Sax Zim Bog at Dawn

Sax Zim Bog at dawn is even more empty than at mid-day, the narrow snow packed roads squeaking beneath my tires. In front of me, the sun turns pink orange through spruce and tamarack, those spindly deciduous conifers. I’m out in my car, heat turned high, hoping to see what everyone has flown or driven to see in this Northern Minnesota bog: a Great Gray Owl.

It’s a foolish thing to go looking for owls, because you have to accept that you won’t see one. In Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, Pa takes his little girl out owling. He hoots for the owl, and we learn this: “sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t.” What it takes to look for an owl is many things—hope and being brave in the night. But the most important thing is that to see an owl you have to go out, into the woods, into the world. It wasn’t going to come to me.


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Once More to the Lake

“In talking to others, I have come to believe that  . . .  some lonely spot, some private nook, some glen or streamside-scene impressed us so deeply that even today its memory recalls the mood of a lost enchantment.” So writes Edwin Way Teale, a mid-20th-century nature writer. For Teale, he can never return to those “lost woods of childhood.”

On this trip west to Oregon, I have returned to my “lost woods”: Dune Acres, a small community in the Indiana Dunes, nestled next to Lake Michigan. Dune Acres is where my father grew up, and where he set his third novel, At The Shores. His father built a cabin there at the height of the depression, and he grew up between sand dunes and backstroking out into Lake Michigan. Summers, we visited the grandparents. For me and my sister, the Dunes were pure fun: popsicles in the fridge, games of cut the pie and flashlight tag with the neighbor kids, and sleep outs in the dunes. To return to such a magic place is, of course impossible, because those childhood days of no cares are gone forever. But the place itself: it was there and I wanted to see the changes. Better still: old friends opened their doors.

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Malheur is for the Birds

Even Grosbeak; Photo by Peter SchoenbergerI love the word malheur, the way my neighbor in France sighs over the weather or a chicken that is ill: Quel Malheur. It’s impossible to translate the woe of the world, the adversity of life woven into those two words. Quel Malheur. But the Malheur in the news these days is the 187,000 acre Refuge in Eastern Oregon where a group of armed men are staked out, and not planning to leave.

In three days, I will slide into my Subaru wagon, loaded with skis and snowshoes, and head west, for Oregon. I’ve chosen a northerly route, through North Dakota and Montana, two states I have never visited. I’ll stop along the way, in search of northerly birds, hoping for such treats as a Great Gray Owl, but also less glamorous but still wondrous species for this Eastern girl, like Gray-crowned Rosy finch, or Evening Grosbeaks.

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A Small Difference

Ucross, Wyoming, population 25, is situated just east of the Bighorn Mountains, on the western edge of the Powder River Basin. It’s 20,000 acres of high desert sagebrush, rubbing up against wetlands, grasslands, and riparian habitat where the Clear and Piney Creeks run. It’s ranchland, dotted with cows and emptiness, studded with boulders tossed from space; there are pockets of petrified wood and lots of cool birds. And the news this fall is that all of this land is now designated an IBA— Important Bird Area—a designation made after careful review by the Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy. 20,000 acres of protected land where birds can breed or migrate through unmolested, is not much in the grand scheme of this planet. But for a few key species—the Greater Sage Grouse and the Long-billed Curlew —these 20,000 acres is a big difference, perhaps the difference of survival.


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Ovenbird: A singer everyone has heard

OvenbirdThere is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again

                            --Robert Frost


Even if you do not know the Ovenbird, you know the distinct, emphatic song of this little warbler: Tea-Cherr, Tea-Cherr, Tea-Cherr.  Teacher teacher teacher is the mnemonic, so I think of it as my bird.




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