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March Madness

Posted by on 26 Mar 2008 | Tagged as: Nature


                                                                   © Karl Meyer 2008

                                March Madness

It’s become familiar turf—part of my personal landscape history. I realized this when I left the edge of the pavement and fitted myself into a narrow, snow-slumped trail made by hikers, cross country skiers, and snowshoers in a wide swatch of woods. Something about the light, and the March snow cover, enabled me to discern the date almost exactly: it was 9 years ago that I’d first taken this path into these woods.

I remembered because I had just moved back to the Connecticut Valley after a stint living in Rhode Island, and then eastern Massachusetts where I’d worked for Mass. Audubon. I was thrilled to be back, and went out walking along the edge of this ridge with a small knot of friends. It was a sunny, mid-afternoon when we came abreast of a small hemlock grove along the dirt track. The sound caught my ear immediately; we all stopped.

It was a thin, melodious, wavering trill, coming from somewhere in the shadows of those hemlocks. Eastern screech owl. There came that sweet, spooky, arc of a trill again. We all stood, mesmerized. These were not thick hemlocks; the little grove was only fifteen feet deep, spread along sixty feet of trail. It seemed there was no way these birds could not have been aware of four people chatting as they moved through the woods.

But there was more to this, of course. The duettng screech owls had mating in mind. These were courtship calls. Both the males and females of these 8-inch, tufted-eared owls sing. We never glimpsed either of them. But neither did we disturb them. Pair bonding was occurring as this little herd of humans stood silent, taking in the cool March air. By mid-April they would be sitting on 4-5 eggs, the male and female sharing the incubation. Sometimes the two of them would squeeze into that tiny nest hole together. By May they would be feeding their young pre-digested bugs, mice, and wood frogs.

I continued my walk, reminded that this is now a familiar wild place—about equal parts park, open woods, and forest. I’m grateful to have it as part of my history. This was another cool March afternoon. There had been another recent snow, but the angle of the sun was conspiring to scour out bare ground in many south facing places. The maple sap was building in those tree roots, readying to make its spring run. You could just feel it. I little downy woodpecker hammered away at a bark-less snag.

For then next while my walk was unremarkable; contemplative. Footsteps on a softening snow path. I eventually wandered up a path that brings you alongside a little rill. With nothing in particular wedged in my mind, I can only say I was startled by a raucous “bah!, bah!, bah!!” I froze. It was a pileated woodpecker, a familiar resident here. Its fist-sized carvings are a signature of many decaying hardwood snags in this tract. I looked up to the trees, but saw nothing.

Then, a shadow, and “bah!, bah!, bah!!” again. It was below me, and to the left, smack in the middle of a ten foot pool of water–moved gently by the input of that tiny brook. Red-crest raised, wings held aside, this crow-sized king of the woodpecker family was having itself a bird bath. I didn’t move. I thought it had been yelling about my intrusion. This was something else. It fidgeted in awkward contentment in that stream for twenty seconds. When it looked aside I quickly shifted so I could see better look around the thick trunk in front of me. The woodpecker shook its wings, droplets rolled off its back. Then it took off.

I thought it would be gone, but the bird stayed. It simply pumped off wing beats enough to take it to a spindly, wrist-thick elm, and then glued itself to the bark, where it used its bill to preen from the tail forward. It was a ridiculously small tree for such a large bird. But then it shot into flight again—not away from me, but back into the puddle. “Bah!, bah!, bah!!!”, it screamed, settling into the chilly stream. Again, it bathed for a minute; then took off to a nearby tree. This one was a slightly more suitable maple, the thickness of the barrel of a baseball bat. There, it did a little more preening, perhaps dispensing with some of the mites in its feathers.

It repeated this act once more, its boisterous yells coming as it settled into the cold water. I felt like I was watching some Russian bureaucrat visiting an icy Moscow pool, then scooting back into the steam bath. Finally, after a victorious yell, it took off for a more suitable forest tract, landing about 40 feet up on the fat trunk of a hundred-foot white pine. I soon lost it in the branches—in woods that are now part of my landscape history.

Refuge OpEd, Rutland Herald

Posted by on 31 Jan 2008 | Tagged as: Nature

The following appeared January 30th, in the RutlandHerald

Karl Meyer

                              Towards a true refuge

The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is currently accepting public comment on the direction the Refuge should take in its preservation work for the next 15 years.  Here’s one suggestion: preserve what’s here.  This is not a flip answer.  As a FISH and wildlife refuge they should take their mandate seriously.  Preserve the FISH.

I don’t’ want them chasing ghosts—continuing down the failed 40-year path of farm-raising hatchery Atlantic salmon and tossing them in the river to replace a run that’s been extinct since 1815.  Just 140 return per year. 

I want the Refuge to include plans to preserve the 300,000 American shad that came upriver in 1997–the year the Refuge was founded.   I want a plan that shows what the Refuge has done, and what it will continue to do, to nurse and nurture the 64,000 blueback herring that also swam upstream in 1997.  Part of the Refuge’s mandate is “watershed education” to create an informed public “that supports and understands anadromous fish restoration.”  The shad run is withering; the blueback herring is all but extinct since Conte arrived.  There is little evidence the public understands this tragedy.

The first three species in the Refuge’s conservation mandate are “Atlantic salmon, American shad, and river herring.”   It’s unconscionable that the public is unaware the shad run up the Connecticut River has been virtually reduced by half since Conte began.  Just 159,000 fish swam past Holyoke dam this year, compared to twice that many a decade back.  Blueback herring are now scarcer than sub-prime loans—just 69 swam past Holyoke in 2007, while there were 64,000 in 1997, and 310,000 five years before that.  As a FISH and wildlife refuge, that’s failure.

Another failure is what the public is being left to believe.  Many think salmon is an endangered species here.  It is not.  The Connecticut River’s native salmon strain became extinct two centuries back.  And though it is widely believed that dams put the final nail in that salmon-run’s coffin, it is likely that a short-term climate aberration called the Little Ice Age (1300 – 1850 A.D.) brought cold Atlantic currents–and Atlantic salmon, south to the Connecticut at that time.  When cold currents receded, so did salmon.  They were visiting the southern-most major stream in their fluctuating footprint.  When currents warmed, detouring runs withered—at the same time dams blocked the last spawners.

Salmon is a mythical fish.  It’s big.  It leaps.  Fishermen moon over it like hunters who want to believe in wolf packs and cougars in the woods.  These are ghosts.  The extinct salmon run is simply extinct.  Global warming will not favor a cold water species on a warming river.  Shad were never extinct.  The river teemed with them a decade back.  Why this fish was never prioritized is a tragedy.  It’s been salmon first.  Salmon in grade schools; salmon studies at Conte Fish Lab; and preserving “salmon” streams.  The return on this has been misled school kids and 140 hybrid fish produced at huge expense in energy-sucking hatcheries.

Isn’t it time for change?  Studies left quietly under the radar show that American shad are virtually blocked at Turners Falls dam.  The number of shad passing successfully through fishways there is hovering at 1% since the year 2000.  That was the first season after deregulation allowed hydro-operators–at Turners Falls and just upstream at Northfield Mountain, the unencumbered ability to pump the Connecticut up and down according to spikes in hourly prices on the electricity “spot market.”  Since that change shad passage has plummeted by 85% at Turners.   The river population of shad has dropped a full 17% since 2000.  New Hampshire and Vermont no longer have shad runs. 

A main Refuge artery is blocked—adjacent to a Refuge Visitor Center and the Conte Fish Lab.  The public hasn’t a clue.  No clamor is raised by researchers and the Connecticut River Coordinator’s Office because the handful of salmon that reach Turners fishways pass there easily—all SEVEN this year.  The facilities were designed for salmon, not hoards of two-foot long, green-gold shad, or shiny, foot-long herring–this river’s living fish.  These are not sexy enough, apparently.  So grade school teachers offer kids myths.

Sadly, decades of failed marine fisheries policy may have doomed herring runs to extinction due to wildly fluctuating populations of predatory striped bass.  But the Refuge could keep its name as a true FISH refuge if it prioritized saving the eminently preservable, arguably magnificent, American shad.  The public—in classrooms, in Vermont and New Hampshire; along the entire River, could have an enduring refuge symbol.  But that recently blocked artery at Turners Falls dam would have to be unstopped—fisheries experts would have to speak honestly; committees charged with preserving fish runs would have to stand up; FERC regulators would have to regulate; lawmakers litigate.  That would lead to a real refuge, one with an informed public and real fish—one with an honest future.  Preserve what’s here. 
                                         #  #  #

 Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield, MA.  His book Wild Animals of North America has been given a 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for Children’s Books.  


On making assumptions…

Posted by on 06 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Nature

Karl Meyer                                            December 6, 2007
Greenfield, MA

                             On making assumptions…

Never assume anything–particularly wrens.  I made that mistake recently and a wren got the jump on me.  It was a good lesson.  The weather was brooding and dreary.  The afternoon world was wrapped in dulling late-fall rain.  Then a wren barged in–spring-boarding off the window casement three feet from me.  Its scratchy wildness scuttled any thoughts of surrender to dreariness.  A world with wrens is magic.  I’ll never again assume to the contrary.

It’s not that I ever discount wrens.  In southern New England we’re never completely without them.  A few hardy winter wrens–secretive denizens of evergreen shadows, don’t retreat south from our winter chill.  And Carolina wrens, a species that jumped north to our latitude in the mid-1900s on global warming’s edge, are now widely dispersed through varied scrubby habitats.  They hold their turf in winter to the point where significant die-offs occur some years due to intense cold.  The other wren varieties we enjoy from this plucky, gravy-boat-shaped family—the house, sedge, and marsh wrens, all retreat south at winter’s approach.

But here–out of the bleak afternoon universe on the cusp of winter, comes the wren.  It’s a lightning bolt visit.  Quickness is the livelihood of wrens.  Just a flash: a head with a curving bill, a bright eye with arching white eyebrow, and the briefest flicker of a stubbed brown tail.  Then it bolts from view.  Wren!—unmistakably wren.  Quick, stubby, plucky, and warm brown—a Carolina wren!

You may not know this bird from sight, but likely somewhere you’ve heard–spring, summer, or fall, in the last decade.  In the size-to-volume range this wisp of feathers pumps out song like it has a bullhorn.  It’s a boldly sweet, “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea,” pause, “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea,” pause—“tea-kettle tea.”   And then again, over and over—until it’s through with that variation, and moves onto something quite similar but varying by a quarter note, and runs through that repertoire.  And then another barely perceptible change, and then another run of wren song.  It’s what wren’s do.

More Carolina wrens are making it through more Eastern state winters–further north and at higher elevations, as our climate warms.  That’s good news for the wrens, while we’ll have to do the math on what it means for humans.  In summer here you’ll now you hear “tea-kettle-tea” high in hilltowns, where it was never heard before.  So, even at winter’s approach it’s incumbent on all of us to prepare ourselves for wrens.  You just never know.

The actual prep work isn’t much really.  It amounts to un-cultivating the certain understanding that life can appear boring at times—routines can collect in a dulling sameness, leaving us vulnerable to the element of surprise.  And then, WHAM!—that wren hits your window.  To those not mentally prepared, this might assault our slowed senses as annoyance—there’s a leaf, a branch, a twig, some sparrow blundering onto the deck.  It is not.  It is magic come to visit—so be not fooled.

Why a wren you might ask—why here, why now??  Well because insects and spiders crawl around your porch steps and window casements—all are winter gifts to a Carolina wren.  And then, even in urban neighborhoods, there are likely a few choice berry and seed producing shrubs that can supplement a wren’s insect diet through a winter.  With enough scrubby shelter and available water, this half-ounce feather ball just might make it to spring, and a new round of tea-kettling in your neighborhood.

If that happens they’ll be two Carolina wrens looking to nest.  They stay together year-round and mate for life.  The males do the bulk of the tuneful singing, but they both work on the domed nest that’s wound like a beehive and is made from bark, grass, leaves, hair, and even plastic.  There will be an entrance at the side, and 3 – 7 eggs will be placed at its center.  It’ll make for a very melodious summer.

Meanwhile, if you’re out in the wilder, dense evergreen woods, you might listen for the intense little spit-stutter-scold of the tiny winter wren.   These guys are tiny, grayish-brown, secretive and amazingly quick.  They are usually not far from water and dense cover—which includes brush piles.  Don’t let them get the jump on you!

Curiously, the winter wren is the only wren species that we share with Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Same bird.  In Ireland there’s the medieval tradition of the Wren Boys.  On St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, groups of young boys go around and get the jump on a winter wren—known simply as “the wren.”  They kill the poor creature, tying it to a stick.  They then go around dressed-up, singing songs and begging money for the dead bird on a stick.  When there’s enough money for a party they give that wren a solemn burial, then drink themselves silly.  So, even if you’re a wren: never assume anything.

Crows in the night

Posted by on 03 Nov 2007 | Tagged as: Nature

Copyright: Karl Meyer
November 3, 2007

Crows in the night

They’ve become simply, “the crows.” And they are ever present. Of course they are ever present everywhere. But here, in this town of Greenfield, they have a large and not so secret roost. I do not know where it is yet, but I’m sure many do. Thousands of crows gather in the dusky skies nightly, heading for home. But it’s what they do that’s of most interest to me. It’s what’s most fun–most antic. What is it that the crows know?

They sometimes strafe the ridge top place where I sit above town. I was there early the other morning and a lone crow was rolling along in gleaning flight along the ledge. I startled it–which is unusual for a crow, and it quickly veered away from the cliff face in a broad arc. It’s not everyday you get the jump on a crow, so this day’s little quirk belonged to me. Surely I was not a serious material threat, just a known crow predator– a human. I did honor its passage with a quiet crow call, signaling no harm intended. It flew on.

But the other night, secure in my apartment just after dusk, I heard crows through an open window on an unusually warm, late October night. The radio was on. Truly it was dark, but I was hearing birds. It’s the radio, I thought, background noise not edited from a news interview. I ignored it. But then, next story, there was that noise again—a low, caw-caw-caw. And then it would stop.

At the third sounding I flipped off the radio; went to the window. Dark. There was just an afterglow in the western sky. This was night in late-October night. Birds don’t sing when the street lights are on, save owls and the odd mockingbird at the full of the moon. And, though the full moon was near, these were no mockers. “Caw, caw,” again. The call was not feverish, but a minimal communication, a signal–a crow sharing news. “Caw-caw,” something is up, someone is up, something is exciting and newsworthy in crow culture. Perhaps it is the moon, or, more likely the weather. Or maybe it’s just late-day crow intimacy too juicy to wait until daybreak.

It is night. The crows are singing. I’m fascinated and grateful to have these new neighbors—as someone who’s just moved to the city from the country. At this moment they are as wild as wildebeests.

And this morning, awakened, pre-dawn, by some unknown bump or scratching, I am up before six to make coffee in the glow of a single light. I return with it to bed and grab a the thick novel I’m working through. Shortly though, I hear it. Caw! Then another. Then, caw-caw-caw-caw-caw-caw! They are up, and not just one or two. This is bait I can not help but take. I rise again, and quietly head out the door to a second floor deck overlooking back yards and the dead end of a street.

Looming above is a tulip tree, nearly a hundred feet tall, with a large silver maple in its understory. The leaves are half-fallen. And there are the crows, yelling, then silently moving to-and-fro in pre-dawn silhouettes. The chorus is truly big neighborhood news, but the neighbors are not up yet. It’s too dark to see if perhaps the point they are making is that there’s a predator in this tree—an owl or roosting hawk. I’ve seen a Cooper’s hawk around. The yelling continues. More crows fly in, joining dozens. Others scoot by for a look, some moving off to the west. But the core of them stays, continuing to grow. There is split-second quiet when I move, telling me they’re aware of my presence, but it is momentary. Whatever they have to share is more important. The gabfest goes on.

Coffee in hand, I’m there for ten minutes, fifteen. When it seems like the darkness has lifted enough to make binoculars useful, I duck in and some. The noise continues; crows swirl. I can’t make out any lump of an owl or hawk, or marauding raccoon or fisher either. It’s just those shadowy crows. They have something. They must. But my vantage just will not reveal it—there is a side of these two trees that will remain hidden from my sight as darkness continues to lift. I move up and down the deck, hopeful of catching some predator’s hunch, or a bit of movement. Once or twice I hear a plaintive, low call—something more than a cooing, but similar to it. I can’t place it though.

Daylight makes a slow entrance this gray morning. The catcalls of this wondrous hoard continues, but with less intensity. Inevitably morning brings a subtle, quiet dispersal. Crows peel away one and two at a time until its just me left on the deck, pondering their wildness–wondering who and what had come to rest in that tulip tree to receive the honor of such noise. I’m awake, in a still wild world.

Coyotes and tigers and bears at the full of the moon

Posted by on 25 Oct 2007 | Tagged as: Nature

Coyotes and tigers and bears…

It seemed perfectly safe. It was a brilliant October mid-morning and I needed a walk in the woods. My allergies had been haywire. I felt a walk would clear my head. I trundled through suburbia toward the woods and ridgeline above Highland Pond in Greenfield. The sun shimmered off yellowing maples and still-green oaks–a perfect fall day in New England. And then, it screamed at me. WARNING: Coyotes in Area. The sign, in bold red-orange, must’ve gone up over night.

Stunned, I halted in my tracks. Coyotes—in the AREA! My gosh… What to do?? Life had suddenly become scary. I collected myself. My racing heart slowed. I looked around quickly. Everything seemed, NORMAL. There were no people around, but then this was The Woods. But MAYBE that’s just what the coyotes want you to think, then…WHAM! Modern life is a full of danger signs, thrown up by who knows who. And choices.

I was upset, confused. I reviewed my options. I could turn back, find safety in the bosom of civilization. I could sit down where I was and look over into the scary woods—a warped version of reality TV. I could call the police and hope for an escort through the treacherous area. Or, if I waited, someone might come along and we could brave the wild canine gauntlet together. At the very least I’d make sure they were warned.

And then, a certain hero-scenario came to me. It was a simple dream: that I would someday collect enough coyote-defense skills, weaponry, and wild dog security equipment to start the Franklin Coyote Escort Service. I’d bring people for tours through the area—in hum-vees with stereos and side-slits for coyote sniping. Make this place a haven for civilization, like Iraq. But no, it was a crazy notion—few people ever attain that level wilderness courage and business savvy.

I stood before that sign, my life’s journey teetering in the balance. My impulse was to sprint back to the civil-safety of traffic, cell phones and shopping. But something stopped me. I’ll never know what. Suddenly I’m walking past the warning sign like some Stepford sacrifice, into the very heart of Greenfield coyote country. Each step brings me further from coffee and buy-one, get-one free–further toward the gaping maw of the woods and blood-thirsty hounds. There is no other human in sight. I’m alone—an Incan offering, thousands of miles and centuries off the mark.

In my auto-pilot state everything SEEMS normal. Squirrels chatter, chipmunks squeak, migrating robins scuff for worms in the leaves. I begin climbing upward, unaware of how many wild eyes may be devouring me from close-in. I reach Sachem’s Head and the old wood platform that once served as a dance floor for mountain visitors, before these howling woods became lousy with wild dogs. Oh for those peaceful days once more!

Me, I’m a babe in the woods—a shadow propelled by forces unknown. In my madness I sit down IN THE MIDDLE OF COYOTE COUNTRY, and read the newspaper—with that craven hoard likely so near I could’ve heard them breathing. Blithely I scan the horizon south to the beautiful ancestral bottomlands of the Pocumtuck, now “old” Deerfield, tracing the arc where that river leaves the Berkshires and pushes to its meeting with the Connecticut. In my altered state it all seems beautiful.

And then this: bizarrely, I lay down in the open and close my eyes for a nap—focused only on sinuses and the aches I’m nursing from the five games of volleyball I engaged in two nights before. I play exactly three times a decade–to stay ready for those instances where a man’s preparedness might be tested in some life-or-death Jack London setting as this one. Instead, insane, I doze for a full ten minutes, Pocumtuck princesses dancing in my head. That I do not awaken to a flash of canines at my throat remains a miracle.

A raven calls in the distance, another shadowy creature bent on destruction. Two crows sail by on the October wind—feathers glinting mockery at the fall sun. This is a set-up, I’m sure: the coyotes will rake my throat; crows will peck my eyes; the ravens will gorge on my liver. Dazed, I rise up–some final ounce of courage sustaining me, and finish my walk. Yet to this day I remain under the coyotes’ spell. It grips me as I sit here, thinking: WARNING–you have more to fear for yourself, your pet, or the suburban deer herd from the neighbor’s dog or the Rottweiller down the street, than you do from coyotes! The records bear this out. So, you see, I’m hopeless. I know that only my blood, at the full of the moon, will satisfy what the coyotes want of me. I am ready.

Dog Days

Posted by on 02 Aug 2007 | Tagged as: Nature

Copyright: Karl Meyer 

August 2, 2007

Colrain, MA.  We have entered the dog days.  I realized this upon heading out for a walk at 6:30 this morning.  It is mostly silent, mostly clear, and definitely going to be hot by mid-morning.  Predictions are for 95 degrees.  As I walk along a quiet secondary road between farmhouses and pasture I think that there is likely no more apt description than “dog days.”  It just fits.  It captures those humid, listless, pre-harvest weeks like no other term.  Others that do justice to similar venues in time and space are horse latitudes, and “the doldrums.”  Whoever came up with these had a descriptive gift—even as they lay there, dripping in sweat, launching groggy, adjectives above the rim of a gin and tonic.

The air here was actually sweet at that early hour.  The sun was peeking vaguely from behind mountain and mist.  And, though most bird song has gone quiet as parents and young gobble up a summer’s insects, a few tuneful exceptions are noteworthy.  Song sparrows are still piping away—likely they’re working on second broods.  And a yellow warbler tossed its voice from a bush.  This was probably a young one just trying out its lungs. 

But most-busy right now are the indigo buntings, which will raise a second family before heading south.  They are brilliantly both deep and bright blue, all at once—the sun or shadow making the difference in their outward flash.  The other late nesters here are the goldfinches, who will be with us through the cold of winter.  The bouncy songs of these last two species intersect closely; and yesterday I saw a brief territorial fight and retreat between an indigo bunting and a goldfinch in a grass patch.  It was wondrous to see that bold yellow and flashy blue interacting.  Who knew they even paid attention to each other?

Mid-summer is also a culling time for wildlife.  There is a small roll-call of dead on my route these last few days.  It’s not gory, just unfortunate.  The sun quickly desiccates what might otherwise be messy.  That tally has included a rose-breasted grosbeak (male), a bluish-green garter snake, a little brown bat, a shriveled red eft, and a chipping sparrow.  The sparrow was new this morning.  Another was hovering near so I took a stick and moved it off the roadway so that bit of bird mourning could possibly continue without another fatal bump from a car.

That little brown bat—all 2-1/2 inches of it, was something I moved off the pavement too.  It wasn’t particularly mangled, just a neat lump of velvety, light brown fur, bat bones and wing.  I just didn’t want to see it get smooshed, so I took a stick and moved it to the shoulder.  This was purely to satisfy my personal aesthetic.  What was curious was that when I pushed it along with the stick its vestigial thumb-nail was what caught and held it, so it could be moved.  It’s called the calcar, and they use it—not for hanging, but when positioning themselves to hang, or during those instances when they have to climb along limbs.  I know bats need to be upright while giving birth, so the calcar is probably employed during this time too.  The bones in a bat’s leathery wing are just one long, skinny, ghoulish, delicate, hand.  Bats are in the order Chiroptera—which translates from Latin as “flying hand.”

All in all I was lucky to get out for a cool, quiet morning walk.  There was one farmer out, set off against a hillside as he made his way up in a white tee-shirt to cull some wood with a chainsaw.  The local bloodhound breathed heavy from a farmhouse window near the road.  She’s used to me and didn’t bark as I passed.  I think we might be friends under other circumstances.  But when she’s out, she’s controlled by an unseen electric fence.  I talk to her across that covert fence when she’s loose, and she makes hunting-dog faints at me, and charges along her invisible fence-line.  Mostly though, I can see her stubby tail wagging.

The turnaround point of the walk came toward Fort Morrison farm.  I could hear the fans humming in the milking barn.  A couple of dozen cows were lowing deeply, waiting to unburden themselves.  The sun was just eating away the center of the early mist when I made my way back to Colrain Center.  A milk truck hurried by.  

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