After nearly a week of exquisite rain and cold brought in by the remnants of Ida, today is a different kind of beautiful. The oaks and hickories are catching all the sun and reflecting it back into the blue, warm sky. Faulkner and I took a good walk into the deeper, unexplored parts of the church’s woods. And now I’m heading to the river with the kayak on the truck.
I picked up Debra at 3:55 AM on Friday morning, and we headed for Lugoff. Lex was waiting when we got there, and we started loading his car with all our equipment. We were on the road again before 5:00, heading to Florida. The three of us were taking our best shot to see the Greater Sandplover, a stray bird that normally lives in Asia and Africa. This individual is only the second ever recorded in North America, and we hoped it would still be there. Storms with gale-force winds and abundant rain earlier in the week had made finding the bird difficult for some other birders, and rainy, windy weather was still partly in the forecast.
At 10:15 we pulled into Hugenot Memorial Park and found a place to leave the car. (This is located east of Jacksonville, out on the coast of Duval County.) We grabbed our scopes, binoculars, raincoats, and started walking. Other birders were standing around a large group of mixed shorebirds, and we knew we were in the right spot. The bird had been cooperative all morning for those who were there earlier, so we had good hope. We didn’t have to wait. It was among several hundred plovers and sandpipers, but with a little pointing and scanning, we all picked it out and had leisurely, upclose scope views. That was nice. Here’s a picture of the scene (the Greater Sandplover is in this group, but too far for the camera to show detail):
We continued there for a few more hours, enjoying the bird and the people who came long distances to see it. One gentleman had just flown in from Rhode Island to see it; he liked watching the bird through the scope. As we stood there searching the birds for something different, a Red-necked Phalarope flew in, and we got great scope views of this normally pelagic species. That, also was a new one for me.
On the walk back to the car after noon, rain started, and wind pelted us with sand. We were gritty and soaked on the way to find something to eat. Not knowing the area, we solicited recommendations from the locals. Both people we asked said the Sandollar was the place to go. We did, and it was worth it. Debra tried the cashew-crusted curry grouper; Lex and I had grilled mahi with dill and caper sauce…all of it very good food!
I saw two guys come to the buffet line and recognized them as birders from Tampa who had shared part of the morning with us. I walked over to see what else they had found after we parted, and they told about finding Leach’s Storm-Petrels over the surf at Little Talbot State Park. That is another pelagic species not normally seen from land. So after finishing at the restaruant, we headed up A1A to Little Talbot.
If you are ever in the area, pay the small entrance fee and just drive through this unspoiled fragment of coastal Florida. It is a beautiful place. We parked and walked up onto one of the boardwalks so we could scan the ocean. After a little while I found dark slivers of movement cutting over the waves. As they came closer, even flying over the beach itself, we were able to get positive identification as Leach’s Storm-Petrels, my third new bird for the day. It has been a long time since I got three new birds in a single day east of Texas.
It was mid-afternoon, and we had seen what we came to see. So we drove back home. I only had two-and-a-half hours of sleep the previous night, but the adrenaline kept me going all day. We made the vehicle transfer back at Lex’s house, drove to Lancaster, dropped Debra off, transcribed my bird records, and I was in bed by 12:15. That was a great way to spend a Friday!
I’m walking across the field, toward the woods, late in the afternoon. With me is Faulkner, a soccer ball, my voice recorder, but no camera. I want there to be no frame to limit the white beauty of woods in the snow. I want to know the scene as unbroken expanse, each dimension pouring its fullness into each other.
I turn Faulkner loose, and he knows where to go. I walk, kicking the ball in his direction, toward the opening at the edge of trees, snow blasting from my foot and up my pants in the motion. Each expected bounce is muffled as the ball stops in its own oval crater. I love these shoes; Merrell is worth every penny you pay for them.
Into. Ahead of me the ball rolls down the trail. These woods have the freshness of an open-minded discussion, and I’m here to listen. The Sunlight is doing some amazing things on the white branches. The outline of white, up the trunks and out the limbs of the largest trees, is just — clean! A sea of Smilax briar vines, red cedars, wild cherries…they all are catching light and casting shadows in a perfect display of God’s artistry.
Why does snow in the woods make a man feel so warm?
Layerings. I’m listening to a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Its voice is traveling through pine branches covered with snow underneath the blue sky. Behind me is the horn of a very distant train. Grasses bend in support of their icy weight, and sweetgum balls stand out in silhouette against the pale openness above.
I keep expecting Faulkner to jump a rabbit and go chasing it out through the weeds until briars stop him and let the rabbit go free. Now the trail opens into a patch of pine needles and moss. And the sunlight is perfectly balanced against everything that is here. I am watching light, breathing it, pumping it through my arteries, and telling Faulkner things he’s too busy to notice for himself. He is happy and alert, running around in his winter fatness. Simple woods. I can never get too much of this. And twilight approaches.
Several small oak trees here still hold their brown dried leaves, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet matches the temperature with its thin, piercing call, but only giving two notes of its usual three.
Another thing I did not bring with me is binoculars. So, as I call the birds to me, I cannot see, in these shadows, what each of them is, but I do recognize a Song Sparrow. Dozens of others come close, staying just out of signt and are not identifying themselves by voice. Now they fly away as Faulkner follows his nose through the weeds underneath them. There’s the soft chuck of a Hermit Thrush, most likely agitated by the calling that I did. And back toward the spring I hear a Northern Flicker yelping its strident single-syllable creed to all the woods within a quarter mile.
Faulkner walked up to me just now, offering me his head for a scrub of his scalp, enjoying this place and my presence in it with him.
On to the spring, now, where water is flowing through the lightly frozen remainder of day. Faulkner runs his usual patrol across the broken fence and up through trees around the ridge. Today he’s easier to see, with snow as the background instead of brown forest floor. Much snow has melted and the flow of water out of the primary spring groundswell is more vigorous than I am used to seeing. I reach into it with my left forefinger and nudge a gray salamander who moves slowly out of my reach. The water is warm, moreso than I expected. And down here at ground level I notice a soft vapor rising off of the pool that is formed by the flow.
Now back up to the trail, I return to the soccer ball that I have been kicking all along this walk, through snow and leaves. The presence of a Nike soccer ball in these woods seems incongruous, but so it seemed in the place I first found it. That’s a story I still need to tell.
This is enough, and more than I can appreciate: these woods, this way. I am at home in the cold. No wind was here, trying to move the magisterial grandeur of snow where it lies and limbs where they accept space in the sky. I’m glad to be walking here now, and glad that this is enough.
Yes, there has been snow! It’s 8:30 AM while I write this, and it’s still falling. There is good coverage of a few inches, perhaps, and the wind is gusting it around like dust. There are flakes moving in every direction at once. Lots of birds have been on my feeders, including, for the first time this winter, Pine Siskins. This calm is a glorious dynamic.
The footsteps I made when going out to feed Faulkner and water the birds have been covered over with fresh snow. Now grackles have made their way to my white lawn — just a few. That’s the third species of blackbird to send a scouting party here this morning: Rusty Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Common Grackles. Depending on how they assessed my seed supply, I might have a yard filled with black before the white has a chance to melt, each a beauty pronounced by its opposite.
I have come recently to learn that today contains the inauguration ceremony for our new president, Barack Obama. I will pray for him, that he may bear with wisdom, grace, and courage the burden that is now his.
I’m soothing my sore throat with a big cup of Irish breakfast tea…milk in first. And now a Red-winged Blackbird becomes the next Icterid prospector. As the birds come and go, the sun is making an appearance. Light flurries still freckle the scene. I think one of the best ways to be at home is exactly this.
Waking up this morning with a need to write, the blankets had a soothing weight, so I stayed where I was. The reading light clipped to the top of my notebook was a small halogen sun rising over the pillow. Today, I’m in my own bed, but exactly one year ago I was five days deep into my vacation on Ocracoke, and that has been on my mind. Searching for stashed inspiriation, I reached for my voice recorder and began listening to my own voice, my own collected thoughts. Clicking through the digital files, a different voice met my sleepy ears, and I recognized it as one of last October’s rain storms, recorded while I was writing on the porch of the Ocracoke rental house. That was the sound I needed to hear, and the flow began for the piece I was writing.
Here’s a wave to the friendly folks on the island. As my involvements keep me working this fine week, please enjoy some oysters at sunset for me.
August 22, 2008 — BWCAW, Winchell Lake
I recall Friday’s breakfast as the only meal that got complaints, and I didn’t think it was all that bad, myself. Dehydrated instant huevos rancheros doesn’t arouse very high expectations, anyway, but the result drew strong reactions from a few, more for the appearance than the taste, I think. Listening to Jim describe its likeness nearly turned me against it, too.
So we hung around camp through the day. A pleasant breeze blew from the east, moving in the direction we would be paddling tomorrow. We fished, told more stories, installed a dining fly over the kitchen area — or as near it as the available trees would allow. We did the necessary camp chores: cooking, washing dishes, filtering water. But we did no gathering of wood. Dry conditions had caused the Forest Service to declare a ban on all burning, which would include enclosed campfires. A terrible forest fire in 2007 destroyed over 170,000 acres, and the folks there are understandably cautious during dry times. That fire began when a single campfire was allowed to go untended. Every day of our trip we saw the charred dead snags of forests that once beautified the hills and islands of these lakes, and some of it is evident in the background of my photographs.
The way that 2007 fire burned (the Ham Lake Fire, it is called) left some places untouched, and our present campsite was one of the fortunate areas of lush remaining evergreens. Before lunch I went on a solo walk back through the woods, exploring, looking for birds. Knowing it might be rough territory, I wore my rain pants and jacket for extra protection against abrasions. That was a good move, because the thick, thick coniferous understory through which I forced myself shredded the yellow rain pants; better the pants than my legs. Here are some photos in open spots:
The photo above shows a tiny waterfall where Winchell Lake spills across a natural barrier of rocks into a creek that feeds back into Gaskin Lake. Elevation difference between the two lakes is 31 feet. This was a fun discovery. The few birds I found on this walk were Yellow-rumped Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Blackburnian Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, and the most common bird of the trip, Red-breasted Nuthatch, which was heard and/or seen many times every day.
Good conversation and enjoyment of the friendships was always going on. Mike did some card tricks. Greg studied my bird book. Brad and I played hacky-sack. At some point during the late afternoon, the wind changed directions and came toward us from the west. The barometer on my watch showed that the pressure was dropping. A weather event was beginning, and here is my journal for the day to offer its prelude:
“It’s a day good for lying in the tent listening to Blue Jays while the wind blows.”
“4:33 PM – I got a nap this afternoon — sort of. It was so windy that I woke up at every big gust that shook the tent and tarp. A swim this afternoon made me feel fresher and more alert.”
“8:57 PM – The wind is really blowing hard now. We’re all in our tents, and it’s fairly dramatic. I guess this is just part of the unexpectedness of camping. Some rain is falling again.”
“9:23 PM – The wind seems to have finally settled down mostly, but the waves on Winchell Lake continue to pound the shore very hard.”
And around 1:00 the next morning, I wrote this:
“I’m lying awake in a storm I do not understand. For about 6 hours the wind has pummelled this lake and our peninsula campsite. A few brief respites gave hope before midnight, but the persistence is baffling. I am not used to storms of this nature. I wonder what is going on. I’m thankful that there is no thunder and lightning, though.”
For Jim and myself, sleep was sparce that night.