"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Love for a Song

We are enamored with the quest for unconditionally reciprocated love. The idea of some measure of affection given back for what is doled out. The barter--bits of affection for pieces of adoration. It is--I think--what we all need. We crave the meadowlark's ringing song; desire the greening of spring from our sun-starved souls down to our bare-toed roots. We seek the winding path and wander until we find the sweet spots--blackwater cypress swamp, tallgrass prairie sweep; the place where moonlight glancing off of tide-slicked stones made you weep.  We look for measures of love and some forest-dwelling thrush heaps it on us in self-harmonizing sonata.  Marvel at the migratory sojourns of birds.  Revel in the blooming expanses of wildflowers. Sink your heart deep into the rhythm of buzzing bees. Find hope in the re-leafed canopies of the tallest trees. Wind and water; storm and surf-they can move us to other ends. Therein is the turn on. The honey sweet seduction. Nature asks only that we notice-- a sunrise here--a sunset there. The  surge--that overwhelming inexplicable thing in a swallow's joyous flight or the dawning of new light that melds heart and head into sensual soul in that moment of truly seeing  --that is love. 



Sunday, December 22, 2013

SNOW Falls for Conservation!


 After weeks of teasing from friends to the north who've been seeing snowy owls perched like pigeons on barn roofs, tractors and everywhere else it seemed, I was growing antsy. Jealousy and envy began to sink in as report after report--many of them on Facebook, extolled the beauty of the great white owls from the arctic. Sure, snowies wander south of their ice-bound tundra haunts on occasion but this irruption (either caused by a dearth of lemming snacks which cause the owls to search southward for food--or a surplus of lemmings that cause a surplus of owls which then wander to find elbow room) was historic. SNOW (the bird-brained acromym for SNowy OWl) was falling everywhere except where I was. 

And then it happened. On Saturday December 7 at 3:44 pm I got the Facebook message from graduate student and friend, Zach Miller. "I'm looking at a snowy owl in Brevard right now. come up!" The message gave the magical address and I pondered my action for a moment--a millisecond really--  and then abandoned the football games I so religiously watch on Saturday afternoon. I asked my almost adult son Colby if he wanted to adventure with me in search of the "Harry Potter owl" and he too abandonned everything to see the magical critter. We bid our adieus  and we were off!  

Over the river and through the woods is an understatement. It was over the lake--past places like Booger Branch Road, Down Shady Grove, onto the old Cherokee path now called Highway 11 and a sharp left onto the snakey highway they call 178--up and down, around and around--through Rocky Bottom, past Scatterbrain's hole in the wall mountain saloon (they stab people there--allegedly), beyond the Horse Pasture over the Little Eastatoe and into NC. I was breaking all kinds of land speed records (and laws) trying to beat the night speeding through the wild wonderful place called Jocassee.  Colby managed to hold lunch down as I sped around hairpin curves and did my best Grand Prix imitation--as much as one can in a Honda Element. As we grew closer I imagined the throngs of birders that would be there--salivating over the sighting. As the nameless robo-techno chick on my smartphone told me where to turn I could see twenty to thirty cars--packed tight into an instant parking lot. It was easy to see that this was the place. It was gonna be a feeding frenzy. But then there were only a few birders I could see gathered out at the edge of a fence line. All those cars were just junkers. Standard stuff for a working farm. There were maybe only a half dozen birders there. Most of the oglers had long since left and I could see the destiny of my desire glowing-- shining white like a ghost on a pile of slash in the midst of a huge field. I almost went head over heels in the muddy muck trying to get there. After collecting myself--pretending to be calm--I was within a couple hundred yards. Eureka! Satisfaction at 30x! Yep. There it sat. Snowy white with yellow eyes blinking and for all intents and purposes--in my backyard.
This Snowy Owl ventured south into the mountains of Western North Carolina

 Okay. Back up. Stop the presses So I stopped chasing rarities a few years ago. I confessed that a few blogs back. Why do you ask, then, would a dyed in the wool-bird-brain like me stop chasing the winged wanderers I love so much? Well, it's not because I stopped loving birds. Nope. It's because there was a change in the way I began to see birds after so many years of intense birding that often took me far away to see neat birds. I'd see the bird, list the birds and then go. In all those birds I listed I left with a longer life list but something was missing. I think the transformation came as I began to think more and more about the conservation side of things. Many of the rarities are sadly doomed in their misdirected wandering but hundreds --even thousands--will seek them out, just to get the tick.  I didn't just want to see more birds I wanted to know more about the birds I was seeing. The SNOW Colby and I ogled on that farm in western NC actually turned out to be woefully malnourished. It was captured and placed into a rehab the day after we went to see it. Fortunately it's recuperating in the hands of capable wildlife rehabilitation professionals. That evening as we watched the ghostly owl fly from slash pile to barn roof to fence post and then out of sight with the falling night we wondered if it would continue to be seen or where other SNOWs might be.

I was inspired by social media and the amazing sighting of the southward bound snowies to put on my chaser's boots again. How could I resist a yellow-eyed, white as snow, razor -taloned visitor from the far north? My son Colby, hardly a hard-core birder,  couldn't resist the chance to see a creature he held dear from his Harry Potter obsession. So we should all wonder whither the wanderers wandering while they are among us. Take advantage of the southern penetration to get to know them better. How do the snowy owls we scramble to see move and behave? Do they simply seek out the nearest open space that looks tundra-like? Is it prey abundance they seek? How does human interaction impact their movement and behavior?  Just as social media has enabled the bird-obsessed to communicate in rapid fire fashion to help us find the rare things here and there, technology has advanced that will hopefully allow us to answer the questions about snowy owls and other wayward wanderers.

And yes--there are folks asking such questions. Ornithologists and conservationists are on the move themselves doing "rocket science" sorta stuff to see where SNOWs go.  And then they're dedicated nature-noticers like Carrie Samis, Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. She's one of the faithful bird-brained friends who kept me and the rest of the world connected to the snowy goings-on via Facebook. She's super stoked about connecting the conservation dots with SNOW! She's a skilled naturalist and communicator who knows how to connect the dots so that social media and science come together for conservation. Check out this awesome post as she shares her excitement over the recent irruption of snowy owls and how science and social media are making a difference for  birding and conservation! Here's the link to Carrie's Blog! 


So 'tis the season! Get out and see the SNOWs while you can! Bird conservation is depending on you! Tweet that!


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Day's Musings on Migration

Out this morning for a wizzbang warbler wander...
So what did we find? A golden-winged blinging like a tricked out chickadee. A palette of hyperactive redstarts painting the hackberries. A few limey-green Chestnut-sided's cock-tail sure of being cute-- and a short-tailed Tennessee--or maybe two. A few tiny parulas paraded through the trees and a wormy wearing the finest browns stopped longed enough to please. There was a lemon yellow-hooded that blazed like the sun--and by 8:15 y'all the warbler-ing work was done...

Charlie Harper's "Mystery of the Missing Migrants"

As the day closes --evening sun slipping--slipping to somewhere low. There's a skulking thrush whispering in a woodland--somewhere waiting for the first stars to show. A world of winged wanderers will soon begin to stir--turning attention southward-- trusting wings and what they know. A mysterious magnet will direct them through the dark-some pull we don't possess --I marvel at the feathered bundles that pass this arduous test...
Ponder deeply the migrant streams -passing o'er as you dream --and wake to hope the courageous thrush finds forest refuge--big and dark and deep.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Meditation for Baja Arizona

As far as my mind could see across the folds and rifts of land 
Sand drifted to mountains 
or sifted away in sudden rains 
red rim rocks burnished to a bruised purple hue
I longed for a place I had never been
Wanted something unseen 
Visions from eagles' eyes 

a wandering to and fro across a cloud strewn horizon pointing the way to nowhere 
out there 

inside me 
where the wild heart beats and  yearns to soar above it all 

My soul stirred when a canyon wren called 
song tinkling like cool water down my spine 
I carried  the weight of the world with me 
and dropped it when forever flew over on a black hawk's shadow


Tuesday, July 23, 2013


I think there’s something that pulls me—pulls us all towards water. Towards those edges where contrasts between wet and dry, high and low bring life’s richness to bear. 

I think that we are pulled towards edges. The wildling in all of us knows that in these edge places an abundance of resources abound. In a place they call Delmarva--an expansive peninsula that stretches from Delaware south to Virgina, there are wondrous spaces between the sea and dry land  that exemplify the ecological importance of edgy places. Stitched together with estuaries, mucky plough mud flats, spits of sand and swaths of marsh covered in green spartina the coastal bays of the mid-Atlantic are one such magnetic place that causes many of us to commit time and energy—our heart’s longing—to its well being.

And so two weeks ago I took the ‘round about way home. Home? Yes. Home. The Mid-Atlantic is where my father’s family got its start on New World soil. My paternal slave ancestors likely came south from the tobacco tired Maryland and Virginia region in the 1790’s to Edgefield, South Carolina to plant cotton.   And so I saw my call to come to Delmarva and Ocean City, Maryland and speak on my passion for conservation at the “Get Out. Get Green. Get Paid.” Youth Summit as a reunion long overdue. It was also an opportunity to commit to a mission that drives me hardest—that of making nature a more relevant thing for people of all colors. 

Carrie Samis, the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program asked me to come and meet her flock of students who work in the edge places learning about their Home Place.  
Carrie Samis dropping climate change knowledge!

 The Coastal Stewards are high school and college students who give their summers to working with Maryland Coastal Bays Program and its partners, Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park, to conserve, educate and advocate for the natural resources that lie so abundantly on the brackish edge between Maryland’s inland and the Atlantic. Most of the students are like every other young person in their teens or early twenties –full of promise and angst as they try to find identity and purpose.  The search for these essentials is made more challenging for some of the Coastal Stewards because we share a common heritage of being Black- Americans.

Coastal Stewards at work!
And so flying into Salisbury from Philadelphia, a short flight of a half hour or so, I thought hard about what I’d be saying about being a conservationist. I thought even harder about what I’d be saying about being a conservationist who happens to be black man. 

The challenges of being an odd bird—one of the few among many—have followed me through my career. I will always (and proudly) be black and so the challenges will likely always be there. Yes, there has been racism, overt and cleverly hidden. People still have a hard time connecting me with the birds and other wild things I love so dearly. I suppose I should be doing something more “black”—whatever that is. But then there have also been wonderful people and places and opportunities that have presented themselves to me because I’ve proven some competence and passion for saving the wild places and wild things on which we all depend, black, white, brown or otherwise.  I had words prepped for the occasion—and slides too. But then upon landing—and even more on a back road tour of the Salisbury, Berlin and Ocean City landscape, my heart flipped. The place was distantly familiar to me. Carrie and I rolled past the flat fields of sunflowers and fallow ones full of Queen Anne’s Lace that define part of the place she proudly calls home.  The forests meeting the field edges were full of the same loblollies and hardwoods I know from South Carolina. I saw familiar birds—eastern bluebirds, mourning doves and red-tailed hawks patrolling the ecotones. There were herons and egrets stalking flooded fields. It was the upper South Carolina coastal plain replicated a few hundred miles north. And it felt like home.  

As we entered the historic little hamlet of Berlin, Carrie talked about the many rewards of the Coastal Stewards Program.  She mentioned her interns by name and talked about each one's unique qualities and abilities.  As we left the narrow streets of downtown Berlin with its quaint bistros and shops offering gourmet sandwiches and pastries we crossed some invisible barrier into East Berlin. It was suddenly reminiscent of the Cold War demarcation that sprung up between West and East Berlin in post WWII Germany. Except here the dividing line seemed more defined by color than some hard and fast political ideology.

We went from quaint to Section Eight; from cobblestone to simple concrete and pavement. East Berlin is populated mostly by black folks making do the best they can on low paying jobs in agriculture and at giant poultry processing facilities. For some, working at the chicken factory is apparently a sort of legacy—an expectation that’s passed on from generation to generation.  Carrie envisions birds of a different sort delivering opportunity to the community. She remarked how the disparities in wealth and opportunity that challenge East Berlin are sometimes reflected in the youth that come to her program. Recruiting students with little or no knowledge of ecology or maybe even prior interest in the outdoors, she related the challenges that she’d overcome to get greenhorns into opportunities that most dyed in the wool field ornithologists would kill for—banding royal terns and brown pelicans, working in wetlands and spending long days on sandy beaches doing things that most would call play.  
Coastal Stewards are also Junior Outdoor Afro Youth Leaders!

We drove by a new community garden that the stewards had recently helped install. It was conservation and connection to nature again made immediately relevant. Local foods are a mechanism for getting folks to understand their fate is tied to fresh air, clean water and healthy soil.  Most students lucky enough to get selected to the program soon fall in love with the birds and their coastal bays home places in ways they’d never imagined possible. That the program had been such a success in only its fifth year of existence is a testament to how dedication to a conservation cause linked with a passion for bringing all people into the conversation can work for the greater good. For me it was an eye opening to how ecology and everday life can be bound together with bays and birds in ways that are meaningful. This was eco-activism of a different sort. 

Coastal Stewards --The future in good hands!

Stewards working across generations!
I asked several people I met during my time there how it had all come together.  To a person they credited Ms. Samis and her ability to pull diverse teams together to fund and facilitate activities that served the students, the bays and their communities.  Even more amazing was that the various agencies and stakeholders-- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, Maryland Coastal Bays, and the MD State Park Service, and others--seemed to put their egos aside to make things work. 

We left Berlin and found our way to Ocean City. A popular coastal vacation spot, the bright lights and seemingly ubiquitous opportunities to buy swimwear, beer and fast food were everywhere.  Vacationers stroll the streets in swimsuits. Everyone is drawn in to this edge place by the water. It initially reminded me a little of a scaled down Myrtle Beach.  In South Carolina it’s a place many natives avoid. Over commercialized with too many lights and a less than leisurely pace, those in the know back home would rather find a respite in a quiet place like Edisto, Hunting Island or Kiawah where nature still abounds at the edge between sea and high ground. But then Ocean City seemed different. The ride there through peaceful countryside and the lessons on Coastal Bays and Berlin had my head in a different place.  A short turn off the main boulevard would simply make things spin a little faster as I saw that my hotel, the Lighthouse Club at Fager's Island, was surrounded by the Bays “backyard” birds. Just a few hundred yards from the bustle of the boulevard and we were in a different world. My home for the next few days was abutted by a shallow bay dotted with islands and sandy spits overgrown with green marsh grass and swarming with birds. People stood tall on paddle boards and made their way between the islands and through screaming hordes of royal terns and laughing gulls. Hidden clapper rails “klecked” in the tidal marsh and ospreys nurtured the next generation of fish hawks on platforms overlooking the scene. It was an idyll I had not expected. It felt oddly like home.

(r-l) Nick, Carrie, Dave and unknown-Gleaming in the afterglow of a coastal bays day!

Along with my friends David Magpiong (of Pledge to Fledge fame) and Outdoor Afro Founder Rue Mapp who were already steeping themselves in the surroundings, we met David Greaves from the  Environmental Protection Agency and Nick Clemons, a Ranger at Assateague Island National Seashore. The two professional black men immediately made me proud. 

David Greaves of the EPA (left)--The look of success!
 Young, high achievers who provide real role models for what is possible, it didn’t fall lightly on me that life-taking decisions in Florida and perceptions of black men are always an issue. David Greaves, soft-spoken and professional, is EPA’s liaison to Coastal Bays Program and provides the bulk of the funding that makes the whole thing go. Nick Clemons, a quietly confident and introspective Bronx native, who, as an undergraduate, interned with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and then moved on to secure a National Park Service position, talked about his evolution to be in such a wondrous place. 
Rue Mapp (l)  and Nick Clemons, NPS (r)

We stood in the evening glow with the birds wheeling about, taking the spectacle in. In those moments I’m thankful for birds and kindred spirits who share my love for nature. Willets sat on the hotel rooftops piping like pigeons and an American oystercatcher casually plied his big-beaked trade close enough that binoculars would’ve been excessive. The noise from the state endangered royal terns was almost deafening.  I was home. 

The next morning I got down to business and met the Coastal Stewards for the first time.  An attractive group of energetic, vibrant and intelligent young people, they all seemed genuinely happy for the opportunity to work with the Coastal Stewards program to make their home place a better place. Then, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore Upward Bound students and members of various youth conservation corps groups joined - nearly 200 youth, in all. 


I had the honor of sitting on the dais with fantastic speakers who each shared their passion for conservation and how the profession and passion to conserve were opportunities to be explored. Rue Mapp,  Amtchat Edwards, and Mirasol Moncada all spoke passionately and moved the audience through comedy and serious consideration. I saw a few  tears too.  

Amtchat Edwards

Mirasol Moncada

Outdoor Afro's Rue Mapp

When my turn came my heart flipped again and I spoke as simply as I could about what nature meant to me—the wondering and wandering among wild things that moves my soul.  I talked frankly too about the hurdles –both within myself and set up by others—that I had to overcome.  I spoke of labels and the importance of shedding some and making positive ones. I spoke from my heart more than my head. I hope that the students gleaned something from the words.

I got to spend more intimate time with the students after my presentation. I learned names and asked for personal stories. I was approached by several who told me the words did hit home. One young man re-counted his struggles with his bi-racial heritage and how others—black and white, chose to denigrate his dual heritage with insults and disrespect. We talked honestly and I left learning more than I could teach. The rain poured down in buckets outside but many of the Coastal Stewards and Upward Bound students chose to brave the deluge on the fishing dock, pulling wriggling fish after wriggling fish from the water with no regard for the soaking they were taking.   

I could hear the laughter over the downpour. I moved back and forth between the fishing and kids learning to play the spades inside. The game is a rite of passage for young black folks. Around the spades table one not only learns what trumps what, they learn to communicate, cooperate and think. 

aim small... miss small!
  In a back room, Carrie directed students in an archery session where the long lines didn’t discourage eager potential archers from flinging arrows at targets. It was as surreal a scene as I might ever have been involved in. Fisher-people, card-players and archers—all within a sparrow’s hop of one another; each experiencing different things but all experiencing fellowship with nature and connection to each other as a backdrop. 

Coastal Stewards Got Out! Got Green ! And Got Paid!
  In a writing workshop the next day I asked the Coastal Stewards to tell me their stories. Harrison Jackson, Supreme Green, Trevon Johnson, Julio Richardson, Ashley Orr, Tashonna Grant, Omar Alvi, Jamal Alvi, Chelsea Lawson, Amy Cooper, Myia Tariq, Jeremiah Purnell, Isaiah Morris, Alison Alvarado, Chris Parks,  and each told stories about what connected them to nature—what the bays and birds meant to them in their own way. What I heard in the two hours of exchange was gratitude, passion and a new way of thinking about nature from people who we hardly ever give voice to. The world was already changing because these young folks decided to care for home. I look into their faces and I see mine.  I was moved deeply to my wild colored core by it all. 

The words here can only express bits and pieces of what it all meant to me—those four short  wonderful days on coastal bays. I hope that I get to go back. After all, it’s always good to come home again.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Low Country Flow

June 30, 2013
Gathering ground a mile a minute
gaining time between sun waking  
and tide rising
Soul soaring on a fish hawk’s crooked wings
racing the day but losing the same
South and East with God’s eye on a seaside sparrow
Pluff mud’s perfume


 Marsh grass green  betraying the shallow places in between 

Resurrection fern don't need no cross to die and rise up

Just rain

Collecting Carolina names along the way
 pushing muddy and slow
A ruin at Yemassee
piecing together some unseen whole
and Edisto wandering wild
Salkehatchie nursing  Ashepoo in




Back uphill past the rivers I go
North against the grain
Galloping over asphalt 
in and out 

and in and out

of rain

Racing the coming night stalking from the west

Another contest gladly lost
Life's clock impossible to reset