Finding Beauty Series – Egrets and Herons

Snowy egret at Corte Madera Marsh Ecological Reserve

This is the third post in the Finding Beauty series, a reminder when I’m caught up in this year’s unsettled times that nature continues in its rhythms. While visiting a local wetland recently, I realized that no matter how many times I see different egrets and herons, with each sighting, I am struck by how beautiful and graceful they are.

They are no less extraordinary because I see them often. They bring me out of my thoughts and back to being in the moment, awakening awe and wonder once again. I can find refuge just looking at their images that I’ve captured over the years. Here are photos of great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, and one elusive green heron.

Great blue herons are adaptable. Used to seeing them foraging in wetlands for fish and amphibians, I was amazed the first time I saw one in a field chomping on a gopher. At up to four feet tall, with the hollow bones that all birds have, they weigh less than 6 pounds.

Great blue heron in a Merced County field
Great blue heron at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to photograph a heron and a great egret right next to each other.

Great blue heron and great egret at Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary
Great egret at Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

When I first saw a snowy and great egret side by side, I thought the smaller snowy was a juvenile of the same species. They have wonderful yellow feet.

Snowy egret at Corte Madera Marsh Ecological Reserve
Snowy egret at Corte Madera Marsh Ecological Reserve

Snowy egrets nest in trees on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in the summer, where they can be easily seen from the walkways. I can lose track of time staring at the gawky youngsters as they figure out how to balance on branches and use their wings.

Juvenile snowy egrets at Alcatraz Island

As other birds fly to their evening shelter, black-crowned night herons appear one by one at dusk. Resting during the day in large groups hiding in trees, they scatter to feed solo on fish and amphibians in the dark.

A few of dozens of black-crowned night herons sleeping at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge
Black-crowned night heron at sunset at Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District Reclamation Pond

Throughout the year when I explore wetlands, I walk quietly and peer into the thick reeds in case I’m lucky enough to spot a green heron—from a distance, because they are easily disturbed. When I spy one, tucked motionless in its hiding place, I am mesmerized.

Green heron in West Sacramento

Fire and Fog on the California Coast

It’s summer on the Northern California coast—fog season. The fog moves in dramatically as an aerial waterfall flowing over the tops of the hills. It’s the only source of moisture during the extended dry season, and it’s what nurtures the growth of the coast redwoods found nowhere else on earth. The fog provides the temperature contrast with the intense summer heat inland and while the frequency varies year to year, it sees us through until the winter rains.

It seemed to be a relatively foggy summer until it wasn’t. Just still warm air, and then high winds bringing freak storm clouds shooting down dry lightning that ignited thousands of fires. And still no fog to slow down the flames.

Where I live is not in the fire zone but the smoke is intense. Seeking cleaner air and the comfort of nature, I headed toward the coast in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the late afternoon. Traveling through the Marin Headlands, I spotted a coyote.

And the coyote spotted me.

I arrived at Rodeo Beach. Walking on the sand toward the waves, I looked across the ocean as I have countless times. But never had the sky looked like this. There was the fog, hovering over the water miles away. A thin strip of blue sky was visible above it, and on top was a giant layer of smoke drifting above and heading out to sea.

I watched the seabirds coming and going from appropriately named Bird Island, silhouetted against that strange sky. The cormorants traveled alone in straight lines, the solitary gulls meandered, and brown pelicans gracefully circled in groups and glided just above the water. I was watching a moving painting that was simultaneously ominous and beautiful.

I lingered to take in the fresh salt air. Before I left to sequester indoors with my air filters again, I watched the sunset with the eerie orange glow that only smoke can create. And willed the fog to come ashore.

Within the Buddhist teaching of Metta, translated as loving-kindness, is a phrase one says on behalf of all beings—may you be safe. For all affected by the fires, known and unknown, this is my wish for you.

Finding Beauty Series – Birds in San Francisco


Lesser scaup, Stow Lake

In these strange times across the globe, it’s been easy to feel unsettled around the clock whether checking the news or waking up suddenly from a disturbing dream. As I found myself feeling off-kilter for days on end confined in my house, I realized I had shut out so many of the gifts in the world that come with being an earthling.

Now I’m spending time outdoors where no distancing is required from flowers, from fresh air, from views of the landscape. Beauty in the natural world hasn’t disappeared and in fact, I need to connect with it more than ever. Perhaps you are feeling the same, so I have started this series—to celebrate beauty as a necessary elixir.

In the Bay Area, waterfowl find places to feed, roost, and nest adjacent to and sometimes in the middle of urban areas. Here are some of the local birds whose beauty consistently inspires awe and gratitude for their company. This post features those that frequent the lakes of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in the winter and spring.

As always, I welcome your feedback in the comments section.


Ring-necked duck, Stow Lake

If it were up to me, this bird would be called ring-billed instead of ring-necked

Female ring-necked duck, less colorful than the drake

Northern shoveler, Stow Lake


Northern shoveler with a ring-necked duck in the foreground, Stow Lake


Hooded merganser, Lloyd Lake


Pied-billed grebe, Stow Lake


Bufflehead couple, Stow Lake


Female bufflehead, Stow Lake

Taking Refuge

Ross’s geese

It was my traditional first journey of the season, my annual solo trip in winter to witness one of the world’s great migrations of birds. The rain was heavy as I slowly moved my car along the muddy auto route at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, in search of this year’s initial sightings of some of the two million geese, ducks, and other birds who travel from Alaska and Canada to spend the winter in California’s Central Valley. Mine was the only vehicle.

The frigid wind was so strong that the shallow ponds, just a few inches deep, had waves on them. The ducks of many species huddled in the reeds as a windbreak, barely visible. I saw just a handful of the geese this time that are often here by the thousands. Where were they?

Eager not to miss their fly-off at dusk with the sound of thousands of wings beating together at once, I headed north on the rural back roads, passing miles of flooded rice fields post-harvest, scanning in all directions. And there they were—snow geese.

I parked on the shoulder. The wind and the rain pelting the roof and windshield this time were blasting from the other side of the car, so I could roll down the windows adjacent to the field. This sound is everything, and I bundle in warm layers so I can turn off the engine with the windows down. I listened to the chorus of countless white geese. Tears filled my eyes in the company of such beauty, again. And in a great whir of wings as the light faded, family groups took off to feed for the night.

It is this moment, this silent witnessing of yet another miracle of nature, that comes to mind now when I think of my year away from this blog. It has been a time of change and reflection, a time of looking inward, of maintaining equanimity during this difficult time in the world.

I’m returning to share my photos and musings on this blog. I’m touched that some of you noticed my absence and reached out in concern. I’m in good spirits.

As always, I welcome your feedback in the comments.

Soundscapes—Winter Birds

It’s the season when the birds that overwinter return to join the local residents, and I once again journey to join them. My intention with these videos is to share the soundscape of calls and wingbeats that is so much of the experience, not the wobbly handheld video in the poor light of dusk and dawn. These were filmed at three national wildlife refuges in California—Pixley, San Luis, and Merced.

Pixley National Wildlife Refuge is a small pocket of wetland habitat surrounded by the enormous fields typical of industrial agriculture. At sunset, thousands of sandhill cranes begin to arrive. They roost each night in flocks that stand together in a shallow wetland to avoid predators on dry land.

Wrapped in warm layers, I returned at dawn to watch them depart. They took to the air and dispersed in family groups to forage in the surrounding fields.

Later that day, I traveled to San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. I walked the trail to a platform overlooking Sousa Marsh. Visually obscured by tall reeds, there’s little to see and it’s not obvious at first how much life is in this wetland until sunset. Standing alone in the fading light, I could make out the notes of a few songbirds winding down their day as the owls were just beginning theirs. All of them were nearly drowned out by the increasingly loud chatter of countless ducks, invisible until they took off in a whir of wings for their evening roosts elsewhere. There were so many they were lifting off for half an hour.

I walked back slowly back in the dark, much quieter now. I listened to the hoots and screeches of owls and the yipping of distant coyotes.

The following morning, I arrived at Merced National Wildlife Refuge for sunrise. The calls of snow geese were unmistakable but they were visually hidden in the thick tule fog at dawn.

Eventually, I could see the flocks of geese. They had spent the night feeding in the farm fields adjacent to the refuge and were returning to rest for the day, but something had startled them and they all took to the air. I couldn’t see well enough to tell if the cause was a common one, the appearance of a bald eagle.

Moving along deeper into the refuge, the sun warmed the air and burned off the fog. I watched and listened to another population of sandhill cranes. They flew above me, then disappeared as they headed out to the neighboring pastures to feed.

Despite the fact that this migration is predictable and occurs year after year, it is no less magical every time. What a privilege to be an earthling.

Total Solar Eclipse in Oregon

Wonder. Awe. That was the experience of watching the solar eclipse. Words rarely fail me but this one is a challenge to describe.

My sister, our friend and I took in this extraordinary event from the deck of my sister’s house overlooking the forest. We stared through our eclipse glasses at an image of a diminishing orange orb surrounded by absolute blackness, and alternated with taking the glasses off to watch the changing light around us. We wondered what behavior we’d see from the birds that ignored us during their repeated trips to the feeders—hairy woodpeckers, hummingbirds, juncos, red-breasted nuthatches, Steller’s jays, chestnut-backed chickadees.


Red-breasted nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatch


Hairy woodpecker


Steller’s jay


Chestnut-backed chickadee

In the beginning, there was no obvious change in the landscape. But what a show unfolded above us, as the curve of the moon’s shadow began to make its way across the face of the sun, a barely visible spot that we watched gradually reach totality in a little more than an hour. The image reminded me of a harvest moon with its amber color through my glasses. Except the expanding crescent shape looked nothing like the moon.

The temperature dropped and a breeze picked up. The shadows around us grew longer. We were astonished as all around us, countless crescent shapes of light shone on the wood grain of the deck, juxtaposed against the shadows of the leaves.


A chair made of simple beige and gold lined fabric became the sun’s canvas for a work of art.

The light continued to fade. It was unlike any light we had ever seen, not at all like dusk. The birds fell silent.

Then… the lines! Shadow bands raced across the ground. And the light suddenly vanished.

We took off our eclipse glasses and stared at the dark image and the corona shining around it, listening to essentially the whole town of Corvallis cheering along with us. How could we not?

As the moon’s shadow moved, a bright flash like a strobe pierced the sky as the first sunlight returned. Over a bit more than an hour, we watched the sun come back. The birds sang again and eventually the crescent shapes disappeared.

It left us breathless. We agreed there really are no words to genuinely describe the experience. Everyone who shared it that I’ve spoken with has said the same. Millions of people on our small planet twirling in the universe, unified in amazement.

Watch a 30-second timelapse video of the eclipse in Corvallis, from the Washington Post/Reuters.

The North Coast in Winter

redwood-stump-at-humboldt-beach-1-2017-smallOn New Year’s weekend, I journeyed to California’s North Coast. Although I’ve blogged about hiking through the giant redwoods in this region when it’s warm and dry, this was my first trip in the winter. My friend and I stayed on the coast, the seasonal home of wading waterfowl. I often get these look-alike birds mixed up, so it was helpful to travel with expert birder Brian who could identify species.

Layered up in the cold rain with few people around, we spotted wildlife at Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. A peregrine falcon plucked the feathers from her breakfast. A trio of otters watched us before swimming away. I managed to sneak in a few photos between the raindrops.

otter-arcata-marsh-1-2017-smallotter-duo-arcata-march-1-2017-smallmarbled-godwit-and-dunlins-arcata-marsh-1-2017-small
Dunlins with a marbled godwit

snowy-and-great-egrets-arcata-marsh-12-2016-smallSnowy egret (left) and great egret

Visiting a place in a different season is a wonder of discovery. At Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, we encountered dramatic dark clouds and enormous storm waves, miles of beach with no other footprints, bright berries and spongy lichens as the earth thrived on plentiful water after so many years of drought. Waves swirled around giant redwood stumps as the sanderlings skittered between the waves to feed on molluscs in the wet sand.

ground-berries-and-lichen-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallLow-growing berries and lichen

beach-strawberries-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallBeach strawberry

beach-sky-stumps-grass-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-feeding-sanderlings-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-flying-sanderlings-humboldt-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-solo-sanderling-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-small

This may have been my first trip to the North Coast during the winter, but it was so beautiful that I don’t think it will be my last.

Hawks, Cranes, and Pintails

Here are more photos from my recent travels ooo-ing and ahh-ing at wintering birds in California’s Central Valley. On two occasions, I was lucky to get close to red-tailed hawks.

red-tailed-hawk-merced-nwr-12-2016-small
Red-tailed hawk at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

red-tailed-hawk-sac-nwr-11-2016-smallRed-tailed hawk at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

For many years, I’ve traveled to the Llano Seco Unit of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s North Central Valley Wildlife Area. It’s a reliable place to find graceful sandhill cranes. In the past, I’ve visited in the afternoons and have spotted a few cranes in the distance or flying overhead. This time on my solo overnight trip, I decided to bundle up in my warm layers and go early in the morning instead. What a difference that made.

With no people around to spook them, there were more than 100 greater sandhill cranes cooing to each other, and they didn’t seem to mind my presence as long as I was quiet and moved slowly. Visiting Llano Seco is usually a relatively short visit, spotting a few cranes and enjoying the usual crowd of colorful ducks. But this time, the company of so many cranes was mesmerizing as I enjoyed the place without other people there. It wasn’t until I got in my car to leave that I realized I’d been staring in awe for two hours.

For those of you who geek out on species identification, I have to say I’m not good at telling the difference between greater and lesser sandhill cranes. Llano Seco’s website says the place is home to the greater variety, so that’s how I know.

sandhill-crane-portrait-llano-seco-11-2016-smallGreater sandhill crane with ducks and geese at Llano Seco

sandhill-cranes-llano-seco-1-11-2016-small
sandhill-cranes-llano-seco-3-11-2016-small
Finally, here is a series of images of northern pintails taken on various trips this winter. I find these ducks incredibly beautiful, so I kept snapping away. With their blue and black striped bills, brown heads with a white flourish stretching upward from their chests, extended tail feathers, and streaked profile, they look like artwork that someone sculpted.

pintail-pair-preening-12-2016-small
Pintail pair at Llano Seco

pintail-pair-on-shore-12-2016-smallResting on the bank

pintail-swimming-2-12-2016-small
Cruising along in the sunshine

pintail-group-at-llano-seco-11-2016-smallThese two seemed to be having a dispute

pintail-dabbling-12-2016-smallA common position—butt up while feeding

I stumbled upon this homemade sign on a dirt road through the agricultural fields. Clearly one of the locals appreciates the pintails, too.

pintail-lane-sign-12-2016-small

Wintering Waterfowl and Wading Birds in the Central Valley

rosss-geese-and-pintails-12-2016-smallRoss’s geese and northern pintails

As I’ve shared here before, I follow the migratory waterfowl and other birds—my own personal migration on winter weekends. Here are some portraits from recent trips to California’s Central Valley. These are highlights from this season’s trips to several national wildlife refuges—Colusa, Merced, Sacramento, San Luis—as well as the as well as the Llano Seco Unit of the North Central Valley Wildlife Management Area and various agricultural fields.

I feel such joy being around these birds, who bring so much life during the cold, dark months of the year. More photos to come.

geese-flying-above-sutter-buttes-12-2016-smallGeese silhouetted against the Sutter Buttes

white-faced-ibis-merced-nwr-12-2016-smallWhite-faced ibis

gadwalls-sacramento-nwr-11-2106-smallGadwalls

northern-shoveler-12-2016-smallNorthern shoveler

black-necked-stilt-san-luis-nwr-1-12-2016-small
Black-necked stilt

black-necked-stilt-san-luis-nwr-2-12-2016-smallAnother view of the black-necked stilt

snow-and-white-fronted-geese-12-2016-smallGreater white-fronted geese (foreground) and snow geese

snow-geese-at-sunset-sac-nwr-11-2016-smallSnow geese

white-fronted-geese-11-2016-smallGreater white-fronted geese

turtle-and-cinnamon-teal-11-2016-smallThe odd couple – western pond turtle and cinnamon teal

pintail-swimming-1-12-2016-smallNorthern pintail

wigeon-pair-11-2016-smallAmerican wigeons

tundra-swans-11-2016-smallTundra swans

egret-and-mallards-12-2016-smallGreat egret and mallards

great-blue-heron-silhouette-sac-nwr-11-2016-small
Great blue heron

Seabirds and 100 Years of National Parks


100 years ago today, the Organic Act became law: 

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that there is hereby created … the National Park Service… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

I’ve written on this blog about many of my adventures in national parks, the well-known iconic wilderness areas and historic sites. Recently, I’ve been appreciating the national recreation areas created to provide access to nature and history in urban areas, specifically my local Golden Gate National Recreation Area established in 1972.

In the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area hosts more than a million visitors a year who come to tour its infamous old prison. What is less known is that Alcatraz is an important sanctuary for nesting seabirds, egrets and herons. I find it unappealing to tour a prison that’s much like the inhumane places we still have, but it’s a treat to visit the island and find nature thriving in a place filled with broken structures and mobs of people.

Snowy egret adult and chick Alcatraz 6-2016 smallerSnowy egret chick and parent

Nesting bird count sign Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
The census of nesting residents

Pigeon guillemot Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Pigeon guillemot, with just a tiny bit of her bright orange legs showing

Western gull with chicks Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Attentive western gull parent with chicks

Brandts cormorants Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Brandt’s cormorants

Egret feather in concrete crack Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller

Western gull and SF skyline 6-2016 smaller

On this 100th anniversary of the national parks, my wish for everyone is to have an experience in a park or historic site that is the heritage of all of us. Find your local treasures here.

 

Portraits of Spring Neighbors

Common merganser female right at Las Gallinas smaller
Common merganser at dusk

There’s a period early in the year in the Bay Area when the wintering birds overlap with the spring wildflower season, and I can hardly contain myself. Here are a few images from a couple months ago.

One of the best birdwatching sites nearby is the unglamorous Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District sewage treatment facility. Multiple ponds not only allow natural processes to break down waste, but provide habitat for waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. While some are residents year-round, the place really comes to life with the migrants present throughout the winter and spring.

Common merganser female left at Las Gallinas
A different view of the same common merganser

Canvasback at Las Gallinas smaller
Canvasback

On a different day, I headed to see forest-dwelling flowers at the Martin Griffin Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch. Posting these a couple months after the fact feels like waving goodbye to familiar friends that I’ll see again next spring.

Douglas iris ACR 4-2016 smaller
Douglas iris

Western columbine ACR 4-2016 smallerWestern columbine

Coral root ACR 4-2016 smallerSpotted coralroot

Miners lettuce ACR 4-2016 smallerMiner’s lettuce

Wind and Wings


Snow geese near Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

In early December each year, I head off for a solo retreat. I drive to see some of the millions of geese and ducks in the wetlands of their winter home, the wildlife refuges and agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley.

This is a different kind of nature experience than I usually seek out. The setting is ordinary—agricultural fields, highways and dirt roads. There’s often a strong wind that chills to the bone whether it’s rainy or sunny. I barely leave the car to avoid scaring the flocks into flight, and when I do park on the shoulder, I’m careful not to step in the concrete-like mud that can glue itself for days to my shoes.

The journey is about the birds, a spectacle of thousands of them all around me. Their honks and quacks are audible long before they’re visible. Up close, their wings whir like thunder when a flock of snow geese takes to the air all at once. The whole experience leaves me teary-eyed and breathless with wonder.

A late start meant I missed the sunset at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, when snow geese typically take wing en masse heading to the surrounding rice fields to feed, and other birds fly in for the night. Just as it got dark, I decided to drive the six-mile auto route anyway before the staff locked the gate for the night. Blasting the heat with the windows rolled down, I could hear the honking of invisible geese in the air. I switched off the engine and just listened in the darkness. It’s a sound I crave all year during their absence, and there was something magical about hearing it for the first time this season in darkness.

I spent the night at a motel in Willows and climbed into the car in the rain before dawn. It was 47 degrees, about 20 degrees above what it can be when it’s clear. I arrived at the refuge and awaited the return of the geese at sunrise. Only they didn’t come that day, a first in my experience.

Eventually in full daylight, I meandered slowly down the dirt road watching the many species of ducks emerge from their evening resting spots. Bundled up in my thermals and layers, I opened the windows. For the first time in my years of morning visits at the refuge, I could hear the ducks’ calls that are typically drowned out by the chattering geese. It was a sweet, soft chorus. I smiled coming around the bends and greeting the species I hadn’t seen since last year.

Where were the geese? I would have to explore the backroads and look for them.

I took off in search of the snow geese, white-fronted geese and tundra swans, driving the backroads and stopping on the shoulder for whatever surprises greeted me on the way. I love these discoveries, the mix of knowing that something amazing will show up, just not knowing what.

At 8:00, the temperature had risen a single degree to 48. I’d been up for three hours. The wind was blasting now, whistling against the car even with the windows closed. A bald eagle on the ground took flight, working hard as it flapped in the wind and drizzle. A kestrel was wobbling on a wire, barely able to hang on. The horizon was full of distant geese aloft and on the move.

The sky opened up with rain in earnest as I slowly drove down Road Z in anticipation. And there were birds I always seek out, in their usual spot feeding and resting in the flooded field near some rice silos—tundra swans, this time in the company of ducks and white-fronted geese. I rolled down the window to listen to them cooing and put my binoculars up to my eyes. Immediately I was pelted in the face with rain so I leaned over to keep it to a drizzle. And then… thousands of snow geese flew in, circling and cackling away as they descended into the water with the swans. I turned the car around to watch instead through the passenger window, letting my belongings get wet instead of me.

The roaring in this video made on my older generation camera is the sound of the wind masking the more appealing sound of the geese.


Snow geese flying above tundra swans and ducks

I decided to take one more spin through Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge before my drive home. The visitor center staff, who have come to know me, explained that the geese typically spend the day in the refuge only when it’s sunny and prefer the farm fields when it’s overcast and rainy.

I drove the auto tour route again, well under the speed limit of 15, and looked upward for raptors. A soggy peregrine falcon was perched just above me. Further along, I saw a distant dark triangle in a tree, looking like a kite that had gotten stuck. Once I used my binoculars, the kite became a red-tailed hawk, spreading its wings and tail out to dry. There were multiple raptors in that position along the route, soaked from the earlier downpour and unable to fly until they dried out.

Turkey vulture drying wings in Sac Refuge 12-2015
Turkey vultures in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I was a little sad when I pointed the car toward the freeway to head home. I drove across the overpass and as I descended before the entrance to I-5 South, in the field in front of me was an enormous flock of snow geese. I stopped on a pull-off and made the short video that’s posted at the top of this post. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end this year’s birding retreat.

Snow geese photo by Len Blumin
Photo of snow geese by Len Blumin, used with permission

I don’t know why being with these birds draws me so irresistibly. I only know that I am deeply moved by their company. My homing instinct brings me every winter on my own rejuvenating migration.

Len Blumin’s stunning bird photography can be found at his Flickr photostream.

 

Gray and Blue Day

It is the season of gray sky and the sound of wings, quacks and cackles. I journey to California’s wetlands as I do each winter to observe migratory waterfowl, and on this day I am treated to the company of three kinds of teals—green-winged, blue-winged, cinnamon—and mallards, gadwalls, ruddy ducks, buffleheads, grebes. Binoculars in hand, I fall in love with the birds over again as I watch them swimming, preening, diving into the water.

Striding along the water’s edge, I am moved by so much beauty and aware of each solitary footstep as the ghosts of lost loves walk beside me. To live with an open heart is to allow the whole spectrum, to catch my breath observing the light on iridescent green feathers and to not reject the tears in my eyes.

At a recent retreat, Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt read this quote by C. S. Lewis: “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Today during this season of reflection, I recommit myself to the path of vulnerability.

Acorn Woodpecker Season

Acorn smallerFor my birthday yesterday, I headed to my redwood retreat, twin giants in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I described in a previous post here.

This is a busy time of the year for the acorn woodpeckers. They gather their stash of fallen acorns from the live oaks and tan oaks and hammer them into their granary trees for the coming months. While other birds are pretty quiet this time of year since it’s past nesting season, yesterday the raucous family groups of acorn woodpeckers chatted away as they flew above me in flashes of black and white wings.

I settled in leaning against one of the two ancient redwoods. The young tan oak that had been a footrest in recent years looked dead, most likely another victim of the sudden oak death that has been ravaging California in recent years. The trunk was only as wide as my foot, and I lightly pushed my toes against it to see if was in fact dead. To my surprise, the entire thing toppled over, with its trunk rotten where it broke at the bottom.

I nested in the hollow that the former oak tree occupied, with the slope creating a headrest above me and the tangle of fallen branches providing a place to prop up my feet. I curled up and watched and listened.

I wonder how much of nature I miss by moving through it instead of being still. In that one spot for a chunk of the afternoon, I became a part of the landscape for a while. A tiny spider tried to use my shoulder as an anchor for her web. I could hear what sounded like a small mammal moving around beneath the layer of dead leaves and twigs. I watched the leaves of the tan oaks above me and the redwood needles even higher move in the wind that preceded the fog, then watched their colors change as they became still again once the fog arrived. All to the accompaniment of the acorn woodpeckers, which you can listen to here.

The light would be fading soon. I reluctantly sat up, disentangled the pieces of redwood and tan oak duff from my hair, and retraced my steps back up the trail. I snapped this photo of a fallen leaf from a big-leaf maple, the one deciduous tree around here that provides fall color.

Big leaf maple leaf 9-2014

Face to Face with an Endangered Species

Listening to birds is one of the things I love about being outdoors, especially when I’m hiking alone. In spring, the avian chorus is at its peak during nesting season. On a morning hike in May, I had just passed the boundary of Muir Woods National Monument and entered Mt. Tamalpais State Park when the change in the sounds of the birds got my attention.

Up ahead, multiple birds were vocal, but these weren’t their lyrical springtime songs. I was hearing alarm calls. I walked a few steps further and looked up to see what was causing the fuss.

And there perched on a tree only a few feet from the trail was a northern spotted owl.

I stopped, thinking my presence and movement might startle her, wishing her to stay. If I could have held my breath, I would have. She looked down at me. And stayed. I was awestruck.

Northern spotted owl 5-2014

Getting this close to a rare wild animal touches a part of me that is wordless. I think that’s why it has taken me months to write about the experience.

When it was clear that the owl was more concerned about the songbirds dive-bombing her than she was about me, I pulled out my camera. It was new and I didn’t yet know how to work the settings so the photo isn’t sharp. But having this image brings alive the wonder I felt when for a few minutes, my life intersected with a northern spotted owl.