Tuesday, May 27, 2008


High: 63 F
Low: 42 F
Conditions: S Winds 5-10 knots; Seas 5-7 feet with 10 foot swells

One of our favorite places in all of Maine is Monhegan. Located 12 miles off the coast, this island was one of the very first settled in all of North America: first, historians think, by Vikings, and later by pre-colonial fishermen and whalers. Now, Monhegan Island is home to 40 permanent residents, many of whom are lobstermen, along with a handful of artists and, of course, summer tourists.

We visited Monhegan over the long weekend to stay with friends. They've rented the same house--owned by one of the island's artists--for 25 years now. Our guide (both spiritual and terrestrial) was their dog, Paco, one of Ari's favorite gentlemen callers.

Paco took us on a tour of the island, which still maintains its nautical traditions, both in terms of its working waterfront

And its commitment to preserving the history of its fishing past (note sailor cat in the image below).

Today, many of its visitors spend their time birding. While we were on the island, warblers made a particularly strong showing--especially the magnolia warbler (Dendroica magnolia) in all of its yellow finery.

Our personal favorite inhabitants of Monhegan, however, are a different kind of winged creature entirely: fairies (Sylvanus fairianus).

For over a century, scholars speculated that Monhegan might, in fact, be the island where Prospero was banished in The Tempest. That theory was later debunked, but not for lack of Calibans and Ariels. The island's fairies (and there are rumored to be many of them) live in the Cathedral Woods, an old growth forest on the northern tip of the island. There, they build dozens of elaborate abodes like this one:

No one is quite sure when the fairies first arrived or how populous they are in number, but the fairies are serious about their settlements. And, just like the fairies of tales and legends, they are known to exact sharp and creative punishments against those who fail to follow their fairy laws while in the forest. You can imagine my horror, then, when the brazen caninaturalist stole a feather from this woodland house:

Unfortunately, I didn't notice until we were 20 feet down the trail, and by then it was too late: we were cursed for sure. I've been sleeping with one eye open ever since we returned: sooner or later, we're bound to be the victims of a little mischievous retribution of the fairiest kind. We'll keep you posted--assuming we're still able!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Raptor Week

High: 62°
Low: 44°
Conditions: Variable showers
It’s been a day of great contrasts: on the same afternoon that we saw the season’s first hummingbird, Ari turned us back early on our afternoon walk, presumably so that we could get back to the fire in our woodstove. That’s where she’s sitting now, curled up like a damp sled dog.

The real news this week, though, is in big bird land. Earlier this week in Lincolnville (a town we formerly knew only as the site of Ari’s agility school), a juvenile bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was released after spending a year convalescing at Avian Haven, a really wonderful rehabilitation center in our area. A photographer from our local paper covered the event and took some great photos:

Today, we joined our good friend Khyra in cyberspace and watched a live stream of the annual Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) chick banding in Khyra’s home state of Pennsylvania. Ari didn’t care much for the sound of protesting chicks, but she stuck around for the entire banding process—including adorable questions from even more adorable grade school kids—before seeking out a more peaceful place for a nap elsewhere in the house.

The biggest excitement for us this week, though, is our first osprey (Pandion haliaetus) spotting. Each year at about this time, the giant raptors return to their massive familial nests, some of which are over 100 years old. Here’s an example of bird and next, taken from Animal DiversityWeb:

We love everything about the osprey: their bellicose good looks, their pronounced sense of place, even the way that males bring females breakfast in bed each day during their roosting season. It’s their family life, though, that has really earned osprey a special place in our hearts.

For the first several years Greg and I lived in Maine, we rented a 19th-century Cape Cod cottage across from a dairy farm. Years earlier, an osprey pair had built a massive nest on a utility pole in one of the cow pastures. Much to our delight, they returned each summer and never seemed to mind a few voyeurs around. Each day, we’d walk our beagle, Kinch, past the nest to check on the family. Once the chicks prepared to fledge, we spend a good part of most afternoons watching flying lessons and subsequent hunting classes.

The chicks were understandably clumsy at first. Luckily, they had patient instructors. Mom and Dad would start by bringing them fish tails to carry around in their new talons. If the number of dropped fish ends around the pole were any indication, this was a tough learning curve. Eventually, though, they'd master the tails; then, the chicks would be given whole dead fish to negotiate. That’s when the fun really began. The rain of fish was frequent enough to warrant wearing a sturdy hat on most days. Once, a chick dropped a whole alewife directly on our understandably perplexed beagle. Luckily, he had a penchant for seafood. And, in spite of his grouchy demeanor, even Kinch seemed to miss the family when they'd all leave at the end of the summer.

We live in a different house now, so Ari hasn’t had the chance to get that intimate with our favorite bird. Still, she’s become pretty adept at picking them out as they soar above us on our walks. And she’s learned to be patient—if not interested—when I slow down the car at each osprey nest I see. She might even agree to head out again this week to check on our most recent visitor—that is, if I can get her to abandon her cozy spot next to the woodstove.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Silent Spring

Low: 44° F
High: 68° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy with a chance of showers late.
To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, it’s been a quiet week here in Central Maine. The caninaturalist and I have readjusted our walking routine to accommodate the growing black fly population, pushing our walks earlier into the dawn and later into the evening. That seems to suit both of just fine, as this is the one time of year I don’t mind being nudged with a wet husky nose before 6:00 a.m. Why not? After all, spring has finally arrived.

This makes both me and the caninaturalist deliriously happy.

Ari loves greens: timothy grass, fiddlehead ferns, and just about anything that grows in our garden. When she was a puppy, we thought she might be part goat. Now that she’s grown into her ears, she looks a little less the part. Still, her penchant for grazing continues.

This time of year, she noses around the pansy and fern shoots, looking for her first breakfast. Meanwhile, I spend my time looking upwards, trying my best to take in every molecule of flowering apple and pear trees. It is, without a doubt, the best show of color we'll see until fall foliage season.
Colorful signs of spring seem to be arriving all around our house these days. Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to get over the feeling that something is missing.

I spent all week trying to place it. And then, just this morning I finally realized what it is: other than our recent intruder the red squirrel, we haven’t seen a single wild animal. Sure, a handful of goldfinches and chickadees still visit our feeder, and we’re still hearing the last of the spring peepers. But that’s it. No barred owls and coyotes; no porcupines and skunks; no fox and deer. The woods are just too quiet.

This revelation came on the same day that the WWF released the latest Living Planet Index, which reveals that biodiversity has dropped by about a third since I was born. I’m 33, so you can understand my concern.

Ari is just two, so she hasn’t seen nearly the decrease in her life. But over the past week, she too seems aware that a lot less seems to be going on in our woods. Has biodiversity there dropped in just the last seven days? Probably not. But a new logging operation just off of one of our favorite trails is doing in miniature what the Living Planet Index has investigated at the macro-level: creating a human habitat intrusion the likes of which most environments have never seen.

Don’t get me wrong: we love studying foliage. We just don’t like the idea it might be all we have to study before too long.

That’s a sobering thought for any caninaturalist--especially now, during an otherwise glee-filled time of year. In fact, you might say it's left us speechless.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


High: 71° F
Low: 42° F
Conditions: Calm and clear
Maybe the squirrel was trying to steal our butter.
That doesn’t make a lot of sense at first glance, I know, but follow me through the logic and see if we can change your mind.

Around 9:00 this morning, the three quadrupeds in our house sprang into action. That’s not all that uncommon, mind you: on any given day, we regularly cycle through phases of cat-chasing-cat, other cat-chasing-other-cat, dog-chasing-both-cats, and myriad permutations of these basic configurations. We also break for phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) and mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) sightings, the occasional feral cat (Felis catus) crossing our driveway, and (of course) grazing white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)in our backyard.

What was unusual about this morning was the choreographed synchronicity of the three quadrupeds. Choreographed anything is a rare event indeed in our house (see above account of animal-chasing-animal for possibly reasons why this is atypical behavior). Even still, Ari and the two cats moved with the precision of a Russian military parade. They poured down the stairs in order of size then leapt upon the couch at nanosecond intervals. Does it matter that one among their rank is not allowed on this piece of furniture? Absolutely not. At least, not in time of crisis. And crisis is indeed what we had on our hands. The three stood at attention, pawing angrily at the window. When that yielded no result, they growled. In unison. Believe you me, this was no amateur show of force.

And what was the cause of their assertive effort? A lone red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), weighing in at approximately ½ a pound (tail included). Admittedly, these bold little rodents are known for being brazen and ill-tempered. But capable of hostile take over? I’m skeptical.

The quadrupeds weren’t. They seethed at the window as the squirrel blithely groomed itself on the hood of our gas grill, then picked its way along the exterior wall of our house, then eventually scurried up and over the roof.

When I left for a morning meeting, Ari and the cats were still vigilent, no doubt prepared for full rodent infiltration.

When I returned, I found this:

A simple empty plate, you say. Yes; that's right. But here’s the rub: this plate was neither empty nor chipped when I left home. Nor was it in the corner of the living room, tucked carefully behind an end table. No, when I departed the plate held at least a 1/3 of a stick of butter. It was also covered. And set on a sugar canister pushed far back in the nethermost region of our kitchen counter. Said kitchen counter measures approximately four feet high. I am inclined to believe teamwork was involved in this relocation project.

But why?

I studied philosophy in college, and I was particularly fond of formal logic. I understand syllogistic reasoning. I know, for instance, that you cannot prove a major premise through its minor corollary. I know that any conclusion must be both logical and sound. It is unlikely, then, that:

M. Rogue squirrel appears on grill and house
m. Butter dish found hidden in living room
.'. Rodent plot to filch butter averted

The unlikelihood of this conclusion is, of course, based on human logic. Caninaturalist logic is another beast entirely—and one, I might add, without a Linnaean or taxonomic identification to help me categorize it.

I asked the animals, but the three accomplices aren’t talking. Neither is the squirrel.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Dear Friends,
I’m afraid we haven’t been very attentive bloggers this week. We’ve been tagged several times for a great new meme, and it’s only now that we’re getting around to it. We’re really sorry—it’s not that we aren’t interested. To the contrary, we love these challenges, and we’re always so honored when you think to tag us. It’s just been an unusually busy week around here, mostly because of the human graduation at the college where I teach. That’s always a hectic time for us: I have my grading and banquets; Ari has to give a personalized goodbye to every student who has ever patted her head or touched her ears or, in some very special cases, stopped by to give her a good walk when I couldn’t get home in time. This year was particularly busy, since the college decided to give Presidential Candidate and Citizen of the World H.A. Turbofire an honorary degree (yes, dog bloggers, that means he is now Dr. Tubey to you all. We’ll all have to wait to see if he insists upon such formalities).

Hosting a dignitary is always stressful, but when said dignitary demands gilded water dishes, a trail of bacon, and a mile-high stack of toilet paper tubes in his state room, that puts a lot of pressure on us. Don’t get me wrong—it was absolutely worth it (you’ll see soon enough: Professor Turbo agreed to post the transcript of his commencement address on his blog), still, that didn’t leave us a lot of time for meming.

So here we are, late on a Sunday night and hat in hand, begging your indulgence with our very tardy meme, which was first given to us by our good friend Zim over at the Army of Four. The instructions are as follows:

· Write your own six word memoir.
· Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like.
· Link to the person that tagged you in your post.
· Tag at least five more blogs with links.
· Don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play.
· Have fun.

Without further adieu, then, I offer our own riff on this little challenge, which we hope will let you all get to know Ari forwards and backwards.

A ngelic

R akish

I ntrepid

I ncorrigible

R uminating

A dored .

That was a lot of fun. And we’re aware that this meme has made its way around the canine circuit quite a bit, so we want to send out a very special “tag” to our naturalist friends out there. They’re all amazing photographers, so we know they’ll come up with something extra super special for an illustration.

All our best,

Friday, May 9, 2008

Shoo, fly.

High: 68° F
Low: 35° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy with rain arriving late
Maine has six seasons, and we’ve just entered the most unpleasant one of all: blackfly month. You can’t really understand how especially terrible this season is until you’ve experienced it first-hand. When Greg and I moved here seven years ago, we took the natives’ warnings about black fly season in stride, thinking they were either prone to tremendous exaggeration or eager to offer a big helping of highly fictionalized local lore to a pair of gullible newcomers.

Sadly, neither was the case.

The black fly (Simulium venustum) is an impossibly pernicious creature that looks far more like a gnat than it does a house fly. I recently found this 19th-century rendering of the insect by someone who had clearly never encountered a living black fly in Maine:

Had the artist lived here during early summer, he would not have been able to devote the meticulous time and care needed to complete this homage. In fact, I dare say that the mere thought of spending this much time contemplating Simulium venustum would drive even a resolute mortal mad. Had the artist maintained the stalwart steeliness needed to complete the task, he surly would have at least included devil horns and a pitchfork or something else to indicate the fly's malevolence.
I mean that sincerely. This fly is evil.
Never in my life have I truly hated another living creature. That is, until I met the black fly. Now, before you think me overly dramatic or uncharitable, let me explain myself. Black flies swarm in groups of hundreds if not thousands. Like mosquitoes, they are attracted by heat and carbon dioxide, which makes dogs and humans walking blackfly feeders. Unlike the mosquito, however, the black fly is not content with a little casual drilling for blood. No, this little devil prefers to rip off a hunk of flesh larger than its head. In its place, it leaves a mild toxin that results in a nasty red lump that both itches and throbs at the same time. Here is one of multiple pictures we found on the web, all displaying their injuries as if evidence in a metaphysical court of animal justice:

People in New England try their best to have a good sense of humor about black fly season, which runs from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day each year. Our favorite microbrew has a black fly stout with a label that only mildly embellishes the experience of anyone who dares to go outdoors this time of year:
Our local ice cream company, Giffords, offers a limited-batch ice cream called Maine Black Fly.
I ordered it once, thinking it a suiting salve to my welts. But I soon discovered the hunks of strawberry and mini-chocolate chips looked way too much like my neck and arms for me to enjoy the cone. Even Ari didn't want to finish it.
Like most dogs in our area, Ari is no fan of blackflies, either. The insects are particularly attracted to orifices and wet tissue like the eye--especially if said eye is husky-blue. They don’t respond to the caninaturalist's nips in the air or her sullen barks, either. In fact, she's pretty much as powerless as I am to their assault. Still, Ari has one very important tactical advantage: Simulium venustum prefers to swarm higher, rather than lower, so in a crowd of creatures, they will almost always pick the highest one among them. I swear the caninaturalist has figured this out for herself: these days on our walks, she hangs particularly close to me, then acts oblivious when I turn it a swatting, cursing crazy person while she remains relatively unaffected.
This does not please me.
Here’s the worst irony of all: black flies need really clean running water to reproduce. So they’re a sign of how healthy our ecosystem is right now. That’s a bittersweet pill to swallow, especially this week. In honor of National Dog week, the Carnival of Green Pets is currently underway on the Web. Organized by Pets for the Environment, this weeklong project seeks to raise awareness about eco-friendly initiatives for pets and the threat of toxins in animals. It’s really made us aware of what a crucial role healthy environments play in the lives of healthy pets.
Their's is a worthwhile project if ever there was one. And after reading some of the information on their site, we know we’re lucky to live in a place with running water clean enough to breed black flies. We just wish Simulium venustum didn't feel the need to express appreciation for their clean environment in quite such a bloody way.
For her part, Ari is still working on devising a way to bite back. Knowing her, she’ll figure it out soon. Until she does, though, I’m sticking to a daily dose ice cream and beer--at least until Father's Day.

Monday, May 5, 2008

You Talkin' To Me?!?!

High: 66° F
Low: 40° F
Conditions: Mostly sunny and calm.
Ari and I were halfway through our morning run when the groundhog (Marmota monax) raced across our path. I’m enough of an amateur runner to not use that last verb lightly. Racing is what you do when put speed and stamina to the test in search of a personal best. I don’t know that the groundhog was necessarily doing those things, but I want to believe he was—mostly because he ran a heck of a lot faster than I ever could.

That’s not saying a huge amount, of course. I’ve always been a tortoise kind of girl in a sport filled with long, lithe hares. That’s suited me just fine, and even Ari feigns patience with me as we churn out our 9-minute training miles for an hour or so every other day. If dogs could break a sweat, this one certainly wouldn’t when out with me. Still, running together is a great way to see the world, and I at least believe one of us is getting exercise—even if that person will never compete with those lean runners in the front of the pack at any race.

Being bested by a lissome coed in matching shorts and jogbra is one thing. Getting smoked by a pudgy rodent with squat little legs too small for his body is quite another. Still, that’s precisely what happened today.

As usual, it was the caninaturalist who first spotted the only other runner on the road. She took off in bounding pursuit, trailing me and my exercise induced asthma loudly behind. For the briefest fraction of a second, it looked like we might be gaining on Mr. Groundhog. But then he was gone. Or he should have been gone. No, this brazen icon of spring was so confident in his speed that he opted to slow down long enough to stare us down from a nearby rock wall. Nature trash-talking, if you will. Naturally, Ari and I were both furious. We barked in unison, but to no avail. This groundhog was smug—you could tell.

We’re used to rodent bravado around here. Unlike Punxsatawny Phil, who finds himself pried out of burrow each February, our groundhogs lounge deep underground until about this time every year. Then, they start popping up one by one along the local roads and highways, surveying their fiefdoms and chastising all who pass by. By the height of summer, it’s not uncommon to pass 20 of them on a drive about that long in miles. We’ve always been amused by this assertive sense of self—this projection of confident entitlement. That is, until it clearly critiqued our morning exercise regimen.

The groundhog waited until we were almost on top of him before leaping into his giant hole. Ari was halfway inside herself before I had enough oxygen to persuade her come back out. Frankly, we’re both still smarting over the incident. Tonight, we carbo load. Tomorrow, we will be avenged.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


High: 61 F
Low: 34 F
Conditions: Partly cloudy with light northwest wind.

It was the caninaturalist who first noticed the birds. A flock of ten—maybe twelve. All dun-colored, distinguished at first only by their prominent crests. As they flew past, Ari stopped our walk, turning her head sharply to the left and following the movement of the band as they flitted out of range. I caught a glimpse of them just as they settled high in a tree. My first thoughts alit on the parochial: a band of cardinals, perhaps on their way north, south or westward? It certainly seemed believable. But these were birds uniformly colored—not a bright red male among them. Sapphic females? Possible, if Ancient Greek playwrights could have their way. I tried to imagine what a travelling group of all-female birds might look and act like, but the only thing that came to mind were scenes from Octopussy. Without Roger Moore nearby, this seemed unlikely.

We decided to investigate further, and Ari led us over to the flock of shrilling birds. They looked at her with interest, but didn’t seem concerned. I tried to get them to pose for a decent photo shot, but they stayed tucked behind branches, adjusting their position each time I got near.
Frustrating. The caninaturalist tried a playbow and hopeful bark. No luck. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching and waiting and trying to figure out who these visiting birds might be: dusty brown, that prominent crown, a thick black eye mask and matching Van Dyke. Eventually, Ari got bored. I remained stumped.

Back at home, Ari moved onto more pressing inquiries, like trying to fish Mouse the Cat out from under the new sofa. This diversion created a much-needed opportunity for some ornithological research. I flipped through our worn old field guide, realizing how enormous the “perching birds” section of this book really is. And then, just when I was about to give up, I saw the image:

The bohemian waxwing, Bombycilla garrulous. So named because they are famous for traipsing all over the boreal forest, like European gypsies or half of my college students. We admit that's delightful. But here’s the thing: we don’t live in the boreal forest. We live at least a thousand miles to the south and east. So what were these gallivanting waxwings doing in the tree across the street?
Turns out, they are part of the same irruption that has been sending northern owls our way, too. According to our state biologists, the waxwings have decided to set up camp here until the seed population returns in the boreal forest.

We’re not happy to hear about the food collapse further north, but we're glad to have these northern visitors. Each time we walk by that spot, Ari cranes her neck long, looking for these visitors. We haven’t seen them again yet, but at least one of us plans to keep searching.