Feb 152015


© 2015 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

For the mallards who migrate and for those who stay behind, life is not easy. Much of the habitat on which they depend has been taken from them. Every year, I do what I can to make up for it.

Mallards are gathering.  Hungry, complaining, up before sunrise and nothing in the belly. They stir the surface and wait. One calls. A loud descending voice like an old man railing against condition and age. The others mumble under their breath. Annoyed, querulous. Impatient for the food that has not arrived. Anxious for the giver to come yet mistrustful. A cry goes up and they fly a distance when they see him. Even though they know him.

They are wise not to trust.

Soon they will separate: Drakes to the one side, former fathers former sons molting together into winter iridescence (depending on the angle of view, night sky blue or brilliant green fire). Hens to the other side, former mothers former daughters drab in the brown that hides them but for that flash of purple deep as a welder’s arc and a final daub of white (almost hidden except when they take flight). Soon they will leave, these two drawn lots, on different days weeks apart but not toward a different route or result. They will be shot with equanimity all along the way, in great number, on their endless perilous journey seeking south.

But while they are here, I provide: I stand in place of the estuary that has been rerouted, water grass that was drowned, wild rice turned under, beaches walled off deep of the high tide mark and the sound of empty shells rolling in the back wash. I am the Source now, come stumbling and blurry as the cold ground fog laid down on the earth. I come every day. As if their lives depend on it.  As if my life depends on it.

And it does.  And it does.

For more Mallard photos click here

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 February 15, 2015  Birds No Responses »
Sep 142013

Broad-billed Hummingbird Sipping Nectar


Like a bee with a buzz with a twist like a top with a sweep with a lunge with a LOUD then stops, right there: Hovering; (Covering); Defending a ground that is Flower that is Food that is Air.

His beak is a lance his wings are a shout: Beware! Of me! Hummingbird!

All of an ounce of anger charges, headlong – Chases everyone away. Even the females of his kind. Sometimes, in a rage he will drive her down, to the dust and leave her spent. And fluttering. Aerodynamics sets the only limits. His right has no respite, has no bounds. Darts and dives and chitters. Intolerance is his nature, his nature, in a crowd? Never calm.

Herons and Egrets with great piercing bills; falcons with talons that crush; the terrible saw-toothed beaks of sea birds; the raking feet and spurs of the great birds of the ground – all of them strive against their own but almost always at a distance. They pretend. Noh drama of no-touch. Balinese shadow-play. And when the curtain falls? All grievances are over, and done with.

For Hummingbird, the size of a leaf the density of a folded pocket-handkerchief the stage is a World and the World is War. Black-chin puffs up the tiny feathers that give him his name into electric purple defiance. Broad-bill all sapphire and emerald brilliant (even his body glares). Broad-tail bringing up the rear – 3grams, no fear.

Only Magnificent Hummingbird ignores the worrying by all these others – by weight, and size, and the rumbling spread of his wings. His starlight-turquoise throat glittering in the leafy morning light, he alone owns peace.

So there it is: Size matters. I am reminded of that barroom adage (a barroom adage on the wing): Big guy knock you down, but a little guy will cut you!

Black-Chinned Hummingbird, Madera Canyon, Arizona

Mark Seth Lender reading Intolerance on Living on Earth (PRI):

Audio MP3

Field Note:
Madera Canyon, Arizona is famous for its great variety of hummingbirds – if you know exactly where to look. I had the good fortune to be guided by local expert Bill Forbes and the results were nothing short of spectacular. Bill designed and now manufactures a high-speed camera trigger called a Phototrap and with the aid of that device and his expertise in flash setups I was able to take the photographs you see here. The birds of course are stunningly beautiful and I was delighted by the sound of their wings. Less delightful (though they were remarkably tolerant of human presence) was their intolerance of each other. Almost every encounter between species and even among members of the same species resulted in conflict. Shawnee Riplog-Peterson is the keeper of the hummingbird house at the Sonora Desert Museum. She tells me that males will sometimes drive an adversary right into the ground – leaving them exhausted to the point where they are unable to fly – and that they will even do this with females of their own species. Why? Hard to say. Perhaps at up to 2000 wing-beats a minute, the energy requirements are so great that every found flower needs to be guarded like a treasure. Perhaps, with their brilliant scales and fierce dark eyes, the hummingbirds think themselves dragons. Or maybe they are dragons…

Magnificent Hummingbird, Madera Canyon, Arizona

Hummingbird Slideshow
Here’s a slideshow I made of a broad-billed male sipping nectar at a cactus flower. The sound track was recorded using a parabolic microphone, at the same time and place but contains, inevitably, the sounds of other hummingbirds, both wing sound and their high, rather angry calls.


Hummingbirds Humming
One last treat. Here is 12 minute long recording of hummingbirds feeding, hovering and alas, giving each other grief. Play for as long or as little as you like.

Audio MP3

Broad-billed Hummingbird in Flight, Madera Canyon, Arizona


 September 14, 2013  Birds, General No Responses »
Aug 142013

Great Blue Heron Pair, Greeting

After years of searching, I found a large great blue heron rookery just off the Connecticut River with more than a dozen nests, and many herons. Over a period of four months I watched them build their nests and hatch their chicks and the chicks prosper and at last take flight on their own. It was wonderful to see, and as usual when I am in the field, I felt a deep sense of privilege. Rhapsody is based on that experience and its effect, like an ancient seal impressed in molten wax.


(C) 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

The dead oaks spread against the sky like mouths, lips thin as a spindle, grey as their own demise. Dry and cracked and begging for rain though they stand in a pond of water, thirsty though they have drowned. And it is not rain that will come to them, that will purpose this long last stand of their being. Although, like rain, it will come from the clouds, and the color of clouds.

In the still air, in guttural blue plumage swirling and shuddering in grey come whispering rolling like fog, Great Blue Herons! And they glide and glide then pull, up straight, waving wide grey-blue arms, and all in slow motion. Then grasp the thin dead branches wingtips spread broad as a balance bar, the tightrope quavering in their light and thin-legged touch. And do not settle but stand tall now in salutation, bright bills up raised each toward the other, mouths open like branches, their necks reaching, Great Blue Herons, lovers never touching as if yearning like a thirst never quenched except in the liquid of the eyes.

For the Herons have no water, but neither have they brought fire. And in their mouths they bring only branches, to be woven like baskets, to hold and caress the Source of themselves. Oval. Perfect. In the shape of the World before it was born and blue as a pale blue sky. Patient and practiced, now until the shell breaks open, it will open like a flower to breathe and unfold the feathers like petals, Great Blue Heron emerging small and imperfect to become, the only real and perfect mirror of the Self. And so continue, until in Time, all this is taken, and Great Blue Herons pass from this place like a whisper in thin in blue in air.


Field Note:

Great Blue Heron Rookery

Great Blue Heron rookeries are frequently found in beaver ponds. The trees that drown as a result of the beaver’s enterprise provide perfect nest sites, sometimes two and three nests to the tree. But only ponds that are wide enough and deep enough to provide a sufficient separation from the shore – and thereby safety – will do. And such places are increasingly uncommon. The reason for the rarity is the great antipathy some of the human abutters feel toward the beavers. When the beavers construct their damns the humans are often faced with drowned lawns and water in their basements. Having built too close to streams, it is more convenient to blame the animals. The benefits – flood control, great diversity of wildlife, the pristine beauty of the pond (and the very source of great blue herons) – are ignored. Great blue herons are their own justification. But for us they beg a larger a question: What is the quality of human life without them?


Mark Seth Lender reading Rhapsody on Living on Earth (Public Radio International) :

Great Blue Heron Gliding

Audio MP3


Sound Bite

Great Blue Heron about to feed begging chicks

in the early morning a great blue heron rookery is filled with birdsong and the occasional basso profundo “Clunk!” of a bullfrog. But when the heron nests are crowded with hungry mouths and a parent is spotted en route with a crop full of food the rookery erupts with a primordial roar. I made the recording below in June at around 5:30 AM. Most of what you hear for the first minute and half is the chicks. Towards the end (at 1 minute 50 seconds) the deep throated Graaaahk! of an adult punctuates the rattling voices of her offspring. Close your eyes and perhaps like me you will imagine dinosaurs, plodding through a swamp, or grazing the salt marsh adjacent some warm inland sea. In fact there were dinosaurs on this very spot. And what we are listening to may not be that different from what they heard 100 million years ago of a summer morning.

Audio MP3


 August 14, 2013  Birds, General No Responses »