Old Squaws on Super Bowl Sunday

Sunday was a perfect day for a late afternoon walk. There was no wind, unlike most of the past two weeks, and the temperature was in the high 40s. Somehow, after a leisurely Sunday brunch and a few chores, we didn’t leave the house until 4:30.

My daughter and I set out for one of our favorite strolls, along the shore of  the Long Island Sound in Huntington. We were hoping to find some Old Squaw ducks hanging out close to shore. They are my daughter’s favorite and she hasn’t seen any yet this year.  She loves the way they constantly squawk, like chickens in a hen house. In the bird book we use one of their identifying characteristics is how vocal they are. She also loves their common name: Old Squaw. Some people refer to them as Long-tailed ducks.

Eureka! We spotted them almost immediately…a few dozen.  And they were squawking away! My daughter was thrilled, so we stood and watched them through our binoculars for about fifteen minutes. Mixed amongst them were a few Buffleheads, Mergansers and lots of sea gulls.

We continued our walk along the Lloyd Neck Causeway, a narrow stretch of land, which is being reconstructed and repaved since a destructive storm that removed part of the walkway last year. We were literally walking on a 1/2 mile road that connects our community to a nearby community over a vast wetland.  I am sure it will be entirely gone within the next 10 years at the rate the seas are rising.  Something else will have to be built to connect the two communities since there is nothing but wetlands on one side of the road and the LI Sound on the other.

Next we came upon another group of Old Squaw, but there was a type of duck we had never before seen mixed in with this group. We did our best to memorize its features and when we got home we checked the bird book and learned that they were Scaup, another common sea bird in these parts. The sun was setting; it was getting colder. Time to leave.

Not bad to see four species of ducks in a half hour of walking. There were no other people outdoors besides us.  Then we suddenly realized: It was Super Bowl Sunday. While most of America was watching the Super Bowl,  we were outside quietly enjoying watching our own halftime show…ducks bobbing in the rough seas of winter.

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Between Seasons

Today (Sunday) was a perfect fall day.  Yet it still feels like we have one foot in summer because the humidity remained unseasonably high.  We have yet to close our in-ground pool, put away the lawn furniture, cover the grill, empty the flower pots of annual flowers, and, of course, the most dreaded task…. rake the leaves.

But there are definite signs of a seasonal shift. The squirrels almost become like crack addicts in their frenzy of gathering and hiding acorns. They scamper from dawn to dusk, walking on the edge of fences, across the backyard on electric and telephone wires, and up and down the surrounding trees.

Leaves are already accumulating in my neighbor’s front yard, dropped by the grand oak tree that grows on the border between her property and ours. For now most of the leaves are on her property, thank goodness.

Daylight is disappearing.  By 7 o’clock, the sky becomes dark.  We haven’t really adjusted to this change and are still in full swing as the sun goes down, wondering “where did the time go?” Kids are no longer in the park past 5 o’clock.  Instead they are at home on their smart phones or computers.

The crickets have been deafening of late. They serenade us at night if we happen to be outdoors finishing a task, or just popping out to bring out the garbage or steal a glance at the “harvest” moon.

(Fall moon 2018, known as harvest moon)

I am making a promise to myself to try to notice when they stop singing. Most of our outdoor plants are on their way out.  Many have been savaged either by slugs or moths who chomp through them at night when we’re not looking.

The occasional goldfinch still shows up for a dip in our backyard bird bath. The sunflowers have come and gone, so they won’t be around much longer.

We haven’t seen the cardinals for weeks, nor the titmice or woodpeckers.  We stopped feeding them mid-summer when we realized a rat was showing up for the food, so the cacophony of birds that delighted us with the arrival of spring has dwindled to nearly nothing.  We miss their songs which have been replaced by the chattering of busy squirrels burying their acorns throughout the day.

Along the harbor road the seasons are noticeably changing.  The exotic birds (herons, egrets) have moved on to warmer places, but the cormorants are perched in groups on the boats still anchored there.  Goldenrod is abundant everywhere we look, and the bees are grateful for that.

Almost without noticing, at home we have switched from summer fare to more substantial grub. We have eaten yams a few times lately, as well as roasted chicken and potatoes.

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At the supermarket I find myself eyeing the pork loins and meatloaf mix.  The occasional mojito at a nearby happy hour has vanished and isreplaced by red wines and frothy beers. Suddenly, we crave pumpkin soup, baked apples, cauliflower, baked squash and apple cider.

As a family we are mostly winter people.  My husband craves the silence of winter and the relief from tedious outdoor chores including mowing the grass and doing the necessary pool and yard maintenance.

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My daughter loves winter walks in the park nearby and along the shores of our coast.  Together we’ve learned to identify several species of ducks, but there’s so much more we need to learn. My son is congenitally biased toward winter holidays, his favorites being Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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I love brisk autumn and winter walks, when the bones of the landscape become visible.  When there are no leaves to obstruct the view of the horizon. When you come across an abandoned osprey nest and wonder where its former inhabitants have gone and whether they will come back.

Ancient humans were much more in tune with the change of seasons. Their survival depended on it. Many of their remaining ruins remind us of how important the movement of the sun was for them, as they were aligned to capture the summer and winter solstices.

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(Summer solstice dagger at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico)

I am fascinated by how, for centuries, we moved almost unconsciously into the next season as we adapted to the changes.  How much longer will we have actual distinct seasons…or will we suffer extreme weather in our winters and summers? Will we be driven back into a deeper awareness of the seasons because our lives will again depend on that awareness?

 

 

 

Walking Is Becoming a Challenge

Recently my family and I watched a lovely indie movie entitled Redwood Highway. We love small-scale movies that focus on characters who are going through some kind of rite-of-passage experience. This film was about a woman in her 70’s (Shirley Knight) who decides to embark on an 80-mile walk on Redwood Highway in Oregon to reach the coast for several reasons: to absolve herself of the guilt she feels about making a poor decision regarding her granddaughter; to fulfill a promise she made to herself decades ago; just to prove to herself she can still do it.

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Her journey was eventful, but walking was often difficult. The Oregon scenery was breathtaking as she made her way along the highway with several detours through breathtaking forests, including some with majestic redwoods. She was fortunate to meet many compassionate souls along the way, with one exception, who helped her to continue her journey. I felt every step she took, since I have been having difficult walking the past few months due to progressive spinal stenosis.

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Walking has always been my go-to activity because it allows me to relax and enjoy noticing the things that surround me in nature in any season. Now that walking has become such a challenge for me, I am fearful of losing my mobility. I recently had an epidural steroid shot which has eased the discomfort and increased my mobility somewhat and am due for another one this week which I hope will help even more.

On Saturday I made myself walk somewhat longer than I usually do, just to see how it would feel. For the first half-mile, I was rigid and achy and almost felt I would have to turn around. But I pushed on and soon my stride became more relaxed and less uncomfortable. The walk is one of my favorites: along a shoreline with a full view of the beautiful harbor near where I live. On one side of the road are gorgeous large homes, some built in the early 1900’s, many with balconies that loom over the harbor. The lucky one-percenters!

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When I reached my limit, about a mile and a half, I sat on a broken stone wall to rest my back and gaze at the harbor. I was surprised and delighted to see a lovely shorebird standing all by itself; one that was unfamiliar to me. I took out my binoculars and tried to memorize all its notable features: long, bright yellow legs; a long, needle-like beak for fishing; a beautiful spotted breast and brownish striated feathers down its back with a patch of white. I said to myself, “So that is why I came this far today; just to see you!” Feeling very proud of myself, I thought of the woman in the movie who also completed her journey with difficulty and was rewarded with a very special event, one much more significant than mine.

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As soon as I got home I looked up my shorebird and learned it is a “short-billed dowitcher.” I am an amateur bird-watcher, but always happy to add a new one to my personal list. I am sad that my walks can no longer be extensive as I would like them to be, but feel fortunate that I still can undertake several moderate walks nearby that afford me the opportunity to be surprised by nature. I hope this week’s injection will make doing so even more of a pleasure and allow me to continue to indulge in two of my favorite pastimes…walking and bird watching.

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