Tag Archives: birds

Cardinal Sin

Dear Cardinal, I am so sorry
the cat who we keep as a pet
ate your partner.

You advertise for a mate
all over again
from the top of the forsythia.

Is it my guilt that detects a sad note,
or does that beating nugget of flesh
pump regret through your veins?

Either way, I absorb your loss,
buried no doubt as cat shit
under the earth freshly dug for peas and spinach.




Late afternoon and the March wind
Has battered herself out.
I open the window, listening for tree frogs.
Not a trill; ice still deep on the pond.
Spring has hit the snooze button.

A flicker probes the shriveled grass,
For worms stirring in the soil.
Listen! Wing beats.
Straggling threads of Canada geese
Trail across the sky, heading north.

There’s a yellow sheen on the willow.
A shift in the earth’s chemistry.
The trickle of ice crystals melting,
And the bitter green scent
Of shepherd’s purse and hen’s bit.

Venus and the silver crescent rising.
A ’possum patters across the deck,
Poking its snout into damp corners,
Listening and hoping
To hear the mucusy slithering of a slug.

Coyotes rove through the fields,
Invade my dreams,
Yip and howl,
Snapping at each other’s heels.
Blood is up with the spring moon.

Startling me out of sleep,
The throaty love song
Of a barred owl
Wraps the woods in profundity
As continuous as Earth’s revolution.


IMG_8222I close my eyes and listen
To the impeccable silence of a January day.
Only it isn’t silence,
Just absence of human noise—
Except for that one small propeller plane
Droning across the blue sky.
The breath-fogging air is filled with bright pockets of sound.
In front of me the rapid flutter of chickadee wings,
Followed by a shrill chirp announcing safe arrival in the spirea bush.
Behind me a hairy woodpecker’s rhythmic rapping
Up and down the trunk of the maple,
Probing for insect larvae stunned into stillness by the cold.
Above, one long keening call from a red-tailed hawk,
A triplet of croaks from a raven,
Their swirling flight paths intersecting over my head.
In my right ear, a squirrel rasping the shell off a black walnut,
In my left, the wind riffling through a cluster of persistent oak leaves.
And let’s not forget the cat,
Mewing around my boots,
Complaining of hunger
Or boredom
Or both.IMG_8086


DSCF9559I step from one world into another
Like a bather setting my toe in the icy Atlantic on a June day.
It is a painful transition
And yet once the gut is sucked in with a sharp inhale of breath
My horizon shifts and it is palatable.

I step into the damp air of an Irish morning,
Tang of salt and mud off the Shannon estuary,
Strong whiff of cow manure. I know I’m home.

The navy suit and general greyness of the men at the passport desks is expected.
One takes my passport and in a soft Galway accent—
you would be forgiven for thinking the fella had a marble rolling around in his mouth
says to me, Ah you must be David and Sally’s daughter. Tell your parents I was asking for them.

I am at once comfortable with the scale of things:
Four steps to the luggage belt, a few more and you’re out the door
into the waving arms and hurrying faces and cries of delight.

I drive the Shannon to Galway road
Sun at my right elbow shuddering into existence over the horizon to the east.
I think of Dublin 200 kilometers away, my birthplace and rooting of my soul.
Haven’t been there in years,
And like the thought of meeting a childhood friend
it fills me with pangs of horror and awe—
how could you change so much, and not at all?

But back to the driving. In the stone-walled fields along the road
Sheep and cattle, already on the move,
search for the first dollop of creamy winter sunlight to caress them,
stroke the night’s chill out of their bones, and who can blame them.
The long November grass is bowed down with a rime of hoar frost.

Heading north, smoke rises from the odd chimney,
a few cars on the road this Sunday, off to early mass,
but mostly I’m on my own.
Sleeping towns left to the rooks and grey crows, scavenging on the verge.
A pair of swans fit for a ballet, necks kissing reflections on the surface of a lake.
Sheep, and more sheep,
And piebald, shaggy-hoofed horses in rough fields, more marsh than grass.
I have the radio tuned to the local requests show,
still playing the horrendous hits from my 80’s teenage years.
I am a traveler through a strange land of rebuilt memories.
Before my eyes the landscape, the smells, the sounds – that jackdaw-
Are a time lapse photograph.

A scene plays out—corner of my eye—a nativity:
under a bare beech tree the cow stands with her calf and attendants,
burnished like some godlike being, fit to be kneeled in front of.
The old abbey is draped in pearly morning fog,
awash with a light that would do Monet proud.
I remember why this is a fairytale land.

My parents are out on the gravel to greet me before I’ve gathered up my wits,
dogs barking like the half-witted maniacs they are.
We gush through the front door all bags and whisking tails and exclamations.
I step into the bright kitchen, moments of calm reign sipping tea
—ah the taste of a great lump of yellow butter sliding across a piece of toast—
and talking of the journey and the weather and the latest gossip.
My eyes follow the birds fluttering around the feeders,
At once alien and yet ordinary
The greenfinch, blue tit, bullfinch; still remember the names.
My father has the usual complaint,
Bloody magpies, always bullying the others.

My feet crunch the brittle grass and leave dark footprints
On the path to the lake.
I brush past brambles burred with frost,
dried seed heads, orbs of frozen dew, lit up like Christmas baubles by Herself.
Ducks explode out of the reeds with raucous quacking,
beating at the water in panic.
A flash of iridescent blue is the kingfisher
perched in the alder at the end of the pier for a second
before torpedoing on up the bay.

I draw in cold, moss scented air. Re-acquainting myself.

Tomorrow I’ll start the work of clearing out the attic—
blowing dust and dead flies off forty years of family stuff.
But until then, I’ll revel in the familiar, and give thanks.

DSCF9372 DSCF9548 DSCF9537


European_Robin_Singing-1Ten, and half in love
With a boy in a book.
He had the gift
The gentle way to tame
A bird or timid creature.
Like him, I fancied I could
Win the confidence of a bird.

Common or garden,
The robin did me no favors
His curiosity, age-old
Had him poking his beak
In gardeners’ business
Long before my time.
Still, I flattered myself
He liked the lilt in my voice
And the soft whistle through half grown teeth.

With the patience of a heron
I stood unmoving
In blackberry scented air,
Hand outstretched with
Crumbs for a peace offering.

Cocking his head on one side

He hopped

            And hopped

                        Tossed aside a fallen leaf

            Pretending business

One beady black eye on me
All the while.
He came so close
I could see
The fluttering of his red breast—
And no closer.

He sought me out
The next day and the next.
Down at the beech tree
We grew quite chatty
The pair of us . . . never understanding a word the other said.
I wonder if he boasted
In the hedgerow
Of the strange human child
He’d managed to beguile
With his soft chirps and bright eyes.


DSCF8549Low slow trill
Fainter by the day

This is what the cricket tells me . . .
Earth is tilting away from the sun,
The cold breeze raising goosebumps
Whispers, winter.
Leaves are moldering on the lawn,
The goldfinch has shed his sunflower vest
And donned a coat of mourning.
Oak is the last man standing,
Thatched in stiff brown.

This is what the cricket tells me . . .
The cornfields are stubble-ribbed,
Fine stopovers for flocks of geese
That drift down in squawking hordes
To feast on farmers’ leftovers.
Stalks have withered in pumpkin fields
Leaving squat orange Jack-o-lanterns
Ripe for carving.

This is what cricket tells me . . .
Frost is on the way.
That row of late-sown lettuce—
Waste of time—
Pick the Swiss chard now
Before it freezes.
Pull the rattling bean husks off the vine;
Next year’s seeds are dry.

This is what cricket tells me . . .
The Red-Tailed Hawk
Has caught a mouse,
One of this summer’s brood,
And devoured it in one gulp.
She knows, too
The season is gathering up her skirts
To take one last curtsey.

This is what the cricket tells me.




Barred Owl in Basking Ridge, NJ. Photo courtesy of Matt Zeitler, orangebirding.com

Barred Owl in Basking Ridge, NJ. Photo courtesy of Matt Zeitler, orangebirding.com

One early summer afternoon, I stepped out onto the deck to bring in a load of laundry. A movement in the dappled shade of the trees, not twenty feet away, caught my eye. I recognized the dark eyes and striped brown and beige plumage of a barred owl. I stood transfixed, hardly daring to breathe.

The owl called softly and, from a nearby branch, a smaller owl took off. The young owl made a short, swooping flight and landed somewhat clumsily by the adult. The birds seemed aware of my presence, but undeterred by it. For fifteen minutes, I stood and watched the owl parent teach its four owlets to fly, afraid of missing a moment by running inside for my camera.

I had often been woken in the night by the owls calling to each other in the woodland surrounding our house—the distinctive, throaty Who-cooks-for-you, who cooks for you-all? But this was the first time I’d seen one. The barred owl, sometimes called a hoot owl, striped, or wood owl, is primarily crepuscular—active at twilight. However, as I later read, daytime activity is not unusual when they’re raising chicks. Owls nest in tree cavities. The female lays between two and four eggs in April, and then sits for four weeks waiting for them to hatch. Once hatched, it takes another four or five weeks before they young are fledged. I could see that this owl had a lot of time and energy invested in her brood.

I’ve long had a fascination with owls. As a child, camping near the ancient ruins of a haunted Irish abbey, the protracted screech of a barn owl left me frozen with fear in my sleeping bag. Surely the sound was the ghost cry of the monks being murdered by the invading Vikings.

In the imagination, owls are mysterious creatures of darkness. If you’ve ever seen those pale wings swoop in front of your car headlights late at night, and those marble-round eyes staring at you, you know what I mean.

Maybe because of their nocturnal habits and all-knowing faces, tales of owls are deeply rooted in folklore and mythology. To this day, all over the world, they play a dual and often contradictory role—the harbingers of death and misfortune, but also the sign of wisdom and good luck. In Greek mythology, Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom, took the Little Owl as her symbol. In Aesop’s fables, the owl is a shrewd operator with the power to foretell the future. Owls appeared on early Greek coins and were seen as good omens, especially during times of war, and thus were protected.

When I was seven I lived on the Greek island of Corfu with my family. My sisters and I had a small scops owl as a bedroom companion. My father, a documentary filmmaker, who had hand-reared many sick and injured creatures, was recording its habits. Sadly, one day we returned to find its charred body lying in the back alley. It had fallen victim to superstitions that had superseded its protected status.

In Roman times, the owl represented the dark underworld. Witches could turn themselves into owls and suck the blood of infants. The hoot of an owl meant impending death. These beliefs spread with the Romans. In English folklore, a dead owl nailed to a barn door could ward off evil. And folk remedies made from burnt owl and owl eggs could cure everything from alcoholism to Whopping cough.

In Native American traditions, owls are also honored and reviled. To the Pawnee, the owl is the Chief of the Night, and as such, a protector. The Cherokee respect and covet its ability to see at night, but fear its call as an omen of death. Some tribes believe that owl feathers ward off evil and bring healing. Oglala Sioux warriors wear owl feathers to enhance bravery and vision. Yakama tribes of Washington State see the owl as a powerful totem to be consulted on how natural resources and forests should be used.

As I discovered, barred owls have adapted to life in proximity to humans. They don’t seem to mind suburban areas, and even thrive on the abundance of rodents to prey on. I thought my front row seat for the owl flying lessons was a unique show. Little did I know that I’d get a matinee performance the next afternoon, and the next, until those owlets were fully fledged.


November Morning

DSCF1629Quiet world.
Feathers of frost on glass.
The clack of buttons and zippers in the tumble dryer,
Cat snoring stolidly,
Radiators ticking, keeping the cold at bay.
The lone cricket whose slow trill I pinpointed in the spirea
Has gone silent.
And all those boisterous crows and blue jays
Conducting their business in full-throat yesterday,
Have been subdued.
The ‘possums entrails, spilling in pink coils out of its belly onto the road
Have frozen—frozen dinners for turkey vultures.
Low burnt-sienna sunlight through closed lids and closed window
Is still warm enough to bask in.