Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense. (Robert Frost, Mending Wall)
I visited Children’s Pool Beach in La Jolla this past Tuesday–what an eye-opening, heart-expanding trip!
This charming little enclave was a well-intentioned, but perhaps shortsighted, gift to the people of San Diego, back in 1931. In funding this project, Ellen Browning Scripps brought a personal dream to fruition: a protected beach for children, the elderly, and “those handicapped in life’s game.”
Ellen didn’t own the property, mind you. She just laid out the cash for the 330-foot, crescent-shaped concrete wall that hugs the rocky shoreline.
Then as now, visitors strolled the length of the breakwater, snapping photos of the sweeping panoramic views and peeking into the tide pools below [video].
Years passed. Slowly but surely, the once-pristine swimming hole was filled with drifting sand.
It eventually transformed itself into an idyllic hangout…for harbor seals.
The horseshoe-shaped inlet (also known as Casa Beach) is perfectly suited to the pinniped lifestyle. They bask in year-round sunshine, mate, and give swimming lessons to their newborn pups.
Check out the scene, in this live-action video.
Seal pups are born in the sand, nurse within minutes, and take their first swimming lessons within a few hours.
Over the next few weeks, they’ll lose their downy fur and gain their independence.
But in the meantime, the breakwater helps protect them from predators and turbulent seas.
In this peaceable kingdom, sea birds and marine mammals find ways to co-exist, with only an occasional squabble.
No surprise, the harbor seal pups are a major draw. In fact, they helped turn Children’s Beach into a major tourist attraction.
Just look at this mama seal being shadowed by her pup. Postcard material, don’t you think? Hashtag: #HarborSealsofInstagram
But not everyone sees these changes as a good thing. Locals pinch their noses and point to the mess. No, not the half-eaten sandwiches and disposable diapers, buried in the sand by thoughtless visitors. Seal poop, plopped on the rocks and in the water. “It leaves behind an ungodly stench,” business owners harrumph, especially in the summer.
Fishermen are afraid of losing out to the seals, who forage along this increasingly depleted coastline.
And swimmers complain that they’re coming face-to-muzzle with playful (or unhappy) pinnipeds. In a territorial battle, both parties can be aggressive and unpredictable.
Deep dive: Should the beach be permanently designated as a marine mammal sanctuary, or should it be returned to its pristine (if man-made) state?
The controversy has landed in the courts, many times over. Strongly held views sometimes lead to violent skirmishes. It’s hard to accommodate everyone, but thanks to a recent ordinance, the pocket beach is off-limits to humans from Dec. 15 to May 15 (aka pupping season)–mainly in response to documented cases of seal harassment.
The Coastal Commission sided with city politicians, all of whom were mainly concerned that mama harbor seals might get frightened during pupping season and “flush” (stampede) into the water. Newborn seals get trampled, or separated in the shuffle. There’s perhaps nothing more wrenching than a frantic, hungry baby that’s crying for its mama.
Some people think humans and pinnipeds should be able to interact with one another in peace. With respect to that viewpoint, the adjacent beach is open to the public, all year long. Since harbor seals also frequent this beach, warning signs are posted at the entrance and on the steps leading down to the water.
But “shared use” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
(I’m told that this beach is staffed by park rangers and lifeguards. But I didn’t see anyone patrolling the area.)
Some people would be happier if the harbor seals never set their flippers on Children’s Pool Beach, ever again. But I have a feeling they’re swimming against the tide.
P.S. I took these photographs on the seawall and walkways that surround Children’s Pool, and (where noted) above the adjacent beach. I used a zoom lens, and at no time did I ever venture close to the harbor seals.
Sunlight spreads itself across the neighboring hillsides, nudging the earth out of its slumber. A hummingbird glides easily between palm dates and salvia, chittering as it sips nectar, and I celebrate with her the sweetness of this new day.
This is my first entry in the monthlong, collaborative photography project, “August Break 2016,” a mindfulness activity that draws participants away from their daily routines and into the wider world. Inspired by a specific prompt, you snap a new photograph every day in August. No need for fancy equipment, and you can bend the rules to suit your needs or interests.
I’m using Susannah Conway’s #AugustBreak2016 as an opportunity to practice something I’ve struggled with: capturing sharp images of hummingbirds in flight. I’ll also be spending lots of time at my writing desk, polishing up a special project. Each creative act, inspiring and informing the other…
Some of you might remember that I participated last year. Aside from the healthful benefits of venturing outdoors, those photography outings had carry-over effects on my writing, all for the good. Focus. Experimenting with light and dark. Seeing things from different angles, and expressing myself in new ways.
If this sparks your own creative urges, I hope you’ll grab your camera and join us!
Treat yourself, why don’t you, to our hummingbird hatchlings’ pre-fledge antics. Watch as Rain helicopters above the nest, hovers mid-flight, and manages a graceful landing on a twig beside the nest. Beau’s feathers get ruffled, but he looks on with rapt attention. Aryana chirps in the distance, as if to say, “Come into the garden, kids–let’s play!”
Not long after I filmed their playtime, Rain zipped off to join Aryana in the flowerbeds. Beau surfed the ocean breezes, hanging ten on the rim of the roomier nest.
See the shadowy “beard” on Beau’s chin? That’s a simple way to differentiate a juvenile hummingbird male from its female counterparts. Rain has white-tipped tail feathers, instead.
I revisited the nest before dinnertime, and voilà!
The nest is empty now, but my heart is full. I’m grateful for Aryana’s mothering instincts; thankful, too, for the fuchsia that camouflaged and provided shelter for three successful broods.
I also appreciate everyone who gathered around Aryana’s nest with me, watching her tiny eggs crack open, revealing featherless hatchlings that grew overnight, it seemed, eventually sprouted gossamer wings and needle-shaped beaks.
And yes, I’m glad for this schoolbus-yellow ladder. I’ve climbed it again and again with my camera, over the past several months…
…receiving firsthand the gifts that come of observing up close those tiny jewels of the sky.
Rainbows, flights of fancy, shimmery magic, and Mother Nature’s sensibilities: I’m grateful for this embroidered tapestry, stitched on my heart by a charm of hummingbirds. You, too?
Until you spread your wings,
You’ll have no idea how far you can fly.
Aryana, a non-migrating Allen’s hummingbird, built her nest in the fuchsia that grows along my front walkway, way back in December. And here we are, celebrating her fourth brood of the 2015-16 mating season.
Such a good mama: she camouflaged her nest among the foliage, and protected it from predators by sheltering it under a tiled roof overhang.
We named this pair of hatchlings Rain and Beau, in honor of the Orlando nightclub shooting victims, “because love is love is love is love…” And you already know how much I adore these tiny harbingers of hope.
Rain hatched 23 days ago, and Beau broke free of his shell the day after.
At the time, they looked like tiny raisins with stubby orange beaks.
But they quickly grew pinfeathers, and their beaks grew long and dark.
Mama Aryana fed them slurry mixtures of nectar and insects, and before long, they were fighting for space inside their cushy-soft nest.
While Aryana was off foraging, I climbed a very tall ladder to observe these wee little miracles and the architectural wonder that they inhabit. I never interfered with Aryana’s nesting habits, never touched her cottony treasurebox or the tiny jewels it protected.
I used a zoom lens and my camera settings to get close-ups, which make the hummingbird babies seem much larger than they really are. They also make this tape measure appear closer to the nest than it actually is. Mama hummingbird trusted me with her babies–a privilege and an honor that I’d never violate.
I snapped this photo just shy of three weeks post-hatch. Notice their their needle-sharp beaks and shimmery wings? They’re looking more like adult hummingbirds every day.
And at 23 days post-hatch, Rain and Beau are perched on the nest rim, flapping their wings and pointing their beaks toward parts unknown.
I’m snapping photos from my front porch now–stretching my camera to its limits, but I don’t startle them into fledging early.
As my friend Priscilla Sharp said, “It looks like they are sitting in a classroom, paying close attention, absorbing all the lessons from unseen teachers to prepare to go out into the world.”
An occasional ocean breeze wafts into the sheltered alcove, ruffling their iridescent wings. Teased forward by Mother Nature’s nudging, they seem ready for lift-off. But for now at least, they’re holding tight to the nest with tiny talons. Won’t be long, though, until whoosh! Off they’ll go.
Be still, and the world is bound to turn herself inside out to entertain you. Everywhere you look, joyful noise is clanging to drown out quiet desperation. –Barbara Kingsolver
This handsome hummingbird made his presence known while I was sitting in my backyard this morning, savoring a steaming mug of coffee. With a flash of his red gorget, he somehow managed to pull me away from the hyperbolic headlines and to notice, instead, the beauty that surrounds me.
When he preened, his gorget flipped. Voilà: Bozo the Clown. Tend to the things that matter, he seemed to say, but never lose your sense of humor.
Fight or flight? Given the stakes in this election, I see only one choice. But first, I had to get quiet. We do our best work, I think, when we’re attuned to nature’s beauty, and to the joyful noises all around us.
Whether or not they supported the counter-protest (or read my takeaways from that event), a handful of people expressed real concerns about my having attended the KKK rally in Anaheim. Some talked to me privately; still others confronted me outright. What on earth were you thinking? It seems so out of character, they said.
I disagreed. It’s all of a piece, I said, and I invited them to look a little deeper. I’ll answer those questions here (as often as you’d like…), if you’ll permit me to come at them sideways.
We are multi-faceted beings, every one of us. I’m captivated by Mother Nature’s most exquisite creations, but–and–I also have within my heart an innate desire to cradle “the least of them,” within and beyond my own garden gates.
I watch hummingbirds out my kitchen window every morning, see them wage fierce battles mid-air, iridescent wings shimmering in the afternoon sun as they chase away intruders. Inspired by their courage, I run outside, flailing my arms as I shout, “Shoo! Go away!” to the murder of crows on the neighboring hillside.
I’m swept away by a robin’s song, and I carry within my heart an anthem: Cheer cheer, cheerily, cheer up…change is gonna come.
I twist the lens until the mourning dove comes into focus, and use Lightroom to scrub the poop plops on the fence. It’s more pleasant that way, don’t you think?
When the water shortage deepened, we replaced our backyard sod with drought-friendly flowers, all of which attract butterflies, honeybees, and songbirds. It’s a small space, and our switchover to drip irrigation isn’t going to refill the aquifers. But it helps prevent runoff from polluting our ocean, and it’s more than enough to fill the birdbaths again every morning.
Between the lavender and penstemon, we’ve planted this sign. It’s an honor to be designated as a Monarch Waystation, in recognition of the work we’re doing to help support the earth and her inhabitants. Bare minimum, it’s a conversation piece. Each one, teach one. We learn from each other.
Exactly one week after the KKK rally, I plant milkweed seeds with my little friend Sara. It’s in short supply now, due to overzealous pesticide applications and misguided/misinformed land management practices. The consequences are devastating: Since milkweed’s the sole food source for monarch caterpillars, and the only plant on which monarch butterflies lays its egg, the monarch population has plummeted. We’re doing our part to help save these winged beauties from the threat of extinction.
I know from experience (and the parable of the sower) that the things we sow don’t always take root and grow. Even so, as we tuck tiny seeds into peat pockets, I say a silent benediction: Let hope be renewed, and peace be restored, within our own hearts and the habitats we share. And I remember, then as always, the African proverb: “When you pray, move your feet.”
Long answer made short?
This is how it feels to work together on behalf of something bigger than ourselves–something that has potentially positive effects, on our own lives and that of future generations.
So much has changed since we last talked about Aryana’s hummingbird hatchlings on this blog. In brief: Within the span of 24 days, Wendy and Peter broke free of their eggshells, sprouted feathers and needle-sharp beaks, and took to the skies on iridescent wings.
I’ve already posted countless pictures on Facebook and Instagram, because…#bragbook. But from the online album my friend Carol Meadows so graciously curated, I’ve culled a few of my favorites. Pull up a chair, and I’ll tell you all about it…
When they first hatched, a Facebook friend suggested they looked like plump raisins with candycorn beaks. They were roughly an inch long, and were less than 1/3 the heft of a U.S. dime. But look how much they grew and developed, in just 2 weeks!
Even when their peepers hadn’t fully open, they sensed their mother’s approach.
Aryana was a whirring blur of motion. No surprise, given that she had two mouths to feed, and a nest to defend against fluff-snatching rivals. I actually saw a female hummingbird snatch a wad of cotton from Aryana’s nest; but before she made her way clear of the fuchsia, Aryana was in hot pursuit, scolding and dive-bombing her like a fighter jet.
On very rare occasions, she cozied up to her brood in the nest. Even then, she was watchful.
In that shaded alcove, Aryana’s babies were relatively safe. They were shielded from the elements and well-camouflaged. But when the afternoon sun brightened that dark corner, she used her body to shield them from eagle-eyed predators.
Wendy and Peter grew bigger by the hour, it seemed, and looked more like their mama every day.
As their bodies expanded, their walnut-sized home seemed to shrink. But the nest held fast, thanks to the magical properties of spider silk, one of the building materials Aryana instinctively knew to use.
While their mama was away, the hatchling flapped their wings (wingercizing, some called it), and watched the skies for her return.
Aryana seemed unfazed by my presence, mainly because I was quiet and unobtrusive. Once they were moving around more, she even allowed me to record a short video.
In the blink of an eye, it seemed, Aryana’s babies were ready to make their way into the world. Wendy flew away first, leaving her younger brother more room in which to spread his wings.
It wasn’t long before Peter got the urge to follow her. Here’s what that final push looked like.
“Never say goodbye,” said Peter Pan, “because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”
I saw both hatchlings take to the sky. Sheer magic, like few people ever get to see in their lifetimes! And just so you know how rare and wonderful this really is: researchers estimate that only 17-59% of a nest’s inhabitants actually make it from hatching to full feathering and fledging.
We’ve hosted several hummingbird families at Chez Shore now. Blessings though they may be, they sometimes revealed to us the darker, seemingly cruel aspects of nature. But on the whole, their stories had happily-ever-after endings, same as Wendy and Peter’s.
They’ve flown the coop, but they haven’t gone far. Aryana’s watching over them in our garden, showing them the best food sources (including but not limited to “her” window feeder), and teaching them how to find/defend their new territory.
A couple of days ago, I was trimming the sweet potato vine in our side yard. A hummingbird whirred past my ear and landed on a nearby branch. It watched me work for a long while, tilting its head and cheeping. Most likely, it was Aryana or one of her fledglings. Heartwarming epilogue, am I right? But lemme also tell you about the task I’ve been avoiding. To wit: those teensy birds spattered a huge (yuuuuge!) mess o’ poop on the stucco walls that surrounded their tiny nest. The Crap They Leave Behind: let’s include that chapter title in a book for Empty Nesters.
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Welcome, everybody, to this week’s art challenge. In honor of Valentine’s Day, our theme is–you guessed it–LOVE.
Meet Wendy and Peter, affectionately named for two of our most beloved storybook characters. They’re nesting in a fuchsia, alongside our front walkway. At 19 and 20 days old, they’re still too young to fly; but within a week, they’ll take to the skies on shimmery wings, as hummingbirds are wont to do. Love, ongoing and everlasting.
Vincent van Gogh once said, “If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” That quotation goes to the heart of who I am: a child of God who views the world with a wide-eyed sense of wonderment. It also speaks to the joy that comes of taking field trips with my camera.