Saturday, August 24, 2013

Parallel Stalking

Ha. Got your attention. Now I can tell you about birds some more. (I rub my greedy little hands together here.)
This morning I went on a brisk walk up Sapling Mountain. I had intended to get a really early start and be part of daybreak, but apparently I slept through my alarm. I headed out at about 7:15 with my mind set on walking to the crossroads (up on Sapling Mtn.) and back for the purpose of cardiovascular exercise. I enjoyed the feel of the cool, damp morning air as I huffed up the mountain, and I enjoyed the warming of my body and the quickening of my heart rate. I walked with my thoughts.
Well, I got up to the crossroads, turned around, and was bopping back down the mountain. About halfway down, I finally remembered that a morning walk in the woods is a fantastic opportunity to pay attention to my suroundings and inhabit the present moment. There are so many other opportunities to walk around with my head part way up my ass- like in Asheville or at Ingles, but being in the woods calls for some good old fashioned awareness, mainly because there's just so bloody much happening to be aware of. And interesting stuff too. Flushing fungi. Foraging fowl. Puddling butterflies. Troublesome turds. Tricky tracks. Creative adaptation. Natural cause and effect.
And relevant too! How could studying the rest of nature ever be considered merely a hobby? Our human community and individual selves are just as subject to the laws and patterns of nature as the next guy, be that next guy a lichen or a female luna moth.
So I finally remembered to pay attention, and it was like someone flipped on the sound switch. There was a two-note high pitched bird sound coming from the top of a 6 foot embankment that bordered the road I was walking. I didn't recognize the sound, so I stopped and looked for the bird. The call sounded over and over. I stalked closer and closer to the embankment, each time stopping to recalibrate my depth perception of sound and trying to narrow in on the exact location of its source. (Oh, to have ears at different levels like an owl for this very purpose!) It drives me crazy how a bird can just hide right in front of my eyes in some foliage. I stalked closer, determined.
In the meantime, on the other side of the embankment, all manners of birds were going crazy sounding their best birdy alarms. A male cardinal frantically swooped down to an overhead branch and absolutely went apeshit. Woodpeckers downhill were warbling out some dramatic alarms, and left and right could be heard a symphony of random "cheeps" and "chirps" and "buzzes." I confusedly wondered to myself  'is all that racket because of me?'
My silent question was answered a moment later when a bobcat's cat and forebody came slinking up to the top of the embankment from the other side. Dark, gritty, wild. That cat took one look at me and manuevered a silent and seamless 180, hightailing (or rather bob-tailing) it back out of there toward Juanita Stump's place.
Well, I'll be.
With the help of some sturdy exposed tree roots, I hoisted myself over the embankment to look for the bobcat, which I knew I wouldn't see again. I could hear the path it was taking down the mountain through some underbrush by the traveling treetop parade of interspecies bird alarm noises. I discovered a sort of parallel 4 wheeler road on the other side of the embankment. Also from that side I could easily see the source of the mysterious 2-note bird call- a fledgling cardinal sitting helpless on the ground at the top of the embankment, its little undeveloped head tuft fluffing up as much as birdly possible as it hollered out.

Or maybe not helpless. Somehow that little guy's life was spared by my remembering to pay attention in the woods. Not that I favor the life of a baby cardinal over the life of a bobcat, but a hunt was intersected there. Two cats at the top of the food chain met on an embankment from parallel stalking experiences. And I got the bird, which I consider just a random stroke of luck because there is no doubt in my partially unaware mind who the better stalker is.

The rest of the walk was spent getting rained on and enjoying the spectacular beauty of the scenery. Old cabins and barns hint of dusty memories of a time when the human residents of this mountain paid attention to the woods as a way of life. An old store sets on top of Chapel Hill, making a home for spiders and birds. Deeply hued ironweed blooms in its time, setting the stage for the fall of another summer.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Bird Update

August 10. My morning wake up call these days is comprised of the gentle blanketing drone of crickets with the lonely, haunting accent of the occasional hooded or black throated green warbler. Their serotinal dawn expressions are often just a portion of their full reportoire, a phenomenon that my local naturalist hero Pete D. claims is a result of post-mating decreased testosterone levels in the males. Gone are the early- and even mid-summer symphonies of long-winded indigo buntings, trilling parulas, and melodious wood warblers in full effect. I used to not be able to sleep past 5:30, but now I can doze until at least 7:00 if my schedule allows.

Days in the garden are marked by the routine visits of 18 wild turkeys. Two hens are showing the ropes to 16 half growns. They waddle from one wooded bank of the cove, forage in my dang gui, bo he and buckwheat for long enough to scratch up freshly spread wheat straw mulch and nibble insects and what nots, and then they disappear into the deep, thick green. Their feeding here causes occasional minor damage and annoyance but is enjoyed overall.

If I am out and about in the holler at dark, I am lucky to experience the bizarre range of vocal capacities of the Eastern screech owls. Sometimes they sound like human babies, sometimes like cats, sometimes like aliens, and sometimes just like owls. About a month ago, Susie, Kristen and I watched one fly back and forth across Kristen's yard, perching in low branches between flights. It allowed me to approach closely as it sat and watched from a sumac. Brilliant clay reddish brown. I don't know what sex.

Due to the July 1 flood, Guntertown Rd is still closed as half of it broke off and washed down 100 feet of steep mountain. The detour has me communting to Hot Springs many mornings by way of Cedar Cliff, which is much more pastoral than this wooded dingle where I reside. Often I will encounter interesting bird activity as I slowly cruise the one lane gravel windy road. A cooper's hawk snatching a morning dove and the subsequent commotion. A pair of bobwhites (trying to make their Cedar Cliff comeback from a recent decline) crossing the road hurredly. A trio of curious domestic turkeys begging the truck for tasty morsels.


The pair of young yellow shafted flickers that Pete D. showed me last week in a fence post nest has probably fledged.


The osprey who lives on the Laurel between the old Gahagan house and Belva is thriving, healthy and gorgeous. I saw it the other morning (sex undetermined) with a freshly killed 12-ish inch long trout. I stopped the car to get a good look, and the osprey vocalized at me with raptoral gusto- first a series of high pitched emphatic whines, then some low, gutteral grunts. It grasped that trout tightly with large talons.


Other summer bird highlights:

Good One: I got to see a kingfisher (likely young and in training) up very close earlier in the summer. It was sitting on the ground between the road and the Laurel River, a little down stream from this ospry photo. I approached it almost close enough to touch it. Another kingfisher flew overhead, vocalizing and perched on a wire. Finally the one on the ground flew up toward the other one. They are beautiful birds. Maybe next year I'll go kingfisher nest hunting- they burrow in high river banks to nest!

Bad One: I watched a nest of wrens fledge from Susie and Todd's porch. One of the fledglings got caught by their cat, and I immediately intervened (I'm on the bird's side- hands down- can't help it). The bird was unharmed by the cat, but had holes all in its head that maggots were boring their way out of. I held the bird for about 10 minutes, observing the head because I had never seen anything like it. The skin of the head was wiggling with the sub-q movement of maggots, and in that amount of time I watched 7 maggots work their way out of the tiny wren head. It was disgusting. I don't know how on earth the bird was still alive, and I wished I had let the cat kill it. I let the bird fledge again, and hoped for its quick painless death by predator. Jeez. Perhaps it was a result of the moist, maggoty summer we've had.

I hate to end on a gross note so here's one last Good Bird Highlight of the summer: I watched black and turkey vultures soar above Hot Springs, and reviewed some of the differing characteristics of each. For your vulture identifying ease:

Black Vultures: short tail; dark with white patches near wing tip when in flight; smaller and shorter wingspan than turkey vultures, flaps wings more in flight. Also, "Black Vulture has heavier wingloading than Turkey Vulture, requiring stronger thermals for soaring, so usually becomes active an hour or more after Turkey Vulture." (quoted from Black Vulture species handout sheets from a course I took called Natural History of Southern Raptors at the Carolina Raptor Center in 1995.)

Turkey Vultures: most common American vulture; wings narrower than black vulture; in flight wings held in a slight V shape; tail is long; adult's head is small and reddish; soars on thermals; sways and rocks from side to side during flight.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Medieval Woman

Jennifer Bennett turned 35 at Shaman Hill in Alexander, and unfortunately I don't have a good picture of her doing such. What I do have is fonder than average memories of the birthday party that she and the generous folks at Shaman Hill included me in. Memories of arriving just in time for a group spear throwing tutorial by Alex, the owner and instructor of the horseback-centered medieval style combat skills training center. I was immediately smitten with the place as I joined the small but high quality eclectic group of spear-throwing novice birthday attendees. After a comfortable length of time with the spear practice, some of the group, myself included, moved over to the hatchet targets and were introduced to the art of throwing hatchets from various distances, making the hatchets turn a 180, 360, or 540 degree rotation before wedging its sharp edge into the wooden target.

good posture, Susie
Next was a delightful ride on the back of the tallest and most massive horse I have ever seen in my life. Tecola welcomed my presence on his wide and high back like it was nothing and graced me with a lovely and casual jaunt about the arena and general area, stopping to visit with other guests and horses and enjoying the hazy heat of late July.

Following the horse ride, I mosied over to the archery range, and within minutes found myself grossly engaged in a session with the most gorgeous hand made Hungarian bows and "Jennifer Bennett specialty" arrows. Surprisingly, the entirety of my mind and body was hungry for the level of absolute focus required in shooting these arrows nicely. The posture, movement and balance of the act of shooting was indeed a beautiful dance of aerodynamic meditation that I could see myself getting really into if I allowed the time for it (which I am not saying I will not do).

Finally came the moment I was waiting for. The destruction of a Dora the Explorer pinata by means of midevil weaponry (and by some on a galloping horse) is the stuff my dreams are made of. Both Jennifer and Alex went at it on Tecola's back, with swords and lances. Then some other guests and I threw spears and hatchets at the thing until it was shredded and the horse treats fell to the manure-enhanced black soil of the sunny arena. It made my week when my spear jabbed into the pinata and stayed! I cannot describer to you, dear handful of readers, how fantasically delighted I was at this moment. I was fist pumping all the air in my vicinity.

Alex, the owner/instructor, riding Tecola and lancing Dora
A delicious seasonal potluck ensued in the nighttime hours at Jennifer's sweet little hilltop cabin overlooking the French Broad River and the sky. The people were relaxed and unpretentious, intelligent and interesting- the exact portion of humanity whose company I desire to keep. I hope to go back.