It’s early morning in Rivendell, a smoke-cloaked fantasyland outside my back door. Hobbits and dwarfs sit with their morning coffee around kitchen tables in stone huts along pathways pressed by millions of footfalls through the forest on the far side of the glen.

This close to July, the morning sun should have the air warmed to near-80 but this morning it is only about 60, reflecting the reason the sun is a hazy gray over the land as smoke from numerous forest fires, blown from eastern Canada to the midwestern states of Ohio and Illinois and now back to the eastern Manor of Maske—known less imaginatively as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

As I sit mixing reality with imagination, I wonder how much of the haze around the cup of black brew that warms my hands is mixed with the effluent of an antique home that burned this weekend in the shire and the thousands of homes burning still in Ukraine.

A mixture of flying colors—Goldfinches, Blue jays, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, House Sparrows and the occasional Brown Thrasher—scatter through yon woods like a bag of M&Ms, making brief forays into the grassland to dine, a few from among the leaves of grass, most from the feeders hanging from iron shepherd crooks stuck in the ground.

Some people can hear a bird and know immediately the species of winged critter that uttered the notes. I’m lucky if I can identify a crow.

I exaggerate, but only a little. I identified a Fish Crow a few minutes ago, though I must admit to having cheated. I now have an app on my smartphone that will listen to a bird call and tell me its origin. Until a few minutes ago, I would have been fairly certain it was a generic crow, and not a raven.

I have always marveled at people who could identify a bird by its song. My difficulty has been, generally speaking, if I could see it, I could not hear it, and vice versa. The avifauna that populate the area of my feeders—and there are many (birds, that is)—seem mostly too bashful when they take the sound stage. The result is I get to hear many birds I cannot see and see many I cannot hear.

Enter Merlin, a creation of Cornell Lab, of Cornell University. I have for several years used the app to identify birds I could see. You tell the app where you are and the size and primary colors of the bird and up pop a selection of likely choices from which you choose.

Until this afternoon, I have never trusted that my smartphone would hear a bird song with enough fidelity to make an identification. Clearly I was in error. My first attempt was a Carolina Wren, and those tiny guys are LOUD! I had been lucky to have seen one sit on a nearby fence post one day and jeer at me with great vigor, as though making up for its size in vocal volume.

Within about an hour while visually wandering about my backyard, I have seen Merlin identify the aforementioned wren, a Tufted Titmouse and a Gray Catbird,. At least, I am willing to give it credit for the latter two. I have seen both on the feeders, and heard them in the trees. It would be nice, of course, to hear them while watching them.

Patience, my lad!

According to the weather prognosticators, the smoke is moving east, returning to the northeastern part of the U.S. becoming almost thick enough to require a firemen’s Scott Pack. I reminisce about the pandemic, when at least one could leave the house to walk beside a creek. (Today’s sky brought to you by Exxon, a world class fossil burner.)

John Messeder is an award-winning environmental columnist and social anthropologist, and lives in Gettysburg, PA. He may be contacted at