Friday, February 15, 2008

Flashback Friday: Another Time, Same Place

Given the ice, cold, and dropping temperatures of late my mind has been wandering back in time, but not wandering far in place. To be sure, I like seasons. I like the contrasts of summer against winter, shorts and lemonade against long underwear and hot chocolate, singing breeding birds and blooming native plants against chipping boreal visitors and standing dead seed heads. Last July we ventured out to a local nature center before it got too hot. As evidenced by my posting lately, even though I'm loving the winter finch irruption and the plethora of wintering gulls, I'm starting to long for the neotropical migrants to come back north!

Dateline: 08 July 2007, Elmira, NY.
Typical July morning: clear, warm, slated to turn hot in the afternoon. Looking to get outside while it was still tolerable, we decided to head up to Tanglewood Nature Center in Elmira. It's not too far from us, boasts a great visitor center, and offers lots of trails and habitats. We haven't explored it as much as we'd like because they don't allow dogs on the trails. Our dog, Barron, has been a constant on all of our trips, large and small, for the past 12 years. Because he gets around so much slower now we decided to let him have a break.

Tanglewood Nature Center's visitor center -
unfortunately, I cut off the Northern Mockingbird
welcoming us from his perch atop the flag pole.

The visitor center was open but we skipped going inside, preferring to check out the trails. We don't really get very far now that our three-year-old prefers to do her own hiking, but we experience more in those short-distance, long-duration explorations than we imagined we could. I wasn't expecting much bird-wise given the time of year and time of day, but some birds were still singing. For the most part it was fairly quiet. That sticky, oppressively heavy-air kind of quiet.

Brown Thrashers can be found in shrubby
areas, this one was posing rather boldly
alongside the trail as we approached.

We chose a short trial, a loop roughly a quarter of a mile long that wound through shrubby fields on a hillside, then back down through shady woods. Flowers were in full bloom, most notably the Asclepias (milkweeds). Butterfly wings, in near constant motion, provided the only semblance of a breeze.

A Great Spangled Fritillary probes the inflorescence of a
bright Butterfly Weed plant, not quite blending in
(gotta keep still if you're going to go unnoticed!).

An unidentified skipper on Common Milkweed.
I'd love to know who this guy is! I'll get better
at close-up photography this year, I hope.

A Baltimore Checkerspot perching in
the middle of an open lawn.

Reina kept us on our toes, either with deep questions we tried to postpone ("Why is that bird standing on top of the other one?") or wandering off to explore whatever caught her eye. She did follow me while I stalked a pair of Eastern Bluebirds, trying for an intimate close-up.

An Eastern Bluebird keeps one eye on the lawn
below for insects, the other on Reina and me.

We loved watching the Eastern Towhee singing non-stop,
although he never did the classic, "Drink yer teeeeeeee".

Have you ever told someone what a bird is "supposed" to say? Works great when the bird cooperates. "Oh, now I totally hear, 'Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody'! It's so obvious!"

But what happens when that bird doesn't say it? In polite company no one points it out, they just let it go. And when your company is an emperor-has-no-clothes toddler? Trust me, terms like individual variation and primary and secondary songs will not help. Enter the art of distraction: "Well, it's like this . . . hey! Is that a pond?"

A Bullfrog sits motionless among the
cattails, until too many eyes rest on it.

And were off to watch dragonflies and the fish slipping below the duckweed. The excellent view of a Bullfrog tabled the towhee song for a later discussion.

Bee Balm, a favorite of Ruby-throats.

The last stop was to watch a Ruby-throated Hummingbird patrolling a patch of Bee Balm. We didn't actually see any bees, but we did watch one male hummingbird protect his patch from a rival, chasing the intruder off every time he approached.

By now it was mid-morning, temperatures moving towards dog-days of summer. The birds that sang earlier were replaced by pure stillness, save the occasional buzzing wings of an insect rocketing by. At the time we were wishing for the more tolerable temperatures of winter - you can always put on more layers, but you can only strip down so far (we don't have air conditioning, so we're limited in our options). Right now we do have moments where we're eagerly anticipating those summer days, the grass being always greener. But I suspect that come July I'll be excited to sit in our stifling office and flashback to these gray, cold, winter-finch laden days.

Imagining that scenario lets me more deeply appreciate the conditions and birds we have now, which will be important standing outside in snow and cold while I count for the Great Backyard Bird Count for the next couple of days.

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