You Can Take the Girl Out of the Midwest…

…but, apparently, you can’t take the Midwest out of the girl.

As you all know, I’m a devoted supporter of The Biggest Week in American Birding, the awesome migration festival held on the Lake Erie shore of Ohio each May. My connection to that place and to the people of the Biggest Week is intense and emotional. After all, this was the event that introduced me to warblers and that continues to teach me so much about the natural world and just generally enrich my life enormously.

So when I went down to Texas on Wednesday for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I knew I would be comparing it to the Biggest Week. I wanted to be as objective as possible, but Mother Nature didn’t make it easy — the first two days it rained all day long. I arrived in the pouring rain on Wednesday and wasn’t able to go birding at all. (I saw lots of Great-tailed Grackles and Coots as I drove past a rainy park though.) The locals said this was the first time they could remember it ever raining during this festival.

Great-tailed Grackles

Great-tailed Grackles

My first field trip, on Thursday, was pretty disappointing. A large bus filled with 40 birders loaded up at 5:00 a.m. and drove two long hours west to Salineño in the upper Rio Grande Valley. As dawn broke over southern Texas, we gamely donned our raincoats and put on determined faces, trudging down to the banks of the Rio Grande, where the wind blew rain sideways and fogged our binoculars. Despite these miserable conditions, we spent 20 minutes there watching big flocks of cormorants fly over and a sopping wet Osprey sitting in a tree on the Mexico bank. Then we retreated to a bird feeding station about a hundred yards up the hill. Some of our group were able to take cover under an awning as we spent almost an hour watching the birds feeding. As crowded as this was, I still managed to see about ten life birds there, including the ubiquitous Green Jays and four species of doves. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a single bird photo from that day because I decided it wasn’t wise to take my camera out in that mess. Here’s a cell phone pic to give you an idea of the scene:

Salineño, Texas. That's Mexico on the other side of the river.

Salineño, Texas. That’s Mexico on the other side of the river.

We made another stop after this one but it was even worse. I’ll spare you the details of that one.

My second trip, on Friday, appeared to be headed in the same direction, as it rained all the way to King Ranch, about an hour from Harlingen. But, happily, the rain slowed to a light intermittent drizzle for the rest of the day, and it was a really good day. My friends Lynn and Bruce were with me on this trip, so that helped too. And another friend, Raymond, was one of our guides. This was my first time to see Raymond in his leadership role, and I was very impressed with his knowledge of the birds as well as the caring attention he showed to each and every person on that tour.

Ferruginous Pygmy-owl at King Ranch. Great life bird!

Ferruginous Pygmy-owl at King Ranch.

The very first bird we found that day was the much-desired Ferruginous Pygmy-owl. These tiny tropical owls are on the Endangered Species List, now found in the U.S. only in small areas of Arizona and southern Texas. I got a couple pictures of him and then showed Bruce how to get the same angle through the tree limbs for his shots. I think he got better shots than I did, but this is my best one in the low light and drizzle conditions.

Bruce and Raymond celebrating the Ferruginous Pygmy-owl sighting.

Bruce and Raymond celebrating the Ferruginous Pygmy-owl sighting.

I ended that day with another dozen or so birds to add to my life list, including Vermilion Flycatcher and Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (aren’t those fantastic bird names?). The weather forecast for my last two days was for sunshine and mid-70s, so I had high hopes of finding some more of the region’s specialty birds.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

On Saturday my housemates decided to go to Salineño in search of some specific species they needed for their lists, and since I’d already been there I decided to go to a new place. My friend Linda gave me suggestions for an itinerary, and I headed off to see the famed Estero Llano Grande State Park. I had a great morning exploring this beautiful park, seeing White-faced Ibises and my second Loggerhead Shrike of the trip, both new birds for my list. I’d first seen Great Kiskadees in Panama back in August, and got to see lots more of them in Texas. I discovered that they have a crest on their head that is usually flattened down, but that they sometimes raise up. I enjoyed watching this particular Kiskadee for several minutes as he fed in one of the marsh ponds.

Great Kiskadee showing off

Great Kiskadee showing off

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

And I almost forgot to look for hummingbirds there until I passed a feeder on my way out of the park and saw a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a species we don’t have in Michigan. He seemed much bigger than our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Don't even think about it!

Don’t even think about it!

After a lunch break I headed to Mission, Texas, to see the National Butterfly Center. There are 300 species of butterflies found in the varied habitats here, and about 90 species of dragonflies too. Both butterflies and dragonflies are a challenge to photograph, so I was excited to have this opportunity to practice. When I went in the visitor center to pay the $10 entry fee, the staff told me that the trails were very muddy but I could drive back to the main gardens if I wanted to. I spent a few minutes in the gardens around the building before heading down a very muddy road to the main butterfly area. I passed a large military vehicle with several armed guards standing beside it watching the Rio Grande, a reminder of one of the realities of life for those who live on the southern border.

I spent an hour or so wandering around trying to shoot as many different butterfly species as I could find. I haven’t yet identified most of them, but that will be fun to do later this week. (I’m going to save the butterfly pictures for my next post.) Then I scraped as much mud off my shoes as I could, and headed back to Harlingen.

On Sunday we were all signed up for a field trip to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, but on Saturday night we were all so exhausted from the nonstop activity that we decided to skip the organized trip and go off on our own. And because I had a flight home in the mid-afternoon I planned to stay in Harlingen and bird some of the local parks. But after everyone went their separate ways and I’d had some breakfast, I decided to go ahead and drive to Santa Ana anyway. I wouldn’t have much time there before I had to go to the airport, but I thought I’d see what I could find. I was really hoping to see Chachalacas but couldn’t find them. And that place is so big that I didn’t cover much ground in my short time there. And besides, rushing through the woods isn’t a very good way to find birds — they hear you crashing around and take off before you can get anywhere near them. I actually saw more dragonflies than birds at Santa Ana, and was pleased to get a picture of this pretty green one that I have yet to identify.

Isn't this a beautiful dragonfly?

Isn’t this a beautiful dragonfly?

As I sat in the airport waiting for my flight that afternoon, I started making notes about my trip. It was my first time to go birding in Texas and my first time at this festival. I ended up with 28 new birds on my life list, which is okay but much lower than I’d expected. I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to see any Roseate Spoonbills or Pyrrhuloxia, but I guess that leaves something to shoot for next time.

Birders in the rain at King Ranch v2 (800x600)

Birders in the rain at King Ranch

Birders in the rain at Falcon State Park

More birders in the rain – Falcon State Park

I’m sure I would have enjoyed this trip more if the weather had been better, but I’m still glad I went. I got to spend time with friends I’d met in Ohio and made a few new ones. My highly-sensitive side was overwhelmed much of the time though — being in a place that’s so culturally different from what I’m used to was great but I didn’t have time to appreciate it all in the way I would have liked to. And staying in a house with my friends was great too, but they’re all very extroverted people and I got pushed beyond my limits with the parties every single night. I even had a meltdown one night because I couldn’t get a moment of quiet time to process everything that was flooding into my brain. (I know my friends learned a thing or two about me by this experience too, possibly that they’re reconsidering our friendship!) Travel is always stressful for me, and it was interesting to be around people who thrive on always being on the move and surrounded by people. I was so far out of my comfort zone it wasn’t funny. I think I’m going to write a separate blog post about how HSP-Kim experienced this trip. After she has a few days to recuperate and ruminate on everything, that is.

I hope you enjoyed the photos. I may have some more to share after I look through them all later. And now I’m looking ahead — so much — to the Biggest Week in American Birding. I’m a Midwestern girl to the core and I’m proud to say that I belong here and I love it here.  There’s definitely something to be said for the sunshine of the southwest, but I’m emotionally bound to the landscapes and people of Ohio and Michigan, even if I do have to put up with some snow and cold every year. I’m very glad I can visit those places, but this is my home. And there’s no place like home, at least for me.

Cow on road at King Rancch (800x533)

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Birds, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Wordless Wednesday

Cedar Waxwing

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Fall foliage (1) (640x427)I’ve been spending lots of time outdoors lately, trying to soak up as much of the autumn beauty as possible while it’s still here. The other day I went for a drive in a rural area about 25 miles away and spent a couple hours taking photographs of the pretty scenery. So often I found myself in awe of the stunning beauty — leaves quivering in the breeze with sunlight shining through all shades of golds, reds, and browns. It’s a struggle to come up with words to express how much I love this season. Places that wouldn’t draw a second glance for the rest of the year are magically transformed into art. Just look at the leaves floating on the water in this lake. See how the sunlight was filtering through to the rocks below? It was mesmerizing, with the leaves bobbing up and down on water stirred by a soft breeze, and the light patterns dancing around below.
Leaves floating on water with dappled sunlight and rocks (640x427)
I stumbled upon this little hidden lake and stopped to check for migrating waterfowl. I didn’t see any ducks there, but this view was worth the stop anyway.

Algoe Lake in Ortonville SRA - with fall foliage w sig

I was thrilled to come across a few Sandhill Cranes, and then some sheep sharing their pasture with a curious donkey.
Sandhill Crane on gravel road

Sheep through a fence
This road was typical of the scenery all afternoon, just one “feast for the eyes” after another. I’m not ashamed to say that I got teary-eyed more than once as I contemplated all the beauty around me that day. I experience autumn this way every year, with heightened awareness of the cycles of nature as well as appreciation of its beauty.

Curving rural road with fall foliage and sunlight w sig

But this year I can’t help but view autumn through a more personal lens. Just as the trees must shed their leaves to survive the winter, I had some letting go of my own to do. Just as those dead leaves will nourish the soil that keeps the tree standing, I believe the lessons I learned from the breakup of my marriage will help build a stronger foundation for the rest of my life. And just as new leaves will emerge on the trees when conditions are more favorable, it’s my hope that I’ll have a similar rejuvenation after a necessary period of dormancy.

Rural road in Lapeer county with fall foliage w sig

I’m learning to rely on myself and not to fear the unknown. I don’t know what lies ahead for me but I’m ready to start my journey and find out.

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I know, you’re all waiting for my second installment of the Panama trip, aren’t you? I’m sorry to say that I’m not very motivated to write that part anymore because my life has taken a dramatic turn recently and my priorities have changed: Shortly after we returned home my husband and I decided to end our marriage of 16 years.

I’ve debated whether or not to write about this personal situation here. That’s why I haven’t written anything lately, because I felt blocked. It seemed somehow dishonest to go on writing about normal things as if everything is okay, when in reality my entire life has been turned upside down. But this blog has been an important part of my life for years, and I miss interacting with you all. So I’m going to be open about it in the hope that it will relieve the burden of the big secret I’ve been carrying on my shoulders. I’ve been writing furiously in my journal, of course, but that’s where I let all the crazy thoughts tumble out without editing them. But I think sharing some of my experiences here will serve another purpose — helping other HSPs who find themselves in a similar situation. And since almost everything in my life  has changed recently, it will give me some comfort to maintain at least this one familiar thing as I go through this difficult transition.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Despite realizing long ago that it would eventually come to this, it took me years to get up the courage to finally go through with the divorce. And it felt like jumping off a cliff without a parachute. I couldn’t sleep for weeks because I was terrified of having the conversation. And yet I knew it wasn’t fair to either of us to continue just going through the motions without our hearts being in it anymore. If there’s anything sadder than divorce, it’s settling for an unhappy marriage. Life is short and we both deserve better. It’s my hope that we can look back in a few years and be happier, healthier people.

So I’ve been in panic mode for the past couple of months as I tried to come to terms with what this means for my future. Along with all the emotional and financial turmoil that comes with a divorce, I’ve got the added problem of having no job and very little work history for the past 14 years. It’s going to take some time to get myself back into the work world after I get my head on straight again but I’m planning to resume my freelance indexing career and add proofreading services too.

Rochester Municipal Park bench and creek w sigI moved into an apartment a couple weeks ago and am pretty much settled in now, with just a few boxes that I can’t seem to fit anywhere. Moving from a 2700 square foot home to an 1100 square foot apartment meant that I had to let go of a lot of things that meant a great deal to me. It was torture trying to come to terms with not being able to take the antique furniture I’d discovered at flea markets, and my kayak, and — oh my gosh — my books. One day as I was trying to sort my books I ended up sitting on the floor in front of the bookcase sobbing my eyes out.

Rochester Municipal Park (13) (800x600)You may remember that I’ve written before about how much I love my books, here. But I had to tell myself that they’re just “things” and I can always borrow them from the library. One of the hardest things was leaving my beautiful knitting books behind. Those books are loaded with amazing photographs of sheep and lovely hand-dyed yarns…just really nice to browse through, even if I’m not knitting much anymore. So I took about 20 of them and left all the others behind to get donated to the library. I also took photos of all the books I couldn’t bring with me, so at least I won’t go nuts looking for something I don’t have anymore.

I reminded myself that I’ve been saying for years that I don’t need “stuff” and I wanted to simplify my life anyway. It’s just that having it forced on me in this way, when I’m already dealing with the grief over the loss of my marriage, was just one more trauma piled on top of everything else. It’s so easy to say, “I don’t need stuff” when you don’t have to let go of that stuff.  I’m so glad that I found a therapist to help me through this process, as she’s already taught me a lot about myself and talked me through some of the hardest parts of this whole thing. She helps me think through my fears and she’s helped me see that I really tend to beat myself up for my weaknesses, especially while I’m making such a huge transition in my life. So I’m trying hard to be kind to myself for the next couple of months as I adjust to my new reality and figure out who I am again.

Robin with red berry in beak w sigAnd of course I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about healing from divorce, about dealing with the grief. It’s very similar to how you feel when someone you love dies. You go through shock, sadness, and denial first, and then slowly you begin to function normally again. And eventually you have some happy days sprinkled in there. But then, when you least expect it, you’ll hear a song or watch a movie and be reminded of something that breaks your heart all over again. For a few weeks I couldn’t even listen to my iPod because every song seemed to be a reminder of the love I didn’t have any more. It’s an emotional roller coaster, that’s for sure.

But as bad as it’s been, I can see glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel now. On my good days I can almost picture myself happy again, leading a new and exciting life. And my friends have been incredibly supportive, sending me notes just to let me know they’re thinking of me. When my self-esteem is at its lowest they remind me of all my positive qualities. When I’m having a bad day and feeling sorry for myself, getting even a one-sentence text or email can make it a lot easier to get through it.

Chickadee on red sumac w sig

Black-capped Chickadee feasting on sumac seeds

One of the saddest parts of moving to an apartment has been the loss of the two acres of woods that surrounded our house. I’ve written many times about how much I loved the wide variety of wildlife that visited our yard. In my apartment search I made a priority of finding a place with big trees and as much privacy as I could. Most apartment communities are arranged so your view is likely to be of another apartment building, but I was really lucky to find a place where my view is of a lovely strip of woods. There are two sumac trees right outside my windows (although they look like they’re almost dead), and big cottonwoods and oaks too. The fall colors are beautiful right now.  I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I started my new “yard bird list” on the day I moved in. Since October 1st I’ve seen 17 species of birds already, without even stepping outside the apartment. And even better, I’m getting close up views of them when they come to the sumacs. The sumac trees are a big draw for birds that love feasting on the big seed heads, so I have hopes of good birding all winter long here.

All of the photos in this post were taken after I moved into the apartment. Looking at the photos helps convince me that I’m going to be alright here. My living space is comfortable, my cats are settled in, and I still have birds! Birds have been such a blessing in my life in recent years. They’ve taught me lessons about nature. They’ve graced me with their beauty and resilience and charm. They’ve brought me the best friends I’ve had in my entire life, kind-hearted people who share my respect for the natural world and who accept me for who I am. Even when I don’t know who I am.

Yes, thanks to birds and birders, I’m going to be alright.

Northern Flicker right outside my window

Northern Flicker right outside my window

Posted in Birds, Grief, Happiness and Gratitude, Highly-Sensitive People (HSPs) | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments

It’s a Jungle Out There!

Oh my gosh, where do I begin? We recently spent a week birding in Panama, at the incredible Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge resorts. These two properties are very different in many ways, but share a wonderful hospitality and the absolute highest quality birding guides. I think I’ll try to break this into a couple posts, with this first one focusing on the Canopy Tower and our experiences there during the first three days of our week. Canopy Tower view from ground (600x800)

Welcome / Warning sign on gate of Canopy Tower

Welcome / Warning sign on gate of Canopy Tower

After a horrific travel day on Saturday we finally arrived at the Canopy Tower in time for a late dinner before dropping exhausted into bed in our small but comfortable room. The Canopy Tower is a converted U.S. military radar station overlooking the Panama Canal. The owner of all the Canopy properties, Raúl Arias de Para, had the vision to convert this historic property into a tourist lodge. And what a fantastic job he did. The lower levels hold the guest rooms, which are pie-shaped wedges. The rooms are very simple but quite comfortable. There’s no air conditioning, but the ceiling fans helped quite a bit with sleeping in the jungle heat and humidity.

They’ve left the barbed wire fence in place, a remnant of when this was still a military site. They say it’s not there for security anymore, but they do keep it locked at all times, so you decide. I never felt threatened or unsafe at all, anywhere in Panama, so I think it’s just for the ambiance.  It lends an element of drama to the whole experience, if you ask me.

My first morning on the observation deck atop the Canopy Tower

My first morning on the observation deck atop the Canopy Tower

It had already gotten dark when we walked out of the airport, so we really couldn’t see anything of our surroundings on the hour-long drive to the tower. So I was anxious for morning so I could see what everyone had been telling me about. And oh my goodness, what a morning it was! Howler Monkeys (800x694) I’d heard loud insect and frog calls all night long, but just before dawn I heard the first deep-throated and haunting calls of the Mantled Howler Monkeys all around us. What a thrill! I’m glad I knew ahead of time to expect those sounds because otherwise I might have been scared that there was some sort of birder-eating monster coming to get us. There’s no question how these guys got their names, that’s for sure. Some mornings they were nearer the tower, and other mornings more distant, but they were a constant presence during our stay. We were even lucky enough to see several family groups of them on our various hikes in and around the town of Gamboa.

It wasn't all about the birds -- I loved finding these perfectly-camouflaged lizards

It wasn’t all about the birds — I loved finding these perfectly-camouflaged lizards

When we arrived the first night for our late dinner, there was a group of eight or ten people finishing their meal in the dining room. They had their own guide from another tour company, but we had booked our trip directly with the Tower and we had the amazing good fortune to get one of the Canopy family’s best guides all to ourselves. I’d met Eliecer Rodriguez Madrid in Ohio a few months earlier during the Biggest Week in American Birding, when he’d made his very first visit to America. So it was a gigantic pleasure to have him lead us around his country on our first visit there. I’ll probably go overboard in praising the guides here, but I can’t help it. Eliecer was not only kind and patient with us, but unbelievably adept at finding and calling in the birds so we could see them. (I cannot believe I forgot to get pictures of myself with any of our guides!)

Golden-hooded Tanager

Golden-hooded Tanager

Ok, I know you want to see what we saw, so let’s get to some pictures. This was my first time ever in Central America, so I knew that almost every bird I would see on this trip would be a new one for my life list. As it turned out, I saw 212 species of birds during the week, with 90% of them being new ones, or “lifers.” Even though we had purchased field guides prior to our trip, if not for our amazingly skilled human guides, we wouldn’t have been able to find (or identify) most of these birds. I felt as overwhelmed as I did when I first started trying to learn warblers during spring migration in Ohio. But I kept reminding myself to just relax and enjoy seeing them, without stressing about not knowing all the identifications on my own.

Keel-billed Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan. (Fruit Loops, anyone?)

Right off the bat we saw many Keel-billed Toucans and Red-lored Parrots all around the Tower. One morning I even saw a toucan from the window while I was showering! How cool is that?

Green Honeycreeper

Green Honeycreeper

The Tower keeps several hummingbird feeders stocked so it was easy to see a good variety of hummers. Easy to see them, much harder to photograph them. But I managed to get a couple good shots. I watched this Blue-chested Hummingbird sipping nectar from dozens of flowers on the mimosa tree out front. After a frustrating half hour of trying to shoot him before he moved to the next flower, I got smart and focused on one location and waited for him to come there. I felt so clever!

Blue-chested Hummingbird

Blue-chested Hummingbird

This White-necked Jacobin was one of my favorite hummingbirds.

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

I was surprised that we found quite a few parent birds taking food to their hidden nests, and even saw some nestlings directly. (In my next post I’ll share a picture of baby hummingbirds in their nest.) When we were birding on Pipeline Road on our first day, we saw a pair of Fasciated Antshrikes carrying insects into the foliage. We stood quietly and watched where they had disappeared, and were rewarded with up-close views of the male when he came out to investigate after dropping off his food at the nest. He popped out just above the ground only a few feet away from me. I could barely fit him in the frame and get off a couple shots, and then he flew across the trail right in front of me. I got the feeling he was upset that we were too close to the nest (which we couldn’t see), so we moved off and left the little family to their important business. That was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip though. Isn’t he a beautiful bird? Look at those red eyes.

Fasciated Antshrike papa, investigating the humans who were apparently too close to his offspring.

Fasciated Antshrike papa, investigating the humans who were apparently too close to his offspring.

And there were more monkeys. These white-faced capuchins were quite far off and didn’t stick around long, but I managed to get a shot to remember the moment:

White-faced Capuchin

White-faced Capuchin

And another of my favorite birds, the Cinnamon Woodpecker. We watched a pair of them in the trees right beside the Tower on our last day…such a treat. I really love woodpeckers.

Cinnamon Woodpecker, male

Cinnamon Woodpecker, male

This is getting pretty long (I knew that would happen), so I’ll end this first post with a couple more shots of the Canopy Tower. Every morning at dawn they provide coffee and tea up on the observation deck. The stairs to the platform are very steep, prompting the staff to put up this sign as a caution to sleepy pre-dawn birders:

Staircase to observation deck at Canopy Tower (1) (640x247)
Staircase to observation deck at Canopy Tower (2) (533x800)It sounds a bit confusing, but it’s easy when you’re doing it. I even managed to go up those stairs with my laptop opened up one day, trying to Skype with some friends back home. Unfortunately the wireless signal kept cutting out as soon as I got up on the roof, but I did manage to give them a Skype tour of the interior of this unique building. The Tower isn’t the Ritz, but I was very comfortable there and it was worth tolerating the heat and humidity just to have the experience of staying in this place. But just wait until you see the Canopy Lodge…stay tuned for part two of my Panama adventures!

Birders on the observation deck of the Tower

Birders on the observation deck of the Tower




Posted in Birds, Travel | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Food for Thought

Long-time readers of this blog may remember when I joined a CSA three years ago (here’s where I wrote about it).  A CSA is a food co-op where you pay a membership fee that entitles you to weekly shares of local farm produce. It’s a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, eat healthier, and support local farmers so they can continue growing healthy food for your community. It’s a win-win. Except when it isn’t. The CSA I joined in 2011 fell apart in the middle of the summer due to the husband and wife farmer team getting divorced. My money wasn’t refunded and it left me disappointed and very wary of signing up for another one.

But time has a way of dulling that wariness, and after I talked to the owner of another CSA at this year’s Earth Day Festival I decided to give it a second try.  I’m so glad I did. I picked up our first half-share from Harvest Michigan yesterday. Look what we got:

Dexter wants some too!

Dexter wants some too!

It makes me feel healthier just looking at it! There are onions, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumber, carrots, lettuce, chard, garlic scapes, beets, green beans, kohlrabi, basil, and mint. But here’s where I have to admit something embarrassing. I have no idea what to do with some of these things. And I don’t think I’m all that different from many Americans who have poor eating habits; I don’t eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis.  Potatoes, tomatoes, and green beans? Sure. But kohlrabi, chard, and garlic scapes? Not so much. I’m lazy when it comes to preparing meals, and far too often I’ll eat a packaged protein bar and call it a meal.

And what’s worse is that I’ve read enough about our corporate-controlled food industry to know better. And I’ve read enough about climate change to know how important our food choices are to the future of our species on this planet. And because of that, I get overwhelmed at the pressure of grocery shopping. To someone who doesn’t have to do the grocery shopping, it might seem ridiculous: You just go in the store, buy stuff, take it home, and eat it. Bing, bang, boom. Done.

I love it when they're still covered with farm-fresh dirt!

I love it when they’re still covered with farm-fresh dirt!

But that’s not at all how it works, at least for me. Buying food is a hugely important responsibility. Our choices at the supermarket (and in restaurants) matter a great deal. If we continue to order veal in restaurants, calves will continue to be mistreated to produce that dish for us. (I do not eat veal.) If we continue to buy bananas from Latin America, they’ll continue to destroy forests to grow them for us. (Guilty on this one..I eat lots of bananas.) Unless we start buying more shade-grown coffee, big corporations will continue to destroy bird habitats to grow coffee in the sun (using lots of pesticides, by the way).

And there’s so much emotion wrapped up in food, isn’t there? We have lifelong habits to overcome, family traditions to change, and cravings to fight. I feel so guilty when I know certain foods have been shipped halfway around the world but buy them anyway because I want them and I’m in a rut. And what happens when I feel overburdened by guilt? I eat junk food. And the downward spiral begins. Eat. Feel guilty. Eat. Feel guilty…you know what I’m talking about. Imagine the difference if we can feel good about what we eat instead? Wild raspberries with quote fall seven times

So I’m making yet another attempt to nudge my eating habits in the right direction, both for my own health and that of the planet. Two steps forward, one step back. But I guess the important thing is that I keep trying. I’m using my favorite recipe website to search by ingredients and will figure out ways to use all of these nutritious foods. (Except the beet…don’t think I can do that yet.) I noticed in my 2011 post that I’d written about eating kohlrabi and loving it. I can’t remember how I prepared it back then, but last night I cut it in thin slices and roasted it in olive oil with some salt and pepper and the tiniest bit of parmesan cheese. It was absolutely heavenly.


Delicious roasted kohlrabi

I think our eating habits in America have become far too detached from the actual sources of our food. If the CSA hadn’t told me I had a kohlrabi in my share, I would have had to do an online search to figure out what food it was. That’s embarrassing. Nobody should grow up in this country not knowing what a kohlrabi is. I could understand not knowing what a kumquat is, or a lychee. But kohlrabi is grown right here in the midwest, where I’ve lived for half a century! It’s possible these are my unique shortcomings, but I don’t think I’m alone in my disconnection from my food.

Beautiful little mulberries from our tree

Beautiful little mulberries from our tree

In recent years I’ve developed a bit of garden envy when I see people writing about their home gardens full of healthy produce. I would love to grow some of my own food too, but our heavily shaded yard with a big and voracious deer population is just not conducive to it. The only place I could possibly grow something is to put pots on the deck, but the deer even come onto the deck sometimes, so I haven’t tried. I have high hopes that one day I’ll be able to do it, but in the meantime I’m so thankful for our local farmers. They’re not only nourishing my body, but they’re teaching me something I should have learned a long time ago. Food for thought, indeed.


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Appreciating the (Very Very) Small Things

It may be a cliché, but taking time to appreciate the little things is therapeutic. And after my struggles of the past couple of weeks I seem to have regained the ability to see things more optimistically. Thank goodness. There’s nothing like a peek into the blackness to make you run screaming back toward the light, proclaiming gratitude for everything you see.

As I was mowing the yard this weekend I noticed some tiny yellow “weeds” in one area. I realized that I hadn’t played with my macro lens for a while, so I went back outside and took some close up pictures of them. As often happens with macro photos, I was amazed at what I saw. Just look at this — and it’s only about a tenth of an inch across!

This little flower is only about a tenth of an inch across.

This little flower is only about a tenth of an inch across. (I think it’s called Black Medic.)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve yanked these things out and tossed them away without a second thought. But just look at that. And here’s another tiny treasure from the yard — this is common clover, the kind the bees love:

Clover flower, maybe a half inch across

Clover flower, maybe a half inch across

And speaking of our yard, I’ve begun to see our two acres in a new light as well. After our frustrations with the neighborhood came to a head recently, we started browsing the real estate listings for a larger property to cushion us from further construction (aka “progress”). In addition to looking for more acreage, our search was limited by the usual things: commuting distance, budget, type of road (no more dirt roads for us). We found a few promising listings and did preliminary drive-bys to check out the neighborhoods.  Boy, I had forgotten how a real estate ad can “forget” to mention the downside of each property. There’s some very creative marketing going on out there, believe me.

Certified Wildlife Habitat sign for our yard (605x800)All of which served to remind me that, even considering all the things we don’t like about our neighborhood and our road, we’ve got a pretty rare treasure here. Two acres of woods in the middle of a crowded and busy suburb, with lots of wildlife and plenty of privacy. Sure, it’s easy to get frustrated and complain about all the negatives. But I’m attempting to have more gratitude for the positives. And it seems that the closer I look, the more positives I can find.

You know that saying that “what you focus on expands”? If you’re always thinking “I hate this place,” your subconscious mind will work overtime finding more reasons for you to hate it. Believe me, been there, done that. But just today I proved that it works the same way if you tell yourself, “I really love this special place.” Your mind suddenly starts showing you why it’s special. Like this:

Two inch-long tiny toad

Two inch-long toad, another little thing.

And this, a not-so-tiny thing:

Fawn eating my flowers

And this:

House Wren

And this:

Northern Flickers in early breeding season

And this tiny feather:

Feather macro

Every time I try to write about gratitude I feel like people will read it and think, “Yeah, yeah, gratitude journals, mindfulness, count your blessings, whatever, life still stinks.” It’s true that life can be very difficult, but I’m learning how my mind has the power to control how I feel about some of those things that upset me and how I respond to them. And using my mind for gratitude instead of complaining seems like a no-brainer to me.

And did you know that you can instantly lift your mood just by smiling? Whether you’re with other people or alone, try it now and see for yourself. It really works. And it works even better if you look in the mirror when you do it. You’re welcome. :)

Thornton Wilder quote on my photo

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Turning Inward

As I feared would happen, my latest “Extrovert Episode” ended abruptly and I found myself needing to step back from the world a bit. Well, that’s actually an understatement. Last Friday I had a meltdown.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such deep sadness and been so irritable at the world that I couldn’t make it through a single day without some tears. I could feel it building up over the preceding week or so, as one thing after another upset me: possible U.S. involvement in Iraq (sigh…again?), a beloved pet with a health complication, never-ending noise in my neighborhood (construction as well as loud music at night), upsetting photos on social media of turtles killed by balloons and birds killed after window collisions, and about a half dozen other similar matters.  I didn’t have time to recover from one of these things before the next one was piled on top. I took my frustrations out on my husband, bickering with him about stupid things and hiding out in my office just so I didn’t have to talk to him. I’d tell him I was “writing” but was often playing chess against my computer because I just couldn’t focus on the writing.

Juvenile bluebird

Juvenile Eastern Bluebird on swingset

And because many of my friends hang out on Facebook (FB), I’d go there and dejectedly scroll through my newsfeed to see what everyone was up to. They all seemed to be having a great time chatting and sharing photos of their lives. And that made me mad too. “How can they all be so happy when I’m so miserable?” That’s when you know you’re in trouble — when you resent your friends for being happy. And one more mini-trauma finally broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and I was Done. I posted a brief message on FB:

Feeling so sad and overwhelmed lately, and FB certainly isn’t helping.This messed up world is just kicking my highly-sensitive self to the curb. I’m going to try to take a FB break for a week or so. I’ll be back when I can go at least a full day without having a meltdown about something.

And then I really started feeling pathetic. Over the next few days I did occasionally look at FB, but I didn’t engage with anyone there. Didn’t even click “like” when someone posted good news. I refused to participate in the world. I was just determined to hunker down and wallow in my despair.

My first time to find and recognize Goatsbeard, a very interesting wildflower

My first time to find and recognize Goatsbeard, a very interesting wildflower

After a couple days I got an email. My dear sweet friend Donna, to the rescue. We met last year in Ohio and bonded further on FB, due to our shared love of nature and our introvert personalities. We were blessed to see each other again (briefly) this May in Ohio, but then she went back to New Mexico and I came back to Michigan. In her email, Donna reached out to me with love and compassion, telling me she understood what I was going through and assuring me that things would be okay, eventually. I cried. But this time my tears were from happiness at being understood. And knowing that I wasn’t alone in my feelings about this overwhelming world.

And then, just today, I received a package from yet another very special friend. Getting a package is usually a predictable event resulting from an online order. But getting an unexpected package with the return address of a beloved friend, not knowing what’s inside? Now that’s what mail should be about! (Remember the good old days of handwritten letters? I miss those so much.) And inside this package was such goodness I cannot tell you. There were some gifts to cheer me up. And then there was the most heart-warming, soul-uplifting (and hand-written) letter I have ever received. I couldn’t even finish reading it without wiping away tears. It was loving. It was understanding. It was encouraging and hopeful. It was exactly what I needed to push me further along in my re-entry to the world.

Wandering Glider dragonfly

It’s one of the ironies of being an HSP: your sensitivity leads you to nature, you get emotionally-involved with the wildlife and the habitats, you’re willing to fight to protect them. And then, because of your sensitive nature, your heart gets broken again and again when you have to watch animals die or see beloved meadows torn up for housing subdivisions. It’s a rather cruel joke, when you think about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I do value my sensitive personality. It brings me a great deal of joy, allowing me to feel connected to the natural world in a way most people will never understand. We HSPs think deeply about things and make some important contributions to the world. But there’s a price to pay for feeling everything so intensely, and we have to learn how to recover from the inevitable pain. We have to be able to pull ourselves back out of the darkness.

My husband, willing to go birding with me even when I'm crabby

My husband, willing to go birding with me                         even when I’m crabby

Some of us turn to exercise or long walks in the woods, some of us read self-help books or get help from our friends, while others get professional therapy. Some of us do all of the above. My personal success formula seems to require a bit of comfort food (just a little, not overindulging), being religious about taking my daily Vitamin D (5000 I.U.s), and getting out in nature as often as possible. It’s a surprisingly simple recipe, especially for someone who took antidepressants for ten years, just because my doctor let me diagnose myself. (Don’t even get me started on that.)

So to sum up, I’ve seen the darkness but I’ve also seen some glimmers of light ahead. Just the fact that I’m able to write this is a good sign. Several days ago I didn’t trust myself to write anything because I was in such a negative place.  I’m so very glad that I’ve been able to bond with such caring people too, because they are the secret ingredient that I was missing for the first 50 years of my life. Having strong connections with people who understand me has been life-changing…and my life needed some changing, that’s for sure!


Posted in Depression, Ecotherapy, Happiness and Gratitude, Highly-Sensitive People (HSPs) | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Desperately Seeking Stillness

I discovered a wonderful new blog recently and I think many of you will enjoy it too. It’s called Quietkeepers and the tagline is “Practicing Stillness in a Busy World.” Because the quest for peace and mindfulness is near and dear to me, I subscribed and began reading the first few posts by writer Judy Roberts.

Copyright R.J. Thomas - used with permission

Copyright R.J. Thomas – used with permission

As often happens when I come across a like-minded person in the blog world, we ended up communicating by email. Judy and I quickly realized that we didn’t live far apart, so when I was in northern Ohio for a birding festival in early May we were able to meet for lunch to get acquainted. I felt an instant kinship with her and I think many of my readers will enjoy what she’s doing with her fledgling blog. This is from her “About” page where she talks about trying to live more quietly:

…this is no easy thing for those of us who are creatures of a culture of doing. It requires resistance and discipline, sometimes minute-by-minute.  To contribute to this effort, I hope to talk about such things as the prudent use of technology, the importance of order, coping with distractions, socializing and conversation, finding quiet spaces, making the home a quiet place, and living in harmony with nature.

The whole idea really appeals to me. But oh how I struggle.  With resistance and self-discipline. And with distractions — oh, those evil distractions.

Black-eyed Susan by Rebecca Thomas for my blog

Copyright R.J. Thomas – used with permission

You might think that as an HSP, I would already live a peaceful life. And I do aspire to that, but the loudness of the world intrudes quite often. And you might think I find it easy to resist technology too. But I find quite the opposite, that I turn to technology as a less-stressful way to interact with people. After all, it’s on my own time schedule (usually) and at my own pace, right? How harmful could that be? But the reality is that I often find myself losing track of time after checking in on social media each day because it’s so easy to get lured into clicking one link after another on the internet. You know what I’m talking about.

You may remember my recent article about becoming more extroverted and enjoying many new friendships in the birding world. Since those friendships mean so much to me, I might be a bit overeager in my newfound enthusiasm for keeping in touch via technology. But now I’ve got Judy’s gentle reminders in my head, prompting me to step away from the computer more often. And I’m also very glad I took that sketching workshop last month, because I find that drawing is a good way to sit quietly and let my mind wander. I encourage you to click over to Quietkeepers to see if it might be inspiring to you too.

Copyright R.J. Thomas - used with permission

Copyright R.J. Thomas – used with permission

Along the same lines, I read an article on the Utne Reader website the other day called “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing.” The author was bemoaning the fact that it’s now ‘normal’ in our culture to have your face glued to the screen of a computer, Kindle, or smartphone all the time. He said he tried to put his phone away and have a technology-free lunch, but he realized that without his smartphone he felt anxious and restless. He’d lost the ability to sit contentedly and just observe the world, something our brains need us to do:

Which brings me to my favorite argument for why we need to spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen: how else can we encourage the cutting-edge ideas, innovations, and solutions that only seem to pop into one’s mind when it’s disengaged from a specific task and allowed to wander? (Christian Willams, Utne Reader)

This seems to be what Eckhart Tolle meant when he wrote:

Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everyone is suffering from it, so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness that is inseparable from Being. (from The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment)


A good friend recommended the books of Eckhart Tolle to me some time ago but, ironically, every time I sat down to read him I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to absorb the message he was trying to give me. That tells me that I’m in dire need of help in this area. I’m going to make another attempt now that this issue has been brought back into the forefront of my busy busy busy mind. I wonder if you all struggle with this as much as I do.

Bryce Canyon cliff

(Thanks to my talented photographer friend R.J. Thomas for permission to use her lovely flower photos in this article. Click the photos to go to her Flickr photostream.)

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Ecotherapy in Barry County

Just look at this and imagine breathing fresh air and hearing birds sing as the sun shines on your face —

Searching for Dickcissel
Searching for Dickcissel

Now that’s a good dose of nature therapy. Eric and I just spent a few days on the west side of the state at a Michigan Audubon event called “Cerulean Warbler Weekend” (CWW). It’s an annual festival celebrating this beautiful (and declining) warbler species.  In contrast to the very big Biggest Week in American Birding that we’ve attended for the past four years, CWW was small and intimate. We liked it very much — the people were friendly, the scenery was idyllic, and the birding was rewarding.

Field where we saw a distant Henslow's Sparrow through the scope

Field where we saw a distant Henslow’s Sparrow through the scope

The event was based at Michigan Audubon’s Otis Farm Bird Sanctuary, just outside of the small town of Hastings. One of our hikes was a tour around the sanctuary with the resident manager, Tom Funke. Tom’s passion for this property was evident as he explained how and why he had used specific management techniques in certain parts of the sanctuary to tweak the habitat for wildlife. He knew every type of tree, grass, and wildflower we saw, and patiently answered lots of questions from the enthusiastic birders on our hike. I was very impressed with him and the entire Otis Sanctuary. Otis Sanctuary - Cerulean Warbler Weekend (4) (800x479)

Me on the trail at Otis Farm

Me on the trail at Otis Farm

We also went on carpooling and bus field trips around Barry County, searching for warblers, flycatchers, and sparrows, among many other species. We had the extreme pleasure of being led by naturalist Greg Nelson on two of the trips. He took great pains to make sure everyone in the group got to see the birds they were most interested in, and it was clear that he knew this area and its birds very well. He had a very effective technique for teaching us to recognize the calls and songs of the various birds when the woods were just an overwhelming chorus of so many species at once. He’d have us stand quietly listening, and when he heard the target bird’s song, he’d raise his finger up in the air so we’d know that was the one we were trying to see. I really liked that method. Often on these group bird outings there are so many people talking to each other that it’s hard to hear the birds, so I appreciated those times when he asked everyone to stand quietly and listen together.

Blurry Dickcissel singing

Dickcissel singing

Thanks to Greg’s skill and knowledge, I added Acadian and Alder Flycatchers to my life list, as well as Yellow-throated Vireo. We saw Dickcissels, which I thought were new birds for me too, but when I got home and checked my list I saw they were already on it. Then I remembered that I’d added them when I heard them singing last year in a field near home. But since I’d never laid eyes on one of them, I’d considered them a “BVD bird” — better view desired. And I certainly got my “better view” of them this time, although my pictures don’t seem that great. I had perfect views of two singing Dickcissels through Greg’s spotting scope, on a roadside somewhere in Barry County.

Birders on the move!
Birders on the move!

Cerulean Blues book coverThe keynote speaker at this event was Katie Fallon, author of “Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird.” I got a chance to chat with Katie before her first talk on Friday and asked her to sign my copy of her book, which she graciously did. Although I had almost finished reading her book, I still enjoyed hearing her talk about the problems being caused for this tiny warbler by the mountaintop mining practices in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. The bird isn’t officially listed as “endangered” yet, but it may well be on the path to that sad status very soon if we can’t find ways to re-create suitable habitat for it.

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans

Katie Fallon and me getting a bad case of “Warbler Neck”

I was thrilled when Katie joined our field trip the next morning to look for Ceruleans around Barry County. We carpooled to several locations and found the birds singing easily, but were unable to see them. These small birds spend their time at the very tops of the tree canopy, frustrating birders everywhere. But on our last stop of the morning, after explaining why it’s important not to overuse playback, Greg allowed someone to play the Cerulean song from their bird app. I was glad that he refrained from using playback of songs for most of the morning, trying to get us a view without disturbing the birds. But when he finally relented and agreed to do it once, that was the magic trick — the singing male suddenly zipped back and forth across the road over our heads, coming down a little bit lower in the trees to investigate the song of a “competing male.” I think the bird was still at least 30 feet above us when I snapped these photos. Thanks to Greg and Katie’s combined efforts, I got this life warbler that had eluded me for years. I think it was a life bird for several other people on  the trip because I had lots of requests for copies of my pics.  To make things simpler, I told them I would put the pics here on the blog so they could download them for their own memories of this exciting sighting.

Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan

Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan

The easiest way to know it's a Cerulean: that black necklace.

The easiest way to know it’s a Cerulean: that black necklace.

And something very inspiring happened while we were looking at the Dickcissels along that dusty road. Often when you’re in a rural location, you’ll be approached by passing motorists wanting to know what you’re all looking at. As we were lined up to the side of the road with several spotting scopes on tripods and a bunch of people with binoculars looking out into a seemingly empty field, a man in a pickup truck pulled up alongside and asked what we were doing. And this is where the enthusiasm of my fellow birders always delights me: You’d think we were small children, the way we all crowded around his truck excitedly telling him the name of the bird and encouraging him to get out and take a look at it. Even men in their 60s and 70s were urging him to come take a look. And wouldn’t you know, he was interested and got out of his truck to take a look through the spotting scope. He stepped back and asked the name of the bird again. Dickcissel? Yep. He looked again and looked up with a huge smile on his face and said something like, “Well, I’ll be darned.” And then one of the birders stepped up to him to show him the photo of the bird in a field guide. He spent another minute or two chatting with us about where we were all from and then another vehicle came along and he had to move his truck. But he thanked us and drove off smiling in wonderment that a beautiful bird like that was right here, in a field he usually didn’t even glance at. And that, my friends, is how you start winning people over to Team Conservation.  It’s all about the sharing — sharing the beauty of these birds and their songs, sharing our enthusiasm and love for them, and sharing the knowledge of how humans can unwittingly hurt their chances of survival. Once people have an awareness of the amazing birds that live among us, I think they’ll be more likely to help protect them. At least that’s how it happened to me.  :) Enjoy a few more pictures from this peaceful and educational weekend….

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Eric looking over the meadow at Otis Farm

Eric looking over the meadow at Otis Farm

Me with one of many snapping turtles we found on roads around the county

Me with one of many snapping turtles we found on roads around the county

Katie and me

Katie and me

Broad-winged Hawk - captive bird from rehab center

Broad-winged Hawk – captive bird from rehab center

Cerulean Warbler Weekend - Eric 024 (800x600) Dragonfly

Posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Threats to Birds | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments