The Smell of Fall


 Photo Credit: J B Foster via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: J B Foster via Compfight cc

Autumn Fires
by Robert Louis Stevenson

In the other gardens
 And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
 See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
 And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
 Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
 Fires in the fall!

Fall arrived Tuesday, the day I was making my way home from a  trip to California and Hawaii. When I left New Mexico, ten days earlier, morning glories still ranged up and down the coyote fence and hummingbirds flitted around the sugar-water filled feeder.

Over three thousand miles away on the Big Island’s west coast the air was heavy and still on one of the last days of summer. The palm trees were quiet, not a whisper of a trade wind. Even the Pacific seemed subdued. At the beach a long, pale pod from a kiawe tree fell at my feet.

 Photo Credit: Shawn McCready via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Shawn McCready via Compfight cc

Pecking in the grass, a kolea hunted for insects. Hawaiian school children keep an eye out for the arrival of the long-legged golden plovers, winter visitors from the Arctic–a sure sign of autumn in a place where signs of the changing seasons can seem subtle to visitors from the north.

Back in Santa Fe I know what to look for.  It’s still warm, almost hot, but the rabbitbrush has bloomed yellow and a canyon towhee scratches in the dirt looking for seeds. High up in the crown of a dark-green cottonwood I spot a patch of gold. And, in the evening air I catch a whiff of piñon smoke wafting from an adobe chimney.

Friday Afternoon on the 101

The white feather was what caught my eye.  A small dark bird was perched on a highway sign with the piece of fluff in its beak, waiting . . .

 Photo Credit: poeloq via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: poeloq via Compfight cc

We were all waiting.  Dave and I had made the slow crawl north out of San Jose and had finally reached our exit.  Sitting at a red light, I watched the bird make its move: a short flight to an opening, several feet above the street, in the large steel post that held the traffic signal.  Too soon . . . another bird poked its head out of the hole .

The bird took the feather back to its perch.  The light turned green–I wouldn’t see the outcome.

 Photo Credit: rogersanderson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: rogersanderson via Compfight cc

What kind of a bird builds a nest in a hollow pole in the middle of six or eight lanes of traffic?  Chiccadee and BarnSwallow at answered the question as best they could, based on my description and the urban setting–maybe a purple martin or perhaps a northern rough-coated swallow.

Soon, an observant commuter might witness a fledgling balancing on the thin steel edge, gathering the courage to take wing.

Winter Walk – Centennial, CO


It’s a rare day that I am the first person to put my footprints on a path frequented by dog walkers and joggers, but it happened this morning.

Dave and I arrived in Denver last night and woke to a light dusting of snow. The temperature was a chilly twenty degrees, but the sun was shining brightly compelling me to take a walk along the dry Willow Creek while Dave did his jobsite review.

Overhead a flock of Canada geese was flying south in formation and I noticed small paw prints on the trail.  I wasn’t the first creature out and about after all.

Hawaii: Crouching Heron, Basking Turtle

To get a glimpse of what the Kohala Coast might have looked like before man arrived with his myna birds and monkey pod trees, Dave and I walked towards the sea (makai, in Hawaiian) along the coastal access between the Hilton Hotel and A-Bay Beach.

The sun was getting low in the sky, but we paused to admire the anchialine ponds surrounded by jagged black lava rock and emerald green shrubs and grasses.  A black-crowned  night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax hoactili) crouched, perfectly still, over the smooth surface of the brackish pool intent on the tiny shrimp swimming there.  Similar to his cousin on the Mainland, this night-heron is indigenous to Hawaii, which means that unlike the house sparrows and saffron finches flitting around the shopping centers and golf courses, he came to the Islands on his own, without any assistance from humans.

Photo Credit:  P. Nixon

Photo Credit: P. Nixon

At the beach, a mix of small, sharp-edged lava rocks and smooth white coral, we found two large slabs of lava and settled in to watch the setting sun,  partially obscured by vog from Kilauea Volcano erupting further south on the island.

Dave noticed him first.  A Hawaiian green turtle (Chelonia mydas) just a few feet away from us was lumbering across the rocky beach.  After a few hours basking in the sun he was making his way back to the algae beds.

Photo Credit:  Dave Betzler

Photo Credit: Dave Betzler

We turned away from the sunset to watch him inch closer and closer to the water.  And then he was gone, into the waves, taking millions of years of secrets with him.

The Cats of Anaeho’omalu Bay Beach

Anaeho’omalu Bay (A-Bay) Beach on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii has a half-mile stretch of salt and pepper sand and calm water, a great place to learn to stand on a paddle board, strap on a snorkel and fins, or bask in the sun.  It’s also home to a colony of feral cats that live behind the beach next to an ancient Hawaiian fish pond under the gnarled and twisted limbs of a tree that I have yet to identify.

Considered by some to be pests, threatening rare and endangered birds, feral cats are everywhere on the Big Island: cruising for table scraps at outdoor restaurants, snoozing under cars in hotel parking lots, grooming themselves on quiet lanais.   In 2011 I wrote a story about two tabbies that made daily visits to the back door of the condo where I was staying.

Many visitors to A-Bay don’t seem to notice the felines, although there’s usually at least one sunning on the lava rocks next to the parking lot near the sign posted by KARES, the local  nonprofit whose volunteers feed this colony.


Last week when I visited a caregiver had recently set out food and fresh water so there were lots of cats around.   I counted about fifteen and many looked familiar to me from prior visits.  Most of them had tipped ears showing they had been spayed or neutered, keeping the population stable.  A blue-eyed Siamese watched me from his perch on a tree limb and a black and gray tiger-stripe jumped up on a lava-rock wall near where I was standing, close enough to touch.


I was looking for a cat called Red.

I first noticed the orange tabby with one missing eye two or three years ago.  Charlotte, one of the volunteers who care for the colony, told me his story.

Red was in a nasty fight with a cat from a nearby colony. Charlotte was told about the brawl by a woman who heard the cats and then saw them separate.  Charlotte looked for Red for days, but he had disappeared.  When he finally showed up a couple of weeks later, he had  a bulging, infected eye, that looked like something out of a horror movie.

She tried to lure the wounded cat into a trap with food, but he eluded her. Finally, in desperation she made her move, getting close enough to grab him and  put him into a cat carrier.  A local veterinarian cared for him for several days and removed his injured eye. Charlotte and another volunteer shared the cost of the discounted fee for his surgery. (KARES is only able to pay for spay/neuter surgeries)

As I was about to walk away, Red showed up.  He looked healthy and contented and settled in to share a bowl of kibble with two other cats.  Charlotte says he’s friendly, but always gives her a wide berth.

IMG_20131208_172028_661-1  C

What to Read When Flying over the Pacific Ocean?

The ocean makes me uneasy.  Maybe it’s because I’m  from Kansas.  So, why do I love to read tales of dangerous fishing expeditions and solo efforts to navigate small sailboats around the world?

By P. Nixon

By P. Nixon

This little stack of books has been with me for years.  A couple of times I have tried putting one of the worn paperbacks in the giveaway box in the basement, but they always migrate back upstairs.

Movies, too.   Last year it was The Life of Pi–a boy stranded in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker on board.  This year I had to see All is Lost–an old man patching a hole in his wrecked yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean with no radio connections.  I couldn’t believe how long it took him to get out the sextant.

Tomorrow morning I will board a flight for Hawaii.  By the time the jet lifts off and turns west, I will be rereading Dove–a sixteen-year-old boy’s journey around the world in a twenty-four-foot sloop.  It will help take my mind off all of those miles of ocean below me.




Eating Crab Cocktail in San Francisco

Last week I rode one of the classic streetcars down Market Street and around the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. It was a festive trip, as it usually is. Visitors were holding on to the leather straps studying the Muni transfers given to them by the driver in exchange for two dollars; looking up, occasionally, to take in the sights as we rolled down the street; and consulting with their travel mates as to the best place to disembark.

San Francisco’s waterfront offers endless possibilities: shopping for picnic supplies at the Ferry Building, taking photos of the resident sea lions at Pier 39, or savoring a crab cocktail at the wharf.

Dungeness crabs at  Fisherman's Wharf

Dungeness crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf

What the visitors probably don’t realize, just as I didn’t for a long time,  is that the crabs on display today are not local crabs. A vendor confirmed, when I asked at one of the many seafood stands lined up along the wharf, that commercial Dungeness crab season will open on November 15th. It runs through June, although most of the crabs (only males over 5 3/4″) are caught by the end of December.  Crab season along the Pacific Coast from central California up to Alaska is staggered throughout the year so there never seems to be a shortage of crab cocktail at the wharf.

If you order a one of the little cardboard containers filled with the sweet seafood doused in cocktail sauce to eat while you enjoy a walk along the piers, be on the lookout for these bad boys.



If one of them snatches your lunch out of your hand, you won’t get a refund or any sympathy.



NYC – What Kind of Bird Was That?

I needed to see the feet–yellow or black? The roosting birds were not showing even a toe when Dave spotted them out the train window shortly after we pulled away from the station at the Newark Liberty International Airport. It was dusk and the white birds appeared to have settled in the trees next to the marshy wetland for the night, legs and beaks snugly tucked into their feathers.

At home I have bird identification guides stashed for easy reference: National Geographic next to the breakfast table, Sibley at my desk, and Peterson in the car. However, I didn’t have any of them with me on the train. Luckily, as with most things in modern life, there’s a smart phone application (app) for that.

Within moments I had Audubon available at my fingertips, not only photos and range maps, but also recordings of bird calls with a warning not to play them in the field (confusing not only to other birdwatchers, but also to the birds). Once I had the app it didn’t take me long to decide that what I had seen were egrets, but were they snowy egrets or great egrets? Based on their size, which I misjudged, I thought they were snowy egrets (Egretta thula).

 Photo Credit: Drew and Didi via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Drew and Didi via Compfight cc

Wanting to be more certain I sent an email to Marie Winn who wrote Redtails in Love and has a blog about birding in Central Park. She was kind enough to immediately reply to my question. She, too, had seen these birds on train trips in the area and thought they were probably great egrets (Ardea alba). But she said it’s hard to know for sure without getting a look at their feet (snowy feet are yellow and greats are black) or beaks (snowy bills are mostly black and greats are yellow). I trust that Marie’s guess is better than mine.

 Photo Credit: mikebaird via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: mikebaird via Compfight cc

The rest of my trip was a bust as far as birdwatching: two robins on a lawn in New Jersey, a few sparrows flitting around on the High Line, and a row of pigeons on the arm of a light post next to Central Park, which made me certain that Pale Male was not in the vicinity.

NYC – Day Trip to New Jersey

The line to buy train tickets at Penn Station was unexpectedly long for a Sunday morning–red shirts behind us, green in front.  We were all headed for New Jersey. The hubbub subsided when we reached the tracks and conductors directed the Patriots’ and Jets’ fans to a separate train.

Ours was a short, quiet ride to Cranford, the town where Dave grew up.  We walked the mile and a half from the station to the neighborhood of two-story, one garage houses, scuffing our feet through piles of oak and maple leaves.   To Dave’s surprise Maryland Street still dead-ends at the edge of the woods, a few doors down from his former house.  He played in the woods as a kid, riding his English racer on the trail in the summer and sledding with his brothers, one piled on top of the other on their Airline Racer, on snowy winter days.

On our way back downtown we paused to jump on the hopscotch grid at the Walnut Avenue School and picked up a few  red and yellow leaves–mementos of our trip to New Jersey.

Mementos of Autumn





NYC – The Survivor Tree

I didn’t set out to write about visiting the 911 Memorial at the World Trade Center (WTC) site.  My feet were sore and my camera battery was dead by the time I finally cleared security.  Peering over the edge of the reflecting pools, I contemplated a single white rose placed on one of the engraved names and remembered the horror of that day.

After leaving the memorial I kept thinking about the tree, one of the last things I noticed.  The  elaborate web of guide wires trussing it up and holding it in place was what caught my eye.  It wasn’t until later that I learned the tree’s story, a lone pear tree in a grove of swamp white oaks.

Photo Credit: jev55 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jev55 via Compfight cc

The Survivor Tree, as it came to be known, was rescued from the WTC site a month after the 2001 attacks, a charred eight-foot stump with one living branch.  It was taken to the Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx where park staff nursed it back to health, not knowing at first if it could be saved.

The tree, a Callery pear (Pyrux calleryana), is a common one and was planted at the WTC in the 1970s.  Originally imported from Asia in the 1800s, the trees are now found throughout most of the United States.  We had a similar tree in our backyard when I was growing up in western Kansas.  It was was the most exotic tree in our yard, especially beautiful in the spring when it was transformed into a cloud of white blossoms.

The Survivor Tree was moved back to the 911 Memorial site in December 2010.  It still bears scars and always will, but has grown tall and strong, a resilient survivor.  Its legacy will continue to grow through the Survivor Tree Seedling Program. During its rehabilitation tree experts propagated several hundred seedlings and over time they will be shared with other communities that have suffered tragedy and loss.