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Lessons Learned from Cranes

I heard them before I saw them. Loud, rattling calls like a bugle stuck on an off key F#. Sometimes a single Sandhill Crane flew overhead, but most often it was a flock in a V-shaped formation. And sometimes I heard them, but never saw them, probably because their calls can be heard up to 2.5 miles away.

I wish I’d kept track of the number of times I looked up to see cranes during December. Whether in my house or outside, I could hear their loud calls as they flew from their northern habitat to warmer grounds. Many Sandhills stopover or winter at the Hiawasse Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County, about 85 miles from Cookeville.

The cranes unique bugle calls amuse me, but I’m amazed by the way they fly in formation. The V shape serves two purposes: to conserve energy and to keep track of each bird. The first bird works hardest to break the wind and splits it into smaller currents. The birds that follow catch those currents and use them as support. And the currents are split from bird to bird until the ones at the tail of the V practically get a free ride.

Each bird flies about a meter behind and a meter beside the one it follows. In this arrangement, they can keep track of each other. One day I watched a flock of at least thirty birds and as they went out of sight, I heard a weak rattle. One lone bird flapped slowly at a lower level than those I’d watched and as he seemed to struggle, I heard another crane calling and flying toward him.

When the hard-working strong leader of the V becomes tired, he drops back, often to the end of the line, and another crane takes the #1 position. According to nationalgeaographic.com, a scientist studied pelicans that were fitted with heart-rate monitors and he found that birds at the back of the V had slower heart rates than those in front and flapped less often. Each bird in the V formation can take a turn as leader working hard for a short time and then slacking near the end.

Sandhill cranes gather in social units and families and they mate for life. But a lone, isolated crane will be taken into a flock and it even helps parent young birds.

These birds’ instinctive behavior teaches lessons. Work together and follow a leader, and take turns being the leader. No one has to be in charge all the time and everyone needs time out. Watch out for each other and when a teammate, a friend, or a member of the group needs help, drop out of routine and lend a hand. Look for the loners. Watch those that don’t have built-in support and include them.

As I write the last words of this column, a loud call, a rattling “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” grabs my attention. A couple of Sandhills. I hope they find a flock.

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Struck by the Love Bug

We all know someone who’s been struck by the love bug. Someone shamelessly happy and in love with another special someone. I’ve always smiled with warm, fuzzy feelings when I heard the words love bug. But after a brief encounter with a flying insect, just hearing love bug makes me duck my head and frown.

            As Husband and I drove home from a Gulf beach, we stopped at an Alabama rest stop. You know the routine of a road trip stop. Park away from the buildings so you have to walk more than a few steps. After visiting the bathrooms, take the long way around to your car and stretch your body before settling for the next two hours of driving. Toe raises. Calf stretches. Hands and arms above your head. Shoulder shrugs. And finally, back in your car.

But I wish Husband had parked next to the rest stop building that day. Before we opened the car door, I saw a man walking and wondered why he was waving both arms in front of his face. I stepped on the sidewalk and flying black insects flew inches from my face. I slapped at them, waving my arms, too.

Close to a garbage barrel, these pests swarmed. Husband and I walked quickly making a wide circle past the barrel, and I ducked to avoid flies from hitting my face. I wondered what they were and if they would light on me. Would they sting or bite?

I stood inside the rest stop building and dreaded going back outside to face the half-inch long insects. “Those are love bugs,” an Alabama resident told me. “No, they won’t sting or bite. But they are annoying.”

“Love bugs?” I said. “That’s a strange name.”   Mr. Alabama smiled and nodded and went on his way.

I later learned from the University of Florida Extension website, that these slow-moving insects are called love bugs because they often attach to their mates. They are harmless, but very annoying, to humans. They originated from Central America, and made their way to Texas, Louisiana, Florida and further north.

Love bugs are attracted to decomposing plant debris, but may confuse these odors with chemicals in exhaust fumes. They are most active when the temperature is above 84º F between 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., and their peak mating times are four weeks in May and September. So if Husband and I had set out to see love bugs mating, we’d picked the perfect place and time.

We ducked our chins and speed-walked toward our car. The front of our white car was spotted black with dead love bugs and live love bugs lined the perimeter of the car windows. We jerked the car doors open and got inside as fast as possible. The windshield was splattered with love bug guts. What a mess!

I like learning and new experiences, but I wish I’d never met black, flying, annoying love bugs. Struck by the love bug now has a whole new meaning.

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Solar Eclipse Experience

Have you written notes about the solar eclipse? Where you were. What was most impressive? What happened you didn’t expect? What do you never want to forget? Other peoples’ experiences. Memories to share with children, grandchildren, and anyone who will listen.

If I were still teaching 6th grade Language Arts, we’d write on this topic for weeks. It’s never too late unless it’s so late that you forget. Because the deadline to submit this column is noon Monday, I’m following up on the eclipse now.

As August 21st loomed, I wanted to be in several places. Across town with my Grands in their front yard. At TTU, with thousands, to hear expert explanations. But months ago, I’d made plans to be on a pontoon boat in the middle of Center Hill Lake and that’s where I was, with Husband and friends. The experience was remarkable.

From the moment of first contact when the sun looked as it had been nibbled, I was awed. A feeling of respect and wonder. The Sun, almost 98 million miles away, and the moon, 238,000 miles from Earth, appearing to be in the same place. Nature’s beauty and miracles strike me spiritually. I wanted to hold my feeling of amazement.

When the moon blocked the sun, I expected gradual darkness. But brightness turned to a glow, almost yellowish-green. Was that because of the surroundings, water and trees? And when totality hit, it wasn’t completely dark. How powerful the sun is!

My favorite time of the day is sunset and the 360-degree sunset during the more than two-minute totality was spectacular. A multi-colored ribbon lay on the horizon. Tangerine orange, golden yellow, pale pink, lavender. Green hills cut the bands and the colors faded breaking the sunset’s path intermittently. Maybe a 360-degree camera could have captured it, but certainly not my camera. I didn’t even try to take a picture. I turned slowly in a circle, breathed deeply, and concentrated on the colors, the magnitude. Too quickly, the sunset was gone.

“It’s almost time to be over,” someone on the boat said. I put on my $1.99 eclipse glasses. The moon covered the sun and then a light so intense, like the strongest flashlight, glared on the sun’s circumference. The diamond ring sparkled brighter than I expected. I saw flashes of bright lights just before the ring appeared. Was that Bailey’s beads? I expected the beads to last longer.

My Grands were most impressed with the snakes, or shadow bands, which were everywhere and moved fast. And they saw crescent shapes, on a white sheet, through a colander and sieve, and they punched tiny holes in paper. The coolest view was through a vegetable grater.

As soon as the moon completely uncovered the sun, a friend who’d travelled from Ohio and took in the eclipse with me said, “This happens again April 8, 2024, and totality is only about thirty miles from where I live. Want to come?”

It’s on my calendar. Now, I understand eclipse chasers.

 

Put Litter in Its Place

 

            If there is a six letter bad word, it’s litter. Litter. Trash in a public place. Paper, cans, and bottles that belong in a landfill or recycling bin. I hate litter anywhere and everywhere and especially along the right of way. Always have.

When I was a kid, before protecting our natural environment were social and political issues, Mom and Dad made it a family issue. Part of our weekly yard care, in addition to pushing a lawn mower and clipping grass around shrubs with hand clippers, was picking up trash along the road near our house. And Mom and Dad taught me that nothing could be thrown out car windows. We had a car trash bag.

I carried on the trash bag practice with my children and their friends knew when I was the carpool driver all trash went in the bag. Except once when a carload of kids was riding in my Ford station wagon with flip-up back seats and in the rearview mirror, I saw a child toss a candy wrapper out the back window. We were on a neighborhood street, not a major highway.

I stopped the car on the wide shoulder and everyone, the litter culprit and those innocent, got out of the car and we picked up every scrap of trash we could find. My two school-age children were embarrassed and I should’ve handled the situation without using my teacher voice, but I was angry.

Now I walk from my house to the YMCA on Raider Drive a couple of times a week and I’m shocked at the amount of litter along a heavily traveled street that leads to a public school and a place to exercise.

Recently, while my three oldest Grands, ages 11, 10, and 8, visited, I told them we were going to do a service project. We’d pick up litter along the road close to the Y. Their responses were typical. How much will we get paid? (No money. Just the satisfaction of doing something good for our environment.) Do we have to? (Yes.) I’m not touching somebody else’s trash. (We’ll wear plastic gloves.) How long do we have to do it? (Until the job is done.) Can we have a treat afterwards? (Maybe.)

Reluctantly, my Grands pulled on gloves, took the trash bags, and decided we should work in pairs. One person, to hold the bag open and the other, pick up. A chore that would’ve taken me all morning was completed in twenty-two minutes. One Grand set her stopwatch.

After we finished, I liked what I heard. That wasn’t near as bad as I thought it’d be. It was almost fun. We found at least 25 apple drink aluminum cans. Why would somebody throw out aluminum cans they can recycle? Don’t they know plastic bottles can be recycled, too? They must not have a car trash bag.

And the last question: Gran, we don’t have to do this next week, do we? I certainly hope not.

 

 

Stranded in the Everglades

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 8.32.42 AM“It’s not a big problem. It’s okay. The starter just went out,” said Johnny, the tour guide. Because the airboat’s starter went out, the tour boat I was on was stranded in the Everglades National Park on a cool January morning.

Johnny picked up his two-way radio. “I’ll call the office. They’ll send another boat to get you and bring a starter so I can fix this one. It’s a five-minute repair.” The other three paying passengers and I assured Johnny that we weren’t on tight schedules and in no hurry to get back to dock.

“Johnny to headquarters,” Johnny repeated over and over into his radio. We heard conversations between other employees, but obviously no one heard Johnny. Using my cell phone, I snapped pictures of the mangrove trees. “Looks like my radio is out, too, and my phone is charging at the office. Can I use yours?” our tour guide asked.

Johnny punched numbers. No answer. “Ah, gees. They aren’t answering. This is the employees’ line – not the public one. I bet they see your number and think it’s a wrong number. I don’t know any other numbers. I’ll keep trying. Surely, they’ll answer. ”

We passengers chuckled. “So do you have paddles?” I asked. Johnny shook his head. “How far are we from the office dock?” About three miles by water.

Finally, on the fifth call, someone answered. “They’re sending a new starter,” Johnny said. “I’ll switch it out and take you back.”

Johnny had guided the airboat slowly through the Everglades canals, and later he explained why he sped up and did a couple of 360s in pond-size water. “When I went faster, one of you gave a thumbs up and nobody grabbed the seat bars. When it’s too cold for wildlife, going fast makes this tour more interesting.” The airboat swerved quickly through narrow canals shaded by mangrove canopies, until we came into open water and Johnny turned off the motor.

“This is called the Honey Hole,” Johnny had said. “It’s a good place to stop and talk about the Everglades. You’re in the middle of a mangrove forest. Mangroves lose their leaves a few at a time. Those yellow leaves are called sacrificial leaves. You can see the bottom here – it’s only about six inches deep – the water is clear because not many leaves fall in the middle of the pond.” Acid from decomposed leaves turns the water dark.

Sacrificial mangrove leaves drop and decay in the swamp to provide food for insects that are part of the food chain leading to alligators. The leaves are thick and waxy, like those of mountain laurels in the Smokey Mountains, and only about two inches long and the branches are thin and crooked, like a huge shrub. Native Americans called a mangrove a walking tree. Like curved legs, the tangled roots, some above water, anchor the trees in the swampy peat soil.

Stranded in the Everglades when the sun is shining and the temperature is 60 – a great way to spend an hour on a winter morning. No mosquitoes or alligators. Too cold for both. No danger of drowning. Silence in the middle of a mangrove swamp. The smell of unspoiled nature and the rich aroma of peat. One lone white ibis egret flew overhead. A fish, probably a gar, splashed.

Johnny was right. He changed out the starter and drove back to dock. Speeding and swerving all the way. And, if anyone needs it, I have the employees’ number for Captain Jack’s Airboats in Everglade City, Florida.

A Refreshing Walk with My Grand

imgres “Wots dat?” Neil asked and pointed toward white, feathery puffs of cotton that floated above his head.

“It’s seeds from cottonwood trees,” I said. He reached his hands high to catch the seeds, but they floated around him and onto the ground. He picked up a delicate seed and closed it inside his fist. When he spread his fingers wide, the seed seemed to have disappeared. He wrinkled his forehead, cocked his head, and picked up another seed.

Neil, my almost two-year-old Grand, seemed perplexed. He gathered several cottonseeds -one at a time- closed his hand, and when he opened it, he didn’t see the same white cotton puff. “Gone!” he announced and then began walking.

Neil and I were taking a morning walk. In his neighborhood, on the sidewalk, to a nearby park. “Wots dat?” Neil pointed to a white spot on the sidewalk. “Bird poo. Don’t touch it,” I told him and held his hand tightly. “POO!” he shouted and wiggled his hand free from mine. We had reached the park and Neil ran to and climbed upon a green metal bench. “POO!” he said and patted white spots on the bench.

A robin hopped on the grass, pecked at the ground, and raised its head. I held Neil in my lap and told him that the robin was searching for worms to eat. The robin flew low to the ground and Neil’s feet hit the ground running. Arms stretched in front of him, legs churning, Neil ran toward the bird. Mr. Robin stopped, pecked the ground again, and when Neil was only a few feet away, the bird flew. All around the open grassy field, the two played chase.

But, of course, Neil never came close to Mr. Robin. Finally, the robin perched in a pine tree. Neil ran to the tree and looked up. I pointed to the bird and suggested that he was full and ready for a rest. “Gone!” Neil announced.

Holding hands Neil and I walked along the sidewalk to the duck pond. “Wot dey doing?” Neil asked when we saw several ducks with their heads tucked along their backs. I said, “Probably sleeping.” Neil asked, “Why?” I explained that ducks get tired just like we do and, knowing that why questions never end, I veered our walk toward Neil’s home.

My Grand gathered short sticks that he gave me to hold and we talked about things we saw. Airplane contrails that crisscrossed the sky. White puffy clouds. A man who was power washing his driveway. A brown rabbit that hopped from shrub to shrub. A red pickup truck. Yellow tulips that Neil couldn’t pick.

“Wots dat?” Neil suddenly stopped walking. “It sounds like a fire truck,” I said. A fire truck that didn’t come within our sight, but kept Neil still long enough that he spotted ants, tiny brown ones, on the concrete walk. He squatted so low that his knees touched his chin and he watched the ants scurry to their anthill in the grass and then back onto the sidewalk. One ant hurried away from the others and Neil, still in a tight squat, shuffled his feet and followed it until it crawled into the grass.

“We’re home,” I told Neil. He rushed into his house and gave his older brother a treasure – one of his sticks.

There’s nothing quite so refreshing as taking a walk with a toddler. Everything is fascinating. Even seeds and ants and sticks.

 

 

Winter Weather – What’s to Like?

imgresI hate winter weather. I’m not complaining, just stating a fact. I hate bitterly cold temperatures and rainy 40-degree days.

I don’t like wearing a coat, a hat, a scarf, gloves, and boots. Not only do I feel like an overstuffed teddy bear, I look like one, and putting on all that garb takes time. Everybody’s time. Last night our five Grands who live across town and their parents ate supper at our house. Our oldest Grand, who is 9, called on the phone when I was ready to put the food on the table, and he said, “Gran, we’re running a little late because it takes so long to get everybody bundled up.” Spending time bundling up and being bundled up. What’s to like?

I remind myself that middle Tennessee is where I choose to live and I don’t plan to move and life is really good here so I do my best to appreciate this season.

Now is the time to watch birds. As I write this, I’m distracted because outside my window, a Downy Woodpecker evidently found a feast in an oak tree where a limb fell off recently. She pecked at that same place for several minutes, flew away, came back, and immediately a male Downy Woodpecker took her place. Did she get full and then invite him to her table?

And I really like seeing branches and twigs on deciduous trees. Springtime’s green leaves that turn brilliant colors in the fall hide the trees’ amazing structures. From the huge trunks to the toothpick twigs – each tree is unique. Have you seen a sunrise or sunset through the outline of trees? As beautiful as the colors of winter mornings and evenings are, the silhouettes of trees create even more incredible pictures.

Then there are comfort foods, like soup. Vegetable soup, made from all the leftover tidbits that I couldn’t throw away and stored in a freezer container and labeled For Soup. Or white chili. Brunswick stew. Turkey noodle soup.  Soup and cornbread on a cold winter day – divine.

Basketball is my sport – spectator sport, that is. I follow our home and state college teams: Tennessee Tech, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. But I’m happy watching any televised college game – women’s and men’s. I’m entertained through the first week of April, when the NCAA championships are played. Sometimes I scream, “Great pass!” and then realize that players on the opposing team made the pass. I love the play of a good game.

Back to cold weather attire – there are advantages. Long sleeves hide my sagging upper arms. Turtlenecks cover that area that it’s said no matter how many facelifts I have, my neck will tell my age. My spider veins and age spots are hidden. Give me a pair of old jeans and a soft sweatshirt and I’m dressed for the day until I run to the mailbox.

By the time I find and put on my coat and scarf and gloves and hat, it’s almost dark – 4:55 p.m. I grab the mail, run inside my warm house, heat up yesterday’s soup for supper, find a good ball game on TV, and settle in for the evening.

So maybe I’ve convinced myself that I like these winter days. But I still hate feeling like an overstuffed teddy bear.

 

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