Friday, March 31, 2006

Buck the Bull

One of the things I love about running a bluebird trail is that it gives me an excuse to drive down Stanleyville Road a lot. Stanleyville Road has a lot going for it. It's beautiful and relatively unspoiled. There is a colony of red-headed woodpeckers in mature oak-hickory forest on the Warren Boys' land. I heard one call yesterday as I was out watching the cowboys run their cattle. These spectacular birds are vanishingly rare around here and disappearing fast. We treasure our local red-headed woodpeckers and bring lots of people out Stanleyville Road to see them.
We've put five new bluebird boxes up on the Warren land, just in time for the new season. Overnight, bluebirds started a nest in one of them!
I was out looking at the new boxes and was delighted to see Buck the Bull, who, thanks to my NPR commentary, is quite a famous guy. He's an exceptionally nice guy, too, and he licked my hand. Being a bull, he performed flehmen (a Dutch word for that weird face animals make when they're assessing pheromones).
I guess he decided I wasn't all that interesting, because then he let me scratch his forehead.
Buck is 9, going on 10 now, which is old for an Angus bull, but he's still throwing calves. Jeff and Jay like him because he's so gentle. I like him because of what he did a few years ago. For those of you who haven't got audio capability, here's the transcript of my commentary, which aired on All Things Considered on November 2, 2005:

The Sentient Bull
On the country road that I take into town, there’s a beautiful pasture, dotted with multi-colored cattle. In the middle lies Buck, an enormous Angus bull with curly hair on his forehead. Lying in the green grass, he’s a big black rhombus, chewing his cud peacefully.
I always stop, roll down my window, and speak to Buck. He’ll roll an eye my way, and sometimes even get up and shamble a few steps toward me. I’ve got a soft spot for him.
A few years ago, Buck’s owner, an elderly farmer who kept his fences clean and pastures lush, was out feeding the herd when he suffered a massive coronary, and dropped in his tracks. The gate was open, and he lay where he fell, in the middle of the road. A passing motorist saw Buck standing over Dale’s body, and feared the worst. Ambulances arrived, and the bull, assumed to be the killer, was driven back into the pasture.
The paramedics worked on Dale there in the road, but it was no use. He’d died with his boots on, and everyone agreed that going that way beat any number of other scenarios.
As the ambulance pulled away, someone went to collect the bucket Dale had been using to give Buck his daily ration of grain. Buck was still standing, watching, and his grain was untouched.
Those of us who enjoy a nice Angus steak now and then would probably rather not know why Buck did what he did that day. That he may have been standing over Dale to protect him. That he may have understood what was happening. We may not wish for cattle to know so much, but they know. Theirs is a life that is all about death.
As jobs for cattle go, Buck has a good one. He’s a herd sire with twenty sleek wives, and a crop of frolicsome calves each spring. Now, Dale’s nephews are the ones who scratch his forehead and bring him treats. And, three mornings a week, there’s a lady who stops and talks to him. But his friend Dale won’t be coming back. That much, Buck knows.

Color from the Conservatory

Part of my Cattleya loot from the orchid show! Shot during a rare sunny moment.

It's just relentlessly cold and dreary here. They say it will warm up by Friday. I thought you could use some color, because I sure can. During the orchid show last weekend, Cindy, Shila and I wandered through Franklin Park Conservatory's beautiful exhibits. Every year, the Conservatory raises butterflies and releases them in the rainforest exhibit area. They float through, feeding on flowers and fruit, and people reach out to them as they pass, like they'd reach out to the Queen, just hoping to make contact. I found it so touching to watch. For some reason it doesn't occur to me to hold my hand out to a butterfly going by--I just let it pass. But everyone else tried to touch them. It was very sweet.There's a big koi pond with some real lunkers in it. My favorite is Lemon Boy. The glass spheres by the amazing artist Dale Chihulhy set them off so beautifully. FPC has a knack for pairing the work of artists with the art of horticulture and animal husbandry. I love this place. You never know what sculpture or artwork might be peeking out of the vegetation!We watched the koi picking up coins from the bottom of the pool, sucking them, and then spitting them back out. It's something to do. They doubtless get pretty bored cruising the same figure eight all day long.

Back at the orchid exhibits, some Paphiopedalums (ZOWIE!!)and Phragmipediums (both representatives of the ladyslipper tribe, but from far-flung places like Borneo)drew me back into the luscious world of orchids. Back home on my windowsill, two Paphiopedalums are sending up buds. I cannot wait!! OK, that's enough cheery positivity for anyone...

I hope you're enjoying this blog. I truly don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep it up. Blogger has been giving me fits for weeks now. About 75% of the time, I waste an hour or two just trying to get a single post up. I attempt to post the photos five and six times for each post you read. I get "Bad Response from Server" most of the time. And then I have to try again, hours later. This is an art form for me, and constantly working against Blogger is a colossal drag. It's like having all my watercolors dry into rock. I don't know what's to blame, but what should be (and once was) a pleasure is now a hassle. Life's too short, and it should be lived to the fullest. Endlessly fooling around with Blogger isn't part of my plan. If any other bloggers out there have a solution, or a hassle-free blog server, I'd love to hear about it. It's a big, beautiful world, and I love sharing it, but the hassle, I can live without.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hateful Mary Grace and Other Characters

Cattle are individuals. Any farmer can tell you that. I've spent time recently hanging over the fence on the Warren property, watching Jeff and Jay work with their cattle. I find it fascinating because each animal requires a different approach, based on its temperament. This is Mary Grace. Her name is usually prefaced by the word Hateful. So she's Hateful Mary Grace. Or Mary Grace You Worthless Ol' Blister. When Mary Grace has a new calf, the Warrens don't even go in the corral with her. You can see how she pins her ears back and rolls her eyes. That body language is pretty universal in the animal world. She can throw a kick like lightning.
This is beautiful gray Betty. She's boss cow of the small herd. Betty had a calf this spring who looks like a little gray mouse. What a gorgeous little thing! Wonder if she'll grow up to be nice or hateful?Jay and Jeff were assessing the cattle, trying to guess which would be the next one to drop her calf. They were making reference to "loosening up" and "bagging up" which mean, respectively, the softening of the cartilage in the pelvis just prior to delivery, and the swelling of the udder, both signs that birth is imminent. As someone who has both loosened and bagged up, twice, I can empathize with these girls. Imagine standing around in cold mud when you're about to deliver. Jay and Jeff try to make sure the cattle are in the corral by the barn so they'll have shelter nearby before they calve, especially if cold rain will be falling.

If I had time, I would probably hang over the Warrens' fence around the clock in calving time.
They showed me a cat nest in the barn, a nice deep bowl in the hay, like a rabbit nest. I'd never seen a cat nest like that. The mother left reluctantly to reveal two babies. The little gray kitten was hissing madly, trying to scare me away, while the black one hid its face. Individuals. All animals are individuals. Scientists are just now trying to establish that fact with quantifiable, reproducible studies. We're all such saps for saying our dogs or our cattle have personalities. Brilliant Chet Baker, Bossy Betty and Hateful Mary Grace are figments of our collective imagination. Better to start working with fruit flies, which nobody could argue have individual personalities. So somebody has shown that some fruit flies are more aggressive and "bossy" than others. It's a start. But those of us who live among animals know it's a lot more complex than that. News flash: Hominids aren't the only ones out there who think and feel, who chart their own individual course on the planet. And not everything can be quantified or reproduced. And that's OK with those of us who thrive on anecdotal evidence, and are content to be animal-admiring saps.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Orchid Overkill

I woke up early Sunday morning with my heart racing. Christmas morning doesn't make my heart race anymore. No, Christmas morning makes me lie there in the dark thinking, "Do I have everything ready? Will the kids like their presents? Did I get enough for Bill? Did I remember everybody?"
But looking forward to going to an orchid show with Shila is entirely different. It's pure hedonism. The tableau above may not raise your pulse rate, but it does mine. They're all gorgeous, they're all healthy, and they're all FOR SALE.
I've noticed an evolution of my tastes as the orchid-collecting hook sinks deeper and deeper. At first, I'd only look at the genus Phalaenopsis, because I knew I could get them to bloom and thrive on my windowsills. These display plants bordered on ridiculous. The big pink one was a plant no bigger than some of mine, but I couldn't count the blossoms on it. Phalaenopsis are great plants. But there are many degrees of success where orchids are concerned. I think I'm doing well to get nine flowers to a spike. I wonder what they feed this thing?

Beyond Phalaenopsis, the rest of the orchids were scary and mysterious to me. But slowly, I branched out, to Doritaenopsis (an intergeneric cross between Phalaenopsis and Doritis), and those did fine. Dendrobiums bloomed freely for me. So I got a couple of tiny orchids in the Cattleya alliance. (Orchid freaks group a number of genera into loose alliances based on their ancestry, and this also gives us a clue how to care for them.) I remember when I bought my first miniature from the Cattleya alliance, I asked the vendor how to care for it. "Like a Cattleya," he replied, and Shila and I looked at each other, wondering, "Well, what does that mean?" We nodded knowingly, and then scurried away to laugh at ourselves. So we hit the books and found out that a Cattleya needs more light and less water than the orchids we were more familiar with.
Potinara "Burana Beauty" is a Cattleya type, and I blame it for getting me in big trouble at the last show. For color and fragrance and exotic form, this plant really does it for me. I bought it three years ago. It had three flowers on it. The first time it rebloomed for me, it had 14 flowers. And I thought, "I can DO this!" And that's when the fever set in. The challenge lies in venturing farther afield from one's horticultural comfort zone. The reward lies in delicate, fragrant, utterly exotic blossoms and thriving plants that would seem to have no business living on your bedroom windowsill. And there's really nothing to it. You just get the light, medium, food and water right and stand back. Talk about bragging rights.
Encyclia cordigera, the orchid I fell hopelessly in love with in Guatemala, was there in the form of a prizewinning display plant, draped in blue ribbons. I was standing at one of the vendor booths, lamenting to Dave Brigner that nobody seemed to have it for sale, when he pointed just to my right. "Well, there it is!" he said. He had recognized it from its leaves and buds. This was the first orchid Dave ever grew--when he was 14. Needless to say, I snapped that baby up. When those buds open, the first thing they'll see is my smiling face.
When I was a little girl, I used haunt three of our neighbors on our suburban Richmond street. I would just show up and follow them around their houses and yards, by the hour. Dr. William Stepka was a plant pathologist with a penchant for azaleas and rhododendrons. Mrs. Edna Hunter grew orchids in two little greenhouses in her backyard. And Dick and JoAnn Cook grew orchids on a sunporch. Of the four horticultural mentors, only Mrs. Hunter is still alive. They were all so kind to me, the plant-obsessed Dennis the Menace, the thing that wouldn't leave. I wish they could all know what a gift they gave me, by letting me follow them around and ask them endless questions. It seems to me that no kindness extended to a child is ever wasted. It took years for me to build up the courage to grow orchids, but I realize that all the while I was shadowing my neighbors, I was soaking in the experience that would lead me to one day try it myself. Thank you, Bill, Edna, Dick and JoAnn.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Third Class All the Way

A dusky salamander, lovely little beast.
I had a wonderful adventure with my new friend Mike Austin last week. Mike is a herpetologist who works for the Ohio Department of Transportation. We met at a wildlife workshop last summer, where we were both giving presentations for the public. Only problem: No public showed up. So the presenters wound up yakking and networking happily, and my acquaintance with Mike "took." I've been sending him photos and records of herps found on our place. Surprisingly little is known about the herpetofauna of Washington County. For instance, I've found rough green snake and hognose snake on our place, and those turn out to be significant records for the county. It's nice to add little pieces of the jigsaw puzzle when you can.
As part of his work, Mike is interested in getting a conservation easement on one or both of the streams on our 80-acre property--almost as interested as we are. In order to qualify for an easement, the stream in question must be Class 3. A Class 3 stream holds water year-round. The indicator species for a year-round stream is the two-lined salamander. This animal has a larval stage that is aquatic, with gills, and takes two years or more to develop, so it won't survive in a stream that dries up in midsummer.
Mike and I figured we'd do the easy stream first--the big one with pools of water that stay year-round, the one that's been featured in my blog several times over the winter, with the fabulous ice caves. So we started flipping rocks at the headwaters. We were still flipping rocks when we ran out of stream, and in the entire length of it, we found only one dusky salamander. That's a nice little salamander, but it has a gilled larva for only 7 to 10 months, so it can survive in streams that dry up for part of the year. Hence, it's not an indicator of a permanent stream as is the two-lined salamander. Hmm. Very strange. In fact, we were puzzled by the dearth of vertebrates in this likely-looking stream overall. We wondered if it were too cold for them to be active.
So we moved on, and hit the Loop trail, and headed down into the Chute. We started flipping rocks right away, and the difference in the two streams was stunning. We found some lovely duskies and crayfish, but we weren't really expecting two-lined salamanders, since I was pretty sure the stream dried up in droughty summers. A stone's throw from our property line, I gazed down into the water and found this lovely adult two-lined salamander lazing by a rock. It was like finding a gold nugget. "Well, here he is!" I said to Mike. We would find two more on our land, in our little stream, one a huge adult that disappeared down a secret tunnel when we lifted the rock.This is where we found the first two-lined salamander.Mike's happy because we've been looking for almost three hours.
Our focus shifted immediately from the big, sexy stream to the little piddly one, because that's where the creatures were. I was delighted that our humble stream proved to have adequate habitat for two-lined salamanders. But I'm puzzled and concerned about the dearth of life in the other stream, whose headwaters are on our land. I suspect some event has caused a local extinction of the salamander population, and I'm trying to figure out what that could be. I'm suspicious of an old oil well near the streambed; perhaps oil and brine are leaching into the stream. But we didn't find anything above the well, is a mystery for now.
Mike and I are moving forward with the conservation easement, which is rather modest, protecting only a 30 to 50-foot corridor on either side of the little stream. But it's a start. Somehow, we hope to formalize protection of this entire precious piece of land by the time we are ready to pass it along to Liam and Phoebe. And I hope to have a whole lot more land under protection by then, too. I'm not the lottery-playing type; I want to earn this land. It sustains me and feeds my soul, and it's the inspirational source of everything I write or draw.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Bluebird Box Afternoon

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Boston anymore.

I was doing a million things around the house today when the phone rang. It was Jeff Warren, a neighbor who has been putting up bluebird boxes for years along his pastures and haymeadows. Not long after we moved here, I got nosy about who was doing this, and put a note and one of my bluebird booklets (Enjoying Bluebirds More) in one of his boxes, along with my phone number. We struck up a friendship. Little did Jeff know at first that I was plotting a coup. My plan was to eventually replace Jeff's boxes, which were mounted on fenceposts and thus vulnerable to raccoon and snake predation, with Gilbertson PVC boxes, mounted on conduit and baffled against climbing predators. It took me a few years to work up to it, not from any reluctance on his part, but from inertia on mine. Monitoring Jeff's boxes last summer finally lit a fire under me. I wanted to see what was actually happening in those unprotected boxes.
Now, last season was brutal for bluebirds, baffled or not. April and May were absolutely frigid. We had a major snowstorm--6"--on April 24, when all the boxes were full of naked baby bluebirds. Of 92 eggs laid in my baffled boxes, 52 resulted in fledged bluebirds--a 56% success rate. Which stinks, but nobody can control the weather. In the Warren boxes, 46 eggs laid resulted in 15 fledged bluebirds. And five of those fledglings were fostered in from my trail. So the unbaffled boxes had a 32% success rate (closer to 21% if you don't count the babies I brought in). It was clear that something major had to give. Their well-kept pastureland and hayfield is terrific for bluebirds, and we need to boost that fledging rate.
So I went to the plumbing supply store and bought a bunch of 1/2" iron rebar, 1/2" aluminum conduit, hose clamps, 2' lengths of 7" stovepipe, caps for said stovepipe, and a punch to make a hole in the caps. Ordered a case of PVC bluebird houses from my genius friend Steve Gilbertson in Minnesota. And I made a dozen box and baffled mount setups.
So when the Warren boys called today, I was ready for 'em. There were five box setups ready to replace the fencepost mounted boxes. Eventually, I want to have boxes all along their road, but there's time for that. I have this vision of checking bluebird boxes all the way into town. It's insane, with all the stuff I've got to take care of, but there's so much good habitat, and with the right predator baffles and timely monitoring, you can really crank the baby bluebirds out.
Even with the chilly weather lately, the bluebirds are nesting. We've been traveling so much lately that I'm grateful it's been cold, holding them back a bit--I just haven't had time to throw the box setups together and get the replacement boxes up. There's a nest already started out by our mailbox, and a full nest by the garden. That garden box needed to be replaced, as the coons got over its baffle last summer. So I just put the bluebird nest in a new Gilwood box with a bigger baffle, in the same place. I think she'll accept it and appreciate the upgrade to first class. Bluebirds aren't dumb, and ours have figured out that we do a lot of things to help them out.
When Jeff and brother Jay rolled up, they cut such a figure in their Carhartts that I had to take a picture of them.
Jeff couldn't resist showing me his Bubba special cell phone,with its scrolling message, "Stars and Bars Forever." There's something about those Warren boys (everybody around here calls them the Warren boys) that makes me laugh. They are so cool. From the amount of attention they were paying to Chet Baker, it occurred to me that, as occasional readers of this blog, they were probably here as much to hang out with our famous pooch as for my fancy bluebird box setups. So we made a formal portrait.
Baker thought the Warren boys were just keen, and he wanted very much to ride along with them and help put up bluebird boxes, and maybe round up a few calves for them. So he jumped in Jeff's truck, which prompted Jeff to yell, "Get out of that truck! You'll get all dirty!"
I was mighty glad the Warrens were going to take down their old boxes and put up new ones, because I have some boxes of my own to replace. And I know that the minute the weather warms up, the bluebirds are going to be stuffing grass in them as fast as they can. So for the rest of the afternoon, I wanked away at the baffle caps with my punch and hammer and vise grips. Blood blister city. The baffle rests on a little hose clamp secured to the conduit. You just slip it down over the top of the conduit until it hits the hose clamp. Supported like that, it wobbles when anything, including a raccoon or one of our Boone and Crockett 5' black rat snakes, tries to climb it.
You've got to get down and secure the conduit to its iron rebar support, or the pipe will swivel in the wind. I'm screwing things down tight.
I've got three more to replace before it warms up. I'll do that tomorrow, on my grocery run. I can't wait to start counting bluebird eggs. I'm trying not to think about last April, when for two whole days I had to go box to box, taking the nests and chilled babies out, putting them in a little insulated cooler with a hot water bottle, waiting until they were warm enough to gape for food, feeding them with tweezers, and then replacing them in their boxes. I pulled them all through the subfreezing temperatures that way. Four times a day, each box... But it is not an experience I hope to repeat this spring, because it was literally all I did for those two freezing cold days. Let's hope it warms up and stays that way. The brown thrasher is due tomorrow, and I've got to get my peas and lettuce planted!
I should not be wearing a hat and parka on March 26.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Cheap Fun in Whipple

Warning: Smash-faced dog pictures. Those of you who are allergic to smash-faced dogs, you go forewarned.
Last Christmas season, there was a Boston terrier on the cover of the Land's End catalogue. It was wearing fake antlers, and it was extremely cute. We got several copies of that cover in the mail from people who knew we'd love it. The first thing I noticed about the dog, though, was that somebody had given it cute lips.
Cute lips are sort of a Boston thing. I'm sure boxers and bulldogs get them too. When they're puppies, they get them all the time, but when they get older and their jowls start to hang down over their lips, they sometimes need an assist. In this picture, Liam is gently rolling Chet's lower lip out for that patented Boston pout.
It's probably overkill, because Boston terriers are pretty darn cute to start with. Here's the result:Awwww. Cute lips.

And now, Bill, Phoebe and Liam with human cute lips. Photo by Chet Baker.Thus do we amuse ourselves on cold spring nights.

I am just home from the orchid show in Columbus, having left at 8 this morning. Shila and I went completely nuts. Cindy the Forester hung out with us but did not abandon herself to the bacchanale of spending as we did. She was a model of restraint. We saw Dave Brigner and he gave me a scarf he had knitted that looks just like sparrow feathers. The kitchen table is now full of orchids, mostly of the cattleya alliance. I'm too tired even to put them in the windowsills. It was a perfect day. More anon. I'm going to gloat, then to bed.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Corrupting Our Youth

It's Relative Music Week at Salem-Liberty Elementary. In this rare event, relatives of students come in to play music for the kids, and tell them what music has meant in their lives. Kind of a no-brainer for me and Bill. We told Phoebe's fourth-grade class that music was the spark that really got us together. Bill called me and asked me to paint redpolls for the cover of Bird Watcher's Digest 'way back in 1990. I demurred, because I hadn't seen redpolls for awhile and just didn't want to. He called back about 15 minutes later and talked me into it. In the course of "checking on the progress of the painting," he called a lot. And it came out in our conversations that we were both in bands. My antennae hove skyward, and so did his. I'd never dated anyone who wasn't a musician. There's something special, something extra, about musicians that I can't resist.
So we arrived at the school at exactly 1:45 pm, to find an empty music classroom and a rather puzzled Mr. Stillings. It seems I had screwed up the time we were supposed to be there. It was, or had been, 11:15. Whoops. We dithered for a couple of minutes and then decided to ask Phoebe's teacher if we might play for the class, anyway. She readily accepted our offer, and we were on.
Whut fun. I think the highlight of our half-hour was leading the kids in singing "Wishbone" by Stampfel and Weber. There was something delicious about writing the lyrics on the blackboard for the kids to sing.

Oh, a little wishbone
I make a wish
For a potato

I make a wish
For a potato

Fixin' up tortillas is so much fun
When you got a bowl of beans

So much fun
Got a bowl of beans

When we make spaghetti everybody gathers round
And we eat it by the pound

They all gather round
Eat it by the pound

See the pile of dishes over there
They fill me with despair

Dishes over there
Fill me with despair

It was, unfortunately, necessary to delete my favorite verse, which goes

We fill up our guts and we turn it into sh-t
And then we get rid of it

We turn it into sh-t
We get rid of it

What are you gonna do? You can't have 20 kids yelling the S word, however much you might want to.
Phoebe's class is cool. They get all the jokes. By the end of the half-hour they were swaying in their seats holding up pretend lighters.

The Irish traditional stuff always goes over well. Pennywhistles: Kids, rats; everybody loves 'em.

All photos in this entry are by Phoebe Linnea Thompson.

I am SOOO excited. First thing in the morning, Shila, Cindy the Forester and I are going to an orchid show in Columbus where there will be EIGHT Midwestern orchid vendors. I hope they are ready to accept my cash. And we'll get to see Dave Brigner, my dear friend at the Franklin Park Conservatory. I worked all week to earn this treat. Did my taxes and cleaned the house, even washed the floors. House is sparkling and ready for more exotica. Life is very good.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Turkey Day, Redefined

March 23, and there were 23 turkeys in the backyard at sunrise. They come first thing in the morning, before I've gotten my shoes on to replenish their corn. I can almost hear the hens saying, "Rats. She's not up yet." The smart little hens have already figured out to make a second trip in late morning, when they're sure I'll have strewn more corn. The gobblers rarely eat anything; they're too focused on impressing the hens and each other. Today, 18 hens filed out and began to peck around, and five gobblers hurried out all together like a barbershop group, almost falling over each other in their eagerness to get out of the woods and start strutting. Turkeys seem to appreciate close-mown lawns. When it rains, they make a point of cutting through the yard and using our mown paths, because, I think, they hate brushing against wet vegetation. And of course, the visibility afforded by a mown lawn is ideal for their purposes in breeding season.
Chet had just finished his morning constitutional and was asking to come back in as the turkeys arrived. He raced down to the lower patio window to see if they were out there and his face was a study when he spotted them. If a dog could cuss, Chet would have turned the air blue. He was reduced to watching them, trembling with the pent-up desire to charge and send them all flapping off. Bless him, though, he doesn't bark or jump--just sits perfectly still and trembles. The turkeys see him there in the window, and calmly go about their business. I'm impressed with the restraint shown by both parties! When they were done eating and had ambled off, I let him out, and he tore out and chased phantasmagorical turkeys in circles. Who says dogs can't pretend?
23 turkeys. That's a lot of turkeys, a lot of corn. Last night I took off on the Loop at 6:15, reveling in the lengthening days that let me stay out until after 7. Even in the gloaming I could see vast areas of forest litter that had been scraped aside by turkey feet. Their impact on the woodlands is not trivial. I heard three woodcocks, though it was in the 30's. Chet and I put one up on the way down into the Chute. It was magic to hear that twitter so close, from invisible wings. I wondered if woodcocks benefit from the big cleared areas that turkeys create. It might just be easier to find earthworms if you don't have to sort through leaf litter.
This morning, when we came back from walking the kids out to the bus, "our" male tree swallow was in his usual spot on the phone wire by the house. There's been a male tree swallow in that precise spot for 9 nesting seasons. I don't know if it's the same bird, but I like to think it is. He comes back very early in spring, and you can walk right up underneath him and talk to him, and he doesn't fly off. He takes white goose feathers right out of our fingers to line his nest. He knows us, and we know him, and we're so glad to be his landlords. Welcome, swallow. Your nest box is clean and waiting for you.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Summer is Icumen In

Oh, yeah, it's coming, even though it's in the 20's at night, even though we woke up to an inch of snow this morning. School had a two-hour delay, and we walked slowly out to the mailbox, scaring a big flock of crows out of the enormous oak that guards our driveway. Chet thought for a moment he could take wing and join them, and he bounded through the meadow, leaping and twisting in his attempt to become airborne.

We were early, and we had time to romp around with Chet before the bus came. How we love this giant oak.

Some sure signs of spring on Indigo Hill include

farm daffodils abloom. We salvaged these from the side of the Rt. 77 interchange at Marietta. They still come up on land that used to belong to Bill's great uncle and grandmother, and is now part of a cloverleaf and Kroger complex. Sigh. Think how many decades these daffodils have been blooming, how many more decades they will come up. And now they come up on our farm, which is as it should be.

Heliotrope turning dark purple. When I bring my heliotrope into the greenhouse in October, it turns pale purple. It doesn't turn dark again until the sun gains intensity in March. It's turning dark!

Turkeys courting. I think there were 19 in this group. I love the electric blue and red of the gobblers' heads when they're aroused.

And a subtle but sure one: A pair of white-breasted nuthatches feeding side by side. Nuthatches are companionable little things, but they have to be in love to be this close.

Zick, buried in receipts and pay stubs. It's tax time. I will not bore you with a picture of THAT. But I am a little bit proud of myself for finally pulling the trigger on my taxes today. The carrot I held out for myself, to make myself tackle it, was finally finding out how much I spent on a certain Boston terrier in his first year with us. All I can say is o h m y g o o d n e s s. Certain things must remain confidential. But I am wondering how on earth those dogs lazing around on Whipple's shanty porches manage to survive without $600 worth of veterinary care.
Maybe there's something going on here I need to look into.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Laughing through Tikal

Atop a temple at Tikal. Julie, Bill, Hector and Marco. Photo by some hapless tourist recruit.

As the first flakes of the snowstorm that clobbered Birdchick in Nebraska float down, I am turning away from the darkening skies and dreaming of orchids in Guatemala, of friends in Guatemala. Marco Centeno is a professor of ornithology at a university in Guatemala City, and Hector Castaneda is a teacher of orchidology and birding tour leader. Both are the finest kind, gentle and sweet and funny as all get out. When we met at the airport to travel to Tikal, we started laughing at the ticket counter and laughed pretty much the whole time we were together. Many of the jokes centered around the fact that Marco and Bill are twice the size of Hector and me. And that Bill and I thought we might want to adopt a Guatemalan child. I want one who's fluent in English, has a great sense of humor, and teaches orchidology. We found one who is very cute, and available, but he smokes, so I am going to try to find another.

Whenever I'm in the tropics, I go on sensory overdrive--the sights and smells and forms are all so different--so much bigger and brighter--than they are back home. I especially like the plus-sized flowers and leaves. The sheaths from banana flowers make fabulous fake lips. Here, Bill, bite this.

There are many flower parts that will fit over your nose and ears, as well. Finding them on the forest trails fills the moments when you're not chasing some weird bird call. Just make sure there's not a scorpion or soldier ant in them before applying.

As an orchid freak, it was pure joy for me to walk through Tikal's humid forest with Hector. "What's that, Hector?" And he'd give me the genus and species and a short course on its natural history and distribution.
Aww, he's soo cute. Maybe I'll reconsider. Hold on Hector, we're coming back to get you.

Here, Hector's holding Oeceoclades maculata, a very unusual terrestrial orchid native to Nigeria. It's strange, because it lives in soil (rather than as an epiphyte, on tree branches), has water-storing pseudobulbs (typical of an epiphyte) and velamin-coated roots (again, an epiphyte characteristic). This critter has all its bases covered, and it is an aggressive invader of humid forest floor. It was a surprise to me to see an orchid as a noxious pest! Hector says it displaces native terrestrial orchids. Amazing. We saw other noxious exotics, including lantana and our own beloved impatiens. Coffee growers hate impatiens because they sap nutrients from the soil. Such things I learned traveling with Hector and Marco.
Laughing again. Hard to catch Hector not laughing.

Orchids in the wild are so happy. They make the lovely things on our windowsills look like little caged canaries. This Oncidium was a living fountain of brilliant yellow flowers.
I have one languishing at home that has yet to bloom. It will, I know, but when I see what these plants are really capable of, I get the same feeling I do when I see wild macaws and parrots--guilt.
Not guilty enough to stop me from taking a road trip to the orchid show at the Franklin Park Conservatory this weekend, however. I hear they may have Encyclia cordigera there, and I aim to get one languishing on my windowsill by Saturday! Captive-propagated, of course...
this perfect creature was growing on a tree at a restaurant by the highway. I swooned. It smelled like muguet in Paradise.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Spring Robin

a painting from Letters from Eden (Houghton Mifflin), my essay collection due out this fall.

Today was innn-sane. My NPR editor wanted me to record a commentary for the first day of spring. She emailed me with the request as we were leaving for Chicago last Thursday. I wrote two pieces on the plane, and emailed them to her from our hotel that night. The first day we'd both be at work was today (Monday). Which is also the first day of spring. Which meant that the piece would have to be recorded today. But Ohio University in Athens (1 1/2 hours away) is on spring break, and the radio station where I record my pieces had a skeleton crew. My beloved engineer Jeff Liggett was on vacation. So I spent the morning trying to locate someone who could make the live connection with NPR in Washington so we could record the piece. Met only with answering machines, I finally jumped in the car at 12:45, trusting that SOMEBODY would appear at the station by the time I got there at 2:15. We had to have the piece laid down and edited by 4 pm!
Director of Technical Operations Steve Skidmore saved the day, once again. He was waiting for me when I dashed in, scripts in hand. We recorded three pieces, one of them about robins. It aired twice on All Things Considered this evening. If you'd like to hear it, there's an audio file on the NPR web site. I'd have loved to let you know earlier, but I was flat out all day just trying to get it edited and recorded. I've got to spend three hours in the car for each piece that airs. Living in the backwoods has a few drawbacks, but they're more than balanced by the pluses. Like experiencing the things I get to write about in the commentaries!!
When the commentary aired at 6:20 p.m., the kids, Chet and I were gathered in the kitchen. Chet sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor, staring fixedly at the speaker atop the cabinets. He looked from the speaker to me, then back at me. My mouth wasn't moving, but my voice was booming through the kitchen! He tossed his head and yodeled. He danced on his hind legs. If a dog could laugh, Chet Baker laughed then. That doggie always gets the joke.

What Chet Did

Well, well, well. After almost 24 hours of slagitude, Blogger has finally decided to accept photos. Pip, pip. Pardon the dripping sarcasm, but I don't like it when Blogger interrupts my, um, flow. On to my postus interruptus:

One of my favorite comments to date, from someone I know only as Jemkagily:

Sign us up as unabashed Chet Baker afficionadoes, my daughter Fiona and I. And as such I feel it is my duty to report that today, while listening to BBC Radio 2 on the computer, I heard my favorite on-air personality, Jonathon Ross, slander Boston Terriers. He is of the opinion that BTs have a habitual guilty expression, as if they're perpetually feeling dreadfully sorry about something they've done, which you may or may not have discovered yet.

Bostons? Perpetually guilty expression? Wha?

Bill's response: "That's because they probably HAVE done something."

My response: Sputtering. Jonathon Ross had better watch his back. But it is true that Bostons do guilt real, real well. And much of the time they have something to feel guilty about. Which is what makes them such FUN.
Which brings me to What Chet Did while I was packing on Thursday.
You know how packing goes. You're doing a hundred things at once. Mostly, I was trying to get Blogger to wake up from its 48-hour sleep (the one prior to this one) and accept some photos. I'd run back to the bedroom and throw a few clothes in the suitcase and then run off to fruitlessly diddle Blogger, then do something else. Chet knew what was up. I'd been home 12 hours and I was already leaving again. There was the suitcase, being packed AGAIN.
Come on sugarpuppy, give us a kiss. Forget it, heartless female. I am very very angry at you.
So he stationed himself right next to the open suitcase, fuming, not willing to believe that I was really packing the freaking thing again after being home only 12 hours. No amount of sweet talk would bring him out of his funk.
I bustled back into the bedroom again, to find this tableau:

I am so sorry. But I had to do something to stop you.

Since you think it's so funny, I am going to resume chewing these. They are delicious.

What? Did I do something?

Bill: "You're not going to post that, are you? That's so GROSS!"
Me: "Of course I'm going to post it. It's hilarious. And it's not gross. They're brand new."
Bill: "ZICK!"
Me: "Everybody knows what they look like. Everybody knows what they're for. We're all grown-ups here. What's the big deal?"
Bill: "You are insane. If the kids did this you'd be so mad. Chet does it and you think it's cute."
Me: "No argument there. Major photo-op. Highly blogworthy."
Bill: "Blogzilla."
Me: "Bride of Blogzilla."

Sunday, March 19, 2006

'Tain't My Fault

Gentle Readers:

Yes, I'm postless today. Which is now yesterday, Sunday. But it ain't my fault. Blogger's doing it again. Wanky stuff, won't take photos. The earth is wobbling on its orbit. I have another especially juicy Chet Being Bad post, and Blogger is ignoring me. It pretends to upload my photos, even tells me it's DONE, and nothingnothingnothing. Nothingnothingnothingnothingnothing.
I am so pathetically photo-dependent that I won't even pretend to post without them. I mean, I could go on some kind of rant about whether the Luneau Video shows an ivory-bill or a pileated, but you'd see right through it. We all know that Chet Being Bad is so much more compelling and important. And besides there are plenty of people ranting about that bird, be it bird or phantasm, anyway. There is only one Chet Baker, and he is trapped in Blogger Limbo. And so, to bed. Here's hoping that Blogger takes a massive dose of Ex-Lax and calls me in the morning.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

Chewing Barbie

I don't know how many of y'all come here every day for your dog fix, but I suspect that there's a fair number. And a subset of those are the Boston terrier fans who especially dig googly-eyed dogs. Being one, I know you'll do practically anything for a cute BT picture. I have calendars, for Pete's sake, full of dogs who are about half as cute as Chet. I never thought I would be somebody who sought out socks with my dog on them, but I do. I have a BT sticker on my car. I go out and buy this stuff. Now That is Scary. Can a Chet Baker calendar be far behind?
So, in this post, I pander to you, Googly Eyed Dog People. As I write, Chet Baker is sulking atop my half-packed suitcase, his eyes saying it all. You just got home, you creep. How in tarnation can you be packing again?
See Future Posts for What Chet Was Up To while I was struggling with Blogger, my suitcase half-packed...

They're so sweet when they're puppies, before all the baggage arrives, before they figure out how to ruin your morning with one baleful glare. Before they become some sort of hairy amalgam of pet, child, and vengeful spouse. So I present Chet at about five months of age, as he was beginning a dental campaign that would reduce Barbie down to a nubbly torso. (Which was fine with Phoebe; she had already wrapped her in white tape and mummified her long before).

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Orchid Stalker

A junkie in a field of opium poppies, I stalk the Chicago Flower Show. Ostensibly, Bill and I are here to work, but in reality it is just one big hedonistic wallow. We're booked into a bitchin' suite at the Doubletree Inn, overlooking the aqua blue waters of Lake Michigan. The king bed is like a soft white cloud. The restaurant is good. We're giving a talk this noon on gardening for birds. The Keynote presentation is cued up and ready to go.
Yesterday afternoon, we took a reconaissance walk--rather stalk--around the show. There were orchids. Fortunately, nothing in this first display was for sale. But there were two booths that were selling orchids, and I felt as if I were grappling with a large beast as I fought back the urge to buy, well, everything I saw. I kept muttering under my breath, "I can do this. There's nothing here I can't live without."
Because the reality of the situation is that, should I fall for something with a tall, delicate bloom spike, there will be no way to get the thing home on the plane without breaking it.
And so I look at the orchids, hanging above me like stuffed toys at a carnival, and fantasize about which ones I would love to take home. The blotchy dark purple and white phalaenopsis here are a new creation called "Harlequins." They're neat, but I can live without them.

I can do this. I can walk away. And yet I can't let this poor guy bring in another skid of orchids without waylaying him to see if there's anything on there I can't walk away from.
I got a sickness, and the only cure is more orchids.
And then, in the fabulous booth in the back corner of the hall, I find a balm for my suffering. Baby orchids in teeny pots, just the right size to stuff inside a plastic water bottle in my pack. I treat myself to three, and think about how much more fun it will be to watch them grow up and wait for the first blossoms. Amazingly, they're all putting up tiny flower spikes. Life is goooood.

We'll give our presentation, climb back on a plane, get back in the car, and be home by midnight. And then we'll STAY home for a couple of weeks solid. Ahhhh. Hey, happy St. Patrick's Day! This is the first one in recent memory when Bill and I haven't been schlepping from nursing home to elementary school, playing Irish tunes, often capping the day off with a gig in the evening. It's great to be in Chicago! A change will do us good.
Wonder what airport security will think of the baby orchids under my coat?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

O Blogger, Where Art Thou?

So I have this absolutely luverly post, all ready to go up. Totally spent from our two days in Louisville, and 6 hours in the car, I got home and wrote it and started trying to post the pictures at 8 last night. And Blogger said, "No, no, I'll take your writing, but I can't put your pictures up." So I unplugged everything and restarted everything and still Blogger told me no.
I got up at 5 this morning and, in between packing for our trip to Chicago (we leave at 10 AM today), and getting the kids up and dressed and fed, I tried about ten times to post pictures so you'd have some Chet Baker while I'm gone. And Blogger said No. Downstairs, Bill was trying, too. Bill of the Birds is image-free, too. Imagine our frustration.

Having a blog is like having chickens. You have to feed it and care for it and make sure the raccoons don't get to it at night. You have to BE THERE. So when you keep up your end of the bargain and you're standing there with a bucket of chicken scratch, and Blogger won't even let you open the coop door to feed the flock, it is v e r y f r u s t r a t i n g. Hear that, Blogger? I know you're free. Maybe you're trying to get me down on my knees, pleading, "I'll pay ANYTHING! Just take my pictures of Chet violating a Barbie Doll!"

There's a phoebe perched on the roof, and I can see his tail bobbing. Hello, Spring!

If a Chet/Barbie blog entry appears, you'll have Phoebe to thank. I showed her how to post pictures today. Maybe Blogger will wake up before she gets home from school, and she'll be able to post. Maybe there is a gigantic computer terminal somewhere in Blogville that has finally melted into a puddle of stinky goo. Blogger may be at capacity. Who can say. All I know, is that when it works, it's wonderful, and when it doesn't, it ain't.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Baker's Face

Chet Baker is not the kind of dog who becomes obsessed with any one toy. He's not like Holly Garnett, the black cocker spaniel who lived in our neighborhood in Richmond, who loved rocks so much that she was never without one, and at four years of age had worn her teeth down to the gums and had to be fed canned food. (I should know; I petsat for the entire neighborhood). For Chet, any item that is held enticingly out of his reach, be it a tennis ball or a grocery bag or a sock or a clothespin, is an instant toy. He gets his game face on, ears perked, lips puckered.
I managed to capture Chet's game face last night as Bill settled down to watch the season premiere of The Sopranos, a show that I like in theory but which in practice is waaaaay too violent for me. The first guy that gets beat up sends me scuttling upstairs to read. Can't do it. It was a chemical change that came over me when Phoebe was born. But I digress.
So here's Chet, focused on a tennis ball. I would hate to be that tennis ball. Moments after this was taken, Chet came down full force on Bill's stomach, oof!
We've been practicing our program, "Music of the Birds," for a performance in Louisville, KY, on Tuesday night. Tuesday's going to be a big day for us: a TV appearance, then an interview with Heidi Caravan at Louisville's NPR affiliate, WFPL, culminating in our music program for the Beckham Bird Club. Time for a big zit!
So we got out the instruments, and while we were playing Chet sized up the plush interior of Bill's guitar case and thought that it would be a very nice place to have a nap.
It's OK if I sit in here, isn't it? I have a rope I can chew. I promise I will not chew the nice velvet.

I am a very small dog, a very humble, very clean one. Think about it. I can assure you that everything will be fine.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Balmy March

It's the kind of warmth that won't last, but I let the kids wear shorts to school today. 75 degrees, promising to plummet to 38 tonight. I can hear the winds starting to roar already. Last night Bill took the kids out to hit wiffle balls. In my entire childhood, I can recall perhaps two instances when my dad actually played with us. Thanksgiving Day, touch football. Our interaction was more that I followed him around and asked questions about what he was doing. Which was fine. But it makes my heart sing to hear the hollow TOMP of a wiffle ball being hit, and peals of laughter from Liam and Phoebe as Chet intercepts the balls. Thank goodness for a daddy who takes the time to play with his kids. (Cue Harry Chapin, "Cat's in the Cradle.")
This weather has the woodcocks all het up. We've got at least six in the meadow and orchard, more than we've had since we moved here in 1993. I figure the super-mild winter allowed a lot more to survive than usual. Thank goodness, it rained about an inch on Sunday, so the nightcrawlers are coming up. Looking into my crystal ball, I foresee a good woodcock crop on its way. How lucky we are to have woodcocks nesting in our backyard!
Chet is intrigued by the buzzy peents coming from the meadow at dusk. He whirls around looking for the creatures. Time exposure made a ghost of him; he stood for a couple of seconds, then trotted off, leaving his aura behind. I don't want him to chase woodcocks, so I keep him close at hand, or leave him inside when I go out to watch them. The woodcock peents maybe 20 or 30 times from the ground, then takes off on a slow spiral, higher and higher over the meadow. His lanceolate outer primaries twitter as he flies. The American woodcock in flight display has the slowest powered flight of any North American bird, and it's easy to follow his path before it gets too dark. When he's at the apex of his climb, though, he starts to sideslip like an autumn leaf, and begins a mad liquid twitter that's both mechanical (wing feathers) and vocal. It's like the song of a dervish, reaching a frenetic climax just before he brakes and coasts into his calling spot. The trick is to make a run for cover while he's up, and hope to hide in the brush near where he comes down. It's hard to fool a woodcock, though, and he'll usually see you and drop somewhere else. When you've got a foolhardy or inattentive bird, though, you can luck out and get one to drop like a little potato practically at your feet. Then, the hard part is not laughing out loud as he gives his raspberry call. He stomps around in little circles, and with each peent he seems to explode, partly spreading his wings and tail and opening that ridiculously long bill wide as he throws his head back to force the call out. It's absolutely adorable. I knew a man who hunted woodcocks, years ago in Connecticut, and I took him out to see them on the display grounds, in the hope that, once he saw them lekking, he'd have a change of heart. I don't know if it worked or not.
Last night, the moon was bright and the wind was warm, and one woodcock called almost all night. I wish I had an audio file for you, but here's our meadow at 10 PM. It was all I could do not to run out there in my PJ's, but we've two more trips coming up, back to back, and I had to get some sleep.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Strangers in Paradise

Bill and my old friend Frank Gallo from Connecticut, about to be impaled by a giant heliconia blossom.

Guatemala. It still seems real. I can still smell it, the hint of pinesmoke in the air, the sweetness of the high altitude oxygen. I loved being in a country that seemed in a way unconscious of tourism. It was such a contrast to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, where Bill and I spent a wonderful ten days last March. There, everyone's sort of laying for you; everyone has an angle, and they're looking, for the most part, to separate you from your pesos. In Guatemala, we were ignored, or gazed at curiously, or engaged on a friendly level, but not as potential prospects. It was great.
There was this feeling that the Mayan culture was not just being preserved as a curiosity for tourists, but that it reigns supreme, and is healthy and ongoing. People weren't dressing up for show; they dress like this all the time. I would love to have a closet full of huipils and skirts like these.
I've never been anywhere where the local clothing fit my aesthetic so thoroughly. Bought some bitchin' things, too, and I've been running around in hand-stitched jackets and hand-loomed scarves, with all my crap stuffed into gorgeous hand-made bags. I could have filled three suitcases. As it was, on the return flight, my suitcase was blown up like a balloon and its zippers were singing. Next time, I'm taking a lot fewer clothes and leaving more room for the really cool stuff. What I liked best was buying textiles from the women who wove them. Talk about cutting out the middleman. Not only are the prices amazing, but you have the satisfaction of knowing that your money goes directly to the person who manufactured the item.
Here are some coffee buyers in a village along Lake Atitlan.

And here's a cemetery in a mountain village. The dead remain part of everyday life; there's a lot of attention paid to lighting candles and replacing flowers on the gaily painted aboveground tombs. I'd like to be here on the Day of the Dead!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Dog Show!

A very cute pug who was afraid of us. His handler said she should have started showing him earlier to get him over his apprehension. Hey, I'd be apprehensive too. There are a lot of intense people at dog shows.

It's the weekend that the Blennerhassett Kennel Club hosts a regional dog show at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Marietta, Ohio. I'm told that dog people like coming to Marietta and enjoy the warm reception they get here. I dug it for the photo-ops; nobody's paying any attention to the crowd that flows in and around the handlers, and I got some interesting pictures. I love taking pictures of people and their animals.
We enjoyed meeting a few selected dogs. We always asked if it was OK to touch them, because we didn't want to mess up their show 'do's or their mojo.
This silky terrier's handler told us not to touch him. No worries.
This Doberman's handler was much more relaxed, and so was the dog. He dug Liam and Phoebe, went right over to them as if they had a secret together.
I've always liked Dobermans, ever since I saw one with nice floppy ears and an undocked tail, sharing an ice cream cone with two kids.

Of course we were hunting for show Bostons, because we'd never seen one in the flesh. We were amazed to find them about half Chet's size, tipping the scales around 15 lbs. to his 22. They looked like toys. Equally amazing were their almost perfectly round heads; little tennis balls, with muzzles that barely broke the round outline. What's with that? The male of this pair of dogs (left) is only a puppy, but I could hear every breath he drew. That just doesn't seem fair, to push a dog's nose in so far through selective breeding that his breathing is compromised. Seems to me he could use a little more muzzle. I make these vulgar and unenlightened comments on Boston terriers as a complete neophyte and avowed show-ring outsider. Please take them for what they're worth.

Little Bud took Best of Breed earlier today. He was a piece of work. Tiny, like the first two, but very, very cute and friendly. He gave the classic Boston greeting--boing! boing! Slurp! Slurp! to Phoebe and Liam.
He's only 7 months old, but clearly on his way. His handler complained that she had a female who weighed only 15 pounds, but judges kept telling her the dog was oversized!! Which sounds like a judge problem to me... What a pretty little animal Bud was. I could definitely see the appeal of small Bostons. But then I tried to imagine him rounding up cattle, or scrambling along rock ledges, or chasing deer out of my gardens, and failed.
By comparison, Chet looks tough, muscular and rangy. By current show fashions, he's a hulk; he'd never make it to the ring. But he is sooo beautiful to us.
Baker, waiting outside for me to come out for our afternoon hike.He's a lucky boy, got enough nose and room to run.

Thank you, Jane, for breeding sound, sturdy Bostons who work right and look like dogs, not tiny toy space monkeys. No offense, beautiful Buddy!

Here's a gray guy walking his gray Weimeraner. I can't really define dog show fashion, but I can say that it is weird. Everybody tries to dress up a little, but there's a wide spectrum of what constitutes dressed up. I think the thing that impressed me most was the handlers' hair. I was taking a picture of this woman's piles upon piles of hair, and totally by accident managed to capture another man I'd been stalking. I squealed when I saw him in the pictures. I'd been trying to shoot him without his noticing but he was too alert.
He had a mullet, but it was the weirdest mullet I've ever seen--parted down the middle, with long soft Beatle bangs in a complete bowl around his head, and then a curly ponytail out behind. Dang. The smoking area was the place to be for shooting hairdos. It seems to me that people's impulses to groom their dogs kind of spill over and they wind up doing the same thing to their own hair. They've got all the tools there, why not?
I definitely go to dog shows for all the wrong reasons. I couldn't care less who wins what--it's the people scene I dig. If you enjoyed this little taste of a regional dog show, and haven't seen Christopher Guests' masterpiece mockumentary, Best in Show, you owe it to yourself to get ahold of it. We own it, and our kids can quote lines from it. Christopher Guest ROKKS.

Overall, I was most impressed with the patience and forbearance of the dogs, who submit to indignities that no ordinary dog would suffer. Standing still and waiting for hours in small crates is their job. 1,200 dogs on the fairgrounds, and there was barely a bark voiced. People should behave so well.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Windy and Warm

T-shirt weather at long last. Phoebe gambols and frisks like a spring lamb; she jumps from place to place. Woodcocks are going full bore; I couldn't count higher than six last night, but I'm sure I heard more than that from our backyard. It was intoxicating. The spring peepers started last night; I walked out, feeling that something must be going down in the woods, and there they were, calling merrily deep in the holler. Though we've had not enough rain to dampen the leaves for a couple of weeks, and we're running a terrible deficit of moisture, with only a couple of measurable snows the entire winter, they've found a damp spot and they're singing about it. When I was a kid my blessed dad used to pile us all in the car and take us to the nearest place he knew that had peepers. It was Midway Road, and it was where all the black kids from my elementary school lived. One boy I knew used to ride his bay pony to school from Midway Road, which was the height of coolness as far as I was concerned. Oh, how I wanted to live on Midway Road. There were peepers and ponies and chickens and old houses with porches and swings, all of this buried in deep woods, and such a contrast to our mannered brick/lawn suburban street. To this day I never play Monopoly without remembering Midway Road. I won't try to find it the next time I'm in Richmond. I've gotten burned so many times trying to find beloved places in Richmond. There's usually a Circuit City atop them, if I can even navigate to the former location.
E.L. Doctorow is smiling; I'm driving in the fog here.
I've been taking walks with Chet, and Liam when he's not in school. I'm always amazed how the woods works on Liam's mood, how he just comes to life when he goes outside.
I have to cajole him out the door but once he gets a deep breath he's off and running. It's lovely to see. Of course, dog medicine helps, too. Liam and I both need to take a hit of Chet every hour or two. There's something about the way he smells that sets us right.

Chet has turned a corner with the leash. I leash him at the same points in the trail (as we near cattle and other dogs) and now he stops and waits for me to attach it. For as long as I've walked him on a leash, I've asked him not to pull on it, with very uneven results. Yesterday, he started to pull, then slowed down, without being asked, to leave slack in the leash. Of course, I praised him. And he remembered every time. Today was no different. I read somewhere that it takes an average of 1,000 repetitions to teach a dog something moderately difficult. I'm pretty sure we were approaching 1,000--and finally it just sank in and he keeps slack in the leash. Divine. He doubtless would have learned faster had I used a choke collar and jerked on it, but I won't do that to my buddy's soft throat. I have always envied people who can walk their dogs with slack in the lead, instead of being pulled along as if by a sled dog. We'll see how he does the next time we go into town, where the temptations are many.
Chet watches cattle on the far hill, wistful but obedient. These are the ones he chased when he was wearing his blue shirt and got busted by the farmer.
Chet's reward for being good on the lead is to be let off it, and he exults in his freedom. I carry acorn caps in my pocket to whistle him back should he get too far ahead.
I found some massive acorn caps in a cloud forest in Guatemala that make an incredibly loud, hoarse whistle when you blow into them (you partially cover the cap with both thumbs, and make a slot at the top to blow into). The Guatemalans were fascinated by my acorn cap whistles; I couldn't believe they didn't know about this trick. I salt acorn caps in the pockets of every coat I own so I'm never without them. It's handy to be able to make a far-carrying noise when you're alone in the woods.
The young beeches are about to lose their leaves at long last.
They start out the loveliest shade of fawn in late fall, and slowly fade to white, just before they fall. They're like girls who don't want to take off their confirmation dresses.
Back home, Chet and Charlie played peekaboo around the antique flat file that stores all my paintings and drawings. Charlie has Chet totally bamboozled, and he has only to feint in the dog's direction to send Chet skittering backward, yodeling.

They both enjoy it immensely, but not half as much as I do. I laugh like a pirate.

With Friends Like These...

Tommy and his mommy. Photo by Cynthia J. House, Woman of Arts and Letters, Corn Hauler Extraordianaire.

My dear friend Cindy House, who feeds a flock of Meleagris gallopavo in her New Hampshire backyard that currently numbers 72, reacts to my attempt at poetry:


I couldn't help but notice that the only bird picture from your recent trip was that of a turkey. And not just any ol' turkey but an ocellated one. And you couldn't just write "Hey guys, I saw an Ocellated Turkey today - very cool," but you had to write poetry about it and the ruins and the bowls of blood. . . .well, la-dee-da, la-dee- da. . . seems to me that you were trying to say just one thing - you're jealous of my turkeys! You thought about my turkeys all the time on your trip and you just couldn't stand it, so this way your way of getting back. But I'm not letting all your fancy words intimidate me or my turkeys because I can write poetry about turkeys too.

There once was a turkey named Tommy,
Whose flock all thought him quite balmy.
He got in a fight with his head stuck tight,
Down the throat of his very own mommy!

Take that!!

Cindy has me pegged, as usual. I cower in your artistic and literary shadow, CJH.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Look, Darling, the Corpseflower is in Bloom!

My friend Dave Brigner is Plant Assigner at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio. Whatta job for whatta guy. This job allows the endlessly creative Dave to indulge his taste in the wonderful and weird as he seeks out new additions to the conservatory's lovely collection. As his friend, I bask in the plant gifties he sends my way. One little brown paper bag contained four tubers; two of Amorphophallus (the thing that sends up a 10' high stinking spathe and makes the newspaper whenever it blooms) and two of Sauromatum venosum, commonly known as Corpseflower.
One of them bloomed while we were in Guatemala, and poor Maggie's first question to me was, "Did you know you have something coming up in the greenhouse that smells like something dead?"
I told her I left it as a special present for her, to remember me by.
The second one opened this morning. I walked into the greenhouse and reeled backward as if struck. I cannot describe the stench of this thing. It's got some elements of horse manure, some of rotting flesh, and a pungent putridity that gets in the back of your throat and stays in your olfactory memory for a long, long time. It is nasty on a stick.

Of course Chet adores it. It's a dog's kind of flower.
The stench is meant to attract pollinators like flies, who come expecting a carrion meal, and find instead this greasy spadix and rotting-flesh-colored spathe. Probing down, they are covered with pollen, and proceed to the next corpseflower. After the blossom withers, it'll send out roots and leaves, and I'll move it out into the shade garden, and hope for a bigger and more horrendous blossom next spring. Thanks, Dave!

Shock value is a perfectly good reason to grow a plant, isn't it?

On the other end of the spectrum are the houseplants that burst into bloom while we were away. I am swimming in orchids as the spring comes on. What better timing for them to bloom than in March, when everything outside is still sere and brown?
My first Phalaenopsis, refugee from a Lowe's (orchid abbatoir). May she bloom for decades.

One grown from a baby.
The clivia I got last summer, trumpeting its happiness (and smelling divine in the process)

Stromanthe sanguinea, in bloom.

Burana Beauty, the orange cattleya type, heavily fragrant, and Dendrobium phalaenopsis var album.

Such generous plants. Each gives what it has to give, whether it's sublime or revolting. I try to keep the balance toward sublime, but the odd voodoo lily keeps things interesting. And it's fun to think about who might enjoy having a corpseflower in their very own living room. It's making babies...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Many Moods of Chet Baker

I have just typed the first two words of another Guatemala entry, firmly in the same sublime mood as last night, when an email comes in from Sharon. It seems that NonBirding Bill is pining for a little Chet Baker. Poor NBB. I just so happen to have blown 40 or so exposures on him this evening. So I take a left turn and decide to give Chet fans a fix. I mean, ocellated turkeys are wonderful, but we all know you can't make them wear sweaters with their names on them.
This dog is so happy to have his pack together again. When I made a nice roast tonight, his joy was complete. He sat quietly at tableside, opening his big, otterlike mouth as we dropped scraps into it. I hear a collective gasp from all the dog trainers out there. Yes, we feed him at the table. Sorry. I always vowed I'd never have a dog that begged at the table, and my lines got all stretchy. Chet begs with such quiet dignity, never pushing, just sitting there looking hopeful, that we cave every time. ******Warning: Pop Cultural Digression ahead.*******
We all couched for American Idol, and when Taylor Hicks sang "Takin' it to the Streets," that ratty ol' Doobie Brothers tune, I leapt up and bounced around the room like Daffy Duck. Woo hoo! Woo hoo! Taylor Hicks for president! Oh, how he rokks. Confession: Michael McDonald's Motown albums are my car music. Bill can't stand it, which makes it all the sweeter. I've already corrupted the kids. But we're all united in our support for TH. I love how unaware he is of how he looks when he sings. He's too busy getting the music out to worry about crap like that. Hear that, Acey boy? All right. Enough about that dopey show.
At bedtime, it was time for stories. Bill donned Woody's cowboy hat and read a bowdlerized and not exactly kosher version of a Thomas the Tank Engine story to Liam, who gets the sly humor and laughs himself breathless. Chet likes to crowd in and listen. Me, too. Moments after this picture was taken, Chet leaned over and urped a few roast bits onto the floor. Mood One: Nausea. Dog trainers, you are allowed a smug grin. OK, now stop it.
Upchucking done, it was time for Gremlin's Gold. We had a great round, over 30 minutes of Boston terrier nonsense. Chet won Round One, securing the gold under the bed. But Phoebe wrestled it away and made him work to get it back. Mood Two: Acquisitive.
Mood Three: Bar No Holds. He punched her right in the stomach with both front paws. It was not an accident.

Man, you can take a lot of pictures trying to get your dog in full flight, especially when your camera has a variable three or four second delay before the flash will fire. So I just push the shutter randomly and eventually I get something worth showing you. Delete, delete, delete, ahh.
Mood Four: Jordanesque.
Games completed, Chet and Phoebe settled down for a cuddle. Last night, we washed him with L'Oreal Burst of Cherry Almond Baby Shampoo and finished his coat with a little Bath and Body Works chocolate-scented body butter. It's made with sustainably harvested shea oil. Nothing but the best for Baker. He smells like a box of chocolate covered cherries. This works well on Chet because he totally lacks any doggy odor. Score one more for Bostons.Actually, I prefer the scent of rotten rabbit guts, but I'll humor you all for now.

Good thing he likes being a pillow. It is one of his major functions. Mood Five: Cuddlepup.
And so, to bed. Such a fine doggie, this Chet Baker. He's got soul. I honestly don't know what we did without him.

Ocellated Turkey, Tikal

This thing, this bird of astonishing beauty
Coverts of hammered copper and Caribbean sea
Caruncles like flower buds wobbling as it strides
across the lawn before the temple
Lowers its small sharp head and begins to pray
A throbbing sound that resonates in my breastbone
Throws its head up with a cry
Walks closer to the temple and prays again
Perhaps it only asks me to keep my distance
But it faces the altar
Where its ancestors' blood ran hot into bowls
Mayas still come here too
They come not to pray
But like me
Only to wonder.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On Writing

Novelist Pico Iyer said, "The less conscious one is of being 'a writer,' the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading. Writing should ... be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent ... and writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger."

I suppose one could substitute "blogging" in that last sentence.

Writing: I love to read what writers say about writing. And I never feel closer to the bones of the craft than when I'm blogging. I like blogging because it's the most elemental form of writing--spontaneous and driven by inspiration. It's not as daunting as writing an article or (God forbid) a book; it's a little present you make and then wrap up and give away. Because I'm so visually oriented, pairing images with writing is just pure fun. On the flip side, not being able to insert a digital photo every 50 words becomes a little dull by comparison.

I subscribe to The Writer's Almanac, an email service that sends me tasty chunks about writers and writing every single day. You can sign up here. Here are some nice bits:

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." EL Doctorow

He said it. I rarely know where a piece is really going when I start it. I'm working on an article on Nebraska that has become an edgy digression into sandhill crane hunting--even now, I can hardly type those three words together. Just writing it is a learning experience. I realized in the process that I'd been doing a slow boil about the issue ever since I learned that people do shoot sandhill cranes, way back in 1992, in New Mexico.

It's hard anymore to write something that's just informative, just useful, just workmanlike. The older I get, the quicker I am to stumble over my own feelings about whatever I'm writing about. And the faster I run from subjects about which I have no feelings. In the end, it's the stumble that's interesting.

That was the last of the posts I prepared before we left. Obviously written while I could put a sentence together. Sorry about the somewhat disjointed nature of the last ten posts, but I wanted to give you something to read while we were gone. Phoebe did a great job! Imagine leaving one's blog to a 9-year-old! Soon she'll have her own...

We're back from beautiful Guatemala, as of 2 AM. In bed by 3 and up at 6:00 to some very excited and lovingly tended kids, plants, bird, fish and Chet Baker. The theme of the day: bleary clothing management. It's in the 20's but sunny and warming fast. How wonderful to be home, piles of icky sweaty laundry, bills, mail and all. How amazing to have Bill's dad and mom take care of our kids the entire time. They're happy and healthy as horses, and we are deeply in debt to Bill and Elsa. Neighbor Maggie did a spectacular job with the plants; the orchids and greenhouse are perfectly watered and in full bloom--what a greeting! We're thankful to have had the opportunity to bird Guatemala for 9 days, and I'm eager to download the last roll of photos and tell you all about it. But you deserve better than this poor mushy brain, fit only for laundry. Hasta luego!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Fire Eater

I just flippin' love plants. Especially when they surprise and delight me. I bought this Stromanthe sanguinea in a 2" pot at Lowe's, of all places. I'd just bought one at The Glasshouse Works, a fabulously quirky greenhouse in Stewart, Ohio, that specializes in strange and wonderful exotic plants. Only to find one at Lowe's the same week. Of course, I paid much more at The Glasshouse. And I was happy to pay more--the proprietors are terrific, and know absolutely everything there is to know about weird plants. Ironically, and uncharacteristically, the Lowe's find was healthy as a horse and soon outpaced the more expensive one. It grew and grew for two years and finally I put it in the biggest pot I had and told it that was the end of the road. No more upgrades. It sulked for a year and then sent up the most amazing yard-long shoots, crowned by lateral fans of leaves. They are literally as high as my head.

This is a wonderful plant. It likes low light, and it has this amazing fifties color scheme of deep green, cream, and grenadine--the reverse side of the leaves is shocking wine-red. It's a foliage plant, meant to decorate the corner of a living room, quietly doing its job without demanding much. Native to South America. The wild ones have a grenadine reverse, but the cream variegation is a flight of human fancy.

So I wondered for about six months what the plant was up to, and this morning, while watering it, I found two buds. It's going to bloom. I can't get my hopes up too high for the blossom; the leaves are so fantastic why should it bother to make a great flower? But it's blooming, and that feels like an affirmation.
You can see a bud, coral-pink, above the second leaf from the right. Whee!

Finding the flower, I feel a bit as I would if one of my kids turned to me and said, "Mom, I've decided I'm going to school to learn how to swallow swords and eat fire. It's what I've always wanted to do with my life."
Meanwhile, in other rooms, some of my orchids are preparing for their big spring show. This morning, Burana Beauty greeted the dawn, yawning. Its first bud had opened in the night. An east window is perfect for this Cattleya-type tri-generic hybrid. It drinks up the morning sun.

These flowers, still developing now, will color up until they're brilliant egg-yolk yellow, and then they'll emanate a perfume so strong that it fills up the room--but only around noon until dark. Sorry to say, but Burana's overpowering fragrance reminds me of Dow's Scrubbing Bubbles (original scent) and then it makes me feel guilty for not cleaning quite as much as I might. That's OK--it looks so wonderful, it could smell like cabbage for all I care.

This is Burana Beauty's third year with me. It had rave reviews for its second year here, and put out three new stems and thirteen blossoms. I probably should have called the newspaper, it was so spectacular.

This lovely thing, about to burst its magenta bud balloons, was my first Phalaenopsis, purchased at a Trader Joe's. When I got it, I knew nothing about orchid care. I thought, being tropical plants, they'd want a whole bunch of sun and water. Wrong on both counts.
I put it in a west window, let it sit in water, and bake in the sun until it was almost done. Its roots rotted off; it lost all but two leaves. I finally realized I was probably doing something wrong, repotted it, cut back on the water and put it in a north window, and let it recover for two years. Like a phoenix, it forgave me and came gloriously back to life. I promised it that I would never torture an orchid again. Deal, said the orchid. Just treat me like an African violet, and I will bloom every year for you. I'll never tell anyone you almost killed me.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Cleaning the Greenhouse

The horn of plenty, spilled out. Refuse pile is growing. Everybody's getting new pots. That is, if they aren't being thrown out altogether.
A windy, impossibly warm day in February is the ideal day to clean the greenhouse. "Clean" is a misnomer. What really needs to be done is slash and burn. Since my last cleanup in December, a jungle has been growing, winding around itself.
White-fly populations have peaked. Plants are top-heavy with blossoms and vegetative growth. I've overfed them, and we've all enjoyed it. Much as I love the abundance of blossoms and leaves, these plants really ought to be saving themselves for spring. So, after years of being too tender-hearted to do it, I have finally gotten to the point where I can behead a geranium with the best of them. But I have to be in just the right mood--nay, hormonal state--to be ruthless enough. This was the day. Rather than gnaw on Bill, I decided to chop up my poor greenhouse inhabitants.
There are so many amazing things about plants. One is their ability, given sufficient food, to grow in almost nothing. Look at the top growth on this "Bolton" geranium. My gosh. I reduced it to a couple of stumps and told it to start over.
Cited for failure to thrive: A small magenta bougainvillea I was never all that crazy about, anyway. Sentence: Death by composting.
Cited for being oversized: A snapdragon that had volunteered in one of my pots last winter, lived in a hanging basket all summer, and made itself at home in the greenhouse. Until now. Bye-bye.
Cited for redundancy: This enormous pot of geranium "Rosina Read," "Mrs. Cox," and Lobelia "Laguna Blue." Took cuttings of all of you. I couldn't bear to toss you in December. Sorry, your number's up. You're blocking too much sun. I did dig Mrs. Cox (the tricolor geranium at the bottom) out before tossing the rest. To special to throw, no matter how leggy.

It was an orgy of clipping and trimming, hauling and composting.
And when it was over, everyone was in tidy rows, cut back, repotted, watered, fed, and tucked in for the night.

A greenhouse is one place where I have absolute power. There's something to be said for being able to wield absolute power, at least somewhere in one's life.
before and...

A footnote, for Cindy, Sherri, and Tom: This bigtooth maple seedling came from Arizona in a styrofoam cup two Augusts ago. I saw them growing in the Huachuca Mountains, and was instantly intrigued by their tiny leaves and potential as bonsai subjects. It barely survived its first winter here, and Cindy the Forester and I were sure it died back in December. Just to make sure, I decided to knock it out of its pot and check its roots. Purty durn good-lookin' roots for a dead tree, I thought, and repotted it. And now it's leafing. "Bring out your dead!...I'm not dead yet!" Will wonders never cease.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Postcard from Guatemala

This exquisite and unusually outgoing Maya girl was on her way up Volcan Chicabal to pray for rain. Yep. We were watching birds; she was lighting candles and praying for rain with her extended family.

Hello from Guatemala! What a trip to go from haggling with Quiche speaking Maya women for textiles to signing on for two hours of high-speed Internet in our Guatemala City hotel in the evening. Man! This country is out of this world, so beautiful that to try to describe it in words would take much more effort than my travel-fried brain can put forth. I'll give you a few pictures for a taste. Think volcano cones, some active and regularly belching poisonous gases and lava, towering over a green landscape peopled by Mayans, most decked out in breathtakingly beautiful region-specific textiles. The color sense of the Mayans is beyond sublime, and their way of combining patterns, textures and color in their everyday clothing makes me feel like a peahen among peacocks.
The birding has been spectacular. I have lost all count of how many life birds I've added to my list; I'm sure it's in the double digits, and we've made a grand slam of all the highland endemics we wanted. We've earned them, though, having climbed two volcanoes.Uh-huh. We climbed it.
Our legs shriek with pain just getting in and out of our bus--shin splints that encompass the entire leg.
This group is just fabulous. Going birding with people who guide bird tours for a living is like having Birds of Guatemala (which doesn't exist yet) on legs right beside you. The Guatemalans who are hosting us are just terrific--funny and fun-loving and knowledgeable and so incredibly considerate.Genus, anyone? I've no idea. I just know it's perfection.

We stopped at a roadside rest and found this orchid wired to a tree trunk in the picnic area. It was like seeing Excalibur rise out of the lake. I could not tear myself away from this enormous plant, which was emanating a perfume that varied from muguet to gardenia depending on which flower I chose to worship. Everyone else had birds in the spotting scope, but Bill finally gave up calling me. I flashed back to a prediction my dad made when I was barely in my teens. "One of these days this kid will get serious about plants and she'll forget birds ever existed." It was an exaggeration, but I have to say that botanizing in Guatemala has been a total trip. I've taken several hundred pictures of flowers and leaves, and amused myself on the excruciatingly steep volcano hikes by trying to place each plant I notice in a family, and maybe even the right genus. So, in between bird sightings, I am thoroughly engaged. Diversification in natural history interests is the way to go.
Phoebe has been faithfully posting my wintry missives, prepared before our departure. Thank you, sweetest girl in the world. This will give you a little break and a glimpse of what we're experiencing here. Today's Bill's birthday, and we celebrated it several times over with spectacular views and coveted bird sightings. Imagine getting a pink-headed warbler for your birthday!
Tomorrow we depart for Tikal, where we'll be sweating to the oldies in the lowland rain forest--my favorite birding habitat on the planet. Toucans and flatbills and tody-flycatchers and motmots, here we come!

Winter Skies

The balmy warmth couldn't last. A tremendous cold front roared in a couple of nights ago, dropping the temperature from 65 to 35. Up here on the ridge, everything that isn't stowed or battened down simply blows away, and the house moans and shudders and the dampers flap and even the water in the commodes rocks back and forth. The payoff for all of this is the skies.
I am forever running out in thin jammies and bare feet, trying to capture those cold front skies.

Morning's the best, when the sun sets the front door glass aflame.

Here's my favorite picture of all: an American goldfinch, riding the thin whips of willow branches, strung with buds like golden beads in the storm light. I would like to do that, hang on with my tiny claws, knowing that if I let go, I had but to spread my wings and the wind would carry me to Pennsylvania.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Counting Birds

The weather cooperated with the Great Backyard Bird Count. It snowed like crazy this morning, sending the cardinals and juncos into Eat Overdrive. They showed up beautifully against the snow, and were easy to count as they flocked. The idea is to get the highest total of each species at any one moment. So if I count 15 cardinals once, and then two hours later, count 19, 19 is the number I'll submit. The flockers are easy--it's the titmice and chickadees that are hard to total up. My gut instinct is that there must be a couple of dozen of each using the feeders, but they don't all come in together. Oh, well. Bad data's better than no data. This afternoon Bill counted 38 goldfinches (we've had upwards of 180 in some years). And this year we have several eastern towhees kicking around. This was the scene that greeted us about 30 seconds after I put out the morning's suet dough. Cardinals are way down. We've had as many as 70 together in some blizzards. Now, that's a sight.

There are eight bluebirds coming in this year, but I've only been able to catch six together at one time.
Don't miss the fourth bird, hovering overhead!

When the suet dough in the dish gives out, the bluebirds know to visit a little bluebird feeder mounted right by the kitchen window. I always keep it stocked with dough, and so far only bluebirds, titmice, nuthatches and one wise downy woodpecker have dared to venture in. Last year, a smallish starling made its way into the box and got stuck. I imagined that it gorged so on suet dough it was too big around to get back out, but probably it just panicked when I emerged from the house and couldn't figure out how to exit. I reached into the box, caught the starling, held it beak to nose, and said, "NEVER go back in that bluebird feeder AGAIN!" Deal, said the starling, and it never did.
Yes, I'm a snob, but if I'm going to stir suet dough until my arms ache, I get to say who gobbles it down. I pick Mr. Snowbelly, hanging out on the giant's shillelagh Bill found, as it was being strangled by grapevines down in the woods. He put it up for the bluebirds to sit on. One thing we love about bluebirds is they always enthusiastically accept our offerings. They're easy to buy for. I suppose you could say the same about starlings, but they just aren't as gracious about it as bluebirds, and they need to work on hygeine.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Mighty Mighty PIWO

Part of a plate painted for "Very Large Woodpeckers," an article I wrote for Bird Watcher's Digest.

Over the last few months, I've been building a gallery of woodpecker art: art by woodpeckers. There's something going on with carpenter ants and sassafras trees in late winter; I'm not sure what it is, but our larger sassies are under full assault by pileated woodpeckers, with spectactular effects. A sassafras whose bark has just been scaled off has a bright cinnabar wound, that turns to gray within a few weeks.This one, below, is an older working--the red bark has grayed.
Other clues tell me how fresh the work is: the condition and color of the chips below, and particularly that of any droppings amid the chips. This is a minute-old dropping.It's mostly sumac, smilax and other fruits.

And here are some droppings under the same tree, but a month later, also very fresh, and composed almost entirely of carpenter ant exoskeletons:
Just for scale, my hand. Note how all these holes have the pileated's rectangular trademark. Interestingly, the nest cavity is almost always round. I don't know why their workings are rectangular, but perhaps that shape allows them maximum access to the punky heartwood and the galleries of beetles and ants that they're striving to reach.
These are BIG holes, 3" x 6". Here's the same hole, a month later--much enlarged!

The power of a pileated's bill amazes me. Below is a closeup of the individual bill strikes on the same tree shown above. You can see the path of each blow, ending with a dark hole on the left border of the bark. It almost looks like the track of a bullet. This kind of sideways blow pops the thick bark off--a technique favored by ivory-billed woodpeckers.

I'll come up to a tree that's just riddled with holes and chopmarks, thinking, "That must be pretty punky wood for a bird to do that much damage." Such was the case with this American beech.
And I was dumbfounded to find I couldn't so much as flake a piece off with my fingernails. This was solid, living wood, and a bird weighing maybe 10 ounces had chopped it to bits.
Here's one of the things they're after. A larva of a wood-boring beetle, perhaps a cerambycid of the type ivory-billed woodpeckers devour, started its journey on the lower left of this trunk. See how the tunnel darkens and widens as it comes into the shepherd's crook? Here, the larva entered another instar, molted its exoskeleton and emerged a size larger. The tunnel widens again at the bottom of the crook--perhaps another molt. And you can see it getting larger as it moves up the tree. There's a sharp left hook, and another molt/instar. Thanks to Martha Weiss for teaching me how to read larval tunnels. And now you know how.
By now this thing is the size of a crinkle-cut fry, and quite a prize for a woodpecker. Pileated woodpeckers peeled the bark off this tree, and dug several large rectangular holes in it, looking for just such treasures.
Guided by the patches of fresh red or white inner bark, I go from one pileated dig to another all through the 250-acre woods I haunt.
There are three, perhaps four pairs of pileated woodpeckers who also call this woodland home. They've got everything they need: lots of standing live and dead timber, borders full of sumac and dogwood, smilax and poison ivy; running water, places to roost and nest. I never walk the woods without hearing or seeing at least two. One day I saw seven. And I never see a pileated woodpecker without giving thanks that this bird is still common, and plans to stay that way.