The Highlands

 

A Hulu Wigman in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

A Hulu Wigman in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Well, my adventures continue apace, as we travel to some of the most remote and isolated places on Earth.  Truly, there is nothing quite like this country, which extends from the ocean and wet tropics to mountains higher than the Alps, and deep valleys where it is downright cold at night and the suspicion among tribes – even those in the next valley – runs as deep as it has for centuries.

The sign greeting us at the airport in Tari

The sign greeting us at the airport in Tari

When we landed in Tari up in the Highlands of PNG, there were throngs of people at the airport.  When we inquired why, we were told that they were waiting for the delivery of The Post Courier, the daily newspaper which our plane carried and that had news of the continuing corruption scandal with the Prime Minister and some of his cronies.  To see some men with headdresses and skirts made of leaves, sporting bare chests, machetes and partially painted faces waiting for the daily paper was a juxtaposition that captures one of the many mysteries about PNG.  Add to that the fact that even the most desolate stretch of road has little stands to top up your minutes and data plans for your cell phones that even the most traditional people have, and you begin to understand this country that I am traveling in, a place at once a throwback to decades, if not centuries, ago, and yet one where little smart and bright eyed village girls chat you up and share their dreams of becoming lawyers and scientists.

PNG is a richly diverse country culturally, with over 800 spoken languages, many of them used in just one village due to the extreme difficulty of getting anywhere, and especially in the mountains.  The first white men came to The Highlands only in 1930, led by three Australian brothers named Leahy, who came and did what most colonizers do: they looked, they took and they profited handsomely at the expense of the local people, irrevocably altering the course of their lives in the process.  A fascinating 1982 documentary called First Contact details that era in the Highlands, and it interviewed local Highland people who were alive at the time of the Leahys and knew and worked for them, or in the case of the women, were sometimes literally sold to the brothers as common law wives and bore mixed race children with lighter features and hair, some of whom we saw as we passed through villages.  The film also interviewed the two surviving Leahy brothers, and the difference in perspectives is not only fascinating, it is deeply disturbing. A group of us watched it on a rainy afternoon at Ambua Lodge (it rained almost all of the time we were up there- and this is the dry season), and I recommend it highly for anyone who plans to visit this part of PNG.

The men of the Highlands often wear some type of natural hair ornamentation

The men of the Highlands often wear some type of natural head ornamentation. This is Thomas, one of our local guides. 

 

A ribbon tailed Austrapia, one of many Birds of Paradise that we've seen so far

A Ribbon Tailed Astrapia, one of many Birds of Paradise that we’ve seen so far

A man and his head wear, a common sight up in the Highlands

A man and his head wear, a common sight up in the Highlands

A Berry pecker

A crested Berrypecker

We stayed at Ambua Lodge, a series of thatched roof huts in a spectacular setting and, most importantly, with wonderful fruiting trees that drew all manner of gorgeous birds, including several species of Birds of Paradise.  To see these gorgeous birds up close, long tails fluttering behind them like banners on small planes that fly over beach towns, throats that turn iridescent shades of blue and purple when the light hits them, is to feel yourself part of something truly magical and mystical.  I forgot the rain, my worsening sinus and ear infection and the general discomfort of hours spent on buses, and just appreciated a beauty so ancient and sacred and, frankly, so designed to lure and woo (after all, what bird needs a four foot long tail?) that I understood in my bones why every female bird within miles was drawn to the males’ extraordinary displays.  We watched a male Ribbon Tail Astrapia fly across the road one morning and then settle in a nearby tree and preen himself, deftly swishing and tossing his pristine four foot long white tail.  I can only imagine the envy that all of the  men in our group must have felt just then.

 

 

Rubber Plantations and The Coast

A rubber plantation

A rubber plantation

A pied cormorant

A pied cormorant

Spotted whistling ducks in a pond near the coast

Spotted whistling ducks in a pond near the coast

A Bee eater, one of my favorite birds here

A Bee eater, one of my favorite birds here

 

Each day, we head out in a different direction to find new birds. No matter where we go, though, I’m always glad to leave Port Moresby behind.  I want to be charitable towards it, because I am a visitor, but after four days of using this city as a base, I have to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that Port Moresby is without doubt the ugliest, dirtiest and least charming city I’ve ever been in.  Period. Not only that, but the world travelers that make up this group of birders have collectively been just about everywhere, on every continent, and none of them could think of a less appealing capital city than the one in which we currently find ourselves.  All of which makes getting on the bus at 5:15 a.m. every morning considerably more tolerable in my opinion.

Today we headed towards the east coast of Papua New Guinea, about sixty miles from Port Moresby, in the hopes of picking up some shore birds and, along the way, various and sundry others, like the Emperor Fairywren, which made a brief but memorable impression (but which, alas, I could not photograph due to its fleeting appearance in a dark wooded area), and the totally adorable Dusky Lori, which flies in great flocks around cocoanut plantations.

As some of us on the trip find spending hour after hour looking for specific birds tedious, I won’t linger on them much today.  Instead, what I found most compelling – and thought provoking – about was the three hours’ ride through the rural PNG landscape, all of it desperately poor, without basic sanitation services, electricity, decent roads, medical services or even shops, except for roadside stands that seem to sell primarily betel nuts, a mild narcotic that stains the teeth and gums bright red.  Perhaps betel nuts are so popular here because it makes people forget just how abject their poverty is, just how little their government provides them, and just how huge the gap is between rich and poor, the latter seeming to be high government officials who are mired in yet another corruption scandal, while almost everyone else scratches out a living mostly from subsistence agriculture. We pass plot after plot of small gardens, all of them being watered by hand from jugs or buckets that women carry up from streams and rivers. There is not a tractor to be seen, an irrigation system in sight, or even an animal like an ox or horse that could minimize the hard labor involved in trying to grow enough food to just stay alive.

For a long stretch of road, all that I saw was mile upon mile of perfectly planted rubber plantations on both sides of the road. They are the source of all the rubber that makes our tires and the rubber fittings for our expensive binoculars, just to name a few things.  Each tree has a rubber bucket on a peg, which calls to mind the wooden stiles and metal buckets used or the maple sugaring industry throughout New England.  But whereas miles of plastic tubing have replaced the gathering of maple sap in most places, here in Papua New Guinea, the dirty and hard work of collecting rubber sap is done by men, women and children who live in the most rudimentary of shack, basically a raised and, if they are lucky, enclosed platform. Fire, their source of heat and cooking fuel, as well as garbage disposal, is omnipresent here inside the shacks and outside.  As we pass the workers, they wave cheerily at the bus load of white tourists while we cover them in yet another layer of grit and grime that not only coats every tree within 200 yards of the road, but probably the lining of everyone’s lungs, as well. A few miles later, the coconut plantations begin and stretch right to the coast, and I see little boys with small machetes already at work, walking in their fathers’ bare footsteps. They, too, give us a cheerful greeting, a huge smile and a curious glance.

At moments like those, I find it hard to care about birding in exotic places, about whether I have the right binoculars or if I will ever see over 5,000 bird species in my lifetime, as many of the people have who are on this trip. It is a contrast of wealth and poverty so stark, so jarring, and seemingly so unrectifiable to me, that I took no heed and very little pleasure in the birding today.  There but for the happenstance of life, of being born into a privileged family in the developed world, would stand I. Or you.

The ocean and the beach, which was totally deserted for miles

The ocean and the beach, which was totally deserted for miles

 

The Bird in Paradise Sees Her First Bird in Paradise

A male Ragging Bird of Paradise in a lek in Varirata National Park

A male Raggiana Bird of Paradise in a lek in Varirata National Park

The day began at 5:15 a.m., (well, actually I was up at 4)  getting on the bus and heading off in the perpetually smoky and already hot Port Moresby morning, past the piles of plastic trash that plague this city, but which the dark discreetly obscured.  An hour later, up a rutted, steep and winding road we arrived in Varirata National Park, waking up the maintenance men who sleep there in tents during the work week. The park is up around 900 meters, well above the morning mist, and we savored the cool and fresh air that lacked the acrid bite of Port Moresby’s. Twelve of us stood around like a flock of drab house sparrows in our quick dry outfits, eating our boxed breakfasts while we waited for first light and the morning chorus of bird song to begin.

I confess that I’m still ambivalent about being a part of a birding tour, especially one with nine other people and two guides, none of whom I had met until yesterday.  It makes for a lot of people trying to see the same birds at the same time in often cramped spaces, and it means that just because you don’t want to stand in the same spot of forest for an hour waiting for a single bird, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to.  There are real trade offs to this kind of arrangement, but there are also great advantages:  meeting interesting people who share your interest, and having excellent guides who make all the arrangements for you and who know pretty reliably where a certain bird can be found. I signed up for this trip primarily because PNG is not a country that I would feel safe traveling in alone, and the logistics of a trip that includes all that this Rockjumper tour does would be pretty daunting. And besides, Rich and Clayton, our guides, are flat out fantastic at what they do.

So there we were.  The morning went by excruciatingly slowly for my taste.  The birding was slow, which meant lots of standing around or moving ten feet in one direction only to be told to move back ten feet because the bird that we had been hearing for thirty minutes in one spot suddenly was calling from behind us.  By lunch, I was feeling tired and grumpy, even though we had seen some terrific birds, like a pair of Brahminy Kites sitting on a nest, a Pink Spotted Fruit Dove, and a gorgeous Variable (Dwarf) Kingfisher (actually the first of eight species of kingfisher we would see today!). I was thinking it was going to be a long afternoon, and it didn’t help that we kept hearing, but not seeing, male Raggiana Birds of Paradise somewhere close by, the one bird that all of us really wanted to see.

But after lunch, rested, revived and rehydrated, we headed to a part of the park where Rich told us there had traditionally been a lek, or display area, although he warned us that of late the birds had been especially skittish in proximity to humans and not to get our hopes up.  Still, I know my heart wasn’t the only one beating fast as we walked up the hill that overlooked the lei, and not a minute after we arrived, a gorgeous male Raggiana Bird of Paradise flew into full view, calling loudly and settling on a branch about a hundred feet away. Seconds later, another equally vocal and gorgeous male appeared, and over the next ten minutes, they called, they preened, they flew past each other, and they swooped up into the air, only to drop down again just as quickly, like fighter pilots in an air show. I hope their females were watching.

It’s hard to describe the other-worldly beauty of those birds with their blue beaks, yellow heads, black throats and incredible russet and yellow  feathers that hang down in long arcs.  Back lit in the dim forest light, the birds glowed like sunrise and sunset all in one.  It was, and will always be, one of the most wondrous things that I have ever seen. We all stayed for a long while, but after my fellow birders had their fill and left to walk down the hill towards another target bird, I lingered behind to watch  them for another ten minutes, alone in the natural cathedral, filled with gratitude and awe.

 

The Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture

One of many traditional houses from the Pacific Islands built for the two week festival. Artisans traveled great distances to participate in the festival, which occurs every four years

One of many traditional houses from the Pacific Islands built for the two week festival. Artisans traveled great distances to participate in the festival, which occurs every four years

A hand chiseled totum

A hand chiseled totem

 

 

My expectations for Port Moresby were dismal. Though it is the capital city of Papua New Guinea, I’ve never heard anyone say a good word about it, beginning with expats living in Australia and including the warm and very smart woman who sat next to me on the 75 minute Air Niugini flight over from Cairns. A native of Port Moresby, Angelyn Baker and her husband and four-year old son were returning from holiday, as people in this part of the world say, in Australia, and while it was clear that she loved her country, her feelings about her home town were mixed at best. “Oh no,” she said when I asked her whether I could walk around the city by myself during the day.  “We never walk anywhere here,” she sighed, wistfully recounting how much they loved to stroll in Cairns and other Australian cities.  “It’s just gotten to be too dangerous.”

My seat mate on the flight from Cairns to Port Moresby, Angelyn Baker was the first PNG native that I met and a dynamo

My seat mate on the flight from Cairns to Port Moresby, Angelyn Baker was the first PNG native that I met and a dynamo

By then I had glumly resigned myself to a low-key day here in the Lamana Hotel, since I was arriving a day ahead of my tour group. But when Angelyn mentioned a two-week outdoor cultural festival just ten minutes from the hotel, I knew that I had to go, even if it meant hiring someone to accompany me, which is what the concierge at the front desk insisted upon.  And so I ended up meeting Timothy, a pastor’s son and a delightful young tour guide who once worked at the Lamana Hotel himself. “You’ll be in good hands with Timothy,” the staff told me as we drove off, and indeed I was.  Not only that, but he was terrific company and didn’t even pretend not to be enjoying himself hugely, which was wonderfully refreshing for a twenty-something male. He matched me one for one on taking photos – on his smart phone.

Timothy, my guide and fellow enthusiast at the festival

Timothy, my guide and fellow enthusiast at the festival

A painting of Birds of Paradise

A painting of Birds of Paradise

Lucy, one of many extraordinary artists I met at the Melanesian Cultural Arts Festival

Lucy, one of many extraordinary artists I met at the Melanesian Cultural Arts Festival

The Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture occurs every four years and brings together artists and craftsmen from all regions of Papua New Guinea, as well as surrounding Pacific Island countries and territories like Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands. This year, the fifth time that the festival has been held, Port Moresby is playing host on a sprawling exhibition ground close to Parliament.

I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I do know that I simply wasn’t prepared for the breadth and caliber of the artists and performances we saw there, nor for the warmth of the Papua New Guineans. In meticulously constructed long houses and other traditional dwellings specially erected for the two-week festival, men and women mostly in their 50s and 60s hand chiseled totems and life-sized sea turtles or ferocious crocodiles, while in smaller huts identifying their province or nation, mostly younger women and girls wove baskets and bags from bark fibers dyed in bold colors, or made handcrafted jewelry from shells and beads.

A young girl, getting ready to dance at the festival

A young girl, getting ready to dance at the festival

A hand made basket.  Most of the crafts were available to buy

A hand made basket. Most of the crafts were available to buy

 

 

 

Wooden bowls carved from a wide variety of exotic hardwoods

Wooden bowls carved from a wide variety of exotic hardwoods

Look in another direction and you might have seen, as Timothy and I did, a group of men working on beautifully detailed sand paintings, utilizing carefully ground sandstone and other colorful local rocks that produced richly pigmented dust. The men – mostly community elders, I found out from talking with one of their wives – sprinkled the dust onto wood glue that had been spread within the borders of carefully executed drawings. Every drawing told a story, and every man there was working hard, not to promote his art individually, but to keep his village alive and preserve a way of life that fewer and fewer of the onlookers had any direct connection to. That particular group came from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where they had begun their own community project to teach the next generation of males to eventually take over the responsibility of keeping the sand painting tradition alive, thus also providing a badly needed source of income for the physically remote villages. Crime, which contributes to Port Moresby and PNG’s bad reputation, is, according to many locals, simply a function of their being very few opportunities to make money honestly in a country where education is limited and most well-paying jobs are held by Australians and Asians from Malaysia, China and Indonesia.

One of the sand painting artists. The sand is made by grinding local rocks, including sandstone

One of the sand painting artists. The sand is made by grinding local rocks, including sandstone

A dancer from the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea

A dancer from the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea

 

We spent three hours at the festival, not nearly enough time to have spoken to or even seen all of the craftsmen and women who were there. But what I did see, both in the respectful, yet joyful, demeanor of the crowds that watched the artists work and in the artists and performers themselves, was a fierce pride for this region of the Pacific, a pride forged out of something far more tangible, self-reliant and ancient than what passes for national identity in most countries these days.

Just like at any state fair, this festival had stages set up across the grounds, and at any given moment there were several dance troupes performing in competitions, all of the dancers in costumes that featured some of their region’s most notable and attractive materials, usually flawless shells and impossibly long, glossy feathers that came from Birds of Paradise and other exotic species. Thousands of families roamed the festival, and no one seemed immune to the power of what we saw in the hands and faces and feet of some of the most dignified people I’ve ever seen. Contrary to what I’d expected, I not only felt safe, but welcomed, as one of very few white people there and thus the object of countless smiles and questions. When I told people who asked that I had come from the U.S. many expressed delight that someone from the U.S. would want to visit PNG and their festival, a reaction most Americans traveling abroad these days don’t often experience.

In general, one of the most satisfying parts of the whole experience was to see it as part of a crowd of Papua New Guineans, not tourists on an arranged and usually blatantly touristy stop.  The brilliance of the Melanesian Festival is that it is intended for a local audience and is meant to instill pride in the peoples of PNG and other Pacific Island locales. I felt so fortunate and privileged to be able to experience it, and judging from the comments and reactions of others as we watched the artists at work, it achieved its goal in a brilliant fashion.

A young boy and his father take in a performance at the festival

A young boy and his father take in a performance at the festival

Port Moresby, I think I may owe you an apology.

Independence Day in Cairns, Australia

Cairns Marina, a popular jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia

Cairns Marina, a popular jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia

A Night Heron

A Night Heron

A Rainbow lorikeets in Cairns

A Rainbow lorikeet in Cairns

Some of the members of the local bird club

Some of the members of the local bird club

 

A Masked Lapwing on the mud flats in Cairns

A Masked Lapwing on the mud flats in Cairns

 

On the Esplanade

On the Esplanade

Checking me into the Shangri-La hotel this morning after three flights and a total of 20 hours in the air not counting layovers, the pretty young Chinese woman at the reception desk smiled as she took my passport.  “Happy Freedom Day,” she said.  “Isn’t that what Americans call your big holiday today?”

And in fact, it did feel like freedom day. Freedom from pressurized cabins and thin synthetic blankets; freedom to be roaming again in exotic places where rainbow lorikeets congregate by the dozens in trees just outside my window; and freedom from my married name, which though I had loved it for 19 years, I typed out on a small piece of paper, wrapped it around my wedding ring and threw it as far as I could into the Chesapeake Bay the morning I had left home.  The last time I was in Cairns, almost exactly thirty years ago, I’d been a Lehmann, too, and though the city and I had both changed substantially, we still recognized each other.  Back in 1984, I’d taken a bus from Sydney up the east coast of Australia all through the day and night and into the next day, too, finally arriving here in Cairns where I boarded a dive boat for a week on the Great Barrier Reef. This time the journey had been longer, but the time to get here was about the same.   The marina didn’t look anything like it does now. There weren’t many foreigners then, and the city seemed run down and like a backwater, very unlike the casino-sporting tourist destination it is today, bursting with Australian families, as well as Germans, Chinese and Russians, all filling the hotels that line the beautiful boardwalk, or Esplanade as they call it, that goes for miles.

Camera and binoculars in hand, I walked for hours along the Esplanade, at times swimming against the tide of people and at others flowing along with it, all of us in giant schools that undulated and parted for the others.  Street buskers were everywhere, one man singing the Delta blues, while fifty feet away a young duo strummed acoustic guitars and harmonized on old folk songs. Lorikeets screeched as they preened for each other, and close by, families and flocks of vacationers just like me floated in the giant outdoor pool that all but laps the ocean, surrounded by sparkling white sand that the city brought in by the truckloads when it built the whole park.  It was one of the most contagiously happy places I’d ever been, and it didn’t matter whether they were young or old, just about everyone had a smile on their faces. At 6:00 p.m. as the sun was setting, scores of us, residents and tourists alike, took part in a large outdoor exercise class that was somewhere between Zumba and Mambo, with appropriately loud, upbeat music.

The concierge at my hotel had consulted the tide chart at my request and told me that 4:00 p.m. today would be the best time to visit the famous mud flats, which appear when the tide recedes. The mud flats draw waders (and birders) from as far away as Siberia, and they’re rumored to host some of the highest diversity of waders species anywhere on the planet during the right seasons. I knew I’d found a good spot to look for them when I spotted a bench full of older men with Swarovski spotting scopes and expensive cameras. “Is this the local bird club meeting?” I joked with a grin, and the men graciously invited me to join them and sit for a while.  I mostly listened while they told the same stories that birders the world over do, interrupting themselves only to point out something that they thought I should see. “Notice that our Oyster Catcher is different from yours,” or “Isn’t that a nice flock of Australian Swiftlets?”  After a while, they apologized that it wasn’t a very good afternoon out there. I disagreed, because just about all of the birds I saw were uncommon for me, but they insisted that,  “A month later would be much better. Most of the migrants haven’t returned yet, so why don’t you come back after your PNG trip?”  They all laughed when I said I couldn’t.  “Well next time, then,” Andy, one of the men, said. “You know where to find us now.” I thanked them for their hospitality and knowledge and promised that next time I’m in Cairns for more than 24 hours I’ll look them up.  With that, I went off to find the Night Herons they had told me were roosting right across the street from the MacDonald’s. It was probably the first time I’ve ever been eager to find those damn golden arches, but I sure was happy to find the herons.

Happy Independence Day.

 

Missing the Farm, Making a New Home

ImageI lived on a farm for many years, a beautiful place that I loved with all of my heart. My ex-husband, Ed, used to joke that I wouldn’t have married him if he hadn’t owned the farm when I met him, and I always laughed when he said that, but there was some truth to it.

I fell in love with the farm just as much as I did with Ed. It was 90 acres of gently spooling Maryland farmland when I married him, and 135 acres when I left.  We undertook many conservation practices together to improve the land and make it much healthier environmentally, as well as more inviting to wildlife. First and foremost, we stopped using pesticides and gradually phased out the rental farmers who continued to do so.  Then Ed started a successful nursery growing plants for green, or living, roofs, which help to mitigate storm water run off.  And in place of corn and soybean fields, we allowed some of the land to revert to native grasses, which we mowed just once or twice a year, helping ground-nesting birds to complete their breeding cycles. In other spots, we planted native meadows that drew all manner of wonderful pollinators, and with USDA assistance we stopped allowing our animals to graze in streams and fenced them out of them, planting native trees to help stop erosion. We also dug a vernal pond, which became the go-to mating spot for lusty amphibians from miles around.  When a local bee keeper asked us whether he could keep 20 hives on our land, we said yes, increasing pollination rates exponentially and producing envy-igniting crops in my fruit and vegetable gardens.

It’s hard to say what benefited the most from our practices, which Ed continues, but I know for sure who did.  It was I.  Every day that I lived there, my faithful dogs – first Archimedes and then Huckleberry Hound, rescues, both – and I walked the trails and streams that crisscrossed the farm.  Like Ed and his father before him, I came to know every rock, tussock and hillock on the farm.  I knew where the foxes denned and the woodcocks performed their spring mating dances.  I could tell within a week when the orioles would return each spring, and when they would leave in late summer.  I knew just when the blood root bloomed and where the May apples flowered. I could tell you where to find the best wild raspberries, the biggest persimmons and the fattest black walnuts on the farm.  And though I kept the information to myself because Ed and every farmer hates them, I knew exactly where the groundhogs made their tunnels and raised new generations of young vegetable eaters – preferably those in my garden.

I have slowly come to grips with the loss of my marriage, but I still mourn the farm, sometimes in deep racking sobs that I hope none of my close-by neighbors in Annapolis can hear.  I miss the freedom to wear no clothes or squat to relieve myself in my backyard.  I miss the calls of the great horned owls, drawing me out in the middle of the night, flashlight in hand.  I miss the shy skunk that came every evening to forage under my bird feeder, allowing me closer and closer, only spraying when Huckleberry and I inadvertently startled him.  I miss the spotted fawns whose mothers tucked them in high grasses where I found them napping, sun warmed and smelling of clover.  I miss the contours of the farm, which swelled and shrank with the seasons. And most of all, I miss my dog, who is graying in place with Ed.

When I moved to Annapolis a year ago, it was hard to see any similarities between my timid third of an acre here and the farm I’d left behind. The only wild things I saw at first in this orderly suburban neighborhood were dandelions, and my neighbors chastised me for them.  But as the weeks and months went by, I discovered foxes, raccoon and deer, along with a sweet opossum who ambles through my neighbors’ yard most evenings. I planted native plants that drew butterflies,hummingbirds, bees, moths and amphibians. One fall night, I heard an eastern screech owl outside my bedroom window, and last spring, just as I did at the farm, I had blackpoll warblers in the hemlocks during spring migration.

I even managed to draw some bluebirds, one of my favorite farm residents.

Just days after I moved in, I told my sister, who was helping me get settled, that I wanted to put up a bluebird box. “Really”, she wondered dubiously. “Here?”   “Yes here,” I insisted.  “There have to be bluebirds somewhere around here, and if there are, I want them to find their way to my yard.”

The next day, we went out and bought a bluebird box and mounted it on a pole in my yard, positioning its opening to the east, just as the bluebirds prefer. For good measure, I even attached a dish with dried meal worms, something I never had to do at the farm, but which I thought might increase my odds in Annapolis.  When I went to work the next morning, I told my sister to keep an eye out for bluebirds, and she rolled her eyes at me as I drove off.  But when I got home that night, Alexandra could hardly wait for me to get in the door.  “You won’t believe what I saw,” she said. “In the magnolia tree.  A pair of them.”  “Bluebirds?”, I asked with a smile.  “Yes,” she said with an even wider one. “And they already found the nesting box.”

All of us, it seemed, were in the process of making a new home.

Two weeks later, the female began to build a nest, a soft pile of green grasses that measured four inches high in the box. By summer, despite one wren attack that destroyed the first clutch of eggs, and after my cat Nellie got outside and nearly ate the female bluebird, the pair produced a second clutch that resulted in four beautiful fledglings.  All summer and fall, the bluebird family stayed around my garden, six blue-and-fawn-colored beauties, hunting insects, splashing in the birdbath and snacking on the daily replenished supply of dried meal worms.

Now in my second spring in Annapolis, I still miss the farm, I always will, but I’ve brought some of its spirit with me by making my little corner property the wildest and most wildlife-welcoming in the neighborhood. This year, in addition to raised vegetable beds alive with early produce, there are two bluebird boxes in the yard, one for the chickadees that claimed it early to start their family, and the second for my increasingly tame bluebirds who are back house shopping with an eye to expanding their family yet again.

We are all happy to be here.

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Come Spring, Paradise is Right Outside My Back Door

 

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We all travel for different reasons. Some go for business alone.  Others, for pleasure or a mix of the two.  I love to travel in no small part because I am an inveterate observer, and sometimes I just plain run out of good material close to home, especially in winter.

But not in Spring.

At this time of year, I prefer to watch other travelers, mostly avian ones, who travel to perpetuate their species. Living as I do just a mile from the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland, it is but a five minute bike ride up to Greenbury Point, a thin peninsula where the Severn River meets the Chesapeake, and birds of all sizes and species make their way above, through, or to it.  In winter, the rivers, streams and creeks of the watershed are filled with overwintering waterfowl, from snow geese and tundra swans to lesser scaups, buffleheads, goldeneyes, common and hooded mergansers, teals and all manner of other ducks, in particular. By March, however, they are mostly gone, headed north again to their breeding grounds, and for a few weeks it is mostly the bluebirds that keep me interested as I walk the two mile loop that circles Greenbury Point, their feathers lapis blue against the dry, dun and wheat-colored grasses.

Come April first, though, I am eagerly scouring the sky and listening for the piercing, cawing shriek of one of my favorite early migrants: the osprey. Sartorially splendid in a black coat with a white chest that pokes out like a cravat on top of a dress shirt, ospreys are commanding, rather than purely gorgeous, birds. Truth to tell, they remind me a little of Charles De Gaulle, especially their beaks, but they have his hooded eyes and dignified bearing, as well. And like De Gaulle, I wouldn’t ever cross an osprey, not when you see how they swoop down, hover over a fish under the water and then pluck it out, position it head first in its talons like a missile, and fly off, all literally without missing a beat. It’s usually only eagles that are big enough to chase and challenge ospreys, but they are rare on Greenbury Point and ospreys are plentiful, so the ospreys run the show.  Other birds wisely avoid the two foot long raptors with their five foot wing spans and sudden, feet first, plunging dives.

The first ospreys showed up on April 3 this year, the same week as last year, a fact that I find comforting in its predictability.  By the next day there were eight of them around Greenbury Point, all of them sitting in pairs on the man made nesting platforms erected in the Bay about fifty yards off the coast. From land, at least to these eyes, they looked like they were assessing the platforms’ conditions and planning their spring renovations. Yesterday, there were over a dozen ospreys, many busy ferrying big branches out to the platforms where their mates waited, staking their claims and eager to start building their nests for imminent egg laying and brooding.  As they flew over,they called repeatedly, a sound that echoed for miles and made me happier even than the blooms of my pink magnolia, which covered my tree this week.

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Sometimes I sit and watch the ospreys for hours. Sometimes they watch me.  They bicker with their mates, as all of us do, but unlike humans they stick with them for life, recent studies suggest, and they return season after season to the same breeding grounds, commited to a new cycle of building and breeding that fills me with optimism, awe and more than a little bit of envy.

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