The Poets’ Birds ~ The Great Prairie Podfluffer

More rare than the Phoenix but as Texan as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Great Prairie Podfluffer appears in late summer or early fall, hidden among flocks of migrating grackles or brown-headed cowbirds. Always well camouflaged, it’s sometimes mistaken for an ordinary plant; you might notice its similarity to a dry and splitting Green Milkweed pod. Still, a closer look reveals its dark eye and sharp beak: both helpful for nabbing insects or the occasional field mouse.

Because of its rarity, Podfluffer poetry is in short supply; unlike the swallow or lark, few sing its praises. Had Emily Dickinson come across the creature, I’m sure she would have captured its spirit in her inimitable way, but only Lewis Carroll has left us a few lines to suggest he might have known the Podfluffer.  Enjoy Mr. Carroll’s “Little Birds” and judge for yourself.

Little Birds are dining
Warily and well,
Hid in mossy cell:
Hid, I say, by waiters
Gorgeous in their gaiters –
I’ve a Tale to tell.
Little Birds are feeding
Justices with jam,
Rich in frizzled ham:
Rich, I say, in oysters
Haunting shady cloisters –
That is what I am.
Little Birds are teaching
Tigresses to smile,
Innocent of guile:
Smile, I say, not smirkle –
Mouth a semicircle,
That’s the proper style!
Little Birds are sleeping
All among the pins,
Where the loser wins:
Where, I say, he sneezes
When and how he pleases –
So the Tale begins.
Little Birds are writing
Interesting books,
To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted –
Letterpress, when toasted,
Loses its good looks.
Little Birds are playing
Bagpipes on the shore,
Where the tourists snore:
“Thanks!” they cry. “‘Tis thrilling!
Take, oh take this shilling!
Let us have no more!”
Little Birds are bathing
Crocodiles in cream,
Like a happy dream:
Like, but not so lasting –
Crocodiles, when fasting,
Are not all they seem!
Little Birds are choking
Baronets with bun,
Taught to fire a gun:
Taught, I say, to splinter
Salmon in the winter –
Merely for the fun.
Little Birds are hiding
Crimes in carpet-bags,
Blessed by happy stags:
Blessed, I say, though beaten –
Since our friends are eaten
When the memory flags.
Little Birds are tasting
Gratitude and gold,
Pale with sudden cold:
Pale, I say, and wrinkled –
When the bells have tinkled,
And the Tale is told.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Walden on the Wing

Broom in one hand and coffee balanced in the other, I made my way to the dawn-lit patio, intending to sweep up birdseed scattered by my messy eaters.

One quick sweep of the broom caused an even quicker flutter. Startled, I bent to look into the tangled leaves of a Hawaiian schefflera, and found the source of the flutter: a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) hardly larger than a penny. Lizards and snails visit the patio frequently, but I’d never encountered a butterfly there, so I backed away, put down the broom, and fetched the camera.

Perhaps instinctively, the creature had chosen the darkest and least accessible corner for its refuge. Fearful that the use of flash would send it flying, I took a few photos to document its presence and came inside. An hour later, the hairstreak still lingered, perfectly still, in the same spot. After two hours, and then three, it occurred to me that it might be newly hatched, and was drying its wings.

By that time, the sun was shedding more light on the schefflera, so I reclaimed the camera and clipped a few leaves from the plant for a better view of the tiny creature. As I clipped, the butterfly never moved, and the photo you see is the result. An hour later, it had flown.

Initially, I had planned to finish my sweeping and coffee drinking before visiting a local nature center for a few hours, but the time I spent watching the hairstreak put an end to that. No matter. As John Burroughs wrote in his essay “The Exhilarations of the Road”:

A man must invest himself near at hand and in common things, and be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart and the sweetness of a walk over the round earth.

The presence of the hairstreak, a creature both common and near at hand, seemed worthy of investment, however moderate the return. It also brought to mind Mary Oliver’s affirmation of Burrough’s perspective in her poem “Going to Walden.”

It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
the rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Dickcissel

Male Dickcissel ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

A decade ago, historian, film buff, naturalist, and Erath County rancher Jack Matthews introduced me to the Dickcissel (Spiza americana): a bird he’d found returning to his Flying Hat Ranch after years of management practices that included minimal grazing and reseeding with native grasses.

Dickcissels require grassland habitats, but they’re rarely picky about the land’s composition. In summer, they appear in native prairies and restored grasslands, but they also nest in lightly grazed pastures, hayfields, and fallow agricultural fields. Occasionally, they can be spotted along fencerows and roadsides.

Still, it wasn’t until last summer that I came across the bird. Too far away for a photo, it attracted my attention by its song. At the very top of a dead tree along the Brazoria refuge auto route, the song was musical — and loud. At the time I laughed, thinking that any female within a miles-wide radius might have heard that song. 

It wasn’t until this year that I finally found another Dickcissel: a male in breeding colors attracting attention to himself by his song. Perched atop another small dead tree — this one next to the windmill where earlier this year I’d found a Loggerhead Shrike — he was within camera range, and determined to stay put for the sake of attracting a potential mate.

When I returned a week later, he still was there, singing his heart out from the same topmost branch. After finding him perched and singing a third time, I felt a bit sorry for him, but the next time I passed by the windmill he was gone; the flowers were blooming even more profusely, but the time of singing had ended, and the voice of the Dickcissel no longer was heard in the land.

Apart from the pleasure of finally meeting the bird, the Dickcissel brought to mind Marjorie Saiser’s poem “The Nobody Bird.” It’s a fine tribute to Dickcissels, and a reminder that other ‘nobodies’ existing in the world also have their songs.

 

           I’m nobody! Who are you?
               ~ Emily Dickinson
The woman leading the bird walk
is excited because she thinks
for a minute the bird
is one she doesn’t have
on her life list,
and then she says,”Oh, it’s
just a dickcissel.”
I raise my binoculars
to bring the black throat patch
and dark eye
into the center of a circle.
I see how the dickcissel
clings to a stem
when he sings, how
he tilts his head back,
opens his throat.
The group follows
the leader to higher ground.
The wind comes up; white blossoms
of the elderberry dip and
right themselves in a rocking motion
again and again. An oriole
flies into the cottonwood,
the gray catbird into
the tossing ripening sumac.
The nobody bird
holds on:
holds on and sings.
 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Warblers

I’ll confess that I giggled a bit when friend Tina of My Gardener Says first mentioned the presence of ‘butter butts’ in her yard. It seemed such an improbable name, until I learned that the more polite version is ‘Yellow-rumped,’ and that both names refer to a little patch of yellow on the nether end of the warbler Setophaga coronata.

Wintertime warblers are easy to find here, especially in places like Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, where plentiful, berry-filled wax myrtles draw them in. Able to digest the wax in berries, the warblers often supplement their insect-heavy diet with berries of juniper, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

In fall and winter, they also frequent more open woods and shrubby areas like the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where the flitty little creature shown above paused long enough in its foraging for me to capture its image.

Wax myrtle berries and budding leaves

Two subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler exist: the Myrtle Warbler, found primarily in the eastern United States and Canada, and the Audubon’s Warbler, a bird of western states. The Audubon’s throat is yellow, while the Myrtle’s is white, so I seem to have found a Myrtle Warbler.

Poet Kevin Cole, a resident of South Dakota, may see more Audubon’s Warblers: reason enough to celebrate that bird in his poem of the same name. Despite slight differences in the birds, the poem seems applicable to both.

The Audubon warblers keep the time of their coming,
Arriving on stillness of a storm,
Their breast and backs as dark as low bruised banks of cloud,
Rumps and throats as yellow as blooms of buckwheat.
They throng this evening in the newly-leaved,
Tender-tipped canopies nervously weaving
Through the catkins like frantic prophets
Bearing some divine prophecy of the coming spring.
I wait, hoping for nothing too grave:
News of ruinous lands, of cutting and swarming locusts,
Of withering vines and empty granaries,
Of fasting, weeping, and rending of garments.
No, I wait for lighter fare:
Perhaps a promise that the green heron will nest
On the west end of the slough and that the ironweed
And wood lily will once again together bloom.
This would be an ample prophecy for another year—
This, and a promise to keep the time of their coming.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Poet Kevin Cole earned his BA and MA in literature from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in literature from Baylor University. He currently teaches English at the University of Sioux Falls.

Spell-bound in Winter

Grown to middle age, my calico became placid and content, spending her days in search of perfect napping spots, or indulging in bird-watching at the window. Long past the enthusiasms of kittenhood, her favorite excitement was shredding cheap tissue paper. She preferred white, although she’d work with colored if necessary.  Each Sunday morning, I gave her a dozen sheets. For the next week she rolled in it, hid under it, buried toys in it, or clawed at it until nothing remained but a flurry of shreds.

Despite her even temper, she disliked every sort of storm. Lightning would bring her to electrified attention, while thunder tripled the size of her tail in a flash. Approaching winter cold fronts set her pacing for days. She was my best prognosticator. Once a low crossed the Red River, she began moving restlessly from room to room. By the time it got to Dallas, she’d be tearing full-tilt through the house, circling around and around until collapsing in a heap.

She survived several tropical storms and two hurricane evacuations, and what she lacked in scientific knowledge she made up for in pure instinct: she knew storms are bad. When her people began to fuss and mutter about systems still hundreds of miles away, she headed to her carrier, ready to snuggle down and wait it out: wide-eyed and anxious, uttering the low, undeciperable sounds she reserved for rising storms.

We had much in common, that cat and her people. On the other hand, when storms brew, the air is charged with as much anticipation as anxiety.  Conversations grow a little louder, chatter becomes more insistent. As weather bulletins increase in frequency, questions become more pointed, and attention more focused.

Some want the storm to turn, to dissipate, to wander and die, but others are equally eager to see what nature has up her sleeve this time. We’re like children convinced goblins are living in the closet. Consumed as much by curiosity as by our wonderful terror, we wouldn’t mind the chance for just one glimpse.

This strange combination of fear and fascination accompanies winter storms, as well as hurricanes. Nor’easters, blizzards, white-outs, ice: we hate the interruptions they bring to life, the complications, the immobility. And yet a compulsion overtakes us, an insistent need to feel nature’s effects, to walk, to measure, to experience the howl of wind and the hush of new-fallen snow. We become spellbound as much as snowbound, in thrall to the swirl of the storm.

Emily Brontë captured the feeling well, in her poem titled “Spellbound.”

The night is darkening ’round me,
the wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
and I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
and yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
wastes beyond wastes below;
but nothing dear can move me;
I cannot, will not go.

Brontë had it right. As much as the storms of summer, winter storms can be compelling, exciting and beautiful. Unfortunately, winter is more than storms. Vita brevis, ars longa, as the saying has it. But on this side of Solstice, vita brevis, ars longa, et hiems longior seems more appropriate: life is short, art long, and winter even longer.

December passes quickly enough with celebration and holiday distractions. Even during a pandemic, January arrives with all the hopes of a New Year: a sense of renewed purpose and optimism. But winter is winter, a season of sighing, and waiting, and longing for an end to cold, darkness, and a similitude of days.

As the exultation of Brontë’s storm passes, the endurance of winter begins. It resembles the patience of a sickroom, the shock of unexpected absence, the tedium of sleeplessness. A sense of endurance seems to mark even the natural world as it waits in quiet resignation for the turning to come: a turning marked by lengthening days and increasing light.

The bleakness of mid-winter leaves the world strangely quiet. Wraith-like creatures leave only tracks in freshly fallen snow; sun and moon alike leave only shadows as evidence of their passage.

For the watchers from the windows, for the walkers beneath the moon, for every harsh and glittering star reflected in the sparkle of the snow, time seems to stop. Brontë herself might invite us to stop, and turn, leaving our accustomed roads for a more poetic path. Come along, she seems to say. Enjoy a winter’s walk.

 

The Grammarian In Winter

Winter speaks in passive voice,
conjugates brief slants of light,
parses out cold stars along a tracery of oak.
Beneath the rising moon, fine participles gleam.
D
angling remnant leaves pull free
to tumble down the winds,
evocative declensions of a season now unbound.
Split by ice, the pond breathes smoke.
Split by cold, the blackened ferns release their shattered fronds.
Split by hoarfrost, fences bend and crack across the cold-boned land.
Infinitives abound.
Silent, shrouded by the pond’s slight breath,
clear-eyed herons sweep the snow
as if to scry its source;
their spellbound cries declaim the day,
punctuating
dim and drifting hills.
   Linda Leinen

Comments always are welcome.
Watching the snow fall across the country, I was moved to edit and republish one of my own favorite posts.
Steve Gingold kindly provided images of the snow and ice. For more wonderful winter photographs, visit his website.