A Season For Nesting

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

 

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven”, Ecclesiastes 3:1.  The earth has just passed through the solstice and the seasons have changed yet again.  We have that 23 degree tilt to thank for this welcome variety in our lives.  For the birds the spring migration is over and some of the Arctic nesters are already beginning to feel the urge to head south.  But around here in Chesapeake country, nesting and all its attendant chores is in full swing.

House Wren, Troglodytes aedon

The first task is to choose a suitable site, one pleasing to her, for even in the avian world the female needs to be satisfied.  “Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live.  But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good.  There was sure to be foxes in the woods or turtles in the water, and she was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles.  So they flew on and on.”

Mallards, Anas platyrhynchos

That’s the first paragraph of Robert McCloskey’s 1941 classic, “Make Way For Ducklings” and is a favorite of our family.  Mrs. Mallard’s final choice in the middle of urban Boston’s Public Garden makes me question her judgement somewhat, but as the story goes, she did receive welcomed police protection.

Juvenile Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

This spring I’ve noticed a significant decrease in the Tree Swallow population, leaving the yard’s birdhouses to the Eastern Bluebirds which have had a banner year.  But even their lives are not without controversy.  “Of all the houses, in all the yards, in all the world, this is the one you chose?”  The male bluebird can just hang is head in shame and vow to do better next year.

Eastern Bluebirds, Sialia sialis

I marvel at the variety of nesting strategies.  Some try to hide the nest from predators and the elements, deep in the leafy shrubs, while others nest in plain sight, oblivious to the risks.  The former nests only become apparent in the leafless winter when I’m surprised to see the vacated refuge, often near the front door.

Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia

The Killdeer, however, just scrapes a few stones together in the wide open driveway and hopes that I’ll avoid it with the truck, or that he’ll successfully fool me and lead me away with that phony injured wing routine.  Inexplicably the ancient Diamondback Terrapin follows the Killdeer’s lead as she crawls out of the muddy cove, lumbers across the lawn, and digs her nest right in the middle of the driveway.  This is just too easy pickings for the Raccoon and Black Snake who have a great appetite for the leathery turtle eggs, but who am I to argue with eons of evolutionary success.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

The breadth of nesting materials is great, ranging from stones to the soft down lining the nests of passerines.  Larger birds use coarser sticks, more structurally suited to their weight and their exposed sites.  But the Osprey couple often don’t agree on the suitability of every stick.  I’ve observed the triumphant male, with great effort, fly in with a beauty, to my eye the perfect stick, and proudly present it to his mate for placement in the growing nest.  As soon as he flies away to find another she kicks it into the river, probably muttering something unkind under her breath.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Since large nests are difficult to hide, the waders seek safety in numbers, nesting in large, noisy rookeries, often on a island populated by diverse species.  The Venice rookery in Florida, a favorite destination for me and many bird photographers, is a great example.  But one can never completely protect the nest.  J.J. Audubon has wonderfully captured the drama of a rattle snake attack on the Mockingbird nest as these birds valiantly rise to the defense of their young.  There will always be risks.

Mimus polyglottos by J. J. Audubon

Cavity nesters have more choices than ever before.  Bird lovers have made up for the disappearance of natural cavities by building birdhouses galore.  I’ve constructed many of the standard wood variety, but have recently tried a more durable version made from PVC pipe.  It is stark white and suffered a few years of vacancy before its contemporary style was finally accepted.  The Purple Martins, on the other hand, seem to have no problem with the crowded, multi-family, modern look.  To each his own.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialis sialis

Purple Martins, Progne subis

There’s also great variety in the chosen structure of the nest.  Many seem too precarious to be practical.  I refer to the Osprey again, attempting to build on the point of channel marker 2SD, right off our dock.  I suspect this is a juvenile bird, still learning the ropes.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The least appealing in terms of materials, view, etc., are the nests of the Barn Swallows, plastered to the underside of a dock or the ceiling of a dingy porch or barn.  They seem perfectly content with their residential design, however, and who are we to judge.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

Don’t forget the swinging sacs carefully constructed by the Baltimore Oriole, but the world’s record for the sac design has to be the Baya Weaver’s amazing creation which we saw hanging in India several years ago.

Baya Weaver, Ploceus philippinus

I hate to bring them up again, but must remind you of the dastardly Cuckoos and and Cowbirds that just avoid the entire drudgery of nesting by their successful brood parasitism.  I just hope it doesn’t catch on.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

Is the season of nesting initiated by temperature, hours of daylight, hormones, or some other deep rooted instinct that passes down through the generations?  Nesting is clearly not limited to the Aves.  The American Pregnancy Association clearly recognizes the nesting urge in Homo sapiens, usually, but not always, occurring in late pregnancy.  They have published guidelines to help expectant mothers channel their energy toward making their nests perfect for the new arrivals.

Brown-headed Nuthatches, Sitta pusilla

This nesting season, as they all do, will pass too quickly.  The fawns are already losing their spots and wandering independently.  The fledgling geese, although diminished in number by the Red Fox, are almost full grown.  The Bluebirds and Brown-headed Nuthatches are still busy feeding their chicks, but this also will end soon.  Their nests, like ours, will be empty.  For everything there is a season.

Trash Birds

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

 

These are the birds no one loves.  They’re numerous, obnoxious, and ubiquitous.  We often do not even tick them off on our eBird lists; why bother?  Most do not migrate; we’re stuck with them all year long.  Monthly the National Audubon Society scares us with a growing list of near-extinctions, but these birds never make the list.  Despite our efforts to pollute and destroy habitats, these birds thrive.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

But, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.  If you don’t believe this just watch a couple episodes of the Antique Roadshow on PBS.  A little research can reveal beauty, wonder, and maybe even some monetary reward in even the most unlikely of candidates.  With this in mind this post tries to uncover a few redeeming qualities in my list of trash birds, at least in the beauty and wonder departments.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus

Take the House Sparrow, please.  Previously known as the English Sparrow, it was introduced to New York in 1851, and we are still wondering why.  This aggressive Old World sparrow is a native of Eurasia and northern Africa and has enjoyed phenomenal success in North America.  The lookalike cousin across the pond is the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.  Its strategy has been to seek out urban centers, crowded sidewalk cafes, and virtually any man-made structure.  You can’t say the male is ugly with its gray head, black beard, and brown and white highlights.  The female is just another difficult to identify LBJ, (little brown job).

Rock Dove, Columba livia

Speaking of urban-loving birds transplanted to us from Europe, Africa, and India, you can count the feral Pigeon.  In more polite circles they are known as Rock Doves.  We are partly to blame for their success, domesticating them for their homing tendencies.  As we all know they have taken over our park benches, school yards, and sky scraper ledges.  A few have attempted to return to their rural roots, nesting on coastal cliffs and mountainsides, but the vast majority still cling to us humans and our cities.  Their redeeming feature is the great variety of iridescent feathers and that striking red eye.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

Next there are the Grackles.  Just the name reminds one of their irritating call that mimics a rusty gate desperately in need of oil.  They often travel in wolf-like packs, swarming the feeder and driving off the shier passerines.  They have single handedly caused me to shut down the feeders in the warm weather.  One can only afford so many bags of sunflower seeds on a fixed retirement income.  You have to look closely to reveal their beauty, also found in the iridescent plumage and piercing golden eye of the male Common Grackle.  The less common cousins, the Boat-tailed and Great-tailed, share similar assets and  liabilities.

Ring-billed Gulls, Larus delawarensis

Sea Gulls have lost the “sea” in their name and have moved inland following our human trash, dumps, waste water treatment plants, and McDonalds parking lots.  For a birder to become an expert observer of this confusing family of lookalikes, he or she must become gullible.  They’ll take you to some of the most acrid and non-picturesque places on the planet and your reward will be a squabbling colony of black, white, and shades of gray.  You’ll have to hope for the chills and thrills of finding a rarity amidst that flock of a thousand scavengers.

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

We could drop the “European” from the name of our only Starling in North America, but keep it as a reminder of where this “gift” came from in 1890.  It has taken over the continent with vast flocks forming in the fall and winter.  It crowds out other birds in both the urban centers and rural farmlands, competing with other more welcome cavity nesters.  They are persistent.  I’ve now removed their nest from my boat-lift motor six times this spring, the last time despite a new protective screen.  They pecked right through it.  On a sunny day, when I’m feeling upbeat, I can appreciate the metallic hues given off by their feathers, decorated with a sprinkle of dots.  The yellow bill of the summertime male adds a nice contrast.  I’m trying to be kind.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Remember the phrase, “a face only a mother could love”?  The maternal Brown-headed Cowbird must have forgotten it.  She just clandestinely deposits her eggs in another innocent passerine’s nest and moves on, without even gazing upon the face of her offspring.  These brood parasites have developed a successful policy of avoiding the hard work of parenthood.  You have to admire their audacity or perhaps find some pleasure in their contrasting brown and black coloration, but its hard to find anything good to say about them.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

We’re frequently told that Crows are among the smartest of all birds, but intelligence is no excuse and protector from being on my trash list.  There is a reason that a flock of these birds is called a “murder” of crows.  When’s the last time you saw a crow sitting innocently on a wire, just enjoying life.  They’re always chasing or being chased, raising a raucous, or attacking a poor songbird.  Perhaps you can admire their energy, but they are a constant reminder that intelligence does not always breed contentment.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

So there you have it, my list of trash birds.  I suspect this post will find disfavor among my birding friends who find beauty in all the creation.  On a good day I am among their ranks, but lately my tolerance level has been tested.  Here’s to better days ahead.

Spring Migration 2020

San Domingo Creek

 

It seems trite to observe that every year is different, but this year it is certainly true.  I migrated northward on four wheels via Interstate 95 at 70 miles per hour while the birds were paralleling my route overhead along the Atlantic Flyway.  They were somewhat slower than me but did not have to contend with bathroom breaks, masks, and gasoline.  My migration from South Florida to Maryland was a substantial 1100 miles, but many of the birds far surpassed this distance.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

I’ve been away from my patch on San Domingo Creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, since the start of winter and Mother Nature, both its flora and fauna, have tried to take over.  The grass and weeds are out of control, limbs are down from winter winds that have even dislodged planks from the dock.  Deer, Red Fox, Squirrels, and Insects have had a lark with the vacant property.  Even some of the birds need to be put back into their proper place.  Homo sapiens has returned.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

The White-throated Sparrows, Juncos, Loons, migrating Canada Geese, and Tundra Swans have all exited to the north, but countless migrators have moved in from the south to replace them.  The competition for territories, mates and nesting sites has begun in earnest.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

The male Red-winged Blackbirds are early birds on the scene and stake out prime nesting sites along the brackish cove, hoping their choice of real estate, along with their pleading trill, entice a mate.  This bird is a short distance migrator with the Chesapeake near the northward margin of their wintering grounds.

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

A more accomplished migrant, the Eastern Kingbird, arrived at my patch before me and established its customary territory on the north side of the house in the old oaks.  They made the trip from the western Amazonia region of South America, perhaps eastern Ecuador or Peru.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

I like to think of these flycatchers, wintering in the Andes but still retaining that vague recollection or imprinting on their brains that brings them back over the many miles to this specific patch they left last fall.  I gladly welcome them home and observe again the truce these feisty birds, (check out their Latin name) have arranged with the equally territorial  Northern Mockingbirds.  The Mockers were here all winter but seem to tolerate the Kingbirds, perhaps as a herald of spring and better days ahead.  Just stay on your side of the house.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The Osprey also beat me home.  Luckily neighbors on both sides have platforms just off shore, so there was no need for me to crowd in another.  The fishing prowess and flight antics will provide a wonderful show all summer.  I’ve often wondered about their migration, given the year-round Osprey and active nests I see along Florida’s gulf coast all winter.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

I’ve learned that those Florida Osprey have become a non-migratory population, whereas our Chesapeake birds have wintered further south in the Caribbean and Central America.  As they overfly Florida you wonder if they ever look down with envy at their cousins who are enjoying a more sedentary life in the sunshine state.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

Speaking of nonmigratory, please make those ornery residential Canada Geese go away.  Every year their ranks grow and these bold, fat birds refuse to yield when I return home.  They’re giving geese a bad name in these parts.  The fall-seeded lawn is practically bare from their work and their turds fill the pool.  They are not dumb and have figured out that a half dozen in the middle of the mesh pool cover weighs it down enough to create their own private pond.  They have the audacity to honk at me when I break up the party and chase them away.  I did notice only one small gosling in the flock this year.  The Red Fox did look well fed when he pranced by yesterday.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

The loud keyew, keyew, of the Osprey dominates the avian chorus on the waterside, but the newly arrive Chipping Sparrow holds its own on the land side of the patch, even among the residential choir of Northern Mockingbirds, Cardinals, and Carolina Wrens.  There seems to be more than ever of these rufous-headed migrators in the Loblolly pines.  They’ve wintered along the southern U.S. border, Mexico, and Central America.

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

The Least Terns I saw fighting over a small fish, scolding each other with their high-pitched chippering, are also new arrivals.  Their wintering grounds are not well established, but is likely off the coasts of Caribbean islands and Central America.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

I put new roofs on the bluebird houses last fall and am pleased to see a breeding pair move into the best water view house.  These are beautiful year round residents of the patch and at least this year they beat the migrating Tree Swallows to the prime real estate.  The swallows have returned from the southern states and Central America but will have to settle for the lower rent houses.

Tree Swallow, Tachycinrta bicolor

I tried to be a nice guy and hung the “squirrel proof” feeder by the pool, but those dastard varmints, frustrated by the cage, just ate through the hanging rope and enjoyed a feast when it crashed to earth and scattered the sunflower seeds.  But I fixed their wagon and won round one.  It now hangs by a steel cable.  The European Starlings are dumber, but equally persistent.  I’ve now cleared out their nest from the housing of the boat lift motor twice.  Last year it took five evictions before they learned.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

Yesterday the bird du jour on my patch walk was a Spotted Sandpiper seen bobbing along the cove’s mudflat at low tide.  I only got a brief look before it spooked, but the ID was definite.  This bird, our most widespread breeding sandpiper in North America, also migrated from Central and South America and may choose to breed here or continue further north into Canada.  I have yet to get a good picture of this shorebird.

Spotted Sandpipers, Actitis macularius                               J. J. Audubon

It’s the female of this species that arrives first in the spring, chooses a territory, and attracts an interested male.  When the eggs hatch the male takes on the leading parental role while the polyandrous female moves on to another mate.  How many times she pulls this off per season is unclear.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

My only other innovation this spring is a small solar-powered fountain to go in the large concrete birdbath.  I’m hoping the aeration will hold down the algae growth and cleaning chores.  The birds may also welcome an occasional shower.  The reviews seem too good to be true, but I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, stay well.

 

Who’s Chuck Will and Why Did He Die?

 

 

Here’s the good news; we need some these days.  Chuck Will did not die and he has no widow, alone in the world, fending for herself.  “Chuck-will’s-widow” is just another crazy bird name, mimicking the nocturnal call of this elusive bird.  Chasing it down in southwest Florida and confirming its identification added a welcomed diversion to an otherwise monotonous lock-down week.

Eastern Whip-poor-will, Caprimulgus vociferous             photo by A. Sternick

It all started innocently enough at the end of a sunset walk to the beach with my better half.  We sorely needed some outdoor exercise and fresh air; no birding allowed.  Then we heard it and I couldn’t ignore it; an unusual but vaguely familiar call repeated over and over.  The bird was some distance away and I missed the first shorter and softer “chuck” syllable, but heard the following “will’s widow” and mistakenly ID’ed it as the three syllable call of the Eastern Whip-poor-will.

Eastern Whip-poor-will                                             photo by M. Burdette

Luckily Mel, a fellow birder, returned to the site the next evening and recorded the entire song.  He, with a big assist from the local eBird monitor, corrected my mistake.  Indeed it was a Chuck-will’s widow, a life bird for both of us, but still without a picture or visual confirmation.

Whip-poor-will, by J.J. Audubon

Both Chuck-will’s-widow and the Eastern and Western Whip-poor-wills, along with the slightly larger but otherwise similar Nighthawks, are members of the Caprimulgidae family and commonly called Nightjars.  This interesting family of birds are much more commonly heard than seen.  I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that the Nightjars are the most difficult land-based birds to see, even if one crawls out on their limb.  The plumage is superbly adapted to blend with leaves and tree bark.  At my first sighting of the Common Nighthawk a patient veteran birder spent several minutes with me before I zeroed in on the bird, a mere lump lying on a horizontal limb.

Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor

Don’t sign onto a birder’s tour to New Zealand looking for Nightjars.  It’s practically the only place on Earth with none.  Ninety-eight species inhabit the remainder of the globe, but despite this wide distribution the secretive birds are poorly understood.  Ancient civilizations referred to them as “goat suckers” and others, more recently as “bug eaters”.  I’m told that the moniker for the University of Nebraska used to be “The Bug Eaters”, I suppose with the appropriate bird drawing on their uniforms, before they understandably changed it to “The Cornhuskers”.

Eastern Whip-poor-will                                       photo by A. Sternick

These birds have some peculiar and questionable traits.  They don’t even bother with nests.  Just lay the eggs on the ground and hope for the best.  They like to perch on the highway, perhaps hoping to blend in with the asphalt, but often end up as road kill.  You’ll never see these birds walking.  Their legs are positioned far posteriorly, better suited for a perch than a stroll.

Eastern Towhee, Pipilo erythrophthalmus

The name Nightjar apparently comes from their jarring call after the sun sets.  Rather than jarring, the call to me is melodious and evocative.  It reminds me again of the importance of learning to ID birds by their songs and calls.  As a lock-down mind game I made a list of birds who are named for their song.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

For the first group the name is merely descriptive:  Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Mourning Dove, Mockingbird, Laughing Gull, Whooping Crane, Warbler, and Cackling Goose.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

For the second group the name is onomatopoetic, so helpful in the field for linking the call to a bird.  In addition to Chuck-will’s-widow and the Whip-poor-will I give you the Cuckoo, Chickadee, Phoebe, Bobwhite, Bobolink, Peewee, Veery, Dickcissel, Willet, Grackle, Towhee, Killdeer, Chat, Chachalaca, and Chukar.  I welcome any additions I may have missed.

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

We returned to the beach parking lot the following night, armed with cameras and a fancy flash light.  It was hot and humid with more than the usual number of biting no-see-ums and mosquitos, but we were dedicated birders on a mission.  Our eBird reports had sparked interest in another young birder and his family who joined our quest.

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

They say you can use a flash light and occasionally detect Nightjars by carefully scanning the underbrush and low branches for their retinal shine.  No such luck this time.  Bugs and bites were taking a toll and just as we were packing it in a phantom dark shape flew into the tree right above us.  It immediately began the repetitive “Chuck-will’s-widow” song loud and clear.  We could’t find it with the light and it did not stay long, but a small group of satisfied birders could at least claim a sighting of sorts and tick off another life bird.

Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous

On the way home it occurred to me what a suspicious sight we scruffy birders would have conjured up if one of Naple’s finest had cruised by.  We three, huddled in the darkest corner of the deserted parking lot at dusk, as if transacting an illicit deal.  The streets were all empty and eerily quiet due to the virus.  If he stopped and asked what was up I would have honestly replied that we were waiting for Chuck Will’s widow.  “And who might she be”, he would ask as he radioed downtown for backup.

Book Review: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

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Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

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The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, published by Random House, copyright 1957, 211 pages

Since the virus pandemic I’ve been rereading many of the books in my library and came across this classic which I previously reviewed here in 2016.  If you’re looking for an escape from all this lockdown boredom, check it out.

People who are curious and inspired by our natural world can often look to another person, event, film, or book that first sparked that interest.  Candidates for books that potentially fit that bill include Walden by Thoreau (1854), the writings of John Muir about the Sierra Nevada around 1900, The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White describing in detail the geology, flora and fauna of his native southern England in the 18th century, and more recently Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928) chronicling a year on Cape Cod.  For me that spark occurred 50 years ago when I first read The Immense Journey.

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Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus   (click on photos to zoom)

Loren Eiseley was born to a homesteading family in Nebraska in 1907 and eventually rose to become the Head of the Department Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.  Much of his academic work involved searching for evidence of post-glacial man in the plains and mountains of the western United States which he describes so well.  “Some lands are flat and grass covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time.  Some are torn, ravaged, and convulsed like the features of profane old age.”

His writings have been called the musings of an “imaginative naturalist” looking for some deeper meaning or message in the fossil record as well as in the contemporary natural world.  The book includes but is not limited to the history of our understanding of the evolution of man.  There are diverse and beautiful chapters entitled “How Flowers Changed the World”, “The Dream Animal”, Little Men and Flying Saucers”, The Judgement of Birds”, The Bird and the Machine”, and “The Secret of Life”.

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Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

You might wonder what all this has to do with birds and a birding blog, but avian evolution and Eiseley’s bird encounters do figure in the story.  He describes southward migrating warblers passing overhead at sunset while he hunts fossils in the otherwise nearly lifeless Badlands.  There are the observation of the pigeons at dawn high on the rooftops of Manhattan and the surprising close encounter with the crow in the fog, described by me in the 4/7/2016 post, “Close Encounters of the Bird Kind”.  All these seemingly mundane episodes have some deeper significance for this author.

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Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Eiseley’s writing style is rich and contemplative.  He is an evolutionist but not dogmatic.  He asks many more questions than has answers and openly wonders about “a ghost in the machine”.  His science of accumulating and cataloging specimens and testing hypotheses is supplemented by moving passages about the meaning of it all.

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Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Many of my favorite sections describe his field work hunting fossils, often working alone in the central plains.  He relates an episode of floating on his back down the shallow Platte River, melding with the eroding sands of mountains making their way to the Gulf.  Another scene describes his capture of a male sparrow hawk for a local zoo as its mate escapes his grasp.  After a night of guilt and contemplation Eiseley releases the male in the morning who flies joyously to join his mate, still soaring high overhead in anticipation of such a reunion.  All these events become grist for the imaginative naturalist’s prose.

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California Towhee, Pipilo crissalis

In one section he explains that evolution is not done and not complete with us or other life forms.  “There are things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat.  It pays to know this.  It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past.  The only thing that doesn’t pay is to be sure of man’s own part in it.  There are still things coming ashore.  Never make the mistake of thinking life is now adjusted for eternity…then you miss it all.”

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

Eiseley describes with amazement the relatively rapid evolution of man and his brain.  “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself…”, but in the chapter called “Man of the Future” he cautions, “The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear.  The hand that hefted the ax, out of some blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly.  It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.”

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Prairie Warbler, Dendroica discolor

Don’t you hate it when someone recommends a book using the superlatives such as “classic”, “best ever”, “greatest one I’ve ever read”, etc.  I hesitate to do that with this book, but just remember, I have read and reread it countless times over 50 years.  That says something.  In one of Loren Eiseley’s other books he describes perching on his father’s shoulder and watching in wonder the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1910.  He hoped he would live long enough to see its return again in 1986 after its long celestial orbit.  Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it as he died in 1977.  If its any consolation to him, his writings survive and continue to inspire.

Birds & Viruses

 

Krrrreeow, krrrreeow, krrrreeow, three loud guttural calls repeated themselves all night long from the pond just outside our bedroom window.  This was not the melodious song and varied repertoire of the Mockingbird who is known to sing long into the night, but rather a more primitive and monotonous rattle.  I was thinking wounded Mottled or Muscovy Duck or perhaps even a sick Red-shouldered Hawk.  Lying in bed and unable to sleep, I felt the forlorn cry appropriate for our time of global pandemic.  Has the virus even infected the birds?

Simpkin, Aramus guarauna

At daybreak I found the culprit.  It was actually two healthy Limpkins foraging along the far shore of the pond, under the yellow flowering Tabebuia tree.  It was not a sick call, but rather the male’s sorry excuse for a love song, apparently attractive to his mate who was now ready to submit after a full night of begging.  Perhaps we can all sleep again tonight.

Mottled Ducks, Anas fulvigula

The Limpkins may be okay, but I couldn’t help but dust off my old virology texts to educate myself about the COVID-19 virus,  the tiny pathogen that has invaded our civilization and caused this global calamity.

Muscovy Duck, Cairina moschata

The existence of viruses was postulated long before they were seen.  In the late 19th century fine filters, usually effective in trapping bacteria from diseased tissue, were not fine enough to strain out these minute structures.  Optical microscopes, adequate for bacteria, could not resolve the much smaller viruses.  Martinus Beijerinck first described a virus, the tobacco mosaic virus, in 1898 but it wasn’t until the invention of the electron microscope in the 1930’s that we could actually see the evil doers.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Scientists were amazed to see these geometric particles that resembled spaceships or underwater mines more than life forms.  They have no cell membrane or other standard cellular structures.  They are primarily genetic material contained within a protein capsule.  Can you even call them living?  This question is still debated as they barely meet the criteria of life; they have genetic material, they reproduce, and they evolve.  Today viruses are the most numerous life form on the planet, more than all other entities combined.

A Corona virus

How do viruses cause disease?  A virus outside a cell is a harmless, inert particle.  Inside the cell, however, it reeks havoc with the cell’s genetic apparatus and biochemical pathways, eventually causing cell lysis and death.  It first needs the cell, however, to help it replicate and spread daughter viruses into other unsuspecting host cells.  Some are even more nefarious and become latent intracellular sojourners, waiting to cause their mischief later, perhaps when the host’s defenses are weaker.

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

Birds, just like all other living things, are not exempt from viral infections.  Their most famous recent epidemic was that caused by the avian influenza virus in 2008.  This scourge primarily infected flocks of domestic chickens and turkeys–practicing social distancing within a coop is problematic.  Thankfully wild birds and humans were only minimally affected.

Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus

In the midst of our corona virus pandemic it is interesting to reflect on how far we have progressed in fighting infectious disease.  These are all, of course, in addition to our inherent biologic defenses.  The effects of over-crowding and poor sanitation were apparent to even the ancient civilizations.  Without even understanding the biologic mechanism or specific pathogen, Edward Jenner started vaccinating for the small pox virus in 1796.  In the 1860’s Louis Pasteur and others promoted the concept of germ theory, even before the germs themselves were identified.  This was followed by improvements in personal hygiene, isolation of infected patients, and sterilization of medical equipment.  Sulfa was the first antibiotic used against bacteria in the 1930’s, with antivirals first appearing on the scene more recently in the 1980’s.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

At the time of this writing we are in the middle of the 15 day voluntary quarantine, attempting to dampen the rapid spread of the virus which requires coughing and sneezing humans to spread to the next nearby host.  Most of us get this, except for those foolish snowflakes on spring break crowding our Florida beaches, sharing the pathogen, and then heading back north to infect their financing parents.  Yesterday I noticed that there were hardly any other walkers on our beach as I counted birds and got some sorely needed exercise.  I found out why we were alone when escorted off the sand by the polite ranger and sheriff.  Thank you snowflakes.

Pine Warbler, Dendroica pinus

With the beach now off-limits, and after cancelling my birding trip to Costa Rica, I’ve begun an indoor birding adventure.  Andy lent me his 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle of all the North American passerines.  The pieces have taken over the den, sorted by color, body part, etc.  It helps if you know the birds, beak shapes, leg colors, and other field marks.  My wife thinks I’m practicing for the nursing home, but this exercise is just another aspect of our fascinating hobby and suits me perfectly during the lockdown.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

They say we are in a war against this virus, and I agree.  Our most recent wars were fought by only a few, barely affecting the rest of us.  This one feels different, perhaps more like the 1940’s when the entire population was mobilized.  In those prior wars the medical corps was in the rear, but in the current struggle our nurses and their medical colleagues are the frontline. I’m now retired from their ranks but proud of them and have complete faith that they will win this war.  For the rest of us, keep calm, stay separated by six feet, and carry on.

Winter Birding in Southwest Florida

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

 

Referring to “winter” in the tropics of SW Florida is a misnomer and somewhat embarrassing when I see the reports of four feet of snow near my old home in Upstate New York.  The seasonal changes here, along the Gulf of Mexico are subtle.  One is more apt to describe them as hot, rainy, and humid (summer), or cooler and drier (winter), than the seasons defined by the solstice and equinox.  There is also the alligator hunting season (August to November), and hurricane season (June through November).

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

An astute observer of plants may notice some seasonal changes.  The Pond Cypress starts to leaf out in February and March.  I know this since the leaves interfere with my photography of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and other woodpeckers that love these trees.  You may also notice the arrival, departure, and flyover of migrating birds, or the nesting of full-time residents.  But each of these species seem to have their own calendar.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

Right on schedule we saw our first Swallow-tailed Kite on Valentine’s Day.  They’ll return to South America around Labor Day.  Migrating warblers color our trees here in April, several weeks earlier than their big show at Magee Marsh in Ohio.  I’ve usually migrated northward myself before the late arrivals of the Mangrove Cuckoo, Black-whiskered Vireo, and Gray Kingbird.  Some year I’ll hang out here a little longer and wait for them.

Blue-headed Vireo, Vireo solitarius

The large birds pair off and nest early.  The Red-shouldered Hawks are commonly observed in February cuddling and sharing a branch.  A few months later they won’t dream of this.  The Osprey platform and nest at the beach already has several chicks and the non-stop grocery runs of the parents is well underway.

Red-tailed Hawks, Buteo lineatus

My Florida “patch” is a three mile berm separating the residential high-rises from the brackish mangrove swamp and beach.  I walk it three or four times a week, partly for the exercise, but more importantly for the birds.  The birds are use to all the human traffic and one usually sees 15 to 20 species.  These are primarily the Florida waders but an occasional Cooper’s Hawk, Kingfisher, or Killdeer add some interest.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

But its good to leave the familiar patch and explore the rest of SW Florida.  This season we’ve chased three rarities so far.  I described the Vermillion Flycatcher on the prior post of 11/24/2019.  Since then we’ve also chased a Hammond’s Flycatcher sighted at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and a White-cheeked Pintail found relaxing on the Lely Resort Pond.

Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors

The accurate identification of flycatchers in the Empidonax genus sends chills up and down the spines of most birders.  It’s one of our greatest challenges with many of the similar small birds only differentiated by their songs.  The Hammond’s, a bird usually found in the coniferous forests of the western U.S., somehow ended up at one of the Lettuce Lakes at Corkscrew and has remained there for most of the winter.  At first he was reported as a Least Flycatcher, but some smart birder insisted it was a Hammond’s and the birding Gods eventually agreed.

Least Flycatcher, Empidonax minimus

I saw the bird, along with a hoard of curious birders from far and wide.  The little bird seemed to be playing to us as he swooped past the the crowded boardwalk and perched in the open, until the repositioned birders caught up and he returned to his prior perch.  I never did get a good shot but did meet some new birders in the stampede.  The picture above is a different bird from another trip.

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

The White-cheeked Pintail was not as geographically dislocated as the flycatcher.  This striking duck is usually a resident of South America and the Caribbean, but somehow made its way to the west coast of Florida.  Was it a storm, a GPS failure, or was this duck just a wanderlust?  In any case he seemed to be very content swimming with the Blue-winged Teal and Mottled Ducks at the resort.

White-cheeked Pintail, Anas bahamensis

It was an interesting sighting for me since I had previously seen this bird, also out of place, along the west coast of Italy.  I still remember the excitement of the guides, yelling in Italian, as the bird landed near our skiff.  See my post dated 2/26/2015.  Maybe these pintail have an urge to see the world.

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

We depend on Mel, a long-time Florida resident, to take us to the remote birding hot spots, usually in the center of the state.  It was a bit of a surprise therefore, when we pulled into the Lakes Regional Park, just outside Fort Myers.

Lakes Regional Park

A large paved and pay parking lot, concession stands, bike rentals, amusement rides, playground, and even an impressive small gauge railroad greeted us.  But don’t let all that fool you.  This turned out to be a great urban birding site, well worth checking out.

Short-tailed Hawk, Buteo brachyurus (light morph)

We also recently revisited the Harns Preserve in Lehigh Acres.  This picturesque birding hot spot seems to be a well-kept secret as we only saw a few other birders along the trail.  It’s one of the best locations to see Snail Kite, Limpkins, and Sandhill Cranes.

Harns Marsh Preserve

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

At first we thought we were seeing many Purple Gallinule, but finally ID’ed them all as the invasive Gray-headed Swamp Hens.  Unfortunately, this bird who’s usually found in Turkey, India, China, and Thailand, is expanding rapidly into the Florida swamps.  I described this expansion in a blog post on 2/26/2015.

Purple Gallinule, Porphyrio martinica

Gray-headed Swamp Hen, Porphyrio poliocephalus

The bird-of-the-day, however, was the Sandhill Crane.  One hears their plaintive honk long before you see this majestic bird.  There are only a handful of them at Harns, not the impressive large flocks of New Mexico, but enough to get some good shots.  I believe there are several nesting pairs and they graciously treated us to several close flyovers, as if they knew what we photographers wanted.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

The Crane is a revered and mystical bird in many Asian cultures.  For some people it signifies happiness, eternal youth, long life, prosperity, and fidelity.  The birds are depicted in ancient Asian art, often in their neck-stretching courtship dance.  The famous Aesops fable quote compared the flamboyant, strutting, flightless Peacock to the blander, but flight-worthy Crane.  “Fine feathers don’t make fine birds”.  That’s a version of my favorite line, so appropriate to us birders. “Life is not a fashion show”.

My “fashionable” companions at Harns Marsh Preserve

 

Birding Clam Pass, Naples Florida

Clam Pass

 

When one tires of birding while slogging through the Everglades, Panamanian jungle, or Himalayan foothills, there’s always a beach chair waiting at Clam Pass in Naples, Florida.  There’s even a new take-out store on the beach to enhance this sedate version of the sport.  This was my preference this week as the early February temperatures reached the 70’s and the humidity remained low, just about perfect for some casual beach birding.

I must stand out like a sore thumb, sitting on my low beach chair by the water’s edge, clothed in long-sleeved and long-legged attire and hiking shoes, while surrounded by barely clad bathers frolicking in the Caribbean aqua surf.  The camera, long telephoto lens, and binoculars should declare my birding intentions, but I still get some curious looks.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I wonder if the bathers grasp the significance of this unusual intertidal habitat, surviving in the midst of elegant high-rises and urban sprawl.  Our predecessors have done well to preserve it.  Clam Pass is a narrow cut through the otherwise uninterrupted miles of white sand beach.  It is a Chesapeake-like estuary in miniature, bringing saltwater inland on the tide, into a myriad of channels among an extensive mangrove swamp.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Fresh rainwater enters the swamp from the inland side, but during the dry winter it’s mainly the washing of the tides, in and out, that allows the mangroves to survive.  They are unique tropical and subtropical shrubs that come in three varieties, red, white, and black.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

The Red Mangrove, named for its red roots, is the most salt tolerant of the three and thrives in the deeper water.  Its roots form a buttress at the base, protecting it from the waves.  The Black and White Mangroves are named for their bark color and are found on slightly higher and drier mud.  All three have evolved a root system that filters salt from the water and have additional aerial roots or pneumatophores that absorb oxygen from the air.

Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres and Black-bellied Plover, Pluvialis squatarola

It was a bit of a struggle to preserve Clam Pass a few years ago. A strong storm and high surf nearly choked it off and moved it a few hundred feet to the south, threatening the beach store and restaurant.  While waiting for the Army Corp of Engineers to come to the rescue, our neighborhood armed dozens of hearty volunteers with shovels to restore the channel by hand.  At times it all seemed hopeless, but today the pass remains open, at least until the next great storm.

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

The birds of Clam Pass include large flocks of Black Skimmers, sleeping Willets, Terns, and Sanderlings chasing the waves at the water’s edge.  White Ibises occasionally fish in the surf but are more often seen in the calmer waters of the swamp.  There’s an Osprey platform and active nest in the dunes, even in February.  There is really no off season for mating here in southwest Florida.

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

Willets, Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

The most valuable pointer I can give fledgling shorebird photographers is to get low.  The low eye-to-eye angle is much more pleasing than the downward shot.  I usually plant a low beach chair right among the birds and after a few minutes they approach me closely, as if I was a member of their flock.  I’ve seen fellow photographers actually lay down in the wet sand and crawl across the beach, but I’ll leave that technique to younger bones.

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

Sanderling, Calidris alba

To access the beach one must travel on the boardwalk which tunnels through the mangroves.  Along the way you may be lucky to spot a Roseate Spoonbill or Belted Kingfisher.  You’ll undoubtedly see or hear a Red-bellied Woodpecker or Red-shouldered Hawk.  We had a resident Eastern Screech Owl perched daily right along the boardwalk for several years, but alas, it has not been seen this year.

Mangrove boardwalk

Low tide at the swamp

But the bird-of-the-day for today was the Brown Pelican, dive bombing the surf amidst the bathers, right where the Clam Pass waters merge with the Gulf of Mexico.  The blending of brackish and saltwater here must have attracted fish and the Pelican air show.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

The prehistoric-looking birds are truly ancient with a skull fossil found in France dating back 30 million years.  They were one of the large birds that bordered on extinction due to DDT and soft egg shells in the 1970’s, but have rebounded since.  The popular pelican poem came to mind, yet again:

A wonderful bird is the Pelican.

Its beak can hold more than its belly can.

He can hold in his beak

Enough food for a week!

But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?

                                                        Dixon Lanier Merritt

Bird Sleep

 

Just after sunset, with fading light and falling temperature, wave after wave of Canada Geese circled our cove and gracefully landed.  They joined a raucous flock of geese, perhaps 500 or more, apparently judging the cove to be a safe haven for the night.  But with all the honking I wondered if any, myself included, would ever be able to fall asleep.  With darkness, however, they did quiet down, except for the occasional honk from a vigilant sentry goose proclaiming all is well.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

As one ages sleep patterns become an issue, and sometimes even a topic of conversation and concern.  Being a curious birder I decided to do a little research, emphasis on little, as to the sleeping habits of our feathered friends.  What’s their sleep pattern, how much do they need, where do they go at night, can they sleep while flying, etc.?  I also scanned my photo archives looking for pictures of sleeping birds.  Unfortunately I usually delete pictures of birds with their eyes closed, but did find a few suitable for this post.

Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio

On my bedside nightstand there is a fascinating book by Matthew Walker entitled “Why We Sleep”.  It’s mostly about humans but does include a great chapter about the evolution of sleep.  According to the author a biologic sleep requirement must have evolved very early, as all animals, even insects, demonstrate sleep cycles.  You can confirm this with the characteristic brain waves on the EEG’s of sleeping animals and by periodic cycles of non-arousal of small insects.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Although all animals require some sleep, the amount and style vary considerably.  Walker states that the length of the restorative sleep requirement is determined by the complexity of the animal’s nervous system.  Both the length and type have evolved separately for every species and are balanced by the equally important need for wakeful hunting, eating, nest-building, and blog writing.

Dunlins, Calidris alpina

We are all familiar with the two types of sleep, REM and non-REM, identified by their characteristic brain waves.  It’s interesting that REM, the shallower sleep stage associated with dreaming, only occurs in mammals and birds.  It is, therefore, a later creation in the evolutionary sequence.  I consider it an “eye opener” to think of birds actually dreaming.

Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor

Although there are similarities between avian and human sleep, there are also many differences.  Birds demonstrate hemispheric sleep, the amazing ability to let half the brain sleep while the other half stays wide awake, perhaps as a defense for lurking predators.  At some point this split reverses and the other half falls asleep.  It’s interesting that this hemispheric sleep only occurs with non-REM sleep; REM for some reason, requires total brain participation.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

Frigatebirds are amazing seabirds that can stay aloft without landing for up to two months.  They have one major deficit–they cannot swim.  If forced to land at sea they quickly become water-logged and drown.  So curious Niels Rattenborg and others from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology figured they would be the perfect bird to evaluate for in-flight sleep.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificent     photo by A. Sternick

Rattenborg fastened EEG leads to the skulls of 15 frigatebirds and attached a device to monitor flight speed.  The study confirmed that birds do indeed sleep while flying, but not in the expected manner.  They slept only in short bursts of 10 seconds and only for a total of 45 minutes each day, a much shorter duration than their sleep cycle on land.  They also only used hemispheric sleep while flying, and only slept while gaining altitude in a thermal.  They were completely awake and alert in every gliding descent, perhaps to avoid a lethal crash landing at sea.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger

Birds assume many different sleeping positions on land, but I’ve not yet seen one on its back with feet pointing heavenward.  Shorebirds sleep standing up, often on one leg, and usually facing into the wind.  Night herons, owls, and woodpeckers sleep  perched upright.  Their leg muscles in a relaxed state result in a clenched claw, firmly grasping the branch.  Many birds such as the nighthawks sleep horizontally, while some parrots sleep hanging upside down in a bat-like manner.  Many cavity nesters seek out a vacant cavity for the night.

Bonaparte Gull, Larus philadelphia

Birds, like humans, are susceptible to sleep deprivation.  Walker reports that the U.S. government has spent millions investigating the sleep pattern of the lowly White-crowned Sparrow.  If you deprive this bird of sleep during the season it would normally be migrating, it experiences no ill effects.  But similar sleep deprivation at any other time results in catastrophic physiologic brain and body dysfunction.

White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys

I’m not sure how they deprived the little bird of sleep; perhaps with bright lights and continuous Barry Manilow songs at high volume.  In any case, this bird has apparently evolved some protective mechanism for sleep deprivation that the U.S. government would love to uncover.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Have you noticed how difficult it is to sleep the first night in a new hotel and bed?  I now believe this is a throwback to my evolutionary past.  Is there a Sabre-toothed Tiger lurking in the bushes or a Wooly Mammoth lumbering past my cave?  Just like the birds I require safe sleep, but haven’t yet mastered that hemispheric trick.  I guess I need that sentinel goose, standing guard and signaling all is well.

Christmas Birding in the City

 

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

 

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks

Dressed in holiday style

In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.

Children laughing, people passing

Meeting smile after smile

And on every street corner you’ll hear

Silver bells.

 

Strings of streetlights, even stoplights

Blink of bright red and green

As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.

Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch

This is Santa’s big scene

And above all the bustle you’ll hear

Silver bells.

by Ray Evans & Jay Livingston

 

Boston Common

This was my Mother’s favorite Christmas song.  I remember her sitting at the old Chickering piano in the sunroom, belting out these lyrics as if it was yesterday.  I live in the country now, just outside a small town of a few thousand, with elbow room, trees, tidal wetlands, and only a rare passing car or visitor.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

In the past we’ve had a house full of extended family celebrating the holiday, but those times have passed.  Understandably children and the grand-child are making their own traditions in their homes and we are welcomed and eager to be part of “Santa’s big scene” in the heart of downtown Boston.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Their high-rise apartment looks down on the city streets blinking red and green, the frozen Charles River, and a small sliver of the snow-covered Common.  Their tree is a real spruce and adorned with ornaments, many of which are familiar from Christmases past.  Outside soaring gulls fly by our windows while the urban House Sparrows stay much lower on the sidewalk among the shoppers and bunching kids. The skaters crowd the Frog Pond ice, while the Nutcracker is playing at the nearby Opera House.

Opera House

One cold dawn, two days before Christmas I broke away for birding at Mount Auburn Cemetery.  I’ve previously described this birding hotspot in several posts (2/4/2015, 11/11/2016, and 4/20/2018), but this is my first visit in the winter.  In spring and fall it is a migration trap for weary travelers; a welcomed oasis of green and water amidst the urban sprawl.  It’s also the home of year-round residents, including a Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the local food chain.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

A subway and bus ride took me to the north entrance of the cemetery.  The central “mountain” of Mount Auburn has shaded its northern side with crunching snow and ice covering the grave sites, pathways, and roads.  A sign cautioning to proceed at your own risk tried to warn me away, but to no avail.  It was a risk worth taking.

This birding site is one of my all-time favorite locations.  The birds were just the predictable, common species, and quite sparse on that cold morning, but sometimes birding is not just about the birds.

All the ponds were frozen solid.  I saw an adventurous squirrel skate across one, but there were no ducks or geese.  The deep dark glen, a sanctuary for countless birds in warmer weather was now cold and silent, except for the occasional raspy cry of a jay.

The cemetery compels one to quietly reflect on the years gone by and those still to come.  The stones mark many lives well-lived, and perhaps some, not so much.  I was happy to be there and see the nuthatches, robins, and sparrows, but also to leave the burying ground behind and rejoin the Christmas bustle.

Christmas Eve found us in a long line of revelers, waiting on cold Copely Square to enter the warmth of the magnificent Trinity Church.  Our seats, almost in the front row, gave us a great proud view of our grandson in the choir, as we all joined them in singing the Christmas favorites.  The soaring soprano descants brought us chills and the deep bass notes of the organ shook our seats and stirred our souls.  Music like this makes the sacred season for me.

Trinity Church

Christmas in the city with the family, great food, wine, and song–I think I can get used to this.

In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron; water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

In the bleak mid-winter, long ago.

 

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can, I give Him–give Him my heart.

by Christina Rossetti