Monday, June 19, 2006

Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge

Today's hike was out to the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Mostly it's known for being a prime viewing place for some unusual Winter birds, most notably Harlequin Ducks. But there's a lot more to the place than that. It's also a great place to see Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Yellow Warblers, a variety of hawks, Short-eared Owls, and in the Winter you can even find a Snowy Owl or two. And deer, rabbits, and all manner of small animals.

But for me the best feature of the Refuge is the meadows. Just look at that shot above left. Daisies, Black Mustard, Sheep Sorrel, various cereal grasses, and even some Broom up there at the back just to the right of the center. And that's just what's current for this time in the Summer. Not in this particular shot are other flowers like Daisy Fleabane, Yarrow, Multiflora Roses (and they have a rare pink variant of the Multiflora at the Refuge). Later there'll be Calico Asters, Tansy, Spotted Knapweed, Queen Anne's Lace... Yeah, I like to drag people out here!

I saw and heard plenty of Cowbirds and Yellow Warblers today but didn't get any decent shots of them. I did get a good one of a Catbird, which you can see on my WunderPhotos page (link to the right). But the Warblers were warbling to me from behind the banks of roses lining the trails, and the Cowbirds were moving too much - all the shots I got were out of focus.

Like Ballard Park, the primary smell is Multiflora Rose; there are banks of them here, too. There's also going to be a bounty crop of Blackberries. But unlike Ballard Park, there's no shade here. Most of Ballard Park is woodland; most of the Wildlife Refuge is field. I got burnt to a crisp today! Days like this are the reason why Mama Gaiea created Aloe.

Tomorrow I'll go back down to Ballard Park and Gooseneck Cove. Wednesday is the Summer Solstice but I have to work that day, so I'll be doing my usual personal Solstice things tomorrow instead. And since Gooseneck Cove is my spiritual home that's where I do things like that. I'll take pictures, too, and record my impressions tomorrow night.

Pictures of the Day

On the way to the Wildlife Refuge I dropped by the Big Pond (officially named Easton's Pond) behind First Beach on the Newport - Middletown border. While walking around I noticed that the Water Lilies are blooming. Not the patches on Big Pond itself - those are still just getting to the bud stage. But just to the East of the Pond, between the Pond itself and the businesses that face onto Aquidneck Ave., there a smaller body of water full of Lilies, and that's where these are. To the left is one of the more picturesque patches, and to the right is a close-up of a bloom.

Okay everybody. Enjoy your day, and I'll talk to you again Tuesday night.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Summer Approaches

Hmmm... Two months since my last entry. Well, things have been kinda busy, mostly a new job with a steep learning curve. I'll try to be better at keeping this blog at least relatively up to date.

Summer is definitely rapidly approaching. Newport is lushly green - a rainy Spring didn't hurt - and little critters like that Goldfinch to the left are everywhere. On my days off I may not have been keeping this blog up to date but I can assure you that I was busy with the camera, and the best results of that you can see for yourself at my WunderPhotos page (the link for that is over there to the right).

Yesterday I hiked through Ballard Park, then down to Gooseneck Cove, and then over to my "country lane" loop over behind the Swiss Village Heritage Breeds farm, and finally down to King Park at the south end of Newport Harbor. In Ballard Park the Multiflora Roses, those small white roses with the yellow centers, were profuse and scenting the entire park. The wild fruit crop looks to be plentiful - lots of blossoms on the Blackberry bushes and Black and Pin Cherry trees. So come August I can have fresh fruit for desert after my tunafish sandwich for lunch during my hikes. Provided the birds leave me enough!

Over at the intersection of Hammersmith Rd. and Beacon Hill Rd. behind the Swiss Village Farm I stalked a pair of Cedar Waxwings without ever being able to get a decent shot of them, just the back of one, and that was blurry. Too much foliage for them to hide behind; that foliage also tends to be what the camera focuses on rather than the bird, hence the blurriness. There was a Yellow Warbler making a lot of noise in the same place, but the same foliage kept me from getting a decent shot of him as well. But it was a great hike through that area. No hawks sighted, though. That's a great area for hawks. I've actually photographed several Red Tails there, and I've seen a couple of Sharp-Shinneds and a Cooper's, and I'l swear I saw a Peregrine Falcon in the area earlier this Spring. It's a great environment for hawks - rolling meadows fringed with high trees and dotted with stands of Red Cedar.

The payoff of yesterday's hike came in King Park. There was a Great Egret there, and I stalked him for a good 10 or 15 minutes, getting a lot of good shots. But the best shot came when he finally got annoyed with my presence and flew off - I got him just as he left the water on the way up. the pic is below in the "Pictures of the Day".

Next Wednesday is the Summer Solstice. It's odd that in these modern times we consider that to be the first day of Summer. Pre-20th Century Europeans and Americans called it Midsummer Day. By June 21 the crops are not only planted but well on the way to ripening, it's been warm for quite a while, and there are even some "first fruits" to help liven up the festivities. It seems kinda odd to call it the first day of Summer with all that going on. The same thing goes for the Winter Solstice - we've usually already had freezing weather and snow, yet we still call it the first day of Winter. The Spring and Fall equinoxes make more sense - Spring really doesn't hit until after March 21, and the leaves generally don't start turning until after September 21. The lod 'uns had more sense than we do - May Day was considered the beginning of Summer, and Samhain (now Halloween) the beginning of Winter. Those dates make a lot more sense given the usual weather conditions.

Pictures of the Day

Two pictures this time, to catch up (in a symbolic way) with my long silence. This one to the left I took last month in Ballard Park; I took it with my 250D macro lens. This little'un was only about 1/16th of an inch (about 2mm) and looked green to the naked eye, but seen close up and magnified she turned into a rainbow. In WunderPhotos I titled this one "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" after the children's song. I've since wondered if "Tiny Dancer" wouldn't have been a better title; it was a breezy day and this little lady, or at least her web, was waving around a bit. It took me almost 10 minutes with a lot of waiting between gusts to get just two shots, and this one was the better shot.

And this, of course, is the shot of the Great Egret taking flight that I talked about above. Probably one of the luckiest shots of my life. My reflexes aren't the best, so my finger clicked on the shutter button almost accidentally just at the right second. LOL!!! It's a miracle it wasn't blurred beyond recognition!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Crows, Hawks, and Other Totems

I had an interesting experience today; interesting, but not entirely unusual for me. I walked down Marine Avenue toward the Cliff Walk this afternoon, seeing a crow sitting on the fence they've put up to block access to the Walk while they do some major fixing-up and improvements. I had the camera out and got one shot off about 50 feet away from him. Then I started walking closer, but he flew off the fence. But not away from me. He flew toward me and perched on a branch just over my head and a little to my right, not much more than about 5 feet away. And from his perch he proceeded to laugh at me and called two other crows over to join in the fun. This lasted a good 15 minutes, and all four of us had a great time.

I'm serious about this. This kind of thing happens with me and crows a lot. I like crows and they seem to sense it and return the feeling. One time I was walking through a park and there were some crows hanging out on the grass. One of them grabbed a stick in his beak and came over and started hopping around me like a black Lab playing stick. So I decided to play along - I tried to grab the stick away from him. He'd hop around, and if my hand got too near the stick he'd hop up to a tree branch over my head, and the other crows in the group he was in would laugh at me. This went on for a good while until somebody who had been looking on finally came over, and the whole flock of crows took off. The guy was totally amazed, and asked me if he was seeing right and that crow was actually playing stick with me. Yup, he sure was. Because crows and I seem to have an affinity for each other, I adopted Crow as one of my totems. I have the Haida Raven tattooed on my left shoulder in honor of that.

Hawks also seem to tolerate my presence, and sometimes even sit calmly nearby while I photograph them and talk to them. The first time I noticed this was about three years ago when I surprised a male Northern Harrier taking a bath in a bog pool beside Brenton Rd. He got all flustered and hopped up on a tree branch at about my head level and about 10 feet away. He sat and eyed me, and then commenced into his post-bath preening. I didn't have a camera with me that time. Anyhow, he stayed on that branch until a car came, at which point he flew off. Since then I've had numerous similar encounters with hawks, most notably about a year ago when a young Redtail sat in a tree and actually posed for me, ignoring the crows who were mobbing him (crows hate hawks and usually manage to drive them out of their territory, but this hawk just ignored them), and literally posed for my camera. He's sit in one position while I snapped away, then he'd shift and strike another pose. After a while I quit taking pictures and just enjoyed being in the presence of this gorgeous bird, and at that point he figured the session was over and flew off.

So I have an affinity with hawks, too. And I've adopted Hawk as another totem, and have a stylized hawk's eye tattooed over my heart in honor of it.

I don't try to explain or rationalize stuff like this any more, I just accept it and try to do honor to it. I like being out in nature and I like hanging out with the critters there. Native Americans, Siberians, Australian Aborigines, and other peoples around the world adopt animals as totems who come to them in dreams or in waking life. They accept these animals as messengers in their lives and try to learn what such an animal has to teach them. My totems don't seem to appear in my dreams, but they do approach me when I'm out in their territory.

So what am I learning from my totems? Well, I like crows because I think they're natural comedians. They like to laugh, and they definitely like to play. I like to laugh and play, too, so I guess we were naturally fitted to each other. Hawks I'm not as sure about. I'm still studying them to see what it is they have to teach me. I know they're infinitely patient, sitting in a tree or floating so still in the air, looking for prey. I can be patient, but I know I have a lot of room for improvement. So maybe I hang out with hawks to learn patience.

In any case, I like hanging out with my feathered buddies. And lately I've been having more opportunities to observe Turkey Vultures. I don't think we've achieved totem status yet, but I'm watching and waiting to see where it might lead.

Sorry, no picture of the day. Blogger seems to be busy, and I have to get to bed. Later!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Spring is stirring!

Yes indeed, Spring is stirring. The crocuses and daffodils and other narcissi have been up for a while, but now other stuff is starting to appear. That on the left there is called Mountain Sandwort. They're tiny little flowers, probably not even 1/16th of an inch, just a little white dot to the naked eye. I took this with a 250D macro lens. Right now the "greenery" of the plant appears red, but as the plants mature they'll turn green. They grow in the dirt that accumulates in cracks and deep depressions in rock. This one is growing in the rock on the overlook in Ballard Park where I like to sit and meditate and keep an eye out for hawks and turkey vultures. The picture to the right is a different, wider crop from the same master picture that served as the source for the shot on the left. You can get a better idea of the red of the stems and leaves, and you can see an unopened bloom in the background.

This to the left is a single bloom on a Ground Ivy plant. This one was part of a big patch growing on the dike around the Big Pond (officially named Easton's Pond for those of you inclined to look at a map of Newport, RI). It's in the Mint family (but don't eat the leaves!), and it usually grows in grassy, lawn-like areas, usually in the woods somewhere. This one was right out in the open, and though I'm told it does happen, it surprised me because I'm used to finding them among the grass next to streams way back in the trees. The first time I recall stumbling across Ground Ivy was in the grass around and in a small, walled, and very hidden graveyard down in Maryland; it was along the hiking trail that travels down the west side of Loch Raven Reservoir, about a mile and a half north of where the trail crosses Dulaney Valley Rd. It was a hot day and it felt great to be under the trees, and of course my fascination with graveyards also drew me. But I remember those little purple flowers growing in the grass. By the way, that shot on the right is from the next plant over from the first one; I wanted to get that shot of two blooms. Don't they look like two Barracudas poking their heads out of a reef?

No picture of the day this time - you got four of 'em!


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Marking Time

I just finished watching The Shipping News again. I believe I've talked about that movie before. It's such a quiet movie that makes such a major point: it's possible to recover from incredible hurt. Kevin Spacey does such an excellent job of portraying Quoyle, the ultimate nebbish, a man whose childhood has left him with such low self-esteem that he practically becomes invisible to the people around him. Judi Dench plays his Aunt Agnis, a crusty old woman who herself has endured pain and found a way out. And Julianne Moore plays the woman who brings Quoyle happiness and helps him recover from his hurt, and in the process recovers from her own.

The real star of this movie is the director, Lasse Hallström. I've talked about his work before (see my February 27 post). The man just can't do bad work. The more I see of his work, the more impressed I am. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Picture of the Day

This is a pair of red-fronted mergansers. The black and white one is the male and the brown one is the female. This is most likely a mating pair, it being that time of year. Mergansers spend the winter in coastal salt water, the kind that doesn't freeze over. In a little bit they'll head back north to the lakes and ponds in the interior, where they spend the summer, just loke loons. They're gorgeous birds, aren't they?

Well, enjoy your day!

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Civil War

I watched Gods and Generals last night. It wasn't a movie I could find much to like in - pretentious, overdone, stilted and unnatural dialogue... Nope, not at all impressed. But it did get me thinking about the Civil War.

One of the comments made in the "Making of..." documentary on the DVD was that after Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's death the fortunes of the Confederacy's army went downhill, and suggested that maybe the South lost something important with Jackson. Well, I'm not sure I'd go that far. Jackson wasn't a major strategist, his value as a military man was that he followed orders without stinting. He was good at figuring out artillery problems, probably one of the best that West Point ever turned out, but as for planning major battles, he left that up to Lee and Lee's inner circle. The argument has been made that Jackson had become a legend in his own time and the effect of this on Confederate morale was tremendous, and that Jackson's death in 1863 demoralized the army. Far from it, it had the opposite effect - regiments would charge into battle shouting "Remember Stonewall!" and completely overrun Federal positions. So Jackson's death didn't cause the fall of the Confederacy.

Essentially, Lee lost the war when he turned North and crossed the Potomac. At that point he became the aggressive invader. To that point there were many in the North who felt for the South, people who felt that the South had gotten a raw deal and had suffered invasion by Federal troops on Lincoln's orders. Most people in the North didn't care squat about the slavery issue - the Abolitionists were a very small minority. They were very vocal and loud, but they were tiny. And northern whites were uncomfortable with blacks and didn't really like the ones they came across. Even Lincoln himself didn't go into the war planning to end slavery, and once he became committed to that path he thought the best solution would be to send all American blacks back to Africa - he didn't think that blacks belonged in America with whites. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation his popularity dropped dramatically.

What Lee accomplished by crossing the Potomac and heading North was to alienate what sympathy the South had in the North, especially those farmers in Maryland and Pennsylvania who were in the path of his army. The South had been fighting a defensive war to that point, driving back the perceived invader. Now they themselves had assumed to role of invader, and the effect was electrifying. Enlistment in the North skyrocketed. Before Antietam enlistment had been dying off, but after that boys started rallying to drive off the invasion of their home ground.

This was exactly what had rallied men and boys to the Confederate regiments at the beginning of the war. Their home was being invaded by Lincoln and his bullies, and by God they were gonna show those Yankees what for! So it's no surprise that the North would react the same way when their home was invaded. You'd have thought that Lee and his circle, and Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, would have seen that one coming. Apparently not.

And of course the rest is history. The Federal army fought the Confederates to a bloody halt at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and that was the beginning of the end. While more and more northerners joined the Federal forces, the Confederate forces started experiencing a drain in their own numbers. A lot of poor boys from the mountains and the swamps left their weapons and headed for home, sick of the constant death they were seeing, and finally realizing that what they were fighting for was the huge, slave-powered plantations of the ultra-rich landowners. The war had never had any advantage for them and they started to realize that finally after the bloody mess of Gettysburg. They went home in droves and Lee ended up trapped in Appomattox.

The Confederacy could have survived if they had followed their original strategy. If they had held to the aggrieved victim role, if they had pushed the Federal troops out of Virginia and held the borders, they could have held still and gathered support. England was certainly making supportive noises, and even certain promises. France was also exploring possibilities. And there was definitely feeling north of the Mason-Dixon line that Lincoln and the Republicans were pushing things a little too far. If they had held to the defensive stand for at least another year they would have gathered enough support to declare a cease-fire, start negotiations with Lincoln, and establish a new, independent nation to share the North American continent with the United States and Canada.

But their blood was up. All of a sudden they were winning major battles when they knew they were the underdogs. They were outnumbered in troop strength and outclassed in war materiél, but they succeeded in holding off the Yankee threat. Indeed, at Fredricksburg they handed the Federal forces a major and very bloody defeat. Nobody could believe it! Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet in Richmond started believing that their dream of a seperate, independant nation could come true. So they told Lee to go north, circle around the Federal troops into Pennsylvania, and approach Washington DC from the north and lay seige to it. And Lee agreed. And they lost the war with that decision.

Of course I'm enough of a moralist to believe that the Confederacy deserved to lose. After all, they seceeded from the Union and declared war. And for what? To preserve a feudal system that placed everybody, blacks and poor whites alike, under the total control of the plantation owners. All of the government of the Confederacy came from the landowner class, as did the majority of the officer corps of the army. They were all slave-owners. The "poor white trash" from the mountain hollers and the swamps had resented the landowner class for decades, but they joined the fight because the Federal army invaded Virginia and thus invaded their "home". Once that illusion was stripped from them at Gettysburg they went home and left the rich boys on their own.

And that's my take on the Civil War, nudged out of me from watching Gods and Generals.

Picture of the Day

When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin' along! It's getting to be that time of year. Although to be honest, we had robins all winter this year. For that matter I seem to have noticed robins being around all winter for at least the last three years. Global warming anyone? Anyhow, this guy was sitting on the fence and playing coy with me, and I though he made a good composition sitting on that fence. If you click on the picture you'll get it in full size.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Movie musings

I watched The Cider House Rules again tonight. The Newport Public Library has a copy of the DVD; I had taken it out about a month ago and really liked the movie, so when I saw it back on the shelf again today, I decided I needed to see it again.

Why do I like this movie? Hmmmm... Well, it's exactly the kind of thing I like best - intimate, personal, and poignant. I like John Irving's writing, and not only is his original novel a great book, but his own screen adaptation is just as brilliant. And of course what makes the movie intimate and personal is director Lasse Hellström, who has made a career out of that kind of movie. Hellström is also brilliant at casting, and the actors in this case fit Irving's characters like old, comfortable and well-used flannel shirts. I'd read the book years ago, and on watching the movie I just couldn't imagine any other actors fitting those roles. Michael Caine - well, what can you say about Michael Caine! When he says "Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England", you believe him. And Tobey Maguire's wide-eyed wonder as Homer Wells is just perfect. I hated him as Peter Parker/Spiderman, but he was born to play Homer Wells. Charlize Theron is also perfect as Candy, the girl who just isn't any good at being alone. And Delroy Lindo as Arthur Rose - that man is just so good! Remember him as West Indian Archie in Malcolm X? A brilliant actor.

But most of all this movie is good because of Lasse Hellström. I've gotten to be a real fan of his stuff - My Life As a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Shipping News, and An Unfinished Life (I haven't seen Casanova yet - I saw the trailers and a film clip; I suspect that like Chocolat this is going to be one of the few Hellström films I really don't like). Shipping News is my favorite, although I saw an Unfinished Life and am waiting for the DVD to come out so I can watch it a few more times and settle into it. What he and Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford did to create the relationship between those two old ranchers was probably the best work the three of them have created (although Freeman's role as Red in Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and directed by Frank Darabont is pretty close to being just as close-knit, natural, and elegant).

But what Hellström did with Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News, and especially the job he did with Kevin Spacey to create a character totally unlike anything Spacey has ever done before... I didn't like Cate Blanchette in that one, but then again her character was unsympathetic anyhow, so I guess she did a good job. But the real working ensemble was the Newfoundland cast, with Spacey and Julianne Moore and Judi Dench, and the job Hellström did with them to create three damaged characters healing and becoming whole was some of the most beautiful acting and filmmaking I've ever seen. Again, the man is brilliant at casting. Who would ever have seen Quoyle, the ultimate personality-less nebbish, in the acting Spacey had done to create his characteristic rash, devil-may-care characters? Moore and Dench had already created roles similar to the ones they played in Shipping News, but Kevin Spacey was a pleasant surprise. And Julianne Moore seems to be making a habit of playing serious, truly great theatrical roles. Remember her as Laura Brown in The Hours? Ahhhhhh! But that's Lasse Hellström's genius - he chooses just the right actors to fit the roles and creates the cinematic atmosphere in which they do their best work.

Oh, and one hilarious irony in Shipping News: I cracked up seeing both Cate Blanchette and Judi Dench in the cast; they both had played Queen Elizabeth I - Judi Dench in Shakespeare In Love (1998) and Cate Blanchette in Elizabeth (also in 1998).

And that's my musing for today. Be sure to check back here tomorrow night - I'm putting together a photo essay on my spiritual home. Until then, sleep well, live a good life, and enjoy every moment.

Monday, February 20, 2006

A walk by the pond

I walked down to the Big Pond this afternoon. There are usually a large number and variety of ducks who winter there, as well as a pair of Great Blue Herons. Unfortunately I haven't seen the herons lately, although the one who's wintering on Gooseneck Cove is still there. But the first thing to catch my eye while walking in the path on the dike around the pond was what the cold front that blew through this past weekend did. That photo to the left shows the effect of sub-freezing temperatures and high winds - the reeds along the shore were encased in ice.

Further down the path, in a part that was sheltered from the WNW wind that blew with the cold front was this (to the right) interesting sight. I'm still trying to figure out how that came to be. The main ice is flat around the reeds, and I suspect those knobs of ice came about when wave action pushed water up through the holes around the reeds. The knobs remind me of the old crystal doorknobs you'll find in some of the Victorian-era houses here in Newport.

There was a cormorant out on the pond today, which is definitely unusual. Cormorants migrate south in the fall, so the fact that there was one still here in February is odd to say the least. I wonder if there's a colony that decided not to go? I doubt it - this is the only cormorant I've seen all winter.

Around the same time I saw the cormorant I saw two hawks cruising for lunch; redtails as far as I could tell. They started out fairly low and easily visible, but as soon as they got wind of me they went way up and out of range of my camera.

There are lots of American coots on the pond this winter. Although coots spend a lot of time in the water their feet aren't webbed. They aren't related to ducks but rather to moorhens and partridges. I like the contrast between their charcoal gray bodies and their chalky white beaks.

Ducks absolutely amaze me; they tuck their heads under their wings and go right to sleep, but still they zip around, navigating around other birds and circling around each other, but they never lift a head to see where they're going. These three Ruddy ducks were sound asleep but bopping right along!

Then there was this female Hooded Merganser. This is the first time I've ever seen one on Big Pond; mostly they hang out in the south end of the island, on Gooseneck Cove and Almy Pond and Lily Pond. And where was Papa? Usually you see Hooded Mergansers as a tribe, with a male and his harem of five or six females. But this was just one lone female.

And that's the tale of today's walk.

I finished Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain this morning. I'd seen, and loved, the movie, so I figured it was time to read the book. It's a lot darker than Anthony Minghella's movie. Frazier takes a far dimmer view of human nature than Minghella does, and while the book like the movie is about the journey two seperated lovers take to get back together, unlike the movie it's not in the least romantic. It's not an easy book to read. Frazier writes in a 19th Century style rather than in the modern naturalistic style and it's often hard to tell where dialogue ends and narrative begins. But most of all his portrayal of everyday people in the rural South is brutal and unromantic. You often feel as if you're reading a 19th Century version of Deliverance; there are very many characters who are mentally unbalanced or retarded, and often just plain depraved. And although the book ends the same as the movie, with Ada and Ruby having a picnic with their families, Frazier's portrayal is far darker and more ambivalent than Minghella's bittersweet ending. Still, the book is worth reading.

Well, it's time for me to head for bed. As Dr. Wilbur Larch says in The Cider House Rules: "Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England." And to you queens and princesses as well.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Welcome to my world

This is my maiden voyage in the blogosphere. I live in Newport, RI. I hike a lot in my spare time, and there's always a camera along when I hike. I'm also something of a bird freak, so you're likely to see whoever I saw interesting on any given day posted here. For instance this Downy Woodpecker I came across in Ballard Park this afternoon:

I may also have things to say about current events, and muse about whatever might have caught in my mind that day.

And that's all for today!