Two Birds of Prey

This story is for my old friend Donna, homebound in frigid Minnesota. She’s always loved the flora and fauna of the Northwest.

    We’re used to the sight of eagles circling along the bluff below us, soaring on wind currents while keeping an “eagle eye” out for rodents and other small creatures in the fields. But this morning I was amazed to see huge black wings float across our front yard. As the bird lifted to the top of one of the twin firs across the road, I saw the flash of white tail feathers as he landed. His snowy head turned to scan the ground below and I thought, “Look out, neighborhood cats!”

    But there were already crows on guard duty in the neighboring fir and they did not take the invasion peacefully. Although they looked very small in comparison to the interloper, they knew an eagle strikes first with his talons. And those lethal claws were busy holding on to his perch. So they boldly swooped and dove and hovered and scolded. One crow even grazed the eagle’s back, ruffling its feathers and jarring the big bird, which tried to ignore the indignity. Although I am impressed and amazed every time I get to see one of God’s creatures living into its niche in creation, I’m glad the crows interfered with the eagle’s intentions this morning. 

    We had the chance to see another rare sight a month ago while visiting Tucson, Arizona’s Sweetwater Wetlands. This stocky, yellow-legged bird is a black-crowned night heron, very common across the U.S. and around the world. But because it’s most active at night or at dusk, a lot of people never see it. Night herons often build their stick nests in colonies over water.  We first saw this one in the daytime, standing motionless as a piece of driftwood, its back toward us.

    Just as I clicked the shutter, its powerful bill stabbed into the water and came up with this prey. The frog didn’t struggle long, even when the night heron dunked it several times. We left him to breakfast in peace.

    *Perhaps someone reading this will know why this bird did not have the black back and crown the books say it should have, although if you click to enlarge the picture you can see the characteristic single white plume on its head. Would love to have your comment.

Lawns Are What You Make Them

Our kids in Arizona have the same sort of lawn  all their neighbors keep. When a blade of grass springs up, it’s yanked out by the roots, along with other undisciplined seedlings that dare to show their heads. No one owns a mower, but occasionally people use a rake to tidy the yard. In some yards, you’ll even see signs like the one above.

Arizona son-in-law Steve weeding his “lawn.”

  Here in Washington, keeping one’s yard blanketed with velvety-smooth, emerald green grass can occupy hours each week. During warm winters, rain pours down and the grass keeps growing. So do moss and weeds. While it‘s still winter, the mowings begin. Then come applications of moss and weed killers. The grass must be fertilized, triggering even more frequent mowing. It’s a process that continues through summer and fall. Some neighbors are still cutting grass at Thanksgiving.

  That’s why we took out the largest part of our lawn several years ago. We installed native plants instead to cut back on upkeep and provide food and habitat for birds. It worked very well…too well, in fact. Now we have a “forest” in our front yard. Hank prunes back shrubs and digs out runaway plants instead of mowing lawn.
Son Rob and the native plants he planted for us a few years ago. Now trees hide the buildings behind him.

Amazing Arizona

Desert plants keeping their distance from each other

    I used to pour over every article and photograph in the Arizona Highways magazines. It seemed wonderful to live in a land of sunshine and little rain, where every road led to adventure and romance. But my attempt to find a job in Arizona ended before I got there, when I discovered that my previous contract in Washington was still in effect. Then I met and married my husband and later followed him to Alaska.

    Now, in my later years, I’ve had many opportunities to visit my “dream state” and the daughter who lives there. I’ve told about the variety and adventure to be found in Arizona in previous Sun Breaks posts. The sunshine is wonderful in late winter-early spring, although daughter and son-in-law have a somewhat jaundiced outlook on the long, hot summers when they can only go outside in the evenings or early mornings.

A plant that pricks…a fishhook barrel cactus

    Arizona is an amazing state. Although it’s true that many of the plants and animals either bite, prick, or poison you, it’s also true that they’re marvelously adapted to the environments where they live.

   It’s true that there are wide, monotonous deserts where the few plants that grow keep their distance from each other. There are also mountains and forests, canyons and dry creeks that run so full in the sudden storms, the water sweeps ahead of it everything that doesn’t get out of the way.

  Animals can be strange, like the javelinas (peccaries) with oversize heads and no necks. They can be familiar and adaptive, like the coyotes that run through back yards.  Our kids, who live near the outskirts of town, opened their front door one morning to find a rattlesnake on their stoop. Some areas are birders’ paradises. If it’s been a wet winter, the first days of spring bring sweeps of wildflowers to the rocky hillsides. Some “belly flowers” are so tiny one must get down on hands and knees to examine them.

When threatened, the chuckwalla wedges itself into a crevice and inflates itself with air. Photo: Ed Mills

Owl family in a saquaro cactus. Photo: Ed Mills

    Arizona people are as varied as the landscape. There are 21 federally recognized native American tribes and over a quarter of the state is reservation land. Many folks trace their ancestors back to the indigenous people of Mexico and to the Spanish explorers who settled there. You can find almost any skin color or accent on the city streets. The population of Arizona swells with an influx of retirees from the colder states every winter. They bring their own homes on wheels or keep a winter home in places like Apache Junction or Yuma.

    Everywhere we go, we share the highways and the beauty spots with visitors like us, who have come to enjoy the sunny playground that is the state of Arizona. Thank you for sharing, Arizonans!

A Light in a Dark Place

Though I usually try to concentrate on “sunny” stories for this blog, some of them illustrate that we live in a fallen world. I love the stories that show, even in a fallen world, how God watches over his people.

    Our friend Stan (not his real name) is generally an exuberant, cheerful person, but one Sunday morning he seemed shaken. He told us what had happened the night before.

    Stan had been working late on the house he is building at Darrington, about 40 miles from where he and his wife live. Finally, about 10:30 pm, he climbed into his truck and headed down the long road out of the mountains for home. No traffic shared the highway that time of night and it was very dark. His mind wandered to the tragedy that had happened the previous March when a huge landslide had obliterated a subdivision between Darrington and Oso and taken out a large section of the road he was now traveling on.

    Suddenly, he came upon a small dark car driving slowly in front of him. As he prepared to pass, the driver jammed on the brakes and stopped, partially blocking the road. Stan stopped too, thinking perhaps someone needed help. The passenger door swung open. A man jumped out and ran back to the driver’s side of the truck. Shocked, Stan stared at a pistol pointing at his head! The man was shouting.

    Stan rolled the window down just enough to hear the man demanding he give up the truck. The angry man beat on the glass with the gun and continued to threatened Stan with it.

    Stan was utterly unprepared for such a situation. He was unarmed, alone in the dark, far from help. As he frantically tried to decide what to do, a light suddenly filled the truck. It illuminated the man threatening him. That man raced back to his vehicle and scrambled in. The driver took off.

    Comprehending that the light came from another vehicle behind him, Stan hit the gas and swerved around the car in front of him. As he raced down the highway with two sets of headlights following him, he grabbed his phone and punched 911. One of the vehicles turned off after a few miles…the one with the would-be hijackers, he hoped. Just before reaching Arlington and the police station, the other turned too.

    Stan hadn’t got a good look at his attacker, although he thought he was about thirty years old, He hadn’t seen the license number. He couldn’t even tell the police what kind of a car it had been. But he knew the Lord had seen what happening. Perhaps, he thought, God had sent an angel to shine a light in the darkness.

    Stan is sure God allowed that wake-up call to shake him out of complacency. “We need to be more aware of our surroundings,” he said. “There are bad people out there and we need to do what we can to be safe.”

    What could he have done in that situation to be safe? At first he was inclined to think he too should carry a gun, but he says his thinking is evolving. He’s trying to reconcile the command to do good to those who treat us badly with the instinct to fight back.

    We can’t always know when we’ll find ourselves in a dangerous situation. But we can be prepared as much as possible. We can be aware of our surroundings. We can avoid risky circumstances. We can try to stay physically and emotionally healthy so our reactions are quick and our minds clear. And we can be spiritually prepared. That includes praying for those who would cause us harm, and it includes asking for God’s protection.