Breaking news

trailing arbutus 1

Things are unfolding quickly with the onset of warm weather. By yesterday afternoon, there was already a blush of green on Sapsucker Ridge, which is dominated by wild black cherries. Unlike sweet cherries, they leaf out first, and then flower. They also exude globules of resin, appropriately amber-colored, with the consistency (though not quite the stickiness) of rubber cement. You can find them glistening among the forest litter: too brown to be an amphibian egg mass, too translucent to be excrement.

black cherry sap

This morning, the flowering cherry beside my porch was in full bloom as I sat outside before sunrise listening to the birds. For the second morning in a row, I heard a new song for the year: Trees, trees, murmuring trees, one of the two calls of the black-throated green warbler. Like most warbler songs — and unlike, say, the song of the hermit thrush — it’s not exactly melodious. But there’s something very exciting about it all the same, an urgent, whispery summons to some great event.

sarsaparilla confab

After finishing my coffee, I went inside for a book of poetry and, as I do so often, picked up Tranströmer’s collected poems. I resumed my seat and opened the book at random to a poem called “Lament.”

Whistlings from the greenery — men or birds?
And cherry trees in bloom embrace the trucks that have come home.

A goldfinch still in its winter plumage darted through the cherry blossoms, snapping up a couple of insects and singing all the while. Warblers may not warble, but goldfinches certainly do!

A couple poems later, I was surprised by a pair of mallard ducks flying low over the yard in front of me. What the hell? I jumped up and ran to the edge of the porch to watch. They banked and circled the field, then came back a second time. Then a third. The fourth time they wheeled around and came in for a landing right below the house on the bank of the stream, about fifty feet from the porch. I stood stock-still, watching as the female explored the bottom of a log, then poked slowly along the stream. The male stood sentinel for a few minutes, then waddled off in pursuit, quacking authoritatively.

It wasn’t hard to guess what they were up to. Though we don’t have a real pond, just a couple of vernal pools, mallards have nested in the field at least twice before. I don’t think it’s a good spot for them, with many predators and no body of water to offer a refuge. But that didn’t stop me from hoping that we’d be found worthy. I guess nobody wants to feel like they’ve been rejected by a duck.

See also the Dharma Bums’ latest report: clear on the other side of the continent, another seemingly unsuitable yard has just been adopted by a pair of mallards.

20 Replies to “Breaking news”

  1. I loved that sarsaparilla shot! I’ve never seen the plant, but a quick look-up in Flora of Missouri tells me that it has been found just south of Hannibal, so I may have a chance to see it someday.

    I liked the chronological divisions of the post, an illustrated chronicle of a day.

  2. Thanks. Sarsaparilla is a nice plant. The roots did used to be used for the drink of the same name, but then a smilax relative from the Caribbean, also called sarsaparilla, was found to have a higher concentration of the same flavonid.

  3. I love the pictures especially the tension implicit in the last one – the power of bursting and unfurling which can break through concrete but is yet contained in such a slow movement.

    But the point of this comment is to announce that, although not a mallard, a hen pheasant has chosen to lay her 15 eggs under the bush outside my father’s front door. Which is a highly impractical spot for any bird to rear young. He phoned me in a state of agitation because we are due to visit with Maizy the killer terrier at about the moment the eggs will hatch and he was worried about their futures. This of course is assuming that the foxes and badgers which roam around his garden don’t snack on them first. I’ve assured him that I shall bring the camping-tethering-method to restrain her at the back of the house for the duration of our stay, if necessary. I do hope they survive so I can photograph them :-)

  4. Maybe you could tie Maizy near but not within reach of the pheasant, to keep away the foxes and badgers? Actually, is Maizy big enough to intimidate a badger yet? I guess that’s sort of what terriers do, isn’t it. But it probably wouldn’t be pleasant for the pheasant to be terrorized by a terrier just on the chance of badgering a badger or out-foxing a fox.

    Glad you liked the photos. Last spring I snapped a picture of one of these kinds of sprouts from overhead, so I had to look for a different angle this year.

  5. I’ve enjoyed the past few posts, Dave. With all the substitute teaching I’ve been doing, you’ve been keeping my sanity in check. (That is assuming I had sanity to start… it’s still questionable.) I hope I can get out and play soon.

  6. Yeah, the last few days have been a great run of photos!

    Sorry I haven’t been commenting lately, but as things turned green out here, I’ve been feeling more productive, and have (ironically) been sorting and weeding old files.

    (I’ve now pared some 10 milk-crates worth, down to 3 crates. Just this round, I sent to recycling at least a cubic foot of stacked paper and several garbage-bags full of shreddings.)

  7. Gina – You seem sane enough to me. Glad to know my blogging might be playing a role in sanity-maintenance, though!

    David – No need to apologize! I’ve noticed comments are down here generally, as elsewhere in this corner of the blog world, and had assumed that’s because people were out enjoying the spring weather. But then, I’ve never really succumbed to the spring cleaning urge. I do find it much easier to keep files manageable since I put my printer in storage.

  8. Dave, it’s a raging party down here. I have to shup myself up inside to get away from it. Would that house finch turn its volume down! Please! A Parula or some unknown, uninvited guest–and it’s getting hard to tell in all this confusion–is pouring flutes of champagne “up up up up up!” The black-clad, ever-so-scarlet tananger is working the edge of the room crying “UP-down! Up-down like some mad Jack LaLanne!”. Its utter havoc, but I think I’ll out again. A warm rain is gently falling, and a phoebe in undressing to feed her child.

  9. looks like fresh morning light. This office slave is happier for the photos of a woodland spring, thanks for the cherry sap …never noticed it.

  10. Some great spring posts; those uncurling plants look decidedly conspiratorial! I always think goldfinches sound quite metallic, a tinkling sort of sound.

  11. Bill – It sounds as if you’ns are a couple weeks ahead of us, at least. But the dawn chorus here is getting more interesting with each passing day. Just yesterday I was listening to an abberant towhee who sang each note of it’s song as if it were a separate phrase, with a second or more between each phrase. The effect was slightly robotic.

    q.r.r. – Really? I almost didn’t include that photo because, after all, it’s not spectcular and I figured everyone was familiar with cherry sap! I guess it’s one of the few non-conifers to produce large quantities of resin like that.

    Lucy – I’ll agree with the metallic part. Actually, they remind me of the kind of sounds one can make with one of those primitive little bird calls where a cylinder of wood is turned and rubbed against a metal rod.

  12. Mystery birds!

    Yesterday for the first time I heard Baltimore Orioles whimper.

    A very strange, too pretty, towhee-like call compelled me past the chicken house to the garden. Five minutes of concentrated moving and listening and looking revealed something too small to be a towhee with a pale bill that “hee-ed” in narrow, sparkling banners. Marvelous! What was it? Probably a towhee. The usual guy voicing new aires? Or an outsider moving though? Song sparrows and white-crowned sparrows appeared under freshly inked captions of dialog.

  13. Many birds have to learn their songs from adults, which accounts not only for regional variation but also for some individual variation, I gather. For example, birds raised too close to a nest from another species may sometimes pick up phrases from that species. Quite frequently, birds raised too near highways or other sources of constant noise learn only those parts of their parents’ songs that aren’t blotted out by the anthropogenic soundprint. I don’t know if that was the case with these towhees or not. I must admit, though, that the towhee’s “Drink your teeeeeeeea” call is one of my least favorites, so I’m happy to hear a novel variation!

  14. Yet it’s a bit of an improvement over the proverbial drag of fingernails across a chalkboard–a rattle less rattling.

    The woodthrush is daylighting the forest! Boring tubular curves; laying pipe in loops.

    Yes I was lucky enough to have been given the Kroodsma book and read a bit before he wore me out–up a two every morning and out the door with his microphone.

    Those sonograms you linked to are breathtaking bodies!

    Gaggles of (I’m guessing) first year orchard oriole males pass by way of treetops, or are they returning home? The ovenbird is whacking at greenery, with its call, in deep woods. What’s a hooded oriole doing here-it that’s what it is?

  15. There’s such a thing as a hooded oriole? Look, all we have are the Baltimores. And talk about a bigmouth!

    Ovenbirds and wood thrushes should be back in a couple of weeks here. Right now is an interesting time too, though, because the thrasher is still hanging around the house. That never lasts, for some reason. Maybe the catbirds chase thrashers away.

  16. I thought I heard a faint, nearly illusory, meow yesterday. I couldn’t believe it last year we had a thrasher nest right next to my shop building, 3 feet up in a viburnum. We went away, returned it was pulled down. The nestling were about ready to fly.

    We don’t keep the baltimore’s! It’s very unusual to see them for more than a day. Orchards yes, they nest by our house and wake us in the morning. Hm. I just haven’t really noticed the mouth on the baltimore, only that it’s broad and different. It’s also the time I see a Rose Breasted Grosbeak or two so I listening for them and see an oriole. That’s how it is right now; listening for one thing and finding another. I think I saw a very unusual blue grossbeak. In the after it flew off all birdsong took on great portent and I was drawn to a rich, husky voice; crept up to it–it was old mr. titmouse sounding like he never had before. Was just half ignoring what I thought to be another yellow-rumped, but it had that something in its call and I got the binocs–a worm eater very surprising in its tawny subtle coat! A time of not knowing and surprises. It’s cool to think that is moving like a wave, a continous front, a present moment that will last all the way to Pennsylvania.

  17. Another thought: Is that cherry resin “good for anything”, perhaps incense or flavoring?

    My printer’s actually been kaput for a couple of years, the stuff I’ve been pruning goes back ten and fifteen years, even some bits from high school. It occurs to me that in the last month or so I’ve probably discarded the mass of a small tree! Largely in the form of statements and other automatic mailings, but I did dump multi-year collections of several magazines.

  18. Bill – It’s interesting hearing about all your bird adventures. I’m not the birder you are, I’m sure, but I do identify with “listening for one thing and finding another,” and the experience of a special singer making everything afterwards seem full of portent.

    David – I don’t know if cherry resin has any cultural uses or not. Good question.

    Getting rid of magazines is tough. I tend to err on the side of caution, and not subscribe to too many things in the first place.

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