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Off-Topic: Winter’s Feathered Royalty

snowy owlOver the past few weeks, Ipswich has been visited by some rather impressive royalty of the feathered persuasion. The chance to catch a glimpse of these avian arrivals has coaxed many to venture out into the cold bleakness of the New England midwinter. Those lucky enough to make a sighting will tell you it was worth the effort.

The better known of our two visitors is the Snowy Owl. Hailing from Canada’s far north, these regents of the bird world are the largest owl (by weight) in North America. Adult birds can grow up to a height of twenty-seven inches and have a wingspan of four to five feet! These stunning raptors travel south in the winter, but only come as far as Ipswich if there is a shortage of their primary food, lemmings.

This year, three Snowy Owls have taken up seasonal residence in the dunes along Crane Beach. Sadly, one female was found dead (she appears to have starved to death, something a visiting birder hypothesized may have been the result of a disease caught from pigeons a few towns away), but the other two owls have been drawing intrepid birders of all ages, even on the most frigid days.

I have been told that seeing a Snowy Owl is good luck. I choose to believe this is true, although owls are not always perceived to be harbingers of good tidings.

It is because the warrior goddess Athena chose the owl as her companion that we associate these birds with wisdom and learning, but they carry other folklore on their silent wings as well. In many cultures, owls are symbols of prophecy and intuition. In some traditions, these noble birds are thought to be omens of death.

However you choose to interpret their presence, owls deserve respect simply for the longevity of their species. Scientists have discovered owl fossils dating back to the Miocene era. Owls are also featured in 30,000-year-old European cave paintings, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Mayan murals. This is a bird with a long history.

Our other feathered tourist is, though less striking to look at, causing even more of a stir than the Snowy Owls. If you have driven down Argilla Road recently, you may have noticed a roadside gathering of well-equipped birders training their highly magnified gaze on a distant flock of Canada Geese.

It wasn’t the Canada Geese that had these birders all in a flurry; it was a small, white goose that had taken up with the flock – a Ross’s Goose. Like Snowy Owls, Ross’s Geese breed on the tundra of far northern Canada, primarily around Hudson Bay. Their winter migrations take them to parts of California and New Mexico.

The misplaced fellow hanging out with the local flock of Canada Geese is what birders refer to as an “accidental winter vagrant.” We will never know what caused him to be a couple of thousand miles off course, but dozens of birders are glad he decided to drop in.

Apart from anomalous cases like our “vagrant” tourist, most geese have exceptional navigational skills. They are also fiercely loyal (most species form lifelong pairs) and protective (don’t ever mess with a mama goose).  If one goose in a flock is injured and unable to fly, one of its companions will stay behind. For these reasons, geese are associated with fidelity, fellowship, and teamwork.

Whether you get to see them or not, it’s nice just to know that these fascinating birds are about town. With their snow-white feathers and arctic heritage, they bring a little extra magic to winter just when we need it most.



This post was originally published as a “Just a Minute” column in The Ipswich Chronicle
Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Off-topic Friday: Something in the air

All around us, they are gathering. They convene spontaneously on land, on water, and in the air. Heeding an ancient summons, they assemble in mighty flocks for their annual journey, departing local havens for more temperate climes.

Already, most of the swallows have departed. A week ago, I could watch them lining up along the wires like so many gentlemen in white waistcoats and formal tails. The precision of their aerial maneuvers seemed designed more for show than anything so pedestrian as travel. Still, they are suddenly gone, wheeling away to their winter abodes with impeccable style and grace.

Though it is still early for their migrations, massive groups of starlings and grackles have begun congregating in the trees along roads and fields. Like visitors from another dimension, they appear and disappear en masse – becoming invisible up in the high foliage or down in the tall grass. If it weren’t for their ceaseless chattering and whistling, you would never know they were there.

And then there is the herald of the season, the Canada goose. There are few sounds in nature more stirring than that of a flock of these hardy birds calling out as they launch themselves into the air and take to the sky. It is a sound that evokes both a sense of raucous triumph and deep longing.

The call of the Canada goose embodies the fall season for me. Though autumn is by far my favorite time of the year, I do not know whether it holds this place in my heart because of or in spite of its melancholy edge. Where summer inspires celebration and adventure, fall invites us to take stock and reflect.

Autumn is, after all, a season of endings and departures. The birds fly south, the leaves fall, and the summer warmth fades. We are left with a contradiction of misty mornings and bright but chilly afternoons.

All around us, nature is closing up, preparing for the long, slow sleep of winter. The summer peepers and cicadas have sung their finales and the crickets are left alone on the night stage. Summer’s lush green smells have fermented into the rich, dark scent of earthy decay. Finally, as if to make a grand exit, Mother Nature sets the forest alight with brilliant hues of red, gold, and orange – a funeral pyre for the year gone by.

In the summer, it is easy to live in the moment; but the fall tempts us to wander down long unused paths through our memories and musings. It is a time to remember old dreams, past adventures, and those who have gone before us. Autumn is a season of ghosts.

But, it is also a season of warmth. Gathering around home and hearth to enjoy the wealth of the harvest with family and friends brings comfort and a deep sense of gratitude. Bittersweet thoughts fade in the company of those we love. The wind seems less lonely, and the early dusk less confining. We remember the small, intimate pleasures of this quieter season.

Soon enough, our lives will be caught up in a maelstrom of holiday delights. We will find ourselves drawn into the joyful chaos as surely as gravity pulls our little planet around the sun. For now, though, we can take a moment to pause between the exuberance of summer and the sparkling insanity of midwinter festivities. We can hold this bright, melancholy season close and embrace all its beauty and bounty, all its introspection and camaraderie.

We can let our thoughts take flight in the warm autumn air to dance with the swallows, mingle with the starlings, and soar with the geese who are always coming home no matter which wind is under their wings.



All images from my Instagram feed.

This piece was originally published in the Ipswich Chronicle as part of my bi-weekly column.


Finally – fall. Beach season is here.

The summer sun is setting on Crane Beach. Soon, the people-and-towel patchwork along the shore, suntan lotion scented air, and audacious heists of larcenous seagulls will be nothing more than memories.

I’m okay with that.

Though I have enjoyed my share of sultry mornings and sizzling afternoons wandering along the white sands of our local paradise, I’m eager for the start of the fall beach season.

As the throngs of summertime sunbathers and swimmers reluctantly recede from the shore like a living tide being pulled away by the gravitational forces of school and work, I am ready to reclaim the beach for the off-season.

For me, this is the best time to enjoy the beach.  It’s quieter. It’s cooler. And the lack of people makes its impressive expanse seem to stretch even farther. From the mouth of the Ipswich River on one end to the borders of Essex on the other, miles of recently abandoned coastline beckon to the contemplative soul, offering solitude and the chance to commune with Mother Nature.

Even as I indulge in a last few summer evening strolls along the sandy strand, I am already happily anticipating perfect fall beach days – days when the sun is still warm enough for bare feet, but the air is cool enough for a cozy sweatshirt or fleece. Standing on the edge of land and sea, at the boundary between seasons, it’s no surprise to find your mind wandering to thoughts as deep as the ocean.

Fall on the beach gives you the chance to travel light. Most of summer’s paraphernalia is unnecessary. Enjoying off-season at the beach is a minimalist activity that helps you pare down to the barest of necessities – a towel (maybe), a snack (pocket-sized), and a perhaps a book.

The tempo of a fall day at the beach invites you to indulge in a slower pace. There’s no need to worry about endless reapplications of sunscreen, frantic defense against greenheads, or keeping your children from wandering too far out to sea. In the fall, the beach invites you to sit still, breathe, and let your gaze slide out beyond the horizon.

In the fall, the beach also welcomes our canine and equine friends, bringing an abundance of good karma to this already beautiful natural space. Smiles are exchanged and conversation flows as we meet and greet in the company of our four-footed friends. Between them, the dogs and horses enhance our beach visit with an uninhibited mixture of joyful abandon, animal majesty, and comedic relief

In the fall, you don’t take the beach for granted. Each unexpectedly warm day is a gift. Each sky awash in gentle pinks and blues is a miracle that deserves to be marveled at. Unseasonable temperatures intoxicate even the most responsible inner children, inciting spontaneous acts of truancy.

Away from the noise and chaos of the summer crowds, autumn is the time to discover buried treasure, retrieve messages in bottles, or catch a glimpse of a mermaid risen from the deep blue to see how the land dwellers live.

Yes, the summer days and nights are slipping away like ice cream melting on the boardwalk, but I don’t mind at all. Give me a beautiful, crisp fall day with the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and a capricious ocean breeze whispering in my ear of storms and snow. Give me the silence and solitude and chance encounters of the beach in autumn, and I am a happy girl.

Maybe I’ll see you out there at the edge of the world, on the cusp of a new season. If you see any mermaids, give them my best.


All images from my Instagram feed.

This piece was originally published in the Ipswich Chronicle as part of my bi-weekly column.

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