The Summer Slip Sliding Away

Days, weeks, and months go by in the time of COVID-19. We have our daily routines, including work and volunteering, and the occasional trip to the grocery store. We have to be careful with all of this. There have been no summer trips, no official vacations so far this summer, a big change from our usual annual routines.

It has been cool the last few days. There has been no need to use the air-conditioner. We have kept the windows open – to listen to the birds outside, and watch the deer relax in our backyard.

I have been sitting on the deck the last few evenings. I ask myself why I did not start doing this earlier, in all the years we have lived in this house. The plants, growing in pots on the deck, are yielding produce these days. They are a nice sight to see. These are grape tomatoes.These are bell peppers.The trees that I planted as saplings in the backyard many years ago have survived the deer, and have grown to tower over the backyard, and also provide shade on the deck in the late evenings. One evening, as I sat on the deck, my entertainment was provided by a flock of bluejays on the branches of the cherry tree, with a chickadeeand what appeared to be a juvenile tufted titmouse (I could be wrong)making their appearance once in a while. The bluejays were creating a cacophony as they called out to each other across the backyard.

There were no birds on the trees the next evening. I waited and waited with my camera! I think I might go out to the deck today too, maybe with a beverage in hand in addition to the camera!

The “books” that were on hold for me at the county library finally became available after a couple of weeks of waiting. This is the year I discovered digital books. I read books on my smartphone these days because of necessity. The physical libraries had been closed for a while. Reading a book on the smartphone takes getting used to. Reading actually feels a little different from when reading a physical book. I am still figuring out how to bookmark pages reliably on the different digital readers, or even flipping between pages in a flexible way when I want to refer to something that I read earlier on in the book. I still tend to lose my place in a “book”.

I have been watching a lot of episodes of American Experience recently. It is actually a little depressing to see the various ways in which discrimination and injustice have taken place, and continue to take place, in American society. Many of us are not aware of some of these unsavory sides of the history of the country. We live in the little bubbles that we find ourselves in today and are happy to stay there. Here in the US, the people in power (typically the white man) find it hard give up some of that power. There is the sense of superiority. People in power find it hard to treat people fairly. Systems are rigged against the weak, sometimes even when that reality is recognized. Many times the system can be cruel. This is truer than ever today. But the struggle continues. Politics is in the news with the upcoming elections. The choice is very clear this time.

Thanks to my friend Joe, I have been doing a lot of math puzzles these days. I really enjoy them. This is the last one we tackled.Perhaps you will also find it interesting!

I cannot seem to keep up a good routine when it comes to exercising regularly. Rainy days and laziness mess up the attempts to create a rhythm. And it is so difficult to get back to something that you have even been away from, even for a few weeks. Each time I start running after a break, I have to take it easy with the pace, and wait for my body to adjust. It takes at least a couple of runs. Nothing is routine in that sense. Morning walks still continue. Sunrises begin later and later as summer progresses, and there is now the chill in the morning air. Feels nice.

Here is the song that inspired the title of this blog. One of the things I still regret not having done when I was young was going for this concert in New York City. I was a graduate student at Stonybrook, not too far away, when it happened.

Could this be the Year of the Owls

I am not sure what is going on, but, for some reason or the other, we are seeing owls more frequently than ever before on the towpath this year. It had been many years since my last good sighting before we saw the owls last week. And then it happened once again this week. What are the chances!

This time the owl was even closer to us, just next to the trail. We saw it as we were hiking from Dickerson Conservation Center towards Whites Ferry, and then we saw it again, still seated on the same tree, when we were returning. At least, I think it was the same owl. I cannot be sure because there were other owls also present in that neighborhood.

The pictures below are from the first viewing of the owl. It had flown up on to the tree from a fallen branch on the canal bed.If you look carefully, you will notice that the owl’s body was actually facing away from us. You can see the extent to which it was able to turn its head.

These are pictures of the owl taken as we were walking back towards the Dickerson Conservation Center. The owl ended up facing us directly this time. It was making some screeching sounds, and was getting a response from somewhere across the canal.We had reason to believe that their might have been three of the owls hanging around the place. We saw a second one. We guessed the presence of a third one based on the direction from which we were hearing the response to the owl in the picture above.

I hope that the happenings of the last two weekends are an indication of more good things to come as we continue our explorations, both big and small, of the towpath.

The Two Barred Owls

We rarely get a good look at owls on the towpath even though we know that they are around. They are hidden in the trees, and often fly away when they sense our approach. Even if they remain stationary, most of the time they are in a position where you cannot get a clear view of them – either partially hidden behind some branches on a tree, or obscured by the dark foliage. The last time I got a good picture of the barred owl was in 2014.

We came across a pair of barred owls on the towpath last weekend that actually cooperated with us. It is usually very easy to disturb these birds when you pass by. You typically are not aware of their presence until they make a move. But this time, although they had been disturbed, they only moved on to a tree a little further along the trail. I was able to track their flight approximately, and then slowly and quietly walk up to the tree on which they were perched. Fortunately it was close to the trail. What a delightful sight to see – not just one bird, but two of them!





The pictures that I took literally do not present the owls in their best light. The greenery around them has tended to create a greenish tinge for the owls themselves, and I am reluctant to compensate using post-processing. Also, the lighting conditions were not ideal, and my attempt to get a good exposure setting were not the most successful.

Here is a little bit of trivia about owls. Since they cannot move their eyeballs, the only way they can achieve peripheral vision is by turning their heads. A human being can turn its head around only 90° in either direction. An owl can do much better. It can turn its head around 270° in either direction! (This means that if an owl wants to show-off, it can rotate its head 540° from one extreme to the other!) The interesting question to ask it about how the owl achieves this capability. Their vertebrae can manage to support the extreme rotation, and the arteries still function without getting severed. The structure of the neck of an owl happens to be very different from a human’s. There is apparently plenty of spare space within the vertebrae of the owls for the arteries to move in and to be cushioned in. This is not true for humans. Owls also have the ability to pool blood in a reservoir below the head in order to provide a supply when the arteries are twisted. Also, the carotid and vertebral arteries can exchange blood in the worst case when one or the other is blocked. I understand that the features of the owl’s physiology that allows it to move ts head in such a flexible manner are still being studied. Meanwhile, you can find plenty of articles and videos on the subject on the Internet.

Woot a hoot!

The Curious Tale of Rocky Rooster

We began to hear the sounds shortly after we set out on the trail, as we headed north from Sycamore Landing. It was coming from the large farm just next to the berm of the canal. It was a sod farm (whose entrance on River Road one passes if you were to drive on towards Edwards Ferry). As we got closer, we noticed that a massive sprinkler system was in operation, watering a wide swath of the farmland. A massive contraption on wheels lay across the field with the sprinklers connected to its framework.

Further along the trail, shortly after the sounds of the sprinkler system began to fade away behind us, we began to hear a steady and repetitive mechanical sound coming from somewhere beyond the berm of the canal. We were approaching some kind of an engine/motor operating on the farm. It sounded like one of those old tractors. What we were hearing turned out to be a water pump. I also noticed that there was a culvert under the canal at that location. The light bulb went off in my head! The farm was probably drawing water from the river through the culvert, and using the pump to drive the water to the sprinklers. I noticed a little trail leading off from the towpath towards the river just beyond the culvert. I resolved to check out this trail later, to look for a water pipe, on our way back.

We continued our walk towards Edwards Ferry, continuing our explorations and adventures.

We were now heading back towards Sycamore Landing. We had reached the sod farm that we had passed on our way out. I was now listening for the sound of the water pump. We began to hear it in the distance. As we approached the site of the culvert, we were surprised to hear a cock crowing in the woods next to the river. Cock-a-doodle-doo!! It was unexpected. I was quite sure there were no domestic animals or birds in this section. Not knowing any better, I wondered if this could be a wild turkey.

I took the little side trail just before the culvert where the pump was located and walked down to the river. I then started walking along the riverside towards the culvert itself. The others who were following on the side trail behind me informed me that that there was now a rooster following them on the trail. A little alarmed, a went back towards them. Could this blog turn into a tale about the attack of a rabid rooster?!

Yes, indeed, it was a common rooster that had followed us on to the trail.undefinedBut the colorful specimen, although excited, seemed to be quite harmless. It was not frothing at the beak. It seemed to be following us with some purpose, and fortunately that purpose did not seem to include attacking human beings. I could tell by the look in its eye! Maybe it was expecting some food.undefined

Reassured about its intentions, I went back to the task of looking for the water pipe in the culvert. And indeed, there was a pipe running through the culvert.undefinedNot only that, there also seemed to be a different pipe leading out of the river towards the canal not too far from the pipe running through the culvert.undefinedI was left to wonder about the kinds of permits that were required in these parts to draw water from the river for use on a farm. And that was the extent of my curiosity!

Having gotten my pictures, I walked back to where the others were dealing with the rooster. We thought it had escaped from the farm on the other side of the canal. Convinced that the rooster was not going to attack me, I tried to persuade it back on to the side trail, and then back across the towpath.undefinedWith some effort, and using a certain amount of skill that was newfound (and ultimately useless, may I add!), I managed to get the rooster back to the main trail. I could not have done it without the encouragement of the cheering squad.

But that is how far we got in this remarkable rooster rescue effort. We could not convince the rooster to cross the towpath on to the canal bed. We could not convince the rooster to head towards the farm on the other side of the canal. The rooster viewed my efforts to encourage it to move in that direction with extreme suspicion. Or maybe it thought it was just a game, and was mightily amused. In the end, we had to let it be. It went back into the woods it had just appeared from.undefined

We departed the place having failed in this particular project. We could hear the rooster cock-a-doodle-doing at the next person who happened to pass us by, going in the other direction on a bike. That person did not stop. I suspect that the cock-a-doodle-doing did not even register in the person’s brain. I suspect that there are not many other people who get as distracted as we were by strange goings-on in the woods while they are on the towpath! We left the rooster to whatever fate awaited it in the woods. Meanwhile, I am sure that the farmer is missing at least one of his (or her) roosters. And I wonder if the missing rooster will even be noticed!

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Escape to the Canal

It was very cold when we awoke Sunday morning.  Who would have imagined temperatures like 38° F during the middle of the month of May.  It seems like the weather has also gone mad! Thankfully, it warmed up as the morning went by.

We drove to Sycamore Landing for our walk along the canal.  It seems that the parks have been getting more crowded in recent days, as people try to find a place to go to get away from being cooped up inside the house.  The parking lots for the canal that are closer to the city have been closed because of the crowds that have emerged, crowds that do not practice safe distancing in this time of the COVID-19.  Sycamore Landing is off the beaten path, and it is also relatively close to home.  Hence this choice of destination.

Our wish for a less crowded destination was fulfilled.  We pulled into an empty parking lot shortly before 9:00am.

It had been two weeks since our previous walk on the towpath.  It felt nice to be back.  I let the tensions of everyday life slowly depart as we walked north towards Edwards Ferry.

The green has taken over the browns of winter in the woods.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was not long into the walk before we spotted a bright blue bird flying across the trail in front of us.  This was a bird that we do not normally see on the towpath.  The color stood out amidst the green of the forest. The vibrance of its color was similar to the vibrance of the color of the cardinal, a bird that is more common in these parts.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne was curious as to the nature of the bird.  I guessed that this was a male bluebird during its mating season.  I was wrong!   Later that day, we had a phone call with the kids on account of Mothers’ Day.  I shared this picture with them.  Jesse was quick to research this, even while we were talking.  The bird in the picture above is called an Indigo Bunting.  I do not recall having seen one of these before.

About a mile into our walk, we came across this fallen tree blocking the trail.  It was quite massive.  It was quite tricky for the bikers to carry their bikes across.  We sneaked across between the two branches of the tree without hurting ourselves!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFurther along the trail, we came across some deer that were hanging out.  These two appear to be having a conversation about the approaching humans.  If you look carefully at the picture, you might also notice the cardinal (out of focus) on the trail in front of the deer.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe woods along the C&O canal are infested with a plant called garlic mustard.  They are massively invasive, and show up once in two years.  We have been seeing these plants during all our walks along the canal this year.  Three or four years ago, I even took part in a cleanup effort along the towpath at a place called Carderock.  I think controlling the spread of these plants is a losing effort.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is shot of the flowers of garlic mustard.  This was part of my experimentation with the zoom lens to see if I could capture a picture which looked like one taken with a macro lens, i.e, taken with a lens that allowed you to take a picture from very close to the subject matter.  At the time that I was taking this picture, I did not realize that there was an insect nectaring on the flowers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFurther along, we came across this Great Egret that took off at our approach.  We saw it flying over the trees further along the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe finally came across a real Eastern Bluebird.  It kept flying ahead of us for some time.  It would land on a tree, wait for me to get closer with the camera, and then take off once again.  It think it got tired of playing games after a while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs usual, the air was filled with the sounds of the birds, occasionally mixed with those from the scurrying squirrels.  There are certain sections of the trail where the birds are more plentiful.  The woodpeckers, in general, make a very guttural sound.  The trees can vibrate quite loudly when some of the woodpeckers hammer on their trunks.  The woodpecker in the picture below is most likely a red bellied woodpecker.  It was escaping into the upper branches.  In general, these birds have a tendency to go to the other side of the branch or tree trunk when I approach with my camera.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were many flowers beside the trail as we approached Edwards Ferry.

These are buttercups.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese are fleabanes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI myself did not walk all the way up to the river since I was busy changing the lens on the camera.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe parking lot at Edwards Ferry was quite full.

On our way back I stopped to take pictures of these turtles sitting out in the sun.  This was the only place where we saw turtles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis green heron was fishing in the canal further along the trail.  We managed to distract it from what it was doing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rest of the walk was completed with a renewed sense of purpose.  We picked up speed in spite of the distractions of the park.  We completed the walk in a reasonable amount of time.  There were only a couple of cars in the parking lot by the time we got back shortly after 11am.

We did some shopping on our way home.  Then it was time to recuperate and rejuvenate.  I usually try to do that by taking a good nap!

A Rare Bird In These Parts, I Believe

We sighted this bird last weekend in the area of Swains Lock.  It was the first time I am seeing it on the C&O canal.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome research suggests that this could be a juvenile White Ibis, one of my remaining reasons for doubt being the color of the tarsi on the bird.  If I am correct however, the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America suggests that this a somewhat rare appearance in these parts.  I wonder if juvenile birds of this kind can get lost.

I would appreciate it if there are any birders out there who can confirm or correct my attempt to identify the bird.  From what I read, the ibis belongs to the same family of birds as the stork, and I have seen pictures of storks with similar beaks.

A Moment of Determination

I had not been on a bicycle since the accident that happened almost a year ago. The doctor had given me the “all clear” to go back to my regular activities a while back, but I had not done it even though I had decided a long time ago that there was no way other than to get back on the bicycle.  The truth was that I was also missing all the training rides that I had being doing in the years past – on various sections of the C&O Canal towpath, on the Capital Crescent Trail into Bethesda and Silver Spring;  on the Custis, the W&OD, the Mt. Vernon and the Four Mile Run trails in Virginia; and even the ride up Sugarloaf Mountain.  I knew these trails somewhat well by now, and I could even picture some of the specific experiences and  challenges that one came across along the way, whether it was the stop at Fletchers Cove to use the facilities and get a drink of water, crossing the Potomac on the Key bridge, or riding along the river on the Mt. Vernon trail past Gravelly Point and National Airport, or the challenge of one of the slopes on the Custis trail or Sugarloaf mountain.  I needed to do it.

But time passed and it did not happen until now.  You could say that there was a bit of apprehension on my part, not because of the fear of riding a bike per se, but because of a fear of falling off the bike.  It was specifically about the possibility of falling on my separated shoulder once again.  I had a mental picture of how severe the damage could be to a clavicle that was already floating around.  I did actually look for specific protection that could be worn it this regard, but the only solution out there would have made me look and feel like a gladiator with plastic armor-plating on a bicycle.  I could not picture that!  But there were other real excuses.  We were busy with a wedding and with guests who were visiting until now.  Before I knew it, we were half way through the year.

I finally made the move Wednesday morning.  I checked out my biking gear the first time in many months – the shorts, the tops and the gloves.  Things were where I expected them to be.  I checked out the bike, still covered with dirt from last  year, reinflated the tires, grabbed my helmet, and after a test ride around the cul dec sac, loaded it into the back of the car.

Finally at Pennyfield Lock.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI decided to ride a distance of about 16+ miles (one way) to Fletchers Cove this day.  I had forgotten how cool it could be under the trees even on a July morning in the middle of summer as you rode against the wind.  I had forgotten the rhythmic sound of the crunching of the tires against the gravel of the trail as one rode on the dirt.  I had forgotten the easy and peaceful nature of an early morning ride.  There was a feeling of serenity, and the mind could wander once again.

I took it easy.  This is the way I usually start a ride, especially after a break from when I have been challenging myself.  But then the Adrenalin kicks  in and, before you know it, your legs are moving to a steady beat and the pace is increasing to another level.  And it is all so effortless at this point.  You are enjoying the ride.

I can still sense some fear in me, a fear of falling off the bike if I got too close to the edge of the trail, but it is no more about the shoulder.  I know I am over it, and it has happened quickly.  The other general fear of wandering across the trail and falling off into the woods or the water will disappear with time, just like it used to in the past.  It is a defense mechanism of the brain that I appreciate.

Life along the canal has not changed.  I have to stop for pictures along the way. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Multiple great blue herons and a kingfisher (can you see it?) at Mather Gorge

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A fourth great blue heron joins the group at Mather Gorge

There are people around on this cool summer morning, especially later in the morning.  I re-familiarize myself with the practice of passing people who are on foot on the trail.  There are many such people.   Recent rains also seem to have done severe damage to the trail.  I take a couple of detours off the trail along the way.

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A black crowned night heron watches me from the other side of the canal

The ride  back to Pennyfield Lock is when the muscles in my thighs begin to feel it.  It is a familiar feeling, but it is not a feeling that you tend to remember the details of once the ride is complete and those sore muscles have recovered.   I ride steadily, without a sense of rush, but by now I am also in the groove once again, and I have to make the conscious effort to slow down, and perhaps even stop once in a while to take a picture or two.  This is all familiar territory for me.

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The tiger swallowtail butterfly on the trail

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Watching me from beside the trail.  They stayed still long enough for me to get the picture and then dove into the water when I started pedaling again

The ride ended successfully.  I am going to try my best to make sure this was not just a one-time effort, a flash in the pan if you will.  I need to do more rides for my sense of balance and sanity.  Perhaps longer group rides are in the cards once again starting next year.

A Bluebird in the Backyard

This is a good time of year to look out of the windows of the house and observe the little birds that fly around our home. The absence of leaves on the trees gives you a clear view of birds like robins, sparrows, chickadee, cardinals, bluebirds, woodpeckers, bluejays, etc..  And many of birds seem to love the seeds on the crape myrtle right next to the deck.  You have to pay close attention.  The first thing that draws your attention is the chirping that you can hear outside even though all the doors and windows are closed.  Most of the birds tend to blend in with the rather grey background.  But those like the bright red cardinals and the bluejays do stand out.

I was having my tea one evening, looking out the back window, when I thought I saw a flash of blue.  I was not mistaken.  It was a bluebird.  In fact, there seemed to be a couple of them flying between the maple and the crape myrtle trees.  The birds are so small, you have to pay particular attention to track them.  Soon the bluebird flew out of sight.   But I had a certain feeling about it.  I went upstairs to retrieve my camera and put a zoom lens on it.

I could not see the birds when looking out of the different windows upstairs in the back of the house, but soon after I returned to the kitchen and the place I was having my tea, the bird returned to a branch on the crepe myrtle.  I was prepared this time.

The bird was facing the opposite direction.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn fact I got a good picture of its butt! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt seemed to sense my presence even though I was in the house and behind the window.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It slowly turned around and stared at me.  I grabbed the shot before it was too late.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt posed for me.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few seconds later it was gone.

I think it was a eastern bluebird, but somebody can correct me if I am wrong.