Water and Light (a 4-minute video)

January 12, 2014

The ancestors told me to observe the elements of nature and find their energy within myself. I have become a student of water and fire—since fire is the source of light. Perhaps there is a portal at the nexus of water and light.

The vegetarian goldfinch

August 6, 2012

The goldfinch started tapping at my window on July 4. I work at a desk looking out at the swaying fingers of goatsbeard flowers, formerly white and fluffy but now brown with tiny seeds. The goldfinch liked to sit among the goatsbeard, occasionally plucking a seed. Several times a day, she flew over to the window, clung to the sill, and pecked at the glass.

I knew it was a female because the field guide showed a male with a black-capped head, unlike this one, which was also not so brilliantly yellow as the male. At first, I thought she was trying to get inside, but I didn’t think she’d like it indoors, so I steadfastly refused to open the window. Then I remembered Google. I tried the phrase “goldfinch tapping at window,” and it turns out lots of people are driven crazy by goldfinches tapping at their windows. I don’t mind—I liked getting to see her six inches away—I just wondered what she wanted.

She wanted a mate, according to the bird forum, or else she was guarding her territory. She saw her reflection in the glass and thought it was another bird. But we’re dealing with a special situation here. Practically all the other birds were done with finding mates and setting up their territories by the end of June. Goldfinches nest late, and it’s for a particular reason—they are vegetarians!

Most birds feed their young with worms and insects, solid protein for growing babies, so they nest in spring. Goldfinch babies get their protein from seeds, so their parents have to nest and mate in summer, when the seeds mature. That’s why there was a goldfinch tapping at my window in early July.

And here’s a related fact about cowbirds, those avian parasites that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. When the babies hatch, the large, aggressive cowbird chicks grab more food than the resident nestlings, which may die. However, cowbirds are not vegetarians. The ones that end up in goldfinch nests die within three days because they can’t survive on a diet of seeds.

There’s some kind of deep lesson here—if only I could figure out how to apply it.

After a few days of nibbling at the goatsbeard, the goldfinch began to pluck entire strands of seeds from the bush. She’d yank one out, and then at least two more, holding them all in her beak. Sometimes she dropped one while grabbing another, but she always ended up with three. Once fully loaded, she’d fly away to the west and disappear among the leaves of a big oak down the road.

Often she’d come over and peck at the window before harvesting the strands of seeds, making sure that nasty, ghostly rival didn’t get any of her loot.

I suspect she was using the goatsbeard stems to build her nest, since she disappeared after about a week. I miss her. I hope she’s been sitting on her eggs and will eventually return with fledglings to feast outside my window.

Buds spring to life

March 9, 2011

Willow buds

Have you seen it? The tree buds are swelling, heading towards the emergence of leaves and flowers. Just today I saw, on the black birch saplings in the yard, bits of green between the brown bud scales, as the underlying tissue begins to expand.

Two days ago, I noticed the slight darkening of pink patches on the mountainside, a sign that red maple buds are fattening as their crimson flowers prepare to burst open.

It was perhaps a week ago that I looked up at the elm branches reaching over the road and saw that the buds were nearly spherical. Elm flowers are among the first to pop, although their floppy little green floral parts are mostly unnoticed until a storm knocks them to the ground. Then we wonder what are those messy blobs on the pavement! But many tree flowers are innocuous and green, as they are wind-pollinated.

Sugar maple bud

It’s the insect-pollinated plants that invest in color and scent to attract the vehicles of their reproduction. Soon we will see the white blossoms of the shadbush, although I’m not sure what insects are around so early to attend to the shadbush and red maple.

The silky hairs will emerge from the willow buds, and the box elder buds will grow fat, white, and fuzzy.

Striped maple buds

If you are impatient for spring to arrive, now is the time to start observing the tree buds. You can watch spring’s changes occur, step by step and day by day, each species in its own style, color, and pattern. And they are extraordinarily beautiful.

Insect Mysteries: Bees and caterpillar

August 12, 2010

As I’m walking down a sidewalk in Catskill, a honeybee catches my eye. It’s bright with whitish pollen—its legs and sides and even its back are covered. The bee sits on a Rose-of-Sharon leaf and grooms away the pollen, wiping its legs along each other and across its abdomen. Then it heads back toward the large, cup-shaped flowers, but instead of crawling into the depths of the cups, the bee begins cruising the still-closed buds. It lands, noses around the tip of the bud, finds no entrance, and heads for another one.

I am surprised and begin to form theories—the bee is young and does not know how to approach a flower. It was flustered by its first try at the Rose-of-Sharon, whose abundant pollen is loosely poised on a central shaft that combines fused stamens with the pistil. Bees get quickly laden with pollen, but perhaps this one was perturbed by the excess weight and decided to try another strategy. Or maybe it’s been disoriented by a disease.

Next to my house, I watch a bumblebee walk across two feet of concrete and a foot of earth to the base of a red maple. It walks straight up the trunk. I stop watching when my neck is hurting from looking up, but the bee is still marching. Why isn’t it flying? Its wings look intact—I checked.

More theories—the bee is injured and is having trouble flying. It’s young, or tired from a long flight, or sick. It’s following a scent trail, easier to do on foot.

A fat, bright green caterpillar steps boldly onto the road. Traffic is light, but surely this adventurous creature will soon be squashed if left on its path. I pick it up, and it writhes between my fingers, scratching at my skin. I run across the road and drop it in the shade, where it curls up, playing dead. I gently fold it up in a yellow dock leaf and make a loose cage of my hands. I can feel it thrashing inside the leaf.

At the house, I watch it glide across the flagstones. Its body is divided into about eight segments, each with an edge that fits around the following segment. These sharp edges are what scratched my fingers. The green surface is etched with thin, intermittent, diagonal bands, one black and one yellow band per segment. A curving, slender, black projection, like a narrow horn, rises from the tail end. (This horn managed to poke through the leaf when I was carrying the insect.) The front of the head is light brown, blunt, and bristly.

Biologist Uldis Rose has helped me identify this caterpillar as the larva of the laurel sphinx moth, a hummingbird-sized creature that I will research soon. Meanwhile, anyone with insights into the bee mysteries is requested to email me at violetsnow77@gmail.com.

The upside of fracking and water contamination

July 19, 2010

Homeowner setting his water on fire, from the film GASLAND.

It’s become a cliché that water is the new oil. Experts predict that clean, fresh water will, by the end of the century, be as precious and hard to find as black gold is now. Business magazines and websites are already instructing investors on how to profit from the coming market in water. (See http://seekingalpha.com/article/117760-water-the-new-oil.)

In many developing countries, drinkable water is already extremely scarce, and environmental justice demands that affluent nations like the U.S. attend to the needs of the arid poor.

The good news is, as unregulated fracking—extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing—moves forward, many communities across the U.S. are finding their water supplies undrinkable. Pretty soon we may not have to worry about the Third World’s water problems—our own will be just as bad, and justice will be served.

Our use of water is much greater than that of people in the Third World. Can you imagine an American family of four hauling nine buckets of water a day from a well a quarter mile away and making it do for cooking, drinking, and washing? I once spent three days in a village in the desert of Rajasthan, India, where I watched a family do just that, but there were eight of us in the house, including me, using that precious water. I was not allowed to help fetch water—because of the danger of wild dogs, they said.

To personal use, add the water required by agriculture, industry, and energy production, and you have a system that gobbles up vast quantities of fresh water. Fracking itself uses millions of gallons of water at a shot, injected into the ground at high pressure, along with chemicals and sand, to break up gas-trapping shale deep below the surface. Once the water is polluted with chemicals, it is sequestered below the water table to keep it out of the groundwater. Some of it returns to the surface along with the natural gas and has to be trucked to disposal sites. Either way, millions of gallons are being withdrawn from our water systems, while some of it is escaping into community water supplies and making water undrinkable.

Residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, are getting dizzy from taking showers. In the documentary film Gasland, people are shown lighting their water on fire as it comes out of the tap.

Josh Fox, director of Gasland, traveled to Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and New Mexico, looking for towns where fracking was well-regulated, landowners were happily living off the leasing fees paid by drilling companies, and the water was still clean. He did not find any such community.

The New York State legislature is currently grappling with whether to allow fracking in the natural-gas-rich Marcellus Shale, which underlines much of the state, including the Catskills, source of New York City drinking water. The city is opposed to fracking in the state, but forces in favor of it include the politically powerful gas companies, landowners hoping to get rich from leasing fees, and the country’s need for energy supplies.

For more information and ways to take action, see http://www.gaslandthemovie.com.

Kids and nature deficit

June 27, 2010

Do you remember playing outdoors as a child?  I remember climbing a five-trunked maple tree, playing house in the shady gaps of a honeysuckle thicket, tasting the nectar of columbine flowers, stripping the seeds from plantain stems, for that satisfying prickle along the fingers.

If you have kids, I hope they’re getting to have their own outdoor explorations. A growing number of experts (see www.childrenandnature.org) have observed that children these days spend much less time out in the natural world than any previous generation, and that this lack may be unhealthy. Studies show that problems such as obesity, depression, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) improve when kids are exposed to natural environments.

The problem was dubbed Nature Deficit Disorder and described in detail by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods (Workman Publishing Company, 2005). He blames such influences as the loss of green space, a cultural obsession with safety, educational pressures, and the easy fascination of TV, computers, and video games. Louv’s research shows that contemporary environmentalists had childhoods involving plenty of time exploring nature, either alone or with a mentor who modeled a respect and appreciation for the wild. Today’s efforts to deliver nature to children tend to be overly structured and sanitized, with national parks resembling theme parks and children forbidden to leave manicured paths to play in the woods. Louv wonders, where will the next generation of protectors of the environment come from without youthful experiences to inspire them?

In one study, researchers examined stress levels of children in an area of upstate New York. They correlated the quantity of green space near the children’s homes with their scores on psychological tests and with questionnaires on their behavior filled out by parents. The results showed that children with ready access to nature had more success at handling the stress in their lives.

Other research found that children diagnosed with ADHD showed a reduction in symptoms after a guided walk through a park as compared with walks through a downtown area and a neighborhood.

The 2008 edition of Last Child in the Woods lists 100 suggestions for connecting kids and nature. For example: buy a truckload of dirt to play in; go for a family walk when the moon is full; buy field guides; plant a butterfly garden; study animal tracking. Even here in the Catskills, where such opportunities are abundant, kids may be mesmerized by electronic devices and require a parental push to get outside, or even gentle guidance to discover the details they tend to overlook, which may provide unexpected and nourishing enchantment.

Since the first edition Louv’s book was published, it has sparked the creation of a Children and Nature Network (see www.childrenandnature.org), which promotes public awareness, organizes community events, and pushes for legislation. Check it out!

On the riverbank

June 6, 2010

It’s a sunny spring morning on the riverbank, and the birds are spectacularly busy.

Barn swallows zigzag overhead or swoop in long arcs over the water as they snatch insects from the air. When they bring their catch to the nests high in the eaves of the bridge, a cacophony of cries rings forth as their young clamor to be fed.

Red-winged blackbirds trill incessantly from the reeds of a little shoreline wetland and flash their scarlet epaulets as they patrol their territory. Occasionally I hear two of their other voices, a petulant chk-chk-chk and a clear, piercing whistle.

The Canada geese are not disturbed by my presence, but a black duck takes flight, its fast-beating wings taking it low over the water and out of sight upstream. With my binoculars, I pick out a mother mallard leading two fuzzy babies to the bank, the male following alertly.

A dusty-brown mockingbird strolls along a grassy area with its extra-long tail angling up and down as it forages. I get too close, and it flies off, showing the bright white bar on the underside of each dark wing. From a tree it entertains me with a series of polyglot phrases.

On the branches of a dead shrub, two sleek gray catbirds touch bills and then separate, one rummaging through the dry leaves, the other studying me inquisitively. I notice, for the first time ever, the patch of reddish-brown at the base of the catbird’s tail. It lets me get close enough to take a photo. The other one calls gently, not the rasping meow I usually hear but a soft, endearing mew.

A great honking comes from downriver, and I go to see what the geese are up to. I know the superabundance of Canada geese makes them rather a nuisance, but I am fascinated by these beauties. Two couples seem to be having a spat. One pair drifts coolly away. The others retire to the shallows to preen, ducking their heads to throw water over their backs, nuzzling their own flanks, stretching their elegant wings. A single goose comes too close, and one of them rises up to chase it off.

I’ve noticed that geese rarely fly short distances except when they lift themselves over the water to dart at an interloper. Otherwise, they prefer to swim or walk, I suppose because it must take a lot of effort to get those big bodies off the ground or the water. Today, however, there’s something I’ve never seen before. Atop a tree bent over the water sits a goose, about 15 feet up. A challenger flies up and chases it away, taking over the high post. It sits there surveying the 30 or so comrades noodling around below, spread out across the river. Suddenly it honks and flies down at one individual, for no reason that I can detect, and then joins the group to float among the sparks of reflected sunlight, and all is peaceful for a while.

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Canada geese cross the street

May 13, 2010

Leaving the stream

Preening on the bank

  • Passing the apartment building

    Preparing to step off the curb

    Passing a parked car

    Onward, family!

    Made it! Back to lunch.

Ducks and drakes celebrate spring

April 9, 2010

I don’t know about the bees, but the birds seem to think spring is here – at least the ducks are in an amorous mood.

Since my discovery of Coles Brook, I’ve taken to doing my laundry in River Edge, around a corner from the brook’s meander towards Hackensack. While the laundry is drying, I wander along the stream, taking note of the level of trash and the clarity – or not – of the water. As I was heading back to the laundromat last week, I heard a commotion coming from the stream, and a loud quacking overhead.

At the edge of the stream, two mallard drakes were fighting. They wrestled and flapped, on the bank and in the water, the female sticking close, almost touching them. Eventually, one of the males climbed onto the back of the other one and held him underwater. When he let go, the loser flew off upstream. The winner promptly followed him.

I looked around to see where the quacking was coming from. A crow, seated on top of a pole, was making strangely duck-like noises. It shut up soon after the drakes disappeared.

The female mallard swam around in the shallows, reared up and flapped her wings, climbed onto a wheeled board stranded in the water. When the victorious male returned, they swam together, the female in front. They did a little preening, a little bill dipping.

A great honking announced the arrival of a pair of Canada geese, which settled onto the water just around the bend. It’s hard to say whether the prospect of being interrupted pushed the male to pounce, but a few moments later, he darted at the female, climbed onto her back, grabbed the nape of her neck in his bill, and for half a minute or so, they wriggled. Then he slid off and released her neck.

They dipped their bills in the water, swam to the shallows and preened. The female put her head underwater, probably seeking a snack, while the male remained alert nearby. I suppose he was guarding his woman against his opponent’s return.

The geese swam idly past, paying little attention, but I was delighted to have witnessed wild duck love, right in River Edge.

Bald Eagles visit the Hackensack River

March 14, 2010

Two great dark wings stretch up above the water and then fold back down. The tide is running out, and swaths of mud flats are exposed along the shores of the river. As I approach, I see the big bird in the shallows near the opposite bank, struggling with something. I notice its white head and think of the large black-backed gulls that soar over the river. But when the wings go up again, I see that the whole underside of the bird is dark, so it can’t be a sea gull.

My presence distracts the feathered one from what is probably its dinner. It stares at me, then lifts off and traces two swooping arcs over the water, showing its white tail—it’s a bald eagle, right here on the Hackensack River!

A dark shape flops a few times in the shallows—presumably a fish, making its way back to the deep water. The eagle settles in a tree, and I see that another eagle is already sitting in the branches. I step closer, and my boots almost disappear in the sucking mud. One of the eagles flies to a tree slightly upstream, and I loop inland to a better vantage point. When I step out of the brush onto the bank, it takes off, circling again before it disappears downstream.

I sit on a concrete block, a remnant of some past shoreline structure, regretting that I chased the eagle away and wondering what the other one will do. A gull lands on a distant wedge of mud, near the eagle’s tree, and pecks at something repeatedly.

A common merganser flies past. It’s a female, her grey body low over the water, reddish-brown head stretched out, wings beating in that rapid rhythm characteristic of ducks. Three males follow her, flickers of black and bright white.

The eagle launches from the tree, causing the gull to take off hastily in the opposite direction. The eagle soars downriver, and the gull returns to its ministrations.

I wondered if the eagles were nesting in the area, so I checked in with Capt. Bill Sheehan of Hackensack Riverkeeper. He replied, “There are two known nest sites in the Hackensack Watershed. One is on United Water property in Haworth near the water treatment plant. The other is also on United Water property at Woodcliff Lake. The birds you saw are regular visitors to this part of the river this time of year. They come down from the Great White North and feed on carp and anything else they kill or find.”

I regret that my eagerness to get a good view chased the eagles away. I recommend carrying binoculars and remaining in the shelter of trees if you happen to spot our two visitors.


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