Tag Archives: birds

Tuesday Musings: This is Why People Post Photos of Kittens…

I am having a bit of a “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all” moment right now. There are some things I would like to write about. I have a couple of rants percolating inside me. But no good will come of them. They are unlikely to make me feel better, and they are very likely to cause blowback.

I am back from LibertyCon, where I had a fun weekend. As always, I caught up with lots of old friends and made a few new ones. But I have to say that this year’s spring Con season, starting with JordanCon in April, and finishing with this weekend’s convention, has been more fraught than I would have liked. I won’t be heading to another professional event until DragonCon over Labor Day weekend, and I am deeply relieved to have a couple of months ahead of me without any conventions to attend.

A friend remarked to me over the weekend that everything in our corner of the publishing world feels more tense and dramatic than usual, and he’s right. Some of what has gone on is as serious as can be — issues of monumental importance. But some of it has resulted from the actions of opportunists seeking to turn the misfortune of others to their advantage. And some of it has been so childish as to defy comprehension. It’s like we have forgotten how to be adults, and are trapped in some God-awful episode of Star Trek in which aliens have caused all of us to regress and act like spoiled, self-centered teens. I don’t know if there ever was such an episode. There should have been. One more opportunity for William Shatner to over-emote . . .

Anyway, I could go on, but I am not willing to tread that road. As I say, it leads nowhere good.

This, I have come to realize, is why people post photos of kittens and puppies. Kittens and puppies are just what are needed in moments like these. Unfortunately, I have no puppies, and kittens make me sneeze.

But not so long ago, I posted about my new (at this point, new-ish) toy — my Sony RX10, superzoom camera. I have used it throughout the spring to take photos of birds and such, and I have accumulated quite a few good shots. And so I choose to fill today’s space with lovely images. This is not likely to make me feel much better, but I believe it will keep me from writing something stupid that will get me in trouble.

Prairie Warbler, by David B. Coe

My first image is of a Prairie Warbler, a bird that nests in this part of Tennessee. Warblers are notoriously difficult to photograph, largely because they’re hyperactive and usually prefer to hang out at neck-straining heights in the forest canopy. This one, though, proved quite cooperative.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, by David B. Coe

Next, I offer this male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, who, with eight or ten of his best friends, cleaned us out of sunflower seed in about an hour one late-April afternoon. They are exquisite birds, but voracious eaters.Prothonotary Warbler, by David B. Coe

This is another warbler — far more unusual than the Prairie. It is called a Prothonotary Warbler and it is one of my favorite birds. Like all warblers, they are tiny — maybe six inches tip of beak to tip of tail — but their call rings through boggy, forested areas like a clarion.

Carolina Satyr, by David B. Coe

I know: this is not a bird. But it is beautiful. It’s a Carolina Satyr, a woodland butterfly that is quite common around here.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, by David B. Coe

This Ruby-throated Hummingbird has been hanging out in our yard all spring, feasting on the sugar water Nancy puts out. We have at least two nesting pairs in the yard, and as the summer goes on and the young ones fledge and start to eat, the areas around the feeders turn into aerial war zones, with hummers buzzing everywhere, attacking one another, each trying to hog all the food.

Philadelphia Vireo, by David B. Coe

And finally, a Philadelphia Vireo, another unusual bird, one I only see occasionally. Some years I don’t find them at all. This year, I got lucky and saw several, including this cutie who allowed me to get a couple of good photos.

There! I feel better, don’t you? And I didn’t have to tick off anyone.

Enjoy the rest of your week.

Professional Wednesday: What We Can Learn About Writing From a Horny Bluebird

I got you with the title, didn’t I? I thought I might.

The horny bluebird in question lives in our yard and is so hopped up on testosterone, so eager to make himself THE player among breeding bluebirds in the area, that he has spent much of the spring attacking reflections of himself in a window downstairs and the driver’s side mirror on my Prius. The latter is the main target of his pugilistic outbursts. The mirror itself is marked with marks from bird’s beak, and the entire side of the car is dripped with bird poop. Charming, I know.

Every day for weeks he has attacked his own image, flailing at his reflection again and again and again, never seeming to tire of a battle he can’t hope to win. He is relentless, almost mindlessly so. The cute female bluebird making googly eyes at him (birds do that, you know) is HIS, and he will brook no competition for her affections. He will not surrender, no matter how many times he smacks his bill against something immovable and invincible.

Perhaps you can see forming here the beginnings of my theme for the post. But do I believe you should emulate or reject the bluebird’s behavior? Is it an example of folly, or admirable perseverance?

Both, actually.

On the one hand, I really do admire the bird’s tenacity. Sure, he’s a bit crazed, and he’s trying to drive off another “bird” that doesn’t actually exist. But he’s doing so with gusto. And the fact is, when it comes to dealing with the business side of a writing career, all of us need to be something of a horny bluebird. (Yeah, that is a line that might well haunt me for the rest of my career . . .)

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I would love to be a bestselling author. And with each new project I take on, I wonder if this might finally be the literary vehicle that gets me there. Thieftaker, Fearsson, the time travel books, the Radiants franchise. I had high hopes for all of them. All of them were critical successes. None of them has taken me to that next level commercially. So does that mean I should give up?

Of course not. I am now working on my Celtic urban fantasy, and I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t hold out the same hope for this series.

Nearly every writer, I believe, has goals they attack with similar ferocity and persistence. Some folks are looking for that first short story sale, and they keep sending out stories. Some are trying to sell a first novel. Others have done well with small presses but want desperately to break in with a New York publisher. I judge no one for their ambitions, just as I have no intention of abandoning my own.

Rather, I would encourage every writer reading this to keep up the fight. Yes, you may feel like a bird hammering away at its own reflection, but I truly believe the fight itself is worth waging. For me, at least, pursuing my goals no matter what keeps my work fresh, energizes me, and keeps a slight chip on my shoulder, which I think helps me maintain a necessary level of motivation. So battle on!

At the same time that I see value in the bluebird’s example for some business purposes, however, I think it is far less helpful in other contexts. And when I originally hit on this as a topic for today’s post, it was this aspect of the analogy that caught my imagination.

In my conversations with writers over the years, and in my observations as a professional in the business, I have seen too many aspiring authors doggedly clinging to their dreams for a single book or series idea that does not work and that is holding back their careers. They have a project they love, love, love, but simply cannot sell. And rather than move on to new story ideas, they revisit this one over and over. They edit and polish, tear it apart and rebuild it, get feedback from one beta reader after another, all in the belief that this time they’re going to get the story right and finally make the sale.

And I should add two points here. First, I also see the opposite: writers who become discouraged after only one or two rejections and give up on worthwhile projects that simply need a bit more love. There is a balance to be found. Working too long on a book or series that enjoys no success can stall a burgeoning career. Giving up too soon can cost a writer an opportunity they didn’t even know they had.

Second, I have doggedly stuck with projects for years, doing just the sort of repeated reworking I describe above, and eventually selling the books to a publisher. I did it with the Justis Fearsson books. I did it with the new Celtic series.

His Father's Eyes, by David B. CoeThe difference between what I did with those two projects and what I am telling you not to do is this: I kept working on these books, but I also moved ahead with other projects, so that I wouldn’t stall my career. Yes, I worked for six years on the first Fearsson book. But in that time, I also wrote the Thieftaker books and the Robin Hood novelization. This, by the way, is also the secret to finding that balance I mentioned. By all means, keep working on the one idea, but do so while simultaneously developing others. Don’t become so obsessed with the one challenge that you lose sight of all else.

As a general business strategy, I believe the reckless stubbornness of the bluebird can prove effective. But when applied with too much fervor to a single book idea, it can become a trap, one that keeps us from realizing our dreams.

So endeth the lesson of the horny bluebird.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: Shutting Out the World

I have struggled some in recent weeks to come up with topics for my Monday Musings posts. One reason for this: I don’t want to overload readers with essays about family issues and mental health, though both are much in my thoughts these days. A second reason, I realized today, is that I have, in the interests of my own well-being, shut out current events from much of my thinking. If you look back through my posts in 2020 and early 2021, I wrote a lot about the state of the world and the state of our nation. This year, not so much.

It’s not that I have blocked out all news. I listen to NPR every morning. I check headlines daily. I have not stuck my head in the proverbial sand. But neither am I obsessing over world events right now.

And can you blame me?

Republicans are poised to take back both houses of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections. They have gerrymandered their way to disproportionate representation. They continue to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election. They attack the Administration and its progressive allies for rising energy and food prices, knowing full well that these are not the Administration’s fault. They exploit cultural conflicts over race and gender identity for their own cynical purposes, endangering the safety of Blacks, trans youth, educators, and medical professionals. And their tactics are working, so they have no incentive to stop.

Vladimir Putin is playing the most dangerous game of Russian Roulette since the Cuban Missile Crisis, moving the planet closer to global nuclear conflict than at any time since the end of the Cold War. He and his generals are responsible for heinous war crimes — genocide, some would argue — in Ukraine. And despite fighting valiantly for their freedom, their homes, their families, their very lives, the Ukrainian army likely cannot hold out indefinitely. The end game will be hideous and horrifying.

The planet is dying. There is no softening that reality. It’s dying. The wildfire season has already begun in the Western U.S. — months earlier than usual — and it promises to be historically bad. Again.

Prices are rising, thanks to Putin’s war. And the stock market is tanking. Each month, we receive our brokerage statements, the latest figures on our retirement savings, and we file them away without looking at them. There’s nothing we can do, and we have no intention of getting out of the market, so . . . It’ll rebound eventually, right? Right??

But by all means, let’s all get our panties in a twist over yet another egotistical billionaire buying yet another social media platform.

Yeah, so this is why I have been avoiding current affairs topics in my Monday Musings posts. I don’t have the energy. I would never say I don’t care. I do. I care passionately. But I feel like there is nothing I can do that will make a significant difference. I can give to international aid organizations. And I do. I can give to environmental groups and to progressive candidates. And I do. I can drive a Prius and use LED bulbs and set the house thermostats with energy conservation in mind. I do all those things.

But like so many people — perhaps like you — I am weary. I have too much on my personal plate right now. Family crises, work deadlines, things I have to get done, things I want to do. Last weekend, while at a convention, I might have been exposed to Covid. I’ve taken a couple of tests this week, the most recent today. Both negative. I’m probably fine, thank goodness. I will admit, though — and I’m not proud of this — that a tiny part of me hoped the test would be positive, giving me an excuse to just stop and rest and do nothing.

In a way, this post has wound up being about current affairs after all. Because the truth is, I am far from alone in feeling the way I do. We as a society are exhausted. And that exhaustion manifests as both apathy and irascibility. Many of us want to shut out the world. And when we can’t, many of us turn to contentiousness, to behavior that serves only to deepen divides that are already too deep.

Spring is here. Our little corner of the Cumberland Plateau is exploding with color right now: the myriad greens of young leaves, the whites of Dogwoods, the pinks of Wild Azaleas, the brilliant reds and yellows and blues of migrating tanagers, warblers, and buntings.

Covid is less of a threat that it was this winter, and warmer temperatures should mitigate the dangers even more. The housing market is beginning to normalize, which might help calm inflation in the months to come.

Maybe the fire season will prove less destructive than feared. Maybe Putin’s war effort will continue to fall short of his ambitions, leading him to settle for a partial victory rather than total conquest. Maybe the midterms won’t be quite the bloodbath some anticipate.

The fact is, as bad as things seem right now, they could be worse. They could always be worse. And in the meantime, there is beauty in the world. In the colors of spring, in the love of family and friends, in creativity, in work well done, in down-time enjoyed.

And this, in the end, is why I have chosen to avoid a certain kind of post this year. Life has been hard, but it also continues to be good. As I age, I find myself gaining a level of perspective I lacked as a younger man, when I was a sky-is-falling kind of guy. I don’t want to focus on the bad and the hard and the tragic. That stuff is always there for us, if that’s where we want our minds to go. These days, I choose a different emphasis.

Have a great week.

Creative Friday: My New Toy!

I have a new toy.

Sony RX10 Mk IVAnyone who has met me and/or read this blog knows I am an avid photographer. And I have a very nice camera, a digital SLR with several interchangeable lenses that I use for landscapes, portraits, macro, travel photography, and pretty much everything else. Pretty much.

The one thing I don’t do much with that camera, because I don’t have the appropriate lens, is bird photography. Now, the other thing readers of this blog know is that I am a dedicated (read: fanatical) birdwatcher and have been for most of my life. So I have long been frustrated with my inability to take good photos of birds.

In the past, I have balked at buying a big lens, capable of taking decent bird photos, for my DSLR. There have been several reasons for this. One, such lenses are expensive. Even the lens with the minimum focal length I would need (a zoom lens of 100-400mm) costs well over $2,000. There are off-brand versions that are decent but not great. These would run closer to $800.00. But they do not solve the second issue: Big lenses tend to be, well, big. They’re heavy and bulky, as is my DSLR, actually. Combine the big lens with the hefty camera, and you have something weighing about five pounds hanging around your neck or off your shoulder. I know myself well enough to question how often I would actually take such a rig out in the field.

So I have finally decided to go in a slightly different direction. I recently purchased a rather pricey new toy, the Sony RX10 Mk IV. This is a mirrorless “bridge” camera, meaning that it sort of straddles the line between a DSLR and a point and shoot camera. It weighs far less than my DSLR would with a telephoto lens. But it has a very good, very powerful, built-in lens, made by Zeiss, an excellent German optics company. This lens zooms from 24mm to 600mm, making it actually more powerful than the big, expensive lens I’d been considering. It also costs a good deal less.

The digital sensor in the camera is not as good as my DSLR, and I will likely never use this lens for landscapes. I am very picky about image quality, and am particularly uncompromising when it comes to my landscape photography. Birds, though, are tough to photograph to begin with, and I understand that I would likely get precious few razor sharp images with any camera and lens combination. And because this camera is so light and easy to carry, because it has a very strong stabilizing mechanism that keeps the image still and clear even when the camera is handheld, and because the sensor and lens are, while not perfect, very, very good, this is the perfect solution for me when it comes to birds. I take it with me on walks all the time, without hesitation. And I have gotten some very good photos already.

Below find some images I captured in Florida, around my birthday, when I was first learning to use the camera. As you can see, the quality of the images is quite good. They are sharp and the color is excellent. And I am having so much fun! I can finally take pictures of my feathered buddies, and I don’t have to carry the equivalent of an anchor around my neck. I’m very happy with my purchase. I do love my toys . . . .

Have a great weekend!

Least Bittern, by David B. Coe
Least Bittern, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Pied-billed Grebe, by David B. Coe
Pied-billed Grebe, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Green Heron, by David B. Coe
Green Heron, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Red-shouldered Hawk, by David B. Coe
Red-shouldered Hawk, Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Great Egret, by David B. Coe
Great Egret, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Red-winged Blackbird, by David B. Coe
Red-winged Blackbird, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Wood Duck Pair, by David B. Coe
Wood Ducks, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: My Favorite Things!

We are in the midst of a rainy-soon-to-be-snowy weekend here, and I am thinking about my Monday Musings post, looking for something fun and cheery to write about. There are always world issues to address, and I have been up front about emotional matters in recent months. But the truth is, I am tired of being Mr. Serious-Guy. So for today, something completely different.

I’ve thought of writing posts about a few of my favorite things (cue Sound of Music soundtrack), but none of them would actually fill a full post. Well, most wouldn’t. But how about a list of my favorite things from random categories? Kind of a Favorite Things Lightning Round. Sound fun? Here we go:

Favorite Single Malt Scotch: Starting with the hootch! Yeah, I love single malt, and we have several different kinds. I sometimes enjoy a peaty Scotch, and will also drink some specialty Scotches aged in port or rum casks (Balvenie has a great one, as does Glenmorangie). But mostly I like Speysides, which tend to be less smoky and somewhat sweeter. For my money, the best of these is the Dalwhinnie 15 year-old “Highland” Scotch. They call it a Highland, but it is technically a Speyside, and it is just lovely. I drink it neat, with just a splash of cool water. In fact, I’m feeling a little parched right now…

Favorite Jazz Album: This one is easy, and I’m really not going out on a limb at all. Miles Davis’s 1959 classic Kind of Blue, is an entry point for many who are just getting into jazz, and it was exactly that for me some 40+ years ago. Thing is, this is an album of which I never tire. Each time I listen to it I love it more. By turns haunting, toe-tapping, introspective, and dynamic, it features a who’s who of jazz superstars: Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on saxophone, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. It is brilliant. If you’ve always wanted to listen to jazz, but didn’t know where to start, this is your answer.

Favorite Jazz Album You’ve Never Heard Of: This one is a little harder, but I have to go with Sphere’s Flight Plan. Sphere is a jazz quartet that originally included Kenny Barron on piano, Charlie Rouse on saxophone, Buster Williams on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. They released Flight Plan, their second album, in 1983. It has since gone out of print, and is very hard to find. But my God, it is SO good. Like Kind of Blue, it covers a range of moods, but it is consistently excellent and utterly addictive.

Favorite Sport to Watch: I’m a lifetime baseball fan, and I still count baseball as my favorite sport, though mostly for sentimental reasons. A great baseball game remains a joy-inducing treat, and I love watching games live, at spring training venues or at the nearby Double A stadium in Chattanooga. But the truth is, today’s iteration of baseball bugs the hell out of me. Too many strikeouts and home runs, not enough nuance and strategy. Few games, even during the postseason, rise to the level of “great.” Which is why my favorite sport to watch is now soccer, specifically Premier League soccer on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Nancy and I watch a lot of soccer. It is a beautiful sport to watch. It has nearly nonstop action, and demands tremendous athleticism of its players, but it is also precise, thoughtful, steeped in strategy, and mindful of both defense and offense. Nancy roots for Tottenham. I root for Chelsea.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Favorite of My Books: The most recent one I’ve written, almost always. Which is a copout, I know. Invasives, the second Radiants book, comes out in February, so it is the most recent I’ve written, and it is my current favorite. But in another way, my favorite is probably The Outlanders, the second book in my LonTobyn Chronicle, and my second novel overall. Why? Simple. When I began my career, I knew I had one book in me, but I didn’t know if I could write for a living. Upon finishing The Outlanders, I realized it was better than my first book, Children of Amarid, a book of which I was quite proud. It was much better, in fact. And I understood then that I was not just a guy who wrote a book. I was an author. I could make a career of this.

Favorite Bird: I’ve seen close to a thousand species of bird worldwide, and I love so many of them. But one bird is what my brother Jim, who got me into birding in the first place, calls my trigger bird, the one that made me fall in love with bird watching. As it happens, he and I have the same trigger bird. Canada Warbler. Google it. I’ll wait… Beautiful, right? Sure, there are others that are even more striking, more majestic, fiercer, cooler. Whatever. This is the one that opened up the world of birds to me. I see it nearly every spring during migration. And each time the sighting leaves me smiling for the rest of the day.

Favorite TV Show We’re Binging Right Now: You have to understand, Nancy and I only got decent internet — decent enough to stream — about six months ago. So we are new to the binging thing and we love it. We are currently in the middle of The Great British Baking Show, The Crown, Madame Secretary, and our favorite, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It’s funny and smart, the performances are excellent, and the writing is great. What’s not to love?

Bloodroot and Dew Drop, by David B. CoeFavorite of My Photos: This is a hard one — even harder than choosing my favorite of my books, if for no other reason than sheer numbers: I’ve written about 26 books. I’ve taken thousands of photos. And as with my books, my favorite photo changes as I capture new images and add them to my collection. But one in particular has stood out for some time now, because with it I accomplished in a technical sense precisely what I wanted to. The photo is a macro shot of a single drop of water hanging from a Bloodroot leaf. And it works because I managed to position the drop in the optimal spot in the image, and I got the depth of field (the balance between what is in focus and what is blurred) just right. Here it is (click on the image for a larger version). Enjoy!

I might return to this “Favorites” theme again this year. I have lots of possible categories left.

For now, though, have a great week!

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part II

Put another way, I was driven . . . not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

With last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I began what I expect will be a multi-week conversation about the age-old writing advice, “Write what you know.” In that entry, I pointed out that “Write what you know” can be overly limiting, or, if thought of in the right way, can speak to exactly the sort of mining of our emotional experience that will enrich our narratives and character work.

Today, I would like to focus on “write what you know” as a tool in world building and plotting.

Let me start this way:

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As many of you know, my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, had as its narrative core, a magic system in which mages formed psychic, magical bonds with birds of prey: hawks, owls, eagles. To this day, fans of the series mention those relationships between mages and their avian familiars, as the element of the books they enjoyed most.

What you may not know is that I have been an avid bird watcher for more than fifty years (yes, you read that right: 50 years), since I was a small boy.

Nearly all my readers are familiar with my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Some of you may not know that I not only love history, I also studied it extensively and have a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.

I’m not the only one who does this. I am a huge fan of the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps you are as well. Maybe, you have read enough of his books to notice how many of his significant characters are physicians. As it happens, so was Kay’s father. He grew up in a household in which the study and practice of medicine were paramount.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. But I want to be equally clear about where I am NOT going. I didn’t come to the LonTobyn books, my first fiction venture, thinking “I have to ‘write what I know,’ and therefore I am going to create a world with a bird-based magic system.” Rather, I came up with the idea for the books organically. I love birds. I have always been fascinated by raptors. And at some point, it simply occurred to me that a magic system built around hawks and owls would be incredibly cool.

My choice with respect to the Thieftaker books was somewhat more deliberate. I originally conceived them as alternate-world fantasies. My editor at the time urged me to think about a historical approach instead, citing my history background. He suggested I set the books in London. And at that point I thought, “if I’m going to draw on my history background, why not do it right and set the books in the New World, whose history I know so well?”

Put another way, I was driven to write my books about hawks and about history not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

Again, I am far from unique in this regard. I know writers who love music and who have used it as the basis for their magic systems. I have a friend, whose family history is tied intimately to the devastation of Europe’s Jewish population by Nazism, who has written an incredibly powerful fantasy series set in Nazi-ravaged Europe. Another friend, who is a brilliant writer and editor, based her magic system literally on the written word, on the commitment of spells to vellum. And yet another friend, who is dyslexic, imparted that same trait to his lead character.

I don’t believe any of them “wrote what they know” to satisfy some arcane requirement of our profession. Rather, they came up with fiction ideas that reflected their loves and interests, their emotional pasts or that of their families, their very reality in all its complexity.

And there is no reason you can’t do the same. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to constrain us, nor does it necessarily force us in certain directions. It offers us opportunities. “Where do your ideas come from?” I’m asked this all the time, and always I respond the same way: Ideas are everywhere. We encounter them daily, though at the time we don’t always recognize the encounters for what they are. Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association.” Our hobbies, our professions, our loves (and perhaps even our hates), our educational backgrounds, our family backgrounds, our emotional and physical battles and achievements — any and all of these can point us in the direction of a new story, a new character, a new world.

My point being that we don’t have to struggle to come up with ideas. Often they’re sitting right in front of us, waiting for that “feat of association,” that magical (pun intended) moment when “Where do your ideas come from?” meets “Write what you know.”

Keep writing!!

Creative Friday: My Brother the Artist

For this week’s Creative Friday post, I would like to tell you about my brother, Jim. [JamesCoe.com] It happens to be his birthday, so please feel free to wish him many happy returns of the day.

Jim is a painter. He started painting when he was all of fifteen years old. At that time, he was drawn to painting birds. Birdwatching had become a sort of obsession for Jim, Bill, and me, and Jim had a preternatural ability to capture not only correct plumage and structure, but also attitude and mannerism. His early works were stunning, the work of a prodigy.

My brother, Jim, painting on Martha's Vineyard, October 2017
My brother, Jim, painting on Martha’s Vineyard, October 2017

For a time, he worked as a bird illustrator, and you can still find field guides and even an ornithology textbook with his work in it. Eventually, though, he wanted to get away from the limiting world of illustration, and he turned to plein air painting. For more than twenty years now, he has been painting landscapes, some with birds in them, some without. His work is known throughout the world. It hangs in galleries and museums. He has been honored again and again by fellow artists and art aficionados.

And never once has this praise gone to his head. Because that’s the other thing about my older brother: not only is he the creative person I admire most in this world, he is the kindest, gentlest soul I know.

His art has been a presence in my life for almost as long as I can remember. When I was young, I tried to emulate him, hoping that I might be an artist someday as well. How did I do? Well, I write fantasy now, so that should tell you…

We have Jim’s work all over our house, and I am always eager for another of his pieces. They’re just that good.

But more important still is the fact that, outside of Nancy and our girls, he is the best friend I have in the world.

Happy birthday, Bro. Love you.

"Pond Light; Sun Dance" by James Coe
“Pond Light; Sun Dance” by James Coe

Monday Musings: Feeding Birds, How to Get Started

Earlier this year, in the midst of spring bird migration, I wrote about my lifelong love of birding. I shared with you what birding has meant to me over the course of my life, and at the end I made a half-hearted attempt to encourage those interested to start birdwatching.

The truth is, though, that’s a pretty heavy lift. I love birding and I’ve

been doing it long enough that I’m pretty good at it. But for most people, finding the time in their lives for a new hobby, one with a fairly steep learning curve, can seem a bit intimidating. Fortunately, this time of year there’s an easy way into the hobby, one that helps the birds AND offers hours of entertainment.

To quote from Mary Poppins, “Feed the birds!” (“Feed the birds and what have you got?! Fat birds!”)

With the arrival of fall, usually around mid-October here on the Cumberland Plateau, I put out our various bird feeders and fill them with sunflower seeds and suet blocks. I have several feeders mounted on poles in the back yard, and often within a few hours of putting out seed for the first time, my feeders become an all-they-can-eat buffet for titmice, chickadees, cardinals, woodpeckers, wrens, finches, sparrows, and others. From October until mid-spring, our yard is filled with birds darting to the feeders, taking a seed and flitting to a branch to break it open and have at the morsel inside.

You can find simple feeders in the garden sections of most home and hardware stores (Lowes has a decent selection) and even in the pet sections of most grocery stores. You can also find them online. Duncraft, Wild Birds Unlimited, Backyard Chirper, and BestNest.com all sell a wide variety. Some can be pretty pricey, but the truth is, the cheap ones often don’t last long. To my mind, the best feeders for those looking for something durable and low-maintenance are the No/No Steel Wire Mesh collapsible feeders. They hold black oil sunflower seed, which is popular with a wide variety of bird species, they’re tough (I have a couple and one is at least ten years old at this point) and won’t be chewed up and ruined by squirrels, and the larger ones hold a good amount of seed, so I only have to fill mine once a week or so.

I also have a small plastic satellite feeder (it is shaped like Saturn, with a small opening), which is nice because only small, acrobatic birds can access it. Due to its size, it runs out of food too quickly, but it attracts titmice, chickadees, finches, and nuthatches. Larger birds can’t perch on it.

Titmouse on Feeder, by David B. Coe
A Tufted Titmouse on my modified hopper feeder.

And I have a hopper feeder which basically looks like a small house. It’s made of wood and has one big compartment that I fill weekly. The feeder is mounted on a pole, and I have modified it slightly since buying it. I removed the cheap plastic sides that held the seed in place, and in their place attached metal mesh — also known as hardware cloth. I used a staple gun to set the mesh in place. The result is a more durable feeder that holds slightly more than it would have otherwise.

This feeder attracts everything from the smallest species — chickadees, wrens, titmice, finches, and wrens — to larger birds like woodpeckers, Cardinals, and Blue Jays. In the spring I often get flocks of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks on the hopper feeder.

All my mounting poles are equipped with squirrel baffles, which do a decent, if not perfect, job of keeping the critters off the feeders. Don’t worry: the squirrels don’t starve. The dirty little secret of feeding our feathered friends is that birds are slobs. For every seed they get from a feeder, they often knock two or three to the ground. Squirrels get plenty of food just from the spillage, as do ground feeding birds like sparrows, juncos, and doves.

Wrens and Feeders, by David B. Coe
Carolina Wrens and a Carolina Chickadee on suet and seed feeders.

Finally, I also have a suet cage on one of my feeder poles. A suet cage is essentially a rectangular wire box that holds those suet cakes you can buy at grocery stores, hardware stores, and garden centers. The cakes are not perfect, but they’re cheap, they’re easy to load into the feeders, and the birds seem to like them. My brother, who lives far north of me, uses actual suet from the meat department of his grocery store. We can’t do that here in the Southeast. Even in winter, we have too many warmish days. The fat would turn rancid. The cakes are a good compromise. They attract a variety of woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, even the large, crested Pileated Woodpeckers — think Woody Woodpecker) as well as nuthatches, wrens, and others.

I should also mention that starting in April and continuing throughout the spring and summer, Nancy puts out hummingbird feeders in her garden. This is a more work intensive endeavor than seed feeding. She blends water and refined sugar at a ratio of about 3 1/2 to 1, boils it to make it safe and to fully dissolve the sugar, and then lets it cool before filling the feeders. She has to do this three or four times a week, sometimes more. We go through a lot of sugar (we buy two kinds of sugar during the warm months — sugar for baking and such, and cheap, store-brand “bird sugar” for the feeders), but we usually have at least two pairs of hummingbirds breeding in the yard. At times, we’ll have as many as ten or fifteen birds fighting for access to the feeders.

For more information on feeding birds, please visit All About Birds, the website of Cornell University’s marvelous ornithology lab. They are a great resource and do wonderful work protecting birds.

I wrote about this today, because our feeders have been up for about two weeks and already I have derived so much pleasure from all the birds hanging around in our backyard. Putting out feeders is great way to start learning about birds — keep a pair of binoculars and a simple field guide handy, and you’ll soon be identifying all of your hungry visitors. And, of course, you’ll also be helping the birds endure the cold months.

Wishing you a great week.

Photo Friday: Three Years Ago This Weekend

Three years ago this weekend, we were in Massachusetts at Wachusett Meadow, a Massachusetts Audubon Society wildlife sanctuary, for a memorial service honoring my brother, Bill. This glorious site was one of his favorites in the world, and we dedicated a bench with a brass plaque commemorating him. He died earlier in 2017, but this weekend coincided with his birthday, and seemed the perfect time to say goodbye.

As you can see, it was a gorgeous fall day — cool, breezy, brilliantly sunny. This was at the height of autumn hawk migration, which Bill loved. He and his love, Sandy, used to come out to the sanctuary to watch for Broad-winged Hawks, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, and other raptors. I had a sense all that morning as we prepared for the service, that Bill would find some way to make his presence felt during the day. I’m not usually prone to such thoughts. It was pretty uncharacteristic for me to believe such a thing.

But sure enough, as we concluded the service, a Cooper’s Hawk swooped over a nearby ridge and down to this lake where it began to circle and climb, its wings still, sun angling off its tail. I had held my emotions pretty much in check throughout the day, but seeing that hawk, feeling my brother’s… I don’t know, spirit, I guess, in its arrival, I fell to pieces. It was good for me, really. Cathartic.

It was a hard day, but a special one — a day I’ll never forget.

Have a good weekend all. Be kind to one another, hug those you love, and stay safe.

Wachusett Meadow Fall, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: A Planet In Its Death Throes

Pray for the forest, pray to the tree,
Pray for the fish in the deep blue sea.
Pray for yourself and for God’s sake,
Say one for me,
Poor wretched unbeliever.

— James Taylor, “Gaia,” from Hourglass

This is what it looks like when a planet dies

milkovi SF Bay Bridge
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under skies turned orange by wildfire smoke. Photo credit: Milkovi, Unsplash

Cataclysmic fires along the American West Coast and the Australian East Coast, in the Amazon and on the Steppe. Once-in-a-millenium events occurring annually. Orange skies over California and the Pacific Northwest.

Storms of unprecedented destructive power striking with unnerving frequency, rendering the term “storm of the century” essentially meaningless.

Deepening cycles of drought and flood. Cities across the world literally being inundated by oceans and seas. Glaciers vanishing faster than even the most aggressive projections told us they would. Coral reefs dying. Species going extinct.

My older brothers turned me on to birdwatching when I was seven years old — a gift that has enriched my life for half a century. And over those same fifty years, North America’s population of birds has declined by nearly 30%. Habitat loss, pesticide use, careless architecture, and, yes, climate change — all have played a role. The result? Three billion fewer birds.

In the spring of 1985, my senior year in college, I took an ecology course for non-majors. It offered a survey of critical environmental issues facing the world, and discussed them in terms history and literature majors could understand. At the time, a scientific consensus had long-since formed around what was called at the time “the Greenhouse Effect,” what we later called global warming, and now global climate change. That was thirty-five years ago.

In 1896, a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius theorized that the unfettered burning of fossil fuels, and the resulting release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, would lead to a warming of the planet. Four years later, in 1901, his colleague, Nils Gustaf Ekholm, coined the term “Greenhouse Effect” to describe the phenomenon. In fairness, Ekholm thought it might be a good thing, as it would stave off future ice ages. But the concept is not a new one.

For decades, global temperatures have been rising to record setting levels, only to be topped the following year. Global temperature records were first kept in a systematic way around 1850. Of the 170 or so years for which figures exist, nineteen of the twenty hottest have occurred since 2000. 2020 is on pace to join the top five.

I am willing to engage on most political and social issues. I enjoy a good discussion, a vigorous debate. There are, though, a few topics on which I will no longer engage. First among them is bigotry of any sort — racism, sexism, homophobia, trans bias, religious bias, etc. Climate denial is a close second. (And this year, Covid denial has joined the list.)

This is no longer theory. It hasn’t been for a long, long time. Climate change is real. Our planet is dying. If we do nothing — if we as a global community continue on the path we’re on now, we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren a burnt husk of what was once earth. Future generations will live in a world that staggers from ecological crisis to ecological crisis, from catastrophe to catastrophe, from flood to drought to famine to pandemic and back again.

We have had ample opportunity to address the issue, and we have squandered one after another. We have absented ourselves from vital global treaties and doubled down on the sort of short-sighted consumerism that got us into this mess in the first place. Like James Taylor in the song quoted at the beginning of this post, I have no faith in our ability to save ourselves. We are a society that cannot bring ourselves to wear cloth masks for the common good. How are we supposed to make the economic transitions necessary to change economic course?

And the tragic thing is, addressing climate change could be a tremendous boon to our standing in the world, to our economic fortunes, to our commitment to education. This is the challenge of our time. It demands bold thinking, new industries, innovation and invention. Implementing the necessary changes would generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, replacing and more the jobs lost in the coal and oil industries. Fitting ecological imperatives to our national love affair with cars and trucks could revitalize the American automotive industry. Does anyone really believe that the internal combustion engine, invented more than a century ago, is the be-all and end-all of technological ingenuity? Of course not.

But we have to have the will to change, the courage to say “Saving our planet for our children is worth whatever sacrifices we might have to make.” And, from what I can see, we don’t.

I wish I could end on a more hopeful note.

November’s election is about more than ending corruption, about more than beating back hate and prejudice, about more than the Supreme Court, about more than taxes and health care and social justice. It is about saving our planet. It is about keeping ourselves from a slow and painful march toward extinction.

Please vote.