A Rising Green

Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, February 2, 2017

After weeks of fruitless horizon-scanning and radar-consulting, the roiling smoke plume rising over the southwestern horizon seemed promising. Before long, I’d found confirmation: a scheduled burn at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge was underway, and the section being burned would be accessible by road.

February 2

I’d been hoping to visit a native prairie after a prescribed burn, and my opportunity had arrived. The January 31 burn, carried out under the supervision of the Texas Mid-Coast fire crew on 515 acres of land, would be accessible via Hoskins Mound Road, my usual route to the Brazoria refuge.

When I arrived at the refuge on February 2, a portion of the world I’d known there appeared to have been obliterated.

February 2

Donning boots to work my way across the prairie, I found the combination of ash, scorched stems, crawfish remnants, and brittle, broken reeds adding to a sense of other-worldliness. Here and there, bits of human detritus lay revealed. Among the beer cans, I found a tiny, ruby glass bottle, embossed “Segovia.” Plucking it from the ashes, I tucked it in my pocket.

Even wetlands hadn’t stopped the fire. A familiar stand of cattails and rushes had been scorched and thinned as surely as the grasses.

February 2

Still, the water also had provided protection. Wading into the slough, I found bits of growing grass breaking the surface of the water, and round-leaved plants just below. The juxtaposition of this green and growing world with the surrounding ash-covered prairie was remarkable. How soon, I wondered, might the prairie itself begin to recover?

February 2

For two months, I traveled to my bit of prairie on a weekly basis: photographing, sketching, and recording observations. In time, I’ll write about that experience in more detail — including the story of the flora that turned out to be fauna.  But while the science of it all — the rationale for prescribed burns, and their remarkable results — is worth sharing, the miraculous aspects of regrowth are equally compelling.

As the weeks passed, I found myself remembering a lovely hymn written by John MacLeod Crum (1872-1958). Set to the popular 15th century French carol melody, Noël Nouvelet, it was added to the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928: the year Crum began serving as Canon of Canterbury. 

The song pairs perfectly with my images of a green and growing prairie, just as it points to the improbable beauty of Easter. In the end, whatever we believe, or don’t, about the historicity of those events, this much is clear: miracles do happen. For proof, we need only look to the prairie.

  

(Click to hear Stephanie Seefeldt’s version of “Now the Green Blade Rises”)

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
February 5
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat arising green.
February 12
In the grave they laid him, Love by hatred slain,
Thinking that he would never wake again,
February 12
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat arising green.
February 12
Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
February 18
Raised from the dead, my living lord is seen
Love is come again, like wheat arising green.
February 18
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
March 19
Your touch can call us back to life again;
March 19
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
March 19
Love is come again, like wheat arising green.
March 19
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
March 28
Love is come again, like wheat arising green.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Great Blue Heron

heronwingbwr 

So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings
open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks
of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.
Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is
that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed
back into itself —
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.
And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn’t a miracle
but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body
into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.
“Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond”
~  Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome. The photo of the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), taken at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, is mine.

The Poets’ Birds: Cranes

cranesSandhill cranes ~ Brazoria County, Texas
I call my wife outdoors to have her listen,
to turn her ears upward, beyond the cloud-veiled
sky where the moon dances thin light,
to tell her, “Don’t hear the cars on the freeway—
it’s not the truck-rumble. It is and is not
the sirens.” She stands there, on deck
a rocking boat, wanting to please the captain
who would have her hear the inaudible.
Her eyes, so blue the day sky is envious,
fix blackly on me, her mouth poised on question
like a stone. But, she hears, after all.
January on the Gulf,
warm wind washing over us,
we stand chilled in the winter of those voices.
                                “The Cranes, Texas January” ~ Mark Sanders

Rough, raw — nearly indescribable — the sound of their call alerts me to their presence. On the open prairie, they tease even the most dedicated seeker, bobbing and bending among the grasses: oblivious to our longings.

Still, they comfort. Their hidden voices echo grace and beauty; the rhythms of their beating wings carry on the wind. “Listen,” they seem to say. “We have come, and soon will leave, but for this time, we offer you our world.”

Comments always are welcome. Unless otherwise noted, photos are mine.  Thanks to reader Bob Freeman, who pointed me to the poem.

Sometimes, Once Is Enough

Roseate spoonbill at Olney Pond
(click for greater clarity)

The morning seemed unusually quiet. At the edge of Olney Pond, a single spoonbill stirred the water, swinging its bill with a pendulum-like rhythm: shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish. Glossy ibis, long-billed and svelte, picked over their sandbar like latecomers to brunch. Only the stilts, hidden among the rushes and reeds, shredded the silence with their sharp, clean yips of warning and complaint.

In the rising heat, clouds bubbled and built before bending to the will of the winds. Distracted by their shifting shapes, I barely noted the soft, muted sound behind me. Then, I heard it again: the sound of a pillowcase being snapped and shaken out before being pinned to a clothesline.

While considering the possibilities — Alligator? Hunter? Frogs? — I heard the sound again: closer this time, and more resonant. Suddenly, with a fluttering of wings and loud, croaking cries, a great egret dressed in breeding plumage landed at the edge of the pond.
Continue reading

Mr. Grumpy Gets His Bath

Mr. Grumpy (click image to enlarge)

If his verse is any indication, Ogden Nash met his own grumpy grackle, and wasn’t particularly impressed:

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow,
his heart is black, his eye is yellow.
He bullies more attractive birds
with hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,
and should a human interfere,
attacks that human in the rear.
I cannot help but deem the grackle
an ornithological debacle.

Despite Nash’s characterization, the grackle I came to know as Mr. Grumpy didn’t seem inclined toward bullying or attacks. Though loud, impertinent, and insistent, he wasn’t at all aggressive. He only wanted to be noticed: preferably by a female of his own species. That hunger for attention and approval appeared to lie near the heart of his aggravation. Continue reading

Sloughing Off at the Slough

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

One of my favorite Texas sayings, common as cornbread, certainly applies to turkey vultures. Hopping along roadsides, guarding their carrion, or awkwardly flapping away to cluster on the branches of dead trees, they’re so common they’re rarely noted, and more rarely remarked.

Vultures tend to feed and roost in small flocks, so this pair, relaxed and sun-saturated atop an old tank, seemed unusual. I stopped the car and stepped out, browsing the landscape for more birds. The skies were empty. So were the fence posts, the windmill, the ditches, and the roof of a small, nondescript shed.

At the time, I didn’t know that turkey vultures often seek solitude during mating season. Foregoing nests, pairs separate themselves from the larger flock in order to lay their eggs in the shelter of rocky ledges, hollow trees, or even deserted buildings. I may have found a mated pair: birds who’d found a cozy, out-of-the way place to raise their family. On the other hand, since it’s hard even for experts to distinguish girl vultures from boy vultures, the birds could have been a couple of hens trading gossip, or two dudes, just hanging out.

Unwilling to disturb them, I lingered at the ditch’s edge, toying with other explanations for their behavior. Maybe they’d found a nice, big carcass, and were indulging in a post-dinner nap. We’d had a stretch of wet, gloomy days; perhaps they’d found the warmth of the metal appealing. Then, it occurred to me. Perhaps they were the lazy ones of the flock: birds who’d decided to spend Sunday afternoon just sloughing off.


All around the sloughs and ponds of the wildlife refuge, it did seem as though sloughing off was the order of the day.

Seemingly captivated by a growing conflict across the water, this plump American coot (Fulica americana) and colorful Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata) could have been watching Netflix.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

In fact, they were watching a determined and quite noisy grackle harass a sleeping white ibis (Eudocimus albus). I watched, too, until the ibis woke with an expression that seemed to say, “Who let this guy into the hotel?”

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

Stretching one leg, then the other, the ibis unfolded with a sigh, gave the grackle a look of consummate irritation, and headed for the water. I swear I heard him saying, “Well, as long as I’m up, I might as well get a snack.”

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

This little pied-bill grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), was more courteous to his sleeping neighbor. Circling a coot, the grebe caused barely a ripple. Even its dives — for a fish, a crawfish, perhaps for an insect — were neat and tidy.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

Eventually, the coot awoke and began to preen, and the grebe slipped quietly away.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)
(Click image for greater size, clarity)

A pied-bill grebe decked out for mating season is a delightful sight. Its thick, silver and black-banded bill is the reason for the pied in its common name. The word comes to us from Middle English, where it referred to the black and white magpie. Later, the word came to mean “decorated or colored in blotches,” as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

The pied-billed aren’t particularly sociable, and rarely flock. Shy and solitary, they’re quick to dive, often hide in vegetation, and sometimes respond to perceived threat by sinking down into the water until only their head remains visible. Water trapped in their feathers gives them a good bit of control over their buoyancy, so they can expose as much or as little as they please.

Like dabbling ducks, (mallards, teal, widgeon, and others) coots also “tip tail” when searching for food.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

More closely related to sandhill cranes than to ducks, coots belong to a family (Rallidae) which includes rails and gallinules. Awkward in flight, they’re even more graceless during take-offs and landings, and the long, running starts necessary to get them airborne are faintly ridiculous. They do migrate, but guidebooks say they travel mostly at night: perhaps to avoid embarassment.

Among their favored foods are the stems, leaves, and seeds of sedges and grasses, and a variety of algae. They’ll often dive down to pull fresh sprouts, and sometimes find themselves tangled in dinner when they resurface. In Cajun country, where coots are known as poule d’eau, or water hens, they may find themselves on the dinner table, served up in a tasty poule d’eau gumbo.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

Like coots, common gallinules (which used to be called moorhens) also dabble and dive. They’re quiet and secretive birds, but those candy-corn-like bills and facial shields tend to give them away. Even in a stand of thick reeds or other vegetation, it’s not hard to see the flashes of red, yellow, and orange that signal their presence.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)
(Click image for greater size, clarity)

While vultures snoozed and other water birds dabbled, dove, or waded their way through the afternoon, this pair of Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) were rousing themselves for an afternoon swim.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)
(Click image for greater size, clarity)

Among the most elegant of water birds, the shape of the shoveler’s bill makes clear how it received its name. 

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the shoveler’s bill has about 110 fine projections called lamellae along its edges. It “forages by swimming along with its bill lowered into the water. Seeds of sedges, bulrushes, saw grass, smartweeds, pondweeds, algae and duckweeds, as well as aquatic insects, mollusks and crustaceans, are consumed by filtering the water, which is taken in at the bill tip and expelled from its base.”

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

Several guides, including Audubon, note that the shoveler doesn’t commonly tip its head and upper body forward into the water. According to other guides, it seldom dives, and rarely up-ends.

Seldom and doesn’t commonly are ambiguous, of course, and rarely doesn’t mean never.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

Ogden Nash may have been thinking of other dabblers — particularly the mallards — when he wrote his verse, but it applies equally well to this pair of shovelers:

Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.

Meanwhile, back on land, grackles chattered and chirred.  One, obviously out of sorts, flew over to voice a complaint.

(Click image for greater size, clarity)

“You think it’s all sunshine and shrimp dinners around here?” he said. “You think it’s easy, living among these preening water birds? Let me tell you — there are times this isn’t such an easy world.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It can’t be food, since you don’t eat what a duck eats. Is it a territorial squabble?” “Unfortunately, not,” he said, “though I hope to find a girl to fight over. Right now, it’s getting a bath that’s the problem.”

That stopped me. “There’s as much water as land around here,” I said. “Can’t you find a suitable pool?” “I suppose I could,” he said, “but I have a favorite, and I can’t use it. Look.”  He tipped his head, pointing with his beak to the bank across the road.

Following his gaze, I stared at the bank. “I think it’s time for Plan B,” I said. With just the slightest tremor of a wing and a spread of his tail, he said, “I don’t have a Plan B.”  “Well,” I said, “I think you need to make one.”

(Part 1 of 2: to be continued)

As always, comments are welcome.