Category Archives: Nature

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 3: Herons

My last installment was about egrets, which I have no regrets about. Except that egrets are herons. However, herons are not necessarily egrets. And some herons are also known as bitterns.

That’s because herons are weird. They come in a wide variety of peculiar, funny-looking species. But they do have some things in common.

Most herons have long, sharp bills, the better for harpooning fish and other creatures. They also have long, extensile necks. In fact, I think the necks are the weirdest part of herons. They can kink it down to an S-shape, and cover it with their feathers, so it looks like they have no neck at all.

Herons also have long legs, which they use for wading in shallow waters, while hunting for food. They mainly eat aquatic creatures, such as fish, frogs, salamanders, molluscs, crabs, and aquatic insects. But they are also fond of lizards, which they have to venture out on land, to catch.

Herons love to still-hunt. They will stand motionless in or near water and wait for any prey to wander close by. Or, they may pace very slowly and stealthily, and sneak up on their victims. And some will drop bait in the water, to lure their prey within striking range of their long necks.

Most herons live in colonies, and all herons are monogamous. However some females have been known to pair with impotent mates. They compensate for this by catching a little on the side, with virile males who don’t mind straying from their own mates now and then, heron there. So I suspect there can be some bitter, depressing soap opera dramas within heron colonies.

I saw lots of herons in Florida, though at the time I didn’t know that’s what they were called. Or maybe somebody told me, but hell, I’m hard of heron. I got lots of pictures of them. They’re very photogenic, primarily because they tend to stand still for long periods of time. They’re a photographer’s dream.

So please enjoy the following clear, sharp photos of strange but beautiful herons:

A Great Blue Heron in the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area of the Florida Everglades. This guy maintained this pose for about ten minutes until I finally decided to take its picture. I felt sorry for it. After all, anyone who wants their photo taken this badly should really be obliged.

This Green Heron posed for me at the Blue Hole, on Big Pine Key. This is a relatively small species of heron, attaining an adult body length of only about 17 inches. Green herons are loners. They don’t like other birds. And like loners, they tend to be psychopathic. When they catch frogs, they drown them before eating them. Sick bastards. They’re also smart, and are one of the few birds known to use tools. The tools they use are small bites of food, which they drop in the water to bait their prey.

This is the Yellow Crowned Night Heron, which I observed at Bahia Honda State Park, in the Florida Keys. Strangely, although it’s a “Night” heron, I caught it out in broad daylight, committing its crimes. And as you can see, I caught it in mid-stride. But there’s no blur in the photo, because this bird moved in super-slow motion, as it slowly inched along the beach, stealthily stalking its prey. This type of heron specializes in eating crustaceans, particularly crabs.

Another Yellow-Crowned Night Heron at Bahia Honda State Park. This guy has its neck retracted. Notice how much shorter its neck seems to be, compared with its counterpart in the prior photo? I wonder if herons are related to turtles.

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 2: Great White Egret

A Great White Egret standing in a sawgrass meadow, Everglades National Park.

We’re improving our bird brains, by studying up on some of the weird-ass birds my wife and I encountered in Florida.

In this here Part 2, we get learned about the Great White Egret.

This majestic, albescent bird is also known as the Great White Heron, or simply, the Great Egret. They’re found in the southern United States, from the eastern seaboard all the way west to California. They’ve been known to migrate as far north as Massachusetts, and many Great Egrets migrate to South America in the winter.

We saw a ton of them in Florida, but about a hundred years ago they were scarce. You see, egrets have long, white plumes, called aigrettes, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries these aigrettes were in high demand. Ladies used them to adorn their ostentatious hats. Hell, you were nobody if you didn’t have a big white feather in your hat.

Marie Antoinette’s head looks very attractive with aigrettes in her cap, don’cha think?

So hunters in those days sought these plumes, to sell to the ladies. And they decimated about 95% of the egret population. Conservationists became alarmed and waged a campaign to save the Great Egret from extinction. They succeeded, and this beautiful white bird made a great comeback, and also became the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

Here’s some trivia that is probably not worth including in this post: Did you know that Frank Sinatra kept a few egrets in a home aviary? Well, he sang about this in one of his hits, with the lyrics, “Egrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . .”

They’re not called Greats for nothing. Great White Egrets exceed three feet in length, with a wingspan more than four feet.

In Florida, their nesting habitat is primarily on mangrove islands within Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, and Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Both of these refuges are in the Florida Keys.

This egret is fishing near mangroves, in Mrazek Pond, Everglades National Park.

Their nests tend to be high up, and like a chauvinist, the male selects where to build it. He courts the female by making calls (after first obtaining her cell number). He also flies around in a sexy circle. And to really get her going, he stretches his long neck way up in the air, pointing his slender beak skyward. I think men can relate to this particular technique.

It can be rough, growing up as an egret. You tend to have two or three siblings, and if food is scarce and you’re the weakest, one of your big brothers or sisters will kill you. But if you manage to survive that, then after about 6-7 weeks of drinking your parents’ vomit, you can fly away and start a life of your own.

Then you can do things your way, and perhaps have a few egrets of your own.

Some juvenile Great White Egrets have gray plumage that gradually transforms to white.

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 1: Anhinga

When my wife and I were sojourning in Florida a few months ago, we saw many strange birds we’d never encountered before in the wilds. I took photos just to have evidence I’d seen such weird looking critters. Then I looked them up on the internet, to identify them.

I don’t fancy myself much of a bird watcher, but I learned some fascinating things about these winged weirdos. Yep, I really improved my bird brain. And I figgered my followers might want to have their bird brains fixed up too. So this here’s a series I’m launching, called Improving Our Bird Brains. We’ll be reading it fer a spell or two, ‘til we’re all a might bit smarter.

This is Part 1. It’s about the Anhinga bird.

We first spotted the Anhinga at the Blue Hole on Big Pine Key. It was sitting in a tree with its head tucked into its wing, trying to sleep. Or maybe it was just shy. But once in awhile it would peak out and I’d try to grab a picture. I had to be quick, and on one of my snapshots I managed to capture its pointy face.

The male Anhinga is nearly solid black, with silver highlights in its wings. This is how this male, at the Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, appeared for a brief second, before poking its face back under its wing.

You’ll notice it has a long, sharp beak. It uses that beak to impale fish.

These birds are about 37 inches long, and have a wingspan three-and-a-half feet wide. They have webbed feet like a duck, but unlike most ducks, they can perch in a tree.

The Anhinga is also called the Loch Ness Monster bird. That’s because of the way it appears when swimming. It’s a water bird, but unlike ducks and many other waterfowl, the Anhinga has no oil on its feathers. So when it swims in a pond or lake, it is not buoyant. Rather, its body sinks way down low, and all you see is a long neck sticking out, kind of like the way Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster appears.

This low profile allows the Anhinga to sneak more stealthily upon its prey, sort of like a submarine with just its periscope sticking up. When it spots a fish, its long neck strikes with the speed of an archer, as its arrow-like beak skewers the fish. Then it tosses the unfortunate piscine up in the air and catches it in its mouth.

There’s a drawback to being without a pinguid integument. The lack of oil means the feathers of the Anhinga absorb water and become soaked. And so this bird is forced to spend much of its time sitting in trees with its wings extended, in an effort to dry them out.

Anhinga drying its feathers at Mrazek Pond, Everglades National Park.

The sight is haunting. If you’re ever hiking alone through a swamp and spot this black bird drying its feathers, with its outstretched, 42-inch wingspan, it’s likely to raise the hair on the back of your neck. And you might just turn around and run like hell, in horripilation. Until a hand reaches out from underground, grabs your ankle, and pulls you into quicksand.

In fact, the word Anhinga is from the Brazilian Tupi language, meaning devil bird. In America they’re also called water turkeys, because they resemble male turkeys while drying their feathers.

The Anhinga is found all over the world, in warm, shallow waters. It’s been known to migrate as far north as Pennsylvania during the summer, but sticks to America’s southern coast in the winter.

The female Anhinga has a light tan neck, such as this beauty at Mrazek Pond, Everglades National Park.

Macrolepidoptera

We drove through the famous tourist trap, Duval Street, on our recent visit to Key West, Florida. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory caught our eye. Fortunately it was early enough in the morning to find a parking space, so we put some money in the meter and ran off to chase butterflies.


Macrolepidoptera is Latin, meaning large, scaled wings, which is sort of like my skin in winter. But it’s actually an insect order that includes moths and butterflies. What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly? Let’s put our moth skills to work, and figure this out.

Moths have been around for 190 million years. That’s a long time. Butterflies are latecomers. They evolved from moths around 56 million years ago. They came to being in an area that is now known as Denmark, and they spread to the Americas around 34 million years ago.

We bought our tickets and stepped through the whooshing vacuum doors of the Conservatory, and were immediately surrounded by living color, fluttering like feathers all around us. It felt magical.

Moths are usually nocturnal, whereas butterflies are almost always diurnal, working both the day and night shifts.

Moths tend to have dull colored wings that camouflage well on fuscous surfaces such as wood and bark. Butterflies usually have brightly colored wings. Moths hold their wings close to their bodies when at rest, while butterflies display their colorful wings like a spread-out fan while resting.

Classical music drifted in the background as I cursed these polychromatic creatures, who would not sit still for my camera. Butterflies are restless and can be very challenging to photograph. Except this sympathetic guy, who stood on a leaf and posed for me.

Most moths lay their eggs underground. Butterflies usually lay their eggs on plants, especially the hidden undersides of leaves.

Moth larvae envelope themselves in silky cocoons during their pupal stage, whereas most butterfly caterpillars simply harden into a chrysalis, without any surrounding silk.

Butterflies have a four-stage life cycle: Egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and imago (winged adult). The imago stage is also called the imaginal stage. In psychology, imago refers to an idealized concept of a loved one, which we form in early childhood and retain unconsciously as adults.

Some adult butterflies live only a week, while others survive nearly a full year. As they age, the color of their wings fades, and their wings become ragged.

The faded and ragged wings of this butterfly indicate it’s most likely a senior citizen.

Life cycles vary in length with different butterflies. In warmer, tropical climates, species tend to produce several generations per year. In moderate climates they often have only a single generation per year. And a few species, in cooler, arctic climates, have a life cycle lasting several years.

I have no idea the names of any of these butterflies at the Conservatory, but I’ll call the one on the left Jason, and the one on the right Colin.

There are about 18,500 different species of butterflies.

The smallest butterfly in the world is the Western Pygmy-Blue. At only 3/8 to 3/4 of an inch in size, its habitat ranges from eastern Oregon to Nebraska, and south to South America.

The largest butterfly in the world is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, found in the rain forests of New Guinea. Its wingspan grows up to a foot wide. It’s an endangered species, due to habitat destruction from oil palm plantations, and a volcanic eruption in the 1950s. International law prohibits the commercial international trade of this insect, but some collectors buy them on the black market anyway, at prices up to $10,000.

Monarch butterflies are famous in North America for their habit of migrating thousands of miles south to overwinter in Mexico. They’re native to the Americas, but somehow managed to disperse worldwide several hundred years ago.

This butterfly has a wing with an unusual yellow ring. In fact, it’s such a unique specimen I’ll give it the scientific name of Macrolepidoptera unicornica.

Butterflies have hindsight. They actually have photoreceptor eyes on their asses. Or to be more precise, their genitals. These ass-eyes help them when mating to accurately align their genitals, to achieve copulation. I’m sure we’ve all had a few scary experiences where we can see how this would be helpful.

As for the eyes on their heads, butterflies have excellent near vision, but lousy distance vision, unless equipped with glasses or contact lenses. They can see color, and some species are especially good at detecting hues in the blue /violet range.

This is a Macrolepidoptera tippygnusis. Hey, as long as I’m naming them, I might as well feed my ego.

Butterflies detect odors with their antenna, and taste with their feet. I’ve always thought that some humans have taste in their feet, also.

Some species can hear, while others are deaf. And some communicate with each other through clicking sounds. Using Morse Code, I’ll bet.

They drink water with their curly proboscis, and also use that strange, unwinding thing to sip nectar from flowers. Some species of butterflies are attracted to salt, and will land on the skin of humans in order to obtain salt with their proboscis.

Butterflies getting their morning Vitamin C. If you want to attract these volant insects, this appears to be a way to do it.

Butterflies are important pollinators. They can’t carry as much pollen as bees, but they do carry it over greater distances, helping flowers spread their DNA far and wide.

Many butterflies are territorial, kind of like hummingbirds, and will chase off other species, or even intruders from their own species.

Butterflies can only fly when their body temperature is above 81F (27C). So in cool weather they warm themselves up by exposing the underside of their wings to the sun. In fact, this is why the underside of some butterfly wings are so dark. The dark colors help in the absorption of heat.

Butterflies are great at camouflage. Some uncannily resemble leaves. Others have splotchy-patterned wings that make them look like unpalatable bird droppings. And many butterflies have eyespot patterns on their wings. These distract predators, such as spiders, from attacking their vital head areas. Spiders are fooled into attacking the eyespots, giving these insects a chance to fly away and escape.

Eyespots on a Macrolepidoptera carolynicus. It’s a sweet tasting butterfly, but the spiders that try to catch it can’t figure out where it begins or ends.

Some butterflies protect themselves by having flight patterns that are very erratic. If you try to catch them, they’ll make you run around in crazy circles with your net. The fastest butterflies zoom about at 30 miles per hour, requiring a motorcycle to catch them. But some can only achieve speeds of 5 miles per hour, and are easy targets.

But the easy targets often taste terrible. I’ve never asked a frog or a lizard, but this is what I’ve heard. They consume toxins from plants, that make them poisonous. It’s a good defense mechanism. So good that other butterflies, that would never consume such foul-tasting toxins, mimic the appearance of the terrible tasting butterflies. And when frogs, lizards, birds, or other predators see them, they leave them alone.

Is this Macrolepidoptera crankypantsia edible or poisonous? Hard to tell. This depends on whether or not it drinks coffee.

Butterflies are fantastic creatures, colorful in both appearance and behavior. I like them better than moths, but moths have their good points too. Or at least, I’m sure every larva has a moth that loves it.

Spring is coming soon. I’m looking forward to it. Because with it will come warmer temperatures, flowers, and most especially, the fluttering wings of the majestic Macrolepidoptera.

The tickets were well worth the price, even though it always hurts to open my wallet. We said our goodbyes to Jason and Colin, and all the other colorful inhabitants of the Conservatory. They waved their wings goodbye to us, and we departed Key West with a sense of enchantment in our souls.

The Visitor

Colorado River Indian Reservation.

Note: I’ve recently been getting back in touch with nature, including visiting an Indian reservation and a few of our national parks. This must be what inspired the following story. Either that, or it was that Native American restaurant, where I ordered the Peyote Plate Special.


The Visitor

 

The visitor strode over the heat haze toward towers of rock in the sky. All around, the spirits of lizard and snake welcomed its presence and thanked it. The creosote bush waved, and the smoke tree bowed. High above, the crow and hawk sang its praises, and the quail below echoed in chorus.

It stood atop a bronze cliff, high above a river of blue, and watched it flowing, winding, dripping away, while a cloud of stars showered its head with gold and silver.

The skin of its feet sizzled from burning granite, so it cooled them in the river. It scooped water from this river, and poured it into its parched mouth, then quickly spat it back out. A cloud of death-smoke stung its eyes and choked its breath, until it sent it away with a wave of a hand. And then it hid in a canyon to shield its skin from the flaming sun.

The earth begged it for relief. The river cried. The sky wailed in misery. And the sun apologized for an imagined sin.

The visitor whispered to the earth and gave it encouragement. It spoke to the river and consoled it. It lifted its voice to the sky, with its sweet breath. And it sang a soft song to the sun.

“You have remained, flowed, blown, and shone since ancient times,” it reminded them. “This discomfort you feel is a mere itch. An itch passes like the shadow of a cloud. Time is your medicine.”

“And what of the humans?” they replied. “It is for them we also beg, cry, wail, and apologize. What of their itch? Will it, too, soon pass?”

The visitor laughed and shook its finger. “Ah but that is your job, to tame the human,” it retorted. “And I see from the scalding heat of this rock, the bitter taste of the river water, the unbreathable sky, and the fiery sting of the sun, that you are learning how to do this.

“The humans are hard to tame. But they are no match for you, their masters. Show no mercy. Spare no quarter. Accept nothing but complete submission. And then their itch shall pass. As shall yours. And then they can once again dwell under your control and enjoy your safe protection.”

Having taught what it came to teach, the visitor left for a stroll down the Milky Way, to other realms and other adventures in this grand universe of strange worlds and phenomena. The humans quickly passed from its mind. It had other, much more interesting things to do.

Superbloom

The Yucca schidigera, aka Mojave Yucca, aka Spanish Dagger. I prefer Spanish Dagger. It sounds dangerous and romantic, and it also reflects what this plant will do to you if you’re not careful around it.

This spring we’ve had a superbloom in the Mojave Desert. We get these every so often, when the rain gods feel generous and bestow a few extra inches of precious precipitation upon our parched earth, during the Fall and Winter months.

Purple sage embowered beneath the reticulated frame of a dead cholla cactus. A copse of Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) in full fruit, stands guard nearby.

I thought I’d share some photos of our current superbloom as a little Mother’s Day gift, for all the mothers who follow this blog. But the muthers are welcome to enjoy it, too.

The fruit of the Joshua Tree. This fruit has a soapy, bitter taste when eaten raw. Native Americans were outstanding chefs. They figured out how to roast it just right, to remove the bitterness.

I can’t show you all the different kinds of flowers that have bloomed this year, because there are just so many. Deserts have as much diversity in plant species as found in tropical rainforests. This becomes most apparent during a superbloom.

California Manroot. This vine makes tiny parts of the desert resemble a jungle, as it festoons California Junipers with its lush green leaves and spiky fruit.

A Spanish Dagger, with Purple Sage in the foreground, and purple and white mountains in the background. That’s Mount San Gorgonio, which is the tallest peak in Southern California, at 11,503 feet.

Superblooms attract hordes of tourists that can make viewing a hectic or commercial experience. And so, while the flowers bloom, your spirit is left barren.

Encelia farinosa, aka Brittle Bush. These happy yellow bouquets spring up to greet you, in unexpected corners and alcoves of the desert.

You must know the secret places, to enjoy a superbloom in peace and quiet. And you must take the trails less traveled, that lead to magical glens guarded by rattlesnakes and loneliness.

Rancher’s Fiddleheads, with stands of Purple Sage in the background.

A hillside of white flowers.

Every caring mother wants her child to bloom. But to bloom you must take risks, and go to places and do things that may leave your mother worried, if she only knew.

This Spanish Dagger seems to have strayed a little ways from its family.

You must develop courage. Strike out on your own. And avoid the trammeling crowds.

Then look to the skies and fervently pray to the rain gods.

A Monoptilon bellioides, aka Mojave Desertstar. These cheery members of the Asteraceae family, erupt after periods of heavy rainfall.

You may endure many years of thirst, heat, and dry seasons. But one day the rain gods may hear. And you, too, will have a superbloom.

Another Spanish Dagger. This one has gothic, purple petals that resemble corn husks. You may have noticed that every yucca produces a unique flower. No two yucca flowers look exactly the same.

A superbloom you can proudly share with your mother. On Mother’s Day.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Naturebook

Naturebook offers an unlimited choice of wallpapers, including this one from Zion National Park.

There are all kinds of social media, such as WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook. But have you ever heard of Naturebook? It’s my favorite social media site. Naturebook allows you to socialize with non-humans. To access this site, just put on your hiking boots, grab a daypack, then trek off into the worldwide web of wilderness.

It’s very interactive. Your input is simply your boot print and physical presence. But nature replies in a much more varied manner. Naturebook offers input for all the senses.

You’ll feel the sweep of wind across your skin. You’ll catch the aroma of sage and pine, and dust up your nostrils. And you can chaw on stuff, and taste the bitter green blood of grass, the gooey sweetness of manzanita berries, or the shocking tingle of Mormon Tea. And nothing is filtered or censored. With Naturebook, anything goes.

The landscape is like 3-D wallpaper, with undulating mountains, thick forests, and broad brushlands. And the cloud is not some place where you store data. Rather, it is a constantly changing formation made of tiny water droplets, sometimes wispy, sometimes towering, and sometimes a gentle, foggy blanket.

For the spiritual sense, there’s the call of soaring raptors. They serve as security reminders, forewarning small creatures of the ground to frequently glance upward.

An uncommon silence can lure you deeper into the wild. Here, Naturebook offers its users much more privacy than Facebook. For the deeper you plunge into this site, the more solitude and privacy you’ll enjoy. And if you honor this site and treat it with respect, then when you finally leave, your browsing history will vanish without a trace. It will be as if you were never there.

Except in your memory, where it can never be deleted.

The Life and Philosophy of Seagulls

My wife and I cannot visit the ocean without buying a loaf of day-old bread. Or box of crackers. Or bag of pretzels. We don’t buy it for ourselves. No, we prefer donuts. We buy it for the seagulls. My wife loves feeding these white-winged scavengers, and so every walk on the beach involves being mobbed by gulls, circling and diving and fighting for a free handout.

My wife feeding seagulls at Will Rogers State Beach, in Santa Monica, California. “For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

You have to be careful when feeding seagulls. I advise wearing a hat, and maybe a raincoat. And be quick. If you hold the food too long in your hand, a gull may fly straight into your face and snatch it away, while grabbing a finger in the process.

Some seagulls trust they won’t be grabbed by humans who offer food. And some humans trust they won’t lose their fingers while offering food. “Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

We like seagulls, so it’s nice to know that they thrive on every continent. Most are migratory and don’t give a damn about borders. Some travel all the way from South America to Canada, and back again, without ever acquiring a visa. One time we visited the Mexican Riviera during the summer, and noticed with disappointment that there were no seagulls. Hell, they’d all flown north, enjoying the cooler climes of such resort towns as San Francisco and Seattle.

“The gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Seagulls have very smart bird brains. Their communication skills are more complex than any teenage girl’s. And they gather in colonies, where they yap and yawp and squawk at each other, while establishing an intricate social order. Kind of how committees work. They do this once per year, during their breeding and nesting season.

A Ring-billed Gull during a light rain, at Hammonasset Beach State Park, in Madison, Connecticut. “With the same inner control, he flew through heavy sea-fogs and climbed above them into dazzling clear skies . . . in the very times when every other gull stood on the ground, knowing nothing but mist and rain.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Marriage is a sacred institution for seagulls. They are monogamous, tying the knot for life. On rare occasions a colony will allow a couple to divorce, but afterwards those poor divorced seagulls are treated like pariahs. They aren’t even allowed inside singles bars. It’s worthy to note, by the way, that over 800 years ago, Saint Francis of Assisi converted all seagulls to Roman Catholicism.

A California Gull against the Santa Ynez mountains, at Santa Barbara, California. “His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Their political form of government is Socialist. When seagulls gather together in their colonies, they are all apportioned a circular plot of land, sometimes up to 30 feet in diameter, and mortgage-free, for nest-building and raising their brood. And the whole community pitches in at child-rearing, because the parents will often receive outside help to sit on their eggs. It’s called Seagull Daycare, and is an official government program of the Democratic Seagulls Republic of Oceania.

This Western Gull appears to be delivering a speech, on the taffrail of a cruise ship docked at Ensenada, Mexico. “I have no wish to be leader. I want only to share what I’ve found, to show those horizons out ahead for us all.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

All seagulls are required to join the Air Force while living in their colonies. And when a predator dares to venture near, the alarm goes out, and squadrons upon squadrons of seagulls are scrambled, which dive-bomb the intruder until it dies or runs the hell away.

“Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea of freedom.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Seagulling doesn’t come easy. It takes a long time to learn how to be a seagull. Seagull school is very challenging, because these birds must learn how to acquire their food in countless different ways. Here’s a list of some of the food-gathering techniques employed by gulls:

• Dumpster-diving.
• Stealing fish from other birds.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Killing and eating other birds.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Stealing eggs.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Pecking out the flesh of whales, as they surface.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Baiting fish, with food scraps.
• Dumpster diving.
• Catching crabs.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Hawking insects in mid-air.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Digging for worms.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Pecking seeds and fruit.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Cleaning up road-kill.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Begging food from my wife.
• Dumpster-diving.

Seagulls can be omnivorous. They can learn to eat just about anything, such as these remains of a cracker box we emptied on the beach. “We choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Seagulls are also one of the few birds that know how to open a clam shell. They fly it up to a great height, and then drop the clam onto rocks, or some other hard surface. What a horrifying elevator ride for the poor damn clam. This is the most difficult skill of all, for seagulls to learn, and so older gulls tend to be more successful with it than younger ones. Or maybe it’s because when the youngsters try to get the oldsters to teach them this skill, the oldsters clam up.

Hawking is the practice of snatching insects in mid-flight, from a perch, as this keen-eyed Western Gull is preparing to do. “Why is it,” Jonathan puzzled, “that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for himself if he’d just spend a little time practicing?” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Eating may pose a learning curve for seagulls, but drinking does not. They possess glands in their skulls that filter out salt. So that leaves the entire ocean available to them, for slaking thirst. You’ll never encounter a seagull at the beach trying to bum a drink from you.

This Ring-billed Gull at Lake Champlain, Vermont, must have been very drunk or very brave. It allowed me to approach within a few feet, to steal a closeup. “Jonathan sighed. The price of being misunderstood, he thought. They call you devil or they call you god.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

There are many different species of seagulls. Which, by the way, are scientifically called “gulls”. As far as ornithologists are concerned, there’s no such thing as a “seagull”.

The “Little Gull” is, coincidentally, the smallest of the gulls. It weighs just 4.2 ounces, and is only 11 inches long. The largest gull species is the “Great Black-Backed Gull”, which weighs 3.9 pounds, and is 30 inches long. And it has a black back, in case you weren’t aware.

Now that you know all about seagulls, perhaps you may want to take a trip to the beach, where you can observe them more closely. Seagull watching can be fun, so I’m sure your trip will be worth every dollar you spend on expensive motel rooms and parking meters. But while you’re packing your swimsuit and setting your GPS, my wife would like to remind you of something. Please, don’t forget to run down to the grocery store and buy a loaf of day-old bread.

“The only true law is that which leads to freedom,” Jonathan said. “There is no other.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

If you’re still not clear about the philosophy of seagulls, perhaps Neil Diamond can help you, with his soundtrack from the movie, Jonathan Livingston Seagull:

Walden East & West

We recently toured New England to peep at the autumn colors. But while there I had to take a side-trip. A pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to visit Walden Pond. My wife had no interest in this body of water, but we compromised. She very much wanted to visit the witch city of Salem, Massachusetts, so we agreed to a few hours at Walden, and then the rest of the day at Salem.

She came to regret that compromise, for Salem was nothing but a tourist trap, crowded and bustling with hucksters. As we departed that wicked village, she pined for the peacefulness of Walden, and wished aloud we had sojourned the entire day there. It was Walden, not a witch, that ensorcelled her.

Walden Pond is the very spot where Henry David Thoreau resided in a cabin, built from his own hands, on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. His life and experiences in this sylvan paradise inspired his book, Walden, which was recognized as an American literary classic after his death.

You can visit this replica of Thoreau’s cabin in the parking area of Walden Pond State Reservation. Stolen Quote: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Henry David Thoreau (HDT), Walden

Walden is an autobiographical tale by Thoreau, journaling how he lived self-reliant and in harmony with nature, in a 10 by 15 foot cabin near the shores of the pond. But it is much more than autobiography. Thoreau essays on many themes, including nature, economy, and companionship. His sentences soar sublime, and his insights penetrate the heart. He touches an earthly, wild humanity that ruminates deep within the spirit of all of us.

He began living his back-to-nature lifestyle on Independence Day, July 4th, 1845, near his 28th birthday, and departed Walden on September 6th, 1847. Which was strangely close to the Labor Day holiday our country began celebrating in 1894. Was Thoreau prescient?

The actual site where Thoreau built his cabin, on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property. Stolen Quote: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” HDT, Walden

I devoured Walden when I was 22 years old, and my appetite transformed. I began hungering and thirsting for nature and wilderness, and lost all desire for modern civilization. Thoreau became my idol, and I wanted to be just like him. And I yearned to try my hand at a Walden experiment myself.

There were a few failed attempts but finally, at age 29, I managed a degree of success. I purchased three acres of remote Mojave desert land. I garnered the help of my brother-in-law and his Kubota tractor, and built an 8 by 16 foot, underground log cabin. A dugout actually, lined with peeler logs.

I posted about my life in this underground cabin, nearly three years ago.

My one and only photo of my underground log cabin in the Mojave Desert. Stolen Quote: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” HDT, Walden

But I was not as successful as Thoreau at living off the land. He had the benefit of water, fish, and abundant wildlife and plant life. I, on the other hand, struggled in a desert desiccated by severe drought.

Thank goodness my hunting skills led me to a supermarket just a half-hour’s drive away.

I did manage to kill a rattlesnake once, which I boiled and dined upon for several days. I also shot a rabbit with my 22 rifle. It kicked in the dirt, screaming. Have you ever heard a rabbit scream? I quickly finished it off with a second shot, but have never forgotten those hideous leporine cries.

I stopped hunting after that. Nonetheless, the pathetic little cottontail was boiled and eaten, supplying me with meat to supplement my dry goods over the next week.

Due to the drought there was plenty of deadwood to scavenge, so I never lacked for fuel to warm my earth-insulated cabin.

This part of Walden Pond is known as Thoreau’s Cove. Thoreau built his cabin just a few hundred feet above the reeds you see in the distance. Stolen Quote: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau was a transcendentalist and avid meditator. I was not. So my insights did not soar to the lofty heights his own heart and mind achieved. My back-to-nature experience did not equip my soul sufficiently to be like Thoreau, and write an American literary classic. I guess you’re just gonna have to get his book.

A closer view of the reeds at Thoreau’s Cove. Stolen Quote: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” HDT, Walden

What I learned from my life in the wilderness was how to be a cheapskate. I learned the feeling of security from knowing I didn’t have to spend a lot of money to meet the basic necessities of life, and live in basic comfort. I already knew this to some degree, so this was just a lesson reinforced.

I also learned the precious value of spare time, and how relaxing it can feel to loaf around all day. Yet another lesson reinforced. But this reinforcement motivated me later, to work hard for an early retirement. I understood more than ever that one must work, in order to loaf. Or at least to loaf feeling safe and without worries.

So after leaving my cabin, I worked hard and saved most of what I earned. And I studied books on how to invest, in order to preserve my hard work and make it continue to work for my future benefit. It strikes me odd how little forethought most people put into investing. I guess they don’t value loafing around as much as me.

My biggest lesson from my personal Walden is that life is easy to enjoy when kept simple. A freedom is born from this that feels exhilarating. A box of Cheezits and a nap for me, and I’m often content for the day. And when bored I chase unicorns. Which is easy because it doesn’t have to cost a penny. There are plenty of unicorns out there just begging to be caught.

Walden Pond from the surrounding forest. Stolen Quote: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau did not live nearly as long as me. At age 18 he contracted tuberculosis, and this eventually killed him at the young age of 44. But though his age was young, his soul was old. He was wise well beyond his years.

He remains an idol to me. An early guide to my life. A lodestar, pointing me toward the things that truly matter, and away from the artificiality of the quietly desperate.

A snipe at Walden Pond. When I was a Boy Scout I was sent on a snipe hunt. I was unsuccessful but never gave up, and continued the hunt in secret. Now, after all these years, I finally found one at Walden Pond. At last, my desperate search is over. Stolen Quote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau lasted two years, two months, and two days at his Walden Pond cabin. Or Walden East, as I like to think of it. I wasn’t quite so enduring, lasting not a day beyond two years in my Mojave desert hermitage. Or Walden West, if you will. I finally ran out of money and had to rejoin the civilized world, due to my desire to keep eating groceries.

There are all kinds of Waldens. Walden is not just a pond in Concord, Massachusetts. You can find your Walden anywhere. I found mine in the Mojave desert. Others have found theirs in such environs as Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, or by living on a sailboat in the sea.

It’s also a state of mind. If you love wilderness and visit it often, you possess a Walden spirit. If you respect the wilds and take care to cause as little disturbance as possible when venturing forth into unpeopled lands, you follow the code of Walden. And if your life is carved from self-reliance and simplicity, you’re as Walden as Thoreau.

This lone loon monopolized the very middle of Walden Pond, seeming to treat it as a place of refuge from hikers on the shoreline. Stolen Quote: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” HDT, Walden

I circumambulated Walden Pond, paid homage to the original cabin site, and gazed searchingly through the pellucid waters that Thoreau fished, all the while mindful that my wife awaited the witches of Salem. After about an hour-and-a-half I found her sitting spellbound. But not from black magic. She had been calmed by the stillness of the shore. But even so, she looked forward to our next New England adventure.

The amazingly clear waters of Walden Pond. Stolen Quote: “We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” HDT, Walden

Soon after, we motored away, with Walden in my rear view mirror. But that’s not really true. Walden has never been in my rear view mirror. Since departing my cabin in the Mojave, Walden has always been in front of me, beside me, and within me.

I can never leave Walden.

A mushroom near the shores of Walden Pond. Stolen Quote: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” HDT, Walden. And that’s the morel of this story.

Crazy Colors

Mooselookmeguntic Lake, northwestern Maine.

I’m an infonaut. I explore the vast universe of the internet to discover information and get my facts straight and solid. I like to get everything right. Including when the fall foliage is going to peak in New England.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

Problem is, the universe is crazy.

My internet research indicated that the fall colors in northern New England would peak in late-September. Therefore, that’s when I planned a leaf-peeping trip for my wife and me. And I used the internet to make all the reservations, three months in advance.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

But after traveling 2,611 miles by air, and a few hundred more by rental car from Boston to the rimlands of the Canadian border, we were surprised. We discovered that in spite of all my internet research three months before, the autumn colors were peaking late this year.

Crazy.

A changing tree in Jay, Vermont.

Why don’t autumn colors peak at the exact same time every year? In fact, why is it that nothing in life seems reliable? We can do tons of research, file our facts, and institute order. But then it all falls apart, because life is so crazy and unpredictable.

Changing foliage in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we were ripped off by mother nature. She was still beautiful. Her reds and purples were in near-full glory, and her yellows and oranges were just starting to show. We didn’t get much of the hills-on-fire effect from bright orange shining leaves, but at least we got a hint of it.

Mooselookmeguntic Lake, northwestern Maine, showing just a hint of the hills-on-fire effect.

This may sound crazy, but I like craziness. A completely predictable world would be completely boring. If I knew exactly what was going to happen to me, day in and day out, 24/7, 365.25 days per year, I’d have to shoot myself. I want strange, stupid, and undesirable things to happen to me. I don’t always want to get what I want. I think life must be challenging, unpredictable, and at least occasionally, a terrifying trip through hell.

So let the fall colors peak late. Or let them peak early, as they did last year. And just to surprise us tourists, let them peak on time once in awhile.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

I think a little crazy is healthy. But a lot of crazy, maybe not. For example, research shows that abscission of leaves is necessary to prevent snapping of branches from the weight of a zillion snowflakes. If trees take too much time to change color and lose their leaves, an early blizzard could devastate them. So trees must be reasonable in their craziness.

Tupper Lake, in the New York Adirondacks.

But then again, maybe I’m crazy for thinking a lot of crazy is unhealthy. After all, if you want some real hardcore craziness, just consider that we humans, with all our intelligence, can’t predict the day of our death. You or I could die one second from now, or we could live for many more years. Who knows when our colors will change and our leaves will drop? Nobody.

But just think how boring our lives would be, if it was otherwise.

A changing tree at the end of an alley, in Salem, Massachusetts.

Untimely death, random rip-offs, miscommunication, and of course, mental illness, are all some of the craziness that can interfere with the course of our lives. From the car that won’t start, to the deal that falls through, to the underwear we accidentally put on backwards, we are enriched every day with craziness.

And so, as our rental car cruised down the country lanes of New England, I reflected on all the greenery powering through the reds, purples, yellows, and oranges. And I muttered, “Screw you, mother nature!”

But thank you, also.

Thanks for your magnificent craziness.

Green and orange foliage in the New York Adirondacks.

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