Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: birds

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

It’s been quite a busy summer. I’m a personal assistant to two children, which is a job I never thought I’d be competent to perform. Early in the season, I bought a Passion Planner so I could keep it all together. I love how the planner has a place to write the focus of each week, though too many weeks all I can think of to focus on is simply getting through the week.

I had ambitious goals for this summer. I was going to do a project every month. June’s project was renovating the spa, but that has dragged on much longer than I’d hoped, and I’m thinking about coming to a stopping point and moving on to the July goal, which is to publish a story which has been waiting for a book cover for several months, and to do some more original writing. Not to mention getting caught up on both my blogs, and promote them more actively. But even scaling back my goals doesn’t get me through the days. This week I’m going with one Girl Scout troop on an overnight trip, and planning, organizing and supervising a full day event for the other troop. In between, a dear friend who lives far away will be in the midwest, and bless her, she’s going to take a day to come out to the sticks just to see us.

Keeping on top of it all is a constant challenge. I’ve tried coffee, but the extra energy seems to come with even greater propensity to flit randomly from one task to another, so I’m not sure there’s a net improvement. A little yoga and meditation are perhaps more beneficial. I saw on facebook or somewhere that some famous yogi said that everyone should meditate for at least ten minutes per day, unless one doesn’t have time, in which case, twenty minutes. So I am making the effort to prove that ten is enough for me.

Today I was doing my usual practice: after a little yoga, I cool down and end in corpse pose (savasana), in which I listen to my breath, attempting to take a full breath in and out without a thought. There’s always a thought, though, but for some reason I always think the next breath will go better, so I try again. Sometimes I do get almost to the end of the inhalation before a thought comes. Today somewhere in the middle I heard a voice asking, “Been in the dungeon?” Oh no, I haven’t been—wait a minute, who’s been in the dungeon? Who put you there, and why? It was Mariah, the little waif/saboteur with whom I had meant to make friends. But today she says I put her in the dungeon because I wanted to prove that I was in control.

Before I could figure out what to do with that, I heard a ruckus in the yard. Blue jays are known to be annoyingly loud, and from my observations this summer, I’d say they can be alarmist as well. That crow-like screech is their alarm call, as well as warning to any creature they consider a threat. When the threat is resolved, they make a pretty cuckoo-like signal. The screeching was louder and more urgent than I’d ever heard, even from blue jays, so I looked out the patio door and sure enough, there was Wildy the cat in the tall grass (mowing was one of the things I haven’t had time for this summer) playing with something gray in front of her. Damn! It’s been nearly ten years since we’ve had blue jays, since the year Wildy’s predecessor 23, (may he rest in peace) killed all the babies, one by one, as they flew the nest. I’ve regretted ever since that I didn’t keep him inside that day.

There was no time to lose, so I decided to let my pants lie where I’d left them on the ottoman and ran out in my underwear. Two adults were swooping and screeching all around, and in the middle of it, cat and fledgling were facing each other off. Not waiting to see what would happen next, I grabbed Wildy by the nape and wrapped both my arms around her as I retreated. Inside, we watched from the patio doors while the bird hopped over near the door, mom and dad screeching incessantly. (They can see us through the doors, though they don’t know that fixing the doors so they open and close is another project that hasn’t made it to the top of the list yet.) But I watched long enough to see the juvenile hop on both legs, and stretch and fold both wings, so there’s a pretty good chance the bird was uninjured. Then I closed the curtains to give the poor parents a break.

I might have looked up the symbolism of blue jay earlier in the summer, but a drama such as this is what happens when one ignores the more subtle signals. What does Ted Andrews have to say about blue jay?

“For those to whom the jay comes as a totem, it can reflect lessons in using your own power properly.”

The power comes from both the spiritual and the physical realm, as blue jay moves between worlds. “The main problem will be in dabbling in both worlds, rather than becoming a true master of both. Those with a jay as a totem usually have a tremendous amount of ability, but it can be scattered or it is often not developed any more than is necessary to get by.”

“If the jay has flown into your life, it indicates that you are moving into a time where you can begin to develop the innate royalty that is within you, or simply be a pretender to the throne. It all depends upon you. The jay has no qualms. It will teach you either direction.” Okay, jay friends, I hear the message loud and clear, but damned if I know how to live any better than I am right now.

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Costa Rica Diary: Zip Lines at Selvatura Park, Monteverde

I think when we were in Monteverde twelve years ago, there was only one zip line tour; now there are several to choose from, and we’d been told Selvatura‘s was the best, with over a dozen lines. The longest stretches a full kilometer. Guides helped us into harnesses, and double checked that they were secure. We were each issued a set of heavy leather gloves and a helmet. We left all valuable items (including cameras) with my father-in-law Mike, who didn’t care to fly that day.

There was a lot of walking up stairs and steep hills. It was good exercise and I didn’t mind. I just loved being in the forest. The zip lines terrified me, though. It was the first time I remember ever being afraid of heights. I don’t remember being particularly scared the last time we did zip lines. I have no idea what was different this time. I couldn’t decide which was more frightening, zipping along high above the tops of the trees, or into thick clouds where I couldn’t see a thing. Once or twice I was so terrified that I just closed my eyes for a few seconds. I willed myself to breathe. There was a woman in our group who was there alone, and she kind of made friends with us. It was a bit of a comfort to me that she seemed even more scared than I was.

At the end of each line was a platform, and some of them were built onto giant trees, which I later found out were kapok trees. As soon as a person was detached from the cable, the guide would click his/her harness onto a cable attached to the tree, so no one could fall to the ground two hundred feet below. One of my favorite moments was standing on the platform, under the protection of a tree whose diameter must have been more than six feet. There was another tree close by —I could almost touch it— that was broken off just above a fork in the trunk. A family of little yellow and gray birds nested there, in the green moss and delicate epiphytic plants above the clouds.

Under certain conditions, a person doesn’t get enough speed to get to the end of the cable. This can happen if there’s a cross wind, or with a lighter person. The kids mostly went with the guides, who were all fine young men who appeared to be under the age of about twenty. If someone came to a stop before they got to the platform, a guide would have to go out, hand over hand on the cable, attach himself to the stalled tourist, and pull her/him to the end. It wasn’t a huge problem, but it slowed the group down and was a bit of a pain in the neck.

For the longest line —a full kilometer— smaller people were attached to each other. Our new friend stepped up and requested to go with my mother-in-law, Pat. I guess something about Pat felt safe to her. The guides had to have a conference to decide how to split us up. I got lucky and ended up going with one of those attractive youths. “You don’t have to do anything,” he said. I asked him his name, I think he said Darius. I held onto my harness while he wrapped his legs around mine. We took off from the platform. I wondered how long it would take. I felt so much safer with a guide than by myself. My only fear was that my arms would give out from gripping the harness, which I only had to hold onto to keep from hanging backwards by the hips. I can do it, I told myself.

Then we were in the clouds, beyond space and time. I think Darius was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear over the zip of the pulleys on the cable. I tried to relax into the harness. Then we were in trees again, approaching the enormous tree that anchored the cable. We stalled out and the guide had to pull us by hand. “It’s not scary with you,” I said. He asked me where I was from.

I said, “Kansas. It’s very different from here. Grass, no trees, open sky.”

He said, “It’s beautiful?”

I said, “Yes, beautiful. Very different beautiful.” We were almost to the platform.

I had to add: “But here it’s magical.”

Then we were on the platform, and it wasn’t even high above the ground.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell you about the scariest thing I’ve ever done: the tarzan jump.

As for the photo gallery, the zip line photos all came from the park’s hidden cameras placed in the trees somewhere. They look pretty much the same, so I’m filling in with some more photos from La Colina Lodge.

Lambsquarters, Christmas Tree, Feline Birdwatching

With the Christmas tree in the patio door, Wildfire and I can watch the birds in the yard without being seen. Normally, they see me through the door and scatter. Today I got a good long look at four juncos (Junco hyemalis) and a sparrow, which I think was most likely an American tree sparrow, Spizella arborea.

Somewhere on the internet, I once saw a story about an old farmer who lamented the fact that his son, in taking over the farm, had hired someone to spray all the lambsquarters (Chenopodium album). The old man said that there had been bad years when the crops failed, so lambsquarters were all they had to eat. But they survived because of it. (In another reading of this story, we can imagine why the son, in the brash way of youth taking over from the older generation, would be inclined to destroy all lambsquarters in a violent and toxic manner.)

With this story in mind, I’ve let lambsquarters grow in my back yard. The first year or two, it was because they’re such a terrific source of nutrition. They’re really only tasty in the early spring, though I could still steam a few leaves with spinach through the summer; but we don’t actually get much overall from this so-called weed. Maybe I should be like the sensible gardeners, who take out even nutritious weeds to make space for the more desirable cultivated vegetables. But then, in winter, I saw the black-capped chickadee return day after day to munch on lambsquarters seeds, while perching on stems that poked up above the deep snow. The fantastic source of nutrition for humans is also a lifesaver for birds.

That was all the impetus I needed. I let lambsquarters have part of the vegetable patch. When I took them out in the fall, instead of tossing them into the compost, I bundled them up and tied the bundle to the leg of the treehouse. Naturally, this year I had a nice patch of lambsquarters under the treehouse, and at this very moment, four juncos and an American tree sparrow are having their way with it. Why buy birdseed when you can just let the weeds take over?

Sure, it’s a bit chilly lying here on the floor under the Christmas tree, but true birders put up with way worse conditions than this.

Happy winter, dear friends.

Canada Goose, Branta Canadensis

The plant world is going quiet this time of year, but most of the animals must continue their daily lives through the winter. Among birds, some leave for warmer climes, while the Canada goose is just arriving.

I believe there are a few here in the Flint Hills year round, but in autumn their population swells. It’s not uncommon to see them winging in the late afternoon or early evening, as they move from gleaning the fields by day to their watery bed for the night.

The Canada goose was hunted nearly to extinction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, it was thought by some to be completely extinct for many years. Some remnant populations were discovered in the 1960s, and after that efforts were begun to restore this fine, large bird to its former glory in Kansas. In the 1980s, ten thousand birds were released into the wild by the Kansas Fish and Game Commission. By the turn of the century, they were quite common in many places, and in fall and winter Chase Countians saw them daily. When you see geese flying and honking in their signature V formation, think what it would be like if they were gone again, the skies empty and quiet.

Ted Andrews associates geese with stories and storytelling. He says that goose is a fine totem for writers, and recommends writing with a goose quill pen. This is said to stimulate the imagination and aid in working through creative blocks.

Geese mate for life. How many humans can sustain such fidelity? Andrews also recommends sleeping on bedding made from goose feathers to promote marital fidelity and fertility.

I’m sure there is much, much more to be learned from goose. Much of what we learn from animals must be based in personal experience, however. When do you see them,  do they talk to you? Listen with you heart to hear their message.

Autumn Settling In

The weather has suddenly cooled. Today was lovely, sunny and mild, but the nights are chilly, and I’ve had to put another quilt on the bed.

Gulls have been making their semi-annual appearance. It’s been over a week since I saw the first, a group of perhaps a couple dozen; today I saw but one couple. They may be the last stragglers.

Turkey vultures are restless. I can feel that they will leave soon.

I saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher yesterday. I was surprised that it was still here. But, the scissor-tail’s migration is a fraction of the vultures’ so maybe they’re not in a hurry to leave.

I looked in the cabinet today and was surprised how many beans I have there. It’s almost as if I’ve unconsciously stored up for winter. Perhaps it’s possible after all for humans to follow the subtle promptings of the seasons, if we allow ourselves, and if we immerse ourselves in the sensory ocean of the natural world.

Why not dive in and see how it changes you?

Spotted in the Flint Hills in the Last Week

This year for the fourth time I spent mid-May commuting to White Memorial Camp, north of Council Grove. It’s a bit of a drive, but mostly on National Scenic Byway, KS 177. The remainder is gravel, through pastures to the end of a little peninsula surrounded by Council Grove lake. I go there for a job, which is to massage the attendees of Kelley Hunt and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s wonderful Brave Voice songwriting workshop and retreat. It’s a beautiful group whom I love to work with. The bonus is that this remote drive has incredible diversity of wildlife, particularly birds. So every year I am equally excited to do this job as to get there and back. Here’s a list of the many species I saw, most without even getting out of the car.

Butterfly milkweed, not yet blooming.
Wild blue indigo, in luscious bloom.
Cobaea beardtongue, plentiful this year.
Daisy fleabane, blooming rather early, I believe.
Lots of Arkansas rose.

several scissor-tailed flycatchers
one turkey
dozens of turkey vultures
one nighthawk
lots of killdeer
brown-headed cowbirds
meadowlarks
Franklins gulls
barn swallows
kingbirds
one indigo bunting, which thoughtfully landed in a tree in easy view. I actually stopped the car for this one.
redwing blackbirds
upland sandpipers

rat snake
yellow-bellied racer
five-lined skink
The last two reptiles were here at the motel, but I love them so much I didn’t want to leave them off the list.

Since I was a child I’ve wanted to see a zebra swallowtail butterfly, but never did, until this week.

And mustn’t forget — this one doesn’t belong on my list because I didn’t personally see it, but several of the musicians saw a mountain lion, and got pictures. Don’t tell Fish and Wildlife, they still don’t want to admit that mountain lions are in Kansas.

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