Tag: midwest

Monday Miscellany: Nature on the Move

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Magee Marsh, a prime stopover for migrating birds, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie. The boardwalk extends over almost seven acres and provides eye level viewing for some spectacular birds!

I’m afraid my blog has been distressingly free of any new content for — my heavens! — can it be a week now?  Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Well, it does happen, especially when we get just a teeny bit preoccupied, which does make all those good intentions fly right out the window!  The distraction last week was SPRING!  And not just toasty weather, nice new green leaves and flowers, but SPRING Migration!  This may not mean much to all you normal people out there, but for birders (even for halfway, fairly frivolous birder types such as myself) spring migration is a very big deal indeed, especially if you live in a northern location where for the rest of the year the birding can be rather dull.

Migration’s most fundamental attraction is simply visual — birds are beautiful to look at, especially during the spring when they’re wearing nice new feathers and bright colors.  The reason is obvious; they’ll soon be staring in their own version of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” as they’re migrating to summer mating and nesting areas.  There’s also the simple fact that there are birds to look at, after a long winter during which there are few to be seen.  During migration you not only see more birds, but you also have the chance to see bird species that are passing through your area as they travel to their summer home somewhere else.  Spotting a species that you don’t normally see, or that you see only rarely, is like winning a lottery prize, albeit a non-material one.

There’s a more serious note, at least for me, however, that underlies the visual beauty and the enjoyment of being out of doors and that’s an almost mystical sense of how various creatures and processes make up the great web of life.  Did you know that a North American warbler, for example a Blackpoll, weighs less than a ballpoint pen and is only about 5 inches (15 cm) long?  Yet in the fall that tiny thing (and keep in mind that a Blackpoll is one of the larger warbler species) flies over 1800 miles non-stop, crossing parts of the the Atlantic Ocean to reach its wintering grounds.  The journey is so tough that the bird’s body starts to literally consume itself, feeding off muscle and even organs that the bird doesn’t need as it flies, such as its digestive system (remember the warbler’s not eating after it launches itself over open water).  Warblers and other song birds can only sustain their flights for so long; for them it’s literally reach ground before their bodies consume themselves or die.  And, of course, many of them do.  A storm; unusual weather patterns; a strong wind from the wrong direction; a housing development where a feeding stop used to be; gulls or migrating raptors looking for a snack and … well … you get the idea.  The individual bird perishes, but the species goes on, at least until we finish paving the world over with concrete.  When I see a migrating warbler I sometimes think of the moment when that warbler reaches the Atlantic, or the Gulf of Mexico or Lake Erie and, without knowing the outcome, strikes out into the unknown, simply hoping to reach a good spot on the other side of those vast and terrifying depths.  If that isn’t a metaphor for human existence, I don’t know what is.

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A Blackpoll Warbler at close range during spring migration.  This particular Blackpoll has stopped to feed and rest before the next leg of its journey over Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The Blackpoll began its spring trip in South America; if it’s lucky, it will reach northern Canada or Alaska, where it will breed and raise young.  While fairly common, Blackpolls (like nearly every other bird species) are rapidly declining in number.

Well, enough of the heavy stuff!  One more factoid and I’ll shut up and let you enjoy photos.  Did you know that birds, like airplanes, follow regular travel routes?  These “flyways” usually occur along coastlines, rivers and mountains; if a species is lucky some nice nature group, like the Audubon Society, will have located a refuge providing food and a rest stop along its travel route.  (The Audubon Society has a great website showing flyways for several common North American species).

I spent my week of non-blogging (and rather limited reading, I must admit) at Magee Marsh, a nature refuge on the southern shore of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes along the northern United States (four of the Great Lakes form part of the border between the U.S. and Canada).

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Although it’s not on a flyway, Magee Marsh is a critical stopping point for migrants that come to Lake Erie and need food and rest before they’re strong enough to attempt a crossing.  Essentially the Marsh, which is one of Lake Erie’s last bits of undeveloped wetland, is a giant bird hotel that provides shelter, food and water for the birds, and a boardwalk trail for the birders.  Both groups appear happy with the arrangement.

Here are some of the things I saw at Magee Marsh last week:

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A Blackburnian Warbler.  It’s not difficult to see why one of the old fieldguides refers to it as “flame throat.”
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A Canada Warbler, an enormous favorite with just about everyone.
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A Bay-breasted Warbler.  They’re even prettier when you can see one at a different angle.
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A head-on view of a Northern Parula.  It looks pretty fierce from this angle, but no need to worry — it weighs less than an ounce (28 grams).

 

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A Magnolia Warbler; many of these turn up regularly during spring migration.

Over 300 different bird species pass through Magee Marsh each year.  Although warblers are certainly the main attraction, many other wonderful things also rely on the Marsh to survive during spring migration:

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A Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  It’s not a warbler but I don’t mind, do you?
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An American Woodcock.  This photo doesn’t really convey the beauty of the bird’s subtle colors and patterns.
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American Bald Eagles are some of Magee Marsh’s permanent residents; in spring you can usually see at least one nesting pair.

For a wildlife refuge, Magee Marsh is easily accessible from several midwestern cities, including Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit.  It’s easy to stay in one of several small towns withing driving distance.  I usually pick Port Clinton, a small town that’s primarily centered on sport fishing (it styles itself “the Walleye capital of the World” and who’s to say it isn’t?).  Port Clinton has a sprinkling of older houses and an impressive array of yachts; it also doesn’t really come alive until late May, after spring migration is over and birds and birders have left.

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Port Clinton was founded in the 1840s and grew slowly; it’s still pretty small.  This is one of its relatively rare older buildings.
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A glimpse of one of Port Clinton’s wharves.  The summer sports fisherman aren’t here yet.
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And what’s an outing of any kind without an end of the day stop at an Irish pub?  McCarthy’s is conveniently located across from a popular wharf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love & Fate in Tom Drury’s “The Driftless Area”

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Isn’t this a wonderful cover photo?  Don’t you wonder who she is, and what she’s thinking, that woman of great but unconventional beauty, lost in her thoughts, so suggestive of mystery?  And the title — the “driftless area” — whatever could it mean?  It’s embarrassing to admit —  but, dear reader, I hold nothing back from you — that I had never heard of Tom Drury, the author, when I bought this book, a purchase based strictly on the title and the cover art.  Unbeknown to me, however, at least until a month or so ago, Drury is considered a “writer’s writer,” described by the New York Times, no less, as “a major figure in American literature, author of a string of novels without a dud in the bunch.”  Oops!  My bad!  To add to my humiliation, only a few weeks ago the Guardian included The Driftless Area in its “Top Ten Books Set in the American Midwest.”  At least by that point I had actually begun reading the novel, which had been gathering dust on my shelves since its purchase in 2013.  All I can say is — thank heaven for Challenges!  Had I not listed this as one of my selections for the 2019 TBR Challenge, The Driftless Area might still be sitting, forlorn and unread, in my upstairs junk room.  And that would be a personal loss, for it’s a truly wonderful book.

The wonder, as far as I’m concerned, begins with the title, which is not only poetic but geologically precise.  The Driftless Area (or Zone, as it’s sometimes called) is a relatively small area in the American Middle West that extends over parts of several states (for the precisionists among you, it covers extreme southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and western Wisconsin).  Because the ice age glaciers that smashed into the center of North America and created those flat-as-a-pancake midwestern corn fields missed the Driftless Area, the region has hills, caves, some of the oldest rivers in the world, sink holes, and rare bird and animal species that aren’t found elsewhere in the Midwest.  I don’t often wax rhapsodic about book titles, but Drury’s is a gem.  Not only does it give you the novel’s precise physical setting, it also hints at the strangeness and mystery of the story you are about to read.  And, on yet a third level, it’s a subtle comment on the way some of these characters navigate or, more accurately perhaps, drift through their lives.  A title like this sets the bar pretty high for the novel to come.  Fortunately, Drury is such a skilled writer he carries it off.

One of the pleasures offered by Driftless is to be drawn very gradually, almost imperceptibly, into the very peculiar world that Drury describes.  Conversely, this quality makes the novel difficult to review — aside from the fact that you don’t want to give too much away, it’s just a very difficult book to characterize.  On one level, it’s an ultra-realistic story set in a small town in the rural midwest; on another level, well, it’s not.  The blurb refers to Driftless as a type of “neo-noir” revenge drama, which it is, but — that’s not all it is (although that part of the novel is quite well done).  Although I think the professional reviewers might differ from me here, I found that Driftless operates on what I can only call a metaphysical level.  As one of the characters explains to another, there’s an “idea *** that time doesn’t exist;” that “everything that happened or will happen was here from the start” or that different versions of it were.  In other words, what seems to be chance might not be; that in the Driftless Area the seemingly random course of events might actually be precisely and irrevocably charted.

Oh, dear — haven’t I made this novel sound terribly, terribly serious?  Portentous even? Well, it isn’t either.  The events revolve around Pierre Hunter, a mid-twenties graduate of Iowa State, who’s taken his science degree and cello, and returned to his small home town of Shale, where he tends bar at a speakeasy called the Jack of Diamonds.  Pierre isn’t a slacker, exactly — he’s far more complex than that — but he lives his life stripped of the pretenses that most of us navigate by and that quality leads to unintended consequences.  One of which is Stella Rosmarin, the beautiful, mysterious solitary who saves Pierre’s life and becomes his lover.  Another is Shane, an itinerant criminal who tries to rip him off and ends up losing a small fortune in ill-gotten gains.  Drury is a master of terse, elegant dialogue that can be extremely funny in a very dry way.  He also has a wonderful knack for creating characters; even his minor ones tend to linger in the mind (one of my favorites is Pierre’s boss, a former Silicon Valley type, who worries that the Jack’s red vinyl chairs might be “too busy.” The locals who patronize the place, on the hand, are impressed by the air conditioning).

In conclusion, dear reader, I enjoyed this book immensely.  Do I recommend it without reservation, with enthusiam, to you?  Well……………… do you enjoy the Coen Brothers?  Do you like your reality straight-up, or do you prefer it mixed with a hint of the strange?  Can you accept that sun needs shade, that life needs death, that, as Pierre puts it “everything that succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise”?  If your answer to at least a couple of these questions was a resounding “yes,” then go for it!  You’ll love this book as much as I did.