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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


(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?




Rites of Spring: Family Gardening on Easter Sunday

I am an avid member of The Church of Nature of which I am the founder. Membership in this faith only requires that you dedicate a portion of your life to the preservation, enjoyment and appreciation of nature. Throughout my life my most joyful, fulfilling spiritual moments have been connected to nature in some way.

On Easter Sunday my family had brunch and exchanged Easter baskets. My Brooklyn-based son joined us for the weekend and my daughter took the day off from her bookstore job so we could all be together. And how did we choose to spend our day? We all worked in the yard for several hours during the afternoon before going out for dinner. It was the kind of day that lent itself to such work: cool, intermittently sunny and cloudy, and breezy. My husband and son worked very hard to clear a patch of land bordering our neighbor’s front yard which was filled with ivy and not much else. My daughter had expressed a desire to have her own flower garden to plant and attend to. She had lived for seven years in sunny Santa Cruz California where she had planted a yard full of blooming beauties before she left to return home seven years later. My son has his own little cultivated plot in the front yard of the brownstone he lives in with his girlfriend. His landlord and passersby all delight in his artfully arranged plantings.

How did we all become such avid gardeners? My interest grew gradually and didn’t really begin until we bought our first home with a yard full of random plants, including bamboo! My husband and I worked hard for several years to rearrange plants we liked, to eliminate those we didn’t, and to add what we thought would bring us pleasure without too much maintenance. By the time our back and front yards were planted with perennials that delighted us every year during all seasons, it was time to move to a bigger home. The night before our move I ran out of the house and sliced off a piece of each of our two peonies to bring with us. Those two peonies are my greatest pleasure every spring.

Our current yard presents us with many challenges. There are several gigantic pine trees which tower over everything, as well as several oak trees which shower their gifts upon us during every season except winter, and a backyard made of concrete left by the previous owner. We also have a very sandy hill that starts about 50 feet from the back of our house which was nearly barren when we arrived and now is full of thriving rhododendron and azalea bushes and junipers which are as tall as trees. After 15 years of living in this, our second home, we still haven’t quite figured out the best way to cultivate this property.

So there we were, on Easter Sunday, with our rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows and garden gloves removing the unwanted ivy, trimming the damage off our plantings from a very punishing winter, and preparing the soil for a new small flower garden. As we worked together, I thought all day about how Easter is traditionally a day for renewal and rejoicing about a new beginning and how we were, in our own way, participating in the spirit of that annual celebration.

They’re Back!!! Spring Fever in the Local Pond

Moments after arriving at our local park yesterday to walk around the pond, my daughter said to me, “What is going on with the swans?”  Indeed, at a distance it was hard to figure out what the two resident swans were up to.   It seemed as though one might have been injured or both.  They were tangled in a kind of heap.  Then we burst out laughing because we realized they were actually trying to get it on!  Having never seen swans do that before it hadn’t occurred to us that the strange shape we saw at a distance was their attempt at coupling.  I almost felt embarrassed for them…they seemed so awkward.

Continuing our walk around the pond, my daughter then commented on how the water in the pond seemed bubbly underneath the surface.  It was not quiet and still or frozen as it had been for weeks.  We kept walking and soon came to one of our favorite areas…a pond within the larger pond where the ducks tend to gather.  This is always an active place, and today was no exception.  We have been observing a couple of male Hooded Mergansers for weeks enjoying their winter visit to our pond.  But today there was a surprise.  A female Hooded Merganser was suddenly visible, and she was as beautiful as her partner, but in a much more subtle way.  Her feathers are not the dramatic contrast of black and white like her mate, but a subtle blend of russet and black, with several dramatic white stripes on her wings folded close to her body.  With our new minibinoculars we stood there for at least ten minutes watching the couple  enjoy the warmer weather and each other.

About a hundred feet further along the path my daughter suddenly stopped and exclaimed, “Mom, look over there on the bank of the pond.” Sure enough, across the pond there was a good-sized turtle,  completely out of the water, sunning himself.  As we gazed around, we suddenly noticed there were many  more turtles sunning themselves on the small islands in the pond.  They were so well camouflaged they were not immediately visible to our eyes. The bubbling pond water was no longer a mystery.  The turtles had been emerging from their winter hideouts.

Moments later my daughter said to me in a low, intense voice, “Oh my God, he’s back!” while pointing to a spot in the pond just below the snowbank we were standing on.  Then I saw him, too…the huge turtle that has mesmerized us for this past year since we discovered his residency  in our pond last summer. This is not any ordinary turtle…he has extremely long claws, very massive legs (is that what you call them?), and a spiked tail like a dinosaur.  He is kinda’ scary looking…like I imagine the Loch Ness monster would be if anyone ever actually found him.  He was mostly submerged with only his head sticking out of the water, but occasionally floated close  enough to the surface for his shell to partially poke out of the water to remind us how big he is.  And then…as if that weren’t enough for one day’s sightings…my daughter pointed to another head swimming nearby.  It was another turtle nearly as large as the first swimming about 10 feet away from him.  We surmised that it is probably his mate, based on the coupling we had witnessed circling around the pond on our walk.  A small Irish man passing by stopped to participate in our fascination with the turtles and told us he had learned from nearby residents that these turtles were probably 80 years old and some live to be 100!

Seeing these now familiar birds and reptiles brought almost as much joy to us and excitement as seeing an elephant in the wild.  My daughter said, “Well, it’s not California with its sea lions, sea otters and brown pelicans swooping past us over the Pacific waves.”  But it will have to do.  Here on the East Coast we experience nature on a much smaller and user- friendly scale.  But there’s definitely enough nature on LI to keep all of us attentive and engaged.

With everyone pairing off in the small animal kingdom in preparation for raising a new generation, nature is once again rewarding us for making through and long and challenging winter.  In an earlier posting,  one slicer who was extolling the book Wondrous Words, which was changing her own writing style,  talked about paying attention to your choice of words because they make a difference. Well, paying attention to the life around you, the small details, will also make a difference if you really do it. So get off your cellphones, take a walk in nature  and look around you. You might be surprised.

…and “You Think Your Winter Was Rough?”

Reading the NY Times this am as the snowflakes continued to fall, I came across an interesting editorial entitled “You Think Your Winter Was Rough?”  The writer, Nicholas Kristof, is a globe-trotter, peace-maker, do-gooder…you get the picture.  I often read his column to lift my spirits because he mostly writes about his uplifting interactions with people around the world.

In this column he shared the conversation he’d had with “two young Americans set off on the most daring and foolhardy wilderness expedition since, oh, maybe Lewis and Clark.” (Listen up social studies/history teachers. This piece of writing would make for good close reading and a comparison  someone else’s expedition…say Shackleton.” Those of us who read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, or saw the movie (a rare example of the movie being almost as good as the book), know that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a major accomplishment both emotionally and physically in summer. But doing it in winter does seem, well, crazy!

Having lived through such predictable challenges as snow-blinding blizzards, staying up all night to keep the snow off their tent to prevent it from collapsing, and getting frostbite from hiking through a blizzard, you would think they would retell their story focusing on their near-death experiences.  While they did mention them, what came through in the conversation was their absolute addiction to the beauty and challenges of nature.  Both had hiked the trail in summer, but  both were eager  to see it in another season.  “With the snow there’s so much natural beauty…It’s so peaceful. And the frozen rivers have these strange ice formations,” explained one of the hikers.

As we struggle through this never ending winter, let’s try to appreciate the savage beauty of winter and those who rise heroically to its challenges.  My daughter and I took a walk recently in our local park and were rewarded with two sightings of ducks that can only be seen locally in winter: the Ring-Necked Duck and the Hooded Merganser.  A swan waddled awkwardly across the snow-covered pond…white on white.  We had the whole park to ourselves. Not exactly the Pacific Crest Trail, but we were happy. As I sit in my cozy living room with a crackling fire in the fireplace and look outside at this suburban winter wonderland, I am thankful for all the seasons.

The Church of Nature

I’ve always responded enthusiastically to nature.  Today as I write this I am looking through my kitchen sliding doors at the hill behind my house covered with confectionary sugar.  Nature has always been a source of great beauty and comfort to me. When my children were younger I used to tell them that the closest I ever felt to “God” was when I went backpacking in the High Sierras of California above the treeline where it feels like you can reach out and touch the sky at night.

Today, as a retired teacher, I still feel the same way and look forward to the days when taking a walk is possible or to the sudden arrival of a flock of birds in my backyard as did happen yesterday when dozens of robins appeared out of nowhere to peck at the ground on my hill looking for insects to eat.  I can get as excited about sighting a blue heron as I can about anything else in my life.

This brings me to “The Church of Nature” and how it came to exist in my life.  When my children were around the ages of 8 and 10, as a family we took a “hike” every Sunday.  We are fortunate to live on the north shore of LI where the local scenery is quite lovely in most seasons and opportunities for short hikes are easily accessible.  For me the goal was to get outside and away from all the indoor concerns of the past week and the week to come, while introducing my children to the wonders of nature, albeit on a smaller scale than the High Sierras. We would pack a snack and drinks in our backpacks, dress appropriately for the season and set off for the day’s adventure.

In an age when it is irresponsible to allow children to just wander as I did as a child in my small seaside town, it was a relief to be able to let my children run through the woods or along the seashore discovering nature for themselves.  We have walked in Caumsett Park in Lloyd Neck when it was so cold the entire landscape was frozen.  We have often visited the Theodore Roosevelt bird sanctuary in Cove Neck and ended our walks with an obligatory visit to their nature center where my children could watch the local birds feeding from a wall-sized window or browse among the specimens of local flora and fauna. We have spent many summer Sundays on north shore beaches watching the children explore the saltwater marshes, discovering and capturing in their small nets (and releasing) the small crabs and fish that inhabit these waters.

Today, both my children are avid nature-lovers and environmentalists and each of them has traveled to far-flung places like Africa and Australia to experience the wonders each locale has to offer.  I like to think that some of their enthusiasm is due to the many Sundays we spent hiking and enjoying our local natural wonders.  When they got older I told them that instead of going to church every Sunday, we visited “the church of nature,” as a way of explaining to them where my personal brand of spirituality comes from and most likely theirs, too.