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Sunday, December 7, 2014

ODE TO THE ODDLY PARALLEL LIFE OF FRANCES PATRICIA MILBURN


Parallel- to travel on the same course, out to eternity, but never intersecting.  If there were fair, then such things would not be, but with little evidence of fair, such things simply are.

I live in the aftermath of the life of Frances, or Trich with a c as she was known from childhood- by surviving accounts elegantly lovely in all ways, gentle and kind-hearted, sentimental, thoughtful, introspective, humane, human, with compassion for innocents.  I am the caretaker of all that which once formed the backdrop of her being- her prodigious collection of books, her menagerie of darling carved creatures, her photo albums, her volumes within which she chronicled the ordinary events of everyday life.  This chronicle, interspersed as it is with laments over shortcomings and meditations on loss and life’s meaning, is what remains of an essence of considerable depth, of kindred spirit, of someone who should have been but never actually quite was a friend.

We as a species are particularly adept at divining patterns, so much so that we tend to find purpose even when one may not be present.  Still, when I review the abrupt intersection of what had been solely parallel lives, chance alone appears insufficient to explain how I now so seamlessly carry on the life vacated by Trich.  I first entered her home just days after she left it.  It was a house I knew- a stately if tired old farmhouse on a hill in Pomfret, Connecticut- one I had first walked past many years before when escaping from a cocktail event at a neighboring house.  If she had only been sitting on her porch or tending to her exceptional garden, then perhaps we might have struck up a conversation far more suitable for our quiet and reserved sensibilities than the ones I had left behind.  She too had written of her own distaste for the banality of cocktail conversation and how she preferred to be with her own thoughts and loves- loves rather impressively like mine- that for her flower garden, for her vegetable garden, for the birds that lived within them, for farm animals, for pets, for quiet walks in pastoral landscapes, for simple life, modest tastes, family, creativity, art, books.  She also wrote that in her earlier longtime home in Essex, Connecticut- another house I had walked past a thousand times- that she perceived herself as being the natural and native one residing within an ocean of the affluent.  It would remain for her move to the rural landscapes of Pomfret to find her true element.  So too, upon my first glimpse of her empty house, I found this place to be the one in which I most truly and perfectly fit.

April 23, 1978- I was in Union, Connecticut writing in my notes about a recently arrived Louisiana Waterthrush, thus beginning the first field day of my doctoral research.  Trich was in Essex carving and painting little decorative animals that formed the heart of her family business.  Later that day, she worked in her garden.  Hence, as we both often did, we spent our day honoring nature.  My volumes of field notes, stretching from the early 1970s to present, now sit next to her volumes from much the same years.  Mine tend more toward the empirical than the personal, whereas hers are the opposite although, to be sure, there are many passages in which we overlap. Just as in her writing, I always record the friends with which I spend my days, and just as in my notes, she reports her joy in finding some new bird.

Indeed, Trich and I very nearly walked in each others’ footsteps for multiple decades, traversing the same landscapes, having the same acquaintances, patronizing the same stores, holding the same interests, brooding over the same shortcomings, thinking the same thoughts.  When I came to know that I would live in her house, restore it back to what it had once been and return the surrounding land to its agricultural roots, it was as if this connection between us was no accident; that everything that had come before had simply groomed me to be the caretaker of the traditions of a location as lovely as Trich herself.  There is in an upstairs closet a handwritten inscription, dated 1870, entreating Providence to bless this house.  Just perhaps, then, it and those who care for it are in fact blessed.

Trich sometimes remarked in her writings of her own good fortune in life, and indeed she appears to have passed most days in good health, in contentment and in honorable Yankee productivity.  She was a graphic artist of some significant skill and a hooker of rugs of such charm that they have found a continued welcome home here.  She had as well an eye for garden design and a wealth of knowledge, displayed in her meticulous garden notes, of the plants dwelling within her beds.  She also was not averse to hard physical labor, and was not above mucking out cow barns even in the dead of winter and even when it meant slipping on ice that could land her squarely into manure piles. She of slight frame struggled with bulls, cleaned hen houses, spread manure and harvested crops- quite something for a lady of patrician birth and cultured suburban upbringing.

It was only in her last decade that darkness appeared to gather about her, after she lost her adored husband of 30 years and as declining health prevented her from roaming the pathways of her most loved countryside.  Her diaries abruptly stopped at this point and her home fell into disrepair, when just a few years before she had, on the occasion of her seventy-fifth birthday, proclaimed that she felt as if she had just begun.  I have wondered why some benevolent force had at that point not led me to her door.  We had so much in common, so much to talk about; I imagine I could have helped her to part the darkness.  I suspect she would have so loved having me take her to see birds she had never seen, to bring her to places of beauty where she could no longer go on her own.  But, to my regret, such things did not happen even though they should have.  Instead, she left us- and we are poorer for it I think- just a few weeks shy of her ninety-first year.


If there is more than what we see, no certain prospect in light of the hard evidence, then I might hope that in the next go round Trich and I will be the friends we were not in this life.  In her youth, it was said that she was quite adept at all of the ballroom dance steps.  I am rather less proficient in such things, but despite that I still quite like trying, so I might hope that in any next time I could prevail upon her to save just one of the slots on her dance card for me.  Until next time then Trich, sweet dreams.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

MYSTERY OF WINTER BIRD MORTALITY DEEPENS

Thoughts of pullorum, aspergillosus, Newcastle, avian influenza and avian cholera  filled my head as I brought four recently dead wild birds from my property to the state pathobiology lab.  Disease names like these strike fear into the hearts of poultry breeders, who can quickly lose their entire stock to such diseases.  

Observers from around the Northeast have been reporting to BCR a winter die-off of particularly cardinals. Combined with my observation of the deaths of cardinals as well as two sparrow species, it appears that the die-off has affected particularly seed-eating finch-like birds.  The question has been what is causing this die-off? Considering the cold and snow of this past winter, starvation seemed a likely culprit, but no evidence consistent with starvation has been apparent.  All seven of the birds I personally found seemed to have had adequate fat reserves.

Examination of the my birds by state veterinarians did not pinpoint a clear cause of death for any of them. One exhibited evidence of a significant head injury but, as I have already noted, all birds appeared to be in good nutritional condition.  There was also no definitive link uncovered to any specific bird disease, although all individuals showed lung congestion.  Whether the congestion was simply a post-mortem effect was uncertain, however. Hence, the possibility of disease affecting these birds has not been ruled out, although what the disease might be remains unclear.

Friday, February 21, 2014

NEW ENGLAND BIRDS UNDERGO LATE WINTER MORTALITY


This first winter White-throated Sparrow was moribund before being hand captured and fed a diet of chick feed.  With feeding, it recovered within 24 hours.
With intense cold since mid-November and with a month of continuous, deep snow pack in southern New England, it appears to be the kind of winter that is associated with high mortality among especially ground-feeding birds.  Still, documenting the effects of such a winter on bird survivorship is notoriously difficult. Birds that succumb overnight may simply disappear into surrounding woodlands or be quickly scavenged by nocturnal mammalian predators.  It is also the kind of winter in which we might expect that diseases could become established among populations already weakened by physiological stress.

Hence, it caught my attention when within the past week I found four dead birds on my property- all primarily ground-feeders- Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow. Inasmuch as I also raise free-range chickens, this was the sort of observation that raised disease transmission concerns. There has been a Goshawk patrolling my bird feeders in recent days as well, but the untouched dead birds both beneath the feeders and elsewhere on the property appeared to have their demise unrelated to this predator- who left with his prey.  In hard winters past, I had found dead Carolina Wrens about my property, but these wrens- at their northern range limit here in Connecticut- have a history of winter die-offs that has been documented since the nineteenth century.

This week, I contacted the state animal diseases lab to learn if any outbreaks of bird diseases had been reported. They informed me that none had, but I told them I had also just picked up a moribund individual that I would bring to them for autopsy if it succumbed overnight.  However, in the absence of any evidence of respiratory distress or other obvious evidence of disease, I decided to try first feeding the bird to see if it would recover.  Indeed, within 24 hours the bird had regained its strength and continued to show no other signs of disease (photo above).

This observation led me to suspect that this local mortality was primarily starvation-related.  I found it notable that all the birds involved were juveniles- the least experienced and likely most socially subordinate individuals- i.e. the individuals most susceptible to winter mortality.  In my studies on Bald Eagles in years past, juvenile birds indeed appeared less able to meet their winter energetic requirements. In my more recent studies of forest bird communities of eastern Connecticut, I've also demonstrated that forest birds, including the species I've been finding dead locally, vacate northern latitudes and accumulate in energetically less expensive coastal locations.

However, I am still not entirely convinced that no other factors are at work.  Examination of the dead birds showed that they still had reasonable levels of subcutaneous fat and well-developed breast muscles- suggestive that they were not starving.  One thing I have observed with my domestic birds is that socially subordinate hens can show atrophy of the breast muscles.  It is something I have to pay attention to so that I can separately feed such birds before they become weak.

In the meantime, I plan on keeping a close eye on events around my bird feeder and elsewhere on my property.  I recommend that others of you in this region be mindful of the possibility of a local disease outbreak.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

OLD GROWTH VIDEO


The last in our series of videos on secondary succession is entitled Old Growth.  It documents the late successional development of forest communities in southern New England.  It also summarizes the main points raised in all three videos in this series.  This video may be viewed here.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

OLD FIELD VIDEO AVAILABLE


The second portion of our video series on secondary succession is available here.  It focuses on the evolution of a meadow into an old field and on the beginning stages of old field invasion by trees.  It includes images of some characteristic New England old field species and it also features images of birds present at the forest-old field ecotone.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

SECONDARY SUCCESSION VIDEO NOW AVAILABLE



The final installment from our first generation of video productions is entitled Secondary Succession.  The video is comprised of three 15 minute segments, with the first subtitled The Meadow.  This video explores the beginning stages of secondary succession.  It focuses on the development of a meadow environment in southern New England.

Other productions from this first generation of videos include Salt Marshes, Beaches, Bogs, and Floodplains. All deal with characteristic habitats of southern New England, and all can be viewed via the Bird Conservation Research, Inc. web site.  They are all designed as resources for the AP Environmental Science curriculum.