Creature Feature


Dr. Terry Mosher, a long-time English department faculty member who retired in May 2012, has been sharing bi/weekly reflections on the changing seasons. Read on for Terry's latest "Creature Feature"...


Creature Feature #16—2/14/14

Midwinter Miscellany


Agrarian Reading

Housebound by a cold last week, I curled up with The Rural Life, a marvelous seasonal journal by former New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg. It’s set mainly on the author’s small farm in Upstate New York, with a few entries from

the ranching country of Wyoming and Colorado. For me, the best passages follow the movement of Klinkenborg’s agile mind as he plants and weeds his kitchen garden, feeds and waters his horses, mucks out his pigs and chickens, and does the rest of a farmer’s timeless work in pasture, barnyard, and barn. As I’ve learned on the horse farm where we board our mare, the hands and feet fall easily into farm work’s ritual rhythms, quieting the mind and freeing it to travel.

With The Rural Life, Klinkenborg joins a distinguished line of American agrarians who’ve written well about the ruminations of farmers at their chores.

The line stretches back at least to de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), where plowing and beekeeping inspire some of the farmer’s best thoughts. For many readers, the tradition peaked long ago, perhaps with Thoreau’s chapter “The Bean Field” in Walden, with parts of Cather’s My Antonia and O Pioneers!, or with Robert Frost poems like “Mowing,” “Mending Wall,” and “After Apple Picking.” Who could argue? But talented agrarian authors are out there today, too, artfully celebrating farmers and farming without sentimentalizing either one. Maxine Kumin, who died last week at 88, has done it for a half-century. Like the Farmers Market and Locavore Movements, the modest but steady readerships attracted today by Klinkenborg, Kumin, Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, and Wyoming’s Gretel Ehrlich and James Galvin are heartening signs. A heartening number of Americans aren’t content to see our nation’s agrarian roots torn up and tossed on the cultural compost pile. On farms and in print, they’re sinking new roots of their own.


Winter Rarity

A couple of days ago, an email from my friend Mark Baldwin offered this lovely description of some midwinter beauty brand new to him and to me:

Last night we got a light dusting of snow, the kind of dry, “sharp”

snowflakes that interlock and hold together like the barbules of

a feather. Every tree branch is covered with these “snow feathers.”

The air this morning is nearly still but each tiny breeze releases a

shower of them that slowly drift down . . . the way dry leaves do

in fall. Some of these “feathers” are the size of leaves, or saucers.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Mark directs education programs at the Peterson Institute in Jamestown. Always outdoors, he’s as alert a naturalist as I know. When he’s “never seen anything quite like” a natural event, it’s a good bet that the event is rare. Taking his cue, let’s watch our yards for a fall of saucer-sized “snow feathers,” drifting down on one of the dry, still, frigid early mornings we’ve often seen this winter. So magical an event deserves a place on our bucket lists.

Distinguished Visitors

            A lot of North County residents with a taste for natural beauty are indebted to Joanne and Tom Goetz these days. On a tip from fellow birder Terry Mahoney,

the Goetzes drove out Point Drive North in Dunkirk last weekend and scanned the ice off Point Gratiot for perching Bald Eagles. There and in the trees behind the DEC Fisheries Building, they counted thirty-five eagles. By thirteen, that count topped the highest number I’d seen in thirty winters of birding Dunkirk Harbor.

            Convocations of eagles like this one (I promise they’re called convocations J) were unheard of here as recently as a decade ago. They remind me of how much we owe to the Endangered Species Act, to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and to Carson’s congressional testimony after the book’s publication. While battling terminal cancer, she began the uphill struggle to see DDT and other pesticides lethal to wildlife banned. With those chemicals now mostly gone from the food chain, Bald Eagles can safely feed on the fish that comprise most of their diet. Once again, they’re thriving.

These regal birds are moving northeast along the Lake Erie plain now, returning to their nesting territories. With Lake Erie almost completely frozen, the open waters of Dunkirk Harbor, rich in a variety of fish, offer them a chance to break their journey, loaf, and feed. If you haven’t driven down to look for them, I hope you’ll give it a try. As of Thursday the 13th, at least thirty were still in Dunkirk—some at Point Gratiot, some in the inner harbor, west of the main pier. They span all eagle plumages, from the muddy browns of hatch-year birds to the elegant contrasts of full adults with their snowy heads and tails, bright yellow bills, and dark bodies.


Although the birds in the picture below (not taken in Dunkirk) are nearly all adults, it provides a fair idea of what you might see at Point Gratiot. We’ll give it this Feature’s last word:



Creature Feature #15—12/24/13

Snowy Owl Invasion

 snowy owl flight

Arctic Angel on the Hunt: Adult Male Snowy Owl

The Invasion

         During a single morning about three weeks ago, one energetic birder crisscrossed the Rochester area looking for Snowy Owls. He found thirteen. Most were in harbors and other spots along the Lake Ontario shore; a few, in inland farm fields. All of these spectral visitors from the Canadian arctic had been reported on Genesee Birds, the online grapevine for Western New York birders. And almost every day since then, more have turned up. So far, the Snowy Owl invasion of 2013 extends across Southern Quebec and Ontario, down over New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and west across the Great Lakes. If you’d like to lock eyes with one of the loveliest and fiercest of all North American birds, this is the winter to do it.more...



Creature Feature 14 (December 9, 2013)

Eastern Chipmunk

Tamias striatus: The Striped Ground Squirrel, Hibernating

Let’s see: one more week of classes, then exam week, then grading and loose ends, then out . . . done . . . free!

I gave myself that end-of-semester pep talk often. If you’re whispering some variation on it today, help might come from a surprising quarter. Try a walk in the college woodlot, listening for a sudden rustling of dry leaves and a high, sharp alarm note: Chip! Don’t move an inch, but look around for the source. With a bit of luck, you’ll get to renew acquaintances with the smallest of our campus’s four species of squirrels: the scurrying ball of energy known as the Eastern Chipmunk. To weary academics, wondering whether how they’ll make it to winter break, chipmunks have things to offer.more...


Creature Feature 13 (November, 22 2013)

Gifts from a White Pine, Part 2

            Red Squirrels jumping tier to tier among pagoda-like branches, Pine Warblers singing their silky-smooth trills, blue-green foliage soothing tired eyes:

the campus’s White Pines offer us a lot. All they ask in return is that, hustling from Fenton to Thompson, Houghton to Jewett, we let them catch our eyes, slow our steps, and lift our spirits. It’s a pretty nice trade-off.

             Along with beauty and wildlife, these pines offer us both history and legend. We’ll start with the latter.

             The Myth: White Pine and the Primeval Forest: In his Natural History of Trees, published in 1948 but still the classic work on the silva of Eastern North America, Donald Culross Peattie repeats some longstanding legends about the aboriginal American forest:

                         Over vast areas [the White Pine] formed pure or nearly pure

                        stands . . . . Much of Pennsylvania and almost all of New York

                        outside the Adirondacks—so it has been asserted—was one

                        vast White Pine forest. Pioneers used to say that a squirrel

                        could travel a squirrel’s lifetime without ever coming down

                        out of the White Pines, and save for the intersection of

                        rivers this may have been but slight hyperbole. . . . more...

Creature Feature 12 (October 31, 2013)

 Gifts from a White Pine, Part 1


 Pinus strobus: Eastern White Pine

             Along the grassy margin of the Fenton-Thompson parking lot, Red Maples have been stealing the show for about three weeks now. In this morning’s late-October sunshine, the few leaves these trees haven’t shed are alight with fiery reds and oranges. It’s the last hurrah of the fall colors that made having one of Fenton’s east-facing offices a pleasure for thirty-plus autumns. Even now, though, there’s a quieter, more retiring kind of beauty out there that probably does more for the campus than the showiest of maples. Behind the parking lot is a scruffy tangle of trees, shrubs, and vines that I’ve always loved, a sort of farmer’s hedgerow separating cars and college from the backyards of several neighbors. Among the dozen or so varieties of trees growing there, my favorites are the White Pines. more...

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