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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ode to Oystercatcher

They're the crowd favorites, the class clowns.

If you ever want to see glazed over eyes turn bright with excitement, all they need to behold is an American Oystercatcher.

What's an Oystercatcher? This beloved bird is a football shaped, mish-mash of colors and features. A common shorebird of the backs bays and salt marshes, this odd-ball is sure to be a show-stopper every time. In fact his uniqueness has earned him a number of interesting nicknames:

Bird wearing a tuxedo, smoking a carrot.

Keystone cop of the bird world.

Insane shorebird.

Or my favorite appellation: Bird a child would draw.

No matter what sobriquet you apply to the Oystercatcher, this distinctive shorebird with the bright orange bill gathers attention without fail.

But my admiration for the American Oysteratcher lies beyond the superficial, and reaches back to a noteworthy quality this bird possesses: it's drive to survive.

Today, taking a survey of an average salt marsh in New Jersey will reveal a number of these brightly colored birds. However, as the experts tell us, nesting in the salt marsh is a new trend for this shorebird. Years ago, the Oystercatcher would primarily be found nesting on the beach.

But no matter how much enjoyment humans derive from those miles of sand, beaches are no fun for birds nesting on them. The nests of beach birds are under constant attack: crabs, cats, coyotes, crows, dogs, all take a stand as enemies of beach nesters. And what better target for these invaders than a nest positioned in plain sight on a wind blown beach.

Some birds, like the Piping Plover, haven't seemed to figure out that the beach is an unsafe area for vulnerable birds. As a result, their population numbers are in a critical state.

Some birds, like the Oystercatchers, have put two and two together, and have started establishing nesting sites in the salt marshes, areas where they are considerably more secure.

Yet another example of the tenacity of this awkward avian lies in its shifting diet.

As the name implies, Oystercatchers love chicken...(Just seeing if you were awake).

Oystercatchers love oysters. In fact, their bills are perfectly designed for cracking open an oyster's shell. Their bills are squished in on the sides, giving them the same design as a shucking knife. With this, they can easily pry open their favored prey.

But in the Delaware Bay region, Oysters went through a serious decline when a blight ran through the population that nearly decimated the Oyster populations of Southern New Jersey.

Would the Oystercatcher disappear along with his favorite food-stuff? Not on your life. Rather than fade away, the Oystercatcher changed his diet. It now feeds on Ribbed-bank Mussels, the common mollusk of the Salt Marsh.

An impressive bird; it has had a myriad of challenges to face, and yet has let nothing stand in it's way.

Big, yes. Gawky, yes. Bizarre, yes.

But underneath all the odd features is bird with a will to survive.

A bird with a reminder of hope for a world in the throes of change.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fish and Visitors

His rubber-clad hands deftly stripped the juicy meat off the fish.

"Good catch?," I asked, eyeing up his prizes.

"Not bad," he responded, "caught by a guy this morning. There's about 16 pounds here in all."

The pile of carcasses along side the cutting table attested to this respectable victory of lure over fish.

I had no idea I would be observing a fish cleaning; no grand visions of flying fish guts filled my sight when I awoke that morning. However, I had awoken with a number of trials and tribulations that were continually nagging at me all day. Though these "sufferings" were nothing in comparison to the horrors in the daily experience of an Indian orphan or a war torn people, pain is pain, and though I feel for the suffering masses worldwide, these personal problems would not be silenced.

I've searched high and low for cures for suffering, and who hasn't? What logically reasoning soul hasn't sought a deeper explanation for pain the world over, not to mention in their own lives? What thinking human has never stared at the ceiling, wondering why evil and suffering have been allowed to permeate the air we breathe?

I have sought answers and cures; my questions have led me from the Psychiatrist's couch to the Philosopher's stone.

Never have a I sought a reason for personal suffering at a fish cleaning table...

I watched my friend adroitly cut and lift all the skin from the tender steaks that glistened with moisture. His hands never missed a beat; he held two conversations and still managed to expertly handle his fish.

It slowly began to dawn on me that one aspect of suffering, at least for a child of God, is a process with our best interest as the outcome. As we're walking through this life, we walk as strangers, pilgrims bound for a better place. But along the way, we tend to accumulate the things of this world, visitors that seem light and airy at first glance, but in the searchlight of Eternity, they prove themselves only to be heavy and bulky. Not the sort of freeloaders that are conducive for a Christian sized journey.

With each quick slice, I could see my Father taking away the things that I had accumulated, commenting with each stroke:

Wood. Gone.

Hay. Forget it was ever there.

Stubble. Too invaluable for my child.

Even as I write, the pain of the removal process is still gripping me. It seems the world does nothing but take, take, take, almost driving the weary to the point of desperation. When we reach this point of hopelessness in the world, we can almost hear our Father say: "Give, Give, Give, for there is something that is worth far more than the gold of this world: your faith."

"Those are some pretty steaks," I commented as my friend bagged the remnants of the tuna.

"A lot better than when they arrived," he commented, and walked off.

I looked back into the drum containing the filleted fish.

"One reason for suffering," I said to my captive audience. "You never know what wisdom will come from the mouth of fishes. I'll bet you know a lot of secrets."

But they're not talking.

I'm sharing this on Hear It On Sunday, Use It On Monday.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Rooted and the Restless

Half way through the summer season, the young Osprey wait with anxious anticipation for their next meal. Their Father should be by shortly with a nice, juicy fish clutched tightly in his sandpaper- like talons. These hungry, impatient young ones are newborns; the universe has just been introduced to the Ospreys of the future.

To be sure, come mid-July, the Salt Marsh looks more like a nursery than a grassy wilderness. Many of the birds that spend their summers in the marshes along the Atlantic Seaboard are busily tending their brand new bundles of joy. You can't swing your binoculars without sighting some small bundle of fuzz, anxiously imploring it's parents for a meal.

Seeing a beautiful bird like an Osprey attend it's offspring is a majestic sight; but if you want a spectacle of spawns, look no further than the Laughing Gull. Along the East Coast, the Laughing Gull is the common McDonald's parking lot gull of the summer. It's black, gray and white plumage, along with it's bright red bill in breeding season, give the bird a subdued, yet colorful expression. But it's loud, raucous call should alert you to its presence from miles away. And there is no louder time at a Laughing Gull colony then when the young arrive.

In Cape May county, New Jersey, the young arrive in a big way: the largest nesting colony of Laughing Gulls in the world is situated right in the heart of the Salt Marsh. In fact, an estimated one million pairs of Laughing Gulls call the Southern New Jersey marshes their summer home. And when the young arrive, the marshes burst open with the boisterous calls of proud parents.

Yes, it seems the world is rooted in place for most residents of the marsh. For the moment, most avian families have no intention of taking long trips anytime soon.

But if you look closer, there's restlessness afoot. There, there's a bird with a destination on his mind; he has no time to stop and care for a family. There, another bird on his way to his winter home. Yes, while most of the local marsh families are just settling in to raise their young for the summer, some shorebirds are already heading south for the Winter.

These Shorebirds nest high up on the arctic Tundra. Arriving there in late May, they begin a quick breeding session, and then lay their eggs. Most of the eggs will hatch in two weeks, revealing a tiny fluffball that can already care for itself. Just like a chicken's chick will be pecking for food shortly after leaving it's egg, so these shorebirds are ready to fend for themselves. This is known as precocial behavior, and it leaves the parents free to roam as soon as they've said goodbye to little junior, leaving the young to learn how to migrate all by itself.

It's an odd dynamic out on the marsh in mid-July. Some birds are rooted; some are restless.

A perfect example of the Christian's walk; an analogy with Biblical precedent.

In Colossians 2:7, Paul exhorts his unfamiliar addressees with the words So walk in Him, rooted and built up. It seems an odd request, this command to stand still but keep running, but in the context of the Christian walk, nothing could be more appropriate.

Often, the need to run for God comes upon us, and off we go. Running is fine, as long as we have the firm foundation of the Word of God to lead us onward. Without this basis for our race, we're bound to smash into walls along the way, a common fate that leaves the Christian bruised, angry and disillusioned about the life of faith in general.

Oftentimes an opposite situation develops, a scenario in which we become so rooted in our knowledge of God that we forget to run. We've been waiting so long to become secure, we often miss the roads God has built for us to race on.

Yet again, the Bible comes through with balance, and the Great Apostle's solution could not be simpler: be both. Be rooted and running; be firm and fervent to run the race.

Rooted and running. Yet another wise word from our Father; a word that's been spelled out in His creation all along.

I'm sharing this with Spiritual Sundays and Brag on God Fridays.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Heavens Declare... (AZ Trilogy Part Three)

As I wrap up my trip down memory lane, it would be unjust to leave out a number of favorite photos, as well as a number of favorite Psalms of David, all expressing the wonders of God's glorious creations. I hope this trilogy has inspired you to look for God's glory everywhere, even in the driest of deserts. Now, pull up a log around the campfire, and join the "sweet Psalmist of Israel" as he sings of the greatness of God as seen through creation.

The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak; night after night, they make him known.

They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.

The Voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks, and strips the forests bare.
In His temple, everyone shouts "Glory!"

You crown the year with a bountiful harvest; even the hard pathways overflow with abundance.

Those who live at the ends of the earth stand in awe of your wonders;
from where the sun rises to where it sets, you inspire shouts of Joy!

I'm sharing this with Dayle's Simple Pleasures Thursdays.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

In the Valley of the Shadow (AZ Trilogy Part Two)

My eyes were quickly developing a personality disorder; they longed with all their might to look up, but knew that looking down was beneficial for the journey ahead of them.

Up, Up, Up...That's where you'll find it; up there.

My target was the Common Black-hawk, a creature that looks as if God took a lump of coal and carved a bird out of it. This black beauty primarily breeds in Central and South America, but inches his range into the U.S. of A with small territories in the Southwestern states. The Black-hawk is one of the prolific number of trans-continental bird species that send new birders into fits of passion when visiting Arizona.

My hiking party and I found ourselves traversing rocky, and wet, terrain in search of this step to birding Mecca. The area we were scouring goes by the name of Aravaipa Canyon, and has been the last trail that many good pairs of sneakers have seen. Between the spiky, rocky terrain, and the river that must be passed through, Aravaipa has been the ruin of walking shoes for many unwary tourists.

Where are all the tourists? Oh, that's right, limited access. I'm okay with that...

I still have trouble deciding which was more appealing: the fact that a rare North American bird called this canyon home, or the fact that the Nature Conservancy has a limit of fifty people per day. In the end, I found the combination of desirable bird and the lack of crowds to be a winning combination...

But if I didn't find this bird, I was going to emerge from this hike a loser. With this in mind, we pressed on, looking for this treasure with feathers.

I had collected all the information I could accumulate before starting the trek. I knew to check along the rivers edge; knew to look for the flashy white bands on the tail, and I especially concentrated my studies on the call. Armed with this knowledge, I went out boldly in the quest for the Common Black-hawk.

But if you knew every detail ever known about the bird, that still wouldn't fish him out of this big canyon.

My inner voice had something going for him; we were small fish in a big pond seeking out a smaller fish. I say "we" knowing that after the first mile and a quarter, most of my party had probably given up on the search and were just watching their steps.

Why don't you give up too? You know what you're looking for, but you don't even have a clue of where to begin your search.

My inner monologue was right again; I had a good deal of knowledge, but with my non-existent familiarity of the territory, it was going to take a good deal of searching before I'd be able to dig out my desired hawk...

All the better I answered back.

In this day of GPS and Smart Phones (they've now combined the two, apparently) the human spirit has been deprived of its sense of discovery. A golden age of exploration has been lost to the current generation; we find our desired destinations and goals with greater ease and efficiency, but the journey has lost its magical appeal. The discovery of what lies between us and our destination has gone the way of the dodo.

To me, discovery has always had an air of the impromptu about it. The less I know about what I'm stumbling onto, the more accomplished I feel. Funny how that works...

Too bad it's not working now... the nagging voice shot forth without a second thought.

After two hours of hiking, my drive to discover had abated; I was dreaming of the air-conditioned car we'd climb into after our adventure, when I heard my uncle interject...

"Is that your bird?" he asked, pointing at the large, rocking form that was gliding by the wall of the canyon.

My mind leaped in ecstasy. Effusive emotions poured out my soul; my object had been found. My mission was accomplished....

"Or is it a Turkey Vulture?" my uncle asked, unwittingly shattering the sense of security I had attained all too briefly.

To an expert birder, the difference may be apparent. To a neophyte birder of the Southwest, the difference is less visible, especially if you can't view the bold, white bands around the tail and espceially if you only get a glimpse of your target.

"Uhhh..." I stalled for time.

"Well, which is it?" My uncle queried with slight tones of impatience. We were all hot and sweaty and grumpy, and having me dither over the identification of this prized possession I'd gone on about probably accentuated the frustration.

"I don't know," I reluctantly admitted.

"Why not?" The sharp reply.

"Because I've never seen one." The defeated response.

That was it. After a mile and a quarter hike through treacherous terrain, my beautiful, well defined Black-hawk had become just another shadow floating high on the canyon walls. It would have been an easier walk back if we had seen nothing at all.

We observed a number of different birds on the journey back, but I wanted that Black-hawk. Each call of the Canyon Wren slapped my ears in defeated desperation; every shadow of the Yellow-breasted Chat would wrench my eyes from off of my feet in hopeful expectation...but my border bird never materialized. The Common Black-hawk would forever be a shadow, floating by my record book.

Upon reaching the steep incline to the parking area, I received a new burst of energy into my deflated self, and charged up toward the vehicle of my shame. I knew the ribbing that would come:

Maybe they got strict on immigration.

Perhaps his passport expired.

Maybe we were in the wrong canyon.

And all of my predicted slams came true, as one by one, my exhausted hiking companions gave me a good ribbing.

Looking out the window, my longing for that bird only grew stronger. I wanted that silhouette of a bird we saw at the terminus of our expedition to turn into a Black-hawk in the worst way. But putting a check next to the Black-hawk's name on my life list would be a violation of ethics. As my friend told me when I began my birding career: "Birders are disgustingly honest." I was just disgusted.

"Stop," I said. "Is that a Raven?"

My pity party was interrupted by a dark speck perched fifty feet above us. The dark form stood out starkly against the sandy white cliffs. Reaching for my binoculars, I briefly got on the bird before shouting:


We had just hiked nearly two miles to see a bird that we would find as we were leaving the canyon. I was really in for the ribbing now, but I didn't care.

The bird took off as soon as the others had their optics trained on it, giving it's fierce, piercing call. His broad, white tail bands shone with an unknown luster. He soared right over our car...

And into the horizon of discovery.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bloodshed at the Bloodbought Corral (AZ Trilogy Part One)

As you start to push some keys in the memory bank of my mind, you may just feel the hot, dry desert winds start to blow. You may hear the low murmurs of free range cattle; if you're lucky, you may even glimpse a road-runner speeding by.

All of these sensations emanate from a wonderful birding excursion I took to Arizona back in the May of 2009. Arizona is a natural wonderland, and is a highly favored spot among birders, due it's predilection to attract Mexican species of birds across the border (Birder's Without Borders).

In honor of that wonderful entry in my data bank, I want to pen a trilogy of reflections, all inspired by the Grand Canyon state itself. Here's a fine bit of fiction on the deadliest enemy known to man, in one of the deadliest towns in the old west: Tombstone, Arizona.

Though the music was blasting from the Birdcage Saloon, Christian would not be distracted from his purpose. He had come out to the Bloodbought Corral to fight his enemy: sin.

"You know what to expect," he said, addressing himself while rubbing his ill-shaven face. "Big, bold, and deadly," he surmised, based on his previous encounters with those transgressions that so easily tripped him up before.

"Yep, lust, murder, stealin', things that are too big to slip under my watchful eye." With each mental reference to his previous mistakes, he winced. He was here to make sure those mistakes were at an end.

Psst... came a low hiss from behind a few barrels.

Christian stood firmly at attention; could this finally be his foe?

Psst... came the same invitation, this time from another part of the corral.

His mind began to race; his heart began to palpitate.

Suddenly the air was filled with pssts, polluting the airwaves to such a degree that even the bawdy tune from the Birdcage was overtaken.

By now, Christian's heart was full of fear; his eyes were filled with a fiery anger.

"Christian," came a voice he didn't recognize.

"I'm here," he replied, with all the defiance he could muster.

"Here to play, are you?" the voice taunted, with all the malice in the world.

"I'm here to win a battle," he said, finding courage from the deepest parts of his being.

"Hmmm," the voice intoned. As doubt was expressed as to the victor, the voice found form. From behind the barrels emerged a well- dressed, well-groomed, respectable looking man. His sharp-shooter apparel shimmered in the noon-day sun, and when he opened his mouth, his brilliant teeth brought the world down in admiration.

"Victory, eh?" The man calmly inspected his slim, keenly polished gun, keeping Christian in his eye at the same time.

"The victory is in hand," announced Christian, slowly regaining his composure. "I'm already a victor through..."

"Through whom?" The sharp-shooter cut in. "Who wins your victories?

"Christ..." He began, but was abruptly cut off once again.

"-ian?" The well-groomed one smirked.

"What do you mean?" Christian growled, commandingly.

"You were going to attribute your victories to Christ," the slim man began, but at the mention of Christ, his expression dropped, and a fierce look of anger crossed his face.

"You...You..." he stuttered, saving face "You were going to let all the glory go there" he said, pointing up, "when, we all know, the glory should go...there," he finished, pointing at Christian.

"No," Christian objected.

"Yes," the man rebutted. "Fair is fair. You know, you're the talk of the town."


"The way you handle that gun, is simply...amazing," The stranger said, after a short pause, as if he were searching for an appropriate adjective.

"Really? I'm famous?" Christian asked, with slight tones of hesitation in his voice.

"Oh yes, my friend," the stranger said, circling Christian like a vulture eyeing his next meal. "The way you slaughtered Lust was simply superb."

"Really?" Christian enjoined.

"More than superb: fantastic!" The man grinned like a Cheshire cat, his face growing larger with each note of praise. "And no one has ever seen Lying go down so fast."

"Really," Christian said. There were no tones of questioning in his voice this time.

"Yes, you...are...the...victor." The man grinned wider and wider until his eyes felt cramped.

"Yes, my name isn't recognized enough. I've got a whole new outlook because of you Mr...." Christian stared the strange man down. "What's your name?"


Christian froze. He had heard of Pride, and was aware of his expertise at winning gunfights.

Tiny beads of sweat started to form on Christian’s brow; his nerves began their fight or flight deliberations.

"Oh, don’t worry about me.” Pride responded to his adversary’s reaction. “I'm not a giant sin, like Lust, or Drunkenness,” and he slowly turned his back, facing away from the angry Christian.

Pride set his teeth on edge; Christian had drawn a gun on him while he had his back turned.

"No, in fact, most people don't even know I'm there." Pride grimaced as he felt the gun sink a little further into his back.

Christian was not going to come this far to lose the battle.

"You're done, Pride!" he screamed, loud enough to stop the music at the Birdcage; loud enough to draw all the townsfolk into the street, to see what was happening.

"Oh come on," Pride coolly pleaded. "Who gets hurt by pride? Pride's not such a big deal..."

Those last words struck Christian hard.

He looked to himself.

He looked to the crowd.

But he didn't look up.

"Pride's not...such a big deal," Christian muttered, almost mechanically. And with that, he dropped the gun.


Before anyone could even blink, Pride had shot Christian.

"No I'm not so big," Pride sneered, firing another shot into the downed Christian. "I’m only the reason there's a hell."

Christian gasped as Pride gave him a swift kick to the stomach.

"I only caused God's greatest treasure, humanity, thousands of years of turmoil and suffering and mayhem."

Another kick.

"But no, I'm no big deal."

And with one final kick to the stomach, Pride grinned his sleaziest grin,
bowed to the onlookers, and disappeared…

Leaving only a bruised Christian in the corral, with a new-found reason to look up when Pride comes to town.

I'm sharing this with Brag on God Fridays, and Spiritual Sundays.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On the Fourth of July

Deadly. That's the word to describe him. Deadly.

He treads the water, searching for unsuspecting fish to dine on. His eyes search the marshes and bays, hoping for the right meal at the right time. Once his eyes have locked onto his potential food-stuff, he stares. With all the patience in the world, he stares his prey down, as still as the marsh grass background he hunts against.

Then, when it seems an eternity has passed, he senses the moment: that ripe period of time when he can strike. Raising his dagger-thin bill, he then rapidly plunges his head into the water, generally emerging triumphant in his hunt for his next meal.

This dramatic little monologue is a good description of my friend, the Tri-colored Heron. This multi-colored marsh beauty is a stunning example of the variety of life the bird world presents us; his long, thin neck and bill truly set him apart in the realm of heronry. (I just made that word up.)

Not only is he distinctive, he's also germane for the fast approaching 4th of July holiday. Why? Because he's red, white and blue.

That's right, with a reddish cast to the neck (especially as a juvenile), a stark white belly, and greenish-blue back, the Tri-colored Heron is a truly patriotic bird.

America was once the Tri-colored Heron, at least that's what they tell me. Just as that feathered fisherman is the thinnest of the Heron family, so our great country was lean, trim and fit. We once had the power to free ourselves, the urge to free others, and the discipline to maintain freedom.

We were also noteworthy, just like the Tri-colored. Big, bold, flashy, we were the ones that other nations looked to for inspiration. Like ancient Rome, we sent our influences far and wide through the different lands we conquered. We were ubiqoutious; we were abundant.

But blink, and suddenly a change has occurred. Suddenly the lean, fit empire has become soft and flabby. In a short manner, our orderly, regulated world has erupted in a chaotic fashion. In an instant, we find ourselves on the attack from within and without. That proud, global bulldog has awoken to find his house on fire, and his yard flooded.

Who could possibly have the answer to these exingencies? What solution could possibly turn an up-side down world right-side up?

I think my friend with the deadly aim and the coat of many colors may have an answer. Oh, he may not be the answer, but with his needle-like bill, he is pointing straight at the answer.

"They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God."

A world searching for answers with unprecedented fervor. A race of people in frantic straits, seeking solutions that just won't materialize. A planet full of people that refuse to turn.

And a creation that is forever pointing up, in hopes that one day humanity will come to it's senses, and turn to it's Creator.

That is, perhaps, the greatest secret my friend the Tri-colored Heron knows...

But he's only a sign-post on the journey home.

I am sharing this on Spiritual Sundays. and Bragging on God Fridays.
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