Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Natural Wedding

Let's face it: Weddings can run the gamut from stultifying to sublime. Put two tremendously creative naturalists (Jeff Gordon and Liz Bennett DeLuna) together in the piney woods on Delaware Bay, let them unleash their love of nature and hospitality on a few lucky guests, and you have sublime cubed. When I think back on this wedding I see a swirl of color and beauty, doors flung wide, nature a full participant. There was whimsy in every detail.
Liz, not being the kind to want a train on her gown, nevertheless had a trainbearer: Liam, with James the Red Engine.
This is how she spent part of the morning before the wedding. I was awed at Jeff and Liz's ability to kick back and enjoy the preparations. It rubbed off on the guests and we all just fooled around and had the best time on this fine, hot weekend.
The bubbly flowed at the reception.The cake was perfect, and there were flowers absolutely everywhere--not just cut flowers, but flowers in pots and planters, gobs upon gobs of flowers.Bill and I listened to the homily and the vows and got all choked up. With 13 years of pulling together and making it work, every word cuts to the bone.
Liz left her lovely silver shoes in the reception hall before the wedding; Jeff picked them up and stuffed them in his suitcase so she wouldn't lose them, and nobody could find them at 4 p.m. So Liz went barefoot.
Does Liz look like the kind of person who would sweat the small stuff? Here she is, demonstrating the proper use of Italian pepperoni.

Luna moths were the theme--their colors and shapes have always enchanted Liz and Jeff. And one was perched on the building next to the chapel when we came out from the ceremony.The Flower Fairy meets her muse.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chet Baker, Snaker

Chet Baker LOVED Camp Arrowhead. He investigated every cabin and outbuilding, and roamed free the whole weekend, always coming back to check and make sure we hadn't wandered away. It's good to have a trustworthy dog. My only fear is that someone will invite him into their car and he'll take them up on it!

We spent a fabulous three-day-weekend on the Delaware shore at an Episcopalian church camp called Camp Arrowhead. We were there to play music for our dear friends' wedding, and play we did...more on that later. But since it's been such a Chet drought for his thirsty fans, I thought I'd lead off with Chet's First Snake.
I took a brief walk Sunday afternoon to collect my thoughts and energy, wandering through the dry loblolly pine forest with Baker. It smelled like incense, and was quiet but for the squeak of brown-headed nuthatches and the occasional CHINK! of a blue grosbeak. Oh yeah, nice nice birds. Up ahead on the sandy road of the nearly deserted camp (their season starts June 1), I spotted an enormous black rat snake. Ah. Just the thing for a naive dog's first snake. I let Chet walk right over it, dum de dum de dum, and quietly sat down a little way off to watch him discover it.
Being the most faithful of pups, if not the most observant, Chet soon circled back to join me. Oh, look. A big black stick. I like those. Chet pressed his nose to its scaly side and snuffed deeply. Hmmm. This one smells rather strange. Tarnation! What is this thing?

I could almost hear the snake hissing, "Fie upon you, curious dog! Bite and I shall bite back!" At this point, I was really glad this wasn't Chet's first copperhead.
The snake slowly gathered itself into a defensive posture, vibrating its tail in the dry pine needles. Baker backed off, instinct his only guide. I was fascinated how he stayed just out of striking range, while trying to get more olfactory data on this strange creature. I didn't coach him, just let the two interact. I've been bitten by a similarly sized black rat snake (while peeling it off a wren house), and it's not pleasant, but neither is it life-threatening. It feels like about fifty tiny hot needles, and it leaves a cool U-shape of blood beads on your skin. But you really have to piss them off to get them to bite--like peeling them off a wren house...For now, I wanted Chet to get the concept of "snake" for the inevitable time he stumbles on a copperhead back on Indigo Hill. And if he was going to do something stupid, I wanted him to get a bite for it.Black rats are gentle snakes, very slow to take umbrage and even slower to strike. If you handle them gently, they usually won't strike at all. And this was a monster by any standard, at least five feet long. Such a beauty.
Chet quickly settled down, and stationed himself between me and the snake. Whether he did this to protect me or not is open to question. As I've said before, he sticks to me like glue when he's leery of something. Bill looked at him, asleep on my lap on the long ride home Monday, and said, "You are the base Chet plugs into to recharge himself." Funny thing: He's my recharger, too. How I love this pooch. And now he knows a little something about snakes. He passed his test with flying colors. He investigated, kept his distance, then let the snake be. No fool, he. I'm proud of my little black son.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Old Copper Bucket

Friday, May 19: A young Carolina wren on its last full day in the nest, peeking out at the world.

I prepared this post before we left for Delaware, knowing we'd be fried crispy on our return. We're back, so happy to be home, picked our dinner out of the garden, checked my phoebe nest (hatched!), checked the 6-egg bluebird nest (hatching!), unloaded the car, watered the orchids, threw some pot pies in the oven for the kids, started the first load of laundry. See you sometime tomorrow, in between about ten loads of laundry and grocery shopping and returning all the baby bird and box turtle calls that came in while we were gone.

I remember this little copper bucket from our house in Kansas City, Kansas. There was a variegated pothos (philodendron) in it, which rambled all over our brick fireplace on Wenonga Road. How this bucket stayed with me through countless moves I'll never understand. It was pretty much useless, having a hole in the bottom. But I kept it, maybe because I remembered it from when I was about four.
Three years ago I looked up and noticed a bunch of bark and twigs on our sloping downspout by the front door. A Carolina wren had been trying and trying to make its nesting material stay in the triangle between the downspout and the eave, and failing. I looked at the wren, and our eyes met. "Hang on a minute," I said to her. I ran to the garage, grabbed a ladder, the bucket, some wire and a roofing nail. I skibbled up the ladder and wedged the bucket up under the eave, and secured it with a wire, while she watched from her perch on the gutter. Satisfied that the bucket was secure, protected from weather, and safe from snakes and raccoons, I climbed back down the ladder. I was still folding the ladder only a few feet away when the wren grabbed a bill full of nesting material and stuffed it in the bucket. It was so clear to me that she knew I was trying to help, and thought I had the perfect solution for her problem. I went so far as to wonder whether she had left the festoons of bark, twigs and leaves on the downspout--clearly visible in our foyer window-- as a call for assistance. I wouldn't put it past a Carolina wren to do that. That afternoon, the pair stripped all the moss off my bonsai tree pots, and stuffed that in, too. Their nest was finished by the next morning, and they have nested in it ever since.
Saturday was fledging day for the four baby wrens. I think they were only about 11 days old, with lots of down still adorning their crowns. They spilled out of the bucket and hopped around on the ground and the front stoop. Twice, Chet Baker tried to round them up, nosing them and sniffing them. He could so easily have snapped them up, but he knows that birds are special to me, and restrains himself...The fledglings were completely unfazed, squeaking and begging from their parents as we stood right by them. They'd been raised right under our noses, so what was there to fear? I kept Baker occupied elsewhere for the rest of the afternoon.
As night fell, they were still on the ground, and I fought the urge to gather them up and take them inside for the night. I didn't want them to lose contact with their parents. When I went out this morning, they were gone. I heard their father singing in the orchard, and occasionally scolding, and I knew that the babies had been led, in the way of wrens, away from danger and into deep cover. I relocated them Monday midday, in the thickest cover in our abandoned orchard, squirking and begging from the adults. It never ceases to amaze me how much ground a baby Carolina wren can cover, given the right coaching by its parents. We won't see them for a couple of weeks, but they'll be back, I've no doubt. They'll remember where the suet dough is.
In four years, I've never cleaned out the bucket, leaving that to the fastidious wrens. But I think it's time now. They'll have no trouble filling it back up. I've got a fresh batch of moss on the bonsais, just waiting for them.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Crazy Packing Frenzy

Just a few notes...We're packing for an epic trip over to Maryland and Delaware, to see my mom and sister's family, and to play music for what promises to be the sweetest and most fun-loving wedding ever--that of our dear friends Jeff Gordon and Liz Bennett DeLuna. On the Delaware shore, amid the salt marshes. Our wedding present to them is putting together a four-piece band and playing for the rehearsal dinner and afterparty. The last time Bill and I played together was in West Virginia, and we're really ready to lay down some music. So there will probably be a four-day hiccup in the blog, but do check, because we may get a chance to check in from there.
I got my phoebes baffled. They're safe from snakes and coons now. I've tried a variety of baffle systems for these obstinate birds, who flirt with nesting on all the safe little shelves we've erected, but always choose the relay box for DirecTV. You can see the little mossy nest atop the gray box with the black cord coming out of it. Which would be fine, but it's just too easy for a rat snake to go up the gutter, or come down from the deck above. As I think about it, I think phoebes like a low overhang--a narrow space above the nest. And all our shelves have ten inches or more clearance. They like feeling hidden and inaccessible, even if they aren't. The first year they nested on the direct box, I tried an overturned wastebasket baffle on the downspout. A five-foot rat snake just went out and over it and ate the babies when they were four days old. So last year I hit on this ridiculous-looking arrangement. Man, it's fugly, but it works.
This past weekend, I dug all the holes for the tomatoes, peppers, and basil. I climbed into our fetid awful compost pit and dug out the really ripe, nasty stuff, crawling with worms and mango seed pits and liquefied ears of corn and nameless gook that smells like manure and vomit all mixed together...and put a big shovel full of that into the bottom of each tomato hole. Tomatoes love to put their toes in that stuff. I couldn't set anything out, because the last two nights, it has gone down to 32 and 37 degrees, respectively. Disgusting for late May, but there it is. Here are the holes, waiting. I planted everything out today. Whee!
Five years ago, while visiting my brother and his wife in Raleigh, NC, I dug up three little red mulberry saplings from his backyard. I took three, because this tree is dioecious, and needs a male and female to produce fruit. Well, they finally bloomed this spring. One is a male, long catkins spewing pollen. One hasn't decided its sexual orientation yet; the deer chewed on it and upset it and it's sulking. The third and finest is a female! Here are her fruits! She's loaded! She's right in front of the kitchen picture window, so we can watch the birds flock in to take them. How exciting. She's also going to hang over my greenhouse and drop berry juice all over it. Oh well. That's why we have hoses.
And because I know you are all baby bird junkies now, here are some tender sweet three-day-old tree swallows. So delicate and transparent--swallows are delightful. I serve them on crackers.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

C'mon Baby, Light My Fire

Sometimes I have to watch it or this blog starts to sound like this big ad for Bill Thompson. Every home should have one... But he has been doing some really nice things for me lately, and I appreciate it so much. When he torched our yard, I really plotzed. I've been wanting to burn this part of our yard for a long time. On this plot, we've had a variety of "meadows in a can," some more successful than others. One year it was spectacular--red Flanders field poppies, white daisies, blue flax...butterflies bouncing through. Those flowers don't persist, though, and we decided that going native was the thing to do. Enter our friend Bob Kehres at Ohio Prairie Nursery.
Bob is very cool, a man so full of life sparks fly from his eyes. He came down to visit, briefly, just before Easter, and he promised to set us up with just the right kind of seed for this forlorn patch of dry clay/loam. In gratitude, I sent him home with a few orchid babies, hoping it would be a reasonable trade. He recommended that we burn the patch first, pick a nice damp windless day and let 'er rip. Then, Bill should disc it lightly with the tractor, sow the seed, and run over it with the tires to make sure it was worked into the soil. And so, over the next couple of weeks, he did.
Now, it's a bit nervewracking, burning a meadow patch so close to one's house, but we hooked up the long hose and started really small. Soon it became apparent that the problem would be keeping it burning, not having it get away from us. We probably should have done this a little earlier in the season, before the goldenrod and Canada thistle got so well started. Bill was wreathed in smoke, raking away, trying not to let the fire die. This is a man who is dreaming of wildflowers, relighting a fire that wants only to smolder, and trying to make his wife smile.
Chet Baker supervised from a safe distance. He was a little leery of the whole undertaking. He sticks to me like glue when he's leery of something.

A couple of days later, Bill disced the patch, slicing furrows in the earth, and turning it shallowly.
We sowed the seed with a little whirlything.
And then Bill ran over it with the tractor, packing it into the soil. Liam climbed aboard, and I watched my two boys rumble around. And I smiled.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Grace Happens

While waiting for the school bus today, I spotted a doe, deep in the shadows, nervously waiting to cross the road. I grabbed my camera, turned it on, waited the eternity for it to wake up, another eternity to reset it from Play to Shoot, finally heard the click that said it was ready to take a picture...and shot this as she hurried across the asphalt. Deer hate asphalt; their hooves clatter and slip on it, and they have to work up their courage both to enter the open and skitter across the unfriendly substrate. For them, it's like wearing stilettos on ice, and it's why so many of them blunder around in the road and get hit by cars. So they hesitate before crossing. Good thing, or I'd never have gotten this cool picture. One of these years, I'll get a camera upgrade...

And a little child shall lead them...Phoebe bounced off the bus a moment later, begging to walk down the path to a secret pond near where I pick them up every afternoon. One of my cardinal rules is never to deny a child who wants to explore nature. (I'd had the same thought; it was a bright sunshiny day, and I wanted to see what the red-spotted newts were up to). Liam did NOT want to go, and when a triple Scorpio doesn't want to do something, you've got to tread carefully. I hugged him and whispered in his ear, "Come on, Liam. I'll make it fun for you. I promise." Finally, he oozed off the car seat and tromped down to the path.
You can see by the way he's walking he's still real mad.
By the time we got down to the pond and saw the newts squirting off into deeper water with every step we took, Liam was fine, as I knew he would be. This pond is full of bluegills and newts, and they're really fun to watch as they hang in the water, copulate, and do their bluegilly/newtly business. Liam squinted off into the woods. "I think I see a zherky." And there was a fine wild turkey far off down the path, a hen, and I could tell by her behavior that she had poults with her; her wings were drooping and her head was about as high in the air as it would go. I could also see that she was very upset, darting side to side. I gave a running commentary to the kids, who had no binoculars.
"She's got chicks, I know it. I can't see them, but the way she's behaving... And she's really upset, but we're too far away for it to be about us."
"Here they come. 1,2,3,4,5, at least six. Really young. Maybe only four or five days. Striped, downy."
"She's flying! Why would she fly? She's flying straight up in the air, like a helicopter! I've never seen a turkey do that! What on earth is she doing?"
"Oh my GOSH! She's knocked a red-tailed hawk right out of the air! He must have been after the chicks!"
And she had, body-slammed this red-tail off his perch, after a 30' absolutely straight vertical climb. It was a flight such as I'd never have guessed her capable of. Imagine the effort of lifting a 15-pound body 30' straight up in the air. The red-tail faltered and sideslipped, flopped to a perch, and sat for awhile eyeing the poults while the turkey clambered around in the pine branches facing it, doubtless planning another attack. The hawk beat a retreat, flapping hard. Meanwhile, the poults had scurried into thick brambles, as their mother had doubtless told them to.
The hen turkey helicoptered back down and disappeared on down the path with her chicks.

But for Liam, I'd never have seen the turkey. But for Phoebe, I'd just have buckled them both in their seats and headed home. Phoebe had the good idea. Liam might just look forward to the next walk a little more. And I know one more thing about turkeys. My heart is full.

I've Got Plenty of Nothing

the view out the kitchen window.

Today is the birthday of Peter Matthiessen, born in New York City in 1927. The Writer's Almanac told me so. Of all the wonderful things he's written, this is the quote they picked:

"There's an elegiac quality in watching [American wilderness] go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes. I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."

I think Peter Matthiessen needs a May weekend at Indigo Hill. My kids are of the generation he's bemoaning, and they've got a whole lot of nothing. Maybe it's just recovering mesic deciduous forest; there are no grizzlies or wolves, but there are coyotes and bobcats, box turtles and a dozen species of breeding warblers; chats and brown thrashers singing; sun hitting off fresh leaves. Maybe we're easily amused. Maybe the natural world is all full of nothing. It depends on your perspective. I can't imagine Matthiessen would have picked that particular quote to sum up his great life's work.

The Writer's Almanac usually comes in during the wee hours. This one came in at 1 AM on a Monday morning. Perhaps the compiler would have picked another quote after some sleep, and a latte or two. Make no mistake--I love their work, and most every day I find something to file away and return to later for a talk or an essay. But this one hit me wrong.

We all make our own weather, and we've had way too much rain lately.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Saturday in the Country

Yesterday, the sun peeked out and stayed out, all day, for the first time in two weeks. It was blindingly bright and clear and cool. Phoebe had a softball game in Beverly, and we all took off at 9 AM to watch her do her stuff. She's Catcher. It's such a pleasure to see her do something she's good at, and hang out with her friends.
I was intrigued by the photographic potential of all these sweet little girls in bright colors on a sunny day. They creamed the Beverly team three to fourteen. And especially moved by the scene when Phoebe's friends would descend on her after each inning, and either remove or apply her protective gear. I never participated in team sports, but it's neat to watch Phoebe digging it. She gets that from her dad, a team player if ever there was one.
When my father, who was pretty much bald from his late twenties on, would see a group of girls together, he'd always mutter, "Look at all that HAIR." I remember his saying it at my college graduation, as we looked down from the bleachers on a sea of mortarboards I caught myself muttering the same thing to myself as I looked down the bench. It was like a visitation from Dad. Look at all that shiny bright blonde hair. I used to be a honey blonde, before the hormones of pregnancy decided I'd serve better as a brunette. Same thing happened to my mom. She was a platinum blonde until the first kid, then bam! Gone. At least I was warned.
This is our friend Missy with her dog-nephew, Bentley. I grew up with a dachshund and still have a big soft spot for these great little dogs. They're personality-packed, quirky and individualistic.
This is Dozer. He's an English bulldog, who weighs around 80 pounds (down from over 100). Despite his formidable appearance, he is a real cream puff, and I spent much of the game hanging out with him and his owners. His owners said they'd never seen him make over someone like he did me. When he saw my camera, he literally smiled. Every time I pointed it his way, he smiled again and gave me his best side. His six-year-old owner was about as proud of that dog as a kid could be. What a delightful giant superfudge chunk of a doggie. Utterly huggable. Chet's got bulldog in his lineage. That's where his sweetness comes from. It perfectly modulates the rat terrier fire.

A stop at the school playground proved that my mother's instincts are still honed sharp. Even as I was shooting Liam as he shot down the slide, I realized that he was coming much too fast for it to end well. I threw out my arm and stopped him just before he removed his brand-new incisors on the gravel below. Phew! And made another rule: No sliding down on tummies. Not even big girls.

After the game, we went to a terrific local and heretofore undiscovered pizzeria, Jukebox Pizza in Waterford. They were using the best North Dakota-grown wheat flour for a crust that was crispy on the outside, perfectly moist within. Man, what a nice pizza place. Liam, who loves pizza more than any food in the world, was in nirvana.

Then we went to two different country nurseries, where sweet Bill bought me whatever I wanted. This included trailing perennial snapdragons, Salvia guaranitica "Black and Blue," portulaca, Sanvitalia, two quarts of just-picked strawberries, and yet another fancy-leafed star-flowered geranium. Can't have too many of those. How much was that? Do you take Visa? (Photo by Phoebe)

We ended the day with a glass of wine and barn swallows swooping low over the yard, picking eggshells off the sidewalk. Bill digiscoped a kingbird. I enjoyed my small, sweet canine lapwarmer, thankful that, as easy as it would have been to do so, I had not fallen for a hundred-pound English bulldog. There's a lyric from a seemingly fluffy Sheryl Crow song that comes to me at times like this:

It's not having what you want
It's wanting what you've got

Friday, May 19, 2006

Dough Carnival

With the cold rainy weather for the past two weeks, the temperature barely edges into the 50's each day, and a thick blanket of glowery gray clouds covers the sky. It's hard for birds to find insects for their young. And everyone has nestlings or fledglings to feed right now.
Bill and I were brushing our teeth this morning and a male bluebird landed on the lawn beneath the bathroom window. He wasn't foraging; he was making a point. He stayed just long enough to look Bill in the eye, then flew up and over the roof to where the suet dough dish was standing, empty. The birds listen for us to stir in the morning, and find us wherever we are. We put out a heaping double handful of suet dough and it disappears within an hour. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to get the meaning in this Carolina wren's posture.They're feeding a batch of babies in a copper bucket under the eaves, about 12 feet as the wren flies from the suet feeder. Got any more dough in there?
Lately, I've been standing at the kitchen window, noting the birds that come to the feeder. The traffic is amazing. Here's a seven-minute sample of the customers on our front porch, starting at 7:33 AM:
WBNU (white-breasted nuthatch), SOSP (song sparrow), NOCA (northern cardinal), EABL (eastern bluebird), CAWR (Carolina wren), NOCA, HOSP (house sparrow), NOCA, BLJA (blue jay), SOSP, NOCA, SOSP, HOSP, TUTI (tufted titmouse), EABL, SOSP, EABL, BRTH (brown thrasher), EABL, NOCA, NOCA, BRTH, HOSP, NOCA End of observations, 7:41. That's seven minutes of frantic bird activity, nine species; multiple individuals of each. And each and every bird gobbled some down first, then took a giant load to stuff into their babies. There's Bougainvillea "Raspberry Ice," liberated from the greenhouse, and shivering outside. Sorry about the clashing colors. Can't help that.
Some even bring their babies. This male bluebird fledged five young in our garden box, and the female's already sitting on six eggs in the same box. They snuck right past me; Bill and I opened the box last evening, expecting to see the first few straws of a new nest, and there were six warm blue eggs. My goodness. She's in such a hurry the doughball is suspended in mid-air as she gobbles it down. I'm going to have to cut down on the suet dough once the weather stabilizes, or she'll try to do four broods this season--good for bluebird populations, but not good for her or her mate. They'll wear themselves out if they have a superabundance of food.
When the sun comes out, traffic declines noticeably. It's clear to me that this frenzy is spurred by the rotten weather. And so I make batch after batch, and enjoy the show on the porch, knowing that when it warms up I'll have to cut back. But there's something about having shy, reclusive brown thrashers on the porch that fills my heart.
Chipping sparrows are big dough fans; this male and his mate fledged three fine babies from a juniper just outside Liam's bedroom window. Here are those babies at about 8 days of age. Chippies leave the nest ridiculously young, at about 10 or 11 days. They can't fly yet but can hop, and they hide in thick cover and wait for their parents to find them. They're safer that way than all together in a nest, where one snake or raccoon or jay could clean them out in a single strike. They left the nest only three days later, and are hidden here and there around the yard, eating ...what else?
The flip side of this miserable weather is that snakes are quiescent, and if the parents can just find enough to feed their young, they're having better success without the immense predation pressure that comes later in the season. And it's great news for grassland birds. The hay's too wet to mow; when we drive along the road into town, eastern meadowlarks are on every guardrail and fencepost, food dangling from their bills. What a beautiful sight. But I sure could stand a beam or two of sun. I mowed the lawn last night wearing a squall jacket, and I was still cold. Today, my undersized little rat of a dog is draped around my shoulders like a warm stole. Try that with a "real" dog.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Smash-faced Dogs, Appeal of

At long, long last, after two days of refusing to help, Blogger has decided to allow me to post photos. Egad. You don't want to know how many times I've tried to make this modest post. Yikes, it's ridiculous. It would have been a nice break from blogging if I hadn't been totally Type A about it the whole time, trying, trying, trying...A pox upon Blogger.

A large part of the appeal of smash-faced dogs is that they look so much like people. I've watched strangers greet and play with Chet Baker, and I'm absolutely sure that they treat him differently than they would, say, a whippet or an Irish wolfhound. I think you could get away with treating all dogs the same, but these googly-eyed Bostons elicit much more affection from most people than do other breeds of dog. They've been bred to look like human babies, let's face it. It works for me. As far as having more kids, I'm done with a bullet. Phoebe and Liam are all we ever wanted, and they are the living end. Enter Chet Baker.

The really neat part of it is that they fall right into the role, and love being adored. Chet Baker loves to make us laugh, and he likes playing the fool. Here is Baker, en babushka. When he wears a head scarf, he sings Tin Pan Alley songs and tries to bum cigarettes and change from the kids. It's essential to get that bottom lip rolled out for maximum effect. I can get them laughing so hard they can't breathe when we do this.

Overcome with happiness after a good round of Gremlin's Gold, Baker lets it all hang out, laughing a Boston guffaw.

Here, he 's doing something we call catpawing. We hide a toy where he can almost reach it, and watch him try to work it out with his paws. Is it any wonder one of his nicknames is ToddlerDog?
He does take after his father.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Blogger's On Strike Again

Well, I've been trying for a day and a half to post an entry about Chet Baker, with four great pictures of him just being Baker. And Blogger won't take my photos. I've republished the index and then the entire blog. Still it refuses. Know that I'm grinding my teeth here, trying to get a message to you. Maybe Bill can help me post tonight. I don't know. I can tell you that it is path to madness. I'm going to go clean the house. Maybe Blogger has peeked into my studio and decided that's what I should be doing instead of talking to you. Well, it worked. People, I know you need your Baker fix. Me, too. Nothing I can do about it, apparently.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion

A female hooded warbler checks out the birdbath on Indigo Hill.

So I've worked all day, actually the last two days, on a keynote talk about warbler biology. About how migration and the seasonal switch from tropics to temperate zones affects them; about their physiognomy as relates to their foraging strategy. Did you know that black-and-white warblers have a really long hallux? (hind toe). Do you know why? Well, I'm holding those cards close to my chest. The talk is chock-full of gorgeous images of warblers flitting and gleaning and singing. I'll be delivering said talk on Saturday, June 3, at the Holden Arboretum near Cleveland, Ohio. And I would like to see you there, if you're anywhere near. Please check out this link and come join us. There will be fabulous field trips led by me and peerless guide and scopeman Bill of the Birds, terrific plants and flowers; everything to make anyone who loves nature completely happy. So book your flights from Hamburg and the Philippines now! Or drive on over from Sandusky. I'd love to meet you and fill you full of warbler trivia.

Monday, May 15, 2006

On Turtles

With the recent rains, box turtles are on the move. They like to move when it's damp, so they don't overheat. That's why you see them on the roads first thing in the morning. I doubt that they're basking, as many people assume; they know full well that roads are dangerous places to be, and they're just trying to book across them as fast as they can. They freeze when they see a car, so we assume they're just hanging out on the warm asphalt. Nope. They're freaking out and wishing they could disappear. Bill "saves" many every year, stopping to carry them across the hazardous asphalt in the direction they're headed. I have bumper stickers on my car asking people to give turtles a "brake," and I stop for dozens each year.
This was the first turtle I found this spring, as I was headed to DC on April 18. He's like a little jewelbox in the morning sun.
I found two in a row on Stanleyville Road one morning. This one had been run over by a car some time ago, and healed again. Imagine taking a blow like that and then just getting on with your life. Crushed and broken, nobody to help put you back together--and your only choice is to keep walking. And yet most of the turtles I find have some kind of injury, whether it's a missing leg, a chewed carapace ('coons chew them right by the head, trying to get to the goodies. Imagine the horror of being chewed by a 'coon, relying on the strength of your plastron hinge to keep yourself closed up as it grinds away on you. I imagine you wait until it loses interest, hoping against hope you can hold out until it's tired of fooling with you.)
We have no idea what box turtles suffer, being slow and relatively immobile but delicious inside.
So whenever I have a chance to help a box turtle, I take it. If I find one with an ear infection, I take it in and administer injectible antibiotics until it's better. (Yes, I'm permitted by the State of Ohio to handle and help them). If I find one in town or in some other artificial habitat, I keep it for observation, make sure it's healthy, and let it go out here. On our Big Day May 13, Chetty found a lovely dark female in our meadow, and he let me know by repeatedly sniffing at it and looking up at me to see if I noticed. Bless him, he didn't try to pick it up. Chet knows so much, and understands so much.
He enjoys sniffing and looking at turtles and baby birds, but he knows not to touch.
We found another turtle, by chance a male, only a few dozen yards farther down the meadow. It seemed only right and natural to introduce them. Box turtles have no way of finding a mate--no call, no visual display, no pheromone--other than to simply run into one. So I helped. When I left them alone, the male's blazing red eye was just peeking out of his shell, and I thought I heard a soft, "Gol-ly!"

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mother's Day Gift

April 23, in a rare moment when the female cardinal is off the nest. Three capsules of bird promise.

I've been watching this cardinal nest in the forsythia bush by our driveway, cheering the two nestlings along to their fledging day. And sticking my camera in their faces periodically to share the magic with you. This is not something I would do if the nest were deep in the thicket. This nest is right next to where I get in and out of my car; I can stand on the pavement, stick my camera just inside the forsythia, and get the picture. Not every day by a long shot; I only shoot when the female is away, and she's a very tight sitter. I'm hardly leaving a scent trail by doing it; my scent is everywhere all the time. And I believe the cardinal feels safe, knowing that she's in a place that gets high human traffic. Predators tend not to like such areas. How else to explain the ring of bird nests snugged up against our house? Two Carolina wren nests under the eaves at the same time. A chipping sparrow nest bursting with three babies by Liam's bedroom window. A house finch nest by the studio window. A song sparrow nest out the back door. A phoebe nest under the deck. And all of them, so far, successful. Much of this is due to the cool weather, which keeps the snakes in their lairs. Black rat snakes hit the later nests hard, eating eggs and chicks, no matter where they are. Black rat snakes can climb almost anything, and they are much better than I at finding bird nests. No wonder birds start nesting early, sitting their eggs through late spring snowfalls. I would, too.
Just to recap, here are the pictures I've taken of the cardinals, along with the new ones. The magic began only 11 days ago.
Hatching day, May 03: Day 7, May 10: All quills, porcupine babies. The third egg never hatched.
Saturday, May 13.Day 10. One baby fledged this morning, while the other is left with the unhatched egg. It's still being fed, but is not quite ready to leave.
Saturday, May 13, around 2:30 p.m. The second nestling has become a fledgling, and it sits at the edge of what has been its world, and contemplates how very much more there is to inhabit. By nightfall, it has clambered and fluttered off to join its family. I will be watching for these two. I'm grateful to have been there to see them grow.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Chet Baker Fix, Comin' Up

But first, a word from our sponsor, Amazing Plants I Love: Under the heading of things that make us happy: The heirloom lilac has not yet thrown in the towel for the season. All the other lilac flowers I've seen around here are done, brown, dried up, kaputt--but this magnificent plant just smiles on through rain and sun. It perfumes the entire yard. The scent floats up to the top of our birding tower and sneaks around the corner of the house, surprising me as I grub around in the garden beds. I will miss it so when its blossoms finally fade. But what an incredible run it's had. Thank you, Lilac. You are appreciated.
All right. Phoebe had a rough day at school; nothing academic, just social pressure. By bedtime she was teary and needing a diversion, a dose of pure happiness. Enter Nurse Baker. First, he took her temperature, laying a gentle paw on her forehead. Then he laid one paw on her wrist and took her pulse (while checking his imaginary watch, and slowly shaking his head). By this time, she was giggling. He finished his exam by thoroughly washing her face.
Chet Baker was put on earth to make us laugh. When I call him, saying, "Baker, you have a job to do here!" he checks to see who looks sad, who's crying, and he does his best to make them smile. He rarely fails. His reward? A belly tickle.
So Chet's job description gets a little more detailed each day. He wakes Phoebe up with kisses every morning. He patrols for mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and deer. (Lke his grandmother, Maeve Bean, and his mother, Chili Bean, Chet has a zero tolerance policy on chipmunks.) He listens for delivery trucks and announces them. He gets the bed all warm for me. He deposits a fine layer of hair evenly over the house, spring and fall. He sits upon the laps of guests and charms them. He updates his skunk perfume periodically; when it fades, he goes and finds another skunk. He occasionally clears the room with a well-timed fart. And he lifts our spirits, and makes us laugh, the most important work he does.

Thank you, Baker. You are appreciated, too.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Last Gasp from WV

Here's Bill with Ron Canterbury, one of the world's experts on golden-winged warblers.
Bird festivals go by so fast, and we're working so hard, that I almost have to get back home before I realize I've had fun. I think the New River Birding and Nature Festival we worked last weekend was one of the most intense I've experienced. We were up each morning Thursday-Sunday at 4:30 AM, to assemble and lead the large groups on birding trips that might not end until 3 PM. Yiikes. In addition, I gave a keynote address, and Bill, Jessie Munson and I gave a mini-concert on Saturday night. It was a blur of bleary half-sleep, terrific birds, rehearsal, and performance, with an hour or two of bliss in a large hot tub sprinkled here and there. I don't know if we could have done it all without the hot tub at our deluxe cabin at Opossum Creek. Thank you, Geoff Heeter!
Lotta people, one-holer. Logistics, logistics.

I truly think Chet Baker had more fun than anyone at the festival. He loved our cabin, exploring every room before curling up in his own bed in the corner. Best of all, he acted just as he does at home, and we could let him out to relieve himself, and he'd come right back to the screen door to be readmitted. Gotta love a dog you can trust to hang around. His finest hour was the cookout at Opossum Creek, where he went from person to person smiling and accepting compliments and small bits of hamburger. We began to refer to him as The Mayor of Opossum Creek, and we had more than one offer to dog-sit or even acquire him. I believe that a cookout with 60 people is a Boston terrier's idea of heaven.
Our idea of heaven was playing music with our friends Jessie Munson and Jeff Gordon. As a duo, we can make some pretty good music, but Jessie transformed us into a band with her fiddle improvisations, backup, and superb musicianship. First violin in the Memphis Symphony, and she fiddles, too. Sublime doesn't begin to describe her playing. And Jeff added a new dimension with his powerful voice and stage presence. We love us our Jeff. If you want to be completely swept away by a blog, check out Jeff's story of the salivary gland blockage that put him out of business for much of the festival. Complete with macro photographs of the offending blockage, it's a must-read for anyone who wonders, "What happens when your salivary gland gets blocked up?" Seriously, he writes a terrific blog, and we're proud to count him as a dear friend.
If there is anything that Bill brings to a birding festival, besides his amazing ability to put fidgety warblers in a spotting scope, it's an irreverent silliness that is infectious. He's always on the lookout for the absurd, the incongruous, the simply stupid. (Don't miss his latest blog entry on salad clowns). And so he rode the stuffed tiger that has decorated an illegal roadside dump in golden-winged warbler habitat for the past two years, with a bemused Jim McCormac looking on. Handsome Jim struck a brawny pose for me too. If there's anything more fun than botanizing with Jimmy Mac, I haven't found it. He's like a walking encyclopedia, cheerfully doling out natural history, conservation status, and Latin names of any plant we find. Whee! I stick to him like the white on rice when I get a chance.
Leading trips with Lynn Pollard was a delight. She has a quiet serenity that's the perfect anodyne to a rattly van full of people itching to see rare birds.
And Dave Pollard has got his Zen mojo working all the time.How these folks pull off this festival, bigger and better each year, is a wonder of nature.
Lovely Judy loaned me her scope for the duration, as I had accidentally brought mine without its eyepiece... Once I learned to use its pistol-grip, I was hooked! I'm still really lousy at finding warblers in a scope, but anyone stinks compared to Bill. He's scary fast.
Just to prove that I, too, can be irreverant, I leave you with a trail marker that left me and Jeff looking for a photo-op that never came. There were just too many people milling around us to take the photo we wanted...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Peace of Wild Things

Sometimes it takes a visit from a friend to bust you out of a rut. My friend Mary Alice Koeneke, who lives in Manassas, VA, is working in the area (she's a biologist who studies the effects of power plant outflow on aquatic life) and we arranged a rendez-vous on Newell's Run, one of the best birding and wildflower sites I know. Chet in tow, I donned my birding vest, grabbed camera and binocs and took off. It felt so good to be doing nothing, especially when nothing is so much more than the things I've been doing lately.
The columbines and rock cress were glowing along the cliffsand blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia virginiana) was in full bloom. There wasn't nearly as much of it this year as usual. This charming little annual sometimes looks like blue mist pouring down the hillsides. It ranks as one of my favorite wildflowers; true blue is so hard to find in plants.The pawpaws are in bloom, promising fragrant "summer bananas" by August.We watched a Kentucky warbler singing relaxedly from a quiet perch right by the road, and actually had to walk away from him! I hate walking away from such a skulky, lovely bird, but we needed to get home so MA could see the place. On the way home, I checked five bluebird boxes along Stanleyville Road. Four have bluebird nests in them, and one has a tree swallow. Nothing like batting 100! Here are some 13 day old bluebirds, three girls and a boy.At home, I chanced to catch the forsythia cardinal off her nest, and quickly snapped this portrait of two babies and an unhatched egg. Remember when one of these was singing its silent song of hope? That was May 3. This is May 10. What a difference a week makes in the life of a tiny bird. Their eyes are open, and they're beginning to look like cardinals! The development of baby birds never fails to bring me to my spiritual knees.

Mary Alice decided that Chet Baker would be the perfect souvenir of her trip to Ohio. She grew up with brindle boxers, and Chet was a reasonable simulacrum of these wonderful dogs. And much easier to hold on one's lap. We both agreed that Chet, while all dog, also incorporates the best features of cats--lap-friendly, clean, quiet, incredibly amusing and agile, able to leap tall buildings, able to use his front paws to manipulate his toys, and all this with no kitty litter to change. MA offered to baby-sit Chet whenever we wanted. Dropping him off in northern Virginia is the only hitch.

While working on this entry, I heard an unfamiliar song from right outside the studio window. The photogods smiled on me; my camera was at hand, and I snapped a portrait of an exquisite male chestnut-sided warbler checking out the Bird Spa from my little birch tree. Ahhhh.
A rear view, too. I take this as an omen of great things to come. B, this one's for you. I love you forever.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Into Oblivion

A foggy morning on the New River Gorge bridge. It takes a certain courage to keep driving across the longest single span bridge in the world, even when you can see your way through.
Veils of fog at dawn, near Fayetteville, WV.

There are times in one's life when keeping a blog is exactly what you don't want to do.When what is on your mind is nothing you wish to share with oh, say 6,386 people. I suppose everyone who is faithful to a blog and lives a real life outside the tidy little blogosphere hits that wall sooner or later. It's been a good run--since December '05. Keeping it light and pretty and readable has been fun. It's worth doing. I hope it's worth reading. I try to remind myself that it's OK to let it go sometimes, but it dogs me, thinking of people who wish I'd get with it and give them their daily fix of nature and fabulous flowers and cute ol' Baker and baby birds hatching. Well, sometimes you can't do the dance, and forcing it, you risk falling down.
A pipevine swallowtail party. They're all aflutter over coon poo. Can beautiful things emerge from dreck?
Lots of phoebes fall prey to snakes. Now that it's spring, snakes are emerging, and phoebes must choose their nestsites with care. This phoebe has chosen well.

Monday, May 08, 2006

I'm Back

I'm back from West Virginia, with Bill, the kids, and Chet, and we're all fried crisp, as predicted. Our dear friend Jim McCormac was there, and he was busy with his camera, and he found the time to post some amazing shots from the festival, including some of us in action, and yes, even a very cute one of Chet, the juvenile "pied mountain boar," and his Phoebe. So please, please, click on this link to see Jim McCormac's beautiful blog, while I schlepp around town reprovisioning our disaster of a house, do laundry, and check to see if my Carolina chickadees have been born. Thank you, Jim, for being Zick for a day. I'll be back tomorrow, I hope, with my own reflections on West Virginia. Sometimes it's all just too much.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Blowflies OUT!

I check my bluebird boxes once a week, more frequently when it's time to change nests. There are few things I love more than walking out the meadow with Phoebe and Liam to peek in boxes. My theory that early nests wouldn't be as affected by bluebird blowflies proved more or less true; half the nests were clean and half had nasties in them. Here they are, for those of you who don't mind looking at maggots. They're about the size of your pinky fingernail and they can take a whole lotta blood out of a baby bluebird, which doesn't have much blood to start with. So I get rid of them, and put a clean, albeit clumsily-made, dry grass nest in the box.
For performing this service, I get to see the rose-pink of freshly laid tree swallow eggs,
the coral squirmers that are newly-hatched bluebirdsand the light coming through the pines along our oilwell road.Photo by Phoebe Thompson; fashions by Ricardo of Poland.

There is much to be thankful for today.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Bird Clock in My Head

Today, I had to mow the lawn, because it would otherwise be unmowable by the time we get back from the New River Birding and Nature Festival. I got a sudden feeling that I had better check the song sparrow nest down in the backyard, just in case the babies were fledging. I didn't want to mow any young song sparrows. So I walked quietly up to the nest and found it empty--with a twist. The colorful tail of a milk snake was just disappearing down into the grasses. It's on the right rim of the nest. Oh. The narrow fellow in the grass. I wanted badly to haul the snake out by its tail, just to get a look at it, but the slight chance that I was looking at a copperhead's tail made me hesitate long enough for it to vanish into the mystery down below.
Nothing in the scolding of the adult song sparrows told me that tragedy had struck, and from four points in the nearby meadow, I could hear the squeaky chips of the newly fledged young. Perhaps their parents had seen the snake's approach and urged them out of the nest. However it had happened, the snake was too late to make a meal of song sparrow chicks, and my heart lifted.
I keep a clock in my head; I don't write these things down. Somehow I just know when birds are hatching or fledging, when birds are in trouble. Which is why it is pure torture to leave home in May. I think that my subconscious is always listening, keeping track of incubation and nestlng periods. How else to explain what I found in the cardinal's nest only a few minutes later? Oh, beautiful thing.
newly hatched
sings a silent song of hope

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Life Goes On

The yard is a hatchery. Today a baby bluebird launched out of the front yard box and landed on our roof, its mother close behind. Three house finches fledged last week from a blue juniper right outside the studio window. There is an incredibly stoic female cardinal sitting her twig nest in the forsythia, right where I often park the car. I'm only a foot away from her when I get out, and yet she stays, looking me right in the eye, daring me to scare her off her precious coffee-flecked eggs. A chipping sparrow has woven a nest of cocoa fiber and Liam's white hair in a thin blue juniper on the house corner. Here she is, pulling fiber from the mat. Eastern phoebes are putting blobs of mud on a little shelf only a few feet away from it, under the eave. That shelf has been up there for ten years, and somebody is finally using it.
Song sparrows are feeding young in some ornamental grasses in the backyard. I've only seen the eggs once, while she was still laying.
The hen is such a tight sitter that I've never seen the babies, though they must be nearing fledging now. She gives me the same dare as the female cardinal. I love that hard stare. The adults have begun ferrying suet dough to the young song sparrows; that's a sure sign they're maturing.
All around, life is springing from nests. They're all in shrubs and grasses we have planted, or boxes we've put up. Everything is finally mature enough to host birds, and they're responding lustily. Here are some Carolina chickadee eggs from the orchard box. I plan to paint portraits of the development of these babies if the gods smile and they hatch and survive. I am beside myself with excitement and anticipation. Although my eyes are getting so bad I'll probably have to get a magnifying glass to draw them! Carolina wrens just fledged today from another high shelf meant for phoebes. My gosh, there are nests exploding everywhere.
I spent the day emptying the greenhouse and planting everything out. It was one truckload of vegetation, I'll tell you that. Biomass squared. I'll just have to pray that we don't get another freeze; that they'll all be all right while we're in West Virginia at the New River Birding and Nature Festival at the end of this week. We're looking forward to seeing old friends. I'll be giving a keynote at the terrific resort called Opossum Creek on Thursday evening, and leading a sparrow ID walk on Saturday morning. I think Bill and I are also going to play music Saturday night, joined by our incredible fiddler/violinist pal Jessie Munson. We'll be fried crispy by the time we get home Sunday night.
When we get home, I am going to stay home. Please pardon the coming hiccup in the blog. I won't have Internet access in the hollers. See you next Monday?


Bleeding heart, sun coming through it
They don't last long, just until summer, zinnia time
and then they melt away as if they were never there
and I plant other things where their leaves once spread
but I do leave a sign over the roots to remind me
that there's a bleeding heart there
And not to dig too deeply.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Hallejah! OOS Convenes!

Ever the editor, Zick tries to right a wrong that only "U" (and L) can help with. Photo by Shila Wilson.

Fabulous weekend at Shawnee State Park, where Bill, Shila and I attended the Ohio Ornithological Society's spring conference. Terrific group of people, pretty OK weather, birds popping out everywhere, and amazing flora. 65,000 acres of more or less intact Ohio deciduous forest, emphasis on the oak-hickory complex. I have never heard more cerulean warblers in my life. Bill, who was ably emceeing the event, made a comment during the evening banquet on the unusual abundance of this threatened songbird. "Have you ever seen more cerulean warblers? We're swatting them out of the way. In fact, the meat you're eating tonight is cerulean warbler. They're delicious, too!"
I was so proud of him--he kept the group, 275 strong, laughing out loud as he whipped through the bird checklist and introduced keynote speaker Kenn Kaufmann. He played Hank Williams' Lost Highway, retooled into a brief biography of Kenn. Kenn gave a lyrical keynote about his childhood, an eloquent appreciation of his late mother. Bill and I had the immense pleasure of meeting Kenn's new wife Kimberley, nature interpreter by day, classic rock singer by night. As veterans of the bird festival circuit, we share much in common with Kimberley and Kenn, and we hope they'll grace us with a visit when all this festival stuff calms down later in the summer. We'd dig playing music with them and hanging out in the tower.Kimberley, Bill, Jim McCormac, Zick, and Kenn talk about the tuna sandwiches at our wrapup luncheon.

So begins the festival season, full bore, and they usually don't include Internet access. So there will be hiccups in my and Bill's blogs as we travel Wednesday down into the deep hollers of West Virginia, where cellphones double as doorstops and paperweights. Speaking of faulty technology, I've been trying to post this since 8 AM...let's see--that's twelve hours. Sorry about the glitch--out of my control.