Monday, August 17, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 8-20-15

Notes From My Knapsack 8-20-15

Jeff Gill


A saunter around summer's end



Birds have been in my field of vision this summer.


Carolina chickadees were all over my neighborhood following the spring; they've moved on, but I still see the occasional small black-capped visitor in the back yard.


House sparrows are pecking their way through the neighbor's mulch most mornings out the kitchen window. A non-native, the field guides tell me, but they've always been around from my point of view, which makes them native in my mental landscape.


I saw an Eastern towhee on my street, up in a curbside maple, hearing it before spotting the distinctive near-orange sides. "Drink your tea, drink your tea" is one of the few birdsongs I can remember from year to year without looking them up; with apps online and on phones, it is much easier to figure them out if you want. Red-winged blackbirds are always easy to recall, and when the meadow I drive through leaving home is let go, they're common not far from the house, so I can hear them from my porch.


The towering tree behind my home attracts fewer birds than I might have first thought; sycamores aren't a food source, so they don't have a great deal of attraction other than as a passing perch for starlings and robins and the like. But I did once hear, then saw a peregrine falcon up high, scanning the yards and roadside for something to swoop on for lunch.


A few weeks ago I saw a majestic white-headed bald eagle down in Ross County, paddling down Paint Creek in a kayak. He regally disregarded me in passing, giving just a fine profile shot to those with me who had good cameras. Rightly or wrongly I'd decided this trip I'd take no camera at all, but just look, and hopefully see. If you can see that bald eagle, yellow hooked beak curving down to greyish brown feathers across a broad breast, staring out – eagle eyed! – over the flowing water, then you don't need a picture taken, do you?


And on my way back from leading Sunday worship up at the Hartford Fair, I saw a bald eagle in flight, just past Chatham, soaring down along Dry Creek. We have at least two nesting pairs here in Licking County, something many of us thought we'd never see in our lifetimes, but now becoming nearly a common sight.


On the brick street next to the church I pastor in Newark we've seen an outburst of goldfinches recently, picking at some plant erupting from the spaces between the ruddy pavement, a beautiful contrast to the bright yellow and deep black of the birds.


But my favorite sightings are still great blue herons. When you watch one picking their way through the shallows in Raccoon Creek or over by one of the branches of the Licking River, you see immediately the connection to their dinosaur ancestors. The manic glint of the round eye, above a wicked long sharp beak, flare of feathers at the back of the head, stick-like legs swiveling and stepping into and across obstacles, all seeming awkwardness until the swift stab into the water and a wriggling meal skewered and swallowed. A T-Rex of the waterside world, indeed.


In flight, though, something the theropods of antiquity didn't master, a heron is a thing of beauty, to me at any rate. Their steady wing beat sets them apart even at a distance from buzzards, let alone eagles, who glide and soar; great blues flap strongly from one watershed to the next, their "beast feet" (the meaning of "theropod") dangling behind.


They (and the more humble and widely spread house sparrows) represent what's left of that dinosaur family in our world, diplomatic representatives of a more dangerous era. Oh, and since I like to say that pretty much every subject has a Licking County connection if you look hard enough: O.C. Marsh, the paleontologist who created the name "theropods" for the best-known type of dinosaur, grew up in Zanesville, and perhaps the earliest published piece of professional archaeology relating to Licking County was by him describing an excavation he conducted south of Newark in 1865, of a mound still visible near Rt. 13 and Dorsey Mill Road.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your bird sightings at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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