Black-and-White Birds

The combination of the colors black and white is considered elegant and classy, not only with regard to fashion, but also when it comes to feather arrangements, as many posts by fellow bird-loving bloggers attest. When I assembled my avian portraits a few months back, my only intention was to share a selection of Colorado’s bicolored resident and migratory birds. I hope you will enjoy their beauty with me. But when I finally scheduled this post a few weeks ago and realized how close to an eagerly awaited yet at the same time anxiously dreaded event it would be published, my mind took me into directions altogether different, and it is also my hope that you will allow me to digress.

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The bird in the topmost photo is a Black-throated Gray Warbler (Trauerwaldsänger).

I stay away from politics as much as possible because most of the time nothing good comes from discussing it. Only with some trepidation did I allow my pen and keyboard to follow my mind in this instance. All of us have strong convictions and are reluctant to have them questioned. Polarization and radicalization have increased not only in this country, but across the globe, whereas nuanced discussion and civil discourse have gone the opposite way. What does it say about our societies that people are not only ostracized, but are sent hate mail, death threats—or even poison—merely for expressing their opinions, or for stating scientifically accepted facts? It’s so bewildering it beggars belief.

I know one thing. While black-and-white fashion or plumage might be beautiful, black-and-white thinking is not. Polarizing is not. Claiming that white is better, smarter, or more superior than black is not. Asserting that every human being has the same potential and that people who don’t succeed didn’t try hard enough is ignorant at best, cruel at worst. To declare that systemic racism doesn’t exist is to wear blinders, is to deny that many humans don’t grow up on a level playing field or with the same privileges.

Indigenous lives matter. Black lives matter. White lives matter. It should go without saying that ALL lives matter, but this self-evident statement has been misappropriated and distorted in the most insidious way. A clarification: While feathers may be black or white, human skin is not. It might be pink or brown or countless other shades. But because we have reduced the world to black and white, I am manacled by reductive language.

Each day we see where prejudice and polarization have brought us—to a dead end. It will take all of us to correct centuries-old and deep-seated misconceptions and biases. To return to the birds which started this train of thought, we need to acknowledge and affirm that, while black and white might stand alone, they complement one another and become more beautiful when they exist side by side.

A selection of signs I have recently come across in people’s yards.

Animal Encounters

Meetings with animals wild and tame make me happy.  And while birds touch my soul most profoundly, I’m always grateful for opportunities to observe and photograph other creatures. All of the following pictures were taken this summer, except for the last one. I had to chuckle when I came across these slightly uncommon pets: not one, but two pigs in someone’s front yard. As is obvious from this picture, they were as curious about me as I was about them.

Western Tiger Swallowtails are among our most notable butterflies. Their wingspan of 3 to 4 inches, conspicuous color, undulating flight, and graceful alighting on bright blossoms will irresistibly capture one’s attention and gaze, and hold them captive as these exquisite flyers propel themselves from one nectar source to the next.

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My ears are always switched on during my excursions and when a friend and I went birding one late August morning and tried to figure out from what avian a certain sound emanated, a glance at the ground a few feet ahead of us reminded us to heed my husband’s perpetual advice of “watch your step.” A not-so-little serpent lay coiled in the cool, wet grass and let us know about its presence. Needless to say, our repertoire of unusual bird sounds grew to include reptilian rattling! Out by myself only a few days later, I nearly jumped in the air when I heard similar rattling from right next to my foot. Fortunately, this one came from a cicada which didn’t mind being picked up and inspected.

During my first and sadly only camping trip this summer at one of my favorite destinations, Manitou Lake in neighboring Teller County, I was thrilled to capture a gorgeous American Mink with my camera early in the morning, when I approached stealthily and had the sun in my back, making me blend into my surroundings. These ferocious, carnivorous, semi-aquatic mammals are related to weasels and otters and, on account of their lustrous coats, have been bred in controversial fur farms. Luckily, this one lived in freedom.

One early summer morning, I arrived at my destination before sunrise. Next to a pond I found several crayfish crawling on a path lit by streetlamps. They are by no means rare, but I see them rarely enough that I took note–and a few snapshots.

The following portraits are of animals I have seen and shared before, but I encounter them seldom enough that each occasion represents a reason to celebrate: a very mellow bobcat which accepted my presence with nonchalance, a cute-from-a-distance porcupine whose arboreal slumber I briefly interrupted, and a thick-headed Bighorn Sheep, also best enjoyed from a distance.

Western Painted Turtles can often be seen sunning themselves on exposed rocks in the middle of ponds and lakes, and this group struck my fancy because each individual seemed to have a preference for the same sun-warmed prominence. They are popular as pets, until they are not, and are often abandoned by their owners at bodies of water to fend for themselves, which they seem to be able to do.

Last but not least I would like to introduce two fellows I met a few years back. They graciously interrupted their grazing to greet me at their fence. Long-eared and soft-nosed, one was particularly endearing. When one of my e-mail correspondents asked me for a photo of myself shortly thereafter, this is the one I sent him. I aspire to its characteristics: curious, clever, and charming. 😊

Moon of the Yellowing Leaves

Some days assume an ethereal quality during the living, and October 1 was just such a day. In search of fall colors, my husband and I traveled to Mueller State Park in neighboring Teller County, about 30 miles (48 Km) west of Colorado Springs. 9 o’clock in the morning found the thermometer flirting with a refreshing 39 degrees F (4 degrees C), inducing us to don an extra layer. At nearly 9,000 feet (2.700 meters), our favorite aspen trees were busy with their annual endeavor of turning into gold.

This year’s haphazard weather, characterized by searing heat and parching drought, made it difficult for experts to forecast the pinnacle of this avidly anticipated autumn spectacle. And while a fraction of the trees was still green and another had already shed its leaves, plenty of aspens were in the midst of their miraculous transformation, delighting us not only with cheering sunshine hues, but also with a euphonious symphony of rustling foliage, in addition to a pleasing choreography of pirouetting leaves on their way to converting into a crunchy, crispy carpet. The sky, after being obscured by haze from wildfires repeatedly in the preceding months, was nearly as blue as is its wont, and the sun raised the temperature to a very-comfortable-at-this-altitude 60 degrees (15 C) .

Enchanted with what we found, we scrapped our plans to return to Colorado Springs via a loop road, which, on account of being gravel, would have taken us many hours to drive. Instead, we hiked a nearly 7-mile loop that undulated through expansive meadows, scattered strands of trees, and dense forests. We took our time enjoying the vistas and the balminess of the sun’s rays, but also the intermittent breezes hinting at harsher times to come. Next to a verdant pond in an otherwise desiccated meadow we sat cross-legged and savored our lunch, with squirrels chattering and birds calling.

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Ending the afternoon at a picnic table with coffee and pumpkin muffins, we were accosted by the curious, always-hungry, and at-times-brazen avians aptly known as camp robbers—the irresistible Canada Jays. When the crumbs that drop from visitors’ picnics aren’t sufficiently sating, they will help themselves to whatever edibles aren’t nailed down.

As the westering sun dappled the light, warmed our aging bones, and made us appreciate the simple pleasures of the moment, from high in the sky came a vociferous reminder of the passing of the seasons. Craning our necks, we espied a flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes on their way south. In tandem with our earlier experiences, they uplifted our souls with another token of nature’s comforting, recurring cycles in otherwise disturbing, unsettled times.

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PS: Thanks to my husband for coming up with this post’s title. It was inspired by author Mari Sandoz, whose books include descriptive names for the different months used by the American Indian tribes she wrote about. I have introduced her in a previous post.

PPS: Mueller State Park was also the topic of another previous post.

Weather Whiplash

As it turns out, “April, April” isn’t the only month that “does what it will” (click on this link to one of my previous posts). A record high of 97 ⁰ F (36 ⁰ C) for Colorado Springs on Sunday, September 6 was followed by a slightly cooler, smoke-filled Monday from fires that are devastating what seems like the entire American West. A cold front that blew in from Canada Monday evening helped disperse the smoke, but temperatures by Tuesday had plummeted 50 to 60 ⁰ F (10 to 15 ⁰ C). In the course of the day it started to snow, and the following morning the region awoke to 4 to 12 inches of fluffy snow. The moisture from this precipitation was this storm’s only redeeming aspect, as it helped control some of the forest fires and lessen—if only minimally—our drought. Clouds, fog, and mist permeated our skies until Friday, an unusual occurrence in and by itself in this “City of Sunshine.” By the weekend, the thermometer had climbed back into the 80s.

With people dying or losing their homes to wildfires, hurricanes, or other disasters I’m not complaining about the erratic weather with regard to myself. But I’m saddened by the sudden death these abrupt changes portend for some flora and fauna. Plants, even though their blooming cycles will come to a premature halt, might have the ability to recover. Not so some critters. Reports and personal observations of exhausted, dying, or dead birds were the most heartbreaking news that resulted from this wintry interlude. Migratory insectivorous birds on their way south had to rest, and instead of finding essential fuel to power them through their hundred- if not thousand-mile-journey, were trapped, with too many hungry mouths to feed and too little sustenance. A sense of desperation prevailed among their last-ditch efforts not to starve. Masses of exhausted birds along the side of the road were covered by snow plows and perished. News of a similar nature continued to pour in, but I couldn’t keep reading them. Instead, I kept refilling the bird feeders in our yard and watched as tiny hummingbirds parked themselves near the nectar-holders to get them through another cold day.

I know this is not a positive post, but I don’t feel positive. Extreme weather events on this earth are only predicted to worsen. Unless we mend our ways, which we don’t. Not really. A few half-hearted assertions here and there, some wishy-washy legislation that is circumvented for a million spurious pretexts. We are a short-sighted species with little regard to what happens beyond our collective umbilical view. The saddest things about our destructive ways is that we are taking countless other creatures down with us.

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Exhausted Bank Swallow.

As I don’t think there is anything to “like” in this post, I have disabled the like button.

Fledgling Summer

If eggs are beautifully wrapped gifts with beguiling potential and naked hatchlings are the unsightly presents precious to the giver but not necessarily the giftee, by the time nestlings have put on fluffy down and are begging for food with wide, brightly colored gapes, most recipients would consider them at least acceptable, if not downright attractive offerings.

Once fledglings leave the nest and learn the ins and outs of being birds, it would take an uninterested or hardened soul not to feel at least a smidgen of sympathy for the remarkable creatures that have transmutated from yolk to feathered beings capable (or almost capable) of flight.

Nature’s predictable (which does not equal uninteresting) patterns have the ability to anchor and ground us in what are otherwise unsettling and unsettled times. It is with gratitude that I received this summer’s fledgling gifts, and with gratitude that I am sharing them with you.

Red-winged Blackbird–very recently fledged

Killdeer–very recently fledged (but already trying out those wings!)

Spotted Sandpiper siblings–recently fledged

Wild Turkey–recently fledged

Bullock’s Oriole–still has its sweet baby face, but already takes care of itself

American Robin–already quite independent, though usually with one of the parents nearby

Say’s Phoebe–fairly grown-up already

PS: The featured photo above shows three fledged Barn Swallows perched on a branch, already capable of flight, but still quite happy to be fed by their parents.