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_MG_0243My parents were musicians and proteges of the 1950s and 1960s folk revival movement. At every picnic, gathering and social they would distribute song books and lead the crowd in singing a wide variety of classics ranging from “For Me and My Gal” to “The Sloop John B.” while playing ukulele and banjos.

This is how I became a musician. This is why I occasionally lead sing-a-longs.

We summered on Sawyer Island, a small island community in Boothbay, Maine. We had a great little stick frame town hall covered with carpenter-built decoration — beadboard and cut shingles. It had a great little stage, church pew seating and a tiny kitchen in the rear. The place was seldom used and was in dis-repair.

One year the community decided to open the hall and stage a talent show. I don’t remember the acts well. I do remember the Mainers and our group of Hoosier sharing friendly barbs about whether the “r” at the end of words really needed to be pronounced. My family and a visiting Hoosier clan, the Ricketts, sang an old tune made popular by Perry Como, Kentucky Babe.

Skeeters am a hummin’ on de honeysuckle vine._MG_0245
Sleep Kentucky Babe!
Sandman am a common’ to dis little one of mine.
Sleep Kentucky Babe!
Silv’ry moon am shinin’ in de heabens up above.
Bobolink am pinin’ fo’ his little lady love.
You is mighty lucky. Babe of old Kentucky.
Close your eyes in sleep.

This was my introduction to the bobolink. I asked a few questions and was told that it was a bird that lived in the south. I filed the information away. It was almost 40 years before I learned much more.

_MG_0244On my Northern Forest Canoe Trail trip, last summer, I spent a night in a Now York’s Cumberland Bay State Park in Plattsburgh. The next leg of the journey was to cross and paddle north on Lake Champlain. Due to a strong headwind from the south I elected to walk to the end of Cumberland Head and cross the lake from there. On the walk I was joined by three different folks that were interested in my story. The last walked with my for a couple of miles. I was hungry for company and she was just what I needed.

While passing a farm she lamented that the new owners had cleared the fence rows and the bobolinks were no longer there. By this time I knew that range of bobolinks wasn’t limited to the south, but I had still never seen one. She went on to tell me that they were once common when farm fields were significantly smaller.

A week later, near Enosburg Falls, VT, I was again walking. There was a beautiful bicycle trail that looked a lot more inviting that fighting upstream through another series of rapids. I noticed that the corn fields were very small (In Indiana they can stretch to the horizon.) and began to scan them for bobolinks.

I was rewarded almost immediately! Once I heard their robot-like song I couldn’t miss them.

(Incidentally — to this story — the Sawyer Island Town Hall burned to the ground early the morning after the performance described above. An arsonist had targeted several important, but uninhabited, buildings to destroy that summer including a dance barn, several small town halls, and a movie theater.)

This bobolink is carved from white pine and includes elements constructed of brass, steel, an antique packing crate, a willow branch and a croquet ball. 12 1/2″t x 5″ l x 4″ w.

photo 1Most of my experiences with ovenbirds happened before I canoed the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. My trail experiences are limited to a few fleeting glimpses and calls from trees.

My training for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail was multi-faceted. I trained physically by hiking, paddling, lining and poling and spent many weekends in the forest testing myself and equipment.

Knowing that I would be paddling in the summer, when the forest canopy would make sighting many forest birds impossible, I spent a great deal of time ear training.

For ear training I used two apps, iBird Pro and Larkwire Birdsong Pro. The iBird app is a huge field guide complete with descriptions, photos, paintings and recorded calls. All birds are cross referenced with birds with similar features or calls. I generally use this app, on my iPhone, to confirm (or not) when I am not certain of a call that I have heard. Larkwire Birdsong is a ear training method that uses recording, photos, drills and games to facilitate learning and differentiating calls.

A quick note – There are birders that use these calls to draw birds out of cover to be more clearly observed. There is are photo 2two camps on this practice — those that believe the practice is justified and those that believe the practice is disruptive and has a negative impact and causing undue anxiety in birds.

On an early training hike, I was camped in Shades State Park in west central Indiana. I set up camp, cooked on a Sve 123, ate dinner and sat down with an iPad to review and practice birding by ear. I had forgotten my earphones. Thoughtlessly I turned the volume low and accessed a recording of an ovenbird that I thought that I had heard earlier.

“Teacher-teacher-teacher-teacher” the recording played confirming what I had thought I had heard.

I never expected what happened next. The trees and brush around me exploded with agitated ovenbirds.

For several minutes, several birds, flitted across the open campsite scolding and buzzing angrily.

As quickly as the assault had begun, the forest resumed its quiet order. The deserved rebuke was over. Earphones were added to my packing list for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

  

I’ve been birding Ritchey Woods, in Fishers, Indiana, every Sunday morning for the last few weeks. It’s a mixed bag. The birding is great, but it’s adjacent to a noisy highway and airport and is frequented by trail runners and dog walkers.

(Trail runners and dog walkers are fine people. They just tend to throw birds into hiding and startle people intently staring into the treetops.)

I’ve heard a great deal of chatter about a great horned owl nest in the woods. Having no luck in finding myself I made a des fete inquiry and was rewarded to directions to the nesting tree.

It turns out (of course) that I’ve walked within 20′ of this tree every Sunday morning for weeks. Kudos to owl behavior and camouflage. This morning my wife and I found the tree, but no owls. Another birder informed us that they had left the nest in the last day, or so. One fledgling (I believe that there are two) was found in a nearby tree, where I had seen a large bird drop earlier (presumably a parent). 

We had a nice long look. Hopefully they’ll return to this nest next spring and we’ll know just where to look.

 

At Union Falls, New York, a large pond (of the same name) spills over a dam and tumbles over the rocks and ledges to make a fast and wild plunge to Lake Champlain. This stretch of river is no match for my skills or for my wood and canvas canoe. It’s here that I elected to strap the wheels to the boat and hunker down for a long portage.

 

 From a small park the road drops down to cross the river adjacent to the ancient dam and powerhouse. The iron bridge, was enveloped in spray from the dam and waterfalls. Turning right onto the Casey Road I found myself plunged into another time and place. 

This was the time and place I sought. This was rural Maine — the rural Maine of my childhood.

Here the forest is a mix of beech, maple, birch, pine and spruce. The narrow lane, paved in macadam, was lined in ancient loose stone walls. In the margins of the road–where sunlight filtered through the overhanging trees–wild flowers grew. These were the same windflowers my sister and I would gather on those ancient Maine roads many years ago. I expected to see a familiar fox or pheasant dart across the road ahead if me.

 

 My pleasant walk was interrupted. Not by a fox or a pheasant, but by something completely alien to me.

I was attacked by a deranged two-legged raccoon. That was my first thought as a chattering brown and black striped animal exploded from the underbrush.

Before I had time to gather my thoughts into something rational, the animal slowed and assumed a posture that I had often studied in my field guides. I was under attack by a ruffed grouse. 

For the next five minutes the bird moved about me and the boat, posturing and blustering. 

I realized his bird was protecting a nest or offspring, so I moved along. When I last saw him, he was sitting on a shoulder high branch sending me along my way.

 

 The Blackburnian warbler has been suggested as a carving subject many times. A quick glance at any field guide confirms that it is a great candidate. The contrast between the blacks and yellows and oranges makes this bird one of North America’s most beautiful warblers. 

The striking paintings in my Sibley and Peterson field guides moved me, but until I have seen or heard or experienced a bird it is out-of-bounds to carve.

 

 That all changed on June 22, 2014. Had just completed a very difficult carry around Raquette Falls in the Adirondacks. I expected to camp at the falls, but drawing from some deep reservoir — that I would get to know better over the next few weeks — I loaded my boat and pushed on to a lean-to near Stony Creek.

Here I collapsed. I unloaded my gear into the lean-to and pulled the boat ashore. I sat amongst the gear and fell into a deep sleep.

 

 I awoke to the sound of a bird sifting through the leaf litter in front of the lean-to. I turned my head to see a Blackburnian Warbler nearby. Without disturbing him I watched for several minutes as he searched for a late afternoon meal.

This bird is carved from white pine, has brass tack eyes and steel wire legs. The base is made from antique wood reclaimed from crates and a white birch twig gathered on my canoe trip.  4 1/2″ l x 3″ w x 5 1/4″ t.

 

  

  

 We get our share of warblers in Indiana — those tiny, flighty often often hard to see gems of the forest. Most are here for a few weeks in May on their way to the northern forests.

I was excited to see warblers on the Northen Forest Canoe Trail. I’m busy with work and home in the spring and don’t often have a chance to pursue warblers while they pass through here. 

The problem that I knew I would face was that these birds would be difficult to see in the north woods–a Forest known for it’s thick canopy of mixed conifers and hardwoods. I could not rely on eyesight alone, so I studied and practiced birding by ear.  (With my phone I was able to practice and reference bird calls in the field.)

I’ve not become a master — heck I probably wouldn’t even stand out in a group of practiced birders — but I did learn to find more birds with ear than eye.

I had been paddling a series of two or three lakes in the Adirondacks. Each lake dumped, through a series of waterfalls and whitewater to the next. After portaging one of these stretches I leaned against a rock, pulled my hat over my eyes and took a nap. 

Some time later I woke to a bird song that I didn’t know. Northern Parula, I bird I had never seen or heard, popped into my head. I checked with my phone. Sure enough, it was the call of the Northern Parula. Though I had never studied the bird or its call, I had come across it enough times that it had become fixed in my sub-conscience. After that afternoon I heard the call often — but never saw one with my eyes.

This Northern Parula is carved of white pine, has brass tack eyes and steel wire legs. The base is made from wood repurposed from antique crates and a birch twig from New England. He stands 6 1/2″ t x 4 1/2″ l x 3 1/4″ w.

 

 Sometime’s there a story. Sometimes there’s just an impression. Common mergansers were evident on the trail. Hens were seen most often–with ducklings trailing behind or riding on their mothers’ backs. 

I spent a rainy day in a lean-to below the village of Saranac Lake on the Saranac River. I worked on gear. I planned the next leg of my journey and I worked on a budget. As the river rose I witnessed a parade of wildlife. Belted kingfishers, red winged blackbirds, beaver and muskrat worked their way up and down the river conducting their daily business. 

Early in that day a mother merganser led her charges downstream. The current was swift. I had no reason to expect to see them again. That evening they came swimming back upstream. It seemed so easy for them. Over the next few weeks I would be pulling, pushing and carrying a canoe upstream. It was never easy. I thought often of those tiny ducklings swimming with so little effort.

This merganser Drake is carved of white pine with a steel tack eye. It is 10 1/2″ l x 4 1/2″ w x 5 1/2″ t.

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