Monthly Archives: April 2011

bitching brings us together

the last thing i needed to see when i woke up this morning was the 2″ of fresh snow.  that and the empty ben and jerry’s ice cream container in the garbage, both of which decried excesses; one of nature and one suggesting poor self-control. 

i can live with the snow, but because i couldn’t put the spoon down last night, i have no ice cream today.

at work, everyone was bitching.  not about my presence in the building but about the weather.  democrats and republicans, rich and poor, gays and straights, enlightened (…ahem…) and the unenlightened…all were having a hard time coming to grips with the persistence of winter.   bad weather is the great unifier, like an fdr fireside chat or the mortar in donald’s trump impressive comb-over.

there is good though.  first, i was able to watch 2, game 7 quarterfinal games in the stanley cup.  second, the weather means i don’t even have to give owling a consideration, which is sometimes when i am at my owling best.  and finally, i feel closer to everyone.  like we are all brothers and sisters under the same, thatched, meteorological roof.

it’s a good feeling, but it’s all based on something i wish would just go away.

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the meatman cometh

there i was, hurriedly trying to get seeds sorted and poked into the dirt, when i heard a vehicle approach.  like the good, northern minnesota curmudgeon that i am, my first response was “who the hell is that?” 

i went to the door and in front of me, was a chevy panel van with the silhouette of a cow on the side.  it was the meat truck.

up here, we aren’t too proud to remove the tenderloins from the loser in an ungulate/vehicle collision and if there’s meat on the bone, we don’t give it to the dog, we make soup. 

the driver got out and directly asked if i had a freezer. 

“yeah, but it’s pretty small.”

“do you eat meat?”

“i prefer meat to all the other food groups, except ice cream.”

he looked at my solar panel array, and with a curious blend of befuddlement and envy said “you’re kind of living everyone’s dream here… do those things work?” 

“perfectly”, i said.

the last sales-types that came to my door were a flock of jehovah’s witnesses and they didn’t make a sale. but this guy had meat, not blind promises of eternal life so when he talked, i listened.

“look, i ran out of cash and i need to get back to the cities.  would you be interested in some meat?”

“what do you have?”

with that, he opened the van and crawled up into a chest freezer.  he opened the lid and threw 8 flat boxes onto the floor.  he opened each one, and the pride in his product was palpable.  there were ribeyes and t-bones and ground sirloin and flat iron steaks and bacon-wrapped tenderloin. 

“nice,” i said.

then the meat man began his pitch.  “look, i need gas and i’m willing to sell you some of this for cheap…for gas.”

“i don’t have much freezer space.”

“these stack easily…space saving, shrink-wrapped, grain fed beef, from pipestone minnesota.”

“which meat can i have?”

“anything you want.  two packages for 40 bucks worth of gas, and a little food money.”

perhaps the sound i heard in the distance wasn’t the roar of the mighty superior but instead, it was the sound of the turnip truck moving on to pay a visit to another clueless, north shore male. 

“hmmm….” i thought while performing a cerebral price check of similar product in the local grocery store…”that’s a pretty good deal” and with that, the meatman didn’t make a sale, i did.

i grabbed a flat pack of ribeyes and ground sirloin and followed the van with the cow into tofte where i pumped gas into his tank, shook hands, then departed to admire my bounty.

i opened the boxes and like he said, they fit smartly into the freezer.  nice, red meat that doesn’t look anything like roadkill.  and to make things even better, i now know what the meat truck looks like.


an evening even the robins couldn’t ruin

after the sun set, but before it was replaced by darkness, everything was perfect.  the winds died, the clouds disappeared and there was less run-off noise in the landscape than anticipated.  there was enough light to watch the woodcock spiral up several hundred feet and return to earth in stoops and stalls before getting back to the importance of peenting.  a grouse dined on swollen aspen buds. a snipe winnowed across a bog, whose tussock sedges have been loosed from the bonds of winter.  but then, the robins started in and you know what? 

i don’t like robins.

they are like the ungrateful houseguest who bitches about the food, or the view, or the host.  when they finally shut up, i am sure their last conscious thought was “i can’t wait to get up in the morning and bitch some more.”  if any species can throw cold water on a nocturnal, springtime evening, it is the robin.  i mean, their scientific name is turdus migratoriusturdus…good one, mr. linneaus. 

last night,  just as ambience was tilting in my direction, the robins wouldn’t stop.  and it isn’t like saw-whet singing ethic (“okay guys…i’m singing here, stay the fuck away from where i’m singing from”…).  no, robins congregate and so, it effectively turns into group bitching. 

deep breaths, owlman.

darkness is the great equalizer though, and soon the robins were stilled and the night shift began.     

twice, the space station passed overhead.  there were meteorites and the stars were not bleached out by moonlight.  it was warm.  it was calm.  i was absolutely wired on caffeine and sour patch gummy bears. there were owls. 

at one point, i realized how easy this used to be.  not easy as in, “stay up all night?…no problem.”  but easy as in, the owls used to be right there.  once, there were boreal owl nests i could observe from my truck.  once, there were no panoramic vistas because the horizons were blocked by forest.  once, i could go weeks without seeing anyone on the back roads.  once, cross-country journeys to distant owls defined a challenge i never refused.  but, a good night then, driven by the internal machinations that i  had to find owls, has been replaced by the realization that a good night now means i actually enjoy being where i am, when i am…in the middle of everywhere. 

when the clock tickled 0130, and the gummy bears had lost their magic,  i was done.  only the 45 minute drive stood between me and blissful sleep.  twelve saw-whets and the first drumming grouse of the year (very, very unusual…this late), the woodcock, the station, the grouse in the aspen, the zodiacal light, the stars, the planets, the isolation, the stinky fleece, the roar of released water, the smell of the earth, the screaming back, the common goldeneyes, the musk of mustellids, the fresh unblemished snow, the wisps of winds through white pines,  and another night in the boreal forest that even the robins couldn’t ruin.


winter, i cast thee out

it isn’t that winter keeps reappearing, it’s that it does so in an unusable form.  wet, sloppy snow and indecisive temperatures.  too warm for fleece and too cold for bermuda shorts hiked up to my rib cage.  today, being outdoors is far less desirable than sitting in my chair with the raw cookie dough and a pair or comfort waist jeans pondering life and the stanley cup.  

winter is now a post-it note, reminding us of its power and indifference, and its ability to take us back to the below zero temperatures of january when, if only for a brief moment, we wished for warmth and green; the moment we surrendered.    

winter is a bitch.  

rocky is gone.  whatever took him from the clutches of decay, did so before the 2″ of snow fell overnight.  no tracks.  no good-bye. 

twenty minutes ago, the first yellow-rumped warbler showed up at my house, eager for the quick energy a trip to the suet cake delivers.  they will come in waves now, the first warblers to test the waters of springtime, thousands of miles from their wintering grounds.  gotta love the migrants.    

tonight it’s back to owls after a reprieve last night.  the 2-5 inches of snow the arrowhead received has melted along the shore, but with the melt, all the little draws and culverts are alive with water.  with the water comes the background noise.  with the background noise comes the owler’s need for absolute focus and concentration to pick up the hint of song in the noisy departure of winter (again).   

time to coffee up and put away the cookie dough.


good-bye rocky

somewhere in the inner sanctum of glorious sleep this morning, i heard the ravens.  they were gloating as only corvids can, shouting to the world that death had begun yet another tenderizing process on the sickly sweet flesh of a former north woods denizen. 

awaking did not stop the commotion.

i sauntered to the window and 3 ravens were tearing into something that wasn’t there the day before.  i grabbed my binoculars and saw the raccoon.  dead.  it’s eyes already gone, its fur plucked to expose the soft underbelly that every mammal shares.

then, i remembered sensitivity and insensitivity and thought, “well this is fitting.”

i wish i could make all this up but i can’t.  instead, these are the unique permutations nature hurls into its “life formula”.  given patience, everyone has the opportunity to observe them.  it’s called “letting stuff happen”.  it explains why i sat for hours in an a) observation blind; or b) beneath a nest tree and did nothing but scribble notes into a write-in-the-rain notebook while fending off a) black flies and hangovers; or b) hypothermia.

once one has put in his or her dues into field biology, everything else seems effortless. 

i gotta truck full of patience.

i am assuming the weakened raccoon came back overnight and searched for some scraps then, on its way back to the forest, gave up.  i look at it two ways:  i have closure and there is one less raccoon to contend with.  let’s call it a win/win situation.  oh, and there’s a bonus:  now i get to watch the raccoon gleaned of its viscera and fat and meat, unless of course, a wolf comes in and just takes it away (most likely scenario).

with spring, the closure of one life will give way to the young of the year and soon, the raccoon won’t matter.  life will go on…sometimes in my back yard but most of the time, somewhere else.


the insensitive owler

okay…okay…enough of that sensitivity shit.  i mean, it wasn’t like i was going to stop ordering the double cheeseburger with bacon basket at culvers.  it was simply a matter of exercising my right as a biologist/human being to show that what sets us apart from the predator and the prey is our ability to empathize.  we can observe and emote, but that doesn’t mean i am going to go out and defibrillate a dying raccoon. 

there.  i feel better now.

tangled brown of summers’ past….

just kidding.  

the coolest thing i have seen in my backyard in a while occurred shortly after the raccoon took his sorry striped tail and sauntered to his demise (please note: owlman’s callous disregard for a dying creature). 

as anyone who has read this or knows me knows, i love my stand of decadent old forest aspen.  half the trees have fallen or been snapped like matchsticks, and it’s kind of a mess…like the boreal forest’s version of male pattern baldness (whimsical aside:  is there a “rogaine for aspen”?), but it is a dynamic feature in the landscape. 

in my time here i have had owls and woodpeckers and marten and squirrels and fisher and a host of other species that utilize the trees for eating or hiding or resting or singing or digesting or observing the dashing biologist below them.    

one cavity tree in particular, with its 5 cavities,  is especially familiar because i can see it from my favorite chair, where i can sit and eat raw cookie dough without having to do a thing.   the pileateds excavated a hole 4 years ago and subsequently, used it to raise their brood.  this winter, they (the species…not necessarily the same birds) used the nest hole for roosting, which meant most evenings right around 1700 (5 pm), the male came in and disappeared down the hole for the night. 

with spring here, breeding is moving to the forefront in the woodpecker community.  there is drumming and calling and courtship galore.  yesterday, with great fanfare, the male pileated arrived with surging hormones and breeding season attitude, and started drumming on a rotten aspen (talk about percussion).  he then moved to the cavity, looked around, poked his head in and disappeared.  immediately, a flicker flew out of the same hole to a nearby branch and started squawking at the pileated, who paid the flicker no nevermind, and went back down the hole for a good night’s sleep.  

30 seconds of intrigue and thereafter, my yard was brown and drab and silent.

after an evening of owling last night,  i too tried to get a good night’s sleep, but once the male saw-whet started in, i was drawn to the aspen yet again.


the sensitive owler

no sooner had i typed about the lamentable trio of skunks and raccoons and owlers, when lo and behold, i found a raccoon scavenging in my back yard after work today.  my first reaction was “you bastard!” because that is what happens when doctor nature taps me in the knee with his reflex hammer.  i mobilized and was about to send the coon scurrying, when i noticed that his back leg wasn’t functioning as the intelligent designers intended and so, i sat.

he moved about 40 feet and lay in a swatch of lifeless bluejoint grass, where his head sunk.  my disdain turned to empathy.  life and death, but death in a context where i can see it and understand that despite survival and getting to this point on the march to summer, it wasn’t enough.  perhaps it is old or diseased or injured.  perhaps it will recover, but to do that, it must avoid the predators who saunter through my property in search of an easy meal.  whatever occurs, the humanist in me was able to see that indifference and disdain are always eager to give way to compassion and recognition that i was able to watch an animal crawl into the alder,  knowing i will never see it again, but that i was able to say good-bye.