Naturalists among the birds, and a fox in the neighborhood

Chipping sparrows and white-throated sparrows returned this week, a hermit thrush was in town, several sedges were blooming

Monday morning, frost was baking off of the honeysuckle leaves and lawn grass. But sunlight was hitting the canopies squarely, and at 7:00 a.m. Maple Grove was alive with birds. A brown creeper worked his way through the canopy of a cottonwood that was packed with flowers at the entrance to the preserve. Red-bellied woodpeckers and yellow-rumped warblers were calling from every direction. Robins were warbling, chickadees feebeeing, a blue jay screaming from off toward the yards at the west edge of the woods. Red-winged blackbirds seemed to be particularly energized, invigorated by the combination of cool and bright sunshine, stamping their feet and shouting at one another from the marsh below the Avery Coonley School, where teachers weren’t prepping their rooms and students weren’t starting to arrive for morning activities. The birds were going about their lives.

An ash tree that had been excavated by a pileated woodpecker three weeks earlier was fallen over, snapped off in the gully left by the woodpecker. False mermaid formed a green haze through much of the woods. Why is it in one spot, but absent in another? Twenty years ago, I would have said, disturbance, for I learned the plant on an old quarried slope in Madison. But now I am not so sure, for even beneath the maple leaves where there seems to be little disruption, it germinates and grows up through the litter to form a carpet. Mayapple leaves were the size of dessert plates. Bloodroot flowers were almost all gone, perhaps a fifth of them left, the rest with leaves spreading open to collect summer sun, butterfly wings swelling and hardening in the minutes after they leave the chrysalis, when they are at their most vulnerable. The maple seedlings were festooned with palmate leaves opening to the sky, ready to get to work, impatient for summer.

Poison ivy leaves developing, 2020-04-20, Maple Grove

Poodle moss was pilling like an old sweater on the bases of the white oaks. New growth was massing up at the tips of the shoots. Ironwood leaves were as long as the distal joint of my index finger. Poison ivy petioles were hairy and tipped with tiny leaves ribbed like Ernst Haeckel’s embryos. Rue anemone was blooming. A skein of downy feathers was tangled up with broken dried oak leaves and strewn across the forest floor. Perhaps they had blown out of a nest. Perhaps the whole nest had blown out of a tree.

Wood’s sedge and Pennsylvania sedge were in full flower, and the inflorescence spikes of Sprengel’s sedge were just appearing, silvery in the morning sun. Clumps of what I believe to be eastern few-fruited sedge were shedding over the edge of a ditch margin. Their red bases are as distinctive I think as those of Wood’s sedge, but more slender, more rust-colored. They are perhaps orange; I’m no good with the names of colors, nor even the colors of colors, but I think I’ve got this one locked into my mind now. I’ll be watching this colony over the coming months.

The next morning, Brooklyn and I arrived at 8:00 instead of 7:00, and the woods were mostly quiet. Wild ginger flowers were developing at the bases of the plants, as big around as marbles, with a small pore opening at the tip. The wild garlic was up to the middle of my calves. There was one last bloodroot flower. There was a sparse colony of Pennsylvania sedge in textbook flowering condition, behaving just as you would think a flowering sedge should, if you think at all about flowering sedges. The spring beauty flowers were fading and the leaves had grown bitter. Blue cohosh were mostly tall and flowering with leaves still folded; or short and not flowering with leaves fully expanded, ready for the canopy to close. It seems the cohosh chooses what battle to wage right now: starting a family, or photosynthesizing. You can’t be great at everything, can you?

Rue anemone flowering, 2020-04-20, Maple Grove

At the southwest edge of the woods, where I’d seen the scattering of feathers the morning before, a thrush I had noticed one week earlier hopped across the road. I watched it for perhaps 10 minutes this time. It moved to the base of a tree and stood. It straddled a log and turned away from me, then back to me. It moved up into a shrub, then back to the forest floor. With enough watching and a few poor photos, I concluded it wasn’t a veery, as I had thought the week before, but a hermit thrush. And with close inspection of the photos, I thought it might be carrying an insect of some kind in its bill. It’s reassuring to know where I can go to see a hermit thrush. I hope he’s there next time I visit.

Wednesday, Brooklyn and I stuck to the neighborhood. There were clouds, and it was 40F, and there had been some drizzle, and mostly we just heard flickers and house sparrows and perhaps the robins, I couldn’t tell for sure. Brooklyn had found an old tattered tennis ball in the school yard a couple of blocks into our walk and was thoroughly content. I was thinking about a conversation from the previous day, and one Rachel and I had had earlier in the morning, both centered around the question of what we’ll retain from this time. What habits will we hold onto five years from now? How will we be doing things differently? And how much will we just relax to our old ways as soon as things are back to normal? I wasn’t paying much attention.

So when we passed a home and saw a woman inside, knocking on the window, waving at me, and at the same moment Brooklyn stood dead in her tracks and bristled, I did not know what to think. The woman looked as though she wanted to say hello. I wondered if something was wrong. And why was Brooklyn agitated? Then I saw out of the corner of my eye a red fox trotting westward on the sidewalk across the road, a squirrel clamped in its mouth, lying crossways in its jaws, limp. I looked at the woman again, and she shrugged. What do you make of something like that? she seemed to ask, and I could not tell if she was worried, troubled, delighted, uncertain. I turned back to the fox, which by now was already 50 or 100 feet down the block, moving steady, right down the center of the sidewalk, neither turning toward the yard nor stopping, not slowing at the crossroad. I gave the woman a big thumbs up, to tell her, It’s okay, to signify that we had both really seen the same thing. She smiled at me with what I imagined to be either solidarity or relief.

Brooklyn and I followed the fox for about three blocks, but we did not run to keep up, and the fox did not waver, and then at some point the fox and its squirrel were gone. The people on our side of the road were adjusting their phones and chatting, and I did not know who had seen the fox. Perhaps only us and the lady in her house, and of course the squirrel, but a moment too late.

This morning, Rachel and I sat reading in the living room. I was reading the second chapter of Tim Dee’s Four Fields, and I read this passage aloud:

There were peregrines over the fields: even I sensed them, like a bee down my shirt the moment before it stings; and here was one now throwing down the grey anvil of itself through its prey, lowering all of the sky as it arrived, squeezing time into a tight ball and tripping up the light. Only then, but then obviously, did I see the meat in front of me. Thirty woodpigeons, just now stolid on the green, were smashed apart and directed hellwards, shell-shocked mad men grabbing at their dressing gowns as they rose in panic in their day room, pushing their chairs from under them in a clatter, always too slow and stupefied by the peregrine’s unavoidable terms and conditions. The falcon turned, looking as ever casual and at ease, and moved, an intensifier of the air, spinning the globe beneath it, from the grass field to the bare soil where the nervous golden plovers were now due their terror. The pigeons had splattered into the sky, as if hit from above, and dispersed…

We recognize in these words the drama that goes on all the time in the natural world while we are going about our lives. The habit of natural history is good for us because it reminds us of these parallel worlds. Are there naturalists among the birds, skulking around the neighborhoods to see what humans and their yards are doing? Have the squirrels of Maple Grove noticed how quiet the Avery Coonley School is?

This morning, the chipping sparrows and the white-throated sparrows were back in town, and the silver maples in the neighborhood were shedding developing samaras onto the sidewalk. In this way, at least, it is a spring like any other.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharinum – silver maple
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Anomodon attenuatus – poodle moss
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Carex oligocarpa – eastern few-fruited sedge
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Thalictrum thalictroides – rue anemone
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy

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