Even in the city, nature abounds and catches us off guard if we are not alert to its presence. The cardinal nest, which had two young and three eggs, remains in the low bush next to my porch, but it was plundered in the night, and this magical daily experience has ended. I hope the pair find a safer place to procreate successfully. 

As they have left this territory, I now see a colorful pair of flickers, ground-feeding woodpeckers, mating in the far yard. But they are soon replaced by a very active catbird pair, which now own the area, with their constant flitting and incessant mewling, sporting black caps on gray feathers, long tails twitching. I have yet to discover the nest, a good sign.

As I peek out the kitchen window, I see a bold brown and white juvenile bald eagle fly by in that small visible space! At the front porch, when I walk out, a lone shimmering seagull soars past in the late afternoon sun. These sightings are so brief they could be missed in a millisecond. As I look out the back door, I see seven vultures circling in clouds just above tree level. A small bird lands on a slim outside window sill, peering in to look at me, its head moving back and forth. Later, in the car, as I come to a stop, a large iridescent dragonfly hovers along the windshield. 

We head over to the neighborhood cemetery and spot two juvenile red tailed hawks, siblings, dining on the ground. One carries a part of the prey to a tall tree, but the other continues its feast despite our proximity, grabbing and yanking at its prey, entrails dangling from its beak. When finished, it seems to look for leftover scraps here and there, then runs on fluffy white pantaloon-like legs, in an awkward side-to-side gait, like a drunken sailor. It hops from a tiny gravestone to a taller one, settles in, immobile, in drenching rain, to digest. It is still there much later. 

The other young bird finishes its meal and begins to scream relentlessly for a parent to bring food, which is a common occurrence at first, after the fledge, but lessens as the parents want their offspring to learn the many skills involved in hunting on their own. I read that some young can hang on for up to 10 weeks! — the usual being 2 to 4. I am amazed when a parent in full regalia, red tail gleaming in this gray day, arrives with a chipmunk, flutters to land in the tree crotch and delivers its food. The offspring continues to scream and eat, scream and eat, until it finally settles down to devour the prey.

There is a magnificent, large mushroom on a tree base, its layered orange-yellow segments curling at the edges. I learn it is a “chicken of the woods,” as its taste and texture are like chicken. There are no poisonous lookalikes in our area, so all are safe to eat. I watch a baby squirrel nibble on a lone small mushroom on the ground and get a sense that some wildlife can detect the existence of poison. In a PBS documentary about wild turkeys, the very young chicks were noted eating only the nontoxic offerings of the forest floor. 

Chicken of the woods / Credit: Elsa Lichman

At this season, adult geese molt wing feathers, as their young are still growing new ones, so no one can fly for about a month. Parents are vigilant and successful, perhaps even more so during this vulnerable time. I happen to see a lone goose take off, fly low, and gain lift over the river, perhaps a first on new wings! We look forward to skeins of geese in V formation, calling out their wild cries, as in the unforgettable poem by the famed Mary Oliver. 

I return home, satisfied with all this activity during our breeding season. I sit in my backyard and am surprised by a downy woodpecker which flies right at me, veering off at the last second to land on my apple tree trunk. Looking up, I see a low-flying great white egret, soaring in a perfect line to me, and passing right over my head. Its wide-spread wings are illuminated, mystical, as the long neck stretches out and the legs trail behind. I have never seen an egret here. It reminds me of the Celtic myth of the white stag, considered to be a messenger from the other world. This stunning encounter, right at home, will stay with me.

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  1. Outstanding Achievement of writing as usual, I learn a new thing every time I read Elsa’s column, she is just a phenomenal writer, thank you Elsa, don’t ever stop!

  2. I loved the article! There’s so much going on around us, that we miss, so you are showing us how to pay closer attention!

  3. Elsa, you are a wonderous teacher opening my eyes wider each time I read your article. Thank-you for gently guiding me closer to my natural surroundings: the maple tree that the snake slithering/climbs into the upper branches and the shrub where I found its last year’s dried skin.

  4. I am always in awe of the way Elsa’s words draw me in to wonders of nature. We also have a “chicken of the Woods” here but I’m not sure I’d want to make a meal of it……. Thank you for making me smile!

  5. Great article as usual, Elsa. So sorry about the destruction of the Cardinal nest. Cardinals are my second favorite birds right after hummingbirds, of course. Keep up your good writing.

  6. Elsa you never stop to amaze me at your acute observations of a day in the life of these various birds which we common folk often overlook. The fact that you found so many interactions of the bird families right in your own backyard and made such acute observations of interactions between parent and their offspring is a skill few of us possess! No book can educate us as clearly as you do on ornithological

  7. I had that fungus on a tree at my house. I never investigated what it was, but it was there every summer. I never saw anything eating it either. There is always something new in Elsa’s articles. I am always surprised and delighted!

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