KISS my magnet – or may the Force be with you!

KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – a great motto, at least for me, for the simpler it gets the more profound it seems to get and the simplest and most profound piece of science I remember from what? Elementary school? Junior High? I’m not sure. Maybe even high school. But it was at least 50 years ago, so while the insignificant details have escaped me, the significant detail remains: Like magic, iron filings dropped on a sheet of paper line up along the lines of force created by a bar magnet placed underneath that paper.

Why do I find this so profound? Because it is action at a distance. Oh sure, you say, the thickness of the paper – not much of a distance. No! Look at how the magnetic force reaches out to left and right several inches beyond the magnet. That’s distance!

And order. Pour iron filings onto a sheet of paper and you have chaos. It looks like this.

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But place a magnet under that piece of paper, then sprinkle the filings on it and you get something like this. (I like watching this in fullscreen – and meditative – mode. It is not intended ot be a wham-bam-thank-you-mam video. Damn! I want things to slow down long enough for me to engage something other than the skin of my brain.)

Simple. You’ve all seen it, right? Or have you? I’m not sure I saw it as a child. But with each passing year – with growing knowledge – I feel my eyes start to open. What was so understandable – I mean there was a “north” end and a “south” end and of course the filings lined up this way because magnets attract iron, dummy. What’s to know?

Well how? Please tell me what is actually happening here? Why should a magnet attract the filings? What are “north-south”, “positive-negative,” but names we’ve applied to a concept we can observe and predict, but don’t really understand. Naming it doesn’t mean it’s ours. Why should “opposites attract” and “like” repel one another? And what is actually doing the attracting and repelling? I know the rules. I know something about atoms. I know just enough about “how” to predict what will happen. I know how to create an electromagnet. I know about radio waves and light waves and a host of other waves that are part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

And I know nothing at all of what’s really going on here.

I know when I look through my telescope at a distant galaxy that electromagnetic waves – energy – from the stars in that galaxy are somehow pinging my brain. And on a fundamental basis I simply don’t know how. I don’t know what that energy is or how it manages to travel all that distance undiminished. (Oh sure, it spreads out. But a photon – something-or-either we name “photon” – leaves a star at 186,200 miles a second and it continues that way for several million years never losing a step until it vanishes into my body. That’s real contact with the real universe, but certainly way beyond our common-sense experience. )

Modern technology tends to obscure the magic – hide it in black boxes that look complex – and are – when you open them up.

So I make simple black boxes. Crystal radio sets, . Simple, simple, simple devices – a few, easy to understand parts. A long wire put in the air. And when I pick up the headphones, sounds. Intelligent sounds. Well, frequently not intelligent these days. AM radio is overloaded with talk-show idiots, or people selling religion or ronco slaad shooters. But that’s not the point. The point is that all the energy that created that sound in my headphones didn’t come from the magic of an electrical socket. And it didn’t come form the magic of a battery. It was drawn instead out of the air – out of the force fields – the electromagnetic waves created by some distant transmitter.

I understand this stuff – honest. That is, I can build from scratch fairly sophisticated radio receivers and transmitters and have done so of and on since my youth. So what. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I have a collection of rules I follow. Connect the arm bone to the shoulder bone – that sort of thing. I know something of the theory of how it all works – why I create coils and capacitors and how they work together in a tuned circuit to select only certain frequencies out of the babel that surrounds us and goes entirely unnoticed by us.

So i take the black boxes we purchase and call radios and I throw them out. I want something simpler. So I build a crystal set. But it’s still complex. little pictures whiz about my head of all those electrons pouring down the wire, heading for ground, but first spining through my coils, pausing in my capacitors, getting chopped in half by a galium crystal and fed into my headphones were they create elctromagnetics that’s pop a thin metal disc in and out so rapidly that it creates sounds. Geeeeeeesh. That’s too much, still. So I go the Edmund Scientific catalog and find a bar magnet and some iron filings and now I’m really functioning at the KISS level. I love it. I can watch this little video over and over. More importantly, i can do the little experiment again and again. I can meditate with the paper before me.

It’s the way I rig encounters with the profoundly unknown. Yes, i can do the same by looking at a candle -a flower, a pebble, an old arrowhead. It’s just that I find some things more stimulating than others – more likely to awake in me that childish sense of wonder I crave. A magnet, a piece of paper and osme iron filings do that. Don’t get me wrong. I assume it’s all knowable. I certainly think it’s all part of one world – the natural world. I don’t see anything super natural. I just see a natural that’s super 😉

Sno’ what! Well, Santa needs it, so enjoy ;-)

Hey, I know some folks don’t like snow, but me and Higgins are excited about what we saw as we looked out the window this morning.

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And all those kids expecting Santa CLaus know you can’t land a sleigh on a roof very easily without snow.

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So if you don’t like snow – and I admit, the older I get the less fun winter is – just suck it up and deal with it because short of heading south, you have no control. Me – I still think it makes a beautiful world even more beautiful!

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Swims – yes swims – like an eagle!

map1_eagleBack in August of 2006 what started as a very casual, “let’s get out of the house” expedition, turned into the most memorable birding event of our lives. I wrote this account shortly afterwards and have decided to include it here.

It was 4 pm on a Sunday and I was feeling kind of hum-drum, so I suggested to Bren we do some shore birding. She was recovering from an overnight trip to Vermont and at first didn’t want to go, but as I fiddled around delaying my departure she decided to join me. On a whim, as we sat in the driveway, I suggested we could go see if we could find the bald eagles that, according to a recent newspaper article, were nesting on North Watuppa Pond. “Sure,” she said, so we headed north. Watuppa is the water supply for the City of Fall River so as far as I know there’s only one small strip of causeway that gives a good view of the pond and it’s at the north end. There’s no boating, fishing, swimming, etc. allowed.

So in about 25 minutes we pulled up on the causeway ( the circle marked “1” on the second map) and began scanning with our glasses. Almost immediately we saw a bird above the tree line of a distant shore that looked awfully big and seemed to have the flat-winged glide of an eagle! Then as I continued to scan I picked up a white head in a distant pine tree off on the same eastern shore. (The circle marked “2” on the second map.) I was sure it was a bald eagle. Then I saw its white tail as well. I was using the 15X45 IS Canon’s and Bren was using much smaller glasses of just 8X, but she found him too.

We were thrilled. Neither of us have seen more than a couple of eagles in the wild in our lives, so just seeing this one off in the distance was great.

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As we both watched the eagle in the pine tree – he was maybe two-thirds up from the water – no nest in sight – a second eagle suddenly came into view. This one was closer, maybe 10-feet above the water, and flying from right to left. We saw he was approaching a seagull and I murmured something like “bet he steals that gull’s fish.”

Wrong. The target was the gull and he got it in the blink of an eye. We both shuddered. Yes, this is nature. There’s nothing wrong here. Eagles have to eat too. But neither of us enjoys seeing one animal kill another animal. Still, we watched as the eagle floated on top of the water, the seagull underneath it. ( See the circle marked “3” on the second map.) About a minute passed – it’s hard to say exactly how long – and then he took off, gull in his talons. But he hardly got above the water with his load than he plopped back down in.

This time it didn’t look like he was going to get out. I had heard that young osprey sometimes catch a fish that is too large for them, but their talons lock in, they can’t let go, and they end up drowning. Was this what we were about to see?

Then the most incredible thing happened. The eagle – a mature bird at least four years old with white head and white tail, started swimming. I kid you not. There was a small chop on the water and wind blowing that slapped at him. But he held his head out of the water, as well as his white tail, and we could see him rowing – yes, rowing is the best way to describe it – with his wings. It seemed like an act of desperation, but experienced birders perhaps see this all the time. I don’t know. In any event, from our stand point we seriously wondered whether we were going to witness the demise of both the prey and predator. He was in the middle of the pond at a point where it is about 2,000 feet across. The nearest shore was perhaps 600 feet away. It’s hard to be sure, but reviewing the maps afterwards this is our best guess. That’s where the tree was that held the other adult eagle – who must have witnessed this, but was doing nothing. He just sat and watched. (Well he or she – we don’t know how to tell the difference.)

But our eagle wasn’t heading for that closer shore. He (she?) was striking out in the other direction. Not straight into the wind, but off towards a quite distant shore to the west with the wind coming from the outh west. Was she confused? To our surprise, she made steady progress. At first I thought she wa barely treading water, But then I noticed the background changing. Very fast, really. So we eventually decided she knew what she was doing, though we continued to wonder out loud if she could make it. Then, ahead of her, after what seemed like a longer time thanit was, we spotted a rock. “Bet she’s heading for that!”

And indeed she was. There actually was a shallow area there, still quite far out in the pond, with two or three rocks and some reed visible, and after a swim of perhaps 10 minutes and covering about 1,000 feet, the eagle clamored up on the rock, dragging its prey behind it. (See yellow dot marked “4.”) I believe she had the gull in a just her left talon, though it was on the down slope of the rock facing away from us, so was difficult to be sure.

We breathed a collective sigh of relief, then watched as the feathers started flying. That went on for another 30 minutes or so, then she took off, some portion of the prey still in her talons, and headed towards the western side of the pond where we presume the nest is. She was out of view pretty quickly,

And the other adult? He stayed in the tree. We decided it must have been a male, since men enjoy watching women prepare dinner 😉 Incidentally, other gulls came by apparently investigating this event and it looked like a couple might try to harass the eagle as it swam, but they didn’t get too close. As it ate its prey, a flock of about 20 gulls floated on the water between the two eagles, either unaware, or unbothered by the recent events.

But in all seriousness – seeing two eagles would have made this a red-letter birding day. Seeing an eagle catch a gull would have upped it a notch, certainly making it nearly as memorable as the day we saw eight eagles and over 1,600 broadwings from atop Mount Watatic in northern Massachusetts. But watching that eagle swim all that distance with its prey – that put this event off the charts and what a delight it was to share it with each other!

I sought independent confirmation and while I found this was a shock to many – including some experienced birder friends – it is not totally unusual. In fact, it has been captured on film more than once. I just searched on YouTube and came up with this video, obviously taken from a boat that was very close to the eagle. Our eagle was not nearly so close, but it swam exactly as this one is doing. (If video fails to load, try going directly to it here.)


When I first posted this story on my old Natural High blog, I received several comments from folks – including birders – who felt this was indeed unusual. One, who spent serious time watching eagles in Alaska where they are quite common, said she never saw anything like this. But she shared it with a friend who wrote back to her:

VERY cool story….very cool. I was struck by his comment/query that perhaps this was not something out of the usual for habitual birders. So, out of curiousity (you know how curious I am). I Googled “swimming bald eagle” and came up with these sites. The first has PHOTOS of an eagle swimming much as Greg’s story recounts.

(The link that was given here no lnger works ;-(

The second is a story of a similar incident (catching a fish that was too big) with an eagle in Alaska that also swam to a rock with its prey.
And this is from an “ask an eagle expert” site.

Q. Can a Bald Eagle swim?

A. Great question. Absolutely. They are very good swimmers, and I’ve even seen older nestlings who can’t fly yet swim. It’s not uncommon for an eagle to “misjudge” and latch into a fish too heavy/large for it to fly with, so they then may swim quite a distance to shore (wouldn’t want to let go of lunch now would we), drag the fish up on shore and then eat it.

So, thanks for an interesting time–reading Greg’s captivating account and then searching for info on something that I didn’t know……they SWIM (and the photos in the first website are very cool too).

Any comments? Information on similar incidents? Expertise on eagle behavior? Please share using the comments form below.

Bob’s Hawk

I love hawks and redtails are familiar to many of us, but my friend Bob Magnuson got to know one up close and personal and his story has a fascinating conclusion. Bob’s main interest these day’s is astronomy, but here’s his story from his youth growing up on a Massachusetts farm.

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The pictures of Bob's hawk are long lost, so here's a redtail over Wachusetts mountain snapped a few years ago, I'd like to think is a distant descendant of Bob's bird.

Back around 1962 or 1963, a Redtail hawk became part of my life, spending several months in my care. It started one afternoon in the fall, when my stepdad went partridge hunting on the hill behind our house along the northern edge of Milford, Massachusetts. Route 495 runs right through the old homestead, but back then, we were in the middle of a large area of woods. There was a large brush pile about half way up the hill, leftovers from a few days of cutting firewood for our greenhouse. We had seen partridge hiding in this brush pile on several occasions, and my stepdad decided to see if he could bag one or two of them for dinner. I was working in our garden next to the house, and had seen him heading up the hill with his .410 shotgun. Within a few minutes, I heard a single shot and wondered if he had been successful.

When I saw my stepdad coming back across the field at the foot of the hill, he had his shotgun slung over his shoulder, his jacket was off, and he was holding the jacket out in front of him, obviously wrapped around something that he did not want to close to his body. He called me to come and see what he had. I ran over to him, and he said to stand back a little while he unwrapped his bundle. As he flipped back one corner of his jacket, I beheld one seriously angry Redtail hawk hissing at me and immediately beginning to struggle to get away. Flipping the corner back over the hawk’s head caused him to stop struggling just as quickly. I was stunned. ‘Where did you get him?’ was all I could think to say. He explained that he was not the only one to be hunting partridge that day, that the hawk must have already caught one and was sitting on the ground on the far side of the brush pile having lunch when my stepdad came in sight. The hawk immediately launched into the air, and my stepdad, thinking it was a partridge, swung his shotgun around to fire. As he pulled the trigger, he realized the true identity of the bird, and deflected his shot at the last moment in hopes of missing him. That probably saved the bird’s life, but part of the blast hit his left wing at the elbow, and the hawk fell to the ground. It was hurt, but obviously not too badly, and it was trying to run and flap its wings to get away. But it could not fly. Throwing his jacket over the bird allowed him to calm it, and pick it up. Carefully examining the wound, he saw exposed bones, but no breaks, and he felt that the hawk would survive, but that it would need the care of our local veterinarian.

A quick call to the doctor revealed that he wanted nothing to do with a wild bird, but based on our description of the wound, he would give us some medications for the hawk and we could deal with it ourselves. Placing the hawk in an old rabbit hutch for what we thought would be a few days, we went to the vet’s office and got some antibiotic drops to clean the wound, and some topical cream to dress it. It was nightfall by the time we got back to the poor bird to see how he (or maybe she) was doing. We were greeted by a furious hissing from the very angry hawk, who tried very hard to break out of the cage. We had stuck a temporary perch through the wires of the hutch, and the hawk held onto it for dear life. Even with leather gloves on, it seemed awfully risky to attempt to pick him up, since that beak looked very dangerous and the hawk seemed to be thoroughly ticked off. Eventually we decided to try to ‘bomb’ him with the antibiotic drops by dripping them through the top wires. After several tries, we actually got some medicine onto the wound. We never figured out how to get the cream on his wounds, so we only used the drops. We also pushed some strips of raw liver through the wires, which the hawk immediately grabbed and ate.

Days turned into weeks, and the wound eventually healed, but a large bald spot remained on the wing of ‘our hawk’ and he was obviously still in some degree of pain, since he seldom moved that wing as compared to the healthy one. We gained an ally in the meat manager of the grocery store where my mom worked, and he gladly gave us scraps and old meat to feed to the hawk, so he got a steady diet of chicken, turkey and liver, which is probably much like his wild diet. At least he seemed to be healthy, even if he never seemed very grateful. Over the course of the fall and winter, we slowly nursed him back to health. And although he seemed to get more used to us, every time we touched his cage to push meat through the wires, he hissed or screamed at us and glared as if he would love to eat the hand that was feeding him. He never, ever, seemed to become a tame hawk. However, as his health returned, he certainly became a beautiful bird, with richly patterned feathers and a regal bearing that always indicated that he was only tolerating his imprisonment, not accepting it. His eyes were steady and piercing, and he never looked away from us, but stared right into our eyes. Sometimes I would catch him dozing on the perch, with his feathers all puffed up against the cold. He was a beautiful bird.

During this time, I found out how hawks make their piercing screams. In the back of their tongues is a small hole surrounded by cartilage. This was easy to see when he hissed at us. By blowing through this hole, he was able to make low screams or high screams as the spirit moved him, but always through a fully opened and ferocious-looking beak. Also, he spent hours each day grooming his feathers, carefully pulling each one through that same fierce beak, without seeming to damage any of them. As feathers slowly grew back over the wound area, he always spent extra time working on those. Soon, he was fully covered again, and seemed ready to fly. That particular winter was a tough one, though, and we did not want to release him back into the wild until it seemed that the weather would be more favorable. So we kept him all through the late winter into early spring. By this time, he was flapping his wings quite often while holding onto the perch, obviously trying to regain some muscle tone.

Eventually, in late April or early May, we felt it was time to release him. We opened the cage and backed off, but he refused to budge. So we left the barn, with the back door open to see if he would let himself out. Soon, the cries of blue jays and robins told us that he was out in the open and garnering plenty of attention from his natural enemies. Peering around the back of the barn, we spied him sitting in the old Macintosh apple tree, on a low branch and not moving. He sat there with calm dignity as every blue jay from miles around sat in the same tree squawking at him. During this time, he moved only to shift branches, but we never caught him in the act of moving, so we didn’t know if he could fly or was just hopping to the next branch. The squawks went on for several hours, until finally night fell.

In the morning, I rushed out to see how he was doing. The apple tree was empty, and not a blue jay in sight. I wandered around the area for a while, and saw no sign of him. When my stepdad came outside, he went directly to the apple tree and looked on the ground for feathers. Not seeing any, he said that at least the raccoons had not gotten him, so perhaps he had actually flown away. I felt relief, but sadness at the same time. It had been quite a privilege to care for such a magnificent animal, and I already missed him. But I also wondered if in fact he had survived the night and flown away, or just crawled off to die.

Months went by, and ‘my’ hawk was only a memory. Besides, we had so many hawks behind our house that we considered naming our farm ‘Hawk Ridge’ and I saw hawks flying nearly every day. But one afternoon, while I was working in the garden, a strange and wonderful thing happened, which may or may not have anything to do with this story. I’ll let you decide. I was leaning over a hoe, weeding, when a hawk’s piercing screech made me turn to look up. There, a large hawk kept twisting directly over me, screaming and turning in tight circles. I stood up to watch, and I asked myself ‘Could it be him?’ Then, to my utter amazement, he tucked in his wings and hurtled from the sky directly at me. I was too stunned to move, but suddenly he spread his wings and flew straight away from me no more than four or five feet off the ground, until he was about 100 feet away. Swooping up into the air, he hovered over me again, screaming, and repeated this action two more times. Then he climbed higher and went over the ridge and out of sight. I never saw him again, nor did any other hawk ever act that way toward me when I was out in that garden. Most soaring hawks, when they see a human in the open, gently tilt their wings and slide away.

Perhaps because I have been a pilot, raptors have always fascinated me. I’ll always stop to watch a Peregrine or Redtail, and my few views of eagles have always been a thrill. I think I know how they act much of the time, and how they fly, and how they stoop from the sky in pursuit of food. What happened to me that day in my garden will always stick in my mind. Never, not once, have any of the hundreds of raptors that I have watched done anything like that one hawk did. I can only believe that that was my hawk, and he was just stopping by to say hello, or maybe thanks, and then he was off to do what wild hawks do. It was just too weird, too intentional, to be some random act of a wild bird.

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Note: My older, now static blog, “Natural High,” contains many nature stories and pictures, mostly from my own experience.