Monday, July 24, 2006

Pennsic, Blackberries, Vultures, and Hawks

Saturday in Pennsylvania, York County, standing under the Walnut trees, , the sound of lawntrackers and the smell of cut grass, hose in hand attempting to wash a year's storage gunk off the camping equipment.

It's rural but not quite, for some houses are within sight of each other, but just. The driveway to the top of The Hill, long ago known as Piney Knoll then ravaged by sheep and erosion making the soil thin now, filled with shale, is a quarter mile. But nature being nature when it's allowed, has taken the hilltop back.

First past the house are the apple trees, the apricots, the pears, the almonds, the peaches, the pecans, then east, the green barn, the herb garden in monastic raised beds, but even here within feet , the wineberries creep onto the path though now mostly past, and the wild grapes are still to come. The bees hum the afternoon and the birds never stop calling their business.

To the north, is the true riot of vegetation, plants growing where they like. Young Oaks and Walnuts, Dogwood, pokeweed, and Staghorn Sumac. Poison Ivy, Evening Primrose, Nightshade, and Wild Cherry. Ferns, Rhodedendron, Pine, and Tulip Tree...and everywhere the berry canes...

On both sides the distant neighbors have field sized yards, one of typical american monocultured grass and the other, clover, dandelion, wildflowers, and grasses.

There is never a moment when there is not the sound of birds. They tempt me, but I try not to listen for once, and bend my mind to the work. Keep sorting, keep scrubbing. Robin, Crow, Titmouse, Mocker, Catbird, Downy, Sapsucker, a Cardinal, and what's that? NO, think the list of what else must still be found in the basement. There is no time for anything but that. What is that sound, familiar, right on the edge of conciousness? No.

Barely twenty four hours to excavate all the needs for a war's worth of primitive camping at the thirty fifth Pennsic War. The yearly circle has come round again and from all over the world the Gentlefolk converge, many a thousand to western Pennsylvania. Japanese gentleman in kilts who play bagpipes. Blond Brooklynites in zoris playing games of Go. Herb women from Australia with their dyes, cooks with Roman fish sauce, and the gentleman who brew all appear. The ovens for the bakery, The Players with learned lines, the clothing sewed, and yet another Viking ship will ride the lake as funeral pyre. August is soon and once again The East Kingdom and The Middle will meet on the field of honor to do battle. Allies of other kingdoms cozened, mercenaries paid, the dancers practiced, the extinct instruments packed. And as every year before, the winner must take Pittsburg.

What is that? Don't listen.

Already sidetracked once by the bumper crop of Blackberries glistening on the edge of vision, a full little basket waits on the kitchen sink, I bend my mind toward the business of this trip. The brambles everywhere, growing wild, dripping fruit.

Sam arrives, her arms filled with dust covered gear to be scrubbed. "Mom, do you hear that?"

And how can I help but hear it. Suddenly loud, there is the sound of multiple begging Red-tail fledges. Down goes the gear, and I head north at a run. Turning past the potting shed, I see a mature Red-tail, skimming low just about the young trees heading east. I loose her behind the barn. Binoculars! I race back to the house, "Reen where are your binoculars?"

She's off to the closet, digs, they aren't there. The Cub Scouts have borrowed them. GO.

I run out of the house, and out the back gate, past the barn. Nothing, no begging, no Red-tails anywhere.

Wait, begging to the west. Mature oaks, dense, the begging stops. But still I hear Catbirds, I head for the trees.

It's a ways and it isn't my daughter's property. I keep walking and wonder if someone will mind. Follow the sound of Catbirds. People around here have shotguns as a matter of course. The underbrush is dense, no nifty paved paths here. I shove my way through, caught in Rosa flora. The Catbirds are getting closer. The fledge must have moved toward me. Which way are the little birds looking? No binoculars so it's hard to tell. Now they're really close, there are lots of them, and they're practically in my face.

Wait a minute. They're looking at me. I'm the intruder. They've left off mobbing the fledge to come after me. In this world where typically the approachs of a human are few and far between, it is the human who is more dangerous than the hawk. That thought stops me in my tracks. Undoubtedly the hawks feel the same way, I could be interfering with a feeding.

Back I go. Besides there is always the thought of that neighbor with the shotgun.

It's back to sorting, the list, and the garden hose.

Hours later, eventually I've had quite enough of the gear, thank you. The Blackberries are calling and besides it's getting on toward 6pm so there could be an evening feeding. This time I grab the little camera along with the dishpan for berries and I go northwest into the wild part, a section with Blackberry canes dipping down to the ground they are so heavy with ripe fruit. Towards the woods but not quite, the part where hawks might just be spending the latter part of the afternoon.

Several acres away is a strip of land that hosts giant towers which hold power lines. One of these towers is always covered with Turkey Vultures. They wait, they groom, they spread their wings to dry in sun baths. I've counted over a hundred in the past. It's on high ground so the view is good. But the view of exactly what from that spot? Do things get electrocuted? Then the Turkey Vultures are ready and waiting?

Ah, here's the berry patch I've been looking for. Off the path and into the brambles. Watch for the Poison Ivy. The berries drop in the pan. They are huge, and thump delightfully. I hear, "Towhee". I look up. It's a male a dozen feet away, eating ?. Perhaps an early cherry? Behind me comes, "Towhee". I turn it's the female. I notice the feathers on her head are standing on end. Hmm. Then another, "Towhee" to my left, the others answer. A fourth from another position. The male is getting closer and his feathers are standing upright on his head as well. They're all getting closer and louder. The female dives at me. What? We're up to over a half dozen of the little buggers and I suddenly realize I'm being mobbed by Towhees. Towhees? Is it their berry patch? Does it belong to them? A nest near by? The female is so angry she's hopping up and down.

Then I hear it again, the fledges are begging to the east. Struggling out of the brambles I head for the eastern fence line.

What is going on with the Turkey Vultures? They are no longer lounging on their tower. Something has spooked them and they're flying off in mass.

This is the direction the begging is coming from, lots of it. But from where?

Right in the center. There's that distinctive orangey-breast. And no red tail on the bird to the right. Two fledglings at least in this family. The Vultures circle round their tower's base, some to the woods, some to the older wooden tower slightly south.

The Vultures exit and the youngsters keep up the begging though I see no adult. Not unusual as these RTs are ever so much shyer then our urban ones.

Some of the Turkey Vultures head for an adjacent wooden tower and to a bird they spread their wings in a posture I now see as something different than "wing drying". In the current situation it's taken on a more possibly defensive meaning.

I hear begging from the west as well, but that tower is empty. The hawk must be in the trees somewhere. I scan, no luck.

The RTs have pretty much cleared the tower of vultures by this time. Suddenly those vultures who've gone further west to the woods, flush out of the trees. Is an adult over there?

Saturday 6:47pm...carefully look at the center section. The fledglings are still there. I cross the fence line and the fledge on the left heads for the woods and the other is poised to leave. I go back to my side of the fence. The remaining fledge settles back in. Is a hundred yards the limit for human distance? A half dozen more vultures flush out of the woods.

There's our guy, but it doesn't look like I'm allowed to go any closer. The begging behind me continues. I decide to go that direction to get a better look at the "empty" wooden tower and the stand of oaks. I start walking.

Abruptly there is the familiar adult Red-tail call, repeated with urgency. Kree, Kree, Kree, Kreeee. The lone visible fledge takes off on the second call and hot wings it in the direction of the parent. Flapping, a short soar, more flapping, she lands on the previously empty wooden power line tower. Perches, then another "Kreeee", and she's up and heading for the oaks.

My phone rings. The rest of the family wants to know just where I've gotten to as dinner is past ready. As if to compete, a Red-tail flies out of the Oaks, with a mob of little birds hot on her tail. They fly like swallows...Barn Swallows? There are lots, perhaps three dozen, quick, sharp winged and agile. Do Barn Swallows mob hawks in the country? We probably never have enough Barn Swallows in Central Park to mob anybody.

My phone rings again. The voice is impatient.

Begging against a blue sky, this day's lone sighting, Sunday, 7/23/2006, 2:34pm. A second set of "begs" heard from the group of mature oaks about 150 yards away.

So not all the medieval camping goodies are clean that are stuffed into the car for the trip back to the city, but I've mounds of berries, and rather a large amount of differences, some forgotten and remembered, and others never considered, between city and country birds to think about on the long drive home.