Saturday, January 30, 2016

Winter Day Doings

Saturday, January 30, 2016
Today was unseasonably warm, even in this warmest of winters on record. Temps were projected to hit the high-60s in mid-afternoon, so I planned accordingly and started in on the mountain of laundry from my recent travels. What a gift to be able to hang out laundry on a sunny winter day.

Between the breeze, low humidity, and the warm sun, my three loads of clean clothes were dry in less than an hour. Now if they'd just learn to put themselves away...

The warm, sunny morning reminded me of spring, which reminded me of baseball, which reminded me of an annual pilgrimage I make each spring with my daughter Phoebe. We go to Florida to see our beloved Pittsburgh Pirates in spring training in Bradenton, Florida. Phoebe goes to college in Maine, so, when her spring break coincides with spring training games in Florida, we pinkie-swear to each other that we're going. This year we're taking Phoebe's "little" brother Liam (who at six feet tall now towers over Phoebe). Liam wants to go to spring training because Phoebe will be there. Not so much because he's a baseball fanatic on the level of his sister and his dad. That's OK. We'll have a good time. I booked the tickets, which for me is a true sign of spring.

We've been going to Pirates' games for years now.

After noon passed and the day just kept getting more and more beautiful I could not stay inside any longer, so I suited up for a hike.

We had two feet of dry, powdery snow fall a bit more than a week ago. Lots of it still lingers in the places where the direct sun doesn't fall. The snow outside the back door was strewn with birch seeds, broken apart from their tiny-cigar-shaped clusters by wind and birds I assume. It looked like an overzealous waiter had run around the yard with a pepper grinder.

Pepper snow.

Out the orchard path I went, headed straight West as if commanded, though I am no longer a "young man." Out in the orchard are some places I like to visit. The skeletal remnants of our last sweat lodge, made from saplings and grapevines and the attendant fire circle are there. Some squat poplar logs, used for seats (too punky to burn) and a pile of future bonfire wood are there, too.

Off to the left is the spot where my dad is buried. He died five years ago this week and I still miss him so much. I like to come out here and sit on the bench near his grave and talk to him about what's going on. These places are touchstones on my renewal loop which I try to walk as often as possible.

Squatch prints.

The sudden warm temps and re-freezing night had done amazing things to the tracks of deer—rendering them the size of sasquatch prints. Or, as the ultra-hick reality show guys from West Virginia, would say, "Them's the prints of the Ahhiya grassman!"

It's hard not to yank out the phone to take a photo every 30 seconds/30 steps when the landscape is half covered in snow and drowning in sunlight. I must remind myself to be in the moment and let the phone stay put in the pocket. 

The nuthatches and titmice were tuning up. I could see pair of them flitting through the sumac and honeysuckle tangles. Pileated woodpecker drum circles let their presence be known from deep in the woods. It's the leading edge of spring. Won't be long now before the nesting season begins. I scanned the patches of grass for woodcock chalk—droppings left behind by a foraging timberdoodle.

Might be last year's nest, but all the boxes showed signs of use by roosting birds.

The sky sang a spring song too, with high wispy clouds. I could tell, however, that without a gray blanket of clouds above, tonight would be quite chilly.

I've got a busy slate of travel coming up over the next few months, so it was sweet to reconnect with these acres we call home by walking along its slushy, slippery paths. o smell of spring on the air quite yet. When that happens, I know that we've chased winter for good for another loop around the sun.

What a great day. If all winter days were like this, I bet fewer people would get the winter blues and blahs.

Thanks for coming along. Let's do it again.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Podcast Episode: "Backyard Rarity, Part One"

Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Western flycatcher. ©Bill Thompson III
On Sunday, December 13, just after noon, I was dumping a bucket of vegetable scraps on our compost pile next to our garage when a small, weird-looking, greenish bird flitted up from the brushy thicket in front of me. It was a small flycatcher, like an Acadian flycatcher, but the field marks didn't fit. In fact, the more I looked at this bird, just 10 feet away (naked eye—I wasn't wearing binocs) the more I realized that it was something completely different.

It had a rounded crest at the back of the head. It had an oblong-shaped, bright white eyering. It had buffy wingbars. It's breast and belly were a yellowish-green. It was flicking its wings and jetting its tail. Its large-looking bill had a pale lower mandible. And it was in southeastern Ohio in mid-December, when most North American flycatchers should be somewhere in the tropics.

The bird moved and I bolted inside for binocs, a camera, and Julie. We raced back out and, after a few panicked moments, re-found the bird. After some wild conjectures, we finally came to the conclusion that this was an Empidonax flycatcher. After we eliminated all the eastern Empids, we moved on to the western ones and BAM! Arrived at the western flycatcher complex, a single species that was split in 1989 into two distinct species: Pacific-slope flycatcher and cordilleran flycatcher.

And that's when the fun really began. The latest episode of my This Birding Life podcast, "Backyard Rarity, Part One," covers the experience of finding, identifying, and sharing of this rare bird. Give it a listen for free at Podcast Central, or on the iTunes podcast channel.

 This Birding Life is hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest and sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics and Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Love of Fire

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Though I always enjoy an outside bonfire, there's something primal in the desire for making fire when the weather turns colder. Perhaps it's a way, rooted in our cave-dwelling origins, to lengthen the dwindling winter days. Some people rely on full-spectrum light bulbs to chase away the winter blues. I use fire.

Our house has a grand fireplace in the living room. But it was designed for looks, not function. The smoke box is too small to draw effectively, and so trying to burn wood in the fireplace merely results in turning our house into a giant wood smoker. We have gas logs now in the fireplace, but because our gas comes right out the ground from our well, it burns dirty and leaves a lot of black carbon on all surrounding surfaces. So it is used sparingly. Often only when our power is out and the furnace blowers won't work. Or on special occasions, like Christmas.
Gas logs in our fireplace.

So I make fire outside every chance I get this time of year. If I can combine cooking with the fire, even better. But I must have fire.

Lucky for me I live on 80 acres of wooded paradise in southeastern Ohio, so I've got plenty of free, already downed wood, and lots of room to make a fire circle. For fires close to home, I use an old tractor tire rim as an enclosure. Farther afield I use whatever rocks are available to create a safe circle for burning. I never burn in the woods when it's been dry. Wherever I burn, I clear away all natural material that could potentially become fuel. Safety first, always.

Finding myself home both days of this past weekend, I knew I'd have to answer my caveman urge and make fire. Son Liam is now my caveman understudy and he helped me get the fires going on both nights. Sunday night's fire was especially enjoyable because the sunset was raging across the western horizon.

Our house with a burning winter sunset.

Here's what it looked like.

I keep an old woodpile stocked nearby for just such occasions. Most of my fires are modest in size, so one or two logs tossed on top usually give us plenty of flame and heat—and just enough burn time to enjoy.

Liam and I have a long-standing tradition of cooking hotdogs over a bonfire. We do this at every opportunity. In fact, when Liam was just an handful of years old, we formed a secret society, The Hotdog Brothers. And we held (and still do) our secret, guys-only meetings when our womenfolk were away. We're not beyond letting Phoebe or Julie sample a hotdog from our culinary gatherings. But they must not be allowed to sing our sacred song.

An early meeting of The Hotdog Brothers.

We heed the siren call of our tradition and of our Hotdog brethren gone before us, all the way back to the cave. We build fire. We gaze into the dancing flames and breathe the cold night air, tinged with wood smoke. We hear the coyotes and barred owls over the fire's crackling whispers. And all is good and right with the world.

That's Liam on the right in this photo by Julie. He's nearly as tall as I am now. But he still loves fire.