As we watched, a turkey vulture came slowly, slowly down, in great circles, till he was skimming the little beach and practically brushing the rock walls with his huge wings. Eventually he settled on the gull’s rock, a little farther back, and observed the crows at their work. He was remarkably small, with his wings folded: not really much bigger than the gull. We expected him to drive off the crows, but he just watched, for a long time. Eventually he stepped down, going carefully behind the gull, and sidled up to the grey lump, whatever it was, that occupied the crows. He never pecked at it, or interfered with the crows: all three of the bird-kinds resolutely ignored each other. He just looked it over, a long, patient contemplation, while the crows darted in and out. He did not seem to like the surf much, and retreated from it a couple of times. And then he took to the air, unfolding again into a huge, magnificent bird, and rose in circles, as slow as he’d come down.

Haiku for the Big Sit

Direct link to video on Vimeo.

So as I mentioned, yesterday was the Big Sit. Though I didn’t count birds, not being a real birder, I did watch a bird for close to twenty minutes, and sitting was most of what she did. I actually don’t know whether she was male or female, but for some reason I thought of her as female. Since I didn’t have a tripod with me, most of the video I shot was kind of shakey, which is why I opted to make this into another one-minute videopoem and cut straight to the standing-up part. Otherwise, I think it would be neat to try and share what it’s really like to watch wildlife (as opposed to what tends to make it onto Animal Planet and the like). When the vulture yawned, I think she was expressing a deep truth about sitting in general.


question mark on screenLately I seem to be confronted by enigmatic signs. This morning while I was eating breakfast, for example, I noticed that one of the two cartons we bought peaches in, which originally held Xerox office paper, had “Thoreau” written on the side in magic marker. Perhaps someone connected with the orchard had previously used it to move or store books. But an entire carton just for Thoreau? He didn’t write that many books; it must’ve held mostly books about Thoreau. I’ll take the peaches.

Yesterday around lunchtime, a question mark butterfly landed on the screen of my front door and stayed there just long enough for me to snap three pictures from inside. Nothing too odd about that, except that the very same thing had happened two days before, around the same time of day. What might it mean?

Yesterday afternoon, a dry high blew in. By late in the day, that end-of-summer mood I tried to evoke with quotes from favorite poems yesterday morning had given way to elation and a distinctly autumnal sky. black locust log After supper, I grabbed my camera and headed up over the ridge to the west, escaping the long shadows that already reached as far as the houses. The wind blew steadily, making the shadows dance as I poked along through an open forest of very old, gnarled chestnut oaks and black birches. The thin soil and open rocks of the Tuscarora Quartzite formation support little else, especially since the loggers of a hundred years ago took most of the white pines, almost all of the hemlock, and all chestnut oaks straight enough to serve as mine timbers.

I soon came to the first of a string of small talus slopes — open rockslides of a few acres in size that start just below the ridge crest. Such rockslides are a familiar feature to anyone who’s ever hiked along a ridge in the western half of the Folded Appalachians. Logging and associated burning in the 19th century may have set back their colonization by lichens, moss and trees by a few centuries, but essentially these rock slides all date back to the last ice age, which ended 8,000 years ago. Though we’re well south of the southern-most extension of the Wisconsin ice sheet, periglacial conditions reworked local landscapes throughout the central and southern Appalachians, creating talus slopes, bogs, and a host of other unique habitats.

At the edge of the rockslide, I paused to admire some paper birches growing in a clump, as they so often do, re-sprouting from the same roots. I stood at the center of the clump, my feet sinking into a deep, spongy mound of rotted wood. The individual trunks might last little more than half a century, but I’ll bet this birch has been here in some form for a very long time.

vulture 1I was just starting out onto the rocks, looking for pictures, when I saw something large and black out of the corner of my eye. A turkey vulture had landed on the other side of the rocks, about eighty feet away. The head was still half gray, which I guess — in contrast to human beings — would make it an immature. I froze and started snapping pictures, expecting it to take off at any moment. But it didn’t.

I eased myself down into a comfortable sitting position on the warm rocks. The vulture didn’t seem at all concerned about my presence. Its head swiveled slowly about, and from time to time it reached down to groom its breast feathers, but otherwise it seemed content to sit and face the sun, which was about half an hour from setting.

vulture 2So that’s how I found myself watching the sunset with a turkey vulture. I shot its picture several dozen more times, of course, hoping that a few shots would turn out relatively unfuzzy (I wasn’t packing a tripod). At a certain point I realized it probably intended to roost nearby, though I didn’t see any other vultures around — they generally roost together, I had thought.

Since the air was now so clear, the light didn’t change much as the sun neared the horizon. The steady wind filtered out most valley noise except train whistles. As I watched the bird, I began to regret what I wrote a week ago about the ugliness of vultures. The wind lifted the feathers of its breast and nape, and the sun tinged them with gold. vulture 4I saw its head from all angles as it looked about, and it came to seem as appropriate as punctuation at the end of a line of fine, dark calligraphy.

I’m sure that more scientific-minded readers will fault me for anthropomorphism in implying that the vulture was there to watch the sunset. But no sooner had the sun dropped below the horizon than the vulture hopped off its rock, waddled into the woods and flapped up into the branches of a black birch tree. I took that as my signal to get up, too, and get off the rocks before darkness fell.

eastern clouds after sunset