Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Big Day Birding

Sunday afternoon, April 18, Fred and I drove first to Brubaker’s pond at the top of the hill west of Whitesville on Rt. 248, where I had been seeing three swans hanging out with a snow goose and a gang of Canadas for the last few days. They first time I’d spotted the huge white birds with my slightly aged eyes, I’d thought perhaps they were sheep. Then I’d opened the new issue of the Conservationist that morning to read that the state had released Trumpeter swans at Montezuma refuge in 2011 and I had to have a closer look. The Trumpeters were supposed to have highly visible green tags on the wings and have legs bands as well. I consulted my Sibley’s Guide carefully on the slight differences between Tundra and Trumpeter swans (Trumpeters have more evenly rounded backs, a longer, straighter bill with never any yellow on lores, and the yearlings tend to be grayer). There they were—still contentedly grazing. Fred stayed back while I moved as close as I could, pausing to study them through my binoculars, until they finally got uneasy and lifted up to circle the fields. The snow goose was the leader and it was stunning to watch the four big birds flying low, the hazy late afternoon sun illuminating their white feathers. We saw no green tags on the swans, though their bills were very black and their necks quite gray. In any case, I haven’t seen many Tundras and it was the best view of a snow goose I’ve had.

Next, we went to Brown’s marsh and were treated to a loon, a small flock of female hooded mergansers, a lesser scaup (?), a kingfisher, and a handsome great egret fresh from the sunny south. Another big, white bird! In the ditches I saw many painted turtles and frogs peering out of the muck, and in the shallows near the parking lot a huge snapping turtle was hanging out sideways, its shell looking like a discarded tire. Fred was sure it was dead, but I saw the head come up once and a foot thrash a couple of times. (The next day it was still there and I thought I could see another shell of similar size under it—a lengthy interlude of springtime snapping turtle bliss?)

Even without driving down towards Genesee to see the new eagles’ nest again, it had been a good outing. Then coming home over the hill from Independence, we spotted a big bird in the middle of the road. A very large, brown bird. An eagle? A turkey? AN ENORMOUS BIRD! What the . . .?

Suddenly we realized it was the escaped emu which has been wandering the country side this spring. It wasn’t very shy. In fact, it allowed us to slowly draw abreast of it, much to the consternation of our little Jack Russell, Georgie. I could have tossed her out the window onto the giant bird’s back, but I held tight—I’m told they pack a powerful kick! It was fascinating to watch the huge, leathery feet as they flattened and contracted with each step, the vast, meaty (and delicious, I’m told) thighs and drumsticks working as it paced slowly along, the heavy, shifting mass of grayish feathers rustling on its back, and its enormous, brown dinosaur-like eyes with their incongruous fringe of eyelashes—wary and reptilian, staring back at us. Dye it yellow, give it a sweeter disposition, and it could have been a visitor from Sesame Street.

A very big bird day indeed!

Monday, March 26, 2012

An Impromptu School Visit in Grenada

When Fred and I travel, I like to bring books along as gifts for local libraries and schools. In Grenada, we stopped at the Catholic school in the village of Sauteurs one morning. The school is located high on a bluff overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlanic Ocean. Nearby, the Leapers Hill Monument memorializes a group of Carib Indians who, back in the seventeen hundreds, leapt to their deaths off the cliff rather than be captured by the French. (Sauteurs means “leapers.”) A few days earlier, we had met two delightful little students at the monument when we were sightseeing and had promised to visit their school while they both tried to look through my binoculars at once.

I was greeted cordially by the headmaster, who immediately recognizing an educational opportunity, expressed his regret that I hadn’t given them some notice that an author was in town. He was right. I need to get over my some-times-still-shy self and realize that after a lifetime of books and words, I actually to have some useful things to say. Next time I will try to plan ahead. I recalled the time there was a mix-up about which presentation I was to do at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival and I managed to pull off my “Writer’s Toolbox” without the actual toolbox. My little red toolbox is full of silly concrete items which illustrate the basics of good writing. But I got my points across by drawing each item on the board as I spoke. “Well . . .” I responded, “I could talk to a class or two right now . . .”

So next thing I knew, the startled teacher had graciously stepped aside, and I was addressing the first of two groups of ten or eleven year old children. First, I drew a rough map of New York State on the black board, showing how the Genesee River flows north and where I live near its source, our own beautiful Adirondack Mountains in the northeast, New York City in the southeast, and explained that I live in the woods very far away from the city. Then I described each of my books, which they would now find in their library. I had brought along two new red plastic water bottles, complimentary gifts from Island Windjammers and the Diamant on which Fred and I had sailed the previous week. Again, the headmaster showed himself to be quick in seizing educational opportunities for his kids, and asked that I award them as prizes for one child in each group who proved to be a good listener and could answer a question posed by me at the end of my talk.

I drew deer and moose for them, my house, and my little dog George. I condensed my tool box to three main concepts. I talked about the troll who creeps up on our shoulders and whispers that our work is dreadful and should be torn-up and tossed in the trash. Does that troll (inner censor) help us to write? No, of course not! So in he goes to our troll jar—one of a writer’s most necessary tools. Next I drew them a big caterpillar reading a book and we talked about how my pet book worm teaches me the importance of reading for good writing. Just as we cannot exhale without first inhaling, we cannot expect to be able to write without first reading—the more the better! Lastly, I talked about my magic earphones and the importance of reading aloud with a critique partner when revising one’s work.

Awarding the water bottles proved very difficult. They had all hung on my words so carefully that I had to ask several questions, “Which way does the Genesee River flow? What is my little dog’s name? How is a moose different from a deer?” In the end I chose the quickest children. When I asked one little boy his name, I had to smile at his answer. Despite his clearly African, possibly Carib, ancestry, he answered, “Angus.” Did he have a drop or two of wild clansman in him as well? There was an influx of Scottish shipbuilders to Grenada in the past. Here was a bit of history preserved in a name. A third time, the headmaster impressed me by reviewing my three points flawlessly for the kids. I sure wished I’d had a water bottle for him and fifty more for the kids!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Walking to School in Grenada

Everywhere we went in Grenada, we saw children walking to and from school. They were usually in laughing, high spirited groups. Most wore uniforms. Perhaps some walk to bus stops, but it seemed to me that many of them have quite long walks up and down the very hilly terrain along the narrow, winding roads. We saw moms, dads, and big brothers and sisters leading beautifully dressed toddlers to and from pre-school. What a big time commitment! Education is obviously important.

After a day or two, when we realized how friendly people were, we began offering rides to folks. Many people carry the universal tool-of-all-trades, the machete, commonly called a “cutlass.” Our American sensibilities kept us from inviting people wielding potential weapons to ride with us. We also didn’t feel right offering rides to children, but adults seemed happy to get a lift. It was fun chatting. One young man, living in a remote part of the island, told me he is studying mechanical engineering at a community college. Another wants to be a teacher and asked for my address. I hope I hear from him.

Kids in the states don’t walk much any more, but I was reminded of my own walks to Lincoln and Mystic Schools in Winchester, MA, in the 1960’s. We walked 9/10th of a mile four times a day, in good weather coming home for lunch, totaling about 3 1/5 miles. In winter we brought our lunch, but walked despite the snow and ice. It was also hilly terrain. Luckily it was downhill on the way to school or we would have often been tardy. My sister, Cathy, and I sometimes ran all the way, pretending we were horses. The uphill slog home, lugging books, our clarinets, school projects, etc. could be tiresome. Nobody used backpacks then, so our arms got pretty tired. But on the whole, it was often the best part of the day. Bookworm that I was, I even mastered the art of reading as I walked along the sidewalk, stopping when my peripheral vision noted curbs and intersections. Monday mornings, I brought home bouquets salvaged from the bin behind St. Mary’s Church. In the fall there were fists full of bright leaves. How we loved to kick our feet crisply through them. In the spring I picked masses of lily–of-the-valley, lilacs, and apple blossoms by the old quarry behind the Harwood’s house. When I changed to Mystic School in sixth grade, it was magical walking the brick path next to the Freeman’s greenhouse and pond, exactly like Mr. McGregor’s garden.

I imagine the school children in Grenada, picking fruit and flowers, seeing birds and iguanas, perhaps a mongoose scuttling into the underbrush, passing tethered goats, flocks of foraging hens with puffball chicks, stray dogs, and chatting with neighbors as they pass. There are fishing boats out on the water to watch, perhaps an ancient cannon to visit, careening buses and jeeps to stay clear of. The ubiquitous American school bus has robbed kids in the USA of such good things.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Island Dogs of Grenada

We’ve seen them at other islands in the Caribbean—the ubiquitous island dogs. They’re as colorful and friendly as the people, living their lives alongside humans but mostly in a world apart. There is a different attitude toward dogs in a world where there is no extra money for dog food or veterinary care--where you might think twice before patting a dog. Life is easy for vegetarians in Grenada. Everywhere we saw chickens, goats, donkeys, even cows, feeding happily on the abundant vegetation. But there’s not a lot of food available for carnivores. Many of the dogs we saw were hungry, but otherwise healthy and sassy. They pranced up the middle of the narrow roads as if they owned them. But a few were clearly starving. Many had mange or infections of some sort. It was very hard to see. I kept telling myself, at least I am not seeing starving people.

There is a veterinary college in the town of St. George's. Ten leashed dogs wearing service dog vests boarded the plane for the island of Grenada with us at Kennedy. They curled politely under the seats with no noise or fuss. One did piddle on the floor in the airport, but a three year old child might have done the same. Many of these dogs had been rescued in Grenada and, now healthy and the proud owners of loving and attentive veterinary students, were returning from their first vacation in the United States.

I’m trying to get in touch with someone at the college to learn what is being done for the dogs. We saw few strays in St. George's. At the Grand Etang Park, a prime tourist attraction, I saw three dogs in crates in the back of a pickup who were being taken from the vicinity. I don’t know what was to be done with them. I felt that the hungry strays were being removed from the eyes of tourists. But in the rural areas, we saw many of them.

I began saving leftovers from our meals for the dogs. It was my little canine UNICEF program. When we spied a hungry dog, Fred would slow the jeep, I’d whistle to get its attention, and toss a tidbit.

We saw this one at Windward on Carriacou when looking at a wooden boat under construction. The rope indicates that he belongs to someone and is valued.

These guys trotting up the hill by the Catholic church in Mayreau seemed to epitomize the independent, cheerful personality of most of the island dogs we met. They accompanied us on our walk over the hill to Salt Whistle Bay. Wish I'd been quicker with the camera to catch this image of self-sufficient comraderie.

This one seemed to be near the close of her days, sleeping on the beach at Salt Whistle Bay, Mayreau. Although clearly emaciated, she wasn’t particularly interested in the bread and cheese that I offered her. She did take a small drink from a plastic bag.

This is a very typical island dog look, medium sized, upright ears, short fur, more often than not yellow or light brown. We met him outside a cabin on a hike to the Sulphur Spring near Grenville. I asked the owner his name and was told, “He has no name. I just call him ‘dog.’”

Most of the island dogs were hungry, but otherwise healthy, and quite friendly, though some weren’t. Our newly-met friend, Christina from Germany, was bitten when hiking to a nearby beach. The owner claimed the dog had been vaccinated, but it’s hard to believe that many are. I was a bit anxious snapping this photo as the dog did not seem friendly.

These two fairly healthy characters adorn the steps of a bar outside Grenville.

This is one lucky dog. He is sleek, friendly, wears a collar, and seems to belong to La Sagasse resort. We met him while hiking to a hidden beach described in our guide book. He’d been following a family of British tourists but abandoned them to go back to the secret beach with us. When re returned to La Sagasse, He came along. I think he owns the beach.

This one was a heartbreaker. She was clearly ill and starving. We encountered her while watching some fishermen clean their catch. She seemed invisible to them as she licked the raw guts of the fish from the sand.

If there was one dog that I could have taken home, it would have been this nursing mom. She shyly approached our car at Bathway Beach and wagged her tail when I spoke to her. We had a nice chunk of cheese and some bread to offer. A bigger, male dog, in much better weight, came up and started snatching the bits I tossed to her. I threw small bits to him and then gave her the whole piece of cheese when he was distracted. Can or should her pups live? Should she live? I knew I wasn’t solving anything except a hungry belly for one day.

I’ve started work on a picture book called Island Dog. If I get it published, I intend for it to be on sale at every cruise boat port in the Caribbean. Any proceeds I make will go straight to the dogs—so to speak. Meanwhile, every time I hug my own, well fed, George and Spike, I pretend I am sending a little love to an Island Dog.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Getting Ready for Grenada

In just a few days, Fred and I are off for an overdue thirtieth wedding anniversary trip to the island of Grenada in the Caribbean. We'll spend a week sailing and a week at a cottage on the north end of the island. We've been reading up and taking extra long walks to get ready for hiking in the mountains there. The island got hit very hard by hurricanes a few years ago, so we are hoping the trails are open now. I'm looking into Project Stuff Your Rucksack to find out about some small items we could bring with us that might be needed by a school. Of course I'll be bringing some books. I'm really hoping to see a mona monkey and a Grenada dove--and lots of other birds. Santa brought me Birds of the West Indies for Christmas! And we plan to do lots of snorkeling! Here's a favorite shot of us resting after a hike at Carter Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We probably won't need the polar fleece for Grenada! 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Christmas Bird Count on Toad Hill

I wasn’t going to do it. Ronnie had asked me to go on a Christmas count with her and I’d declined. I’d neglected my work so badly over the holidays. It’s frightening how much time I spend on Christmas. It’s a sort of love/hate vortex that I just can’t stop myself from being sucked into. The New Year is fresh energy. Days lengthening. Creative juices flowing.

It was only to be a short walk for some exercise. Fred had twisted his back, so it was just little dog, George, and me. January second. Windy flurries and patches of sun. A thin snow cover. I headed out back along the trail that skirts the brow of the hill behind the house.

There was a twitter and flurry of two tiny birds doing acrobatics on the ends of some maple twigs. Not chickadees. I was suddenly alert. But I’d never see them with these fuzzy 58 year old eyes. Ah, but they came closer! Curious. Friendly. The eye stripes and bright yellow Mohawks were unmistakable. Golden Crowned Kinglets!

Okay. This must be a message. No husband to get impatient. My work can wait an hour or so longer. The Murphy’s law of binoculars is that if you don’t bring them along, you will wish you had. I raced back to the house for my brand new ones that Nikon so kindly sent to replace my old pair with the faulty eye rings.

The kinglets had moved on. But maybe I could scare up some grouse. I had read that their numbers are declining, but I think we still have a healthy population on Toad Hill. It would be good to report some. We walked behind the old Scotch pine plantation that the loggers ripped out last fall and fed to the chipper. They were planted for Christmas trees in the fifties, let go, and now are slowly dying off. These bare patches look like war zones right now, but the native trees will come back and create a healthier forest.

George scouted the edge of some brush piles, and pouff! A grouse zoomed out and veered into the woods like a low flying fighter plane. “Get ‘em George!” I called, but she is clearly not a bird dog. Tail waging, she snuffled her muzzle into a tuft of snowy grass. Mice are more her style. I stomped among the brush piles. Pouff! Pouff! Pouff! Out rocketed three more grouse.

We crossed the road onto the old Kane farm. With the Scotch pines gone, it’s easier to imagine a dairy farm and pastures here. Last fall a pair of blue birds hung around for some time. It will be interesting to see how the birds like all this clear cutting. The rough foundation of a tiny school house can be found on the Lyons Road. I can picture ten or so kids from these several hilltop farms gathering here for lessons. Before those families, this was wilderness. Such a short history of Caucasian influx.

I tramp up through the old orchard which Fred is reviving with six new trees and judicious pruning of the gnarled and lonely survivor—a tasty Snow apple. A red tailed hawk lifts out of the spruces. These also were planted, but they are healthier, so we are leaving them. The hawk is so huge that I am transfixed, waiting for the turn and flash of the bight rusty tail. I feel a surge of joy. Winter is far from dead and dull!

I have hardly lowered my glasses when there is a wild and rowdy barking overhead. A flock of Canada geese, perhaps ninety strong, are heading south. Now? Well, there’s been barely any snow, and winter is still very young.

At the edge of Jerry Smith’s field, I step out into the open beside a round bale to take in the view and gaze at the blustery sky. Patches of blue, but the Whitesville valley is socked in with steel gray. I duck back across the hedgerow. Maybe I can spot some turkeys behind Book’s cabin. I am cruising down the trail that borders our south boundary when I look off to my left. What the heck bird is that? It’s huge and long. Bluish gray. For an instant I think great blue heron, but it’s too late for one. The bird cruises closer over the hayfield, wheels, and suddenly the underside is exposed, starkly black and white. Gorgeous. A rough leg? It’s too early for them to have come down from the north isn’t it? I watch until it is out of sight.

No turkeys. Oh well. It’s been pretty satisfying. Back at the house I check with Sibley and decide that the gorgeous bird was a male harrier. The feeder is as busy and competitive as Black Friday at the mall. Everyone is stocking up for a drop in temperature and a bit of weather. I make sure the cats are in. I'm trying to only tlet them out at night these days. George happily sheds her polar fleece coat and heads for the couch. My cheeks are pink and tingling. Now it’s time to hit my desk.