Spring in the air
It's just February, but there are signs of an early spring: buds appearing in some of the trees, crocuses emerging from the soil and leaf litter, temperatures climbing into the 60s. Another indication is the increasing frequency of bird songs from a variety of species: Cardinals, Titmice, Robins, and especially the House Finches in our neighborhood. And then there is the visual indicator we noted while bird watching at the Riverlands Conservation Area recently. A White Pelicans cruising for fish in a shallow bay was advertising to anyone who might be interested (especially pelicans of the opposite sex) that it was ready for another season of procreation, proudly displaying the orange knob that develops on its beak during the mating season. Understandably, the ornament falls off when eggs are laid, when it is no longer needed. For such a normally ungainly looking bird, it looked quite pretty on the water with the sun illuminating its colorful bill and the nuptial plumes adorning the back of its head.
new generation of monarchs
This past August, Barb and I took a walk at Watershed Nature Center. Flowers were blooming everywhere - swamp rose mallow, black-eyed Susans, cone flowers, and others I couldn't name - and feeding on the bounty of nectar were several species of butterflies. After reading reports of declining populations in recent years, it was a relief to see several Monarchs among the other butterflies. Then, as if to punctuate the good feelings, we found one laying eggs on a milkweed plant. At about the same time, my brother in Wichita found several Monarch caterpillars on the milkweeds in their backyard flower garden, planted there for that purpose. They watched the caterpillars grow, pupate in their jewel-like chrysalis, and finally transform into gorgeous winged adults. Having been born so late in the summer, they are probably of the generation that migrated to Mexico to overwinter then head north next year. Perhaps we will enjoy seeing their grandchildren or great grandchildren next year.
Queen Anne's lace
Queen Anne's Lace is an invasive plant, brought to the New World by European colonists. According to the Wisconsin Horticulture website, they brought it with them because of its medicinal qualities. Exactly what those medicinal properties are was not explained. This plant is the wild form from which the domesticated carrot was derived; as you might expect, its roots can be cooked and eaten. Invasives are generally thought of as harmful to native organisms, and so is Queen Anne's Lace which, because of its promiscuous ability to reproduce, can crowd out other plants. But it is of some benefit in that wild animals feed on it, and some species of butterflies consume its nectar and use it as a host plant for their caterpillars. This photo was taken at our local nature preserve. The preserve's administrators make great effort to eradicate invasives so one has to admire its ability to prosper throughout the country, in fields and along roadsides, despite the persecution. Think Dandelions, another import from the Old World.
One day, this little guy (or gal) showed up on our deck. He probably visited before, but if he did, he didn't look the same. Now something was missing. What a tale his tail could tell! Growing up, it helped its owner keep its balance when scrambling along power lines and through the trees. When sitting still, it curled over its back to give it shade and camouflage from its enemies. It curled over its owner's nose, helping to keep him warm in its leafy nest through long winter nights. Then one day, it made the ultimate sacrifice. It gave itself up to a predator in hot pursuit in order to spare its owner. Now the little gray squirrel presses on, handicapped but without complaint. A good lesson to us all: life goes on, make the most of it.
the bird with the golden crown
When I go on walks in local parks and natural areas, I almost always take my camera with a long lens. Better to lug it along (it's pretty heavy with the large, image-stabilizer lens) and see nothing worthy of photographing than not take it and see something really unusual and interesting. So I was very happy I have that habit when my wife and I took an afternoon walk on the first of April at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary near Alton, Illinois. As we walked through the small trees that form a forested edge to Ellis Island we came upon a small flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets. I have seen them only a handfull of times in my life, usually on Christmas bird counts, and always just catching a glimpse as they moved incessantly through the trees searching for over-wintering insect eggs and pupae. But this day they were were not as frenetic, and seemed to not mind our presence. In fact, they seemed almost curious and moved with us along the path, pausing frequently to have their pictures taken. How thoughtful of these beautiful little birds to delay their trip north for the summer until my wife and I could come to see them off.
Often, the best places to see wildlife, especially birds, are in areas with good habitat that are frequented by people. That would seem to be counterintuitive - you would think wild animals would avoid people. But if a natural area is healthy, with plenty to eat and cover when seclusion is sought, and if human activities are relatively quiet and routine (i.e., the same sort of activity is present from day to day) animals accept humans as just part of the background noise. Go into a bird house at the zoo during the day, and the birds go about their business as if you weren't there. Go there in the evening, after hours when the public is not usually present (as we did once on a special "behind the scenes" tour), and the inhabitants become quite alarmed. One of our favorite places to take walks near our home is the Watershed Nature Center. There is a good variety of habitat with ponds, forest, and some prairie, and the paths are frequented by dog- and children-walkers. That's where this Pileated Woodpecker, a bird that is normally very shy, let us get within ten feet as he (it is a male) foraged for carpenter ants on a decomposing tree carcass. And last week this immature Red-tailed Hawk seemed unconcerned as we walked along the path not twenty feet away.
A Lunar eclipse
In the wee small hours of the morning I came slowly awake to my wife’s voice. In a stage whisper, wanting to wake me up and yet not really wanting to disturb me, she said “I can see it!” At 3:00 a.m., looking out our bedroom window, she could clearly see the lunar eclipse. The excitement of such an experience is maximized when it is shared with someone, and I was the only one around to share it with. In fact, it was so exciting it was worth risking our marriage to roust me out of bed. I jumped into a pair of sweatpants, threw on a coat, put the telephoto lens on my camera and changed its ISO setting for nighttime photography, and went outside to get some images, one of which I share with you in this Blog. Some will say that the rosy tint of the eclipsed moon was due to the minimal sunlight illuminating it being diffracted by the earth’s atmosphere. But I would say it was the sweet nothings whispered by the earth as he cloaked his partner with his shadow that made her blush.
One day, a Cooper’s Hawk showed up on our backyard deck. Though sometimes seen patrolling through our neighborhood and wooded areas in our area, they are very timid and never seen up close. This individual probably dropped by with the intent to pick up a snack, one of the House Sparrows, Goldfinches, or House Finches that visit our feeders. What a stroke of luck that I took a break from my painting at just that time, that I happened to stroll by the dining room where a sliding glass door leads out to the deck, and happened to look out to check on the bird activity. What luck that I had my camera nearby, with the telephoto lens attached so that I could get a couple of good, close-up shots before it took off. The hawk posed erect, stately, haughty, regal. It had no small bird in its grasp, so if gifted with intellect and language, the hawk would say it was unlucky that morning. The small songbirds would say they were lucky; luck was with them in that they detected the approach of the predator in time to make their escape. I use the word luck as if it is a thing, as if it is something given or taken by some unseen force, when really it is merely a word that expresses a feeling. But it is such a strong feeling, engrained by life experiences that teach us to look for intentions, both good and bad, on the part of those around us. So despite the fact that I know on an intellectual level there is no such thing as luck, I still feel lucky to have experienced the presence of such a charismatic creature.
I am happy to say that I recently had two paintings accepted for the National Watercolor Exhibition at the Mary R. Koch Arts Center in Wichita, Kansas. The show, juried by Stephen Zhang, runs from December 10 through January 29, 2022. The paintings, “Thrush and Phlox” and “Grand Canyon Lodge View” can be viewed on my web site.
Late April and early May brings, along with the warming weather and the greening up of our local woods, the birds that come up from the south to establish territories and raise new generations of their species. On recent walks we encountered the least flycatcher (left above), the smallest of North American flycatchers, and a strawberry-red male summer tanager. Both of these species spend their winters in Mexico and Central America, and it never fails to amaze me that these little characters (especially the flycatcher which is only about five inches long and under an ounce in weight) survive such lengthy round-trips, year after year, throughout their short lives. While the least flycatcher migrates over land around the Gulf of Mexico, many summer tanagers make the long 500 mile jump over the gulf. When they reach breeding areas they have no time to rest as they stake out territories and forage for themselves and their young. Then, as the days grow shorter, something in their genetic makeup programs them to take wing, setting their flight plan back southern climes.
Earth day 2021
Earth Day will be celebrated on April 22. I am old enough to remember the first Earth Day, in 1970, the year I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. It was also the year the Environmental Protection Agency was established. These actions would not have been taken without the voices of people like Rachel Carlson who, drawing from their experiences and foundational scientific research, told us how human activities were damaging the environment and threatening the existence of innumerable species. Just as now with climate change, there were some who said there was no emergency, that those who spoke up were alarmists. My wife and I moved to the Quad Cities in the late 90's. People we talked to, who had always lived there, talked about a time in the 50's and 60's when they saw few Bald Eagles, and the ones they saw were all adults. Then the country woke up and banned DDT. Now, in the winter when the Mississippi river freezes up, eagles by the hundreds, adult and immature, flock to locks and dams to feed on fish below the dams, where the water remains ice-free. In the spring, flocks of White Pelicans migrate along the river as they head north to breeding grounds. A Peregrine Falcon pair nests on one of the buildings in Davenport. We listened to science in the 70's and avoided disaster. Now, new voices are calling for action to reduce our carbon footprint before climate warming becomes catastrophic. Again, we need to listen.
Brent Langley is an internationally known artist who enjoys sharing his views on art and nature.