Virginia Rail in Cattails

My PhD dissertation research focuses on trying to help conserve secretive marsh birds. Specifically, a group of birds that are rarely seen or heard called ‘rails.’ The term ‘thin as a rail’ actually refers to this group! Because many people aren’t familiar with these birds, I thought I’d share a video that I recorded when in the marsh for research. The species in the video is a Virginia Rail, which is just a bit bigger than an American Robin.

I hope you enjoy the video! I like how the bird uses last year’s plant litter to stay safely concealed.

Blue Jay Calls: Hawk Mimicry

On Monday I was leaving campus at the end of another long day. My partner and I were in the library parking lot and I was worn down after a lot of time at the computer working on dissertation research. I decided to study wildlife to be outside, but after data are collected—especially as one’s career progresses—most time tends to be spent inside analyzing data and writing about it. As we were about ready to get into our car, I heard what I was pretty sure was a Blue Jay imitating a Cooper’s Hawk from a row of oaks that bisected the parking lot. I’d seen a Blue Jay in the oak trees in that direction just before I heard the interesting call.

Here is the type of call, uttered by an actual Cooper’s Hawk, that I thought I’d heard:

XC554004 Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) :: xeno-canto

Like I often do, I wandered away toward a bird with little or no explanation. Maybe I said, “there is a Blue Jay over there.” Luckily, my partner is an ecologist, so she understands—or, at least accepts—my strange behavior.

As I approached the tree line, it became clear that indeed a Blue Jay was imitating a Cooper’s Hawk while foraging. Here is the footage:

Foraging Blue Jay Imitates Cooper’s Hawk – YouTube

Blue Jays have been observed on many occasions imitating/mimicking other species. Often, I’ve noticed, they imitate their potential predators. There are several reasons that the jay I saw could have been imitating a Cooper’s Hawk. Given that it appeared to be foraging alone, the bird might have been calling as a way to deter other birds from competing for a valuable food source. Little acorns were just beginning to form on the oaks, but I think the jay was eating something else on the ground. The Blue Jay might have been just showing off a unique call which it had learned that could, when combined with the other calls in its repertoire, impress another jay. It is also possible that the bird was indicating nearby danger, though I don’t think that was the case in this instance. However, when I studied Blue Jay vocalizations for my Master’s research, I frequently observed jays imitating predators (Red-tailed Hawk, American Crow) as I approached Blue Jay nests. It was as if they were indicating danger to their mates by imitating a species that was dangerous to them. Or maybe they had been trying to scare me off by imitating something that scared them.

My favorite memory from my Master’s research is the afternoon when I heard a pair of Blue Jays utter uncannily-convincing American Crow calls as I approached their fledglings. A recording from that day of that call type, as well as other Blue Jay call types that I described in a recently-published study, can be found at the below link. The most convincing American Crow call is at the very end of the file called ‘NamesAndCalls_Row3.’

The vocal repertoire of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata): spectrographic snapshots and suggested nomenclature | Zenodo

Yesterday, when I was leaving campus on my bike, I noticed a Cooper’s Hawk flying high overhead. I was only a few hundred yards to the northwest of where I’d recorded the Blue Jay on Monday. I put down my kickstand and watched as the hawk boldly flew above me, clearing carrying something in its talons. Was it my Blue Jay friend?!? No, I was able to tell, it was some kind of rodent. A little relieved, I pedaled home.

This morning, at around 7:00 am or so, I was sitting in the backyard with my loyal canine companion at my feet. We were both thinking about what we wanted to accomplish today. As I thought, I listened to several Blue Jays calling around the neighborhood. Within the last couple weeks, a pair of Blue Jays successfully hatched young from the sycamore behind our house and ever since I’ve been listening to the calls of hidden fledglings as they beg for and then noisily receive food. But this morning it was just adult calls, mostly the ones that jays utter when they are flying and attempting to stay in contact with allies. The calls suddenly changed to what I call ‘Burry Descending Jay,’ and several American Robins began ‘tutting,’ so I wondered if they were concerned about something.

Then, like a low and straight arrow about 15 feet above the ground, a Cooper’s Hawk flew from east to west across our backyard almost right over me. And the jays kept calling, as if I needed to be convinced more to share about the special birds that we call Blue Jays and one of the many challenges that have shaped them. Gradually the ‘tuts’ of the robins stopped and the Blue Jays resumed calls that generally don’t indicate danger. I carefully listened for what jays and other birds will teach anyone who pays attention. And all, for the moment, again became calm.

4th Of July Songs

This year as I considered beautiful Independence Day songs, the first two that came to mind were Ray Charles’ rendition of America the Beautiful and Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. The former is special to me because of Ray’s unique emotion and authentic style of singing, whereas the latter I appreciate mainly because of the simple but powerful words. I’d be interested in learning, as a comment, what your favorite 4th of July song is, if you have one.

For the last few years, I’ve also thought about John Prine’s The Great Compromise during 4th of July celebrations. While at first it may seem that he is singing about an estranged woman, to me the song is clearly about John’s country, the U.S.A. The love, uncertainty, outrage, and sadness that he feels when considering his relationship with his country is, I think, truly patriotic. And while it is not the type of song that is likely to be played at family gatherings as fireworks crackle and kids run around with sparklers, I think you might get something out of considering what John was saying in that song.

For me, ‘The Great Compromise’ serves as a reminder that the best way to love something that you are a part of isn’t to pretend that it is, or was, simply and purely great, but rather to identify the good and bad and then to do what you need to do to make things better.

Gaining a Mind

It’s a good morning. I’ve just finished a creative writing session before work and am well on my way to completing my first new book-length work of fiction in almost ten years. Creatively-speaking, nothing fills me with feeling and excitement like letting a story run through me. I anticipate that my novella will be finished within the next couple months, if not sooner, and I hope to be able to share it after that.

At the moment, though, I don’t have much to share regarding creative works. I recently completed a super-busy semester, filled with teaching and trying to move research forward. And I’ve also had a lot of good times with family, which hasn’t left much time for writing.

I did, however, write a poem/song a couple months ago that I’d like to share. It describes the feeling of changing and holding on at the same time, and is very relevant to how I’m feeling right now about maintaining a creative mind. Below is a link to the song. I’ll also share just the words further below, in case you’d (like me, almost) rather it just be a poem. Thanks much for your interest.

Hopefully I’ll have a great story to share soon.

Oh, I’m losing my mind,

one synapse at a time.

But I’m gaining one too,

based on everything that I do.

Yes, I am gaining a mind.

So I’ve got to be careful

about how I spend my time.

Lose the feelings that I love

and I’ll probably lose me too.

And a mind that is lost,

might not look for itself again.

So, keep doing what makes you,

whatever makes you,

feel how you like to,

how you like to.

Snowy Owl by Roadside

My parent’s and I were lucky enough to come across a Snowy Owl* that was perched beside a central Michigan road. It was the first time that my mom had seen a Snowy Owl in-person, after years of watching the fields during car rides, and the first time that my dad had seen one in 8 years (despite searching with me every year). I’m glad I captured the moment, and hope you enjoy it:

*Snowy Owls are the largest owls in North America, based on weight. They breed in the arctic, though many (like the one above) migrate south during the winter, when they are commonly found throughout the northern U.S. If you ever would like to go ‘owling’ (I’d encourage it!), please be respectful and try to avoid flushing any owl you might find. Many owls, including Snowys, spend long periods during the day roosting. So, when they are forced to fly, precious energy is unnecessarily used and they are exposed to potential predators. The video found at the following link provides a great overview of how to be respectful to owls and other birds you might want to observe: https://vimeo.com/149465659

Toasty Press Book Shop

When we met by a campfire, nearly ten years ago, it didn’t take long for my friend Tori and I to discover that we share a love for written words. It has been great to have someone to share book recommendations and writing samples with. Now, I’m excited to announce, we are in the process of creating ‘Toasty Press.’

Our goal for the press is to create and distribute poetry, short stories, and novels. Ultimately, we hope that other authors will work with us to accomplish this goal. Tori has taken the lead on making this happen by collecting poems from several authors and compiling Prosetry, which was the first work published by Toasty Press. 

Creating more books will take time. However, we do have several lists of books that one or both of us recommends. Please check out our recommendations at the Toasty Press ‘book shop.’ If you click on that link and then buy one of the books that we have recommended, or any other book you search for on that site, then Tori and I will receive a commission that will help us to continue building Toasty Press. Buying from that website also helps to support local bookstores. Learn more about the good work that bookshop.org is doing here.

In a nutshell: the next time that you would like to buy a book, please consider going through our book shop to do so. This will help us to publish more books, including a short story collection that I have been working on. You’ll know that you are supporting Toasty Press if you see our logo (see below) in the upper left corner of the bookshop.org screen when you are purchasing a book. Thanks much for your support!

Sandhill Cranes, Egg Hatching

Last weekend, my partner and I stopped during a road trip by a small pond amidst natural habitat in southeast Michigan. While we were stretching our legs, and our dog was diligently collecting sticktight seeds on his fur, we heard the excited, sharp and rapid bugles of a few sandhill cranes as they glided down to the water’s edge. They were noticeably bigger than the Great Egret that was wading nearby. Their slate-gray feathers, I thought, offered a striking contrast both to the flowering goldenrod behind them and my memories of this summer when I got to see Sandhills in their rusty-brown plumage.

Seeing those cranes last weekend reminded me that this spring, when I was walking through the marsh for fieldwork, I happened upon a Sandhill Crane nest at a special time. One chick had just hatched and another was breaking through its egg. Before I respectfully left the area, I recorded video footage that I’m sharing today.

I like to think that those chicks, along with their devoted parents that are heard in the video, are preparing to head south for the winter, or maybe even have embarked on their journey already. Given that the chicks I was lucky enough to see were about 70 miles north of the pond where we stopped at last weekend, the thought even crossed my mind that maybe I had seen the chicks again, all grown up. Though that is very unlikely, I like to think that the birds in the below video will soon be awkwardly leaping with others and adding to the amazing, seemingly-joyful chorus of thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes at nearby places like Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary.

Traveling Songs

I wrote and recorded a song about traveling, which I’ve shared below. If you’d like to give the song a listen without further reading, go for it! The following text is just a little background about the song.

The lyrics came to me, nearly all during the same session, after I completed a summer mostly on the road for field research, just after I got back home after another week-long (but vacation-related) road trip. I’ve been recently listening, and re-listening, to many songs by Townes Van Zandt, a songwriting folk musician who lived from 1944 to 1997. Though some of his songs were performed by quite famous people, like Willie Nelson (who sang Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’), Van Zandt himself seemingly didn’t attract a particularly large audience despite regularly performing, at mostly small venues, nearly to the end of his relatively short life. I feel lucky that I heard his name mentioned, in an interview, by another one of my favorite musicians (Devendra Banhart).

Van Zandt produced, without question, many of the most impactful, thought- and feeling- provoking songs that I’ve heard. There is a sincerity about his way of communicating that, to me at least, is endearing. And his songs often tell poignant stories, including those that are funny and/or sad, which I appreciate.

Another reason, I think, that Van Zandt’s music has resonated so much with me is that his lyrics often focus on being on the road as a traveling musician. Though not as a musician, I have been on the road a lot in the last ten or so years. For wildlife-related projects and/or graduate school, I’ve worked in 11 U.S. states. During several summers (including this one), I’ve spent months living out of my vehicle and/or out of a tent to be close to the wildlife that I’ve studied. This has caused me to on hundreds of occasions be a stranger in a new place, usually in little towns where I’m easily noticed, getting to know it for a short while before moving on. Van Zandt’s lyrics often describe a love for the road that is mixed with sadness about leaving loved ones behind. I relate to that. Here is one of his travel-focused songs (‘Snowin’ on Raton’; I also recommend the interview in that video).

When I wrote ‘Traveling Song,’ I drew not only from my own experiences but also from what I’ve learned from, and imagined about, people like Van Zandt. People who, it seems to me, spent their life traveling to pursue beauty and freedom that, to some degree, harmed themselves and others.

Project Prosetry

I’m super-proud of a friend of mine who had the great idea of collecting poems and drawings from a diverse group of friends and compiling a beautifully illustrated poetry collection. Here is a blurb about the book, called ‘Project Prosetry’:

“Welcome to our little book of prosetry, a term coined for weaving a continuous narrative between folks through the dissemination of poems and art inspired by that poetry. Poetry tells a story. Whether it is bad story, a love story, or a story about a sandwich. Our world thrives on interconnectedness from prosetry in all forms. Especially now. Read, write, doodle, and let us know if you want to add your work, too!”

Four of my poems are in this book, along with poems from other writers that keeps the reading fresh. Your work could be added, too! There are blank pages left for your contributions, which could be left safely there for just you or possibly submitted to a future edition of Project Proestry. If you think that you would enjoy some thoughtful words and drawings, perhaps you’d like to order a copy at this link:

Prosetry (lulu.com)