boys. But when two pink-bottomed girls were placed gently into his arms two years apart, he did what any good dad would do. He loved us without hesitation.

And he did something else. He taught us that we could do anything that his boys might have done. Was he still pining for the sons he didn’t have? Maybe.

But I wouldn’t change a thing. Because, in our rural corner of Pennsylvania with its cornfields, hay bales and Holsteins, we grew up doing things that most girls wouldn’t dream. We drove tractors, chopped wood, played basketball, shot guns, rode motorcycles and drove go-karts faster than we had a right to. We dug ditches, changed spark plugs, knocked down chimneys with jackhammers and restored vintage cars.

View of Grandpa’s silos from the backyard of my childhood
 home. Grandmother’s (and grandpa’s) house was not over the
 river and through the woods. It was more like “over the
 meadow and through the cornfield.”
I wouldn’t say we were fearless. We were simply beef-fed and garden-raised tomboys, groomed for independence (even though we had boyfriends, went to prom and knew how to apply our makeup). Maybe that independent spirit guided me to Arizona in 1998, while my family remained in PA.
Maybe that same “can do” spirit led to my newest creative outlet: Jeeping. Alone*. In the remote rattlesnake-, bobcat-, scorpion- and mountain-lion-laden Sonoran desert. With my laptop.

My Jeep, Betty, takes me to a nearby natural desert spring.
This aerial view taken from a helicopter on my 40th birthday
shows the remote road I traveled during my first solo
 adventure (see photo above).
This office location in another nearby wash included
serenading by a lovely canyon wren. Betty has
ignited my creativity!
Oh – did I forget to mention that, in between Jeeping, freelancing and blogging, I’m an aspiring novelist, chasing the same publishing dream as so many others? You know: feeling a bit knocked around, bruised and bloodied over the years – but equally hopeful, optimistic and determined. Probably more of the latter. Can anyone say Taurus? Or maybe … maybe it’s that ‘can do’ attitude inadvertently drummed into my thick-skulled tomboy head by my dad?

*Of course, all of this outdoor adventure required
some refresher training at the gun range (thanks, Neighbor Mark).
And I obviously depend on my wonderfully supportive husband
 to help me learn as I go. Yep – I still need to work on tire changing,
using the Jeep winch, and even more practice with 4WD terrain.
What holds you back from reaching for those seemingly impossible dreams? Naysayers? Gender or age stereotypes? Something else? What activities might you try in pursuit of that ‘can do’ attitude?

Melissa Crytzer Fry is a freelance writer and journalist living out her writing dream in southern Arizona, among wildlife ranging from javelina, bobcats and quail to mountain lions, coyotes and Gila Monsters. She pays tribute to Arizona’s natural world on her blog, What I Saw, sharing photography and asking questions that apply to writing in particular, and life in general. Her literary novel-in-progress was named a semi-finalist in the 2011 William Faulkner William Wisdom Writing Competition. Twitter: @CrytzerFry.

As The Nest Turns

Watch live streaming video from cornellherons at livestream.com

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.

The Nature of Words

One of the things I like about my current WIP is the integral connection of nature with the main character. “Annie” moves to an island in Maine, searching for refuge and gets caught up in a mystery.

Annie spends a lot of time on the beach, walking, searching, and finding answers. In the meantime, she observes the moon and the tides and the water. And she is also working outside in the elements.

While Annie has wandered the beaches, I’ve searched the Internet and in libraries—and I’ve done a ton of research for the book. In fact, I have an entire file box full of information and background, backstory.

I’ve learned about the tides: ebbtide, flood tide, ebb and flow, high tide, low tide, clam flats—and much more—about what each of these things means. And my proximity to the coast (five minutes from the type of beaches Annie would walk on) helps me fuel my research and imagination.

And I’ve researched the stars, planets, and the cycles of the moon—I have a calendar where I’ve sketched out when high tides and low tides are and how they interact with the phases of the moon, waxing and waning, sunrise and sunset times. These heavenly changes add to the richness of Annie’s story.

In addition to these terms, I also have researched gardening and house terms—what plants bloom when on the coast, what might be left of a garden from long ago, how to insulate a house, what kind of wood is used for building—intricate details, many of which will never make it into the actual novel, but are the backdrop of Annie’s (and now my) life.

I’ve also researched the history of Maine islands and houses, of bridges and ferries, and people who have lived on the coast for centuries.

One of the reasons I started this blog was because of my love of words (wordsxo loosely translates into word love)—and every piece of research leads me to new words. Just this morning, on a final read through of my manuscript, I was looking up the words “by in large,” an expression I’ve used many times. And when I did, I found out the actual expression is “by and large,” and much to my happy surprise it is nautical in origins—from World Wide Words:

“The phrase by and large in sailors’ parlance referred to all possible points of sailing, so it came to mean “in all possible circumstances.”

And while by and large does not play a large role in my novel—in fact just three words of over 80,000—it’s a well chosen word that I hope adds interest and authenticity to my work.

Further, every word and every piece of information I’ve gathered while writing—much like the shells and sea glass my characters collect on their walks—has shaped this novel, steeped in love of not just writing and research but also love of the beauty of nature along the coast of Maine.

Are you (like me) fascinated with the origin of words? How they’ve changed in meaning over the years? Can you share examples? Writers: How are your research and word choices entwined with your main character’s personality and journey? Have you collected information and done research for your WIP that enriches your life?



Happy Holidays from the Coast of Maine

(Friday, December 23, 2011, 4:11 p.m. EST, 36 degrees F)

Hope you enjoy this last video of 2011, which I’m posting a couple of days early so we can spend Christmas Eve and Day with our family!

Happy Holidays with love from Maine,

Julia & MEH

45 Degrees of Separation

(Sunday, December 11, 2011, 7:08 a.m. EST, 22 degrees F)

Full moon setting: this photo was taken 45 degrees to
the left of where we stand to shoot the video, toward the mainland

I visit this spot on the bridge (at least) once a week. This morning we arrived at sunrise—at 22 degrees the coldest since we started to record the videos. The beauty was absolutely breathtaking, captivating, magical; so phenomenal that words truly cannot describe. A full moon setting, the subtle pinks rising and reflecting from the water, a flock of Canada geese floating on the water just out of video view.

So beautiful that, after taking the video in the usual direction, I turned the camera about 45 degrees and took another. Now you can see the more intense pinks, the flock of geese congregated and warming up before they take flight.

Despite the frigid temperature, we stood on the bridge for almost ten minutes and then we walked more, in another direction toward another vantage point, to take some still shots toward islands north of us.

When I watched the videos at home, what struck me most was the incredible stillness interrupted by the cars zooming by. I marveled at the fact that the people in those two cars (and others we didn’t record) drove by the stunning beauty without even slowing. And it made me remarkably glad that I started making the videos—so that for at least the time it takes to make the video, I am required to stand and just observe and truly see what I might otherwise pass by. And it made me wonder…..what masterpieces of nature do I drive by or take for granted every day?

Are there places and things you pass by everyday that you never really notice? Are there times you force yourself or take the time to really slow down and see and observe?


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

First Signs of Fall on the Coast of Maine

Sunday, September 4, 2011, 8:20 a.m. EST, 70 degrees F

It’s hard to believe what a difference a week makes: last week Hurricane Irene was looming and this week the water was as calm as calm can be. (However, the overall stillness of this week’s video is broken by the cars going by and a guy—out of camera view—arguing with his dog about going up the hill, away from the beach, to his car. I want to make sure to point out it’s a dog, lest you think he’s talking to a child—like I first did!)

“Pepper Pete,” as MEH (My Engineer
Husband) has nicknamed the potted
pepper plants, continues to produce
beautiful green and red peppers!

Fall is in the air. Not only are the leaves changing on some trees, including the ones within camera view, but the days are getting shorter. We hear crickets at night, the birds are flocking and starting to migrate, and school starts on Tuesday. Labor Day weekend is generally regarded as the end of tourist season in Maine, and even though we’ll still get some “outer-staters” coming in, things will start to quiet down and eventually wind down to winter.

Still, that’s a ways off, with leaf peeper season starting soon. Our peak season, when most of the leaves are at their height of color, may be earlier than the average mid-October; if you want to follow along, the state of Maine has a website with the weekly foliage report, starting on September 14.

The sadness of “late blight” on the tomatoes:
ultimately the whole plant will die, but
it’s a race between the blight and first
frost at this point!
Meanwhile in the garden….we still have as many tomatoes as we want (although unfortunately most of the plants have developed something called “late blight,” which will ultimately rot the fruit), pole beans, Swiss chard, lots of basil, winter squash, carrots, turnips, and kale. If the season lasts long enough, we may get a second crop of potatoes and hopefully some beets—it’s not been a good year for us with beets and our first planting didn’t produce even one!

What are the season changes bringing to your part of the world, if any? Does fall bring changes to your writing and household routines?


MEH and the Crows

I haven’t talked much about MEH lately—in fact, if you’re new to my blog, you might not even know what I’m talking about. MEH (My Engineer Husband) is the nickname I gave my husband when I first started my blog—because way back then (almost six months ago!), MEH was unemployed and he was around a lot. In fact, our desks are side by side, and he gave me a lot of great ideas for the blog!

The good news and the bad news is that MEH’s work is taking up a lot of time now. He’s doing software consulting for a company in the town we live in so he can ride his bike to work (he loves that) but he is gone a lot (he hates that and so do I). But the best good part is he’s making money again (we both love that).

Still, we don’t get nearly as much of a chance to discuss my blog (or even other things) together, like we used to. And that means I don’t get as much MEH-y stuff—like science (MEH loves to learn and talk about science) to blog about any more.

So imagine how thrilled I was when quite by accident I stumbled onto a MEH-y thing to blog about! It happened recently when we were outside working on the shed. (An interesting aside, and this is very exciting: we got a new shed! I know, for some of you this will sound really really lame, but not if you live in the Northeast. Here in the Northeast—Maine in particular—we take our sheds very seriously. So, when a neighbor offered us a free shed, we jumped at the chance.)

This is how it all started…

And that’s how this particular adventure started. All we had to do was transport the shed from her house to ours….which we did (well, we didn’t do it; we hired an excavator to do it). Moving the shed is in itself a MEH-y thing because MEH likes to consider all the possibilities, like using large logs to roll the shed from said-neighbor’s house to ours or using a friend’s truck to tow the shed to our house—but in the end we hired an excavator with a front-end loader.

But wait, here’s the good part! As MEH was re-attaching the ramp to the shed, a crow flew over us. And as it flew over, it did a most peculiar thing, it turned its head all the way upside down! Now, you really think I’m off my rocker. What is she talking about?

Let me break it down. A few months ago, MEH told me that crows are really really smart. Apparently they are so smart they recognize INDIVIDUAL humans. And they “tell” their baby crow chicks which humans are bad and which humans are good. So, if someone does something mean to a crow, like shoot at it or capture it to put a tag on its leg, that crow will remember and make sure other crows know you’re a bad human.

John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, verified this by testing crows to see if they really remembered individual humans—he did this by putting a caveman mask on people. First, someone wore the caveman mask when tagging wild crows. Then he put the same mask on random people walking across a college campus. Crows cawed at people with the mask on! When he had people wear the mask upside down, he found that some crows flew upside down to see if they recognized that person.

“Is that the guy Mom told me about?”
(One of our many crow pics; MEH likes this one
because the crow was staring right at him!)

Which is exactly what the crow was doing with MEH. And here’s why: they know that MEH likes them. For one thing, he feeds them—with corn in our backyard—and he also photographs them. And, everyday when we go out for our early morning and late afternoon dog walks to the open space near our home, we see crows. Often they fly toward us rather than away from us. We (and specifically MEH) think they know MEH feeds them and likes to take photos of them. (On the days they fly away, crows are allowed bad moods or to be shy, right?!)

But I think there’s more…I think the crows may know that MEH respects and likes crows: partly, he does because they’re so smart, partly because they enjoy flying and play while they’re flying (MEH has a private pilot’s license and loves flying—a plane). Partly because “crows are pretty cool” because they use tools.

That’s right. Crows use tools—MEH told me this too. If a glass is half full of water and there’s something a crow wants that is floating on the water—way down inside the glass and its beak won’t reach—a crow will drop pebbles in the glass, causing the object to rise to the surface so the crow can get it.

But back to MEH….and the upside down crow. I’m thinking all those crows out there are teaching their babies what a great guy he is. And that’s why that crow turned its head upside down to get a good look at him. The crow couldn’t believe it: finally getting a look at the good-hearted friend of crows he’d heard so much about from his momma bird!

Have you had an experience with a crow recognizing you? How about another bird (apparently at least pigeons and mockingbirds recognize humans, too!)? And if you see any crows flying upside down, now you’ll know why!



p.s. I got some of this information from a story on NPR about crows and face recognition—and with the story there’s a cool quiz to see if you can tell crows apart as well as a crow could pick MEH (or you) out of a crowd. You can see that story and quiz here.

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

wordsxo Hits the Road!

Jimmy the horse 

I just wrote my first guest blog. I’m so excited!

Last weekend, MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I got in the car: me with my camera and handy reporter’s notebook, and MEH with his handy Flip video camera. We headed to New Gloucester, Maine, about 30 minutes away, to visit two maple syrup producers.

The night before at MEH’s birthday celebration, I asked my friend Mark if he knew anyone who tapped maple trees and made maple syrup. For 14 years I’ve been meaning to go see how this is done; I was clueless! He called me early on Sunday morning and told me to call his son. And Mark’s son (who is equally nice and knowledgeable as Mark) gave me the name of two maple syrup producers. 

In the interest of full disclosure, MEH was not entirely onboard. We were giving up half a Sunday in pursuit of yet another wordsxo project (look for an upcoming blog: MEH Reaches His Breaking Point About Tweeting and Blogging). But MEH, being MEH, came along.

In my infinite wisdom stupidity, I wore my Birkenstock clogs instead of my L.L. Bean boots. Apparently in my excitement I forgot that I was going to a farm during mud season in Maine. (Advice: never go to a farm in Maine during mud season without your boots on or your feet will get really muddy and wet like mine did. And you’ll get teased, a lot!)

Here’s what happened for the rest of the morning:

  • We visited two amazing farms that produce maple syrup
  • We met five really nice people who make syrup
  • We came home with one jar of homemade syrup—yum!
  • We met a sweet horse named Jimmy
  • We had a nice drive through the Maine countryside on a beautiful day
  • It was too windy to use the video camera so we had to rely on MEH’s new Android phone for photos
  • Oh, and MEH had a great time!

I’m no longer clueless about how to make maple syrup, and you don’t have to be either, if you check out my guest blog on Milliver’s Travels (it’s a really cool site anyway, so you’ll want to check it out even if you don’t care about how maple syrup is made).

What kind of adventures do you take to write about on your blog? Are you like me that there are lots of things going on close to home that you never find out about? Do you find that being a blogger is a great excuse to explore your surroundings?



Writing Inspiration from a Winter Wonderland

This morning it warmed up to 3.7 degrees F before I had to take the dog out. Most mornings in winter, My Engineer Husband (MEH) happily takes her out to the “Dog Woods Trail,” where we’ve been going for the past nine years. And when I say happily, it’s because I’m happy I don’t have to go. MEH and I laugh as he puts on his four layers of pants and shirts, three sets of socks, great big winter boots, and his huge L.L. Bean parka. He assures me it’s not overboard, but I always wonder.

MEH is rarely out of town, but when he is, it falls to me to take the dog. This morning I wanted to wimp out. 3.7 degrees, warmed up from zero when I first got up. Too cold. But I don’t like to wimp out. Plus, I told myself that it would be inspirational for the fiction I’m writing; there are a lot of scenes where my protagonist, Maggie, walks outside with her dog in the winter and it’s cold…. you can see why I need the inspiration.

I pretty much had to convince even the dog to go—she’s nine and arthritic. And she was comfy in bed (mine). But the dog biscuit did the trick, and out we trudged. Me, in my two layers of pants (huge mistake not to go for four), long silk underwear (not racy, believe me) and fleece shirt, bulky down jacket, L. L. Bean boots (yeah, those same ones as in the other blog), ski mask, and hat. I took a picture with my phone but couldn’t bring myself to post it. I am a little modest. (Instead I posted a picture of my dog—she wore her birthday suit for the occasion.)

It was very very cold at Dog Woods Trail. So cold that when I breathed and my breath condensed inside my ski mask, it froze almost immediately. The inside of my nostrils froze. Abby’s whiskers froze, and she had frosty glaze on her black fur. And I had plenty of time to reflect, gather information, be inspired by, and in general observe the freezing cold morning because Abby, in her infinite dog wisdom—that we humans can only hope to someday understand—left her toy somewhere midway through the walk, and we had to turn around to find it.

Still, I’m inspired. My character, Maggie, still hates the snow and cold, and she’ll be happy when her husband Joe returns from his latest business trip. But not because the late-winter woods aren’t beautiful. They are. And the sight is incredible to see.

The snow was piled high everywhere, even where it didn’t fall—the wind shifted it to between the trees, around the rocks, and in every imaginable crevice and opening through the Dog Woods and out onto the trails and fields. The fence surrounding the parking lot had all but disappeared, with only the tip-tops of the posts to see. Maggie almost forgot the cold as she marveled at the absolute volume of snow, if nothing else. She followed the path through the woods that led her to the same circuitous trail they always took, around the ball fields, which the dog—and she—happily traced, trudging slowly where it was icy slick, being careful not to fall.

She was extra careful to step around all the piles of frozen poop that had been left by other walkers’ dogs. Or maybe by the dog with the cross-country skier, who glided effortlessly past her earlier in her walk. He meant to pick it up; Maggie was sure of that. Finally, just when Maggie wished she had worn the third or fourth layer like Joe suggested, she and her faithful companion reached the car and—none the worse for wear—headed gratefully home to its wonderful warmth.

Looking forward to your comments about my winter observations and yours as well. If we can’t get inspiration out of this crazy winter weather of ours, then what is it good for? Do you enjoy the snow or are you just looking forward to spring (or a little of each)? How do you catch a mood or feeling for writing from your character’s point of view?



A Walk in the Maine Woods with love from wordsxo

Morning inspiration: A walk in the Maine woods, blanketed in fresh snow. (courtesy of MEH)

Perfect (Maine) Beach Weather

For inspiration, I often go to a spot on the coast, about ten minutes from where I live. From a bridge, above a beach, I can see both island and mainland shores. In the summer, there are children playing and lobster boats pulling traps; in winter it is brutally cold and icy as it was today. Surprisingly, today there were others here on the beach: four people and two dogs!

This is a place in nature that inspires my writing each time I visit it. What places in nature inspire your writing?

Greetings from the coast of Maine,


Sunday, February 13, 2011, 12:02 p.m., 29 degrees F