Sunday, April 30, 2006

Messy Dog

There's been a load of botany and horticulture here lately, and I can feel you Chet Baker fans keening for your pup. So I present the down side of Chet Baker, and I daresay Boston terriers in general. Heck, it's the downside of all dogs except poodles. Who have their own downsides. Someone who owns two of them tells me she has to pull their ear hair once a week. Ow!Baker helps too much. Here, he's pulling on the rope that raises and lowers our martin nesting gourds. Oh, thank you. That's a big help.
He is not good to his toys. The only ones that survive his attacks now are the canvas postman and referee made by Doggie Hoots. The rest are toast from the minute he sinks his teeth into their seams.Patrick Starfish held up for a long time, perhaps because it wasn't even meant to be a dog toy. But during American Idol Wednesday night, Baker got into his groin and eviscerated him most gruesomely.
There is Patrick stuffing all over the house. I finally threw the limp rag away tonight, but not before two more salvos of Hollofil, and one big Baker upchuck that consisted of Hollofil laced with Royal Canin dog chow. Bleeeeah.
This is the time of year when Baker changes his coat from winter to summer. So he gets rid of it all over the place. But especially on flannel sheets. Because the camera didn't know what I wanted to focus on, I had to put a quarter down on the bed. It has no other significance than as a focal point. Yes, we sleep in this. Bleeeah. Big Baker downside.Is he worth it?
Yes, He Is.
Hair? What hair? Is there a problem?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Now THAT's a Lilac!

Excuse me. Gotta brag on a plant again. Bill's mom, Elsa, dug up a lilac shoot from a bush that grew for years on the Miller farm (the ancestral Thompson family farm,which is now under a highway cloverleaf). For years, this offshoot has grown between Bill's parents' house and the neighbor's--not a great place, doesn't get much sun--but it's hanging in there. Every Easter, Elsa climbs out the bathroom window and walks around the corner of the roof to cut some blossoms for the table. The bush is that big. We call it Aunt Lolly's Lilac, because she was the queen of her garden, and she knew from good plants. I would have loved to have known Bill's Great Aunt Lolly. Told she had a live bat clinging to her hat, she said, "Oh, leave it there. It's not hurting anything." My kind of cool old lady.
Aunt Lolly's Lilac isn't just any lilac. The is the finest, most gorgeous, most deliciously fragrant, and the BIGGEST lilac on the planet. This is not a lilac for the faint of heart. It knocks you over with its size, color, and aroma.
Naturally, I went poking around under the offshoot at Elsa's, looking for sprouts. I found a number of them, and potted them up. At the end of the summer, I planted them, and gave several away. This is what mine looks like now, after maybe four years of happy growth:And just to show you what I mean, today I broke a sprig off the garden-variety lilac that came with our farm. The kind that grows everywhere. The ordinary kind. The one in my hand.
Now do you see why I rave about this lilac?
This plant is an heirloom in the finest sense of the word. I'm making it my mission to propagate it and spread it around, because I've never seen a finer one. My sisters in Massachusetts and Connecticut are all waiting for theirs to bloom. Bill planted one in a sunny spot in his folks' backyard, so we can see what it'll do there. I like to think about how old the variety must be, and how old things are often so much better than new things. And the old things all come around in their own time. This is a lilac whose bloom trusses are big enough to accommodate your entire face. Ahhhhhh. Wish I could give you Smellovision. That's on Mac OS29.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Burning Down the House

Phoebe had softball practice tonight, two hours of it, in the golden afternoon sun. I took Liam, a book (Annie Dillard's For the Time Being), and Chet Baker along. Soon I tired of trying to figure out what Annie was trying to get me to figure out and surrendered to the warm sun and the laughter of children, and I lay down and dozed in the cold grass. When practice finally ended, Phoebe begged to stay and watch a friend of hers practice. But behind her pleading face, coming out of the trees a ridge or two away, I spotted a plume of thick black smoke, and I didn't like the looks of it. Brush burns blue; grass burns yellow; tires burn black, and so do houses. I dragged the kids to the car and sped off in that direction. Only a mile down my beloved, beautiful Germantown Road, we were horrified to see this old Ohio farmhouse going to its reward. One by one, they burn up or, more often, are pulled down, and what replaces them is almost invariably modular, spiritless crap, doublewides that add nothing to the landscape, and worse, will roll over and kill their owners in a tornado. Oh, I hate to see a house burn, but an old farmhouse hurts most. Just look at the setting--it's like a gem in the landscape.
The house can't have been burning for more than fifteen minutes when we arrived, but it was clear that there was nothing to save. Only two tankers were there, and they were giving it all they had.More vehicles rolled up as the flames were doused to rolling smoke.
The renters arrived. Neighbors were saying that there were three in the house, and they were all accounted for. Their dogs were tied out back, thank goodness, far enough away from the flames to be all right. We couldn't hear anything but the occasional pop or crash, but I could imagine what these poor people were saying, in the anguish of watching everything they owned go up in flames.In the midst of it, the children were watching, so heartbreakingly beautiful. People have been watching such things, feeling such things forever. It was like being present for someone's dying, and we were all hushed and quiet, sending this good old house into the afterlife.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Welcome to My Greenhouse

I was driving from Columbus one afternoon when a call came over my cellphone from Bill, who happened to be peddling Bird Watcher's Digest's wares at a home and garden show in Chicago. "Zick, do you want a greenhouse?"
"You know I've ALWAYS wanted a greenhouse."
"There are some guys packing up a prototype called a Garden Pod and they told me they'd give it to me half-price and ship it free if I'd take it off their hands. Do you want it?"
"Absolutely." No hesitation there. Bring it on.
And thus was one of the world's greatest birthday presents given. I think that was 2002. Man, I have had some fun with this little greenhouse. It's not much larger than your average phone booth--9' round--but it is packed with the most wonderful plants, plants I cannot live without. It's my own personal Florida vacation.
This view shows a couple of neat plants from Africa. The cascading one at far left is Abutilon megapotamicum, a member of the hibiscus family. I love its little pendant red and yellow bells. It's one of the most floriferous plants I know. The shrubby one just to the right, with small round pink flowers, is another hibiscus clan member--a mallow called Anisodonta capensis. I saw it in a planter at a restaurant in Amish country several years ago, and flipped over it. I filched a couple of little cuttings and prayed they'd root, because I'd never seen this plant before. It's like a tiny hollyhock, and it makes a nice full shrub spangled with pink all summer long in the garden.

This perennial snapdragon was my Plant of the Year three years ago. It's terrific for hanging baskets and rock gardens, being gray-green, wooly, and trailing. Besides that, it's fragrant. What more could you want in a plant?

You'll notice that everything is just blooming its head off. Secret? Feed Peter's Plant Food half strength each and every time you water. That's what the professional growers do. I do the same for my orchids, with their special food. Same trick keeps hanging baskets flowering hard all season long. You've got to nourish them each time you water or they'll peter out. I don't know why Peter's works so much better for me than other brands, but I'm not questioning it.
Bougainvillea "Raspberry Ice" (top left) has brought me a smile all winter long. It sat around on the front porch moping through July, August, and the rest of the fall, then burst into bloom inside the greenhouse in January and has just kept going. I'll be curious to see if the Ohio summer is hot enough for it. This baby likes it hot. I think I'll put the pots against the east side of the house near the front door and see if the reflected heat off the house is enough to keep it blooming all summer.
This heliotrope is coming into its third season with me. A lot of these tropicals are very long-lived and durable plants--it's a shame to let the frost get them. The Garden Pod is all about cheating winter (and saving lots and lots of money on fancy hanging baskets and planters come spring). And it smells like Paradise. The next couple of weeks will be a frantic pastiche of bird festival travel, talks, weeding and planting, and stuffing all this wonderful herbiage into planters, pots, and hanging baskets. I've got to get it all moved outside before May 2. It gets so darn hot in that greenhouse in spring that, after a winter of tenderly bringing them to their fullest beauty, I risk cooking everyone should I forget to open it in the morning. I have to keep a screen over the door because it's a magnet to hummingbirds. They come in and can't figure out how to get out--their instinct tells them to fly up when they're confused or frightened. But there's an exhaust fan up there that will make hummer hash of them. And so I never leave the door unscreened for so much as a second.I'd love to think this is Bela, one of the hummingbirds I raised. He's hanging by the front door like Bela always did.

Speaking of things getting in--there's a titmouse stuck in the garage right now, and a !@##$$#% chipmunk in the house. Chet was chasing him through the front flower beds as I was coming out the side door with a load of laundry to hang out. Before I could say what the heck?? he had chased that durn munk right into the basement. We opened all the basement doors, but asking a chipmunk to leave a nice dark basement for blindingly bright sunlight outside is asking too much. He didn't even take the trail of honey-roasted peanuts we laid out from his lair under the stairs to the door. For the last two days he's been in my studio! chittering at me from under a large chest whenever I make a sudden move. He chittered from under the fridge this morning. I've left him food and water, and set a livetrap for him with peanut butter and peanuts and seed. No interest so far. Durn dog.
Growing up to be such a handsome little man-dog. I hardly recognize him, he looks so filled out and stately. He knows the words "chipmunk," "deer," "cat," "bunny," "Daddy," "The Loop," "hungry," "breakfast," and "your own bed," as well as all our names.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Last Time I Saw Pandas

was 1974? I think that's about right. Anyway, I was a kid. We went up to see the first pandas to come to the National Zoo with my grandmother from Iowa and my mom and dad and sister Micky. I remember standing in line for a long time, then pressing myself up against glass to watch them amble around their grassy enclosure.
Liam and I were hoping to see the baby giant panda Tai Shan, but there was a line about forty people long, so we walked on by. Standing in line didn't figure in our day; we had three hours to do as much of the Zoo as we could, thanks to bumper-to-bumper traffic, technical difficulties setting up my talk for that evening, and a recalcitrant guard at the gate who told me the parking lots were all full, and I'd have to show a Smithsonian ID to get in. When I told him I was from Ohio, and I was going to speak there that evening, he said, "Well, you'll have to show me your Smithsonian ID." As if they issue one when they invite you over. So instead of starting our zoo adventure at 11, we started it at 1:30. They were all out of strollers, too, and that meant mutiny from Liam. I was reduced to following a tired-looking grandmother all the way up the hill to the stroller return station to make sure we'd get one. Liam, trudging red-faced and sullen, behind. Fun!
Our dear friends Howard and Marta Youth arrived to grease the skids; Howard worked for the Zoo for years and knew all the right people to summon. We got it all figured out, and their adorable little son Thomas gave Liam a couple of kisses.
Then we were off, zooming from exhibit to exhibit. I think our favorite was Amazonia. We stared agog at giant arapaima fish being fed chunks of herring and fruit. If I'm not mistaken, this is the same fish we called pirarucu in Manaus. I have eaten a lot of pirarucu, even filed my nails with their dried scales. They're being overfished into oblivion, like every other large fish in the world. These were about six to eight feet long, and utterly, prehistorically stunning.
Gorillas, giraffes, some orangutans who were playing with bedsheets in a most amusing way; glossy starlings and tawny frogmouths and gibbons...we flew through the zoo. Despite being pushed around like a pasha in his scooterbug, offered water and snacks and every comfort, Liam grew increasingly fretful. Our little Armageddon occurred when he refused to look at a baby gorilla, because it wasn't a train. That's when you know you have a problem. Liam got a ferocious, hissing lecture from Mommy, and his attitude improved. Stepping back from it, though, I realized that, while many kids around us were throwing screaming stomping flailing fits, I was bent in half just because my son averted his eyes from something wonderful that I wanted him to see. Little stinker. He doesn't have to say a word. He knows how to push my buttons.
So we're coming back up the interminably long hill to the gate, and I remember hearing that sometimes you can see the pandas from the terrace of the Panda Cafe, so I exit stage left and there, miracle upon miracles, in the late afternoon sun, Tai Shan is ambushing his mama about twelve feet directly beneath us. He's hanging upside down from a forked log and biting her as she deliberately walks beneath his station. All bearlike creatures are cute, but pandas are flat-out adorable, and they are playful as all getout on top of looking like giant stuffed toys. I love how Mom casually puts herself in harm's way again and again.

The little knot of people were all goo-goo over this little panda, and I was the worst offender. Pandas are pure magic. Awwww! Lookit that!
Liam was laughing out loud. It was the perfect end to a strenuous day. Well, almost the end...I had to give a talk that evening. I knew it would be rough to do the Zoo, get myself presentable, then give a talk, but I really had no other recourse. It worked out fine. I got to have dinner with my hero Russ Greenberg, an ornithologist specializing in studying our rapidly declining Neotropical migrant birds. Russ realized that if he didn't do something quick we'd have nothing left to study. So he started the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. I've been blessed to work with Russ on a number of occasions, illustrating SMBC's beautiful publications, and I hope to work with him for a long time to come. He's a mighty smart guy, and he sees the big picture like nobody's business.

It was a wonderful trip. Stumbling on the pandas was a metaphor for the whole journey. What a gift from above. These animals are doing good work for their Chinese brethren. Long may they live and reproduce.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Come Walk With Me

and we'll do a nest check. Oh, I love checking my nest boxes. It's hard to stay out of them this time of year; each time I open one it's like Easter morning.
There are baby bluebirds in many of my boxes right now, and watching them grow is absolutely riveting. The weather's been great for nesting, not too cold at night, and the rains have been brief with plenty of sun in between. I can't remember a better spring for nesting birds. So far. Exactly one year ago today, I was looking out at six inches of snow, snow heaped on green leaves and piling up atop bluebird boxes full of nestlings. Arrrrgh. I like this spring MUCH better.
While playing the Easter bunny, I gathered grass for Easter baskets, but also for my nest boxes. I always gather a feed bag full of dry grass early in spring before it all rots down--now is too late. The fast-growing green grass and the spring rains have rotted all that good winter grass to moldy tatters. I store it in the garage and use it for nest changes. Eastern bluebirds get a parasite, the bluebird blowfly, Protocalliphora sialia. The maggots infest the nest, and suck the babies' blood at night. Almost all nests are infested, especially in the second brood, so I automatically change the nests when the babies are about a week old. I just make a new nest from dry grass and take the old one out. Then I count the maggots to see how badly infested the nest was. A bad infestation will be 75-150 blowfly larvae. I always think how good it must feel to the chicks to be blowfly-free at last. If I can't find any evidence of blowflies, I often leave early spring nests alone. By May, though, those blowflies will be busy!
These four-day old nestlings in the Spring Trail box are almost ready for their nest change. I wait until they're big enough to handle safely. One of the eggs in this clutch hadn't hatched, so I took it out. Better that, than it cracks and soils the nest. If an egg hasn't hatched by the time its siblings are two days old, it's not going to hatch. I'm always curious to see if I can tell what went wrong, so I take the egg a good distance from the nest and open it up to see what's what. The vast majority of unhatched eggs were never fertilized, but this one died in the shell after about ten days of incubation. I don't know why, but maybe someday an answer will present itself. The thing is to keep asking the questions, and keep looking for the answers.
The very next box Phoebe and I checked had five eggs. If you look closely, you'll see that the topmost and lowest eggs are pipping. So now I know that the babies will all be hatched by tomorrow morning. The momentary sadness we felt over the chick that died in its shell evaporates. Life surges on in the spring.

Those of you with a hands-off appreciation of nature may be unsettled by my tales of nest intervention--removing nests, handling young birds, opening unhatched eggs. I know a man who has bluebird boxes in his yard, unprotected by baffles, who never opens them until the end of the season. He's appalled at the way I manage my boxes. He thinks I should leave the birds alone and let nature take its course. But when the bluebirds in his yard mysteriously "abandon" their nests, he doesn't know why; snakes and raccoons have their way with them; parasites weaken the young. Maybe some of his bluebirds make it. Most probably don't.

By contrast, I'm an unapologetic interventionist. I don't handle the birds for fun or profit; I handle them only to help them. Having run nest box trails since 1982, I've figured out how to help them. And I'm not above feeding them when their parents have trouble finding enough insect prey. Last year, 52 fat, healthy baby bluebirds fledged from boxes on my trail. There were a couple of snake incidents, a couple of raccoon incidents, some very cold, wet spring weather...I was trying out a waxed pole that proved emphatically not to work in Ohio! Those poles are all baffled now. In 2004, the best year ever, a whopping 72 bluebirds fledged from our boxes. This year, I'm holding my breath. It could be better than '04. We've got eight pairs of bluebirds (up from our usual total of six), a pair of tree swallows, and a pair of Carolina chickadees in boxes on our land.Here's a ten-day-old bluebird, about to be put into its new, parasite-free nest.
I'm as serious about pumping healthy young birds out as any farmer is about fattening cattle. I've got seven new baffled boxes up on Stanleyville Road, and another couple more to put up. And I'm checking them all once a week, and sticking my nose into their business. And I'm teaching my kids to do the same. Our goal is to overrun this part of the county with bluebirds. It seems to be working.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Liam Does D.C.

City kid, chasing pigeons. You can tell the ones from Ohio, because when their mothers tell them to try catching pigeons, they actually think they will catch one.

We left last Monday for Severna Park, Maryland, where my sister Nancy and mom Ida both live. Sisters Barbara and Micky and Micky's husband, David, and son Evan came down to make it an almost all-Zick reunion (missing only my brother Bob, who is closing on a piece of hilltop in the Shenandoah Valley at the moment). It was just Liam and me. The proximate reason for the trip was a talk I was slated to give at the National Zoo, and all the other wonderful stuff just accreted around it like layers of a hailstone. Man, it was great to hang with my sisters and mom. We went for a four-mile walk, nearly killing Liam, who takes after my dad. He was the one waiting on the park bench for my mom while she ran around.
Ida, my mom, turns 86 this May, but you'd never know it, from the pace she sets. She walks 3 miles a day, and all the people at her independent living community call her Speedy. I hope I'm as fit and sharp and funny at 86. You can't pick your parents, but I would have picked Ida in a heartbeat.
It was a train-centric trip. The highlight for Liam was taking the MARC train from BWI airport all the way in to the glamorous, historic Union Station in Washington. We wanted to see the old trains in the Museum of History and Technology, and the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. I thought Liam would pop, waiting for the train out on the platform. No one ever enjoyed a train ride more. He liked riding the train waaay better than he liked the museums or even the zoo, where we spent the next day.
Continuing the train theme, we stopped in Cumberland, Maryland, on the way home. Cumberland's the home of Mountain Thunder, a famous steam engine that takes people on 35-mile round-trips to Frostburg in the summer. We didn't see MT, but we saw his coaches and caboose, and Liam climbed aboard, waving away huge cobwebs as he made his way along. He stopped and pretended to be "an old skeleton, forgotten on the siderail." It was a convincing portrayal. We ate at the local creamery, and we stopped in the fabulous gift shop that's strategically designed to strip train-crazy kids' parents of all their extra cash. My goodness. $70 later, Liam had a bunch of new DVD's, a wooden diesel engine, a Thomas placemat and teacup, and a new engineer's hat. He needed one; his old one was sitting up high on his head like a little sparrow.
At the Mall in Washington, we trudged from museum to museum in the thrilling spring sunshine. I quickly realized that I would have to spring for a cab from Union Station if Liam was to survive the walk. Washington "blocks" are Ohio half-miles. The scale of the place is almost inconceivable, especially to a weary six-year-old. I thought a ride on the merry-go-round would revive Liam, but as we stood, thirty deep in line, he set his heart on riding the sea monster, something that clearly only the first child in line gets to do. We managed to get horses right behind it but... Only Liam could get on a merry-go-round and stay mad the whole time, because he didn't get the monster he wanted. By that time, my ragged maternal edges were showing. But it was the coolest sea monster. Liam is incredibly specific in his desires, and if he sets his heart on something, you can forget placating him with anything else. Traveling with him is an adventure in negotiation.

When we got off the merry-go-round, we walked back to where we could catch a cab to the station. There was a man drumming on garbage cans and joint compound buckets. He didn't even have drumsticks; he was using random pieces of wood, and splinters were scattered all around him. He was an artist of the highest caliber, rock solid in rhythm, playing tunes on those hunks of plastic. Every once in awhile he'd hit the shopping cart, which made a great crash. We were mesmerized. I could have stayed and listened to his music all day. All the exhibits and rides were fine, but the guy who was playing real good, for free, was the one who touched us most.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Making Manakins, 4

Here's the final installment of Making Manakins, in which I reveal some of my painting techniques with step-by-step photos of a long-tailed manakin painting in progress. Many thanks to Dan Mennill for the great reference photos in this and previous blogs! This one is a wonderful example of why it's really hard to judge colors in photographs. The low-angle tropical sun has washed out the bird's colors. But this image is great for feather texture and eye detail, and that's what I used it for. Man, what an appealing little bird!
It's time to put in the black. There is a great temptation when painting black birds to paint them other than black; to back off a bit and make them brownish or grayish; or to pump a lot of color into them, be it blue or green or violet. Which is fine if you're painting a grackle or some other iridescent black bird. But there are some birds that are Why should a manakin be iridescent, when its black plumage functions as a fabulous foil for its sky-blue back and crimson crown patch? It's more or less velvety, flat black. So I squeeze a dab from my tube of Ivory Black and get to it. As I paint, I can hear the great late bird painter Don Eckelberry's rough voice hollering, "If the bird is black, paint it BLACK!" OK, Don!
Ivory black is really fun to work with. It's made from burnt bones. Cow bones, I think. The pigment particles are really fine and it dilutes to a fine, but still black, wash. I adore it. The first bird is painted in about a half-hour. You may have been wondering how long this painting took to complete. I spent a good six-hour day composing and making thumbnail sketches, and figuring out where my darks and lights would go. The painting went faster though; I started at about 9 AM and was done and out the door for a hike by 3 PM. This, with breaks to snuzzle Chet Baker and take photos, chase butterflies around the yard and such springtime things.
Here's the final piece. The black tail streamers were the last thing to go in. I loaded a round brush up well with paint and did each one in a single fluid stroke. The older the bird, the longer the tail plume, but I'll spare you the ramifications behind that. These are geezers!

Here they are in close-up, minus their tails, just so you can see a little more of the detail and brushwork.

I took it outside to photograph it (I like to shoot my paintings in full sun, then come back inside and correct the overexposure and juice the colors right back up to where they should be). Chet Baker was prone on the sidewalk, baking his liver and lights. He's been waiting to do this all winter. He heaved himself up sleepily when he heard my camera jump to life. And, sure that I had come outside just to photograph him, struck a perfect, monumental Baker pose before flopping back down on the sidewalk. I read an interview with William Wegman (he of the dressed-up Weimaraners) in which he said that his dogs loved to work and pouted when he wasn't dressing them up and posing them in the studio. Chet obviously considers striking poses part of his job description. It has nothing to do with food rewards--having his picture taken is reward enough for Chet. Not wanting to break his bubble, I took the photo-op. Yes, Chet, it's all about YOU.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Making Manakins, 3

Look how tiny they are. About the size of a goldfinch, that's all. They're little. But oh, my!

O boy oboy oboy now I get to paint the birds! The only alloy on my joy is that I don't have a specimen to work from, and Stephanie Doucet, the giftee, has written her thesis on plumage coloration in long-tailed manakins. So the pressure's on to get the colors right. I'm so thankful for my terrific Mac and its color fidelity. These photos look darn close to what I remember from my one encounter with the species years ago. I've just got to hope I can get it close enough for a cigar. If I had just gotten my PhD (don't hold your breath), I would definitely light up a cigar.
The male long-tailed manakin stays in greenish juvenal plumage for five years--longer than most bald eagles! There aren't any temperate zone passerines that do that. OK, manakins are suboscine passerines, but still...they're so small. You just wouldn't expect a juvenal plumage to persist that long in such a small species. And as you might expect with such a long period in juvenal plumage, they're still going strong at ten years of age. There is so much strange stuff going on in the tropics--low clutch sizes (like two eggs)--great longevity in very small birds--cooperative breeding displays between males--lekking--things we don't see in "our" breeding songbirds. The way I think about it, it's probably all linked to food resources. What we see in temperate and boreal forests is huge sudden flushes of insect food come spring, and lots of short-lived bird species raising big brood after big brood in the short months while the flush lasts. Down in the tropics, there are no such sudden flushes of high-protein insect prey. And there are lots and lots of egg and nest predators. Birds live differently, forage differently, breed differently. You're not going to lay six eggs in an open-cup nest in Costa Rica if
a. you can't find that much high-protein food for your young when they hatch or
b. a vine snake's going to climb up and eat the clutch, anyway. This highly over-simplified take on the breeding biology of small tropical birds is brought to you by Out the Top of My Hat Productions. Don't quote me. I'm just thinking out loud. I just wanted to give you an example of the kinds of things that run through my mind while I'm painting. It's like taking a brief vacation to Central America for me to paint these birds. I get to wonder as I wander through their feathers.
The thing about watercolor is that you have to paint the light, bright colors first, and then add the dark ones. So much as I would like to save the manakins' blue mantles and red crown patches for dessert, I have to paint them first, so I can then tickle the black edges into them. In transparent watercolor, I don't have the option of painting light blue over black. I start with the crazy orange legs and feet.
Then I move on to the backs and crowns. Now I'm really having fun. To be continued!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Making Manakins

Now that I have a sketch I like, it's time to transfer the drawing to watercolor paper. I do this by turning the tracing paper sketch over and running dark pencil over the lines. When I place this tracing paper over the watercolor paper and press down with my pencil, the dark pencil I've put on back transfers to the clean watercolor paper. You can see that there's not much detail in the sketch. Why draw it twice? I'll firm up the detail directly on the watercolor paper, once I'm done painting the background. There are a couple of reasons for this. Most importantly, I don't want to spend any time refining the drawings before I paint the background. If I mess up the background, so what? I'll paint another. At this point, I don't mess up too many paintings, because I spend a lot of time thinking about how I want it to look before ever picking up a brush!

First, I stretch the paper (Winsor Newton Cold Press) by spraying the back of it with water, then using paper tape to stick it down on a thin piece of Masonite. It's all rumply at first, but when it dries it's nice and flat. This is important, because a wet wash will run into the valleys, and color will pool there, where I may not want darks. I want to tell the paint where to go, not the other way around.
When it's completely dry, I mask out the birds. Masking means that I use film and liquid masking medium to keep paint from getting on the spaces where the manakins will go.Here, the film is laid down over the manakins, and they're waiting for their edges to be sealed with liquid medium. Over the years, I've learned that masking film won't keep paint off the paper on even slightly rough surfaces like cold-press watercolor paper. The paint creeps under the film thanks to the bumpy paper surface, making more problems than the masking film solves. So the trick I use to get around that is to use liquid masking medium around the edges of the film. I cut the film with a razor blade, a little smaller all around than the bird's outline. Then I paint the rubber-cement-like masking medium all around the edge. It seals it off nicely.
Now, I get to paint a crazy active wash all over the place without worrying about getting paint on my birdspaces. I'm planning this so the darkest greens are near the brightest, lightest parts of the birds.Here, you can see the pools and puddles of paint on the masking materials. When I peel them off, there will be nothing but clean white paper beneath. Watercolor looks spontaneous, but it has to be carefully planned in advance, so that when you're painting lightning-fast, you have a vision in mind of what the end product will be. I absolutely love the "cooking" part of the process, when I'm thinking about how best to highlight the subject. Working it out in fast pencil roughs is really fun. Sometimes I like the pencil sketches better than the finished product. In this case, though, the final product came out pretty much like I wanted it to. More anon!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Manakin Art

The long-tailed manakin, Chiroxiphia linearis, lives in Central America, and has to be one of the coolest birds on the planet. Males lek, gathering in groups to display for females. They'll sit close together, and voice a loud, mellow whistle: To-le-do! in unison. Two or even three males may display cooperatively, doing a complex dance in which one male launches himself in a parabolic flight over a horizontal perch, while another male zoops in beneath him, and launches when the first bird is about to land. They make a rolling Catherine wheel of color, their azure backs and crimson crowns blurring.
As a college student, I was fascinated--obsessed--with manakins, these birds I had never seen in life. I studied every bit of scientific literature I could get my hands on, and wrote papers in several independent studies with graduate students who had seen them. Boy, I love manakins. Since then, I've seen three species, including this coolest of all manakins, but have never been able to spend a lot of time watching them. It's a dream that I hope someday to fulfill.
Close enough, though, is being commissioned to paint long-tailed manakins. And for a PhD candidate's surprise present, no less. Stephanie Doucet just successfully defended her thesis on plumage coloration in long-tailed manakins at Auburn University, and her husband Dan Mennill contacted me and asked if I'd make a painting as a present for her. SURE! My favorite kind of job: Finite, colorful, and fun.
Dan sent me terrific reference. These videos of dancing manakins were the best. The first video
shows two males whistling and cartwheeling. Oh, man, I was excited.
The second video is even better: two nutso males AND two olive-drab females on the same branch, with a bellbird konking in the background! It's almost like being in Costa Rica.
Computers, and especially my beloved Mac, make being a bird artist so darn fun it ought to be illegal.
So I was well set-up with action pics of dancing manakins. As far as Dan knew, he was getting a portrait of a single male, but I couldn't paint just one. It would be like eating one potato chip, a single spoonful of Cherry Garcia. So I started sketching action poses. There were so many to choose from it was torture to pick just two.
Picking my two favorite poses of males in flight and in ready-to-fly mode, I came up with a simple drawing that I thought conveyed the motion and zest of the birds.
Then, I shaded it to figure out some of the values involved. As you can see, the flying male has moved to the left, to give a better impression of the wheel-like flight.I wanted that blue and red to really pop against a complementary background of vivid tropical forest green. And I didn't want to get all hung up in the foliage...because when you're watching manakins dance, I guarantee you're not paying any attention to leaf textures.
At this point, I'd worked for most of a day on the pencil sketch phase, just chomping at the bit to move on to painting. But it's well worth thinking it all out in black-and-white, because no amount of painting technique will make up for a weak drawing. To be continued...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Baltimore Report

Howdy from Baltimore! I have my camera, and my sister's wireless, but I'm working on a borrowed laptop right now, so I can't post photos. I'm in the DC area to have a mini-family reunion (lacking only my brother and his family, and Bill and Phoebe, and sundry nieces and nephews). I've got to give a talk on bird painting at the National Zoo on Thursday night at 7 pm. Man, it's great to hang out with my three sisters, two brother-in-laws, and my mom. We walked at Kinder Park in Severna Park, Maryland all morning. We got lost on the trails on its 260-acre expanse, but in the process I checked their nicely baffled and maintained bluebird boxes (about eight nests, four with eggs). I have the bluebirding bug so bad that I can't help but check other people's boxes. It was so neat to show bluebird eggs to my mom, who I doubt had ever seen them. But the best moment was when Mom sat down on a bench to rest and let me and Liam catch up. There was a brown thrasher singing its heart out atop an oak right overhead. Mom knew what it was instantly, though it probably had been decades since she'd heard one sing. That was her mother's favorite bird. It was a circle, complete. We must have walked four miles or more through the spring sunshine. I found an active red fox den, and my nephew Evan discovered three cattle egrets hunting in a ditch. Lest I descend into laptop geekdom, I will return to the visiting. Phoebe will be posting some prepared posts about painting long-tailed manakins in the coming days. And then you will get your Chet Baker fix again. I know why you're here. It's not about birds. It's about the dog.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter Doings

Easter was a huge day. The Easter Bunny (who also doubles as the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus) dragged herself out of bed at 6:45 to begin a fruitless search for Easter baskets, and to gather grass from the meadow with which to stuff said baskets. Some Longaberger baskets would have to do in a pinch, because the nice brightly colored baskets went AWOL. Rain spattered down on her as she tried to find grass that wasn't all moldy. (She has an aversion to plastic Easter grass.)
The Bunny had to hop all the way down the driveway over the hill to fill the baskets, to avoid being busted by Phoebe and Liam, who were up and sniffing around by 7 AM.
She barely got the baskets hidden before the kids, Chet Baker, and sleepy Mr. Bunny came out of the house to start the hunt. Liam has learned that he has to act fast if he's going to save a stuffed rabbit from Chet's lightning dash. NO BAKER NO! he yelled as he swept the rabbit out of harm's way.
Fine. Take your dumb rabbit. I'll just lick the faces off your Peeps, then.
Figuring Chet might get to it first, I put Chet's Easter surprise in Phoebe's basket. A referee, with a shocked look on his face and tough canvas skin. Something to shake the daylights out of.
Baskets found and appreciated, everyone got dressed for church. First Communion for both kids. Can you tell Liam woke up with a fever of 102? Ceremony won't wait. He had taken several Saturdays' worth of classes in preparation. Arrrrgh. We dragged the poor little shaver through the service and the festivities afterward.
When we got home, Liam went to sleep, racking up a total of 15 hours. He feels MUCH better this morning!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Haircut for Liam

Given his druthers, Liam would prefer to keep his hair buzzed short all the time. But he's got such glorious piles of white hair, and it smells so good--like sun and wind and cookies. So, selfishly, I let it grow and grow until he looks like an albino spider monkey. He can't get it cut unless I take him.Religious holidays have a way of pointing out such things, and Liam and Phoebe's first Communion is tomorrow, and it just doesn't seem right to let him go into it looking like a haystack. So I took him for a haircut.
Gene's Barber Center is on Third Street in Marietta. It's a great location. Gene doesn't miss much, and he's always watching out his big picture window, speculating on who this or that is, or telling the person's life story if he knows it (and he usually does). Gene's hobby is figuring out who everyone is and who they're related to, and he searches his considerable memory banks for the affiliation of every person he sees on that sidewalk or street. I think I'm a bit of a conundrum to him. He keeps trying to link me up with Sigafoos Insurance Agency on Putnam Street, but it doesn't work. I come from away. No lineage here.
His Barber Center is austere; the decor hasn't changed much in the last two decades. I never go in there without biting my tongue. I would love to loan Gene a few plants for that fabulous window, or maybe hang some prints on the faux walnut paneling. But its austerity is also its charm. Gene rents the place, so why should he fix it up? He's a one-chair man. And besides, all the action is outside the window.
Liam absolutely loves having his hair cut; he loves going to the doctor and dentist, too. Maybe it's because he's the center of attention there, and because he gets messed with. He loves to be messed with.
Even if it tickles.

Gene keeps up a running commentary. Here's a sample, and I think I remember it right:

"That man's got a nice red convertible. Isn't that a nice car? There was a car like that the other day, and there was a baby squirrel only six weeks old playing out in the road, and that car just flattened that squirrel, rolled it right out. The woman driving was talking on her cell phone, and she never even slowed down for him. Wasn't paying attention at all. That squirrel didn't sit up; he didn't get up; he didn't have a chance. The girls next door were feeding him, and he would go up to anybody, and before long he got to thinking that everybody had food for him. So they didn't do that squirrel a favor. They thought they did, though. They thought they were being kind to him. No, sir. That squirrel didn't know which end was up."

We both love going to Gene's.

Friday, April 14, 2006


The turtle mound's head, and its right front leg. I think it's a snapper.

I have seen pink snow. The spring beauties are so thick on Camp Tupper, all over the ancient Adina Turtle Mound in Marietta, that it looks just like pink snow. I can't walk by it; I'm agog and motionless. Here at home, spring beauties are everywhere in the woods, but they're lightly sprinkled on the forest floor. They must have ideal conditions at Camp Tupper, which is just an open park space right across from Bill's parents' house. Maybe it's the summer mowing, that keeps competing plants down. Maybe it's because, being a sacred site, it's never been plowed. Maybe it's the droppings of countless well-fed dogs through a couple of centuries. Whatever it is, I'm so thankful that the town isn't mowing right now, because I would have to throw myself howling in front of the machines.Mourning doves, wading in glory.Violets and dandelions, color accents in the symphony. Happy Easter!Concentrated beauty. Imagine a little bulb the size of a garbonzo bean at the base of each one of these flowers. If Armageddon comes, I'm taking my folding shovel and heading for Camp Tupper, and I'll live on spring beauty corms. Baker will have to catch squirrels for us.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Spring Revels

Bill of the Birds, Non Birding Bill, Chet Baker, Birdchick, and Liam trooping through Gallagher's Fork

Egad, it's so beautiful here, and birds are starting to pour in. Arriving April 13: wood thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, and Louisiana waterthrush. Hearing the sweet song of the waterthrush ringing through the stream valleys floods through my soul, fills me up and rinses me out all at once. I suspect the waterthrushes have been here for some time, because one I saw today was gathering dead leaves, doubtless for her well-concealed nest. Waterthrushes make a porch of leaves beneath and in front of their cup nests, and the whole affair looks like a bunch of flood debris lodged in a crevice beneath tree roots or in an earthen bank, until you see the little tail-bobber sneak in there.
We trooped down to Beechy Crash today, once the enchanted land of icecaves and stalactites, but today the wildflowers reigned, and the woods floor was carpeted with spring beauties and trout lily, Virginia waterleaf, blue cohosh, hepatica, Dutchman's breeches, dentaria, purple cress and the first white trillium of the year. The sun filtered strongly through the bare branches, and it was clear that the wildflowers are all rushing to leaf out and bloom before the leafy canopy cuts off their juice.Trout lily nodding in agreement.
Baker, sitting on said trout lily only a few minutes later. You were looking at this? Allow me to obscure it for you.
Spring sky, through last year's vireo nest.
Walking fern, Camptosorus rhizophyllus, rediscovered on a drippy ledge where I'd found it 14 years ago and looked fruitlessly for it ever since. It had walked several yards from where I first found it. Walking fern "walks" by sending out a long tapered leaf, with the amazing ability to root and form a new plant at its tip! It's a very primitive plant; there are only two species in its family in North America. The other is the odd little climbing Hartford fern, which I've seen only once in my life. Those are liverworts on the rocks around it. My sister was once obsessed with liverworts.
Spring beauties, and a piece of an old enameled stockpot, telling of former habitation in these woods
Henry's elfin, Incisalia henrici, a rather rare and local butterfly whose broodplant is redbud (Cercis canadensis). They're low-flying, confiding, and territorial, which makes them pretty easy to photograph, this lousy picture notwithstanding. They have the endearing hairstreak and elfin habit of rubbing their hindwings together, as though plotting their next stunt to lose the photographer.
Spring creeping up Goss' Fork
Coming up the hill to home. Bird houses outnumber people houses on our farm, 20 to 1.

They're Just Here for the Dog

A little to the left, ahhhh.
We're delighted hosts to Sharon and Bill Stiteler, better known as Birdchick and NonBirdingBill, for a couple of days. What fun to have them here, when spring is coming on strong. We spent time last night having a turkey dinner, and getting to know each other better. Although we're pretty sure that the real reason for their visit was to meet Chet Baker. Baker finds nothing strange in that. He loves having guests. So does Liam. He's all over Sharon like the white on rice.
Sharon and Bill brought Chet a cute stuffed monkey with a grass skirt and bikini, but Baker took its eyes out and unstuffed it within ten minutes. So he went back to his old friend, the Postman, who can take more abuse.
NBB threw Chet's rope toy repeatedly, sending Baker into transports of happiness.
Being productive sorts, Sharon and Bill are attempting to extract some video footage from their Indigo Hill adventure, and to that end we hiked deep into Beechy Crash today. Chet, who had been bathed in cherry-almond shampoo yesterday in honor of our guests, found some really foul coon ca-ca and rolled in it. Then, he chased some heifers, and started sucking up to NBB, as he was out of favor with me. But when everyone else turned toward home and I decided to do the rest of the Loop (I can never get enough hiking in spring woods), Chet peeled off to keep me company. That's my boy.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


April 10 was the twelfth anniversary of my father's death. In a sense, I take every April 10 off, even though I'm working like a dog all day long. I do things that remind me of Dad, that honor his memory, still so bright in my mind. I do things that he would enjoy doing. I give the lawn the first mow of the year. The smell of exhaust and cut grass and runover wild onions reminds me of him. I plant tomato and flower seeds. And I think of what we'd be talking about and hear his voice in my head.
This April 10, I invited my beyond-adorable almost-six-year-old nephew Jake out to help me dig the bonsais out of their winter coldframe, trim their roots, and repot them. I always do this on Dad's day. Jake's really interested in plants. So much so that he asked about 1,000 rapid-fire questions, made up songs about the plants, and generally kept me hopping to keep up with his litany. At one point I lifted a Japanese maple that I'd upgraded to a bigger pot last season. "Boy, these roots are really tight," I commented. "Tight as a drama queen's schedule!" Jake commented. He's like that. You never know what he's going to say, but it's always original, and often a head-scratcher. Scary smart, that boy. All he wants for his sixth birthday is his own bonsai tree. I have one waiting.
Dad always had neighborhood kids around him, watching him work. Unlike a lot of the dads in our neighborhood (OK, unlike any of them), Dad usually had a really messy project spread out in the basement or backyard that just beckoned to kids. Maybe he was restoring an antique corn sheller or cream separator, or maybe he was pouring a cement driveway, or cutting wood with an antique portable sawmill, run by a one-lung gas engine whose measured pops rang out through the neighborhood. He never chased the kids away, always answered their questions. One boy from a couple of blocks over was his constant shadow. He did poorly in school, and Dad figured out that it was because he'd never learned to read. Dad taught him to read and repair small engines. That boy has his own car repair place now, and he probably makes much more than my dad ever did.
No kindness paid a child is ever wasted.
Jake and I cleaned the fishpond, too. It's amazing to me, every April 10, when I vacuum the pond, remove the de-icer and start the fountain up, how that pond just comes alive. American toads, drawn in by the sound of splashing water, always start trilling in it that evening. The kids rediscover the little green mudhole, now transformed by sparkling, singing water. Within a couple of days, the water clears and the fish cavort beneath the fountain. After 13 years, my inbred shubunkin goldfish are almost all chocolate-brown, and most of the colorful ones have warts and tumors from marrying their sisters. The wild type survives. They aren't as pretty, but they survive. I haven't found it in my heart to cull them. I just let them do their thing. It's frustrating, though, because if one of the fish cacks, it's always a pretty one.
Today, Liam dangled his feet in the still-cold pond water, picked a dandelion, and asked if he could blow it across the water. I hesitated, thinking of dandelion fuzz in the clean filter. "But I can give the fish a lot of joy," Liam protested, and I laughed and marveled at my little straw-haired boy. The dandelion fluff floated across the water, and all the fish rose up to nibble at the seeds. Little boy, right as usual.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Ecotourism's Cutting Edge

Well, I'm on NPR's All Things Considered tonight, at about 6:15 eastern, the fourth story in the first hour of the show. I'm talking about the trip up Volcan San Pedro in Guatemala to see the horned guan. An audio file of the commentary is available on NPR's web site, along with a picture or two from the trip.

Ecotourism's Cutting Edge
Only one hundred feet to go. My companions are crouching up the trail, gesturing, smiling, urging me upward. I'm at the absolute limit of my endurance. We have been climbing this volcano in Guatemala for almost five hours. It's early afternoon. Every muscle in our bodies is shrieking with pain. And two armed Guatemalan guards, who went ahead of our band of birders, have found the object of our quest: the horned guan.
My husband Bill is lugging a spotting scope and tripod. I have a 20-pound pack, with field guide, optical equipment, camera, sketchbook. My breath comes in ragged sobs, and I drop to all fours, struggling upward, praying that the great bird stays just a few more moments. The horned guan is found only on a few forested volcano fastnesses in Guatemala and Mexico. It's in the curassow family, something like a turkey, something like a peacock; nothing like either. It is the size of a Canada goose-shiny black and white, with a blank white eye and a peculiar red horn sticking up atop its head. It looks like a feathered dinosaur, and biologically speaking it almost is. It is the rarest of the rare.
There are a dozen people in our group, most of them lifelong birders. We have climbed this volcano, wending our way upward through coffee and corn patches, to reach the tonsure of remnant forest around the volcano's peak where the horned guan still lives.Juliano, our Mayan guide, with Marco Centeno, Guatemalan ornithologist and terrific guy

Marco Centeno, the Guatemalan ornithologist who's brought us here, confesses later that, despite our effort, we had only about a five percent chance of seeing the guan. I'm glad I didn't know that at dawn, when we started climbing. I crawl and fall and gasp and finally I am there and the guan is before me, staring at me with that white eye, expressionless, surely wondering what is wrong with me.
Soon it spreads its great blue-black wings, crouches, leaps, and is gone in the thick canopy, only a leaf fluttering down to show where it had been. But I have seen it, and the agonizing climb and even worse descent seem a small price to pay.
I flop down beside Juliano, one of our Mayan guides, laughing weakly, giddy with exhilaration. We talk about the bird that he calls Pavo de Cacho. “Pavo de Cacho es muy bien,” he comments. At first I think he's saying it's a neat bird, until I get his meaning. “Para comer?” I ask, and he nods. “Muy bien.”
So here I sit, drenched in high-powered optics and my own sweat, out $300 for the privilege of climbing this immense volcano on the small chance I might glimpse the horned guan before it goes extinct. And Juliano has gnawed on their bones. Here, high above Lake Atitlan, we're on the cutting edge of ecotourism. I hope that this little multinational expedition of Americans, Canadians, Brits and Guatemalans proves that a horned guan is worth more alive than dead. Back at the foot of the mountain, we all pool our money to tip our guides, hoping to buy a little more time for the guan. I look up at the coffee plantations and patches of corn that checkerboard the volcano's vast flanks, remember the guan's wild stare, and hope hard that our children will someday look into those eyes, too.
Hugo Enriquez, Bill Thompson III, and Marco Centeno, celebrating their sighting atop Volcan San Pedro.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Frivolous Purchases

Have you ever noticed how, when you go to the Wal-mart pharmacy, that no matter how busy or unbusy they might be, and no matter when your prescription was supposedly called in, that it always takes twenty minutes to fill it? The marketing powers at this giant chain have figured out that twenty minutes is exactly how long it takes the average shopper to drop $60. Three dollars a minute. It's probably more, but that's my estimate. I should chart it someday. In my case, having nothing special to get, I wandered back into the garden center, where I bought some utterly out-of-season rose-colored snapdragons with fat yellow lips, a young lavender bush, and some purple stock, that smells of spice heaven. I will be moving them in and out of the greenhouse for the next month. Duhhh. Couldn't wait. The big yellow smiley face has me all figgered out.

Then I came back through the pet department to see if there was anything new there for Baker. Well, glory be. There was a durable stuffed postman, and a medium-sized baby-blue polo shirt that practically howled Chet Baker. I have finally gotten over buying Chet stuffed toys that are easy to rip apart. I can pull on one limb, listen for the subtle snap of threads, and know immediately whether he'll be able to unstuff it within seconds. This postman is built for the long haul--heavy canvas, tightly stuffed. And his shirt even matches Baker's. He has this horrified look on his face that makes me laugh, as if he's about to be torn limb from limb.
Chet dove into the cart full of grocery bags and had the postman unearthed before I could say HEY! WAIT A SECOND! When he tired of playing with it, I called him and told him he had one more surprise. He danced on his hind legs when he saw the shirt, ran up to me, and sat down so I could put it on him, even lifting his front paws to help me get them through the armholes. (Yes, I said armholes. What would you call them? Legholes?)They're arms, got it?
I wouldn't dress Chet up if he didn't clearly enjoy it so much. I think he enjoys the attention he gets when he's got new duds, but he also likes to be warm, and he probably associates wearing clothes with his puppyhood (he was born in December). He wore woolen tube socks with holes cut for his front legs for most of last winter, until he started looking like a stuffed sausage in them and graduated to real sweaters.
About an hour later, he came into the kitchen, sat down, and stared at me with his ears plastered back. He seemed to want something. I thought about it, felt his nose, which was cold and wet, felt his stomach, which wasn't tight or drawn up, when it suddenly occurred to me that he might want his jingly collar to complete the ensemble. Looking at it, the tags look sort of like a bolo tie. He's right--it needed accessorizing. When I brought his collar into the kitchen his face lit up and he danced on his hind legs, sat still so I could put it on, and then dashed to the door to be let outside to play.
Sometimes I think there's telepathy going on with me and that dog. I can't explain it, except that he gives me a picture of what he wants. It's rarely food--it's usually something more esoteric. He just makes me understand.
Here's my lanky love, relaxing with Baker on the couch, watching a Pirates/Reds game on TV. The furry thing used to be a howling monkey Jungle Launcher, now unstuffed and howl-free. I threw the howl box away when Chet got it out of the monkey. Yesterday Bill upended a big trash can into the dumpster and the howl box howled, OOO AH OOOO AH OOOO AH OOOOH! way down in the bottom of the dumpster, and he jumped several inches into the air, thinking he had just thrown garbage on a litter of kittens. It could happen.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Thing About Florida

The thing about Florida is its almost surreal beauty, juxtaposed with human elements that, if they're not faintly ridiculous, are at least not as beautiful. I feel this tension in Florida, brought about by seeing things that take my breath away, right next to things that irk me. Things like oversized fake palm trees and giant waterslides. To be fair to Florida, these are endemic to beaches all around the country. People just get... tacky at the shore. I don't know why. That's why Sanibel is such a wonderful retreat. The zoning board has an iron fist, and there are no franchises that weren't there before the board came into being. So forget looking for golden arches--or plastic signs of any kind. There's development aplenty, but obnoxious skyscrapers are absent. Everything's low-rise and harmonious in color and aspect.
About the beauty: I walked out on the beach on our first morning there, fully intending to get some exercise, and made the mistake of looking down.My eye fell on the drifts of seashells being cast up by the incoming tide, and there it stayed. I made several yards' progress before breakfast. I even hunkered down and started pawing through inches-deep piles of fresh shells. Now, that's really dangerous for a lover of detail, because you can spend an hour just looking through one pile. After several minutes of immobility, I looked up to find this willet wondering just what I was after. I had to laugh at myself, that I'd allowed such a lovely bird to sneak up on me while I sorted through shells.
White ibises are a signature South Florida species, and unlike all other ibises I've ever seen, they're completely comfortable around people. They probe energetically in the sand a stone's throw away, their clean white plumage taking color from the waves around them, their red bills and legs and china-blue eyes making perfect color accents.If the sun hadn't finally sunk into the sea, I'd probably have shot 100 photos of this pair. How I'd love to try to paint this scene. Have I mentioned how much I love my humble Olympus C-730? It fits in my pocket, yet takes pictures like this. Most of my favorite photos are the accidents. What was that I was saying about Florida's unnerving juxtapositions?

Friday, April 07, 2006

April in Marietta

Marietta is such a pretty town. October and April are two of its best faces. One of the coolest things about Marietta is that it has several ancient Indian mounds (from the Adina Moundbuilders). And they've been preserved, mostly. One huge conical one was left unexcavated and made the centerpiece of Mound Cemetery. We sometimes picnic with the kids atop that mound. Our public library is built on another loaf-shaped one (I said mostly). And this one, the coolest of all, is the Turtle Mound. You're looking at its head to the right, and two of its legs. Bill and I had our first kiss on the turtle's head, in 1991.The pale pink drifts in the grass are spring beauties in bloom. In New England, Claytonia virginica is pretty rare. Here, it's a town flower, growing freely from its tiny white bulbs in lawns and yards. Gotta love that! In Alaska, grizzly bears gorge on spring beauty bulbs they dig up when they come out of hibernation. I bet there's some medicinal power in them we haven't discovered.Marietta's full of beautiful old houses, with generous proportions and amazing detail and interior woodwork. And there are some impressive tree specimens--I discover a couple every time I bother to look. I wonder when this star magnolia was planted. It's among the largest I've ever seen. Native to the mountains of Nepal, the star magnolia is among the earliest trees to bloom, even beating the Bradford pears to the punch. They're as tough as they are lovely. April in Marietta! Hallelujah!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Spring Woods

I had to find the hepatica. All my life I've wanted to see hepatica in bloom, and all my life I've missed it. Shila and I found patches of the plant, identifiable by its liver-colored trilobed leaves, over the winter, and I have visited them now three times, hoping to see the flowers. They're famously early and ephemeral. So today I lit out with Chet, reluctantly leaving Bill at home. He said he needed to get some work done. This isn't hepatica, it's purple cress. You have to wait for the hepatica. Dramatic tension and all that.
Purple cress is in full bloom. It's a modest little plant, that has evergreen winter leaves, which doubtless help it make enough food for a jump-start come spring.
I was delighted to find Dutchman's breeches!Dutchman's breeches, so named because they look like little balloon pants hanging on a line.
When I finally got to the slope with hepatica, Chet chose that moment to disappear over the steep hill, headed toward the cow pasture. He completely ignored my acorn whistle. There were no cattle in the pasture, so perhaps he was on the trail of a deer. He came back when he was good and ready, panting hard. Grr. Durn dog. He has become an accomplished liar, assuring me that he'll stay close, then choosing a moment when I'm absorbed to skedaddle.
While whistling and calling, I found the hepatica. I was interested to note that the purplish leaves that had fed the plant all winter had withered, and many of the blossoms arose from leafless plants. Other plants that weren't blooming had new green leaves coming up. There seemed to be a lot of energy conservation going on. If you're blooming, don't make leaves. If you're not blooming, make leaves. Reproduce or eat, that's the choice.The much-sought after hepatica. It's hard to see here, but the stem is super-furry, a good thing to be if you're going to bloom the first week of April. It's such an elegant little thing, with its maroon stem and sepals.
I heard Bill whistling on his hands, Indian-style. He'd heard me yelling and whistling for Baker. Finally, Baker came over the hill, looking very winded. I don't know what he was investigating but it was clearly a long way away. Running off is probably the hardest thing to handle with dogs. You can't punish them while they're running, and you certainly can't punish them when they finally come back, because they DID come back, just not when you wanted them to. It's the kind of thing that pushes people to use shock collars, I think. Ugh, awful thought.
Baker tried to look appropriately sorry. He's a good actor. He's not sorry, not one bit, and I can tell.
Excuse me. I was off on pressing dog business.Your lecture is unnecessary, and dull. I am a grown man-dog. I don't need to hang onto your apron strings.
Bill took a picture of me, reunited with my worst third. He (Bill) was bursting with the news that he'd seen FIVE butterfly species on his way to find me! If Chet saw any butterflies, he wasn't talking about it.
We walked back home together, spotting Spring Azure, Falcate Orangetip (favorite spring butterfly!), Juvenal's Duskywing, Comma, and Mourning Cloak. The errant and too-early Tiger Swallowtail Bill had seen in our yard had moved on. SIX! Going from zero butterflies to six in one day is quite the thing. Walking with your love in the spring woods is quite a thing, too.
As we came up to the house, we found a newly dried-up mud puddle with a neat collection of tracks. There were raccoon and deer tracks:
and a lovely opossum print (note his big fat thumb sticking off to the right)
and, a real rarity: white-footed mouse prints. (You can see them in the possum track shot, in the lower right corner, and compare their size...but here's a closeup, too). About the only time I get to see mouse tracks is when they step in their own pee and then step in dirt or cinnamon or coffee and leave prints on a countertop. Real mouse tracks in mud: Big deal for Zick. The simplest things amuse me. Mouse Tracks. Not to be confused with Moose Tracks. Ack, it occurs to me that they could be vole tracks. Hmm. I'll have to examine the feet of the next mouse or vole I come across.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's...

SuperZick! My favorite moment in Florida, well, right up there with another favorite moment that's none of your bidness, was when Bill and I were driving to a certain beach just across the Sanibel Island Causeway on the mainland, to look for shorebirds. At the same instant, we spotted a winter-plumaged red-throated loon lying by the roadside, panting in the blazing sun. I peeled our rented Neon off the road and was out of the car before it had come to a stop, repeating, "I've got to help it. I've got to help it." Bill had the presence of mind to grab my camera, thinking he might be able to record me a. saving the loon or b. getting my eye put out by a stab from that rapier-like bill. He knew he couldn't stop me, or even slow me down. Thanks for the pictures, darlin'! Awesome work!
When loons are flying at night, or at dusk and dawn, a wet roadway looks an awful lot like a watercourse from the heights at which they travel. In wet, foggy weather, whole flocks of them can crash down on highways or parking lots. As you might imagine, landing on pavement when you're expecting a nice splashdown can severely bruise breast muscles and even break keels. We figured this poor creature had been panting on the roadside since early morning--and it was after 2 PM when we found it. Because loons are built like sternwheelers, with their legs so far back toward their tails, they're unable to walk or even hobble on land. And needless to say, being heavy-bodied and unable to run, they can't take off from land, either. There were marks in the sand where it had floundered around; it was smart enough to get off the road, at least.
I had never picked up a loon, but it is a bit like picking up a snake. Once you have the head secured, you're pretty much home free. So I used the old feint-with-the-left and grab-with-the- right, and got control of that scary bill. The thing is to do it right away, and so fast that the loon can't figure out what you're up to. I tucked the bird under my arm to keep it from flailing its wings, and headed for the nearest water--a mangrove swamp that opened directly out onto a bay. It could find its way out just by listening for the surf.As I trotted toward the water a few dozen yards distant, the loon let out a long yodeling wail. It reverberated through my entire body, and the longing in that call wrenched my heart. For all the loon knew, I was about to kill it. It began kicking with all its might, and I was out of spare hands to secure its feet. In spite of myself, I started to laugh as its big webbed feet slapped away at my back. Woman Kicked to Death by Thankless Waterbird.
Cracking up, but I've still got a death grip on that bill. You can't fool around with loons and herons. You'll lose an eye faster than you can say Oops!

I knew instinctively that this bird would be better off in the wild than dragged to some rehab center. Its wings were fine; its feet were fine; it was in good condition; it just needed taxi fare. I set it in the water and watched it paddle off. Only a few feet away, it began periscoping--putting its head beneath the water's surface to look for fish. Then it raised up and flapped its wings, the perfect gesture of relief and comfort.
Ahhh, beautiful moment, beautiful bird. Farewell, loon.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Chet Baker, Companion Animal

I know this is your chair. But I am very small and I can tell you are lonely, so you should not mind sharing it.

One of the first things Chet's breeder told me about Boston terriers is also one of my favorites. Jane said, "Bostons are companion dogs, and they take their job seriously." There was a big ugly front coming through yesterday, and we were all a bit jumpy, and Chet decided to make us feel better. His first step was stealing my chair as I was sitting down to draw warblers for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas.
When Phoebe got home from school, I suggested that, rather than fret about the storm, she start her homework. Chet got to work, helping. I could feel Phoebe's anxiety ebb away as the little dog worked his magic. She dawdled on her math homework, loving the companionship, then went to get a magazine to read so she could keep cuddling with Baker.
Spreading any reading material out on the floor is an open invitation to any Boston to sit upon it. Phoebe's giggles were pure music as she tried to read around Baker's butt.
Not to be outdone, Charlie joined us for his favorite treat: mashed sweet potato. He can put away a couple of tablespoons in no time at all. Chet adores it, too, and he stared longingly up at Chuckles, hoping there'd be a spill. Hard to believe Charles will turn 20 this August! He's sitting on my shoulder as I write. There are a lot of things I love about this bird, but one of the nicest is that he's toilet-trained. When he needs to go, he says UNH! and flaps his wings, and if I miss that signal, he gives me a gentle nip on the neck to tell me it's time to take him to his papers or hold him over the wastebasket. He'll hold it for over an hour if he has to. You definitely want to get him to the papers after an hour.
After dinner, I tried to read the paper, with predictable results. Chet Baker, on the job.LinkAllow me to obscure this for you.

This post is dedicated to Sue, who knitted Baker's beautiful monogrammed sweater and sometimes scolds me when I go on for too many days about all that plant and nature stuff. Baker fans get a little anxious when I stray from what they perceive as my true purpose: all things Chet, all the time. Dog bloggin'.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Barns You Can See Through

After the horrible tornadoes in Tennessee, the same cold front swept through southern Ohio this afternoon. It brought the temperature plunging from the upper 60's to the 40's. There were tornado watches all day, and we kept wary eyes to the western sky, which glowered obligingly. Bill and I were due to play music for Liam's kindergarten class at 1:45, pretty much at the height of the storm. (It was a blast, as always. The kids held up their hands to ask questions afterwards, and when we'd call on them, they'd say, "My uncle has a kitar." By the time we were done, the sun had come out. Bill headed back to the office, and I took off up Germantown Road, wishing he could, too, and thanking my lucky stars that we live in such a beautiful part of the country.
Every curve on this road takes my breath away; she's like a beautiful model that I get to photograph. I watched the cloud shadows race across the bottoms. Here, once, was a house; you can see that by the daffodils and giant patches of tawny day lilies. The lilies make enormous patches of yellow-green against the grass. I wonder if they let them grow up and bloom. I'll check again this summer. This bottom would be awash in lilies in July. I smiled to find the daffodils were of the same variety that mark the old farmhouse foundation on our place. My gardenwhiz friend Gordon tells me they're one of the oldest still cultivated. They're tatty and frilly and a little silly, with no discernable parts, but they're the earliest, too, and obviously well-adapted, so they have the last laugh on me.
I kept jumping out of the car to take photos. In the 11-mile length of the road, I never saw another car. Imagine that, those of you who dodge them all day long as you're trying to cross the street. My father loved to drive us through open land in South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa. He'd sweep his arm across the vista and ask, "You worried about overpopulation? There's plenty of room out here. But nobody wants to live here. They all want to pile up on each other like rats in a corner." You said it, DOD. I guess I came by this love of solitude honestly.
Moments after I took this picture, two belted kingfishers came barreling down the run, a few feet off the water's surface, rattling like maniacs in some sort of mating game. I was able to tell that one had a rusty bra on (that would be the female); the other had a single blue band on its chest (the male) before they flared up over my head and continued on down the streambed. What a thrill!
I saw another kingfisher and five eastern phoebes on the stream. The phoebes would dart out of culverts and bridges as I went overhead. That's how little traffic there is on this enchanted road. Each passing car is an event.
Chetty and I ended the day by picking up the kids. The front brought no tornadoes; only a precipitous drop in temperature, and they weren't dressed for the walk from the bus stop. Chet is all aquiver as he waits and watches for the bus. I listen to NPR and admire his manly little rump as we wait. We should all be so nicely packed. My favorite image of the day: Chet watching his beloved kids disembark; a North Dakota sticker, backwards; the ghostly reflection of a bag of cracked corn across the window.

Florida, in a Nutshell

If you look carefully, you can see Chet's slitted, baleful eye. He is not asleep, far from it. He's fuming.

I'm becoming accustomed to having Chet dis me while I pack. In this case, it was a three-day jaunt to Florida to give a talk for Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island. He took up his station by the suitcase and moped conspicuously. That dog has my emotional number. For now, I don't really take him seriously. I mean, he's just a dog, and I can't stay home just because my leaving bums him out. But I can see, after a decade or so, how it could spin out of control; how his constant mind games could convince me that he WILL die without me. But now, I'm fine. I really am. He gets to stay in his own home with a housesitter and his children to love him, and giving talks and traveling is what I DO. Hear that, Mr. Mopey Muzzle?
Oh, it's fun to get away with Bill. He's a gracious and expedient traveler, also a huge romantic. So sunset beaches and nice seaside hotels are just perfect for us. We pretend we're on our honeymoon and have conversations and quiet dinners. We get unsuspecting people to take our picture. Sunset the first night was unbelievably gorgeous. The beach was lined with people, taking pictures, sitting in sand chairs, just appreciating this cosmic event. It was cool. And we cram as much fun and relaxation as we can into three days, two of which are largely devoted to getting there and back. We had dinner one night with Don and Lillian Stokes, who took time out of a busy schedule both to attend our talk and to take us out. I'm sure the waiters thought we were going to camp at the Thistle Lodge all night--we have a lot in common and leapt from topic to topic with scarcely a breath in between. Lillian's photos of birds in flight are irreproachable. She's got some bitchin' pileated woodpecker photos on her blog that should really influence the Luneau video debate!
Our talk went really well. About 70 people showed up, and the staff was incredibly nice and supportive. Susan Merchant, a reader and wonderful blogger herself, came over with her husband and was kind enough to snap this picture of us in action. Only Bill would play a guitar while wearing binoculars and a birding bra.

Ding Darling NWR is a great place. The hurricanes, especially Charlie, have changed it tremendously, taken the overstory off, and made it a much sunnier, more open landscape. The last time we were there was the early 90's, when it was a shady retreat, crawling with herons, wood storks, spoonbills, and egrets. This time, it was almost devoid of wading birds, but there were hundreds of shorebirds. Refuge staff we spoke with said they had never seen so many shorebirds as this year. Short-billed dowitchers, willets, dunlin, semipalmated and least sandpipers, ruddy turnstones and big flocks of black-bellied and semipalmated plovers dominated the flats. What a treat! It's not given to us to understand all the aftereffects of hurricanes, but they are profound.
With my little camera, I crept up on a yellow-crowned night heron prospecting for sticks for its nest.A tri-colored heron (formerly Louisiana heron) strode athletically in the shallows. I like the name Lady of the Lake for this bird.
On the last morning we were there, refuge intern Andrew and his best gal Stephanie took us out on their final mangrove cuckoo survey of the spring. We drove in a refuge vehicle, listening at predetermined spots for the birds. Since it was Friday, a day when the refuge is closed, we had the place to ourselves for three hours. But for a million no-see-ums, it was absolute heaven. Andrew had struck out every other time, and he was hoping hard to find the birds. And we had three come out of the mangroves and sing practically up our noses. What fabulous birds! It was a North American lifer for me, and a lifer for Bill. Thanks to him for this digiscoped picture. I'm now president of the Mangrove Cuckoo Fan Club. Stickers and fan mag to come.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Workin' Hard, Hardly Workin'

Apologies to everyone for my absence. I'm in Spring Gear. Yesterday I got up at 5 AM, heard the brown thrasher singing, and got to work. He's the Planting Bird, you know; he tells you when to plant the peas and lettuce. So I removed the last of last year's straw mulch from the garden, piled it in a cart, pulled the remaining weeds, and went to the garage. I got out the rototiller, implored Bill to start it for me, and rototilled the garden. (There's some guy magic he does to get it going that escapes me. I think it's mostly that he's strong and persistant enough to pull the cord a hundred times and I'm not...but there's some other testosterone-linked magic he works that makes it obey).
I love rototilling, even though I'm in real danger of chopping off my foot most of the time. We have the neatest little Honda that's just the right size and strength for me. We used to borrow a monster from our neighbors that would pull Bill along after it like a rag doll as it chewed through tough sod--no thanks. This one would probably only mangle you instead of severing the foot completely. So far, so good.
So then I planted the sugar snap peas and mesclun and buttercrunch lettuce, and replaced the mulch on the freshly tilled soil everywhere else, so I won't have to fight goosefoot next month when it's finally time to plant the beans and tomatoes. God, I love this time of year, when I can work in the garden until my very bones ache.
Came inside and cleaned the fish tank. Went back outside and dismantled Bill's brushpile that he builds for the birds every fall. I like to take it apart before the grass grows and winds around it and makes it rotty and gross. Found seven ravine salamanders under the rocks he'd used to secure the brush. Nice haul. That's a locally common thing that's rare almost everywhere else but this part of Appalachia. Wish I had pictures but I was too en fuego with physical work to stop.
Hauled the grotty brushpile up to the fire circle to burn it later. Went down to the pond, briefly considered vacuuming it, but as the temperature didn't touch 60, decided I'd probably get hypothermic and drown trying. Ecch, the first spring vacuum of the fishpond is soooo gross. But I heard American toads trilling there tentatively two nights ago, and I like to get the pond clean and fountain going before they begin to breed in earnest. Wouldn't want to vacuum up eggs and taddies.
Set up the Bird Spa so the yard birds have a place to drink and bathe. Thought again about cleaning the pond, but pulled myself back. That's going to have to wait because there are 14 people coming over for a lawn party this afternoon. Lord help me. Gotta clean the house again. Until tomorrow...
This is Narcissus "Salome." She's in bud right now. Love those pink daffies.