A joy of kayaking is its intimacy with the natural world. You feel the sway of each wave, the massive weight of the bay with every paddle stroke, the thrill of gliding inches above the surface, eye-level with sea birds and seals.
This week seven of us paddled across an unusually glassy Western Bay under a moody sky. We watched and listened. Cormorants skimmed across the surface after a raucous launch—the splash splash splash of wings whacking water, the dotted line of wavelets tracing their takeoff, the whoosh whoosh whoosh of feathers against air. Terns wheeled and zig-zagged above us. Diving ducks disappeared then rose in the distance.
On the far shore, about 50 seals lay on rocks exposed by the low tide. We tried to keep well away, but they raised their heads to look at us. They were curious. Some of the seals were out swimming, and their doggie faces popped up on either side of the tandem kayak in which I was paddling the ailing-shouldered Pamelia. They stuck their snouts up to sniff. Seals are aptly called sea dogs, and up here in Maine they're celebrated as such. The Portland minor-league baseball team, an affiliate of the beloved Boston Red Sox, is known as the Sea Dogs, as is a popular brewing company. Like loyal pooches, a few of these seals followed us all the way back across the bay.
The shrieks of ospreys alerted us to an aerial show of diving and fishing. Ospreys—a species once nearly wiped out by DDT—are large raptors who hover, then plummet and hit the water feet-first to pluck fish with their specially evolved talons. As on an owl, one of the three front-facing toes on an osprey can swivel and point backward to give the bird two front-facing and two rear-facing toes for a better grip. We watched ospreys haul off sizable fish to a nearby island, where—to judge from the shrieks—younger ospreys may have been waiting for dinner.
Ospreys too have a nickname: seahawks. On this opening weekend of the National Football League season, it seems apt to note that the Seattle Seahawks were named in honor of the ospreys of the Seattle region. Check out the team logo below.
We were hungry as well. We pulled ashore on the crushed-shell beach of a deserted island for an overdue picnic (lunch sandwiches...at 5:30 p.m.). Behind the beach was a field of milkweed. Pamelia and I knew that this was a favorite haunt of monarch butterflies, who lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweed, whose whitish juice is toxic and terrible-tasting to most animals—thus protecting the butterflies (who still carry the toxins) from potential predators.
We watched a few monarchs flutter up from the field. Some saplings in the field vaguely resembled the dreaded invasive plant Japanese knotweed—which in a relatively short span of years could wipe out the milkweed and thus this monarch colony—but we decided that they were something else we simply couldn't identify. We did a bit more exploring, of a nearby Native American shell mound, then climbed back into the kayaks as a breeze started kicking up some waves and the daylight faded.
The first to greet us as we arrived back home was not a seahawk or a sea dog but our old land dog, Wooster, who'd been stuck in the house all afternoon. She quickly forgave us and collected her reward: a tasty, salty lick of my happy kayaker's face.
Once In a Generation Event
Twenty-one million years ago a star exploded. This week the bright light from that event finally reached the Earth. Astronomers were dazzled. If you'd looked with a telescope or even good binoculars at a point near the handle of the Big Dipper, you could have seen this supernova, the brightest observed from Earth in 25 years.
Astronomers gave it a name that looks like a typographical error: PTF 11kly. Hardly a worthy handle for what is likely to become the most closely studied supernova in history.
In simple terms, a super-dense, super-hot, white dwarf star blew up, turning into a short-lived supernova and sending its gases and particles in every direction. Those gases and particles will someday form new stars and planets. The heavier elements found on our own planet, in fact, were created billions of years ago in supernovae, whose intense heat forged them from the atoms of lighter elements such as hydrogen.
Looking up at the night sky can be quite a lesson in science and history. When was the last time you got to watch something that happened 21 million years ago?
Word of the DayThis week at The Naturalist's Notebook I met my first phenologist.
Not a phrenologist—that would have been one of those 19th century pseudoscientists who believed that a person's intellect and traits could be read by assessing the size and shape of his or her skull. No, this man was a biologist who speciality in phenology, which is defined as "the scientific study of cyclical biological events, such as flowering, breeding, and migration, in relation to climatic conditions." Phenologists are out there collecting data that help us understand how climate change is altering the number and types of plants and animals we see around us. Too bad climate-change deniers don't spend more time studying the work of phenologists.
By the way, there's an interesting exhibit in Amsterdam right now called the Westerpark Cool Globes that is meant to draw attention to climate change and other global issues. Here's a link to a blog with photos of the large globes that were created for the show: http://maevdkrogt.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/photoessay-westerpark-cool-globes/
Do Moths Have Eyebrows?
A beautiful moth was caught in a spider web outside our front door the other night. Our friend Mel rescued it and it sat on her fingertip, allowing us to study it. We admired its proboscis and its huge eyes.
When we later looked at a photo of the moth, Pamelia said to me, "He has great eyebrows." Being curious, I had to check: Do moths have eyebrows? I discovered that they have short, feathery antennae that, when angled back, can look like eyebrows. In fact, they inspired a Chinese proverb—a pretty darned good one—about the expressive power of those hairy strips above our own eyes:
"The silkworm-moth eyebrow of a woman is the axe that cuts down the wisdom of man."
9/11, A Decade Later
It's a long story, but the attacks on 9/11 helped put in motion a series of events that helped lead Pamelia and I to our life in Maine and, by extension, the invention of The Naturalist's Notebook. Because we travel a lot and because we experienced 9/11 in downtown Manhattan, where we lived at the time, VIA, a California-based travel magazine, asked me to do a short essay on how 9/11 reshaped travel. If you're interested in reading it, you can click on the link below. (You might be asked to type in your zip code, in which case you should enter a California code such as 94110.) http://www.viamagazine.com/other/traveling-ten-years-after-911
Honey Tournament Update
After a brief lull, we've begun the finals of our third annual Sweet 16 Honey-Tasting Tournament. Having survived the brackets, Italian Sunflower is going up against Washington Wild Huckleberry, which until a few days ago we thought was Oregon wild huckleberry (sorry, Beaver Staters). This week will be your final chance, so come in, taste and vote!
Can you shuffle the letters in BURNS ME THERE to spell out three numbers?