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Mountain Thunder

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Coronado National Memorial

They say that the name “Huachuca” means “thunder mountain,” and this most beautiful of the border ranges lives up to its name and then some this time of year.

The monsoon rains come almost every afternoon, brief and powerful, flooding the washes and pushing soil and rocks onto roads.

The storms announce themselves from a distance with some of the most awesome thunder I’ve ever heard.

desert in Monsoon

It begins as a rolling rumble from afar, then cracks and snaps before descending into the canyons, where it echoes from the high steep cliffs, bouncing back and forth between the walls until the thunder doesn’t so much sound as feel, less a sonic phenomenon than a solid mass that tumbles down the canyon to submerse anyone fortunate enough to be abroad in it.

Coronado National Memorial

It’s exhilarating and frightening all at once.

As the sublime should be.

Coronado National Memorial

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Alexander Wilson’s Crowded Page

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Alexander wilson VOlume 2 Plate 16

It’s one of the great commonplaces in the age-old Wilson vs. Audubon debate: Wilson’s birds are more “accurate,” but the aesthetic value of his plates is sadly diminished by the pell-mell crowding of so many species onto a single leaf.

Neither of those statements is invariably true, and the second one — the assertion of Wilson’s inability to compose a pleasing plate for the American Ornithology — is unfair. Wilson and his engraver and publisher were subject to different economic constraints from those in which Audubon worked more than a decade later. And unlike the late plates in Audubon’s Birds of America, some of Wilson’s bustling pages were put together with an idea behind them.

How do we know? Because Wilson says so.

Take Plate 16, which seems to throw together five not especially closely related passerellid sparrows and a joltingly dominant female American kestrel. It all seems uncomfortably miscellaneous until we read Wilson’s words on the composition: wintertime juncos, he writes,

have also recourse, at this severe season, when the face of the earth is shut up from them, to the seeds of many kinds of weeds that still rise above the snow, in corners of fields, and low sheltered situations along the borders of creeks and fences, where they associate with several species of Sparrows, particularly those represented on the same plate…. In the vicinity of places where they were most numerous I observed the small Hawk, represented in the same plate, and several others of his tribe, watching their opportunity, or hovering cautiously around, making an occasional sweep among them, and retiring to the bare branches of an old cypress to feed on their victim.

The assemblage, in other words, is an ecological one, and the birds on the plate were brought together to illustrate not just their identifying characters but their relationships one to the other on the bitter cold farmfields and roadsides of winter.

Had Audubon thought to paint those same relationships, I don’t doubt that the scene would have been far more dramatic and far more colorful, with blood and feathers flying. Myself, I have to say that I prefer Wilson’s subtlety, his restraint, and his powerful ability to articulate words and images in the American Ornithology.


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Now that the tree swallows are done with them, it seems like every birdhouse at Mill Creek has been turned to a new purpose: as a song perch for noisy, feisty, fecund little spartina-dwellers.

marsh wren

Yes, that’s a wren. Yes, that’s a house. But that doesn’t make it a wren house — or a house wren, either.

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The Right Tide for Waxwings

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cedar waxwing

It’s the season of plenty for cedar waxwings. The streaky young are out of the nest to join their parents in gorging themselves on the ripening cherries and mulberries.

These handsome little gluttons are everywhere right now in northern New Jersey, but the most fun is watching them on the edges of the salt marsh, when small bands emerge to hunt insects over the mud, hovering and fluttering among the more dashing swallows and swifts.

Mill Creek Marsh

Who would have thought to add a tide table to the waxwing watcher’s toolkit?

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Cast Photos: “Sanctuary”

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Percy MacKaye’s fantasy masque “Sanctuary” was quite a big deal in the early part of the last century. It quickly became a standard part of the program whenever a bird refuge or nature center was dedicated, and inspired everything from songs to high-design bird baths.

The play was premiered in September 1913 at the dedication of the Helen Woodruff Smith bird preserve in Plainfield, New Hampshire. The cast at this first performance was an illustrious one:

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Both Eleanor and Margaret Wilson took part in this first performance, Margaret singing the prelude and her sister taking on the role of Ornis, the collective spirit of birddom.

The author’s daughter, Arvia MacKaye, “fell into reverie” as the prelude was sung — a prelude credited in later publications to her own precocious pen.

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Joseph Lindon Smyth and Percy MacKaye himself played the leading roles of the Faun and the Poet.

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Bit parts were assigned to family members and friends. Little Arvia changed her costume to play Hummingbird, and Cardinal was the sculptor Herbert Adams.

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Witter Bynner, a prolific and largely forgotten poet, was suitably fierce as the plumer Stark; happily, the masque ends with his conversion to the preservationist cause.

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There was another, more important conversion, too. Eleanor and Margaret Wilson’s father was named Woodrow, and the president and his wife were in the audience that September day in New Hampshire. Perhaps he recalled the play’s adjurations when he signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act a few years later.

All of the photos by Arnold Genthe of that first, 1913 performance of “Sanctuary” are on line at the Library of Congress


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