Three Rivers

Rivers flow not past, but through us; tingling, vibrating, exciting every cell and fiber in our bodies, making them sing and glide.  – John Muir

Sandusky River

Sandusky River behind the dam, deeper water

On my drive to work each day I cross three rivers, and I feel…something…as I drive over each one. I feel happy. And I can actually feel my heart rate slow as I gaze down at the water flowing beneath me. I would imagine that most people just drive across bridges without much thought, but I can’t stop thinking about why I’m still having such a significant response to these rivers after three months of driving over them.

Kayaking on a small lake in Michigan

Kayaking on a small lake in Michigan

Like many people, I’ve always been drawn to water. The ocean and the beach don’t hold much attraction for me, though, for whatever reason. I generally gravitate to ponds and small lakes. When I lived in Michigan I spent a lot of time kayaking on some of the beautiful lakes in their state and county parks, watching birds and taking photos of dragonflies.

But somehow I’ve not spent much time on or around rivers during my life. So maybe the attraction is partly due to the novelty of it. But there’s something fascinating about the way a river winds its way through the landscape, always changing, always moving.

I guess I get a feeling of peace when I’m near a river. Something about the movement of the water maybe. It’s coming from somewhere. It’s going somewhere else. Sometimes slowly, other times more rapidly, but never motionless. Moving water is cleansing, so maybe it has the same effect on my soul, helping to purge negativity and stimulate optimism.

A shallower section of the Sandusky River

Shallower portion of the Sandusky River

The first river I cross on my drive is the Sandusky, which is only about a quarter of a mile from home “as the crow flies.” It’s very shallow here, with many areas of exposed rocky riverbed. I think that makes it very scenic. As I cross the small bridge, I look to my left and catch a glimpse of the Ballville Dam that will most likely be removed soon (based on our recent election result). I look to my right and often see a pair of Bald Eagles sitting side by side in a tree overlooking the river. The eagles are just icing on the cake though, because I fell in love with this river long before I ever saw those birds hanging out here. And I’m excited about the possibility that the eagles will be able to stay all winter long because they’ve found this spot near the dam where, I’m guessing, there will be an area of open water year round. I’m looking forward to trying to get some photos of them soon.

Sandusky River seen from the Tindall Bridge

Sandusky River seen from the Tindall Bridge

Tindall Bridge with sunburst

Tindall Bridge with sunburst

About a mile from home in the opposite direction, where the Tindall Bridge crosses the river, there’s a sign marking it as an “Ohio Scenic River.” I’m drawn to the bridge as well as the water here, because it’s a one-lane metal bridge that makes a humming noise as you drive over it. One sunny day recently I walked down under the bridge and wandered around on the exposed rocks.  There was a guy in hip waders fishing out in the middle of the river, and a few lingering Killdeer calling out and chasing each other back and forth from one bank to the other. I still smile when I recall how I felt that day with the sun on my back and the cool air on my cheeks, and the sound of water trickling through dozens of small rock pools.

Tindall Bridge, 100 years old

Tindall Bridge, 100 years old

Below the Tindall Bridge, on the Sandusky River

Below the Tindall Bridge, on the Sandusky River

Portage River in Oak Harbor, Ohio

Portage River in Oak Harbor, Ohio (Image (c) Google Maps)

Next on my northward journey to work is the Portage River in downtown Oak Harbor. It flows into Lake Erie at Port Clinton.  I like how this one seems to be overflowing its banks, almost too much river to be contained within the channel.

Toussaint River, where the water is close to the road (Image (c) Google Maps

Toussaint River, where the water is close to the road (Image (c) Google Maps)

The last river I cross is the Toussaint, a 6-mile-long river that flows from west to east in Carroll Township, also emptying into Lake Erie. Crossing this one is the most exciting because the road is at the water level rather than far above it, so I feel like I’m literally driving across the water. Until most of them migrated south, I usually saw quite a few Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons here. There are still lots of gulls hanging out near this bridge, and often a Red-tailed Hawk on a nearby light pole, hoping for a hunting opportunity.

have never seen a river that I could not love. Moving water…has a fascinating vitality. It has power and grace and associations. It has a thousand colors and a thousand shapes, yet it follows laws so definite that the tiniest streamlet is an exact replica of a great river.  – Roderick Haig Brown

The other day I went to visit a friend in Brecksville (near Cleveland) and on my way home I had just a few minutes to stop by the local metropark for some ecotherapy. Even though I drive right past the Brecksville Reservation on the way to my friend’s house, I’d never taken the time to go in and see what it was like. From the entrance, I drove a few miles on a winding road through beautiful woods that were shrouded in a light mist from the rain that had been falling all day long.  Just around one of those bends I came upon Chippewa Creek, where I was thrilled to see a collection of stone cairns in the water near the road.

Stone cairns in the river at Brecksville Reservation, Ohio.

Stone cairns in the creek at Brecksville Reservation, Ohio.

Obviously I’m not the only person who enjoys walking in a shallow river. I often see rock cairns along hiking paths, but this is the first time I’ve seen them in the water. Notice the one on the right with five stones balanced on each other. Clearly that took some time and patience to find the right rocks and get them balanced properly. And although I know some people disapprove of the practice of building these cairns, I think these are very pretty and I hope to get a chance to visit that spot again. I’d like to take some time to just sit and look at these, listening to the sounds of the water flowing between the lovely wooded banks.

So in this month of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for these three rivers that have been an unexpected bonus in the fabric of my new life. Although the vastness of Lake Erie is never far from anyone’s mind in northern Ohio, I’ve found a stronger connection to these winding ribbons of water that snake through the endless farm fields. I look forward to spending much more time exploring and contemplating each of them in the months to come. Who knows what kind of inspiration might be lurking in that moving water?

A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.   — Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

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Walking Naked Down the Road

Rochester Municipal Park bench and creek w sigI find myself feeling ambivalent lately about how I live with my high sensory processing trait, my HSP-ness, so to speak. Fifteen years ago, when I first read Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly-Sensitive Person, it was comforting to discover a label for what I’d experienced my entire life, and it opened my eyes to some ways to adjust my life for the better. I found other HSPs to talk with, signed up for HSP newsletters, and generally spent a lot of time pondering this newly-understood aspect of myself. In recent years, I even made it a big focus of my blog, which drew me into conversations with people who told me they were grateful I’d written about it because it helped them understand themselves or someone they loved. (If you want to read more about what it means to be an HSP, just click that link in the first sentence above.)

With my new knowledge came a boost in my self-confidence. I became more likely to stand up for my needs at home and in social situations, and felt better knowing there are other people in the world who experience life the way I do. I wasn’t alone anymore! For a while it was empowering to embrace the label.

Rural road in Lapeer county with fall foliage w sigBut now I’m struggling with the idea that, perhaps, by spending so much energy reading and writing about high sensitivity I’m actually enabling myself to be more sensitive. If I wear a label on my forehead that says “Hi, I’m an HSP,” that sort of gives me permission to withdraw from social interactions because, well, “everyone knows I’m so sensitive,” so they’ll understand. They won’t question why I rarely join in the birding field trips. They’ll forgive me for skipping the party at the loud restaurant because, you know, “she’s sensitive.”

But sometimes I also think to myself, “Oh, I’m so sick of talking and writing about my sensitivities!” I get occasional glimpses of how I imagine other people see me and I suddenly wish I’d never started writing publicly about such an intimate part of my life. Because putting my heart out here in the world like this has made me incredibly vulnerable. Some days it feels like I’m walking down the road naked, just asking for people to throw (literal and figurative) rocks at me. And, frankly, some people are more than happy to do that.

Leaves floating on water with dappled sunlight and rocksSo how do I draw the line between too much focus on this trait and too little? I can’t deny or ignore such an important part of myself. It impacts every moment of every day, and every interaction I have with another human being. It enriches my life in many ways, but it also means that I feel everything more intensely than most other people do, and therefore I experience more emotional ups and downs during each day than 80% of the population does. Honestly, it’s exhausting just trying to maintain the “invisible shield” that helps protect me from being overwhelmed by the intensity of all the things I see, hear, smell, or feel during each day.

I think all of this internal conflict has resurfaced because of my recent relocation and re-entry into the workforce. I no longer have the luxury of “hiding out” for a few days when I need extra down time, because now I have more responsibilities to other people. And I’m struggling to adjust to lots of things that I thought I’d never have to deal with again, like working in an office with ringing phones and people coming in and out all day long.

So I’m often being pushed beyond my tolerance levels and finding myself unable to get away fast enough. More than once I’ve found myself crying on my drive home just because of the pent-up emotion from a chaotic day. But I’m getting better at it. Lately I’ve been taking short breaks to walk on the nature trail behind our office, and that seems to make a big difference in my ability to cope when things are stressful.

So why am I writing this now? Well, for one thing, writing helps me think things through. But also because, like everyone, one of my deepest longings is for people to see me for who I really am, and to understand me, and to accept me.  I know it’s not realistic to hope that everyone will like me (because I don’t like everyone I meet either), but I think it’s human nature to reach out and try to form meaningful connections with other people. And as difficult as that is for me, I can’t give up trying. It’s essential for my own well-being, and I also feel I owe it to other HSPs to continue my efforts to help our society begin to understand us better. We’re only 20% of the population, but we deserve to be accepted just like any other minority. And we won’t be fully accepted until we’re more widely understood.

And because we HSPs can play a valuable role in the world if we are nurtured rather than scorned, if we are appreciated for our insight and our ability to see things that go unnoticed by a less-attentive majority in this loud-and-busy culture. Did you know that some of the most celebrated leaders in the world were highly-sensitive people? And artists and creative people are often HSPs too. All of these people are or were thought to be highly-sensitive: the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Abraham Lincoln, John Lennon, Alanis Morissette, Barbra Streisand, and, for you Star Wars fans, even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

If I’m even partially like those amazing people, that’s pretty darn good. I feel better now. Even if I am walking naked down the road. :)

Posted in Highly-Sensitive People (HSPs) | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Opening My Mind

Don’t you agree that being open-minded is a worthy goal in life? Have you ever had a sudden realization that you aren’t as open-minded as you’d always thought you were? It’s easy to look at other people and judge them for their prejudices, but it’s very disorienting when you’re confronted with the realization that you have your own biases and prejudices that have been nestled snugly in your brain for years. Most of the time those biases seem harmless, but I’ve learned that they can actually prevent you from experiencing some amazing things.

As I go through the process of adjusting to life in the farm country of northwestern Ohio, I’ve discovered some things about myself that I’m not too proud of. But thankfully I’ve also discovered that I’m not too old to change nor too proud to admit that I’ve been wrong.

Gull taking off from water

Gull taking off from water

During the first couple of weeks here, I found myself complaining about a lot of things. The frequent nighttime train whistles. The lack of shopping choices. The fact that I have to actually use a human teller to deposit a check at my credit union instead of being able to use the ATM. And on and on. I was focused on my prejudgment that everything and everyone in these small towns was “backward” and “behind the times.” And with those thoughts in my head, I was unhappy. Of course I was. Because your thoughts determine your emotions.

I was getting disgusted with my negative attitudes and worried that I was offending my new friends with my complaints, and so I did some soul searching to remember why I came here. And slowly, as I began to go about my daily life, I noticed a shift in my thinking. At first I’d sat up at night timing the trains so I could complain about how often they woke me up. Then one day I caught myself listening to the faint sound of one of those whistles and smiling. I realized that that sound had become part of the soundtrack of my daily life, and that I actually liked it.

Whereas at first I’d whined about having to drive 40 minutes to a larger town for more shopping choices, it only took two trips there to make me realize that it really wasn’t that big of a deal to make that trip a couple times a month. In fact, now it’s become almost a special occasion to go to the “big city” (Sandusky, Ohio) for a shopping excursion. Things that were taken for granted as everyday conveniences before have become something to look forward to and appreciate.

Geese in v formation

Canada Geese in V formation

And my opinions about the starkness of the flat landscape have changed too. The wide open land might not be as interesting as the rolling hills I’m used to, but it sure provides lots of opportunities to enjoy and photograph stunning sunsets. And even though I was well aware of the abundance of wildlife habitat here, I was surprised to find myself weeping the other day as I drove past a marsh and watched egrets and a Bald Eagle flying across the road in front of me. There’s incredible beauty here every day. Lots of it.

Sunset at the reservoir

Sunset at the local reservoir

As someone who has always been a city person, I’m stunned at how fast my attitudes have turned around. I’m a bit ashamed about my assumptions that life here would be “not as good as” my life in the city. Every day I find something new to learn about — “Why haven’t they harvested those soybeans yet? They look like they’re dying…” or, “I heard someone mention putting tiles in a field…what does that mean?” — and so on. I’m beginning to see the world differently. I’m surrounded by co-workers and friends who are happy to answer my questions. My life is enriched when I’m able to learn something new, so this completely new environment is fascinating to me.

And speaking of friends…you know, I’m getting choked up now just thinking about this. I had a dozen or so budding friendships with local people before I moved down here, and those friendships have now solidified through birding walks and various other get-togethers. In the past couple of months I’ve experienced so much sincere kindness that it sort of blows my mind. There’s something special about the people here.  And they make me feel special too. I don’t feel alone anymore. It’s like an entire community has wrapped its arms around me and absorbed me into its big warm heart.

Sunset at the reservoir with fisherman

A fisherman at the reservoir as the day ends

I had a small housewarming party last weekend for a few of my local friends and co-workers who wanted to see my new house. I had been putting it off because I hadn’t done all the painting I wanted to do, and I didn’t have all the rooms furnished yet. And I worried that I would be judged. (Ironic, isn’t it?) But my gosh, when I looked around my house filled with friends that afternoon, my heart swelled with happiness. Just seeing that they would all take the time to drive down here and spend time in my home with me…I know that might not be such a big deal to many people, but it was very big for me. It made me feel accepted on a whole new level. It made me feel more confident that I was going to be alright in my new life here. My house became a home that day. A real home filled with love and friendship–and even a couple of caterpillars!

Great Blue Heron and nuclear power plant - smaller file

What do you focus on, the nuclear power plant or the lovely heron?

This whole idea that your thoughts determine how you experience life is a powerful thing. By consciously letting go of your preconceptions and biases you can open your mind and heart to a whole new world. And I’m living proof that it works.

Posted in Happiness and Gratitude | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

Witness to First Flight

Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed

Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed

Today is the continuation of the story I began in my last post, about raising my first Monarch butterfly.  On the evening of August 18, I noticed that I could see the butterfly’s wings through the chrysalis, so I knew it would probably emerge, or eclose, in the next 24 hours. I woke up early the next morning hoping to be able to watch the big moment when the adult butterfly would break free of the pupal case and spread its wings. But by the time I needed to leave for work it still hadn’t come out, so I reluctantly drove the 40 minutes to the office.

As I walked in, my boss practically chased me back out the door, saying that I absolutely must be home to watch my first monarch come out of the chrysalis. (See, I told you this was a dream job!) She had told me the previous evening that waiting for a butterfly to emerge was a legitimate excuse for being late for work, but I’d thought she was joking. As it turned out, she was very serious.  So I hugged her and jumped back in the car, promising to work from home the rest of the day, and retraced my path as quickly as I could. (“Honestly, officer, I’m racing home to watch a butterfly!”)

Female Monarch ready to emerge - MY FIRST ONE (1024x683)

Monarch on the night before it would emerge. The wings are now visible inside!

I rushed into the house, straight over to the kitchen table…where the monarch was already out of the chrysalis. I was disappointed that I’d apparently just missed the moment of emergence, but also thrilled to see a moist, fresh butterfly just stretching its wings for the very first time.

When they emerge from the chrysalis their wings are all crumpled up and they have to hang motionless for a while to pump blood through the veins to inflate the wings. You can actually see them slowly straightening over the first few minutes until finally the butterfly looks fully “inflated.”

I watched in awe for a while after that. Even though she wasn’t moving at all, I just couldn’t get over the transformation I’d witnessed. I’d watched her evolve from a little microscopic egg on a milkweed leaf to a tiny little caterpillar, and then to a larger and larger caterpillar. And then she hung upside down and shed her skin, exposing the exquisite jade green chrysalis. And eventually–through some magic of biology that I can only comprehend very vaguely–out popped a butterfly so beautiful that I was speechless.

Victoria just after emerging from chrysalis (932x1024)After about three hours she began to flutter her wings, and not long afterward she let go of the remains of the chrysalis and dropped to the bottom of the aquarium. I’d been concerned about having to release her into a rainy day, and was considering keeping her overnight to give her a better chance the next morning. But she was suddenly getting very active, fluttering around on the floor and trying to climb up the sides. I put a slice of watermelon down for her so she could feed if she needed to. I placed her on the watermelon but she crawled off of it and kept crawling around the edges of the aquarium trying to get out.

First time she spread her wings

On the floor of the aquarium — isn’t she gorgeous?!

I worried that she’d injure herself if I kept her in there much longer. I consulted with a friend who has much more experience with butterflies, and she advised me to go ahead and release her. And since it looked like we had a good break in between rain showers, I decided it would be okay to let her go.

Monarch newly emerged, ready for flight

Monarch preparing to take flight for the first time!

So I took her aquarium out on my patio and tried to figure out how I could get some photos of this big moment. I got a stem of butterfly weed from my garden and gently placed her on the flowers. Then I held the stem out with my left hand while trying to snap photos with my call phone as fast as I could, knowing that she could fly away at any moment.

As I stood there watching this delicate creature feel the wind for the very first time, I marveled at the idea that she was capable of flying all the way to Mexico on those paper-thin wings. After about two minutes I noticed her little head turn to the left and then to the right, as if she’d just noticed her surroundings. And a second or two after that she took flight! She flew about 15 feet straight up into the nearest tree.

Monarch after her first flight, in a tree beside my patio

Monarch after her first brief flight, to a tree beside my patio

And I stood there and wept like a baby. I was surprised at how emotional the moment was. I was exhilarated by the joy of watching her fly for the first time, but I was also sad to see her leave. I know her life will be full of danger, and it’s very possible that she might not survive the journey and make it back next spring. But I’d done all I could for her, keeping her safe from predators in her larval stage (the caterpillar, remember?), so I had to accept that nature would take its course at this point.

I watched her as she sat in the tree for probably 20 minutes or so. There was a fairly brisk breeze knocking her around up there, but she had a good grip and hung on through it all. Then I was distracted for a few minutes by a phone call, and when I turned back to look at her she was gone. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see which way she went, because I might have felt compelled to chase her around like some sort of lunatic, reluctant to let her out of my sight. #MonarchMama

Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight

Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight, September 7, 2015

Since that day I’ve released four more monarchs into the beautiful blue skies of Ohio. And today I still have a few more chrysalises in my aquarium. (Yes, I know that the plural of chrysalis is really “chrysalides” but I find that word awkward so I just use “chrysalises.”) A couple of the big caterpillars have managed to escape the aquarium when they’re ready to pupate. I’ve spent some panicked moments searching my sunroom for missing caterpillars, only to find them hanging under the table or on the bottom edge of the aquarium. The first thing I do each morning and each evening when I return from work is do a head count to make sure nobody is running loose where I might step on them. I guess I should get a better lid on the aquarium, huh?

I’ll end with a couple more pictures from the past few weeks. I hope you enjoy learning this stuff as much as I do. And don’t forget to plant milkweed in your yard — it’s the only plant these beauties can eat.

Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form

Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form

Caterpillar in "hanging J" preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.

Caterpillar in “hanging J” preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.

A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!

A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!

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Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.

Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.

Did you miss me? I didn’t intend to be away from the blog for this long, but my big move to Ohio has been all-consuming for the past couple of months. I’m happy to say that I am settled in my new home now–more or less–and have already finished the first two weeks at my new job.

Although my house is all unpacked and functional, my brain hasn’t quite made the transition. I’m still struggling to adjust to my new environment. I had been referring to this move as a sort of homecoming, a return to the state where I grew up and lived most of my adult life before moving to Michigan 15 years ago. But my childhood “home” part of Ohio was in the southeastern part of the state, in the Appalachian foothills. My adult life was spent in Columbus. And the area of Michigan I lived in was highly-populated and also very hilly. Now I live in northwestern Ohio, smack dab in the middle of farm country, and I have to say that it is sort of freaking me out.

Monarch caterpillar - also in my kitchen

Same Monarch caterpillar getting bigger

I’m surprised at how much I feel almost like I’ve moved to another country, or at least thousands of miles away. I’m a “big city” person. But now I live in a small town surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans and lots (I mean lots) of freight train activity. It might sound silly to someone who has lived in this environment their whole life, but for me it’s so strange to hear train whistles in the middle of the night, and to have to stop for trains on a regular basis as I drive to work. For the first few days I thought it was sort of cool. But the novelty of it wore off fast on the first night I was kept awake by train whistles every thirty minutes. (One night I was up at 3 am using Google to read about why trains are allowed to blow those *#^! horns so much while people are sleeping.) But I’ve adapted to the trains now and only occasionally get woken up by them.

But aside from the trains, it’s hard not to dwell on what I’m missing, those conveniences of city life like choice in restaurants and shopping. I’m starting to accept that I’ll have to drive 45 minutes to Sandusky or Toledo for my favorite stores. Locally I have no choice other than WalMart. I’ll get used to it but this is a major adjustment for me. Maybe it sounds like whining but I don’t care. I’ve done more than my share of major life adjustments in the past year and it’s all been emotionally exhausting — my painful divorce, leaving my beautiful home on 2 acres of woods, losing both of my cats, and my kayak, not to mention leaving all of my Michigan friends and my favorite parks. And I’m not done yet. Now I’m going back to work after 15 years out of the work force. It makes me tired just thinking about all I’ve been through lately.

I don’t think anything other than my amazing new job could have convinced me to make yet another major transition at this point in my life. There’s so much that is “foreign” to me here, from the vast flatness of the land to the rural lifestyle. Almost daily I find myself having a moment where I feel a little bit panicked about whether I’ll be happy here. I just have to have confidence that those feelings will go away as I start finding my way around better and integrating into the community, but it’s very disconcerting at this point.

Fear and anxiety many times indicates that we are moving in a positive direction, out of the safe confines of our comfort zone, and in the direction of our true purpose.  ~Charles Glassman

I should mention that the pictures in this post are from my new adventure of raising Monarch butterflies in my home. (See, it’s not all doom and gloom, LOL.) I’ve learned a lot about the life cycle of these fascinating insects. I’ve learned to identify the various types of milkweed they need to survive. I’ve planted milkweed in my yard. I’ve watched them go from tiny little egg to tiny little caterpillar, to slightly bigger caterpillar, to big fat caterpillar, and then to chrysalis. I have an aquarium on my kitchen table that is home to two chrysalises and one tiny caterpillar right now. Later this week I expect that both of the Monarchs will emerge from their beautiful green pods and spread their fresh and untested wings for the first time.

Monarch chrysalis day 2

Monarch butterfly in its chrysalis — in my kitchen

I’ll take each one outside and release it into the sky. These butterflies, who were eggs just a couple weeks ago, will fly to Mexico for the winter. Nobody gives them a user manual or a map, they just have to figure it all out on their own. I wonder what it’s like to be a caterpillar, crawling around eating milkweed leaves one day, and then to wake up a few weeks later with wings. Can you imagine how cool that must be?

In a way, I can see my own journey as a metamorphosis too. The nine months I spent in my transitional apartment were my caterpillar stage, where I was focused on “feeding,” taking care of myself so I would have the strength for what was to come. My big move for this job has been the chrysalis stage, where major changes are taking place inside, hidden from view by anyone else but intensely felt by me.

What’s to come is the most exciting and amazing part of all, where the beautiful butterfly emerges with the courage and strength to go to unfamiliar places. That part is supposed to be the reward for all the hard work and sacrifice of the other stages. I can’t wait for that part! Stay tuned….




Posted in Happiness and Gratitude, Insects | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Things That Float & Things That Fly

While millions of my fellow Americans spent their time blowing things up this weekend (Happy Birthday, America!), I spent the first two days of the long holiday weekend indoors getting started with packing for my upcoming move to Ohio. Such drudgery for a beautiful weekend, right? But never fear, I managed to get outside today for some much-needed nature therapy.

Crooked Lake boat launchWhen I moved out of the house last fall I wasn’t able to take my beloved kayak with me, so when Eric asked if I wanted to go out on the water today it took me about one-half of a second to say yes. So this morning we headed to Independence Oaks County Park and launched our boats into Crooked Lake. This is a great lake because there’s no beach (thus no beach noise), and because there’s always a lot of wildlife to see there. And today was wonderfully quiet. I guess most people were still recuperating from July 4 festivities, because we had the place virtually to ourselves. There were a couple guys fishing from rowboats but nobody else on the entire 68 acres until we passed two other kayaks as we were paddling back to the ramp three hours later. A perfect little slice of heaven on a Sunday morning.

Eric watching a  Great Egret hunting along the banks

Eric watching a Great Egret hunting along the banks

Blue Dasher with water mites

Blue Dasher with water mites

I continued my attempts to get good photos of dragonflies and damselflies, and ended up with a few good ones. This male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is one of my favorite dragons. Something about the combination of the powdery blue abdomen and the gorgeous blue-green color of the eyes, contrasted with the brown and yellow pattern on the thorax. Just pleasing to my eye, I guess. And when I got the picture up on the computer, I was immediately curious about those little red spots under the thorax. I discovered that they’re water mites, tiny parasites that attach to the dragonfly while it’s still a nymph living under the water. I found a very interesting blog post (by Jim Johnson) that explains more about the relationship between the dragonflies and the mites, so if you want to know more, click over here.

And then there was this lovely Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta). I think this is the first time I’ve photographed and identified this species. There were quite a few of them engaged in aerial combat with each other.

Slaty Skimmer

Slaty Skimmer

Did you know that dragonflies can fly at speeds up to 20 miles per hour? They can fly forward, backward, and hover like a helicopter. But despite their speed and acrobatic maneuvering skills, they’re no match for Eastern Kingbirds, who like to eat them. Today I watched the parents of a brood of kingbird fledglings working overtime grabbing dragonflies one after the other in mid-air all around me as I sat in my kayak amidst a floating “meadow” of water lilies.

Kingbird with dragonfly

Kingbird with dragonfly

The picture above was taken by Eric a couple years ago. Here’s a shot from today, minus the meal:

Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings

Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings

It might sound strange, but I absolutely love the “snap” and “crunch” sounds when a hungry kingbird or Cedar Waxwing snatches a dragonfly out of the air. When I first started spending a lot of time watching animals, I realized that I was going to have to learn not to get upset about one animal eating another. And most of the time I handle it pretty well. Especially when the death of the prey animal is quick, as is the case with insects eaten by birds. If you’re a prey animal and you have to die, then faster is better, right?

But the times when I’m witness to the less-swift death of an animal are much harder to deal with. As was the case a couple weeks ago when I happened upon a Northern Ribbon Snake chasing a little frog, when I had to listen to the screams of the frog after the snake caught it. I had no idea a frog could make sounds like that. It was very distressing to me at the time, but also exciting to see a part of nature I’d never seen before. I’ll bet you’re glad I didn’t get pictures of that encounter, aren’t you?

Here’s another cool behavior I got to photograph today:

Bluets in mating tandem

Bluets in mating tandem

Another pair of bluets, on my arm!

Another pair of bluets, on my arm!

These are bluets, a very common type of damselfly but one I can’t identify down to any one species. They’re all such similar combinations of blue and black that my eyes just glaze over when I flip through the bluet section of my field guide. But that’s okay with me. What’s interesting in this picture is that the two at the top are locked in a tandem, which means that the male is grasping the female behind the head. This is part of their mating process, but it’s uncertain whether they’ve already mated or are preparing to mate. The male will often continue to hold on to the female after mating to prevent other males from getting to her and removing their sperm (yep, they can do that). And if I’m understanding what I see here, there does appear to be another male very interested in this particular lady. So Bachelor #1 seems to be wise to hold on for a while longer.

Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break

Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break

Today was a lovely, relaxing day–exactly what I needed to energize me for the coming week of packing and attending to the many tedious details of moving. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write much here until I get settled, but I look forward to showing you the natural beauty that abounds in the marshes of northwest Ohio…very soon!

Posted in Birds, Insects, Kayaking | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Anticipation = Happiness

The white ones are Duchess de Nemours peonies. I don't remember the name of the pink ones.

The white ones are Duchess de Nemours peonies.

I’ve noticed that some of the things we treasure most are those that we have to wait for the longest and those that are gone quickly. I’m thinking of things like blazing fall foliage or colorful migrating songbirds.  While anticipation of something special can be difficult to endure, it also makes the thing itself even more special when it finally arrives. I’ve come to realize that having something to look forward to is a key ingredient in a happy life. There have been times when I noticed that I had nothing on my calendar that I was excited about, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. Lately I’m trying to be conscious of that fact so that I make sure to always have something to look forward to, whether it’s some milestone in the natural world or some kind of social event with friends.

Duchesse de Nemours Peonies at my former home

Duchess de Nemours Peonies at my former home

A few years ago I planted several Duchess de Nemours peonies outside my kitchen window in memory of my grandma, and their brief bloom time became something I eagerly awaited.  I began thinking about those flowers the moment the ground was free of snow each year, when their bloom was still months away. In May I watched anxiously as the plants began to pop up out of the ground. Then I watched impatiently throughout the month as the plants got bigger and bigger, and then the big buds swelled day by day. Then, finally, the flowers burst open in early June, flinging their heady aroma into the air.

But the peony treasure only lasts a short time before those fragrant petals fall to the ground, leaving me to enjoy them only in memory until next year. So I take every opportunity to stick my nose in them while they’re here, even collecting the fallen petals to pile in small dishes around the house for a while longer.

Collage of tinted peoniesBesides the peonies being in bloom, I’ve got some other amazing things happening in my life right now. I’m anticipating a move to a beautiful little house, a relocation back to Ohio, and a job that is so incredibly perfect for me that I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and find out I’ve been dreaming. Even though sometimes I didn’t believe it would be worth it to go through all the pain of the past nine months, it turns out that it was. I feel proud of myself for doing all the work to get my head on straight and to begin healing from the divorce. I feel stronger emotionally than I’ve felt for a very long time, and I know I’m on the right path, finally. Life is good.

I’m so grateful to all of you who have supported me in my darker times, and I can’t wait to share more details with you over the coming months as I transition to life in my new home — where there will be peonies!

Expressing my happiness with magnetic poetry

Expressing my happiness with magnetic poetry

Posted in Happiness and Gratitude | 8 Comments

The Woodstock of Birding

Red morph Eastern Screech-owl

Red morph Eastern Screech-owl

I finally feel capable of attempting to write about my experience at this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding (BW), my fifth consecutive year of attending. I hope to convey why this festival is the highlight of the year for me and so many of my nature-loving friends. Ready? Okay, let’s do this.

Oh, first I should tell you about this little Screech-owl. Maumee Bay State Park is the festival headquarters for the BW, and they have a 2-mile long boardwalk through a marsh beside the lodge. This owl roosted near the boardwalk every day, allowing lots of birders to enjoy unobstructed views. After the challenge of trying to see and photograph fast-moving little warblers high in the trees, an owl is a welcome change of pace. I saw this bird on three separate days. On one of those days I’d been standing outside the marsh alone before an event, looking for warblers, when I struck up a conversation with another birder who came along. It turned out she was relatively new to the world of birding, and had never seen a screech-owl before. So I took her into the marsh to see this one, and we enjoyed seeing some warblers while we were in there too.

Me, Kim Kaufman, Drew Lanham, and Kenn Kaufman

Me, Kim Kaufman, Drew Lanham, and Kenn Kaufman

Which brings me to one of the best parts of this festival: Everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic. It’s easy to be happy when everyone around you is in love with birds and nature. I imagine it’s what Woodstock would have been like — peace, love, and lots of hugs. (Well, like Woodstock if you subtracted the pharmaceuticals and added in lots of birds.) For the past several weeks my Facebook feed has been full of dozens of pictures of friends hugging each other with big goofy smiles on their faces. It’s only now starting to slow down, almost two weeks after the event ended. I’ve never been any place else in the world that made me feel like this, and that’s probably why I shed some tears every year on the last day of this festival, when I have to get in my car and head home. I just don’t want to leave that place.

My BW schedule crumpled after a long weekThis is a picture of my pre-festival tentative itinerary, which I drafted just so I would have an idea of what I “might” be doing each day–workshops I hoped to attend, friends I hoped to meet up with, and places I wanted to go birding. You can tell that many changes were made to it, right? Wow, that was crazy. For someone who normally lives a pretty quiet life, those ten days really wore me out. But in a good way. :)

Sunrise over Maumee Bay State Park golf course - showing fog on dunes (1024x598)

Sunrise at Maumee Bay State Park

There’s a great memory to go with this sunrise picture. I arrived at Maumee Bay Lodge early one morning to pick up a friend for a leisurely morning of photography at Magee Marsh. As I proceeded up the long drive to the lodge, the sun was just peeking over the hills of the golf course, illuminating the foggy landscape. As birders do, I slowed the car and put my window down, just in case I could hear any birds. And instantly I heard the song of an Eastern Meadowlark from somewhere out in the haze. Excited, I snapped a couple pics with my phone, and then quickly went ahead to pick up my friend Drew, wanting to share this beautiful moment with him. He barely had a chance to get in the car and I took off again, knowing that the sunrise would happen very quickly, and wanting to make sure he got a chance to see it.

He had his camera ready and jumped out of the car when I got to just the right spot. We both heard the meadowlark singing, and I slowly rolled the car along as Drew jogged down the road, taking photos at various vantage points. I hope I keep this special memory for a long time. I have to confess that, as a night owl, I haven’t seen all that many sunrises in my life. But this experience makes me want to start going to bed earlier so I can start seeing more of that beautiful part of the day!

So there were sunrises…and sunsets….

Lake Erie sunset

Lake Erie sunset

Field trips…

Field trip at Magee Marsh  - May 12, 2015 - Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle

Birders at Magee Marsh

…and I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh! The birds! Do you want to see some birds?

American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover

I normally only see plovers in distant flocks requiring the use of a spotting scope, so I was thrilled when I happened upon this single bird along the auto route through Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. I was able to stop the car and verrry slowly stick the camera out the window to get this shot. Such a beautiful shorebird!

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

This next bird was another special moment. I’d arranged to meet two of my friends at Magee Marsh late in the afternoon on a cold and windy day. It was the only time the three of us could be together, and we only managed to spend a couple hours together, but it was wonderful. Because of the less-than-favorable weather, there weren’t too many people out birding that afternoon, so we had lots of room to stroll slowly, chatting and watching birds.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

Me, Kelly, and Janet at Magee Marsh on the day we saw the Northern Parula

Me, Kelly, and Janet at Magee Marsh on the day we saw the Northern Parula

It seemed that most of the birds were staying up higher in the trees this year than in past years, and so it was a real treat when this Northern Parula came down low beside the boardwalk. And not only did he come down lower, but he sat still and preened for a couple minutes, allowing all three of us to snap dozens of photos of him at close range. It was the best view I’d ever had of this pretty species, and being able to share it with two special friends made it that much better.

I think this might be getting too long already, but if you’re still here I might as well tell you one more story from this day.  And I so wish I’d taken a picture to go along with it. When I was in Texas last November for the Rio Grande Birding Festival, I had a conversation with a couple of Texans when they asked me about the Biggest Week t-shirt I was wearing. I told them all about it and gave them my blog address so they could come here to read more. I didn’t think too much more about that conversation and went about my business. So when a woman walked up to me on the Magee Marsh boardwalk and said, “Kim?”, I didn’t realize who it was. It turned out to be Pam and John, the people I had talked to in Texas! They told me that they had come to Ohio because of how enthusiastic I had been when I told them about this festival, and that they were having the time of their lives. I was so blown away I could hardly form complete sentences. By now you’ll expect that I shed a few tears. Again. I was already having a great day, but they put the icing on that sucker right then, let me tell you. I’ll never forget how I felt at that moment. So proud of our festival and so happy that they were enjoying themselves on their first trip to Ohio.

My sister and I at Magee Marsh

My sister and I at Magee Marsh

And I ran into Pam and John again a few days later when I was at Magee Marsh with my sister, and they were still having fun!  As for my sister, well, I didn’t manage to turn her into a birder, but at least she got to see this place and why it means so much to me.

I didn’t go on many field trips, but I took two writing workshops that were very inspiring. One was about how to write about conservation issues in a way that motivates people to take action, and the other was a poetry workshop.

This was my fifth year attending the Biggest Week, and it was the best yet. I didn’t attend parties or hang out with a big group of friends this time, but mostly either birded by myelf or with one or two other people at a time. And that gave me more chances to have some really great conversations in the way I relate best to people, one on one. I was able to make some meaningful new friendships and cement some I’d made in previous years. And I even managed to get a few new birds for my life list:

My seven life birds at Biggest Week 2015

From my eBird life list


Kentucky Warbler, one of my most-wanted warblers in the past few years -- finally!

Kentucky Warbler, one of my most-wanted warblers in the past few years — finally!

I’ll continue adding more photos to my Flickr photostream, so hop over there occasionally if you want to see more.

Just writing this has put a big smile on my face, as all the memories come flooding back. I hope I’ve been able to give you a sense of the magic of spring migration in northwest Ohio. If you have even the slightest curiosity about what it’s all about, I urge you to come to the Biggest Week next year. It might just change your life too!

Great Blue Heron seen from the kitchen window of my rented cottage on Lake Erie

Great Blue Heron seen from the kitchen window of my rented cottage on Lake Erie

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

You mean THAT’S gotta fit in HERE?

You may remember my teaser photo of this Great Blue Heron eating a fish a couple weeks ago, where I showed you the close-up view of the fish’s eye as it entered the mouth of the heron. This one:

Great Blue Heron with big fish in mouth - part of series w sig

Well here’s a series of pics showing the process of catching the fish and managing to get it down the throat. I’m always amazed at how deftly they manage to handle a slippery fish with no hands. Enjoy! (I’m making some assumptions about behavior here, so keep that in mind as you read my notes.)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (1)

So he grabs the fish and pulls it out of the water, immediately turning to the shore so it won’t be able to swim away if he drops it. (Click on any picture to see it larger, and I apologize that these pics aren’t very sharp — I had to crop them all.)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (9)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (13)

It’s still alive at this point, so I think he’s laying it down so he can deliver the killing blow.

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (17)

Yep, that ought to do it. But, hmm, now it’s got dirt all over it. What to do, what to do?

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (22)

Oh, I know…I’ll wash it off. (It could also be that he needs it to be wet to facilitate swallowing. I’m not sure how important it is to “wash” it.)

Dipping it back in the water

Dipping it back in the water

Getting it turned around...

Getting it turned around…

Ok, getting close...

Ok, getting close…

Oh yeah, here we go...

Oh yeah, here we go…

Going down the hatch

Going down the hatch

I always think it’s so cool how you can see the outline of the entire fish in the heron’s throat! I don’t know much about fish, but I think this might be a white bass…I looked in my new Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest and that was the closest match I could find there, based on the broken stripes on its sides and the shape of the fins.

Going down the hatch

Going down the hatch

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (59)

I learned something really interesting about the Great Blue Heron today. Not only do they eat fish, but also sometimes amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. And, here’s the cool part: They expel pellets of indigestible mammal hair, just like owls do! Did you know that? Apparently they can digest the bones, unlike owls, who expel bones in their pellets along with hair. I only learned a couple years ago that these pellets are expelled through the mouth rather than the other end of the body. I guess I never really thought about it much, until the day I saw a captive Northern Saw-whet Owl regurgitate a pellet right in front of me at an Audubon event. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (66)

Fish? What fish?

Fish? What fish?

Posted in Birds | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Intimacy in the Parking Lot

Killdeer in gravel parking lot

Killdeer in gravel parking lot

I got home yesterday afternoon and am probably going to need a couple days to recuperate from all the excitement at the Biggest Week in American Birding. This year’s festival was the best yet, and I have lots of photos to share with you all. But for today I just have a sequence from an intimate moment in the lives of two Killdeer.

Near Magee Marsh, there’s an ice cream shop with a big gravel parking lot in which Killdeer often dig their little “rock nests.” Early in the week I had a great time watching some recently-hatched babies running around the edges of this lot under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Little puffballs -- Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!

Little puffballs — Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!

Unfortunately, nesting in parking lots has its hazards, and I saw one of the parents of this brood get run over by a car just a few minutes after this photo was taken. It brought me to tears. These birds aren’t always noticeable, and I imagine many of them lose their lives like this. I think all four of the babies ran to safety though. I didn’t see them anywhere in the area in the days following that, so have convinced myself they’re okay with the remaining  parent.

My last day in Ohio was really hot, so I stopped back over there to get an ice cream cone. As I sat in my car eating it, I noticed two adult Killdeer sitting on the edge of the lot, about two feet apart. Occasionally one of them, presumably the female, got up and worked on a little indentation she was forming in the gravel. She would pull a rock to the side and then squat down in it and wiggle around, using her body to shape it better.

Using her body to shape the nest.

Using her body to shape the nest, or maybe also trying to attract the male?

After watching them for a few minutes and seeing them settle down again, I laid my car seat back and closed my eyes for a short nap. But a short time later I heard them making some agitated noises, so sat up and got to see this:

Hmm, what's going on here? Need a closer look....

Hmm, what’s going on here? Need a closer look….

Balancing act, trying to find the right position…

Killdeer mating sequence 4

Ah, I think they’ve got it now…

Killdeer mating sequence 6

Killdeer mating sequence 7

And the slightly-ungraceful dismount:

Killdeer mating sequence dismount

Nobody saw that, right?

Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.

Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.

So if all goes well there will be more little puffballs running around that parking lot soon! Next time I plan to show you the rest of the photo series of that Great Blue Heron eating a fish (see the preview in my previous post). And, of course, there will be warbler photos…stay tuned!

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Birds, Nesting | Tagged , | 6 Comments