Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Homework Helper

In an apparent attempt not to be outdone by Comet's watchfulness yesterday, Jax decided to help our niece Cally get her reading done by taking a nap all pressed up against her. Considering the fact that she read for about twenty minutes straight without any prompting from me, I think he did a pretty good job.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Standing Guard

As our nephew Kiefer takes his nap, Comet has alternately lain in front of the couch and stood at attention like this. I'm not quite sure what's going through his head at moments like these, but it's not too big a stretch to anthropomorphize that he's somehow intentionally standing guard over the little one. I've learned not to underestimate how much he understands.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Footstep Lore

Sometimes I think about moving to other places in the country. Connecticut isn't the only place where teachers are valued and great food rubs shoulders with great art and great countryside, and a new state or a new country would be a great adventure.

But I've invested over a decade in learning the little ins and outs of its trails and galleries, and I know at least three places to get the best curry you've ever had. I also know there's probably another 95% of Connecticut I haven't even begun to learn about. So the idea of picking up roots and putting them down again somewhere else to start over isn't intimidating so much in the threat of newness as it is in the thought of leaving behind so much accumulated lore and so many footsteps in so many lovely, hidden little places within places.

I know where this brook flows, and I know the cool breeze that drifts up it. I know the dusty smell of New England summer that dry pine needles make when the light warms them and the smell of living stinking rot when a dog's paw turns the old layered leaves at the water's edge. I know good friends and good dogs and the trail to take with them when the sun shines. It's a wealth whose currency is time, so I think I'll wander the nearby trails for a while yet.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Circumnavigating Manhattan

Manhattan might not, at first blush, seem like an obvious place to go sea kayaking, but about nine years ago, my friend Charlie and I circumnavigated the island as part of a guided trip.

He invited me out to try it again this year, so I got in my car at 5AM this morning and drove down to Liberty State Park in NJ. There's something to be said for an adventure that starts with a sunrise in your rearview.
The trip ended up being about 34 statute miles (~30 NM). We crossed Upper Bay just south of the Statue of Liberty, and then went up the east side of the island on the East River. By using the tides, you can then head up the Harlem River while it's still reversing and then cross above the north end of the island to the Hudson as the tides start to flow out again. The timing is precise, but if you get it right, the current does some of the work of paddling the 34 miles.

I didn't think my phone's battery would hold up for 10 hours of running a GPS tracker, so I had to reconstruct the route afterwards.

Below is the view from south of Liberty Island, right at the trip's outset. You can see the new tower at One World Trade Center being built on the right.
It's a whole other city from the water. Familiar buildings take on a new character. While the angle from the water does change your relationship with the architecture, part of the difference is that you're still in a huge city, but your separation from it is a world away from the crowded loneliness of the sidewalk.

Even buildings less famous than the UN headquarters take on a new character.

Sights like this are oddly beautiful, though smokestacks and rotting trains are sort of a sad testament to what we leave behind when we're not using it anymore.

Charlie told me the history of High Bridge as we came up on it. It was finished in 1848 as part of an aqueduct system, and that aqueduct is largely credited with helping the city expand its population by providing clean, consistent access to water.

The masonry arches to the right are what remains of the original bridge, since some of the masonry arches were demolished and replaced by a single, longer steel arch in 1928. The result is a hybrid of two eras of engineering.

Not long after we rounded the top of the island and popped out on the Hudson River, we approached the George Washington Bridge, which I had driven over about seven hours earlier on my way down to Liberty State Park.

When you use the bridge in your car, you get very little sense of its engineering. When you use the lower level, you're essentially in a tunnel with open sides, and even when you use the upper level, there's no real spot that provides a vantage of the bridge itself. When you go under the bridge, however, you get a whole new look at it.

This is a neat photo, but it really gives you absolutely no idea of the scale of the bridge. It almost looks like a toy until you realize that the little red building at the bottom of the bridge is a lighthouse, not a fire hydrant.

Further down the Hudson is another major New York landmark, the Riverside Church. Like the others, the perspective you get when you stand on the street and look is worlds away from what you see when you're sitting in a little boat on the water.

A little ways after the church, the onshore breeze picked up into a steady wind. Between the current downstream and the breeze upstream, the chop got pretty bad, so I had to put the good camera away. We also had to dodge a full-sized Norwegian cruise ship and all the other water traffic you find at the bottom of the Hudson. We had to cross from the Manhattan side to the New Jersey side around Chelsea, and in the shelter of a pier, I was able to get my last good shot of the day, of the group with the skyline in the background. That tower at One World Trade Center is going to be one big building when it's done.

The trip took close to ten hours total, and I was only out of my boat a total of three times during the whole endeavor. So when we finally got back to Liberty State Park around 6PM, I was really ready to stretch my legs and drive back to Connecticut.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What a Thousand Terns Sound Like

Falkner Island is about four miles off the shore of Guilford. I had heard there was a big nesting colony of Roseate Terns there. Since I'm having such a hard time differentiating between Roseate, Common, and Forster's while they're all in summer breeding plumage, I thought it would be neat to go look at Tern central station so I could get a sense of direct comparisons between different species.

While four miles of open water is a bit of an intimidating stretch to take on solo, I threw caution into the onshore breeze and headed straight for it. A little less than an hour later, I came up on Falkner and its lighthouse. For the last mile of the approach, Terns were constantly headed out over my head and back with fish in their beaks, presumably fishing to feed their fledglings.

As I got closer and closer, I started to hear a strange roar. The water was choppy and there was a strong wind, so I couldn't make out what it was at first, but as I drew close, I realized it was the sound of an unbelievable number of terns all calling at once.

There are thousands of terns on that island, presumably from at least two, maybe three species, all taking off, landing, calling, chiding, swerving, and bothering each other in close quarters. The sound is amazingly loud and utterly unique.

I was planning on circling the island, rather than landing, and then heading back, since I've heard that you're supposed to avoid making landfall in order to protect the terns' nesting area. However, just as I pulled level with the eastern shore and snapped these shots, I heard a rumble of thunder. I had been watching the radar maps on my phone periodically, but while the big storm fifty miles southwest of me wasn't moving much, a new one began to form a few miles north of the Guilford shore. I had already cut it far to close, so I turned around and paddled an exhausting four mile sprint back to shore. I started seeing lightning strikes several miles north just before I got out of the water, which meant I had miscalculated and was well outside the realm of safety and good judgment, but I did get off the water well before any storm clouds actually came over.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Private Island

Today I left from the Stony Creek boat launch for the first time this year and tooled around the Thimble Islands again.

I went east along the coast, almost all the way to Guilford, and then turned around. The tide was mostly out, so there were lots of temporary islands with birds going about their days, and I got my first ever good picture of an American Oystercatcher. I've seen them a few times before, but they're pretty skittish, so it's hard to get close enough.

The Thimble Islands and the Stony Creek area have some amazing shoreline real estate and beautiful houses. When I went into teaching, I pretty much guaranteed that I'd never make enough money to buy one of those private islands or the massive, immaculate houses with their huge decks and gorgeous views. However, with the tides, anybody with a little boat, a little knowhow, and a little good timing can be a little prince, at least for long enough to eat a granola bar and drink some cold water. And the sunburn is the same one you get on a million dollar island.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Aim Your Fish Into the Wind

At this point, the drill is familiar: run on down to the Guilford Marina, put the boat in, and head up river. Today I went really early in the day and went a lot farther than last time.

I went about 2.5 miles up, far enough to go underneath I-95, and just past that bridge, I saw a Glossy Ibis.

He took a quick hop while I was drifting toward him, but he didn't seem at all disturbed as I snapped shot after shot until he walked up a mudbank and disappeared.

I've seen this bird once before in the salt marshes, but this is the first time I've been remotely close enough to get a good picture.

For whatever reason, it was a day for good action shots. This Snowy Egret  was a dozen feet away from the ibis also hopped a few times in his pursuit of small fish and crustaceans.

The coolest moment, though, was when an Osprey plucked a sizable fish out of the water not far from my boat. Originally I thought I had spooked him as he flew away from me, so I wasn't prepared with my camera when he suddenly circled back and dove. Though I missed the dive, I did catch him in flight with his prize.

If you've observed enough Ospreys, you might have noticed something unique about their fishing habits: they always turn a fish head first. No matter how they catch it, before they fly off, they'll rearrange it until they're holding it parallel to their bodies, head into the oncoming wind. Sometimes they do it by simply holding one foot ahead of the other, but I've also seen Ospreys who shifted their grip quite a bit in the process. The leading theory I've heard is that they're holding the fish at the most aerodynamic angle, which provides an advantage because it reduces air resistance. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but it's certainly the best explanation I've heard, and Ospreys absolutely do insist on having their fish head first. I've seen several really struggle in the air as they rearrange the fish, so the benefit of having the fish head first must outweigh the risk of falling back into the water and must, at least in the long run, pay for the extra energy expended getting it just so.

So take a lesson from our Osprey friends, and when you're engaging in an important and risky task, make sure you take a second and point your fish into the wind before you really get going.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Big Black Dog

Arky was my sister's black Labrador Retriever. He was the first dog either of us got after our childhood Golden Retriever, Chess, died. Chess made such a big impact on us with his loyalty, sweetness, and utter unselfishness that the first thing we both did when we got out of college was buy dogs we couldn't quite afford. Kate got Arky, and a few years later, I got Gus.

I remember when Kate got out of college and first started out working with special needs kids. She couldn't afford much, and she told stories about cooking rice and beans and sharing them with Arky. I used to imagine the two of them holed up under a blanket in a cold apartment in Boston in the winter, watching over each other.

That image still comes to me when I think about Kate and Arky and probably always will.

Arky was never an obedience star. When he was young, he was selectively deaf to commands, and as he got older, he grew literally deaf. He was mouthy and rambunctious when he was young, and I remember stories of trips to the e-vet to remove broken glass and other captivating objects he'd find on his walks. But as goofy and stubborn as he was, he was forever an utterly loyal and loving Labrador Retriever.  When Kate got married, he took to her husband and then to her kids, and he became that gentle, sweet dream dog you hope your kids will grow up with, albeit one that still didn't always come when you called him.

In his old age, you didn't need a leash in the backyard anymore, since you could just jog over and catch him, and once he noticed you, he'd follow you back to the house. The last few times we visited Kate and her family in Boston, Arky would come out and romp around for a minute with the young dogs and then wander off, and I always loved going to get him, since he would come back towards the house in a perfect "heel" as long as you scratched the itchy spot on his neck while you walked with him. And then he'd spend the rest of the day sleeping off his sixty seconds of exercise.

Last night, Kate had to make that awful decision between waiting to see if more medicine and time can improve things and letting your dog go because he's suffering so much. You never feel good about that, and you always chew over the "what ifs." But you make the best decision you can for the dog. We don't have perfect knowledge of what's going on in a dog's body, so we can't make perfect decisions. But as long as you make the least selfish decision you can, the decision that you believe is best for the dog and not necessarily for you, you've made the right one. A dog would never begrudge us a day or a week that he might have lived. He just knows that you're there, rubbing his favorite spot, saying "good boy" or humming an old bedtime song as he drifts away. We can't give them a life free from suffering or as many years as we'd want to, but we can give them that.

So now Arky's gone, and I wish I could hold that huge head in my hands and scratch that itchy spot on his neck and hear him whuff air through that coal black nose. I'd tell him thank you for taking care of my sister when she was out on her own for the first time and thank you for watching over my niece and my nephew, and then I'd let him wander into the woods in the backyard for a little longer this time before bringing him back home.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Eponymous Saltmarsh

Guilford's East River is rapidly becoming a favorite spot for me. I love that it connects to the new East River Preserve in the north part of Guilford, and it's a bit closer to my house and easier to put into than the Hammonasset River, especially now that I've dropped the $20 for a season pass at the Guilford Marina.

I went almost two miles up the river today, which was almost the entire salt marsh section. While I plan to go farther soon, all the way up into the coastal forest, today had some good exploring.

The predominant wildlife is still Willets (left), Ospreys, and Common Terns (above left). I also saw a high-up hawk that I'm fairly sure was a Cooper's, though she took off over the marsh before I could get a good picture.

I also saw a little guy that's turning into an old friend. I've seen lots of small sparrow-like birds flitting across the water and into the grasses, but they're much shyer than the Willets and the other larger birds, so it's hard to be sure exactly what they are.

But, as I've mentioned before on numerous occasions, here's the huge advantage of the kayak: you can take a few shots at a safe distance, and then set yourself up with current, wind, or even momentum to drift a bit closer and closer.

So I was finally able to confirm my hunch and get a few good pictures at the same time. At least some (and probably most) of the sparrow-like birds are the Saltmarsh Sparrows I've come to know well. I don't like to interrupt birds' habits, and I try to stop at the first sign that I'm disturbing one, but this time I got a little too close, and the sparrow looked back over his shoulder as he took off away from me.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Short Jaunt on the East River

Today I threw the boat on the car for the first time this year and headed out to do a little exploring on the East River in Guilford, the same East River that runs through the preserve I visited last week. It's apparently possible to take a kayak from the Guilford Marina—to which I now have a $20 season pass—through to the preserve at high tide.

Within seconds of shoving off, I'd found a Willet working the shallows.

A hundred yards later, I found a mixed group of Willets and terns bathing in the shallows. The terns were all Common Terns, and they hopped in and out and splashed around.

I'm having a bit of a rough time ruling out Forster's and Roseate Terns in some pictures, but I'm pretty sure these are all Common.
Within minutes, I had dozens of action pictures of terns in full breeding plumage.

The Willets were bathing too, and out of a few dozen exposures, I captured this neat sequence of three.

As always, I try to set myself upwind of the birds I'm photographing, so I can get closer and closer while causing as little alarm as possible.

As I finished my drift toward the mixed flock, I took one more series of exposures of a male Common Tern preening. Or, potentially, doing tai chi.

Just as he stopped preening and looked worried, I put my paddle back in the water and halted my approach. It's great to get good shots of birds, but it's not worth the expense of disturbing their habits.
Sadly, when I was only about a half mile from the marina, a microcell thunderstorm got itself whipped up to my north, right up the river. I tried to rationalize staying out on the water and going up at least a little father, but when I saw a bolt of lightning in the middle of that downpour, I turned around and hightailed it back to the dock.