Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Magnificent Eight

On a Misty Morning the First Mergansers Arrive
The Hawk Likes the Pond Food, Too
A Female Checking Out the 'Hood
A Couple of Flashy Males
Where Mergansers and Horses Meet
Grenny Scored a Gopher! Todd Carries the Trophy
Party on the Water
Males Flash and Splash
White catches my eye easily. It flashes like a beacon from Elmira Pond, and that's exactly what it is -- a neon sign for sex. The Magnificent Eight have arrived.

Male mergansers in full mating regalia are hot to behold. At least, I hope females flying overhead in the great northern migration think so. How can the ladies miss all those flashing inflated white heads on one pond?

Perhaps they long for more than a healthy hood in a male.

Do prospecting female mergansers consider the neighborhood? After all, these flashy males promise to abandon them when junior mergansers arrive. The males deflate their hoods and move out.

The females school the juveniles in the art of fishing and eagle avoidance.

So while the males are partying in March on Elmira Pond, singing, "Hey baby, hey baby, hey..." and dancing on water with wings splayed and waves kicked up into a crest, the females are looking beyond the boys and at the 'hood.

The Purcell Trench cradles Elmira Pond in a swath of glaciated land. In comparison to the massive bodies of water left behind by glaciers -- Lake Pend Oreille, Kootenai  River, Priest Lake, the Clark Fork -- it is humble. "Bog" is often the name it receives.

Yet, the water deserves at least pond status. It might be spring fed or merely left-over glacial drainage. It has deep holes and floating islands of mat. Of course, it has rich layers of peat that read like a biological book, telling the stories of life, decay and pollen.

The female mergansers want what the males are enjoying -- food. Hooded mergansers are voracious diving fowl, eating fish, frogs and even rodents. I welcome any creature on this pond to all-you-can-eat gophers. Many give testimony to the tasty treat -- eagles like them; the hawk likes them; the cat loves them; and at last, my dogs have learned to catch them.

Mergansers are welcome to eat gophers, too.

It must be a robust year for pond food to support eight hooded males. The Canada goose couple has returned. At least I like to pretend it is the same couple. They are re-nesting on goose island already. There's one ringed-neck duck couple. No buffleheads or widgeons, yet.

It's early in the season.

But it's the first time I've seen so many flashy white males on the pond. Among them is a single female with her crested mohawk. At least one female likes the potential summer digs and the current menu of food.

Will seven others join in or will seven water-tapping, hood flapping males miss out on spring love? Nonetheless it proves to be a good push into spring. I've missed watching the pond.

The soap opera has begun; March Madness returns with the Magnificent Eight.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Eagles Have Landed

Pointing North
Looting Crow
A Pair of House Finches
Nuthatch on Frosted Ground Among Tunnels
Eagle on the Old Dock Post
What Tangle of Wings is This?
Balds & Vultures? Goldens?
Balds & Babies!
Hanging Out
Crow Looks Small, Like a Meal
Immature With Wet Feathers
Family Day on Elmira Pond
Waiting for Junior to Dry
Are You Dry, Yet?
Dry Enough to Fly Away!
Elmira Pond pools like silver caught between fluid and form. Ice expands a shell overnight and day melts the edges. I tiptoe to windows at dawn, binoculars in hand, hoping, waiting to see hints of the migration I know is progressing.

Geese flap long wings in a northern v against brooding gray skies. It neither rains nor snows, and on the days the sun appears I'm surprised by the burst of energy. I sit on the porch, hands cuddling a cup of coffee as warm as a puppy. I continue to search for something more than crows looting the pond.

Todd pokes out his head from the porch door. "I started you a fire he says." Yes, I know it's warmer inside than this intermediary weather who promises us an end of winter but hedges on when spring will actually arrive. And then feathers flit.

A pair of house finches hop and flutter from pine bough to crest of the blue spruce in front of us. The colors are returning! In fall, the male birds are buffer as if the disco inferno of their mating days leave them with with sun-faded feathers. They are emerging with new duds to attract the females. Dancing kings.

Another flit and a red-breasted nuthatch drops to the ground among winter tunnels pushed up by gophers who remained active beneath the snow. I ignore these blights, tunneling from my gopher-ridden potato patch. Criminals. I'm contemplating their demise and might resort to Caddyshack dynamite eventually. But not now.

Coffee is gone and go back inside, back to my office upstairs.

Soon a squeaky train wheel is distracting me. Glancing over my shoulder toward the train tracks I'm surprised to see it empty. No train. Curious, I go to the window. The steely sound continues. That's when I spot a blaze of white above the bleached shell of pond ice. Grabbing the binoculars (yes, I sit at my desk with a pair) I realize the white patch is the head of a massive bald eagle.

A bald eagle! The one who flies lazy loops up and down state highway 95 all winter in search of roadkill is now perched on the old dock post on Elmira Pond. And I think he's making that steely chirp.

My quick descent down the stairs sets off the dog-alarms. Hush! I don't want to miss this shot. I step out the front door relieved to see he is still poised. Click. Click. I collect pixels of his likeness, excited he's landed from his daily flights for a photo opp. Cautiously I move closer. Click. Click. I round the truck, leaning on the hood to steady my shots.

There's that squeak again! And it isn't him. I look to the center of the pond and I nearly drop my camera. A tangle of rising feathers and chirps, hops and posturing. At first I think a gang of vultures has downed an elk on my pond. That's what it looks like -- death-raptors in feathered shrouds, hovering over carrion.

Then one lifts its head. Another bald eagle! Further behind I see yet a third one. Bald eagles sharing a meal with vultures? I climb into the back of the truck, step onto the tool box and take a seat on the cab. This is the earliest recorded bird show on Elmira Pond! February 22, 2016. 9:30 a.m. Continue big beastly birds, continue.

But oh, dear, I hope you aren't eating anything majestic like a moose or my neighbor's horse. I wish I could entice them to dig gophers in my yard. Nothing majestic about those potato thieves and lawn disrupters. I try to see what exactly they are feeding upon and realize it's a small meal. A muskrat at the largest, possibly a turtle. Why so many gathered?

Todd joins me. "Golden eagles, too," he says. Goldens? And balds? Sharing turtle soup? It seems puzzling until I recall something a local birder told me -- if you see golden eagles in the Lake Pend Oreille watershed, mostly it's juvenile bald eagles. That's what we are seeing! The entire valley community of bald eagles, all gathered on the thin crust of Elmira Pond ice.

Observation is a good teacher. It may not have the measurements of science and often it reveals more than any bird textbook. One adult hangs back -- the big guy on the dock post. He never moves, chirps or flaps a wing. He watches the activity on the pond as passively as a human might stare at the television with nothing of import to watch. Zoning out.

The other two adults are more engaged. One is right there in the middle of the three juveniles, squeaking like a train wheel. The other stands back. Several catch air with wings and move in grand hops, legs straight as a lean logger's. In fact, I notice how straight the birds legs extend upward to chest and head, yet this massive body, rump and fantail of white drape behind like some sort of bird bustle. They stand over two-feet tall.

The juveniles all have mottled dark and light wings and their beaks are mostly black, not yellow. Yet you can see yellow developing from the face. According to the experts, it takes about five years for a bald eagle to obtain sexual maturity. That means the three adults are over the age of five and the three younger ones are less than that. The younger three could be brood mates, or successive siblings.

One theory as to why immature eagles are different in coloring (including eyes, beaks and feathers) is not to be deemed a threat during mating season. Eagles are territorial during mating season and keep other eagles out of their nesting area up to two miles. The fact that three adults were on the pond says the eagles do not yet have spring fever -- they are not yet mating.

After the adult on the post flies off, two of the immature eagles take flight, too. Communal gatherings are one way for the younger birds to learn to hunt from the older ones. It's also possible that one of the immature eagles might have plunged into the pond. Eagles are swimmers, but their feathers do not dry the way an osprey can shake off water.

I notice the remaining youngster fluffs feathers several times and looks to be all wet. He remains standing on the ice until he dries. The two adults, most likely his parents, remain with him. They fly off after he leaps skyward until he's a dark splotch. I now know that the "black" hawks I have continually noticed every year since I've lived here are actually immature bald eagles. They must nest in the area. What a gift.

Until the migrators arrive. Then they become predators. Still, my job as nature writer is not to interfere, not to humanize, but to observe and humanize my own thoughts and reactions.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Counting the Back Yard

Winter Skies Over Elmira
Not Solid Ice
Eagle on Morning Commute
Crows Own the Road
Murder in a Pine
The Loram Grinding Dragon
Wandering Rail Equipment
Rare Sleeper Car for Workers
My local library hosted a class on how to prepare for the Audubon's Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) 2016. It was tempting to go. I'm starting to think of birds again and anticipate the return of migrators with March Madness.

However, my backyard is a dubious place for migrators at the moment. Without open water I don't see much activity. Blue Heron did make a surprise November appearance while there was yet water showing on Elmira Pond. In fact, the pond never really froze solid. It sits like a giant vanilla slurpy in the back pasture. Anything more solid than a bird would punch through, but alas, the birds are too light and feathered to penetrate water.

Tiny blurs of birds flit from the wood pile on my porch to the pines in the yard. How can I possibly count those rascals? They defy my slow-hand photography and refuse to wait for binocular adjustments. Thus, they don't count.

Nearly every day this gray winter, the eagle has flown low in search of road jerky along state highway 95. I see him fly up, and later fly down like some overhead commuter. But during the official count do you think he's shown up? Nope. Calling in on his vacation days no doubt.

Same with the local murder. Crows wait on no one, not even drivers along the road. One, two, then the whole gang shows up, flocking to some opportunistic source of feed. They continue to ignore the now fading ornaments of the Crow Tree. Evidently they got the eagle's message to lie low this weekend. Not a single crow; no murder in Elmira this weekend.

Not a flicker or a chickadee to be seen. Well, what a bummer of a count this is.

Not all was a loss for watching. I heard the squelching of a dragon arrive in the dark of night and knew right away it was the big lumbering train machine I had once seen spewing fire like a steampunk demon. This time, I carefully recorded its habits. It sat for three days on the rails of Elmira. Day or night, passing trains blasted their horn; an indication of workers present.

Huge generators and lights ran continually. It became my lullaby two nights in a row. And I successfully identified the creature -- it is a Loram's Production Rail Grinder. These working trains grind the rails to get a longer life out of the steel. It's a story-worthy process and one I plan to pursue. Like my story about the Italians of Elmira featured in Go Idaho.

Today while watching for silent February birds in my back yard, another train of curiosity trundled down the newly polished Elmira rails. It was an engine, a container and a sleeper car. Back when the unions organized for train transportation, sleeper cars were won by workers. They became moving camps of men who worked the rails in Idaho.

Now they are as rare as, well, as birds in my back yard.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Hugh’s Photo Challenge: Week 8 – Charity Christmas Tree Topper Challenge

I Love You to the Moon & Back, Too!
Dreams of Sugar Plum Faeries Dancing
Love From a Summerhouse in Britain
Love From Kansas Fields of Sunflowers
A Proper Tree Topper in the Office
What's topping my tree is nothing.

That fact makes it a tad difficult to join in with all the merry-making tree-toppers around the globe, but I'm a writer. I'll make the connection. I also love dogs and this tree-topping post is to support Hugh's great cause for the Dog Trust Charity. Hugh is great, too and gets bloggers topping trees in photos each year. Learn more at his blog, Hugh's Views and News.

Many marvelous ornaments hang from my bare-topper tree. (Hugh actually has a bear-topper tree, which is slightly different). A few my children made Christmases long ago. A Santa in his sled had an accident of sorts during the night and he lost his red wagon and both boots. Luckily, I have a 15-year-old staying with us and she's a whiz at Super Glue.

My tree is taking on an international flare. Two years ago, a tiger from India joined the Sugar Plum Fairy and watchful Nutcracker. This year a special post from a special Summerhouse arrived on Elmira Pond bearing British love in an ornament. Next, two new ornaments arrived from distant Kansas, professing love that is both as cheerful as a Kansas sunflower and out of this world.

It's not what tops the tree, but the ornaments that hang with memories of loved ones.

Yet, upstairs in my office is a perfectly topped wire tree strung with lights. Beneath the star a drama unfolds. A fly and a spider stand off in the light of colorful electric bulbs. Life, and death, does not pause for Christmas. But the promise of Christmas, a baby in a manger come to save humankind, lifts us above the spider-eats-fly world we live in.

May your tree be topped with what matters most -- love. From this, all else hangs like the ornaments we adore.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Winter Whistles

Eagle From My Office in Shadow of Star
Scanning Elmira Pond
Responding to Whistles
Also Responding to Whistles
Something white catches my eye while I rinse dishes. Thinking it's the railroad track pigeons, I give a casual glance. What looks like two white birds becomes one -- a bald eagle with white head and tail. He's got a hankering for pigeon-pie.

He hung around Elmira Pond for most of the day. Like me, he looks over the pond in search of movement. Only stillness. The migration south is over. Those who remain are the opportunists: the murder of crow, the forest ravens and the bald eagles.

No one likes the crow tree I decorated last year. The crows avoid it and several of the shiny baubles have dulled and the glittery ribbon is faded gold. The eagle pays it no mind from his perch on the bent top of a larch.

So I whistle. The eagle hears me and cocks his head one way and then the other. How delightful it can be to get a response from a living thing. I whistle some more and laugh. Then I hear meowing and see a winter-puffed Bootsy headed my way.

We all need to connect. No one can live in a tree, a garage or a house alone.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

December Rains

Santa Has a Tree for Me
Our Tree is Tagged & Legal
Frozen Grouse Creek on Dec. 5, 2015
Swollen Grouse Creek on Dec. 9, 2015
Pooling Flood Water
Nearing the Bridge
Churning & Muddy
Swollen Waves
Road Wash Out
A thin crust of ice clings to shadows as Todd and I shop for a Christmas tree. He likes the firs with their short needles, and I like the thick pines. We measure height with our eyes and try to imagine this one or that in our living room.

Finally, we agree on a tree and he gets the handsaw.

Our lot is the wide open Kiniksu National Forest, and we have a $5 permit with a "Merry Christmas" greeting from the Forest Service. It might lack mugs of cocoa or a red-suited Santa you'd find in town, but I like shopping for a tree in the forest.

Until I look down and see lynx tracks. That's when I notice the deer carcass and head to the truck. No way do I want to get caught between a hungry wild cat and her dinner. We pick another tree, and I say I like it better. It's better because it's not located in the lynx dining room.

Turns out it's a hemlock. Not a bad choice, but we are both surprised as we load it in the truck. We have to carry it because where there's not snow in shadows, there's mud. Two winters ago we had to trek through waist deep snow to find our Christmas tree. Now we are driving along Grouse Creek, tires slipping on mud.

We cut the tree on Saturday because we had a lull in the drizzling rain. On Sunday it returned. Though I wait for it to turn to snow, the rain continues to patter on our metal roof. The moisture is needed, but so is snow. Without the cold, the water saturates the ground. Snow is like a container and it (should) release the moisture as spring thaw comes on gradually.

Last year the thaw came early and quick. By the time the rivers would normally be close to flood stage, we were entering a drought. Yet, if you look at precipitation, we had a "normal" year. Cold plays a dynamic role in our Inland Pacific Northwest climate.

At 2 am last night it was 52 degree F. Crazy warm! And the rain poured relentlessly. The flooding began a few hours later. We went up both the Pack River and Grouse Creek to marvel at the natural disaster. The road we had just slipped down with our tree a few days ago is gone in places. The icy river is now churning pale chocolate milk. Logs look like sticks riding the rapids.

When the road washed out before us, Todd kept driving. Yes, I panicked. He found it funny. The only way I could calm down was to point my camera and film. Watching the screen diverted my eyes from watching the washout road. Not a prize-winning piece of journalism, but you can watch the video here.

There's something unnerving about how quickly water can displace rock. It's as if water plays nicely and goes through proper channels only because it agrees to this arrangement. We build up around it and one day water turns rebellious and destroys all we've built -- bridges, road, houses, pastures.

It's receding and we'll muck out the debris water left in it's wake. At least we got our Christmas Tree before the road washed out.

The photos I'm sharing via Abracabadra's Wordless Wednesday Link up. The photos are mine, as well as the words.

I'm not really word-less.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Home's Where the Heart Is

Outtake from the Family Photo Session

Fall Transitioning to Winter
The Murder Moves In
Decorating for Thanksgiving
Silent Pond
Kitchen Turkeys
Kyle on Schweitzer
Cabinets & Pond Oreille
Schweitzer Ski Village
Kyle, Drew & Allison
Castle #1
Castle #2 Kitchen
Castle #2 Bed
Collection in Castle #1
Help With Author Headshots
Table of Love
A Lasting Gift of Love
Knowing  the kids are all coming home is the best feeling in the world. The empty house afterwards is one of the worst. Not unlike the cycle of life, home beats with a heart.

Our barns are bursting with rounds of wood and we make a run to WinCo in Coeur D'Alene for the best deals on food in the region. My ripe pumpkins await the oven, a dream I had all summer that we might all gather for pumpkin pie.

By the time the migratory birds move out, the cold settles in along with our winter guests, a murder of crows. Elmira Pond is silent, a shell of ice as if it were incubating until spring. Crusty snow fills the pastures and reveals the trails of wildlife. One of our big bucks is bedding down beneath the hemlock outside our bedroom window. I try to see him in the moonlight, but he remains shadow.

The Midwest children arrive on Sunday with beer, games and love. Allison and Drew have gifted me with their presence and that of Kyle's. They bought him a plane ticket with their mileage points and drive from Houghton, Michigan to pick him up in Menomonie, Wisconson where he's working on his masters in IO Psychology. They fly in from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Missoula, Montana where Brianna lives. They drive three hours to Idaho, crossing their third time zone and fourth state to get here.

I'm blessed with a happy heart.

My house is filled with good cooking and laughter. The games begin, and I serve Christmas fudge out of holiday sequence, while getting our 22-pound turkey drunk on Clean Slate Riesling. It's our favorite brine that even wins the approval of Chef Josh when he and Brianna join us later in the week.

Time stands still and I hear the beating heart. In between games of Dixit and Catan we eat and interview. This year we are eggless, having discovered that it is the culprit of Allison's food imbalance. I got so good at holiday cooking gluten-free and dairy-free that egg-free has thrown me for a loop. We eat squishy pancakes and I later learn from Josh that tapioca is essential to egg-free cooking and baking. He even shares with us his egg-free squash nog and pies.

The interviews are the result of a new writing gig, one that gets me out and about the Panhandle of Idaho to catch stories of businesses, entrepreneurs and lifestyle. First we go to my favorite breakfast house to be stood up for my first interview. The next place is closed. Worried, I call my third interview because he lives on top of Schweitzer Mountain. He's still willing to do centerfold shots, he tells me. It's a joke, but I'm grateful for back up nonetheless.

We climb the switchbacks above Sandpoint and park the car on an icy plot of flat ground at the ski resort which dominates the mountain. Far below the fingers of bays weave in and out of mountains and forests. From our vantage point we can see the craggy peaks of the Cabinet Mountains and the expanse of Lake Pend Oreille. My third interview of the day shows up in his truck to take us to his castle.

The owner is a character and a delight to interview. And what could be better than getting to tour a mountain top castle with three of my grown kids? Experiencing an earthquake in the middle of the interview. It rumbles like an avalanche and shakes the stone structure. My son-in-law is a geologist and he gets excited -- it's his first quake. Now all he needs to do is see lava and stand on a glacier.

While it's not lava, there's hot water surrounding the entryway of the main castle like an interior mote. We get a peek at a collection of authentic ancient armor and arms, a real Viking's sword and Revolutionary War era pistols. We even cross a drawbridge to enter the main castle. Yes, there are two. One is our host's home and the other is a guest-castle. For a nightly fee, you can sleep in style on a mountaintop in northern Idaho and ski to the biggest resort in the state. Earthquakes are random and not guaranteed.

Brianna arrives with Josh and their dog, Barley. We break out the Cards Against Humanity and laugh ourselves silly. Josh perfects the drunken turkey, showing me how to brown it at the end. We serve all the trimmings, the last of my garden, and make a killer gravy out of drippings, potato water, giblets and Riesling. I forget to save back wine and I make everyone tip their glass to the gravy. We have a red wine for dinner, but the turkey likes his Clean Slate.

We are so full we hold off on the pies until breakfast.

It's six a.m. and I'm whipping cream, holding back a flood of sadness. Soon the beating heart will diminish to a murmur. Already I hear the kids rising, packing. The Midwesterners have an afternoon plane to catch in Missoula; Brianna works tonight; and Josh is going elk hunting. We eat left-overs and pie, huddling around coffee and the woodstove. They load up the two cars. Drew and Josh ride together and I envy the car that gets to hold my three children for the duration of the trip.

My heart breaks as they leave no matter what I tell myself.

Todd and I sit by the fire holding hands. Brianna rushes back in -- she forgot her purse. We laugh and I try to hide the tears, that flow again once the door shuts. Todd retreats back to bed with the dogs, and I clean up, needing physical activity. I know I need to hit the keyboard with five articles due in three days and two more interviews to hold, plus the one I missed.

Upstairs I find a heart, shaped from Allison's turquoise scarf on top of my computer with a love note to watch over it for a while. She knows it's one of my favorite colors and I really liked her scarf. She and her sister used to make off with mine all the time. Now it's my turn.

I hear the heartbeat return and know the truth -- while there is yet love, there is life.

It pulses more rapidly when we are all together, but home is where we are, thinking of loved ones, welcoming loved ones and even missing loved ones. Soon I'll decorate for Christmas and get ready to welcome one of Kate's granddaughters to my home. I'll get to see Kate's family and share an unbreakable bond of love. I hope this spring to get to visit Todd's parents again; in May to see my son receive his masters; to see Allison and Drew's new house in Michigan; to see my cousin's son graduate high school; to visit Kansas for love; and visit Brianna and Josh in the off-season in Montana.

Home will go with me. And so love continues.