I am consumed with shame (well, figuratively if not literally) when I realize how little I’ve posted lately. I can’t say I have any reason for my sloth, except that I’ve been enjoying the incredible luxury of unscheduled time; in other words, I’ve been slothful because I’m slothful! I’ve read a few books (but not written any reviews — too analytical, for my present mood); done a little museum hopping (not nearly as exciting to normal people as pub crawling); and made a half-hearted attempt to clean up a closet or two. The closet cleaning has been quite distracting, as I’ve uncovered a number of lost or forgotten treasures — a great old paperweight (I warn you, I adore paperweights, so you probably have a Monday Miscellany on this subject headed your way); a wonderful glass fish that’s only got a slightly broken tail — it’s got to be good for something; and a lifetime supply of yellow sticky notes! Have any of you wanderers on the internet discovered similar wonders in your closets or cupboards?
In addition to these rather domestic activities there’s always something interesting going on in the natural world. Even casual birders such as myself have certain little rituals they observe, particularly in the spring when there are actually some birds to look at for those of us living in the (mostly) urban portion of the northern hemisphere. One of these, which I posted about last month, is a trip to Magee Marsh, a wonderful natural area and major stopping off point for song birds migrating through the central United States. Another, which comes a little later in May, is a short trip north to the shores of Delaware Bay, where every spring the horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs. In one of those marvels of the natural world, the egg laying coincides with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds trekking from South America to their far northern breeding grounds. Unfortunately for the birds, horseshoe crabs are extremely useful in medical research and commonly used as bait, and are being heavily over-harvested, leaving the famished birds with nothing to eat. This misuse by humans threatens to break yet another strand in nature’s great web of life.
First, for a little geographic orientation:
Have any of you ever seen a horseshoe crab? They’re actually not crabs. Popularly referred to as “living fossils,” they belong to a far more primitive species closer akin to scorpions or anthropoids. And — they’re big! I believe there are only four species left on the planet; three are in the Indo-Pacific area and one is found in the coastal waters of North America.
Although Red Knots tend to be popular favorites, they’re only one among many bird species that feast on the crab eggs. On a good day, you can also see Ruddy Turnstones, Dowitchers, Dunlins, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, and Yellowlegs. One of the best viewing areas that I’ve found is:
In addition to all these attractions, the Nature Center even has art work:
In addition to the Horseshoe Crab-shorebird spectacle, a trip to Delaware in the spring offers other delights. You pass through several scenic little towns (but beware! many of them have speed traps!) with odd little bits of local history:
Delaware is surprisingly rural in spots, to be so close to so many east coast cities; in the spring many of the farm fields are gorgeous:
Delaware, like many other states, also has links to a darker past ….
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.
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).
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:
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:
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.
After a bit of thought, I’ve decided to make Monday on the blog “Miscellany Day,” i.e., a time to feature whatever interests me at the moment, whether it’s a painting, photo, movie, travel experience, short story or even — a BOOK! Since it’s spring, and, around here, that means cherry blossoms, I thought that I’d make the subject of my first “Monday Miscellany” my recent excursion to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry trees. The blossoms don’t last very long — making them a perfect symbol of spring and of human existence — so if you want to see them you can’t delay. This is the first time in many years that I’ve gone to the trouble — and believe me, it does involve a little planning, as cherry blossoms mean crowds, as well as spring — but worth it, don’t you think?
Although I seldom read poetry any more, cherry trees and spring always bring me back to one of my very favorite poems, from A. E. Houseman’s Shropshire Lad:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
And, speaking of nature’s beauty, I’ll end with my last image from the Tidal Basin, which perfectly expresses my own view: