Maybe a raven

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Hawk versus corvid, over a parking lot in Portsmouth, NH.

When I left the gym and got into my car around 11:30 this morning, I noticed some avian aerial warfare. I thought it was a crow chasing a hawk of some sort, but the hawk seemed very small and the crow very large.

There were a few of the very large “crows” around. I followed one, driving across the parking lot, and parked beneath it when it landed in a tree.

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I thought, hey, maybe this big black bird is actually a raven! See it’s shaggy neck feathers?

Then it called repeatedly with a sound that reminded me a bit of knocking, and which I’ve never heard from a crow. It sounded a bit like this raven in Yosemite.

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Then it flew off.

Good-bye, maybe-a-raven.

A bird surprise

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Crackin’ cold in the salt marsh.

I took the dog for a walk from Depot Landing in Hampton Falls out along the old railroad bed into the Hampton Marsh yesterday around 2:45 p.m. I brought my camera in case I spotted any interesting birds. I only saw one bird, far across the marsh.

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It was a juvenile bald eagle. I did not expect that!

When I got back to the parking area there was a guy with binoculars. He said there are three eagles in temporary winter residence in this general area.

When I got home, I burst in the door and said to Anna (who knew I was keeping an eye out for interesting birds): “BALD. EAGLE. BABY.”

Of blizzards, banditry and storytelling

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Chickadee flying off full of seeds on this cold morning.

I went into the red maple swamp with the dog yesterday morning. Chickadees, those curious, fearless feathery sprites, were with us most of the way, landing on nearby branches, cocking their heads and dee-deeing us, “Why are you out here, woman who feeds us and big red dog? You live in the house, we live in these woods. You are so funny, we are going to watch you.”

Anna and I drove the coast a bit later in the morning and we spotted a gaggle of bird watchers at Ragged Neck in Rye, watching a snowy owl. We stopped so I could show Anna one of these distinguished winter bird visitors we are all making such a fuss about.

The owl was on a rock, with the ocean as backdrop. There were a couple of people with cameras with very big, long lenses on tripods. The lenses were painted a light patchy winter camouflage and the photographers were kitted out in matching camouflage coats and snow pants. Next to them were other people, also keeping a respectful distance, with cell phones or point-and-shoots, who maybe read about the irruption of owls in the paper. And there was a guy in shorts (it was a comparatively warm 35 degrees) throwing a ball for his fat, frolicsome golden retriever, and both were coming closer and closer to the watching people and the sitting, head-swiveling owl.

As Dog Man wound up for a mighty throw right in the direction of the owl – a throw and bounding retrieve that surely would have caused the owl to fly off – my daughter (a 5’11” redhead) turned and, with a wave-off signal from both her mittened hands, said in a strong, commanding voice, “NO.” And then she pointed in the opposite direction, and the man turned and, very obediently, threw the ball away from the owl and back in the direction of his car and the small gravel parking lot.

Speaking of bird watching, nice piece in USA Today about seriously competitive, driven birders and the natural appeal to all humans of watching birds: Birding makes big tracks in 2013 and bags young fans

“Birds are absolutely fundamental to us as humans,” says author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul. “If you go back to the very oldest expression of human art that we know of, cave paintings” in France’s Chauvet Cave dating back 35,000 years, “one of those drawings is very clearly an owl. Somebody sketched it with the tip of their finger in soft mud … ear tufts, globulous eyes. … We’re stuck here on the ground, but birds can fly and have become symbols of almost everything from majesty to mystery. … We’ve freighted these birds with an awful lot, frankly.”

It concludes with ways the “average peeper” can participate, including the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count… which I have done before and will do again.

Birding is a gateway drug to nature.
– Lili Taylor, Brooklyn resident, Feeder Watch contributor, actress and member of the board of directors American Birding Association

. . .

I am currently reading and 3/4 way finished a good book, Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927. Also, in my recent ramping-up of bird interest, I just started The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds With Common Birds, by Julie Zickefoose (with a foreword by the above-mentioned naturalist Scott Weidensaul).

This morning, with coffee in bed, intermittently watching feeder birds through the bedroom window in sunshine, I read (and recommend) this well-written piece in Aeon about an author whose books I have enjoyed very much: All his materials: In a rare interview, Philip Pullman tells his own origin story, and why the great questions are still religious ones

Although Pullman gained notoriety for excoriating religion after the publication of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010), including a pile of hate mail and threats of damnation, his personal memories of church are filled with the sonorities of the King James Bible and the Elizabethan Common Book of Prayer — ‘Lighten our darkness, we Beseech thee, O Lord.’ It was a linguistic legacy that left him ‘prepared for poetry’.

There was a transformative moment at a school concert when six older boys — ‘big brutes with whiskers’ — came in and started chanting: ‘A cold coming we had of it,/Just the worst time of the year/For a journey, and such a long journey….’ Pullman recites the rest of T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927), and the atmosphere crackles like the fire. ‘I had no idea what this was. It sounded like a story: but there were bits of it that made my skin prickle, hair stand on end.’ He goes on to relish the valley ‘Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation’. In every fragment of poetry he recalls, either Eliot now or John Milton later, Pullman seems to have interiorised a mixture of lyricism and cinematic montage, very different from the misty make-believe of most fantasy writing.

Educated in Harlech, in North Wales, Pullman was the beneficiary of a demotic Welsh tradition: ‘Writing poetry was something that everybody did — the greengrocer won prizes at Eisteddfod [a Welsh literary festival]’, he says. The surrounding countryside made him aware of another poetic: the idea that the miraculous and everyday could coexist. ‘As a teenager in Wales, I wandered through the woods, thinking that this was the Garden of Eden. I’ve always had a sense that behind the thing you see is something else.

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And…

‘When I’m reading, I’m looking for something to steal,’ he continues, confiding that his own daemon or animal familiar would be a thieving magpie or raven. ‘Readers ask me all the time the traditional question “Where do you get your ideas from?” I reply: “We are all having ideas all the time. But I’m on the lookout for them. You’re not.”’

And…

Often billed as a key figure of the ‘New Atheism’ movement, Pullman says that he met the writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens only a couple of times, and that he admires Dawkins’s writings on science — although he completely disagrees with him on fairy tales, which Dawkins described in a TV interview in 2008 as ‘anti-scientific’.

Pullman’s own retelling of Grimm Tales for Young and Old was published in 2012, and he subscribes to Einstein’s dictum: ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’ ‘It’s all about thinking by analogy,’ says Pullman, ‘and analogy is an enormously powerful tool in science. Einstein, when he was thinking about light, imagined himself riding on a beam of light.’

‘I like to say I’m a complete materialist but…’ Pullman allows himself an English teacher’s dramatic pause, ‘matter is conscious. How do I know that? Because I’m matter and I’m conscious.’

And now it is time to stop reading and thinking and internet-flitting around and DO some things.

Bonus: Collective Nouns for Birds, including a mischief of magpies, a squabble of gulls, a prattle of parrots, a lamentation of swans, a charm of finches, a bouquet of warblers, an invisibility of whippoorwills, a drumming of woodpeckers, a storytelling of ravens, a banditry of chickadees, and a blizzard of snowy owls.

The Sunday morning cat

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Sunday Morning
By Wallace Stevens

I
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

II
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

III
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

IV
She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophesy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

V
She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

VI
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

VII
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

VIII
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Polar vortex

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I name the big brown gull “Polar Vortex.”

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It is 2 degrees this morning, windchill -15.

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We hate it!

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Winter gets it way.

Accuweather: Deep Freeze in Midwest, Northeast to Be Prolonged

The advancing waves of cold will be severe enough to bring life-threatening conditions, hypothermia and the risk of frostbite to areas from the northern Plains to New England.

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Through the end of January, the polar vortex will hover just north of the United States border causing waves of frigid air to blast into the Midwest and much of the East.

January
by John Updike

The days are short,
The sun a spark,
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.

Fat snowy footsteps
Track the floor.
Milk bottles burst
Outside the door.

The river is
A frozen place
Held still beneath
The trees of lace.

The sky is low.
The wind is gray.
The radiator
Purrs all day.

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It’s cold

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Dark is the absence of light. Cold is the absence of warmth. 6:30 p.m. and I just came inside from turning off the light in the chicken coop. You could cut yourself on the stars.