Book Review: The Peregrine Returns

The Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of an Urban Raptor RecoveryThe Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of an Urban Raptor Recovery by Mary Hennen with Illustrations by Peggy Macnamara

During a recent visit to Chicago my son Andrew and his wife Jodi stopped by the Field Museum. There they purchased a copy of The Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of Urban Rapture Recovery, written by Mary Hennen and illustrated by Peggy Macnamara. They gave it to me for Christmas. I wish I had a coffee table. I would leave the book there indefinitely.

The Peregrine Returns is an informative, charming, and encouraging book. The writing is spare and clear. If the writer had been a journalist or other professional writer the text could easily have become florid. Instead, Mary Hennen is a scientist employed by the Field Museum, and her concise prose exhibits an unforced affection both for the Peregrine falcon and for Chicago.

Each chapter begins with either a “Scientist Note” or an “Artist Note.” The Scientist Notes are brief vignettes, written in the first person, that discuss personal encounters with the birds and their environments. It is here that we see the affection and dedication of the writer and her team of scientists most clearly. Their joy is demonstrated in one passage that describes allowing young volunteers to give chicks such names as “Banana Peel” and “Marshmallow.”

The “Artist Notes,” written by Peggy Macnamara, are brief lessons on the techniques used in rendering the illustrations. Each of the watercolor illustrations is itself a lesson, as the artist has included lines, circles, arcs, and other geometric features in the paintings to demonstrate some of the techniques used to establish perspective, proportion, and balance. Attempting to further describe features of the illustrations, such as the clever enlargement of details, would not do them justice. At least one online bookseller includes some illustrations in its preview of the contents and it is worth scrolling through the pages to see some of the beautiful paintings.

Peregrine falcons were missing from northern Illinois for many years because of human activity. It is encouraging to see falcons returning to northern Illinois because some of that activity has ceased—the use of DDT has been banned—and because humans have reintroduced the species and taken steps to help the species thrive once again. We as a species can learn about our mistakes, learn from them, and take steps to undo their effects. Where else can we apply this principle to mitigate damage that we have done to our environment or to our relationships with one another

Thanks as always for stopping by!



Painted Ladies, Hurricanes, Earthquakes

A painted lady (Vanessa cardui) stopped and visited our coneflower (echinacea purpurea) today.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings closed

This butterfly visited as fall was arriving in the northern hemisphere. Like its more well-known cousin the monarch, the painted lady doesn’t stick around for winter. It gets out of winter’s way and heads toward a warmer locale. Some butterflies, such as the mourning cloak, can winter over in the temperate zone. That’s why mourning cloaks are among the first butterflies to be sighted in the spring.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings partly open

Sometimes we can see changes or events coming and we can prepare for them or get out of their way. In the past few weeks millions of people saw storms coming and got out of way or prepared to weather the storms. In spite of their preparations, many people suffered great personal harm from the storms. In Mexico many thousands of people had no way of knowing that earthquakes were coming and also suffered great personal harm.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings open

If you are like me, you do not have the skills to help the survivors rebuild their lives. But we can give, and we can pray. Please do both as you think about creatures who are preparing now for the coming of winter.

As always, thanks for stopping by.


DeKorte Park

Labor Day 2017 was an ideal day to spend out of doors in New Jersey. We chose to spend part of the morning at Richard W. DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. The park features several trails that wind their ways through and around tidal enclosures fed and drained by Kingsland Creek and the Hackensack River. It’s a great place to see migrating birds and year-round resident wildlife. (For great information on events at DeKorte Park and other New Jersey Meadowlands sites, visit The Meadowlands Nature Blog.)

When we arrived the tide was in, so few wading birds aside from great egrets were visible. Soon after we arrived we met two photographers whose camera lenses were longer than my forearm. One of them graciously directed our view to a nearby opening in the phragmites at the water line and said that there were several least bitterns hiding there. I caught a quick glimpse of the head of one and another flew past moments later.

great egret
A great egret at De Korte Park.

We were then treated to a display by a Forster’s tern. He hovered briefly a few yards above the water, then dove in, presumably in hopes of catching a fish. I wasn’t able to photograph the acrobatics, but I did manage to photograph him while he was resting on a metal railing. Please excuse the quality of the photographs. At maximum optical zoom my camera lens is the 35-mm equivalent of about 70 mm in focal length.

Forster’s tern
A Forster’s tern. Notice the comma-shaped eye- and ear-band.

We heard but did not see several other small birds hiding in the phragmites. Two pairs of medium- to large-size wading birds (dowitchers?) flew by while we were watching the tern. We also got to see several swans, an American black duck, several goldfinches, a ruby-throated hummingbird that was being harassed by a small brown bird that we could not identify, and a couple of turtles.

The walkways and other fixtures in DeKorte Park were heavily damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. They have since been repaired or replaced and, in some cases, enhanced. Sadly, invasive phragmites have replaced much of the native flora and this undoubtedly affects the well-being of the wildlife that makes its home in the park or passes through on its migratory journey. The park staff work to keep key viewing areas clear so that folks like us can spot birds and other creatures.

The Environmental Center also has an observatory that is open to the public on Wednesday evenings from 8:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., weather permitting. We went one Wednesday evening in 2016 and saw Saturn, rings clearly visible, through the telescope.

DeKorte Park is adjacent to the offices of the Meadowlands Environmental Center and the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. It’s located at the southeastern end of Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst, NJ. Valley Brook Avenue turns to the right and becomes Disposal Road just before the park entrance.

The name “Disposal Road” is fitting because the offices and park are located at the southeastern edge of a large landfill that is now closed. In our less enlightened past we viewed the Meadowlands region as someplace to dump our garbage. Thankfully our governments and businesses now recognize that wetlands such as the New Jersey Meadowlands need to be preserved and protected. It’s worth a visit to understand why. Also, check out this interesting article on how wetlands mitigate damage from severe storms such as Superstorm Sandy.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


Winter Silence

Just before sunrise, at approximately 7:15 a.m. on New Year’s Day, our neighborhood in the Allwood section of Clifton was very quiet. No surprise, really, given the day and time. The sounds that could be heard were mostly bird calls, including jays, crows, English sparrows, and a nuthatch. A grey silhouette, shaped like a mockingbird, sat in a nearby bush but made no sound.

Sunrise over Allwood, May 2015

The birds that remain in the area during the cold months are active and vocal. They call to alert one another to the presence of predators or to the location of food sources. In a few weeks they will begin calling to attract mates and any quiet early mornings will be filled with those hopeful sounds. By coincidence our pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Paul Leggett, preached on New Year’s Day about the sometimes unrecognized presence of Christ in our midst. In discussing John 1:26b Paul said that anything that brings us joy, such as hearing bird calls, is a token of the presence of Christ.

By another coincidence Krista Tippett’s On Being broadcast on New Year’s Day 2017 featured her interview with Gordon Hempton, originally aired in May 2012. Hempton refers to quiet not as the absence of sound but as the absence of noise. Big difference. He also says that humans have evolved to be most sensitive to sounds in the frequency range of bird song. This suggests to him that one of the key indicators of a habitat or ecosystem that will support human life is the presence of bird song.

Silence can allow us to hear important things that we ought to hear or that will enlighten or gladden us. Silence can also make us uncomfortable or unsure of what’s coming next. I once attended a meeting with other members of an organization. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies for publicizing the organization and its events. I said little and mostly listened. When I was next in the presence of another member who was also at this meeting she said she was tempted to hold a mirror under my nose to see if I was still breathing. 🙂

As Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us, there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. Many of us think now is the time to speak, if social media activity is any measure of those inclinations. Yet few of us are truly the prophets whose voices need to be heard. (Yes, I do grasp the irony and hypocrisy of that statement.) Bill McKibben is a prophet. Wendell Berry is a prophet. Tim Keller is a prophet. [insert name of your choice here] is a prophet. I am not. I need mostly to listen, evaluate and think critically, and, because being silent does not mean being passive, act in ways that will benefit humanity, the planet, and the church.

For my part I hope 2017 will be more a time for keeping silent and for being  thoughtful, intentional, and charitable when speaking is necessary. I wish for you a year filled with beneficial silences, profitable interactions with those around you, and actions that bear good fruit. May contentment and health also be yours in abundance. Thank you as always for stopping by.

Do Crows Keep Calendars?

On a recent Saturday morning the air was cold and the sky was clear for the walk to the bakery. Blue jays and cardinals called in the distance but I did not stop to look for them. Other birds might have been calling but I paid them no attention. It was impossible not to pay attention to the crows, however. There were dozens of them in the trees and on the utility lines; here and there a few hopped around on the ground.

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Wildlife in the Local (North Jersey) News

The Herald News for Sunday, 10th January, offered two pieces about local wildlife:

The Bergen County Audubon Society advocates for smarter gardens.

A pair of bald eagles, residents of Ridgefield Park, are given some space by a local developer.

A third article about Ivan Kossak of Lincoln Park, a birder and an environmental activist, appeared in the print edition but is not available on line.

It’s great to see the local news media giving such extensive coverage to local wildlife. Enjoy! And thanks as always for stopping by.

Birds in the News

Greetings. I hope this finds you well. This is just to share two stories about birds published recently.

New York news outlets have been carrying stories about a painted bunting that has been seen in Brooklyn. This bird would ordinarily be in Florida or Mexico at this time of year, yet here it is in Brooklyn. Why? Who knows?

Meanwhile, the November 26 issue of The Behemoth carried this story about bird memory. Unlike the painted bunting, the black-capped chickadee is a common year-’round resident. If a New Jersey homeowner puts out a bird feeder, there’s a good chance that chickadees will find it.

Chickadee on the feeder.

The notion that chickadees and other birds have such remarkable memories brought to mind a post from two years ago on squirrels and how they find their stashes of food.

With no leaves on the trees, the late fall and winter represent a great time to observe birds and other wildlife in our neighborhoods. In New Jersey we will see an assortment of birds, including chickadees but probably not including painted buntings, throughout the winter. It’s worth enduring a few moments of cold to enjoy their presence.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Childhood, Curiosity, and Crows

This past weekend our granddaughter E__ and her Mom came for a visit. Yes, it is pretty shameless to exploit an adorable infant to draw readers to this blog.

Baby girl
E__ at five months.

We had planned on Saturday to take her for a walk and introduce her to the local park and library. The weather proved contrary, so we stayed in.  When E__ took a nap, Mom and Grandma left briefly to run errands, thinking that the nap would last until they returned. Within minutes she was awake and calling out, although not crying.

I can’t say that I was displeased to have a few minutes alone with her. She is good company and rewards attention with good cheer. At that moment she preferred being up and wandering about, and I was happy to oblige. We found ourselves looking out at the rain through the sliding glass doors.

As we stood there, E__ looked back and forth at the houses and trees surrounding our backyard. I hoped for a rabbit sighting but the rabbit did not oblige. Soon a crow passed over the yard and it caught E__’s attention. She followed the bird until it flew out of sight.

When you are five months old everything is new, and the objects that older children and adults find commonplace can be fascinating to you. We see and hear crows by the dozens every day, and aside from learning recently that crows will sometimes bring gifts to people who feed them,  they hold little fascination for us. That may be short sighted. I would wish for E__ that she would always be fascinated by the world around her, especially the natural world.

As it happens, the sermon at Grace Presbyterian Church this past Sunday was about children. The faith of a child—eager, imaginative, and uncomplicated—is a model to which people at all stages of life can aspire. It was not an accident that I was struck with a small sense of joy and wonder when I heard a nuthatch, saw a sharp-shinned hawk, and saw and heard killdeer on a brief walk to another nearby park today.

Spring arrives this Friday, 20th March 2015. The weather for the coming weekend promises to be suitable for spending time outdoors. I hope you get at least a few minutes to watch the crows, see whose crocuses and daffodils have emerged, or look for Venus, Mars, or even Uranus in the evening sky.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Thanksgiving and Monarch Butterflies

Overnight temperatures in the low to mid-twenties meant that most of the remaining flowers in the garden were done for. The snapdragons and marigolds had faded some weeks ago, but until the temperatures dropped below freezing the vincas had remained robust with firm shiny leaves and bright white flowers. After the freeze the flowers dropped off and the now-dull leaves drooped as if they had been steamed. The dry, brown leaves of the hydrangeas rattled with the breeze. Even the mums, heavy with spent blooms, bowed to the ground.

It was time to clean out the flower garden for the winter.

As the branches of the butterfly bush fell to the shears, a bit of color appeared in the debris at its base. It could have been a candy wrapper or other bit of human detritus. It was instead a large fragment of a butterfly wing. Probably from a Monarch, although it came from the part of the wing that is similar to that of the Viceroy. It was a moment of wonder mixed with melancholy.

A fragment of a butterfly wing.
A fragment of a butterfly wing.

Monarch butterflies have an amazing life story, as some readers might already know (see or Their annual migration to and from Mexico and Southern California is well reported, as is the danger they face from pesticide use and habitat loss. A new bit of information for me this year is that four generations of Monarchs are born in their breeding locations each spring, summer, and fall.

One generation overwinters in the warm climate, finds mates and migrates north in February and March. The females lay their eggs on milkweed plants and soon both males and females in that generation die. The eggs of this first generation hatch, move through caterpillar and chrysalis phases, then mate as adults and lay eggs. Having laid their eggs, the adults then die. From egg to adult, this generation and the next two generations live only six to eight weeks.

The fourth generation goes through the same egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis phases as the preceding three, but instead of laying eggs and dying, this generation of adult butterflies migrates south, where they will hibernate for the winter to begin the cycle again in the new year.

While this story could form the basis for an essay on God’s design for creation, the thought that prompted reflection is the ephemeral nature of encounters with creatures such as butterflies. They do not hang around. The longest they stay in one place is the time they spend as a caterpillar or chrysalis, which are interesting in their own right but not as memorable as the adult. Adults visit flowers for a few seconds or a few minutes and then move on.

I am thankful to God for the tangible blessings of family, friends, shelter, sustenance, and security, and I am also thankful for the moments in the past year when I have had a slice of joy or wonder in the natural world. The moment we spotted a grape-size toad or a pileated woodpecker while out on a hike. The moment four killdeer chicks sprinted across the field at City Green. The moment in early spring when a Mourning Cloak butterfly lit nearby and we later learned that they can overwinter in cold climates due to their bodies’ ability to produce a substance like antifreeze. The moment I picked the first blueberries of the season or the last raspberries of the season. These moments are brief and fleeting, like the visit of a butterfly, but the memory of them gives reason for thanks.

Thank you for stopping by and reading. I wish you and those close to you a blessed and peaceful Thanksgiving and holiday season. May you be granted your own moments of wonder in the natural world.

Bumblebees and Chaos

Thanks to a faithful group of bumblebees, our raspberries are producing prodigiously. The bees visit blossoms throughout the daylight hours and as a result we have a constant harvest of berries. One recent morning I was picking some when a bumblebee flew into the group of berries that I was investigating. I enjoy watching the bees and I am happy for their presence so I made no attempt to flee or to shoo this one away. At one point he was close enough that I could feel on my forearm the breeze produced by the fluttering of his wings.

Photo of bumblebee visiting raspberry blossom.
A bumblebee visiting a raspberry blossom, with an immature raspberry nearby.

Of course this brought to mind the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is an expression, if you will, of chaos theory. Chaos theory says that a small change in the initial conditions of a dynamic system will result in that system taking a very different path from the path it would have taken had the small change not been introduced. The butterfly effect expresses the notion that the breeze generated by the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can affect the strength of and path taken by a hurricane thousands of miles and several weeks away.

Could my bumblebee have something to do with Tropical Storm Polo, the latest in the series of tropical storms to threaten Baja California this year? It’s not likely. But it does remind me that small things sometimes make a big difference.

The writer of the New Testament Epistle of James had this to say about some small things:

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. (James 3:3-5, New International Version)

The negative effects of even a few poorly chosen or ill-timed words are well known; who among us has not known of a friendship, marriage, or career ruined or derailed by a few words? Conversely, we may also know of a situation where a few words or a small gesture, such as a note of thanks or encouragement, can refresh and restore a person who is going through a challenging time, and thus enable that person to persevere and overcome the challenge.

May all of our words and actions be such that they help maintain peace, harmony, and order instead of introducing chaos. Thanks as always for stopping by.