Friday, August 12, 2005

COM: In Praise of Quiet-Not Quiet

And Noise of the Day
this is a story in reverse chronological order -- read it how you wish

Yep, it's Hutton's.

7:03 a.m. there is a bird blasting away outside that i think may be a Hutton's Vireo. will try to track it down.

5:48 a.m. i see a dozen meteors, nothing spectacular, but they are zipping by at a rate faster than i recall seeing before (normally about one a minute). the dawn is already stealing enough of the dark that they're getting hard to see.

2:15 a.m. stepped out to look for meteors for a few minutes. there are two Great Horned Owls under the light tonight. one flushes to a walnut when i step out, and within a few seconds is hooting.

making it about halfway through the morning . . . still, after all night working, i'm a bit fried. i sit at the waterfront for a while. it actually did flood yesterday and overnight after heavier rains during the day while i slept -- only about a foot of rise though, and by now it's down about 4 inches. but a foot was enough to make our crossing impassable. apparently the big crossing was never so high that large trucks couldn't pass, i can still see James's Evening-Primroses (Oenothera jamesii) standing tall at the overflow, but the rain downstream of us may have created conditions for more extensive water damage. in any case, it's a very minor flood for us -- 15 to 20 footers are a regular occurrence.

a previously empty coffee can at the cages was nearly full of water -- i measured it -- 5 and a quarter inches.

zipping through the cypress trees at the waterfront, a Cooper's Hawk (perhaps my new lunch counter friend) buzzes a flock of Great-tailed Grackles, picks one and harries it out over the muddy river. i didn't see an actual hit, but suddenly the grackle is in the water. the hawk flies up into a cypress on the other side, bobbing its head as though trying to get a better angle to watch its meal.

the grackle turns to our shore and begins flopping its way back. it is not adapted for doing this (or designed for it either). it stops after several beats, only its head above the water. just when it appears it may be going down for good, it flops again, rising in the water and making progress until it can't beat anymore. it is, however, making decent progress toward shore, and only has to repeat the sequence four times before it can touch bottom and walk itself out.

once on shore it just hunkers down, wings drooped at its side. seconds later the hawk flies back across and lands above me in the old ropeswing cypress. it is watching the grackle, but it's watching me too. i have no plans to intervene, but the hawk seems to choose the no-risk method and flies off to the south (perhaps back to hassle the aviary birds).

the water is flowing a bit faster than normal, enough to keep mud suspended. something, i think, about the murkiness makes it more obvious when gar and carp and turtles surface. at any given moment there are a half-dozen Texas Sliders riding the current and a large Common Snapping Turtle bobs up for a few seconds.

some minutes pass and i hear a loud "rack" upriver. it doesn't register for a second, until another, and then a series, sounding much like a new-year's eve noisemaker, the kind where you hold a little plastic handle and spin a metal container -- you know, inside a metal ratchet is popping a sliver of hardened steel; then i know. rack-rack-rack-rack-rack in rapidfire succession. it has to be a Ringed Kingfisher. these guys are rare in Kerr County (indeed this species, at one time a specialty of the lower Rio Grande Valley -- it's only range in the entire US, seems to be slowly moving northward), i've suspected for years that they breed on the Guadalupe River, but finding a nest is difficult. we've known about them here since 1987, and on average i see one or two a year somewhere along the river. only four times though have i seen them right here at home.

well, make that five. a female (i always think of them as patriotic because of the broad bands of red, white and blue) was yacking from the top of the butt-buster pole right in front of my cabin, and when i cleared the trees she dove, skipping upward only at the river's surface and flew all the way to the crossing (half a mile plus) just inches above the water, cackling all the way. i then lost sight of her. i'm hoping she sticks around for a while, but i suspect her presence here might have been due to the flood conditions -- they need fairly clear water in which to fish, and she might have been searching for an appropriate place to lunch for the day. about the time i lost track of her, a Green Kingfisher zips up to inspect the nest site right across from my cabin.

well, that ought to top off a summer of excellence -- all three kingfishers in my yard within a few days of each other, and the discovery of Orange-striped Threadtails at the river's edge off my porch!

Quiet of the Night:
What I’ll be Missing in an Attempt to Become Human Again

1:42 a.m. the storm has passed, only distant rumbling remains.

when i went to feed this morning, i noticed a huge fat dove on top of the cage where i’d recently moved the whydahs in another, probably vain, attempt to protect them in Predatorville. then i saw the queleas and the silverbills were all on the bottom of their cage, and under the green pens were a half-dozen Inca Doves and White-wings. i glanced up again at the top of the whydah cage to see that what i’d thought was probably a Eurasian Collared-Dove was, in fact, a very pale Cooper’s Hawk. it's frozen momentarily and then bursts from the top of the cage, disappearing into the top of the Arizona Walnut.

Cooper’s Hawks are usually only migrants here, but i have suspected a nest around here for the last couple of years. if so, maybe that explains a summer’s worth of loss.

only after i stepped out of the jeep did the Incas and White-wings fly. but all through my feeding rounds, the whydahs and queleas and silverbills stayed on the bottom of their cages, quiet and still. the whydahs are tame, but the others are the ADHD students of the bird world. well, what to do about a Cooper’s Hawk that has a punched meal ticket? i don’t know.

it’s 11:49 p.m. and a huge bolt of lightning struck something on the hill opposite me. it was one of those so close that you can feel a change in the air. and for a brief two or three seconds after the crack everything was still, no sound. the wind stopped. and then ever so hesitantly the leaves began to twirl again on the sidewalk. then the breeze kicked up the feathered leaves of the paradise tree, and it began to sprinkle. and somewhere on that hill something smarts pretty good.

when i check the radar i find a large, but isolated storm. all around it from the northeast corner around to the southwest there is a substantial migration of birds going on, but it’s easy to discern the direction of the storm, because to the southeast the birds have cleared out, hunkered down, or are just avoiding its path.

just as midnight struck, so did the rain. not quite a downpour, but a run to the jeep would soak me.

the radar now shows the storm splitting and the denser corner drives northeast now, right through us, and in the looped version of radar the migrants appear to split to make way.

just past midnight. the air has a definite pleasantness to it, not a nip -- it’s August, but it’s plain that something is different, and maybe it’s just a small hint that summer is waning. as i drive into camp, i notice that the mercury vapor lamp at the gate is being swarmed by bats. it’s the first group of more than two or three i’ve seen all year. either there’s an insect irruption that’s drawing the bats to concentrate, or it’s migration time for Freetails.

trying to shift back to a daytime schedule is miserable. but i’m trying. so i leave at 5 a.m. to go get some breakfast to see if that will help me last the morning. it’s just about dawn when i come back to camp. i can see an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron standing in the shallows at the crossing – they probably nested right here this summer, a first in my 18 years here. a Green Kingfisher is already perched in a cypress looking for bugs or minnows. when i roll down my window to punch in the gate code i hear a high-pitched pulsing whine – some new orthopteran has emerged for the fall, or perhaps the temperature and humidity have just now synchronized in a way that urges them to “sing.”

i don’t last long. heading back to the cabin for some sleep at mid-morning i find a Belted Kingfisher feeding a screeching juvenile on the dock just below my porch. it’s the Greens that nest across the river from my cabin so i find it funny that the big blues are the ones camped out here – maybe the others are downriver at the crossing looking for food for their youngsters (which should have been off the nest some time ago; unless they’ve nested again . . .).

our season is over. i’m still working nights, but have orders to switch over to a “regular” schedule. still, the only way to fully concentrate is in those moments, the hours of silence, when i can delve deeply into the pictures and the typing of names that come with putting together a yearbook. and later with assembling thousands of film clips. but no one seems to understand the efficacy of that.

i leave the window open. something about the quiet-not quiet of the night that lets me know i’m in my element, not the world of gossip and trivia and mechanical noise.

tonight was one of those magical nights.

at 12:42 the Great Horned Owl started hooting on the hill. early this a.m. it, or one of them, was under the mercury vapor light in the field chasing bugs – hilarious how they run about like chickens under that light. it’s the first time i’ve seen one under the light in a long time. they’ve probably been there – except during the summer when the nighttime traffic looks like sixth street. one of my few purely zen recurring moments the last few years has been to lean against my jeep and watch the owls running around under that light.

then, at 1:12 an ambulance blared through setting off two Eastern Screech-Owls with their animated whinnies. i first noticed this in mid-july. after early spring singing i don’t usually hear the screech-owls again until early fall. but in July – a particularly good time for the migration of the ambulances toward the drunked Crider’s dancehall down highway 39 – i heard them almost nightly, all in answer to emergency sirens. now i occasionally hear them without the prompt.

at 2:31 a Gray Fox is sounding off up by the aviary. over the course of the summer, no matter how secure i think i have things, i’ve lost various birds to predators. two parrots, a couple of parakeets, a half-dozen finches. it’s been extremely frustrating. i’ve suspected a Raccoon, but decided that some of the places it’s getting to are just not negotiable by a coon; then a feral cat, still my number one suspect; but tonight i’m wondering about this fox. they can be awfully nimble.

at 2:40 a Ringtail Cat comes sauntering by right below the open window. for a moment it’s only five feet away, i could nearly touch it. it walks right on by, oblivious, i go back to typing. then, perhaps spurred by some frisson, i glance up and see its face, barely peeking around the corner, staring at me. when i lock in, its face so swiftly and effortlessly vanishes that i’m not even sure that’s what i saw. i start rethinking the bird cafeteria on the hill.

moments later a Striped Skunk walks the same path. these guys are totally oblivious most of the time. then an Opossum, it’s belly dragging the ground, wanders the opposite direction; a Gulf Coast Toad staccato-plops onto the sidewalk, sits for 30 seconds and plops away; a slug wanders over the edge of the windowsill and slips up the glass and is gone; another June Bug flies in the window, heads straight for the computer screen, thuds against it and drops to the desk, easy pickings for me and i fling it back into the bushes outside.

as dawn approaches there’s another early sound of fall, and the most unexpected for the night -- the sound of antlers slapping together. the Axis Deer have been snorting up the woods on the hill the last few nights so maybe they’re the ones getting an early start (although early is relative for them, as being tropical and from a hemisphere away in both directions they hardly have a “season”). or maybe it is the Whitetails – if so they are early, most are still in velvet, especially the larger-antlered bucks. maybe it’s a couple of young spikes or forks testing out their new gear like junior high boys in the shower.

trying to recover from the letdown of all my closest friends leaving for the year. camp is such an intense and mostly truly great time – for such a very short time. teaching and coaching means having all day, nearly every day, for nine months with all your friends, the people who are your life, and then everyone breaks for a couple of months and then you’re back together. reverse that for camp. it’s a long lonely 10 months ahead now. i have only the night to keep me company.


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