Fog begins to lift above the Golden Gate Bridge
I'm standing on the coastal trail just west of San Francisco's Golden Gate. Fog obscures most of the famed structure, though now and then a blazing patch of red is revealed as a gust of wind pushes aside a corner of the low-lying cloud. If I were asked to choose a mascot to represent this grandiose landscape, the brown pelican would have no rivals. To the inexperienced observer this might seem an odd choice. Weighing up to eight pounds, with a wingspan greater than 7 feet and a curving neck that culminates in an improbably long, hooked bill, brown pelicans look like make-believe creatures from a child's storybook: gangly, disproportionate, and comical. Yet airborne pelicans are the epitome of grace—flapping with slow ease; making fast, steep plunges in pursuit of fish; flying in long, curving formations that follow the breaking lines of waves.
Adult brown pelican in non-breeding plumage
“Actions Speak Louder”
I recently read a remarkable, true story about William Kamkwamba, a young man from Malawi, Africa. William was forced to quit school at age 14 because his family could not pay the $80 annual school fee. Instead of becoming dejected or angry, William began to spend time at the library. When he noticed a picture of a windmill, William got the idea to build one. He realized that the windmill could provide a little electricity and pump water, both of which were in short supply in his community.
The desert of east-central Nevada is lovely, cold, and deep. But as the first sunlight tinges thin clouds above, it’s time for William Grote to get moving. Quickly packing his belongings into the back of his Hauler, he hits the road. This three-wheeled bike looks a bit like an overgrown Mars Rover—and it’s got some of the same features. Wide tires enable the Hauler to traverse off-road terrain. And like the Rover, this vehicle carries a solar panel connected to a battery pack, which stores energy for later use. The battery powers an electric motor to assist the rider through challenging conditions, and also provides connections for AC power. (William’s pedal-power also contributes to battery storage.) The Hauler’s frame is designed to carry 500 pounds, in the form of passengers or cargo behind the recumbent driver’s seat.
William and the Hauler. (All photos in this post courtesy of William Grote)
Raise your hand if you like to ride bikes!
Chances are, many of you responded positively to that question. If I could get everyone in the U.S. who purchased an adult-sized bicycle in 2008 to read this blog, there would be more than 13 million hands raised at this moment.
America’s love affair with the “dandy horse” goes way back. After its initial wave of popularity in the 1880s, the bicycle experienced a resurgence in the wake of the Great Depression. In 1936 the magazine Popular Science provided a summary of biking in the states. "Four
"Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods.
Beauty is the symbol of symbols.
Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing.
When it shows us itself, it shows us the whole fiery-colored world."
In the early morning hours I stand at the kitchen window, alone with the silence and my thoughts. The last few stars fade overhead as a pale glow touches the treeline across the lake.
To my surprise, a late-feeding bat appears over the meadow, making a wide sweep at canopy level. The bat passes just a few meters in front of the window. Suddenly it lurches to the side, down, then rapidly forward. Such maneuvers make bat flight appear haphazard
Thankfully, those words—"Pull over, ma'am"—are not the reason I find myself on the shoulder of Interstate 35W at 7:00a.m. Nor is my action the result of car trouble. A different voice has caused me to stop the car on this Sunday morning-quiet stretch of highway. I have heard the call of beautiful scenery.
I resisted as long as I could. I’ve been driving through a pervasive layer of ghostly ground fog, which hovers like thin smoke over farm
May 15. That's the date on my 2009 phenology calendar marking the arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds in our yard. The timing is fairly consistent from year to year, with a little variation accounted for by late-arriving winter storms that hold the migrants down south a little longer. Once in a while I'm fortunate to see a male hummer in April, three or even five weeks ahead of schedule. These precocious fellows ride the heels of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a variety of migratory woodpecker that makes the rounds of our yard in the earliest days of spring. Sapsuckers drill wells in the bark of maple trees to access their welling sap. Small insects throng to these puddles of sticky sweetness, and hummingbirds gobble up this free source of body-warming protein to get them through the lingering chilly nights. There is always the risk of an unexpected storm or freeze. The male hummingbirds that survive the trip have a distinct advantage: early arrival in their summer range and access to a wider choice of breeding territories.
Once the females appear, I often hear chittering calls among the trees. But it takes sharp eyes and patience to see the birds firsthand. Adult ruby-throated hummingbirds seek insect prey to feed their miniscule but voracious young, making only rushed visits to the nectar feeder for their own refreshment. I stop to look for them when I first come downstairs in those still-dim minutes before sunrise, or when the evening shadows are long over the feeders.
A female ruby-throated hummingbird ducks in to drink from the feeder, but drinks without perching--it's a fast-food operation during the nesting season.
As the fledglings become independent in late summer, everything changes. Throughout the day males, females, and juveniles zip
Rain or shine, subzero or sweltering, around 2:00 p.m. each weekday some internal alarm prompts me from my chair toward the kitchen. Although this is a short migration, it involves a radical shift in habitat. My office is tucked on the north side of the house and flanked by an Entish pin oak tree. Those with an aversion to low light might find the room too solemn, but I enjoy its cool, shady attitude. It feels as though I have my own little bower among the branches of the house. I work here for hours at a stretch, cocooned in a silence that is conducive to concentration but not oppressive. There’s a palpable shift in my awareness when I enter the kitchen, which is flooded with light throughout the day and in all seasons. Wide windows on its east and west walls, and exposure from the south through an adjoining mudroom, make the kitchen open and lively. This is the real heart of our home. Even a quick infusion of its light, color, and space gives me just the dose of energy I need to remain focused through the afternoon. A cup of tea doesn’t hurt, either.
Teatime is not a fancy affair. I don’t prepare food, and never even sit down. But there is a ritual associated with this break. I take down two mugs from the cabinet. One is chosen randomly, though it can’t be too large. The other is my favorite mug, made of thick, cream-colored ceramic with a handle that looks like a twisted twig. Across its surface are painted two of the birds that commonly appear in our yard: the Baltimore oriole and the blue jay. The style of painting looks somehow old-fashioned, like it belongs in a dusty field guide you might find tucked away in your grandparents’ library. I choose a bag of good black tea to go in the first mug. Something fruity or spicy goes in mine—but no caffeine allowed. Finally I fill the burnished metal teakettle and place it on the burner. Now begins my favorite part of the routine. Until the kettle sings I have a few free moments, with nothing more important to do than watch.
It's not for naught that the Monarda plant is also called beebalm. I spent half an hour on Monday morning photographing massive and beautiful bumblebees as they tottered and swayed in flight between scarlet-flowered plants in our upper garden. Although my huge black lens and I often came within 6 inches, the bees were too consumed with sipping nectar to take any notice. Must have been a good vintage!
The bees may have been tipsy, but they were highly efficient. How can I be sure? Today the Monarda patch looks scraggly and sad. Each inflorescence is almost bald, with only a few withered and fading flowers forming a crown around the perimeter. But it's all good. When flowers fall away it's a clear indication that the hard-working dumbledores (that's Old English for bumblebee) did their work of pollination. The plant can now direct its energy toward making seeds.
The bee shown at left is a queen of the species Bombus auricomus. It's one of the largest bumblebees in Minnesota. Bombus means "boom," referring to the bee's loud vocalization (as compared to the murmuring buzz made by bumbles of other genera.) Auricomus is from the Latin, and translates as "with golden hair"—probably describing the distinctively wide swath of yellow hair covering the central tergites. (Tergites are armor-like segments of exoskeleton that form parallel rows down the bee's abdomen. Females have 6, males 7. Good luck counting them!)
For some reason, scientists have never bothered to give this bee a common name. So we'll call her the golden-haired booming bee. A proud name for a lovely creature.
For comparison, this is the much smaller Bombus bimaculatum—the two-spotted bumblebee. It's pollinating my prairie blazing star (Liatris). I hope you can see the shining flecks of orange-gold pollen scattered across the bee's lower abdomen.
is a professional writer, naturalist, and natural science educator who writes from her home in Minnesota—when she's not too distracted by the view out the window.