Sunday, December 31, 2006

Seven tundra swans a-swimming

Several years ago I learned through the Minneapolis chapter of the Audubon Society about Rieck's Lake on the Mississippi in Alma, Wisconsin, where the tundra swans stop over on their way from the arctic circle to their winter home on the Chesapeake Bay or in swampy areas of North Carolina and Virginia. For several weeks in October and November, hundreds of swans gather at Rieck's Lake to rest up and eat wild celery and arrowhead tubers; they move on when the water starts to freeze up.

Our family went down to see them that fall. And a couple of years later, in November 2004, I took the kids and went with another homeschooling family for a field trip. It's quite a spectacular site if you manage to get there when the numbers are high, especially if you see the flocks flying overhead on their way from points in North Dakota where they stop before coming to Wisconsin.

Well, I thought with the mild weather and all, maybe there will still be swans on Rieck's Lake this late in the season, and wouldn't it be a lovely Sunday drive with my true love to go down and see them? So I e-mailed the folks in Alma, who keep a Web site called Alma Tundra Swan Watch, to ask if the swans might still be there. A helpful fellow named Gary replied right away and let me know that they had moved on, but that I could see Trumpeter swans in Hudson, Wisc., if I liked -- there's a flock that winters there in a sheltered bay on the Mississippi. He even sent a link to a map showing me just where to find them.

Hudson is about half as long a drive as Alma, so I was quite pleased to learn this, and attempted to persuade my true love that we should go. But, alas, the weather did not cooperate. It has been raining all weekend, and finally the rain turned to slushy snow this afternoon and the driving is quite hazardous. I was glad we did not get caught in it while on our way from Hudson. Nor do I suppose it would have been pleasant to stand outside in it attempting to see swans through the flurries.

So, I found the sketchbook that I had taken with me on the 2004 trip, and got a little visual aid from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and managed to come up with this drawing of seven tundra swans a-swimming on Rieck's Lake. You only see the heads of five of them because one has its head tucked under its wing, apparently napping, and another is nibbling on arrowhead tubers. My original drawing, on which this is based, had six swans pretty much as I have re-created them here, I just added one more.

Gary sent me a second e-mail letting me know of another spot in the Twin Cities metro where swans hang out in winter, in Monticello. He explained that they stay near the power plant there because the water remains open, and because a woman feeds them corn.

So if we get a weekend with pleasant weather, we may yet go see swans this winter. But it won't be on the seventh day of Christmas, alas.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

12 Days of Christmas--book by Leigh Grant

(If you're looking for my six geese a-laying, they're right below this post.)

Here's the book I mentioned in an earlier post, which has been cited by several of the sources I came across on the Internet. It's Twelve Days of Christmas: A celebration and history by Leigh Grant (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995). It's a lushly illustrated picture book with historical and cultural notes, prefaced by a brief introduction that provides historical context for the song itself and for the things referenced in the song, at least according to Grant's interpretation.

Grant sets the song in 18th-century England, at a lavish estate, where preparations are taking place for a 12th-night party. Each verse is accompanied by a full-page or larger color illustration, rich with period detail (the nine drummers drumming are wearing white powdered wigs, tri-corner hats and bright red coats, for example).

To this she adds her own quatrains that further illuminate the text, such as this one for the third day (and I'm glad to say she, too, thought to use a French breed of chicken for her illustration; most sources on the Internet just shrug it off as if any old chicken is the same as another): "Some say this song came from a game, / Some say it springs from France. / The Breton hens uphold the last / And strut a country dance."

But the best part of this book, for history buffs anyway, are the long notes at the back. Not to downplay the illustrations, which really are delightful and detailed and very clever (I had a hard time finding all seven swans because of a little twist in her artistic interpretation that makes one of them almost invisible), but the notes really flesh it out and, I'm pleased to say, give credit to the often overlooked pagan origins of Christmas. She doesn't disparage or discredit the Christian traditions and symbols of Christmas at all, only places them in their proper historic and cultural context, which includes the old Roman holiday and the tradition of electing a "Lord of Misrule," referenced in the notes and also in the quatrain for the 12th day: "Hey! Ho! For the Lord of Misrule! / Play us a tune or give us a fool. / Feasting and dancing wassailing the crown, / The company's merry, the revelry loud."

The book has some differences with other sources I've been consulting. One is that Grant claims that the red partridge can perch in trees; the sources that said partridges don't or can't perch referred to the grey partridge. The one I drew was a red partridge (because it was prettier, not because I knew it was the tree-perching sort). Another difference is that she attributes the five gold rings to ring-necked pheasants. I had encountered this explanation before, so I guess we'll add it to the five-gold-rings variations.

I got the book from the Minneapolis Public Library (which has several in circulation).

Six geese a-laying

I considered our local wild geese, the Canada goose, as the subject for this one, but as one of the English birding sites pointed out, wild geese don't lay eggs in midwinter. So snowy white farm geese seemed like just the thing. If you think I spent more time drawing all the little bits of straw in the nests than I did on the geese themselves, you're right. I actually enjoy drawing something small and repetitive like that; it's rather meditative.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Five goldfinches

You may think I made this one up too, like the four "cawing" birds, but I didn't. Several sources insist that the first seven verses of the 12 Days of Christmas are about birds, and that this one, as we currently know it (five golden rings), has been distorted from its original meaning, and maybe even its original phrasing. The Prices (sited earlier, and below) and others say the original was five "gulderers," which they say is a Scottish term for a type of turkey. But the UK-based site I came across yesterday, the Gateshead Council, claims that "gold-rings" was an old term for goldfinches (they also offer the "gulderers" interpretation, suggesting that one could take either as correct). And they refer to a painting of the Nativity by Piero della Francesca, which includes a goldfinch, as the reason they may be associated with Christmas. Except the only bird I could find in that painting, sitting on the roof of the stable, doesn't look like a goldfinch to me, not even a European goldfinch.

The European goldfinch is a bit different from the American goldfinch, but they are the same genus. Some excellent photos of the European goldfinch may be seen here.

I thought goldfinches are prettier than turkeys, so why not? I put them on a branch of a crabapple tree, not knowing whether they would be found perching in such a place, and I made only one of them bright yellow, which is the male plumage (in summer), because I didn't think five adult male goldfinches would share a branch -- I assumed they are more territorial than that. But I don't really know. So the others are juvenile or female. I am not too crazy about this drawing, but it's late and I don't want to start another one at this hour, so it will have to do.

Maybe I would have more opportunities to study goldfinches if I kept my feeder full.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Four "cawing" birds

Well, yes, it is just me that interprets the fourth day of Christmas verse this way (as far as I know), but the sources I mentioned earlier all seem to agree that it's not "calling" birds, anyway. They say it's really four "colly" birds, "colly" being an old English term for coal-black, or, as one English site put it, "Four ‘colly’ birds refers to an old name for the male Blackbird, whose black colour looked like someone who had been down a colliery." I take it that a "colliery" is a place where coal is stored.

The English Blackbird (always with a capital B, it seems, to distinguish it from any old black bird), is turdus merula, which means it's a type of thrush, and its nearest North American relative, say the Prices (cited in my first 12 Days of Christmas post, below), would be the robin (turdus migratorius). Which may "call" in its own way, but hardly fits the more authentic "colly" bird description. The Prices don't suggest an alternative, although Jim Williams, writing in the Strib (and also cited in the first 12 Days post), suggests a redwing blackbird as a substitute.

Well, I say, why not the good old American Crow? Besides, it allows me to play a little off the calling-colly-cawing descriptive. So here are my four cawing birds, which are also colly colored, so I figure they qualify. And they're plentiful here in the city!

Besides, some researchers say crows can even count to four. In The Universal History of Numbers (Harvill Press, 1998), author Georges Ifrah relates this story:

"The story goes that a squire wanted to destroy a crow that had made its nest in his castle's watchtower. Each time he got near the nest, the crow flew off and waited on a nearby branch for the squire to give up and go down. One day the squire thought of a trick. He got two of his men to go into the tower. After a few minutes, one went down, but the other stayed behind. But the crow wasn't fooled, and waited for the second man to go down too before coming back to his nest. Then they tried the trick with three men in the tower, two of them going down: but the third man could wait as long as he liked, the crow knew that he was there. The ploy only worked when five or six men went up, showing that the crow could not discrminate between numbers greater than three or four."

By the way, I came across a great essay by Mark Twain about crows (in India, but the description sure fits our crows here, too), if you care to read it, just go here.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Three French hens

It's a funny thing trying to find images of "French hens" on the Internet when you want to avoid someone else's interpretation of the song. I tried "French chickens" and got a number of politically oriented sites that used the term perjoratively. I didn't go there.

So I tried "French chicken breeds" and that did it. In fact, there's quite a comprehensive Web site on different breeds of chickens, and a number of sites and groups devoted to the preservation of heirloom, or what they call "heritage" breeds of chickens. If you're interested in that sort of thing, pay a visit to Henderson's Chicken Breed Chart. It's quite comprehensive!

These are loosely modeled after Faverolles, which are named for the town in France where the breed was developed.

I was sitting at a coffee shop drawing these French hens (this time at a chain that I won't name) and I rather got a kick out of the fact that there were two men sitting behind me speaking French! It sounded like one was either a native speaker or just very fluent, and possibly a teacher, and the other was practicing with him. A woman who was working there joined in at times, going back and forth between French and English.

Two turtle doves

In the article by the Prices that I mentioned in my previous post, they offer North American birders the mourning dove as our native equivalent to the turtledoves in the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." But I am more interested in finding out and drawing, though not exactly in a precise scientific sort of way, the actual species that the song references. So here are two European turtledoves -- Streptopelia turtur. My version, drawn with Pitt pens, mostly, is a little less colorful than the real thing, which have a bit more of the soft apricot color on them, at least in the images I found on the Internet that I worked from.

The sites that I found expressed some concern that these birds may be threatened, apparently due to habitat loss. This UK site offers more information: The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

12 Days of Christmas

I rather like the 12 days of Christmas because everything is so much calmer after Dec. 25. I also like the imagery in the song, especially all the birds, and so was pleased to read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week in the birding column by Jim Williams about how some American ornithologists, Jeff & Amy Price, did a little research on the song and suggested several North American species that would be the equivalent to the ones named in the song.

They also said that the first seven verses are all about birds -- that the "5 golden rings" were really a distortion of a Scottish term for a type of turkey -- "gulderer."

This got me to doing a little bit of Web research of my own (nothing comprehensive, mind you, though I may yet) and, indeed, I found other sources that agreed with the Prices, at least in so much as that the five golden rings are a mistake and that it should really be some kind of bird. One site thought the "rings" referred to ring-necked pheasants or some such.

A few of these sites pointed to a book called The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Celebration and History by Leigh Grant, written in 1995 and, fortunately, available in our public library system, so I have requested it.

My sister-in-law also reminded me that there have at times been rumors going around the Internet that the 12 Days were originally composed by oppressed/repressed Catholics under English Protestant rule as a secret way of remembering certain tenets of their faith. This, as one might suppose, is a myth that started circulating in the 1990s. Maybe it's what motivated Grant to write his book? Anyway, I look forward to reading it and I'll try to post a little bit about it here once I do.

Well I got this idea to do a sketch on each of the 12 days of Christmas based on the song subject for that day as a way to make a practice of drawing something in my journal every day. So this partridge in a pear tree (really a maple tree that was outside the Nokomis Beach coffee shop where I drew it) was my first day's excercise. Although I actually drew it on Dec. 24 (would that be day minus-1?) after taking a break from standing in the kitchen a little too much. It's still mild and nearly snowless here, so I rode my bike to the coffee shop and sipped a mocha while I drew the tree just outside the window, and looked at earlier drawings I had done from pictures of partridges to craft this one (this is supposed to be a red-legged partridge, which is a European bird; most English sites referencing the song mention the grey partridge, also European, but I thought the red-legged one was more interesting to draw).

Except, not only is the "pear" tree incorrect here, but also the partridge. I read on an English ornithology Web site, that partridges are ground-dwelling birds -- "never likely to be found in pear trees!"

The North American counterpart to the partridge (never mind that we do have grey partridges here because they've been introduced -- they're not native to this continent) would be a type of grouse, say the Prices.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Muted music

Still no snow here. It should bother me more, but I'm enjoying being able to bike to the library and walk the dog without pulling on boots. A little global warming in northern latitudes may not be so bad, for the human species anyway.

It's cloudy today and very quiet out. We live near the airport but don't often hear the planes, I think we must have lucked out in avoiding the flight path somehow. Sometimes I can hear the traffic on the Crosstown freeway (Hwy 62), about 8 blocks away, but by 10 a.m. or so it's not noticeable.

Which means that I could hear the soft nasal nyeh-nyeh of a nuthatch hopping about in the trees, and even though I didn't spot it, I could picture it working its way head-down to find the little insects hidden in the crannies of the bark. I have a feeder designed to hold peanuts for the nuthatches, but I have neglected it -- it's not near a window, so I forget about it. Must do something about that, find a way to hang it in the large maple tree near the kitchen window. The branches are so big around that my old hanging device didn't fit.

I also heard the distinctive singular chirp! of the little downy woodpecker, which I did spy up high in a tree reaching over the street. It was hopping along a horizontal branch, apparently looking for a good spot to settle in and start pecking. It hadn't found one yet by the time I turned the corner.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

No returns

I was sitting at Sovereign Grounds coffee shop, at 48th and Chicago Ave. in South Minneapolis, waiting for the original Amazon bookstore to open because I had some orders to pick up, when I began to pick up on a conversation at a nearby table where a woman was telling a story about buying several bags of (presumably, Hershey's) kisses for some recipe, along with several other items, "and the total came to $36," she said, "and we didn't question it." Now I'm expecting to hear her say that she was overcharged, but instead she continues by explaining how she figured that they were undercharged.

She explains, "We bought 3 sweatshirts and those were $12 each," and then says how the store cashier "scanned the Kisses 6 times but must not have hit the right button." OK, so now I'm expecting the story to continue with how she went back to pay for the unintentionally purloined Kisses, but instead she concludes, "So we got all those Kisses for free." And the friend she was telling this to seemed to share her sense that this was simply a stroke of good luck.

Am I the only one who finds this appalling?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

We've had hardly any snow so far this season, and although I miss the white stuff, I won't mind too much if it continues holding off and the weather settles in below freezing for a prolonged period. If that happens, I may just have to get out my skates. (The lovely photo above, by the way, is not my own; please read below for credit/source info.)

The lakes are beginning to freeze over around here, of course it will take a long stretch of cold weather for them to freeze enough to be safe for ice-skating, but seeing the frozen surface as I drove past Lake Nokomis this afternoon, one of several lakes right in the city of Minneapolis ("The City of Lakes"), it reminded me of the winter a few years ago when we had a prolonged early cold spell but also no snow. The lakes were well-frozen and ready for skating by Christmastime, and our friend Sandra and her kids, Theo and Alice, are avid winter outdoorspeople, so they persuaded us to meet them at Lake Harriet in South Minneapolis for skating one afternoon. My son, Martin, was friends with Theo, so we agreed.

What we found under those rather unusual conditions (a normal winter brings lots of snow to Minnesota), was that we could easily skate out to the middle of the lake. Normally, of course, there would be a large area cleared of snow, but the size of the official ice rink paled in comparison with the whole lake.

Harriet is a pretty little lake about 3 miles in circumference, with a charming building on its north shore (pictured). So to skate out to the middle of the lake and look back at the refectory was quite pleasant. And once out there, we met people fishing through holes they had drilled in the ice (a fairly popular sport in Minnesota). We asked them how the fish were biting and then headed off in some other direction. There were a couple of people with ice-boats, which glided over the surface guided by colorful sails.

The whole experience was delightful and certainly memorable, so I wouldn't mind if we could skate the whole lake once again; even though I do like the snow.

The photo of the Lake Harriet bandshell, as viewed from the land looking out at the lake, was taken by Hwee Fuan Tey,
I found it at

(If I skate out onto the lake this winter, I'll take and post a photo from that point of view!)