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 a highly-sensitive person, 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.)

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. We 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 festival we’ve been attending in Ohio every May, 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 I 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, below.

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

Nature Photo Journal

Just wanted to share a few photos from our nature walks this weekend. Winter hasn’t released its grip on us entirely yet, but things are getting better. And a bit of fresh air and exercise always helps improve my mood, giving me a boost of endorphins in my winter-addled brain.

We saw some ducks on the pond and watched a male Belted Kingfisher flying from perch to perch, watching for a chance to swoop down and grab a meal.

Four species of ducks here, coexisting peacefully.
Four species of ducks here, coexisting peacefully (at least at the moment).
Kingfishers are Eric's favorite bird, so it's always fun to find one of them.
Kingfishers are Eric’s favorite bird, so it’s always fun to find one of them.
Male and female Ring-necked Ducks, just chillin' in the pond.
Male and female Ring-necked Ducks, just chillin’ in the pond.

We walked along the river banks, enjoying the now free-flowing water. This part of the river is very curvy, so the current is fast. There are beautiful sycamore trees here, displaying their mottled gray and brown bark and their pointy seed pods.

Sycamore bark and seed pods. I loved the heart shaped section of bark.
Sycamore bark and seed pods. I loved the heart shaped section of bark.
Sycamore seed pods decorating the tree.
Sycamore seed pods decorating the tree.
Those ducks are too far away for a good shot!
Those ducks are too far away for a good shot!

I almost walked right past these leaf cookie cutouts in the snow — aren’t they interesting?

Leaves making cookie cutter shapes in snow as they melt (2) (800x556)
I’m guessing that the dark color of the leaves absorbs more of the sun’s heat, melting the snow below the leaf faster and letting it sink down.
Oak leaves making cookie cutter shapes in the snow
Oak leaves making cookie cutter shapes in the snow

I’m trying to remember to take wider landscape shots occasionally instead of always zooming in really close, so here are some views of the scenery.

Landscapes at Stony Creek in early spring (6) (800x600)

Clinton River -- no more ice!!
Clinton River — no more ice!!
Can you see the guy fishing and his black dog on the bank?
Stony Creek lake, still about 75% ice-covered.
Stony Creek lake, still about 75% ice-covered.

Back at home I went into the woods to see if there were any signs of growth under the snow. I found 2″ shoots of daffodils and 3″ skunk cabbages. And then I found this half of a seed pod or maybe a nut shell — I have no idea what it is. Can anyone help me with an ID on this?

What is this? It's about an inch and a half long (this is a front and back view of the same half shell).
What is this? It’s about an inch and a half long (this is a front and back view of the same half shell).

Oh, and I finally was able to trudge through the remaining snow in the yard (about 6 or 7 inches) to remove the red bows I’d tied on some fir trees back in December. Up until now, access to our yard has been blocked by 4-foot-high hills of snow that the plow guy had pushed off the driveway. But enough has melted in the past few days that I was able to get up there easily enough. It felt great to pull off those faded symbols of winter, sort of like saying, “Ok winter, off you go now. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

A Bird in the Hand…

On Friday we finally–FINALLY–had temperatures above freezing, so I decided to take advantage of the heat wave and go try my hand at hand-feeding the birds at Kensington Metropark. This park is well-known around here for its brave feeder birds, but since it’s all the way on the other side of the metro area, 45 miles from me, I’ve never made the trek over there. But thanks to a bad case of cabin fever, my desperation drove me to jump in the car and head over. I texted my friend Janet and suggested she meet me there and I’m so glad she was able to come, because we spent a very enjoyable 90 minutes taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads and in our hands.

A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat!
A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat! (Photo by Janet Hug)

I’m still amazed at the thrill I got the moment the first chickadee landed on my bare hand. Its sharp little claws gripped the tips of my fingers, it looked up at my face as if to make sure it was safe, then grabbed a seed and flew to a nearby tree to crack it open. In the next 15 minutes dozens of birds came down and took seeds from my outstretched hand. At one point I had three birds on my hand at once, so I decided to put some more seed on my head so they could spread out a little bit. Immediately I felt them landing on top of my hat, their wings stirring the air beside my head as they landed and took off again with their bounty.

Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo copyright Janet M. Hug)
Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo by Janet Hug)
Janet feeding a Chickadee.
Janet feeding a chickadee.
Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse (Photo by Janet Hug)

I cannot believe I let so many years go by without having this magical experience! Often here at home our chickadees will chatter at me as I refill the feeders, sometimes even buzzing my head as they land on a feeder beside me as I’m filling the next one. I’ve tried many times to get them to eat from my hand, but always ended up frustrated when they were too timid. But the Kensington birds had no hesitation at all. I had Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and–get ready for this–a Downy Woodpecker, all eating from my hand and head. Here’s a video of the Downy Woodpecker on my hand:

And here’s a longer video of the titmice and chickadees:

I already knew that birds weighed very little, but if I hadn’t felt the claws of those chickadees on my fingers, I wouldn’t even have known they were there. It gives the phrase “light as a feather” a whole new meaning for me. What precious little creatures they are! A chickadee weighs less than a half ounce. That’s less than 14 paper clips, or a half of a slice of bread. Heck, you could afford to mail two chickadees for a first class postage stamp (not that I’m suggesting you do that, of course).

Hey Janet, what's that on your head?
Hey Janet, what’s that on your head?

Along with the birds eating from our hands, we were lucky enough to see a Field Sparrow that has been hanging around there, very unusual for this time of year. We also saw a Song Sparrow, lots of Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and even some Wild Turkeys trotting along the snowy path through the woods. And this is funny: Just before we got in our cars to leave, I’d mentioned my recent sightings of a Pileated Woodpecker in my yard, and said how I wished I could predict its visits so I could share it with our friend Dr. Bob, who is very eager to see one of those large woodpeckers. We said our goodbyes and I left as Janet was loading her camera gear into her car. If I’d only stayed a bit longer I would have seen the Pileated Woodpecker that flew right over her head in the parking lot, can you believe that?

Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area
Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area

I am so grateful to have had this amazing experience. It was exhilarating, but at the same time it also gave me such a sense of peace. And I really really really needed that. Now I’m feeling better about making it through this difficult winter. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I need another dose of ecotherapy at Kensington Metropark in the very near future.

Winter Birding in Michigan

I’ve never liked winter very much. Sure, the first snow of the season is pretty, but after a couple days the charm fades away and it turns dirty and slushy. And all the leaves are gone on the trees, making our home less hidden from the busy road. And it’s so cold. No thanks.

But all that changed when I discovered the thrill of winter birding. Early winter is a time for taking my spotting scope out to Lake St. Clair or Lake Huron to scan the migrating ducks that sometimes float on the lakes in rafts of thousands at a time. It took me several years to get motivated to go looking for ducks, and a couple more years to commit to it after I found out how brutally cold the winds can be on the shores of the Great Lakes in January and February. I had no idea that icicles could hang from my nostrils. Seriously.

The trick is to look for the unusual one that's sometimes mixed in there.
The trick is to look for the unusual one that’s sometimes mixed in there.

But now I’m prepared for the weather–stocked up on long johns, hats, mittens, and wool socks–and I enjoy the challenge of learning to identify the ducks. I’m even getting pretty good at it (except for the Greater and Lesser Scaup that still give me fits). I’m still not too keen on learning the complexities of gull identification, but the ducks are much easier.

It may sound crazy if you’ve never done it, but it’s surprising how invigorating and refreshing it can be to brace yourself against those cold Canadian winds.

A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings
A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

And then there are the songbirds that come for the winter. The first to show up at our feeders are the lively flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, like the one I showed you in last week’s Wordless Wednesday photo. But other birds feed in winter flocks in farm fields and along country roads, like the American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, and Horned Larks. (Actually the Horned Larks are here year-round in Michigan, but they feed in big flocks with the buntings and sparrows in wintertime.) I just found my first Lapland Longspurs today, mixed in with one of these flocks feeding on a snowy road east of Ann Arbor. I wish I’d gotten a photo of them.

I was also surprised to find a lone Rusty Blackbird in that flock, standing a couple inches taller than everyone else. I had to use my amateur Photoshop skills to selectively lighten up the bird in this photo; I have a lot of trouble trying to photograph birds on snow.

Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013
Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013

The pièce de resistance of today’s birds is, of course, the coveted Snowy Owl:

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

That photo was taken with a 400mm lens from a distance of more than a hundred yards. I was driving around the service roads at the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, where Snowies have been hanging around lately. I had never been there before and didn’t know exactly where to look, and the way I found this owl was amazing. I’d stopped behind a car that had paused to watch a flock of Snow Buntings on the road. I couldn’t see the birds from my vantage point, but I didn’t want to drive past them and ruin their viewing experience, so I was using the time to look around me at the barren fields and roadways. There was a tall snow-covered hill on my left, probably 50 or 60 feet high. As I scanned the top of the ridge, something caught my eye. I’d been fooled several times already on this outing by big chunks of snow in cornfields, but something about this one made me pull up my binoculars. And I couldn’t believe my eyes — a Snowy Owl, sitting in plain view on the top of the hill! Well, actually he was very-well camouflaged, as you can see in this uncropped photo:

Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl
Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl

I jumped out of the car to set up my spotting scope for a better view. And since there were other birders driving around the airport on this same quest, it didn’t take long before someone else pulled up behind me to see what I’d found. I was jumping up and down and giggling, amazed that I’d found a Snowy Owl all by myself! I was like a kid who thought she deserved a gold star from the teacher. It’s one thing to read emails about an exact location where people are watching an owl and go there to have a look; it’s another thing entirely to stumble upon one before anyone else has spotted it. I’m still on a high from it as I write this, hours later.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is a juvenile male. They say most of the owls who come this far south in winter are the juveniles. And while adult male Snowy Owls are almost pure white, the females and juvenile males have the brown flecks you see on this owl. But because he seems to have the beginnings of a pure white bib, I’d guess this is a young male. I’ll never know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s nice to say “him” or “her” instead of “it.”

Now I can relax, I’ve seen my Snowy for the year. I try not to be competitive about my bird list, but it’s hard not to want to chase down one of these when the talk on birding lists is so focused on these fascinating owls every. single. day. I just want to share in the fun, that’s all.  If you’re curious about these visitors from the Arctic, I highly recommend “Magic of the Snowy Owl,” an hour-long documentary about how they survive in that frigid climate.

After a day like today I’m reminded, once again, of the impact birds have had on me. They have completely changed my outlook on life. Just as my discovery of the spring warbler migration blew my mind, now my enjoyment of ducks and other winter birds has made the depths of winter tolerable for me. I’m convinced that the birds are the reason I haven’t suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) in two years; I’m getting more fresh air and natural Vitamin D because I go out looking for birds. They bring wonder and joy to my world, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to those little feathered creatures.

Have a happy and safe holiday season, everyone. See you in 2014.

Extreme Birding: One Tree Limit

I ran away today. The road commission was out on our dirt & gravel road doing their never-ending maintenance, assailing my morning with the loud and incessant sounds of backup beepers and grinding truck engines. So I packed up my laptop and some books for writing inspiration and headed to the park, hoping to find a quiet spot for an afternoon of writing. Here’s how it went:

View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk
View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk

It’s a cool, sunny day, about 70 degrees with a brisk breeze that results in me being bombarded with a hail of cotton puffs from the cottonwood trees. I settle myself at a picnic table a couple hundred yards uphill from the lake, and get busy typing. Of course I’m immediately distracted by the birds, but I remind myself that I will not be birding today. I’m here for writing. But I still have my binoculars (“bins” in birderspeak) and 300mm lens, just in case something incredible happens by.

Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)
Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)

Just to get warmed up, the first couple paragraphs I type are about the birds I’m hearing and seeing. In particular, a chipping sparrow is singing constantly from the inner branches of the tree right in front of me. He even dropped down to the ground a couple times to nibble on a caterpillar or other delicious tidbit.

I finally put down the bins and resume writing, chastising myself for my lack of focus. I make some good progress in the next hour, stopping periodically to look at the birds. Suddenly it dawns on me that I could write about the experience of birding in a single tree. That seemed an intriguing idea, so that’s what I’m doing. Pretty clever, huh? I’m writing, but I’m also birding. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Our tree for today's "Single Tree Birding" experiment, a pretty black locust
Our tree for today’s “Single Tree Birding” experiment, a pretty black locust

Before I tell you about the other birds, let me introduce our tree for the day. This is a 30-foot-tall black locust tree located on the edge of a parking lot. At least I think that’s what it is, after perusing two tree field guides. Other trees nearby include cottonwoods, various evergreens, oaks, elms, and many more I don’t know how to identify (yet). There’s a large lawn area too.

The little chipping sparrow appeared to “own” this tree, as he sang from it for the entire three hours I was there, entertaining me with his pretty little song.

Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects
Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects

At one point I think I see a kingbird fly into the back side of the tree, but can’t confirm it. But 15 minutes later he pops into view on a branch right in front of me, posing nicely for his photo. I later watch him launching flycatching forays from the highest branches of the tree, grabbing insects midair. The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, birds that grab insects on the wing, often coming back to land again and again on the same branch. I’m always delighted to see this feat of timing and speed, not to mention eyesight. I can’t even see the insects they’re grabbing.

I open a document of notes I took at a writing workshop recently. I read some of them. I look back up to try to see the chipping sparrow (because now that I know what I’m writing about, I realize that a photo of him would be a nice addition). As I look up, I see a bluebird fly out of the tree with a caterpillar in its mouth. He flies overhead and goes into a tree behind me, where I soon see his mate as well. No matter how many times I see a bluebird, it always makes me smile because I think of the “Bluebird of Happiness.”

Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree
Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree

Back to my notes. The writing workshop was led by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University. This was my first time being taught by him, and I came out of that workshop with some notes that I know I’ll refer to many times in my future writing efforts. One of my favorites of his ideas was to pick up a leaf nearby when you see a special bird, and insert it into your field guide to remind you of how you felt and what you saw at that moment. So I stopped in my writing to bend down and gather up some of the cottonwood seedpuffs that were coating the grass.

Now the breeze slows down and the air feels warmer. A robin starts singing loudly behind me. I can hear a blue-gray gnatcatcher in another tree nearby, and now goldfinches have gathered in the interior of our locust tree, softly chattering among themselves. A flicker announces his presence with his boisterous calls. And still the chipping sparrow sings every five or ten seconds. Does he sing for the pleasure of it, or to get a mate, or to protect his territory? Possibly a bit of all those, I think.

Turkey Vulture flyover
Turkey Vulture flyover

I stand up to stretch and see a turkey vulture soaring over our tree.  As I sit down, some blue jays and crows are having an argument in the trees behind me. Two cowbirds land beneath the tree and walk around poking around in the grass.

A chickadee is singing his sad-sounding two-note call in a nearby tree. The breeze has brought a sweet smell now, from some plant I can’t see around me and can’t identify from the scent. But trust me, it’s lovely. I can’t inhale deeply enough. Maybe honeysuckle?

Down near the lake there are red-winged blackbirds calling occasionally. They seem to have already settled down from the noisy and aggressive early part of breeding season. A couple geese land in the lake as a red-bellied woodpecker makes a brief stop in our tree.

I keep writing. I make good progress, ending up with two draft articles for future use.

Taking a break from eating to sing again
Taking a break from eating to sing again

Then I hear a catbird softly mewing behind me. I play a catbird song on my Audubon bird app and he responds by singing back to me for twenty seconds or so. (I try to be judicious in my use of bird calls so as not to cause distress to the birds, but I thought in this situation it was ok to play it one time.)

Chipping Sparrow with leaf
Chipping Sparrow with green  caterpillar

So to summarize, I saw the following birds in this single locust tree during my three hour writing session: Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.  This unassuming tree managed to feed or shelter at least five species of birds this afternoon, not to mention all the work it did to capture carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen to make our planet healthier. A tree is a special thing. (And this “one-tree birding” idea is fun and I might just try it again soon.)

And, just because I’m compelled to record all the birds, here are the others who didn’t actually visit our tree: Northern Flicker, American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Gray Catbird, and Black-capped Chickadee.

The sparrow is finally quiet and I find that I feel lonely without his pretty serenade to inspire me. I hope he’s taking a well-deserved nap up there in the cool interior of that lovely tree. I’m heading home, rejuvenated and relaxed, happy that I can share this peaceful afternoon with all of you.

Maybe a change of scenery and some fresh air would do you good too. Why not try it and find out? And don’t forget to hug a tree while you’re out there. 🙂

Forest Bathing: No Soap Needed

Most of us cleanse our bodies on a daily basis, but have you ever given much thought to cleansing your mind and spirit as well? I’m not referring to traditional religious practice, although that may serve a similar purpose for some people. I’m talking about shinrinyoku — forest bathing.

Walking in the Michigan winter woods
A winter walk in the woods

In 1982 this term was coined by the Japanese government to describe the practice of walking in the woods for refreshment and escape from the hustle and bustle of urban environments. They recognized the health benefits of being immersed in nature and encouraged people to spend quiet time among the trees as often as possible to reduce stress levels. Scientists in Japan are conducting a range of ongoing studies measuring the physiological effects of various elements of the natural world, trying to quantify exactly how our bodies respond to nature. But even without knowing their results, I think we all know how good we feel when we get away from our desks and the concrete jungle, even if only for a short walk on our lunch hour.

Scientists here in the U.S. are also trying to establish objectively measurable evidence of the health benefits of nature. For example, a study at the University of Illinois came to some interesting conclusions:

Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.

Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.

The article goes on to explain that green spaces have more than just psychological benefits; they also have proven physical effects like helping you to recover quicker after surgery, improving your immune function, and even improving “functional living skills” among older people. In fact, I just read an article in the new issue of Birds & Blooms magazine that touts the benefits of “healing gardens” for dementia patients. Apparently these gardens are becoming more common at hospitals, senior centers, and even schools. I’m very encouraged by this, and I’ll have more to say about healing gardens in an upcoming post.

The scientists might need more evidence to satisfy them, but this is more than enough to convince me that I’ve named my blog appropriately: Nature [really] is my Therapy.

Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park
Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park

By the way, if you live in a location with lots of snow and bare trees right now (like I do), don’t despair; you can still get the benefits of “green”space without waiting for things outside to come back to life in a few months. All you need to do is decorate your home and office with pictures of flowers, gardens, rivers, or landscapes; then when you need a break, just gaze upon those peaceful images and feel your blood pressure go down, your breathing slow, your mood lift. If you’re skeptical that this works, try it. You’ll see.

Below are some photos of beautiful things I found because I was out looking for birds — I hope they make you happy too.

Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
A carpet of woodland daffodils
A carpet of woodland daffodils
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it's like in his world....
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it’s like in his world….

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Sources for those of you who want to read more:

Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine: Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793347/?tool=pubmed)

Science Daily: Green Environments Essential for Human Health, Research Shows (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419151438.htm)

Ecotherapy to the Rescue

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”    — Frank Lloyd Wright

Mr. Wright was definitely right about that (couldn’t resist the wordplay). That was true again for me last week as I found myself in desperate need of comfort. You see, my cat Mickey’s jaw was broken by our vet during a “routine” dental cleaning. The next morning he had to be taken to a feline dental surgeon 60 miles from home to have the jaw repaired, so I had to find a way to pass the agonizing waiting time somehow.

I noticed that the surgeon’s office happened to be very near the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, so after I dropped Mickey off I headed for the gardens with my camera in tow.

I would have preferred to be away from other people that day, but despite there being dozens of little kids there on a field trip, the gardens still felt like a peaceful place. (Normally I’d avoid any place with so many kids, but they stayed mostly in the Children’s Garden, so it wasn’t too bad.) So I spent maybe 90 minutes wandering among the lovely perennial gardens.  It was interesting to note that the bees and butterflies were all going about their lives, even though I felt that mine was on hold for the moment. That realization might have given me perspective if my worries that day hadn’t been so serious. But in any case, I did enjoy the lovely aromas of the flowers and the bright sunshine.

Imagine the sound of dripping water on a hot day….

There were fountains too, and I spent some time sitting on a bench just watching the cool water dripping over a pile of rocks. Water is always soothing to me, whether it’s a still pond, powerful ocean waves, or a gently cascading waterfall. I think that’s probably common, but I have difficulty explaining why water is so calming. Sometimes it’s the sound of it, as with rain or waves. And other times it’s the feeling of it, as in the shower or when you go swimming. And I notice when we go kayaking that I’m soothed by the gentle bobbing motion of the kayak on the water surface.  Water is a true elixir of life. It’s precious not only to keep our bodies functioning from the inside, but also for how our minds respond to it.

You look at that river, gently flowing by. You notice the leaves rustling with the wind. You hear the birds, you hear the tree frogs. In the distance you hear a cow. You feel the grass, the mud gives a little bit on the river bank. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. And all of a sudden, it’s a gear shift inside you. And it’s like taking a deep breath and going, “Oh yeah, I forgot about this.”

That’s Al Gore speaking softly in the opening of his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” with a peaceful river image on screen.  (And another quote soon after that: “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States.” He got laughs for that one.)

I love this little guy!

Thankfully, Mickey’s jaw was “easily” repaired (in the words of an expert surgeon). He seems to be recovering well and should be able to eat hard food again in about another week. So we had a few traumatic days last week, but things feel much like normal again today and Mickey is calmly sitting at the window watching me as I type this. For today at least, we’re blessed with good fortune.

A Week in the North Woods – Part One

View of the lake from our dock

We spent last week in a secluded cabin on a small lake in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Sounds good already, doesn’t it? Wait till I tell you more….

The cabin was on 28 private acres, with a 60-acre lake just steps from the front door. We took our kayaks with us and enjoyed them on the beautiful lake every day. Well, except for the one time it rained all day. Other than that, we were lucky with weather and got to go for three nice hikes during the week.  (I admit there was one unpleasant part of the vacation though: the mosquitoes. Oh man, I couldn’t step outside unless I was coated from head to toe with repellent. Those buggers are vicious! I’m home now, but my arms and legs are covered with bites. Phooey on them.)

There was fishing from the dock….
…and fishing from the kayak.

We both agreed that this was THE quietest place we’d ever been before. I think there was only one time we heard a jet ski from a neighboring lake, but otherwise it was extremely quiet. One night I even got out of bed to make sure I’d left the window open because I couldn’t hear any noise at all! That’s a very odd feeling for someone who’s used to hearing traffic outside her door all day every day. But I could definitely get used to it.

Au Sable Lighthouse

So where did we hike, you ask? We drove about 30 miles east of Munising and walked a mile and a half to the Au Sable Lighthouse. Not only is this cool because it’s the most inaccessible lighthouse on the US mainland, but as you walk along the shore of Lake Superior you pass the wrecks of several ships from the early 1900s. The lighthouse opened in 1874, but I guess this area was still too treacherous for some vessels. I’ll talk more about our bird sightings later, but on this hike we were thrilled to have a Bald Eagle fly right over our heads. It was our only sighting of our national symbol on this trip.

Shipwreck on shore of Lake Superior

Our second hike was in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, a real jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System if you ask me. We first did a 1.5 mile hike around a nature trail loop, where we saw a gigantic nest in a treetop. We thought it might be Bald Eagles, but couldn’t tell with out binoculars. When we got back to the nature center we found that they had a scope set up on it (duh) and it was an Osprey nest. We saw one parent and one youngster in the nest, and we think we saw another adult along our walk but couldn’t be sure of what it was. Wish I’d been able to get a picture of it because this was our first ever Osprey sighting. Gorgeous birds.

After that we killed time for a few hours, hoping to do the 7-mile driving tour nearer to evening hours so we’d have a better chance of seeing bird activity. We ended up starting the drive around 5:30 because we just couldn’t wait any longer. It’s a one-way only driving route with a speed limit of about 15 or 20 mph that passes between a whole system of marshes and woods. At the beginning we had our windows down but quickly had to put them up because of the swarms of black flies attacking the car. It felt like we were in a Hitchcock movie, with dozens of flies just hanging on the outside of the car trying to figure out how to get to us. Ick.  But after we made that adjustment, and despite the heat of the day, we saw Common Loons, a Red-breasted Merganser, lots and lots of Trumpeter Swans, lots of Eastern Kingbirds, an Ovenbird, Canada Geese, a Belted Kingfisher, Ring-billed Gulls (of course), a Great Blue Heron, lots of ravens, goldfinches, and some other warbler that we couldn’t identify — looked like a possible Redstart or Blackburnian. Oh, also this Merlin, another first for both of us.

Merlin

I’ll talk about our third hike and put up some of the other bird pics in Part Two of the story…stay tuned.

By the way, right now there’s a flock of House Finches at our feeders, with several males and about 3 times as many females. One of the males is a very bright red — just beautiful!