WHEN A DEAR FRIEND DIES — for Alan

Christmas Fog Brig Tasha Alan 2015

Alan MacIlroy and Tasha O’Neill birding foggy Brigantine on Christmas 2015

The news we always knew, but never believed, slashes out of morning, startling and impossible as thunder snow.

Although creativity is the heart of the matter in the home Alan MacIlroy has left for our true home, — neither words nor images come to my summons, as mourning descends upon me.

My dearest Tasha is widowed anew.  Alan’s ruddy car sits in their driveway with its subtle license reminding us of his priority:  TH JRNY.   Now he has embarked on the universal journey.

Over more years than I can tally, Tasha and Alan and I have shared priceless rituals, from fireside lobster in Maine to Christmas picnics at Brigantine Wildlife Refuge.

The day of our foggy Christmas feast, a peregrine falcon had stationed itself upon a speed limit sign — “15 mph” — just beyond the Brig’s northeast corner turn.  My camera does not do justice to this monarch holding court for a rosary of reverent automobiles immobilized upon the dike road.  Alan, Tasha and I quietly slid out of his Christmasy car to stand in silence, worshiping.

After a significant interval, Alan announced, “Let’s not go over to Scott’s Landing for our Christmas dinner.  How could we leave the peregrine?”

Only as I type this, do I realize, the word peregrine means wanderer.

Alan is the consummate mentor.  “Mr. Fix-It.”  Every problem solved, especially in advance, especially for his cherished Kingston church, and local businessmen and women.  Each wooded trail at their Maine home maintained.  Every lobster boat observed upon stormy or tranquil bay.  Each wood fire, kindled on a cooling summer’s night.  His dazzling, impeccable TR 4, shining on the driveway, ready for a jaunt.  He is each woodworking project magnificently accomplished, including caning two chairs for me, burnishing the Provencal olive wood cutting board that had dimmed since I lived there.  Grace, gentleness, generosity.   Smiles and that quiet voice we will no longer hear.  Alan was the essence of tranquility.  Alan is love.

His quietly merry  spirit will be with us on every future excursion. Yet the glow of that luminous man has become memory.

Mary Elizabeth’s crystalline phrases echo as I find myself bereft of words.  May her inspiration be with NJWILDBEAUTY readers  — in this dire era, –in which too many days begin with yet another cancer call:

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.

 

I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;

 

I am not there. I did not die.

***

 

Brigantine Christmas PIcnic 2015

Tasha Prepares our 2015 Christmas Feast

***

“How can we leave the peregrine?”     Now, our wanderer has left us…

Territorial Peregrine Brigantine Christmas 2015

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…AND THE DAYS DWINDLE DOWN…

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Poison Ivy Turned for Fall, Sandy Hook

It’s rough when a season is so laggard that one is forced to turn to poison ivy for color.  Vines alter to let migrant birds know their fruits are ripe, ready to fuel those southern journeys.  Have YOU seen the scarlet or crimson of ivy or woodbine anywhere yet?

autumnal-lichen-and-leaves-brig

Autumnal Lichen and Oak Leaves, Brigantine Wildlife Refuge Forest Floor

September used to mean fall, and there were songs to prove it.  But are there songs about October?  For that is the most difficult of the autumnal offerings for me — darker, ever darker, without the blessing of the snows…   Walking in woods becomes mysterious-to-hazardous, as sun plunges not only earlier and earlier, but more and more rapidly.

autumn-canal-near-prallsville-mills

Autumnal Glory, Prallsville Mills, Canal, –Normal Fall Color

 

Most Octobers, we have the most sublime compensation — colors like bonfires erupting in all deciduous trees, many vines, certain ‘weeds’, and even rare migrant birds arrowing overhead on their way south.

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Geese Migrating Past the Moon by BRENDA JONES, Fine Art Photographer

Not this fall.  Wherever I look, at home, at work, in the car, even when we drove four hours north to Connecticut recently, everything is the relentless, face it — boring, dark green of summer.

autumn-russos-white-pumpkins

Connecticut Proof of Autumn

Do I have any autumn scenes to remind me of how it ought to be?

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Canal Walk in Autumn, Delaware River near Prallsville Mills

Can looking at yesterday’s pictures make up for today’s monochrome palette?

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Brigantine Wildlife Pine and Oak Forest Still Life in Autumn

I’m never again going to take a colored leaf for granted — not EVEN brown!

 

 

 

DEEP FREEZE BIRDING — BRIGANTINE in QUEST of SNOWY OWL Jan. 2015

The ranks are swelling, of intrepid birders, willing to go out in all weathers to find winged miracles.

Tomorrow morning, despite near-zero temperatures lately, Jeanette Hooban and I will set out on the trail of sandhill cranes in Somerset County.  Somewhere near Mettlers Lane, past the Rose Garden, at the north end of Canal Road and beyond.  Neither of us has ever seen a crane.  Stay tuned…

Thursday, an uncharacteristic day off, Mary Wood, Cathy Cullinan and I left Lawrenceville at 8 a.m., for the Bakery in Smithville, then the birds of the Brig — especially the newly reported snowy owl.

The Bakery, Smithville, New Jersey, off route 9, just before the turn to the Brigantine/Forsythe Refuge at Oceanville

The Bakery, Smithville, New Jersey, off route 9, just before the turn to the Brigantine/Forsythe Refuge at Oceanville

Glowing Interior, Bounty of Healthy Real Local Food, at the Bakery, Smithville, NJ

Glowing Interior, Bounty of Healthy Real Local Food, at the Bakery, Smithville, NJ

Hearty Birder's Breakfast, The Bakery, Smithville

Hearty Birder’s Breakfast, The Bakery, Smithville

Old Mill, without the Mill Wheel, Smithville

Old Mill, without the Mill Wheel, Smithville

Sinuosities - virtually the only open water, The Brig, January 8, 2015

Sinuosities – virtually the only open water, The Brig, January 8, 2015

Horseshoe Crab and New Snow, January 8 2015

Horseshoe Crab and New Snow, January 8 2015

Frozen Geese, Heads Tucked In so No White nor Black shows, Atlantic City in the Background

Frozen Geese, Heads Tucked In so No White nor Black shows, Atlantic City in the Background

Miserable Great Egrets -- January Deep Freeze, Brigantine, January 8, 2015

Miserable Great Egrets — January Deep Freeze, Brigantine, January 8, 2015

There Has to Be a Snowy Out there, Somewhere!

There Has to Be a Snowy Out there, Somewhere!

There IS a Snowy Owl in this Expanse, tucked underneath turf, the same size as every snow clump

There IS a Snowy Owl in this Expanse, tucked underneath turf, the same size as every snow clump

YES, we DID find the SNOWY.  No, my camera will not show it to you.  But this is the landscape in which we seek them, and the whiteness they require.

Fox Tracks in New Snow, Brigantine/Forsythe, January 8, 2015

Fox Tracks in New Snow, Brigantine/Forsythe, January 8, 2015

FROZEN BIRDERS:  There has to be a snowy out here someplace!

Frozen Birders  Can That Be the Snowy Jan 8 2015

Persimmons on High, Await Hungry Birds near the Experimental Pond

Persimmons on High, Await Hungry Birds near the Experimental Pond

OK, now I set the scenes in which we hunted, so to speak, for the snowy owl and other rarities.

That snowy, in Cathy Cullinan’s splendid picture, is no larger than my little fingernail.  It was parallel to the bank on the northeast corner of the dike road, breast not visible, so we don’t know whether it had the black distinctive marks of the female, or the mostly white feathers of the male.  It was as miserable as we were, out of the car, in that fierce southwest wind that daunted even those Canada geese.  It did not change position, in all the time we spent in its presence.  Occasionally we were more or less aware of the golden eyes, but I would NOT say we saw it actually blink.  Yes, it was worth the entire trip, to honor the presence of this new visitor.

However, as NJWILDBEAUTY readers know, I cannot photograph most birds with this camera.  And the miracles that were ours that day remain only in our hearts and memories.  Here they are, not necessarily in order of appearance.

Great egrets / Canada geese / buffleheads / hooded mergansers / tundra swans / snow geese / great blue herons / a peregrine, imperious upon an evergreen bough across the Gull Pond / gulls, including one very late great black-backed gull / no crows / no brant / the snowy owl / snow geese / one very late female red-winged blackbird / we don’t know whether salt marsh sharp-tailed sparrows – but tiny birds gleaning sides on and immediately off the dike roads / ring-necked ducks / mallards / blue jay / flock of robins / American bald eagles everywhere – including over ABSECON BAY! – but not intense, not fiercely fishing — I would say playing, kettles of eagles, relaxed, merry, sure of themselves   one immature who may be the electronically monitored nearby youngster named Nacote / no bluebirds / no Northern pintails / no shovelers

Well, you see, the Brig was mostly frozen.  Cathy, –tne burgeoning birder of our trio, who has hawk eyes, eagle eyes, snowy-owl eyes now — described what we were seeing:  “It’s as though the tide froze, and somehow went out, and everything collapsed.”  Huge plates of ice, zigging and zagging, careened, juxtaposed, oddly blued by the pale sky, were everywhere.  Barely any open water for birds, and inescapable winds.  Temperatures in the teens.

Harriers were on all sides, probably all females — possibly one ‘grey ghost’ male, but we can’t be sure — now THEY were intense, intent, hunting madly over the grasses, ‘great display’ over and over, white rump spots almost blinding.

The egrets looked the most miserable, the eagles most insouciant.

Cathy revealed that the snowy was the first owl she’d ever seen out of captivity:  “Nothing like starting at the top of the line!:

I really hand it to Mary and Cathy, out of the warm car, scanning every snow lump, trying to find that snowy or freeze in the attempt. Mary set up the scope with frozen fingers, over and over that day.

We spent most of the day there, very very slowly making our way along the dike road and between impoundments and the Bay.  Beauty everywhere, birds or no birds.  Wildness prevailed.

Nature’s kingdom, and we mere courtiers.

Remember, the Brig/Forsythe is a preserve, a national one.  All preserves are sacred, and all need your constant donations to non-profits, your constant vigilance and letters to senators and representatives and especially in OUR state, the Governor — so that these wild reaches continue to welcome and sustain wild creatures in this Anthropocene era of ours, hurtling toward the Sixth Extinction.

Go to the Brig.  Let her creatures inspire you.  Do what you can, every single day, for their preservation and that of their crucial habitat in all seasons.

BIRDING ‘THE BRIG’ AS ‘MARCH WIND DOTH BLOW’

 

As a child, we recited this nursery rhyme — “The North wind doth blow, and we shall have snow, and what shall poor robin do then, poor thing? But sit in the barn, to keep himself warm, and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.” 

Which just goes to show you that there were barns all over the place in my own childhood, as well as in the childhood of whoever wrote that jingle.

However, robins are not frequenters of barns.  I’m glad I didn’t realize that as a little girl and spoil the rhyme.  You’ll see them hopping all over lawns again now that spring is nearly here.  And you needn’t worry about frozen worms – as there is a significant period in each robin’s life each year in which his/her entire system switches to fructivore.

But I’m after more than robins:  Tomorrow morning, I’ll pick up one birding buddy in Princeton and meet another in Smithville, at our beloved “Bakery”.  We’ll have real farm eggs and hand-made sausage patties, and one might have French toast, in a room rich in artifacts from sailing and farming days of yore, that were given to The Bakery by neighbors and friends.  My favorite sign says “Victuals” – it once graced a place that provisioned sailing ships about to leave South Jersey for points round the world.

Then we’ll head over into the Brigantine Wildlife Refuge, otherwise known as the Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, alongside Lily Lake, slightly above Atlantic City.

I explored ‘The Brig’ a week ago, with a very determined fellow birder.  Wind or no wind, no birds save swans were “hiding their heads under their wings, poor things.”  They were all busily up and about, seriously feeding on every side.

The 8-mile dike road took us the better part of a day to circumnavigate, Of course, we were ‘after’ the snowy owls — to be gifted with two:  one almost to the second gull tower, and one 2/3 of the way along the final stretch of roadway. 

Snowies barely move – in fact that’s one of the ways you know you’re seeing one.  Even a plastic bag ripples around in these winds – but the snowy stays impassive.  Finally a very subtle turning of the head, a sleepy (for they ARE nocturnal) blink of a golden eye, and the white lump alone in a gold field reveals itself to be the object of your quest.  The pictures are hilarious — a chip like a broken fingernail on a gold field — a shape only a birder could love. 

Who knows what tomorrow will bring?  Snowies could have left for Arctic reaches, if their brilliant inner radar alerts them to open water and enough small prey along the way, and home.

My favorite birding last week came as I followed Northern harrier after Northern harrier.  They’re scarcer and scarcer in New Jersey because of sea level rise.  That’s the unrealized, unrecognized, unadmitted facet of catastrophic climage change.  It’s taking the harriers’ nest sites in marshlands — often cruelly waiting until the birds have mated and nested and laid eggs, before washing all away. 

We may have seen five females, and no one flies more elegantly, more irresistibly.  The females are larger than the ‘grey ghost’ males.  They are identified by large white rump spots, revealed as they circle low and, yes, harry their prey.  I told my companion, watching Harrier Number One, “it was worth the entire drive just for this.”

I am not only not a lister, but could be called vigilantly anti-list.  However, the Brig’s welcome shop had new colorful multi-paged printed lists, by species category, with boxes to check.  So we checked away, all day.

Under Swans, Geese, Ducks, we exulted in snow geese, brant, Canada geese, mute swans with their diagnostic Princeton-orange beaks helpfully visible, American wigeon, American black ducks, mallards, a mallard/black duck (male) hybrid, the bright orange and green Northern shovelers, saucy/dapper Northern pintails, elegant green-winged Teal, the merry bobbing buffleheads, arresting hooded Mergansers, so-called common mergansers, and a rare (to us) red-breasted merganser, whose white ovals along the dark back identified this beauty.  We were blessed with sun, so all these colors and shapes stood out vividly, even when the dabbling ducks were upside-down in wintry water.

A very special gift was the tiny horned grebe, all alone on Absecon Bay.  How incongruous this little one, so elegant, so rare, looked against Atlantic City’s blinding towers.

Assorted other winners were stately great blue herons, Turkey Vultures insouciantly riding thermals higher and higher, a merry flotilla of tiny, toy-like American Coot.  And that master speedster, the peregrine falcon.

Tomorrow morning, this new group will pick up new colorful list pamphlets in the welcome center, eager to tally whatever surprises ever-generous Nature has in store for eager birders.

You can bird right here in Princeton, I must admit.  Great blue herons have been seen by the Dam on Carnegie Lake, even in our recent blizzards.  And our beloved American bald eagles are assiduously and healthily tending eggs in their curiously shaped (like an oriole or a hummingbird, long and deep, not wide and flat like eagles) nest.   They have been officially observed as “performing incubation exchanges.”

All you really need to bird here is the desire, two feet, and our D&R towpath.  Herons and eagles don’t even require optics.

Good birding!

 

Beginning NJWILDBEAUTY BLOG

Fisherman Island Beach

Fisherman Island Beach

Someone has to stand up for Mother Nature.  It’s not her fault that everywhere it is always storming.  It’s ours – for petrochemical greed.  But more of that later.  I start this new blog to stand up for Nature in New Jersey.

Although not a New Jersey Native, I have come to love this state for her natural beauty.  Since 2008, I have been blogging for the Princeton Packet — NJ WILD (which see).

Friends urge me to start my own blog, independently.  No better time than this to spread the news about our state.  We’re not called The Garden State for nothing.

Far beyond gardens is our remarkable wild beauty — especially in preserves we have been enlightened enough to form and maintain.

We are due to be the first state completely built-out, in a decade or two, according to a Rutgers Study.

In the meantime, places such as my own D&R Greenway Land Trust, are paying any price, bearing any burden to save New Jersey land, for farming, hiking, birding, photography and art, and yes, hunting and fishing.

We are the only state with three coastlines.  All of them beautiful, except where greed has punctured them with dikes and pipes and docks.  But we’re cleaning up our treasured Delaware River, so that shad literally run each spring, will run again, soon.

We’re removing dikes in vital marshlands, so that tides may course in and out as Nature always designed.  This allows native plants to thrive, and therefore birds and animals who evolved with these natives to prosper.

In the months ahead, I will remember earlier nature quests, and set off on new ones.  All of them with you in mind.

When I learn how to import my photographs, I’ll do that gleefully.  Meanwhile, you may see them by googling NJ WILD nature blog.

What I hope is that NJWILDBEAUTY will lure you to scenes of such peace and majesty, that you will forever distance yourself from the crowd who makes jokes about WHAT EXIT.  I venture to say, at every NJTPK exit, wildbeauty exists.  Come discover it with me.

Wild Grasses Island Beach Trail

High Water Nature Trail Island Beach