Birding with birdbrains and a stiff neck

This week we continue the tale of our Iowa Synod School trip (click here for last week’s entry).

Quick recap for those too lazy to click the link: Two weeks ago, I and 639 other Presbyterians attended a Synod School in Storm Lake, Iowa. I took four classes, one of which was a birding class called “Robins, Raptors and Ducks.”

What follows is a lowdown on what I learned…

On the first day our teacher made a confession. “I am by no means an expert on birdwatching.”

She proved this in so many ways.

She may have been the most computer-illiterate person I’d ever met. Watching her try to navigate the various birding sites was downright adorable. We’d coach her as we watched her efforts on the classroom screen – “click on the tab… no, the big one on the right… click there… I think you need to go back one… just hit the logo… no, the one at the top…”

And when she’d accidentally log herself out (at least once every morning), she never remembered her sign-in so she’d open up her email. Still keeping the projection on the screen so we saw her user name (birdlady47) as well as her 352 unopened emails. (Her Amazon purchase recently shipped!)

No surprise, she was also terribly scattered. Several times she’d rifle through her notes – “Oh, I must have left it in my room” – or lose her train of thought – “Now where was I going with that?… oh well, couldn’t have been too important.”

But what she lacked in expertise or competence, she made up for in enthusiasm. Never have I seen a woman’s face light up with such joy as she discussed bird poop, or the ecstasy she experienced watching a mama bird upchuck into a baby bird’s mouth.

And here’s another thing I loved about her: she was as fond of commonplace birds as I was. Even speaking highly of crows and pigeons. “They’re quite intelligent, you know.”

(Yes, I do know. And thank you for saying it.)

birders crows and pigeons

As I mentioned before, we were to spend two of our class times outdoors. What surprised us is that she scheduled the first one for Tuesday, only our second day in. Someone asked if we’d carpool. “I suppose we could…” she replied.

“Where should we meet?”

She thought about it. “How about over by those benches. You know the ones I mean?”


“You know… over by that building…,” she waved her arm vaguely. “I think it’s the science building. Or maybe it was arts.”

One of the male students – the one wearing a funny hat so presumably a world-class birder – was more precise. The next day we would meet at the benches nearest the visitor parking lot and drive to the park by the lake.

Sadly, the teacher was not real specific on which side of the park, so some of the class wound up across the lake. I was with the teacher’s group.

Here she is sitting on a bench.

Birder instructor

This is where she placed herself as soon as we arrived. She gave us no instructions, just plopped down with her binoculars.

We milled around wondering what to do.

Birders class

Eventually we figured it out. It’s a birdwatching class. We should watch birds.

Here are a few of my classmates catching sight of an I-don’t-know-what.


Frankly, I found my classmates more fascinating than the birds. Definitely easier to take pictures of; they moved around less.

Here’s Man in Funny Hat, but he forgot his hat.

Birder funny hat

He still looks kind of funny though.

This is Charlotte. Doesn’t she look sweet?

Birder Charlotte

I met her during the ride to the park and fell in love with her. She’s an Iowan grandmother and I think by law they have to be sweet.

As for the birdwatching… you know, I gave it my best shot. Really I did. Had my binoculars out, gazed up into the trees. The whole shtick.

Then about 10 minutes in, give or take a few minutes, I felt a familiar twinge in my neck and thought, “Oh yeah – I have neck problems!”

Really, you wouldn’t think it’d be hard remembering two major surgeries, 12+ weeks of recovery, titanium plates and rods, all that jazz. But somehow I forget every time. Up until I feel the twinge, of course.

I spent the rest of the class period keeping my head level, which wasn’t too bad considering we were at a lake.

I saw some lovely Canada Geese.

birding 2

I’m humbled to learn I’ve always called them by the wrong name. I used to say Canadian Geese, but apparently they lack citizenship status and so are simply Canada Geese.

Anyway, despite correcting my head position, I wound up with one humdinger of a stiff neck. For the rest of that day and half of the next, I had the most impressive posture you ever did see. (My God, I was in pain.)

Even so, I soldiered on. No one except Husband knew (poor guy, he hears all my woes). Though when the next outdoor birdwatching day was scheduled for Thursday, I bowed out, thinking it best not to chance it.

As it turned out, it was just as well. Not only was Thursday cold and rainy, half the class wound up at an entirely different location than the rest.

When Friday’s class began, our teacher apologized. “I decided yesterday morning we’d go to a meadow instead,” she explained.

Ohhhh,” said Man in Funny Hat (he found it!), “we wondered where you went to.”

“Yeah, I didn’t know how to send you a message,” she explained, no doubt having forgot her email password. “Then I figured, oh well, they’ll probably still see some nice birds where they’re going.”

Wow… just, wow

Okay, so the birdwatching teacher was a bit of a birdbrain (and we’re not talking crow-level brain either). Even so, I did learn a few things:

  • For attracting more birds to your yard, focus on using native plants & shrubs and packing them in closely. Birds like the safety of hopping from bush to bush.
  • Black oil sunflower seed is a favorite for many birds; peanuts and mealworms are a hit too.
  • To deter squirrels, you can attach baffles to poles or else buy squirrel proof feeders. (Though my own personal nemesis, Darth Squirrel, figured them out. This is war… WAR I SAY!)
  • Over 400 million birds die every year in the U.S. just by smacking into tall buildings. (Good Lord!)
  • You can prevent birds from going kamikaze on your windows a number of ways, one of which is not cleaning them. (As if I needed a reason.)

So ends this week’s episode of Synod School for the Birds.

Stay tuned next week when we tackle the Letter from Birmingham Jail and how it will impact the Presbyterians… or will it?

I’ve gone bird watching in Iowa, among other things

Right now I am in Storm Lake, Iowa. Learning great truths and experiencing deep personal growth and doing some bird watching while I’m at it.

Or at least I assume I am. As I write this I am still at home. Such is the wonder of the WordPress scheduling tool.

A few months ago I hinted at this Storm Lake trip, way back when I told you about a birding class I signed up for. It’s part of “Synod School” – a week-long event offering both educational and recreational activities for Presbyterians in the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.

I’m showing you this I don’t have to explain what the Synod is. (It’s from their website.)

Just imagine: a whole week with Presbyterians! In Iowa! (I bet you’re burning with envy right now.)

I don’t always tag along with Husband on church-related trips, but there was a reason I agreed to this time. Namely, I thought we’d tango.

One of the courses was “Beginning Ballroom Dancing.” Husband said if I went, we could take the class together. Now how could I pass that up?Shall we danceAlas, it was not to be.

Due to professional obligations, Husband had to attend a different class that, sadly, conflicted with the dance class. And beings how I didn’t want to tango alone – or with a stranger – and beings how I already asked for the time off, I selected some other classes. I could do up to four, and I decided to make two of them serious and the others just-for-fun.

These are the four I’m taking:

1) Robins, Raptors and Ducks: This is the one I told you about. We’re instructed to bring a pair of binoculars and a journal to write in. On two of the days we’re going to NW Iowa Watchable Wildlife areas to “test our skills.” I’ll let you know how that works out.
(No, I haven’t bought a pith helmet… yet.)

2) Mark and Radical Discipleship: One of my serious classes – it was the radical part that appealed to me. The course description read, “We will explore the timeless issues of poverty, gender, justice, liberation, equality, etc., using the Gospel of Mark as a guide.” If the class turns out radical enough, I’ll let you know.

3) The Letter from Birmingham Jail as a Confessional Statement: My other serious class, I feel it requires an explanation. You see, the Presbyterians have a constitution. It’s made up of two books: The Book of Order and the Book of Confessions. The Book of Order has all kinds of policies and procedures of how things are done or not done in the church, and this book changes a lot. The Book of Confessions is filled with statements of faith, such as the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed, among others. This book never changes. Meaning once something is added, it’s never removed. Therefore, adding something to it is a Big. Hairy. Deal.
Right now there’s a movement afoot to add Dr. King’s Birmingham Jail letter. That’s what this class is covering and I thought it sounded intriguing. I’ll let you know what I find out.

4) The Enneagram for Soul Strength: Maybe it sounds odd, but I chose this as a “just-for-fun” class. If you know what the Enneagram is – no worries if you don’t – it’s kind of like a personality test that assigns you a number. The instructor emailed ahead of time with some links for taking the test and to be honest, when I saw that she emailed all 27 participants without using bcc and that her note was written in Comic Sans, I judged her. And then when three people responded saying, “looking forward to it” using reply all?!
I judged them, too.
And then I wondered if this wasn’t some kind of clever ruse on the part of the instructor to test our personalities.
Anyway, I took the test and found out I’m a 5. And then I looked up some other tests online and took them too. They all said I was a 5. And then I read something that said of all the Enneagram types, the 5 is the most likely to take the test over and over again to make sure they’re getting the right information.
So, yeah. Guess I’m a 5.

There’s supposed to be a number of evening activities during the week as well, one of which is a “Synod School Dance.” (Maybe we’ll pick up some tango tips?) All of this is taking place at Buena Vista University – a Presbyterian college right next to the lake. Husband and I will be sharing a dorm room. (No kidding.)

In short, I shouldn’t have any trouble finding things to write about. I’m taking along my laptop and tablet and I’m hoping there’ll be plenty of time for this writing and also for keeping up with my blogger buddies. Heck, maybe I’ll even draw a bird or two. Who knows?

So until next week, this is me in Iowa (not really but yeah) saying: Keep it real, keep it interesting, and keep on dancing. 🕺🏾

Springtime is for the birds

Spring has officially arrived to our Minnesota home:crabapple

Yeah, I know according to the calendar Spring has been here awhile, but it’s only really felt like Spring for the past week or so. And it’s not that a flowering crabapple is an official start, but it sounds good to me.

Speaking of trees, we had to remove a maple that was too close to the house. The tree man did the deed last week. Underneath the maple were a whole lotta hostas.


With the maple gone, so was the shade for the hostas. I transplanted them to our far more shady backyard.

Wanna know how many I transplanted? Sixty-five! Crazy, right?

But they sure look nice in my pretty little woodland corner, so it was worth it.backyard hostas As I worked, the neighborhood birds entertained me. (You knew birds had to come into the conversation eventually, right?)

The chickadees were being their typical adorable selves, ‘natch, and our downy woodpecker is ever the charmer.


By the way, all the bird photos you’ll be seeing here have been shamelessly pilfered from the site

Please don’t tell.

Have you ever been to that site? Their search feature is pretty cool. By giving them beak size, approximate body size, primary & secondary colors, or any other features you might notice, they will give you a pretty good guess as to what the bird is. Or at least a list of birds that you can narrow down yourself.

That’s how I found out who our newest visitor to the bird feeder is: a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Rose breasted grosbeak

And the bird that was with him was his mate, though I never would have guessed it.

Rose breasted grosbeak female

Another site I use is It’s a great spot for learning cool facts, such as while the Grosbeak won’t be winning any awards for their nest-building – “so flimsy you can sometimes see the eggs from underneath” – their song has been described as “a Robin who’s had opera training.”

I haven’t seen a lot of this couple. (Too busy with their voice lessons, I assume.) Mostly it’s Chickadees and my Downy Woodpecker. Oh — and the Goldfinches! Let’s not forget finchHe might be tiny, but I sure wouldn’t want to be alone in a room with him. Just look into those eyes! He means business.

Speaking of little birds – I witnessed a bunch of sparrows taking on a crow!


Here’s how it happened: Our neighbor has this platform feeder where he puts fruit, nuts, cracked corn, etc. So here I am plugging another hosta in the ground — think it was number 54 — when I hear a crow making an awful racket. Cawing away something awful. I look over to see what’s pissing him off.

There he is in a tree near the feeder, flapping his wings and bobbing his head in a threatening manner. I follow his gaze and there they were, a group of sparrows.


Every time that crow tried to wing on over to the feeder, the sparrows dive bombed him! They swooped down all together, right at that old crow.


How do you suppose sparrows work together like that? Do they draw up a battle plan ahead of time?

Gosh, I wonder if they have a squad leader?  “Sparrow One to Sparrow Two, come in from the right… Sparrow Four, wait for my call… steady… steady….move, move, move!”

Sparrows got moxie.

Oh, and here’s the best part: As I’m watching this battle raging, along comes a blue jay who just flew in and took whatever was on the feeder.

Which just goes to show: there’s no sense in fighting. The Blue Jay will win, every jay

I know a lot of people don’t like Blue Jays, but you gotta admit, with that sassy crest and stylish coloring? They cut a fine figure.

Some positive characteristics I’ve learned about jays: They mate for life, are very good parents, are highly intelligent and can make mincemeat of wasp nests in no time flat.

Oh, and here’s an interesting tidbit from the site:

The Blue Jay’s coloration is not derived by pigments, but is the result of light refraction due to the internal structure of the feathers; if a Blue Jay feather is crushed, the blue disappears as the structure is destroyed.

This is indeed true. I once found a pretty Blue Jay feather while walking Dog and brought it inside where she promptly decided to eat it. When she spit it out, it was no longer blue.

It was also covered in dog spit so I didn’t take a picture. Sorry.

And that wraps up our bird discussion for today. In review, please remember: even the most ordinary birds can be interesting if you just give them a chance.

Also, don’t mess with sparrows.

Thoughts on Beauty, Pigeons, and Persian Cats

I was thinking about Beauty the other daythat’s Beauty with a capital Bwhen that Byron piece popped into my head:

She walks in beauty, like the night
               Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
    And all that’s best of dark and bright
        Meet in her aspect and her eyes

Actually, those exact words didn’t pop into my head. It was more like,

She walks in beauty like the… um… night
   Something, something… yada, yada…
How’s that go again?

So I Googled it and got the exact wording (see above, top).

Word on the street is that Lord Byron penned these words after seeing his cousin in her mourning dress. Even if black was her color, we can assume the dress wasn’t the reason for his rapture. (Though with Byron, anything goes.)

Third stanza:

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow, 
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent, 
The smiles that win, the tints that glow, 
But tell of days in goodness spent, 
A mind at peace with all below, 
A heart whose love is innocent!

There was a woman I knew from my younger days, way back when, who I think illustrates Byron’s point to some extent. She went to our church.

Usually children never take much notice of older people unless they impact our lives in some way. Such as a neighbor lady who bakes cookies, or a friend’s mother who will back the cost of the ice cream man.

Children are selfish beasts that way.

Be that as it may, this particular woman I noticed. My mother was talking to her and as I stood to the side waiting — I never participated in any conversation willingly — I was struck by her brightly colored dress. Church ladies in those days typically chose subdued prints, such as a demure pastel floral. But this woman was wearing magenta.


Secondly, and more importantly, I noticed how happy the woman appeared. Most of the women of my acquaintance, the best you could hope for was that they were mildly pleasant. More often they were… shall we say, a little on edge. So much so that an empty juice glass set next to the sink, rather than in the sink, could send them off the deep end.

Yet this woman was smiling and cheerful and looked for all the world as though life was a wondrous thing to be savored and enjoyed. She was positively radiant.

Later I asked my mother who she was and was shocked to learn she had attended our church for several years. This was news to me. How was it I never noticed her before? Or her radiance?

“Oh, she didn’t use to be this way,” my mother replied.

I asked her what changed.

“Her husband died.”

And so you see? Lord Byron was right. Grief is a beautiful thing.

Continuing on our theme of Beauty, I met a pair of pigeons the other day.

They were enjoying a quiet respite in the grocery store parking lot, where someone had very thoughtfully dropped a milkshake and half-eaten container of french fries. The couple was partaking of the bounty.

As I passed, the male regarded me in that peculiar pigeon way they have, where they study your face very carefully and store the knowledge, as it may come in handy later.

He was a pretty boy and so I told him. I said, “Aren’t you a pretty boy.” Not as a question, you see, but as a declaration. For indeed, he was pretty. The top of his head was a shimmery purple and his breast had specks of green and black, with just a dash of gray. Truly, he was a pigeon among pigeons.

He showed no sign of false modesty after hearing my compliment. Birds never do. They don’t look down at their feathers as though to say, “Oh, these old things?” They simply accept your words as a matter of course.

Then I noticed his companion and frankly, I was shocked. With her scruffy grayish-brown feathers and dull aspect, she looked the bird equivalent of a woman in an oversized t-shirt and sweatpants.

And not a flattering oversized t-shirt and sweatpants, neither.

You would think that such a noble bird as he was, she would make more of an effort, wouldn’t you? But no, not her. She squatted in the midst of milkshake froth, a limp french fry dangling from her mouth.


Honestly. I was embarrassed for her.

And yet — and yet, people — it did nothing to diminish his admiration of her in any way. And that is the main thing.

For Love is a Beautiful thing. And blind. Terribly blind.

So if you’ve been paying attention, Beauty is both Sad and Lovely.

Yet there is another aspect to Beauty I think we must discuss, for it is something I learned from a Persian cat. And anything you learn from a Persian cat is something worth discussing.

Missy, for that was her name, the name of the Persian cat, was a gloriously beautiful, white cat.

All cats know they are beautiful, especially Persians. Even when they are not beautiful, cats know they are beautiful. This is a scientific fact.

Missy shared her home with a Cockapoo named Bubbles.

Yes, you read that right: Bubbles.

Bubbles was an embarrassment to the entire canine community. I knew it, Missy knew it, Bubbles knew it.

Bubbles was afraid of everything. The sound of the furnace kicking on sent her cowering to the corner. A sheet of paper flying off a table made her jump. The dog was a walking bundle of nerves.

So it probably didn’t help matters that Missy’s favorite form of entertainment was to sit on one side of a doorway and wait patiently, oh-so-patiently, until Bubbles entered the room. And then, floomph! Missy sprang out and Bubbles yelped, taking off in three different directions all at once, usually urinating in the process.

Meanwhile, Missy ambled away as though nothing happened, returning to her cushioned throne, where she would groom herself.

Persian cat

For Beauty is Cruel.

Beauty is Sad and Lovely and Cruel.

And thus ends my treatise on Beauty for today.

It Was One of Those Mondays

wp_20161003_17_13_24_pro“They dropped Richard,” she said to me, before I could reach my desk.

“Good morning,” I reply, never one to drop good manners. Especially if I can feel superior in the process.

She is one of our teachers, as well as one of our parents. Strangely, I see her most often in her parent role.

Teachers I like. Parents? Hit or miss. Mostly miss.

“Sorry. Good morning. Anyway, they dropped him. We got an email on Friday.”

They being the community college where young lad Richard is dual enrolled as a high school student. She is telling me this because I serve as the High School Dual Coordinator.

My title is not as impressive as you think, and I’m fully aware you’re not impressed. Continue reading “It Was One of Those Mondays”

Birds: Helpful Neighbors or Ruthless Overlords?

treeA three day weekend before me, I had one plan and one plan only: to move a tree.

To be specific, a volunteer tree that was growing in a small shaded area between our home and the back fence. Far too close to both home and fence.

After some careful research, I determined it was a silk tree – Albizia julibrissin – and that it would make a pretty little shade tree near our front entrance.

My dad was a great one for transplanting volunteer plants, and I think of him whenever I follow his practice. Although my success rate is nowhere near as good as his, I like to think I’m improving.

I also tend to think it will go much faster than it actually does, because I forget I live in Phoenix. Digging a hole in Phoenix is not for the faint of heart.

After 20 minutes, this is what I accomplished:

Continue reading “Birds: Helpful Neighbors or Ruthless Overlords?”

Mockingbird Tales … With Pie!

Have you ever seen books or articles telling you how to turn your yard into a backyard habitat? I have. I followed their steps. My yard now meets all the requirements for being a backyard habitat. The only thing I didn’t do was pay for the certificate. I’m cheap.

Anyway, what I’m here to tell you is that I’ve uncovered a downside to attracting wildlife to your yard. Namely, you will be attracting wildlife to your yard.

At first I was charmed by the creatures choosing to visit my yard. The feisty hummingbirds, the delicate butterflies, the bad-tempered sparrows who I suspected were lobbing F-bombs at the feisty hummingbirds. All of it was quite interesting, in a Discovery channel, nature-programmy kind of way.

Then my yard turned into a Mockingbird prenatal ward and my life was turned upside down. Continue reading “Mockingbird Tales … With Pie!”