Bird Brains

A few years ago, our friend Pat gave us a funky little birdhouse resembling a camera.

We never expected anyone to occupy it, but to our delight, recently a pair of Bewick’s Wrens took up residence.

They built a nest, and a week ago, the eggs hatched. Now, when a parent approaches to feed the nestlings, they all peep, “Me, me, me!”

Both parents share childcare, feeding the babies…

…and changing diapers too. The nestlings poop into mucus bags resembling pea-sized white balloons, nature’s zip-locs, which contain the mess until their parents remove it. Eco-friendly disposable diapers!

 

Day after day, from sunrise until sunset, rain or shine, the ‘wrents’ forage for insects for their young. Every five minutes or so, they bring food and remove the fecal sack on the way out, keeping the nest clean. They’re averaging over 300 deliveries per day!

How can such fragile creatures, weighing no more than 3 or 4 ounces, sustain such a grueling pace?  Not once, but twice each season, Bewick’s Wrens produce a brood.

Once common back east, they’ve all but disappeared east of the Mississippi. Pesticides took their toll, and loss of habitat. Conditions changed, other populations moved in. House Wrens expanded their territory into that of the Bewick’s Wren, and aggressively destroyed the eggs and nests of Bewick’s Wrens.

Illustration of Bewick’s Wren by J. G. Keulemans, 1881.

A subspecies, Guadalupe Bewick’s Wren, native to Guadalupe Island, Mexico, went extinct in the 1890s, due to habitat destruction.  The San Clemente Bewick’s Wren died out in the 1940’s, due to habitat destruction by feral goats, and cats.  In California, development of canyons has caused a sharp decline in the Bewick’s Wren population.

When I saw omnivorous crows and Stellar’s Jays swoop in, I moved my office to the dining room table, where I could keep watch and shoo them away.  So much can happen, and so quickly. Babies can fall from the nest. A brood can fall prey to a cat, a snake, an invasion of wasps.  A parent can be snatched by a Cooper’s Hawk.

Last week, one of my own little Bewick’s Wrens was caught by my neighbor’s cat, who took it home via the cat door.  My neighbor saved and released the wren before it was harmed. I was relieved that it returned to its nest. If birds feel threatened by lurking predators, including humans, they sometimes abandon the nest, leaving the babies to starve.  It seems harsh, but instinct drives them to protect themselves, so they might live to breed again, and perpetuate the species.

The balance between survival and destruction is precarious.  Driven by their survival instinct, they make tough choices, and work themselves half to death to ensure the survival of the species, if not their brood.  Ironically, we call them birdbrains, and claim to be the intelligent ones.

We’ve overpopulated this planet, yet instead of conserving our resources, we’re tearing through them like there’s no tomorrow.  Instead of protecting the future of our young, we tilt at windmills; but some countries are embracing them.  Iceland gets 100% of its energy from renewable resources.  99% of Costa Rica’s, and 98% of Norway’s energy is clean and renewable. Those socially responsible governments have taken the lead, right across the high ground, and shown the whole world that it can be done.

While humanity teeters on the brink of self-destruction, and other governments take action, in the United States, our corrupt leaders ignore grave warnings of virtually every climate scientist in the world.  This administration behaves like common looters, greedily stuffing their own pockets, while the building they were hired to protect burns all around them.

In a BBC interview, scientific genius, the late Stephen Hawking, said that pollution, coupled with greed and stupidity, was the biggest threat to the human race, and that climate change would be humanity’s extinction event. “With the development of militarized technology and weapons of mass destruction…the best chance for the survival of the human race might be independent colonies in space.”

But what if, instead, we could be tireless caregivers, make those tough choices, those sacrifices, and be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of the species–all of them?  What if we could think like a bird that gets spit out by a cat and flies straight back to defend its nest?  Unlike birds, people can’t just pick up and go make a new nest; we have only this one small planet to call home.  Unlike people, even birds know better than to foul their own nest.

 

All words and images ©2019 Naomi Baltuck

 

Out in the World

 We went to Sighosora, Romania…

…and stayed in the Old Town.

In the passage to the courtyard we found a nest, with two baby birds huddled nearby.

There had been a fierce windstorm the previous night that must have blown the nest from its nook in the wall, our Romanian host told us when delivering the key to our flat.  My husband Thom replaced the nest, but when he tried to return the birds to the nest….

…he discovered two of their legs were tightly bound together by a long blond hair–nesting material gone terribly wrong.

We had a knife, our tiny blunt-nosed travel scissors, and a larger pair of scissors scrounged from the kitchen.  Thom and our son Eli hoped to separate the birds with a quick snip.  But the hair had been there for a long time, the legs were swollen around it, and every effort set the birds fluttering in a panic, which we feared would cause further damage.  Our host wished us good luck, and left for work.

We felt helpless.  We were there for only one night.  To whom could we hand off these birds? We could return them to the nest and let nature take its course–a slow and painful death by starvation and infection.  Or should we put them out of their misery?  The only other possible solution was harsh.  If we did nothing, both birds would surely die.  By amputating one leg, one bird would likely die, but the other might have a fighting chance.  One delicate leg was unresponsive to the touch, probably already broken.  Eli braced himself and severed the mangled leg, cutting through the hair.  Immediately both birds were free and fluttered off.

The one-legged bird landed on the ground nearby.

The stronger one fluttered all the way to the far side of the courtyard.

We heard a cackling overhead.  Even without the family resemblance, we recognized an anxious mother, calling to her babies from the rooftop.  We felt a glimmer of hope–their mother might yet take them back under her wing!

But our presence made her nervous, so we watched from inside, then left to explore the area.

By suppertime, the stronger bird had flown up to a perch in the courtyard…

…high enough to be safe from hungry cats.

The other remained quietly earthbound.  We wondered what the morning would bring.

The next day, the stronger of the two was gone, as was its mother.  The injured bird remained, probably abandoned as a lost cause by its family.  We checked back only moments later to discover the one-legged bird was now gone without a trace.  In a laundry room off the courtyard were two domestic workers.  Could they have removed the bird like a piece of litter?  Or perhaps a crow had carried it off to feed to its babies.

Out in the world, we often catch glimpses of a story, or a life.  Sometimes they are as sweet as a single drop of honey.

Others are stories of sorrow and want.

Too many will be lived out in the shadows in quiet desperation.

As with the baby birds, sometimes we are helpless to help, sometimes we can offer only a bandaid, and most times we will never know how the story ends.

What makes the difference between a happy ending and a tragedy?  Survival of the fittest?  An accident of birth?  An ill wind, perhaps.  But sometimes it falls into our power to make a difference.  When that happens, even for one tiny being, it can make all the difference in the world.

All images and words copyright 2015 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Wind.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Inspiration.

Virgins No More

In 1493 Christopher Columbus visited the chain of islands that he named after St. Ursula and the 11, 000 virgins.

My sister Lee, my friend Kathy, and I were all Virgin Island virgins, having never before set foot upon them.

Until last week.

We flew into St Thomas and took the car ferry over to the island of St. John.

St. John is a US territory, with nearly two thirds of its land set aside as a National Park and wildlife sanctuary.  It was a short drive from our hotel on Cruz Bay…

…to the pristine beaches of the U.S. National Park.

Big blue land crabs made their homes in the muddy floors of the mangrove swamps…

…while tiny red crabs in the tens of thousands sounded like rain on the forest floor when they skittered into hiding.

Pelicans could be seen fishing on every beach.

Iguanas frequented both beaches…

…and grassy areas.

And so many birds!  Dark hummingbirds, yellow songbirds, cranes, egrets, and many others.

Everywhere we saw ruins of a troubled past, where slaves once worked the sugar plantations dotting the island.

Who sat on the tiled veranda of this mansion sipping coffee and enjoying the ocean breeze within sight of the mill, where slaves were forced to stir boiling kettles of sugar syrup in unbearable heat?

At the Annaberg Planation, this windmill processed sugar cane.

It is a relic of a cruel past.

By 1733 slaves outnumbered Europeans 5 to 1.  Harsh laws condoning torture, amputation, and murder were enacted to keep slaves under control, but instead prompted a bloody rebellion.  Slaves rose up and held the island for six months before the French Militia helped the Danes crush the revolt.  Rather than return to slavery, hundreds threw themselves off rugged cliffs into the sea below.

In 1848, when again faced with uprisings, the governor of St. John declared an end to slavery on St. John.

This statue of a slave, sugar cane knife in hand, blowing a conch shell to sound the call to freedom, celebrates hard-won liberty.

Today 78 percent of the population is descended from African slaves.

The Virgin Islands are brimming with color, whether it be in nature’s sphere…

…or made so by human hand.

 It is a place filled with joyful music…

…and lively spirits.

They know how to live down there.

They work hard.

And play hard.

 And take nothing for granted.

All words and images 2014 Naomi Baltuck, unless otherwise stated.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Minimalist.

Birds of a Feather

Birds of Peru—so many species, so many eco systems.  This little tyke was swimming with its mom on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake.

The Uros people construct and live on Floating Islands of the lake, and might’ve taken their cue from the birds.

The Uros domesticated the Ibis for its eggs–they live side by side.

In the Amazon jungle, villagers living along tributaries of the Amazon River raise chickens for eggs and meat.

Other birds, like Manolo the Mealy Parrot, are kept for pets….

…and watchbirds. (Don’t even think of touching his bread.)

They wander in and out of the houses like family.

We also saw a huge variety of birds living wild in the jungle, such as the Tiger Heron.

I believe this is a Social Flycatcher.  Maybe it just eats flies at parties?

Some birds I caught only a glimpse of on the fly.

Others looked familiar, like this Pygmy Owl.

Or this Kingfisher.  The Kingfishers fly so fast I could only get an image at night, when it was roosting.

Or this White-winged Swallow, which was different but similar to our swallows.

Most of the birds’ names I never knew or have forgotten, but they were fascinating.

This one looked like a lone hunter…

…while the vultures tended to hang in a crowd.

If we have birds in the U.S. that come out at night and sit on the beach looking like, well, a beach, I haven’t heard of them.

A Black-fronted Nunbird?  The coloring is right, but the beak is smaller and it’s so fluffy.  Maybe a chick?  Oh, well, a bird by any name would sing as sweet.

The birds in the Peruvian Andes were different than the ones we saw in the Amazon.

I saw this feathered friend at Machu Picchu.

This one too.  It’s not so different from the hummingbirds that sip nectar from the hanging baskets on my deck.  

But some are very different from the birds we have at home–like the Toucan who was natural history before I could get to my camera, or the Night Heron whose portrait came out fuzzy.  Most unique was the Huatzin, a pheasant-sized bird resembling something out of  prehistoric times.  Its face is blue and unfeathered, its crest large and spiky.  It makes its home in the swamps and marshy lakes in the jungle.

A crop is an enlarged pouch of the esophagus, where food is stored before it is digested.  Some birds have them, and some dinosaurs did too.  But the Huaztin’s crop is so large it makes flying difficult.  It uses its crop to digest food using bacterial fermentation, which makes them smell very bad.  The Amazon people call them ‘Stinkbirds’ and won’t eat them.   They croak, hiss, groan, and grunt.  Huatzin young have claws on their wings.  When pursued by hawks or arboreal predators, they drop from their nest into the water and claw their way back up the tree when it is safe.  Strange and fascinating!

I don’t see anything common about a bird, even the ones found in my own backyard.  Descended from dinosaurs, these feathered creatures are miraculous to me–so varied, so delicate, so powerful, most possessed of the gift of song and the superpower of flight.  All I need is a pair of binoculars and a camera, and I am off on a flight of fancy.


All images and words copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck
Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Birds.

Jungle Law

Thank goodness for window screens!  But as demonstrated in my last post on the Amazon, screens don’t always keep the wildlife out.

For instance, we shared The Hammock Room at the Research Center with this tarantula.  He wasn’t as interested in us as we were in him.

We named him Tomacito, or “Little Tommy.”  Tomacito served as a reminder to shake out our shoes each morning before getting dressed. Insects and critters found their way into our little sanctuary, but it was the ones I couldn’t see that bugged me.

That first morning we ventured into the jungle with Orlando, our amazing guide.  In spite of the heat and 90+ percent humidity, we covered as much skin as possible with clothing, and sprayed whatever we couldn’t cover with repellant.  Nighttime mosquitoes carry malaria, daytime ones dengue fever, and I can’t remember which carry yellow fever, but I didn’t want to be breakfast for any of them.

Below are a few of my own unofficial rules of the jungle for the timid traveler.

Rule of the Jungle #1– bring mosquito repellent!

Fallen trees and leaves, mud, and overnight storms in the tropical rainforest made hiking challenging.

We wore rubber boots to keep our feet dry.  Bea stepped in a puddle deeper than anticipated, and water poured into her boot.

Rule of the Jungle # 2–Watch your step!

Orlando uprooted several small trees, and cut the trunks off with his machete to make tea from the bark to relieve his mother’s arthritis.  He replanted the roots in the fertile soil, so the tree would survive.  Maybe the tea really was for his mom, but I believe it was also his tactful way of providing the Gringos with walking sticks to help balance on slippery walkways.

Rule of the Jungle #3–Take the hand extended to you, and be grateful for kindness in any form or guise.

So many trees and leaves were poisonous, covered with harmful insects, or had razor-sharp edges.  Another guest at the Research Center slipped and braced herself on a porcupine tree.  It left dozens of venomous barbs in in her hand, which swelled up painfully.  There was no doctor, but her guide Fernando cut the barbs out of her hand with pins and a knife, and she took a course of anti-biotics.

Rule of the Jungle #4–Don’t touch ANYTHING!

Rule of the Jungle # 5–There are exceptions to any rule.

Orlando saw an Olive Whip Snake, and quickly caught it with his bare hands.

He showed both kids how to handle a snake without getting bitten…

Orlando’s grandfather was a shaman.  He said, “My grandfather said if you can get a snake to wrap around you, it will become gentle and give you its energy.”  As soon as it wrapped around him, the snake calmed down, and then Orlando released it into a tree.

Rule of the Jungle #6–Be as open to new experiences as you can without endangering yourself or others.

Rule of the Jungle #7–Bring your camera!!

We caught many tantalizing glimpses of wildlife, but they were often quicker than I was  when it came to focusing the camera.

However, some critters obligingly held still for me.

 

Occasionally I would be rewarded with a shot like this.

Or this….

Or this…

 

Or this…

 Or this…

Rule of the Jungle #8–Only you can know what it requires for you to glean the most meaning and satisfaction out of your jungle experience or your life.  Do no harm, but make up your own damn rules, and break them whenever necessary.

All images and words copyright 2013 NaomiBaltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Trees.

 Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Theme: Focus.

Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire: Escape From Mt St. Helens

On the 33rd anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St.Helens, I’d like to share this story with you.  I’ve marked and used a few borrowed images, so that you can better understand the events of that day.  

In 1980, my sister Constance and I took a birdwatching class. At least I tried watching them.  Before I could focus my binoculars, the birds were usually natural history.  Our last trip, to Eastern Washington, was to depart on Friday, May 16th.

“Let’s skip it,” said Con. “Stay home and I’ll buy you dinner.”

As our classmates loaded gear into four cars, I felt suddenly shy.  But surely I could survive a quiet weekend of birdwatching with a pleasant group of strangers, even if my sister wasn’t there to hold my hand.  “I’m going,” I said.   I jumped into the first car with room, and waved to Con as we drove off.  I was riding with Bob.  His other passenger, Betsy, was quick to smile and kept up a lively conversation.

But I missed Con that night, and lay awake in my sleeping bag listening to a lone coyote howling in the distance.  The next day I stayed only slightly more focused than my binoculars…until we found a Forest Service birdhouse, and peeked inside at a nest of cheeping baby birds.  Featherless birds aren’t easy to identify, but our leader, Peter, said they were bluebirds, and I believed him.  Some people think they know everything; Peter really did.  But you’d never know it unless you’d observed him carefully, as I had.

Saturday afternoon we hiked into a canyon and made camp.  After the others retired, Betsy and I sat by the fire singing and talking.  We rolled out our bags on the same patch of ground.  As I drifted off, I thought, “I made a friend.  I learned my lesson.  Now…I want to go home.”

When I awoke, the sun was shining, the bees were humming, and the birds–I know not which–were singing.  It was eight-ish, and camp was deserted.  “They left at six-thirty,” said Betsy, yawning. “I couldn’t make myself get up.”

It could’ve been a sense of foreboding that made us yearn for home, but I suspect it was caffeine withdrawal.  “Pray for rain,” I suggested.

As if on cue, we heard the loud crack of distant thunder.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  “Probably a sonic boom,” I said.  We went on to weigh the virtues of cinnamon rolls at the Phinney Ridge Cafe against all-you-can-eat hash browns at Beth’s Greasy Spoon.  But the sky was darkening.  The hum of insects and the twittering of birds trailed off.  The woods were eerily silent.

“You know, I think it really is going to rain,” I said.

The others, having reached the same conclusion, bustled back into camp.  Within ten minutes we’d packed up, donned rain gear, and were following Peter single file out of the canyon. The sky to the west had turned an ominous yellow-green, reminiscent of tornado weather back home.  But this storm wasn’t following the rules.  I could hear rain falling on my poncho, yet I wasn’t getting wet.  The sky rapidly changed to an ugly green-gray.  My eyes were stinging.  I looked more closely at the surface of my poncho.

“It’s dirt!  Peter, there’s dirt falling from the sky!   Oh, my God!  They’ve bombed Seattle!”

Peter whirled about and gripped my shoulders. “No!” he cried. “She did it!  She blew!  Mt. St. Helens blew!”


(USGS Photo)

Nothing could have been further from my mind than volcanic eruptions.  We joked about our class going out with a bang, while Peter studied his map and estimated we were between fifty-five and sixty-five miles from Mt. St. Helens, as the crow flies. The acrid darkness thickened.  We were no longer amused.  Ash was in our eyes and hair, and it was difficult not to breathe it into our lungs.  In Seattle, we’d chuckled at the “In Case of Volcanic Eruption” brochures; now we desperately tried to recall their advice.  This was my first volcano; I wanted to live to tell the tale.

“Use your canteen water to soak your bandanas, and cover your faces to filter the ash,” said Peter.  “Less than a mile to go, but we’ve got to keep moving.  Hold hands or hang onto a belt, so we don’t lose anyone.”

I gave Betsy my brimmed hat, because her eyes burned, with gritty ash particles grating between her eyeballs and her contacts.  We stumbled after Peter, unable to see our hands before our faces, but somehow he got us over the last barbed-wire fence to the trailhead.  There we encountered Bob’s personal tragedy–six inches of ash piled on the cars, including his brand-new Toyota.  He was frantic about what the ash would do to his engine and the paint job.  Peter reminded him that our first concern was to get out alive.

We followed Peter’s Volvo into Yakima, although we couldn’t see past the hood, even with headlights on.  Peter’s taillights were barely visible at a standstill; when we started moving, ash flew like talcum powder and windshield wipers just stirred up the mess.  The interior of Bob’s car was soon covered with a fine layer of pungent ash that over-powered the smell of new car, and defied closed windows, doors, and air vents.  There were close brushes with the ditch at the side of the road, and once with Peter’s bumper.  At last we came to the outskirts of Yakima.

(AP Photo)

The ash-laden streets were deserted, but The Buckboard Tavern had opened its doors to stranded motorists. Refugees gathered under a television mounted over the pool table.  Mt. St. Helens rated minute-by-minute coverage on the ever-rising statistics, flood damage, missing campers and scientists.  Stuck in our own little ash cloud, we hadn’t realized how fortunate we were.  News flash!  All roads in and out of Yakima were closed.

Glumly we stared out the windows.  It was nearly noon, but by the light of the streetlamps, it could’ve been a midnight snow scene. Another wave hit, and the air grew thicker.  Instead of coffee, they started serving beer.  Now and then the swinging doors would bang; all eyes would turn to the newcomer.  Once a cowboy entered, brushing ash off his coat. “I got a hundred head of cattle out there,” he told anyone who would listen, “and half a dozen newborn calves…”

I thought of the baby bluebirds.  Had they smothered in ash or survived the blast only to die of starvation?   What would they eat?  Who would feed them?

All the laws of nature, as we understood them, were suspended.  But the Real World intruded into our Twilight Zone.  Steve had to give a talk at the U, Russ had a job interview, Betsy said she’d used up all her volcano leave.  And, of course, we had to get Bob’s car to a doctor.  Bob threatened to make a dash for it, and the other drivers were inclined to join him.  Peter agreed to lead the way, if they promised to let him choose the moment.  It was several more hours before the ashfall let up a bit.  We ran for the cars to go home to whatever reality awaited us in Seattle on Monday morning.  As our caravan traveled west, the sky gradually changed from pitch black to gray to an unnatural white.  It was a weird moonscape, devoid of life and color.  When we got to the roadblock, the police waved us through.  We stopped at Snoqualmie Pass to pose for a photo with buckets and bags of ash collected from pockets, pants cuffs, and car hoods.

It was the weekend of the University Street Fair.  On the way home, we thought of the fortune to be made, if we could bottle and sell the ash we’d brought home, fresh out of the oven.  I even designed a tee shirt for a rather small target audience–birdwatchers caught in the ashfall.

Those entrepreneurial thoughts were forgotten when we topped the pass and saw the first rays of sunlight filtering through ash-dark clouds.  It was nearing sunset, but to me it was the second sunrise on a long and very strange day, such a beautiful sight, I wanted to cry.

Bob dropped me at Con’s, amidst heavy foot and car traffic in the U District. The smell of food and the sound of music filled the air.  Fairgoers in sundresses, cheeks burnt rosy by the sun, still meandered from booth to booth.  “Go home!” I wanted to shout.  “Go turn on your radio. The real world is black and acrid and people are huddled in the dark and dying on the mountainside.”

(USGS Photo)

My sister hadn’t heard the news, but there was still a hot shower, a borrowed bathrobe, and a candlelight dinner waiting for me.

I’m so glad I didn’t let insecurity prevent me from experiencing this life-changing event.  The fortunes made on T-shirts and bumpers stickers were made by others. If you could take everything I learned about birds and put it into the brain of a blue jay, it would have flown backwards.  Regrets?  Only one.  Bob broke my heart when he refused to pull over, so I could take our picture next to the “Use Your Ash Tray” road sign.

But here is what I carried away from it.  A tiny bottle of ash collected from my pants cuffs, that I still hang on my Christmas tree each year.

The realization that Mother Nature doesn’t always play by the rules, at least not our rules.  An appreciation for fine leadership–thank you, Peter, wherever you are.  Not a day goes by that I don’t thank the sun for rising and the birds for singing.  I’m grateful for the good fortune that kept me from becoming a statistic that day.  But I’m still haunted by that nest of baby bluebirds, more non-statistics, and it makes me wonder about the countless stories in this world that will never be told.

Copyright Naomi Baltuck, except where noted.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Escape.

Click here for more interpretations of Ailsa’s Travel Photography Theme: Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire.

Colores Locales

Wherever we go, there is color all around.  Sometimes the colors are muted, but still, they are painting our world beautiful.

In Mexico, color is a feast for the eyes, a celebration…absorbed through all the senses.

From the jungle parfait…

..to the pink cotton candy clouds.

We could hear colors in the music.

We saw it in the art…

…and in their traditional dress.

We tasted it in the wine…

…and felt it in the colorful characters we were fortunate enough to meet.

…including some we will never forget.


I’ve never seen water so intensely blue.

Or skin so intensely red…

…flora so purple…

…leaves so green…

Colors were hiding everywhere, just below the surface…

…ready to burst out and surprise us.

And everywhere we turned, there were rainbows.

We love Seattle, our silver city by the sea, but long after we had flown back north….

…Long after our footprints had been washed away in the sand…

…to tide us over on those cold and gray Seattle days, we carried a bit of the Mexican rainbow home in our hearts.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Colorful.

Click here for more interpretations of   The Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: Color.

All words and images c2013NaomiBaltuck

Through the Looking Glass

January has been a busy month for storytelling– dusting off old stories, rehearsing new ones, attending to related business correspondence.   Last week I was pressed for time, polishing a story for its public debut, when I heard a little thump.  I peeked through the French doors onto the deck.  A tiny olive gray creature, scarcely bigger than a hummingbird, lay stunned and shivering where it fell after flying into the glass.

It was a male Golden-crowned Kinglet, with a bright orange and gold crown.  They favor coniferous forest; this one was likely nesting in the grove of cedar, hemlock, and Douglas Fir in our backyard.  Kinglets are monogamous, and raise two broods each season.  As soon as the first nestlings can fly, Mama Bird lays another batch.  While she protects the new eggs, Papa feeds up to ten fledglings until they can take care of themselves.  Good Daddy!

Perhaps the little bird was an adolescent, driving too fast on his first solo flight, or maybe he was an exhausted frantic father trying to feed his hungry brood.  Birds are delicate, and often die of stress.  Not wanting to frighten it, I didn’t open the door, but I kept watch through the glass for neighborhood cats and hungry crows. What would happen, I wondered, to the fledglings if their Papa died?  How might his mate manage as a single parent when the next brood hatched?

As The Bard said, all the world is a stage.  Everywhere tiny dramas–life and death performances–are played out.  Most will never be witnessed or even imagined, completely lost in the big picture.  Or worse, they will be observed by cold and uncaring eyes.

On my deck, in city streets, in our wealthy country, and all over the world, baby birds are not the only creatures who slip between the cracks, with no voice, and no champion to speak out for them or watch over them.

I turned for an instant to check the clock.  When I looked again, the little bird was gone.  My eyes stung with tears of relief.  Someone looking through the glass onto my deck would see only a few bird droppings, but to me it’s a reminder that life can get messy.  Not everyone has a safety net.  Not every story has a happy ending.  Sometimes we can only  look helplessly through the glass at the world’s suffering.  But sometimes it falls within our power to change the world, one tiny story at a time.

Something to think about.

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Travel Theme: Glass

All words and images c2013 Naomi Baltuck

Stories Written in Stone

No, friends, I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth.  I was dropping off my daughter Bea, not quite at the ends of the earth, but at Stanford University, 858 miles from home. We left early, so Eli could check out the graduate program at the International Institute in Monterey.  We decided to make a proper road trip out of it.  Thom couldn’t get away, so Bea, Eli, and I kissed him goodbye, and hit the road.

Our first stop was Portland, where we dined with Cousin Bryan, talented photographer, and Friend Barb.

Then we parked on the lawn of Chapman School amidst a happily buzzing crowd.  We were waiting for sunset, to witness a miracle of nature.

Every September, on their fall migration to Central America, as many as 35,000 Vaux’s Swifts stop to roost in the school’s industrial-sized chimney.  It was breathtaking to watch them gather, swooping and dipping in graceful swirling patterns of feather, muscle, and tiny bird bone.

As the sun set, the first little swift disappeared into the chimney, followed by thousands of its traveling companions.  Portland was a rest area for them, as it was for us, on one heck of a road trip.  I had road signs to follow, but had to wonder how the swifts managed to find their way back again and again to the exact same roost.

Bryan suggested another stop–for dessert at funky Rimsky-Korsakoffee House.  Raspberry Fool, pumpkin sundae, frozen lemon mousse came and went, while we enjoyed live classical piano music.  Our table top rotated so slowly we didn’t even realize it until we found ourselves dipping our spoons into our neighbor’s dessert.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but if you find yourself at Rimsky-KorsaKoffee House, be sure to visit the restroom.

The next day we burned rubber–450 miles worth–heading south on I-5 through Oregon, marvelous Oregon!

Where else could you pull up to a gas station, and not only have your tank filled , but get this kind of service?

Not to mention the natural wonders….

We passed through O’Brien, Oregon….

…navigating rush hour traffic without too much difficulty.

It was a long day, but it flew by–not just because we had Good ‘n’ Plenties in the car, but because Bea read aloud to us–first Rex Benedict’s YA Western, Good Luck Arizona Man, and then Last Stand at Goodbye Gulch.  Bea brought the quirky characters to life with her many voices.

We also sang along with the Kingston Trio, Michael Martin Murphy‘s cowboys songs, and Paul Clayton’s Whaling Songs of the 19th Century.   Our favorites are the stories set to music.  Like John Denver’s On the Road, or Liam Clancy’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

We cut over to the coast from Grant’s Pass, and found ourselves in California.

We marveled at the giant redwoods…

…and golden hills.

We braked frequently for wildlife…

…and, yes, for ice cold Diet Coke.

Like the Vaux’s Swifts, we found a very nice place to roost that night.  Ferndale is a Victorian village, with over a hundred Victorian buildings still in use.  We splurged and stayed at The Victorian Inn, which is old enough to have suffered damage during the 1906 earthquake.

We missed the sunset in Ferndale, but went for a night walk on the deserted streets.


Not even a restaurant was open, so we had a picnic up in our room…

…solved all the world’s problems over a hot cup of tea in the Victorian’s cozy guest lounge…

…and went to sleep in beautiful brass beds.

The next day, we took a walk to see the town by daylight.

https://i0.wp.com/i1176.photobucket.com/albums/x334/nbaltuck/IMG_3703-1.jpg

So many beautiful old houses!

Then we discovered Ferndale’s terraced cemetery.  I urged the kids to keep time in mind, as we still had 400 miles to drive that day.

We found so many stories there, some shared with the world, others buried so deep we could only wonder at them.

We almost missed the little marker on a weathered  tombstone identifying its occupant as one of the handcart pioneers, who had spent months walking 1300 miles across the Great Plains on foot, dragging no more than 17 pounds of personal possessions, food staples, and a few tools.

The trip of a lifetime.

Some people showed a sense of humor about a very serious subject, or at least their survivors did.

I don’t believe this was irreverence; rather a private joke shared from one world to the next.  There was also a well-worn bench for them to spend time together.  So far away, and yet still so close.

Most were simple heartfelt expressions that summed up a life in a few words.

Sometimes all it took was one word.

While reading stories of flesh and blood written in stone, I came upon a headstone belonging to a young man, who died in 1880 at the age of 23.  His bones are dust by now, as are those of the parents who grieved for him, but their words still ring true.

“A light is from our household gone, a voice we loved is still.  A place is vacant at our hearth, which never can be filled.”

I’m glad the kids were off exploring and the cemetery was deserted, because I started to bawl.  My heart must’ve been feeling what my mind kept trying to forget–that my baby bird was flying from the nest, and nothing would ever be the same.  It only took a tissue and a minute or two to pull myself together.  Truly, I couldn’t have been in a better place for putting this matter into perspective.

We raise our children to be strong and independent.  We do whatever we can to help our little birds learn to fly.  When they do, we rejoice.  It means we’ve done our job, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.  It was a moment that put my whole life into perspective.  Instead of fretting about getting to Monterey before dark, we walked downtown to a lovely shop in search of…

…PLUMAGE.


On life’s journey, I will be a handcart pioneer.  I choose to bring sunshine and laughter and song with me–as much as I can carry, and then some for sharing.  Along the way I will partake of pumpkin sundaes, good company, and live music.  I will fill my heart with stories that make me strong, make me wise, make me laugh.  I will savor the Good ‘n’Plenties of Life.  In every footstep of my journey, I will have faith in the power of love.  And I will always remember that tiny miracle of nature, the Vaux’s Swift, who on its own life journey, always manages to find its way home, even for a little while.

All words and images copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Stone.

Where Were You When Mt. St. Helens Erupted? I Covered My Ash…

In 1980, my sister Constance and I took a birdwatching class. At least I tried watching them.  Before I could focus my binoculars, the birds were usually natural history.  Our last trip, to Eastern Washington, was to depart on Friday, May 16th.

“Let’s skip it,” said Con. “Stay home and I’ll buy you dinner.”

I watched our classmates loading gear into four cars, and felt suddenly shy.  But surely I could survive a quiet weekend of birdwatching with a pleasant group of strangers, even if my sister wasn’t there to hold my hand.  I jumped into the first car with room, and waved to Con as we drove off.  I was riding with Bob.  His other passenger, Betsy, was quick to smile and kept up a lively conversation.

But I missed Con that night, and lay awake in my sleeping bag listening to a lone coyote howling in the distance.  The next day I stayed only slightly more focused than my binoculars…until we found a Forest Service birdhouse, and peeked inside at a nest of cheeping baby birds.  Featherless birds aren’t easy to identify, but Peter said they were bluebirds, and I believed him.  Some people think they know everything; Peter really did.  But you’d never know it unless you had observed him carefully, as I had.

Saturday afternoon we hiked into a canyon and made camp.  After the others retired, Betsy and I sat by the fire singing and talking.  We rolled out our bags on the same patch of ground.  As I drifted off, I thought, “Good.  I made a friend.  I learned my lesson.  Now…I want to go home.”

When I awoke, the sun was shining, the bees were humming, and the birds–I know not which–were singing.  It was eight-ish, and camp was deserted.  “They left at six-thirty,” said Betsy, yawning. “I couldn’t make myself get up.”

It could’ve been a sense of foreboding that made us yearn for home, but I suspect it was caffeine withdrawal.  “Pray for rain,” I suggested.

As if on cue, we heard the loud crack of distant thunder.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  More likely a sonic boom, we thought.  We went on to weigh the virtues of cinnamon rolls at the Phinney Ridge Cafe against all-you-can-eat hash browns at Beth’s Greasy Spoon.  But the sky was darkening.  The hum of insects and the twittering of birds had trailed off, and the woods were eerily silent.

“You know, I think it really is going to rain,” I said.

The others, having reached the same conclusion, bustled back into camp.  Within ten minutes we had packed up, donned rain gear, and were following Peter single file out of the canyon. The sky to the west had turned an ominous yellow-green, reminiscent of tornado weather back home.  But this storm wasn’t following the rules.  I could hear rain falling on my poncho, yet I wasn’t getting wet.  The sky rapidly changed to an ugly green-gray.  My eyes were stinging.  I looked more closely at the surface of my poncho.

“It’s dirt!  Peter, there’s dirt falling from the sky!   Oh, my God!  They’ve bombed Seattle!”

Peter whirled about and gripped my shoulders. “No!” he cried. “She did it!  She blew!  Mt. St. Helens blew!”


Nothing could have been further from my mind than volcanic eruptions.  We joked about our class going out with a bang, while Peter studied his map and estimated we were between fifty-five and sixty-five miles from Mt. St. Helens, as the crow flies. The acrid darkness thickened.  We were no longer amused.  Ash was in our eyes and hair, and it was difficult not to breathe it into our lungs.  In Seattle, we’d chuckled at the “In Case of Volcanic Eruption” brochures; now we desperately tried to recall their advice.  This was my first volcano; I wanted to live to tell the tale.

“Use your canteen water to soak your bandanas, and cover your faces to filter the ash,” said Peter.  “Less than a mile to go, but we’ve got to keep moving.  Hold hands or hang onto a belt.  We don’t want to lose anyone.”

I gave Betsy my brimmed hat, because her eyes burned, with gritty ash particles grating between her eyeballs and her contacts.  We stumbled after Peter, unable to see our hands before our faces, but somehow he got us over the last barbed-wire fence to the trailhead.  There we encountered Bob’s personal tragedy–six inches of ash piled on the cars, including his brand-new Toyota.  He was frantic about what the ash would do to his engine and the paint job.  Peter reminded him that our first concern was to get out alive.

We followed Peter’s Volvo into Yakima, although we couldn’t see past the hood, even with headlights on.  Peter’s taillights were barely visible at a standstill; when we started moving, ash flew like talcum powder and the windshield wipers just stirred up the mess.  The interior of Bob’s car was soon covered with a fine layer of pungent ash that over-powered the smell of new car, and defied closed windows, doors, and air vents.  There were close brushes with the ditch at the side of the road, and once with Peter’s bumper.  At last we came to the outskirts of Yakima.

The ash-laden streets were deserted, but The Buckboard Tavern had opened its doors to stranded motorists. Refugees gathered under a television mounted over the pool table.  Mt. St. Helens rated minute-by-minute coverage on the ever-rising statistics, flood damage, missing campers and scientists.  Stuck in our own little ash cloud, we hadn’t realized how lucky we were.  News flash!  All roads in and out of Yakima were closed.

Glumly we stared out the windows.  It was nearly noon, but by the light of the streetlamps, it could almost have been a midnight snow scene. Another wave hit, and the air grew thicker.  Instead of coffee, they started serving beer.  Now and then the swinging doors would bang; all eyes would turn to the newcomer.  Once a cowboy entered, brushing the ash off his coat and stomping it off his boots. “I got a hundred head of cattle out there,” he told anyone who would listen, “and half a dozen newborn calves…”

I thought of the baby bluebirds.  Had they smothered in ash or survived the blast only to die of starvation?   What would they eat?  Who would feed them?

All the laws of nature, as we understood them, were suspended.  But the Real World intruded into our Twilight Zone.  Steve had to give a talk at the U, Russ had a job interview, Betsy said she’d used up all her volcano leave.  And, of course, we had to get Bob’s car to a doctor.  Bob threatened to make a dash for it, and the other drivers were inclined to join him.  Peter advised against it, but agreed to lead the way, if they promised to let him choose the moment.  It was several more hours before the ashfall let up a bit.  We ran for the cars to go home to whatever reality awaited us in Seattle on Monday morning.  As our caravan traveled west, the sky gradually changed from pitch black to gray to an unnatural white.  It was a weird moonscape, devoid of life and color.  When we got to the roadblock, the police waved us on through.  Having gotten through the worst of it, we stopped at Snoqualmie Pass to pose for a photo with buckets and bags of ash collected from pockets, pants cuffs, and car hoods.

It was the weekend of the University Street Fair.  On the way home, we thought of the fortune to be made, if we could bottle and sell the ash we’d brought home, fresh out of the oven.  I even designed a tee shirt for a rather small target audience–birdwatchers caught in the ashfall.

 


Those  entrepreneurial thoughts were forgotten when we topped the pass and saw the first rays of sunlight filtering through ash-dark clouds.  It was nearing sunset, but to me it was the second sunrise on a long and very strange day, such a beautiful sight, I wanted to cry.

Bob dropped me at Con’s, amidst heavy foot and car traffic in the U District. The smell of food and the sound of music filled the air.  Fairgoers in sundresses, cheeks burnt rosy by the sun, still meandered from booth to booth.  “Go home!” I wanted to shout.  “Go turn on your radio. The real world is black and acrid and people are huddled in the dark and dying on the mountainside.”

My sister hadn’t heard the news, but there was still a hot shower, a borrowed bathrobe, and a candlelight dinner for two waiting for me.

I’m so glad I didn’t let insecurity prevent me from having this life-changing experience.  The fortunes made on T-shirts and bumpers stickers were made by others. If you could take everything I learned about birds and put it into the brain of a blue jay, it would have flown backwards. Regrets?  Only one.  Bob broke my heart when he refused to pull over, so I could take our picture next to the “Use Your Ash Tray” road sign.

But here is what I carried away from it.  A tiny bottle of ash collected from my pants cuffs, that I still hang on my Christmas tree each year.

The realization that Mother Nature doesn’t always play by the rules, at least not our rules.  An appreciation fine leadership–thank you, Peter, wherever you are.   Not a day goes by that I don’t thank the sun for rising and the birds for singing.  I am grateful for the good fortune that kept me from becoming a statistic that day.  But I’m still haunted by that nest of baby bluebirds, more non-statistics, and it makes me wonder about the countless stories in this world that will never be told.


All words copyright Naomi Baltuck