Friday, June 30, 2006

Forcing Avis

Avis, after medication, feeding, and a face-wash, June 29. Her eyes are bright, she's getting stronger and more uppity all the time, and that's what counts.

June 29 (Thursday). I've been force-feeding Avis since midday yesterday. She's had two doses of Zithromax, some leftover antibiotic from one of Liam's bouts of pharyngitis. I kept it in the refrigerator thinking I might get a bird that needed it this summer. Forcing this little spirit to eat and drink is horrible. She's all mucky looking and hates being handled. I hate handling her, so we're even. I'm working in the studio around noon when I hear a small thunk, and I peek over to see Avis pecking a mealworm out of her dish. It's the first food she's taken of her own volition since the night of the 27th. Left to her own devices, she'd be dead now. For whatever reason. I may never know. But I have a suspicion that whatever is wrong with her, it's addressed by the antibiotic.
It's possible, I suppose, that she wasn't really ready to be released, and lacked the instinct to hunt on her own, and just got run down. But I can't reconcile that conclusion with her behavior in the fledging tent, which was to catch everything that flew by and eat mealworms from a pie plate. Why would that behavior cease when she was released? (Luther did regress, but not to the point that he lost interest in food. No, Luther's REAL interested in food. He just wants me to pop out of the house and administer it every couple of hours.) Maybe she had something bugging her on a low level, and when she was released, the stress and night out in the cold without much food to burn left her vulnerable to it. She had had a bout of anorexia as a young nestling, which I treated with a single dose of Zithromax--not wanting to burn out her digestive tract. She picked right up after the one dose. In retrospect, talking with my rehab-whiz friend Astrid, I probably should have given her a full course of antibiotics. Maybe it was festering the whole time, and took release time as its chance to strike her down. Dunno. Dunno nothin'. All I know is that I won't let her die, no way, nohow.
And so now it's June 30, noon, and Avis is still in the pet carrier, facing out the studio window so she can watch for Luther. The window is open so she can call to him, and he to her. I have mealworms and water in there, and I'm watching her papers to be sure that she's defecating regularly, for that's how I'll know she's eating. She's just had her third dose of Zithromax. I have no idea what the proper dosage of this drug would be. Let's see. Liam weighs 49 pounds and he gets a teaspoonful. Avis weighs what? An ounce? Two? So how do I divide a teaspoon into a portion that tiny? I just get the smallest drop I can in a dropper and pump it in. And it seems to be working. She's bright-eyed, perching well, not trembling, hard as hell to catch even in the carrier; she slips out and zooms around the little aviary and I catch her in midflight like a cat swooping a butterfly from the air. Not so fast, Missy. You have some more R & R coming your way. I'll watch her, give her a fourth dose in the morning, and turn her out into the fledging tent to try again. She's improved immeasurably in the time she's been confined. Now to see if she'll feed herself in the fledging tent, and then work on a re-release. I know Luther is going to be happy about that! Thank God I'm not traveling this month!Luther comes in for subsidy, June 29. I had a hand-raised hummingbird named Adventure Joe who used to sit on this very plant support. I'm flashing back! Photo by my darlin' hubband.

Meanwhile, Luther is having a ball out in the big world. I awoke at 5:15 this morning and went out to see where he might be roosting. I called softly and heard an immediate answer from a tall ash tree by our driveway. He wouldn't come down. An hour later I went out, called his name again, and received a chip in response, followed by a begging call. It's uncanny--I have only to call Luther's name, and he answers back exactly as a young bird would answer its mother's location call. I call, he chips--and I locate him, just as his mother would. He flew down to my hand, accepted a mealworm, and went about his business. When he lands on my hand he's so light I can hardly feel him. And my heart is so light it floats on air.Luther opens wide! Photo by Bill "Shutterbig" Thompson, III.

Post-Fledging Update

Luther sits on a poke leaf. I love the perches baby birds choose.

Luther's first flight and taste of the outdoors.

If I were you, I'd be absolutely dying for an update on the twin phoebes. How did the release go? Well, I've been a bit too busy living it to write about it. But the morning of June 28 did bring a pair of phoebes, chipping and talking to us as we groggily emerged from the house just after dawn. They were as glad to see us as we were to see them. Luther landed on my hand and gobbled down a good breakfast. Avis was happy to fly close and chat but wouldn't eat. And therein began a big problem.
A newly released bird should be ravenous and screaming for food, as was Luther. Birds I've raised and released go through a period of regression when they figure out that they aren't on Easy Street anymore. From being aloof and flighty in the tent, refusing to be hand-fed, they turn back into begging juveniles. Just the sound of my voice brings them swooping in. They shadow me around the yard, just as they would shadow their parents. Needless to say, this is my favorite part of raising birds--having these free-living birds hanging out, playing, foraging, learning fancy flying techniques, yet still coming for regular visits with me. I watch for them to catch their own food (Phoebe saw Luther smashing a beetle, then eating it yesterday). As they get better at it, I cut back on the mealworms, and there comes a day when the bird comes in to chat but won't take any food. That's a beautiful thing, and it's what I work toward. But it should not happen the morning after release.
I watched Avis closely that morning, and was disturbed to see her looking increasingly lethargic. No amount of tickling her rictal bristles would induce her to snap at a mealworm. Uh-oh. Along about noon, I found her back inside the tent, whose flaps I'd left open in case the phoebes felt a need to return. Smart move, Avis. Maybe you came in by accident, and maybe you knew you were in trouble. I zipped it closed and watched her closely. Luther sat just outside in a birch, separated by thin netting, as close as he could get to Avis. They were both obviously upset to be separated, so I brought Luther in to keep Avis company.
I mixed up some fresh baby formula and began to force-feed Avis. It was no fun having to capture this dear little bird, pry her bill open, and feed her the messy, loose formula, but I felt I had no choice. She continued to weaken, trembling as she tried to perch. Double uh-oh. How could we come this far--30 days old, apparently in the pink of health when she was released--only to fail?
All I knew was that I was not going to let her die. In mid-afternoon, I caught her for the last time, and put her in a pet carrier. I'd feed her formula every hour and see if I could turn her decline around. Poor Avis. She hated being force-fed (who wouldn't?); I hated having to do it. She would try to shake her head and get rid of the food. Her feathers got messy, I washed her and kept her as clean as I could. This was awful. I emailed my friend Astrid McCloud, who has raised just about everything, and is my first resort when I'm stumped. Astrid suggested that Avis might have eaten a lightning bug, which could have made her sick. I had seen her catch one in the tent a couple of days before her release, but she took it back to the perch and released it, doubtless because it tasted bad. Maybe she ate one. Maybe not. As she continued to decline I decided to start her on an antibiotic, just in case she had something infectious that might be addressed. I figured it was better than standing around watching her go downhill.
Meanwhile, Luther was blazing new trails outside. The morning of June 29, I awakened to the sound of a phoebe, singing in the lilac (yes, that lilac) just outside our bedroom window. Three times, Luther sang, a hurried, high-pitched, imperfect baby song. I didn't want to wake Bill, who was breathing deeply beside me, but I lay there listening, grinning from ear to ear. Phoebe Linnea had guessed Luther's sex right!
In the next three days, Luther would do all the things a phoebe should do. He investigated the eaves and awnings, instinctively drawn to their cavelike structures.
He ranged farther and farther afield, hanging out in the thick pokeweeds for a siesta.
Perhaps most intriguingly, he figured out how to come back into the open tent for food and water. The titmice quickly robbed all the mealworms from his dish on the joint compound bucket outside the tent, and I figure it won't be long before they learn to come in the tent, too. But for now, it's working well. I smile every time I see Luther in there, reminiscing about his pre-fledging days.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Strawberry Baby

In honor of my new nephew,William Daniel (Will) Salter, 5 lb. 10 1/2 oz., 20" long, perfect, with light brown hair, a powerful sucking mechanism, and a lusty cry, born in Providence, RI on June 19, I post this:

This is what happens when monkeys get ahold of your camera. Phoebe found a strawberry that looked like a baby. She did this photo essay for my edification. It's nice to find things like this, little surprises, on your camera when you download your photos.The strawberry baby. Waah! Waah! It even has a green, leafy bib. How cute!Oh, noooo! They eat their young! Nice hair, Phee. Is that an ivory-billed woodpecker behind you?
Remorse. Only a stained receiving blanket to remind her of her strawberry baby. Would she be judged insane at the time of the murder? Would she be acquitted?

Sweet little nephew, you have a twisted cousin, and your new aunt is even worse. We will be looking for a strawberry that looks like the Blessed Virgin, Mother Teresa, or Bill Pullman. There is money to be made.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Not Saying Goodbye

Living free at last, but seeing no reason to leave.

I've gotten such a smile out of your comments about the phoebes' release. It's a story I couldn't wait to tell. It isn't really good- bye when we open the tent. The best thing about releasing young birds is that they rarely leave. They hang around the yard like dirty shirts. After all, I'm their momma, and the living is easy with Mom around. Phoebe was all in tears (well, so was I!), Liam was loudly professing his sadness, and Bill was a little choked up too as they made their fluttery way out of the tent. Luther went first, of course, being the smarter, more adventuresome one. Avis got all flustered and couldn't figure out how to get out (you have to fly down to go out the doors.) Luther circled back and clung to the netting, chirping to Avis. They got quite frantic before Avis finally made her way out.
Phoebe fretted and sniffled, worrying that they wouldn't find each other. But find each other they did, and Phoebe even got to feed them some mealworms and crickets by hand before dark. We put their dish of mealworms out next to the birch clump where they settled, and checked on them every now and then. They played with the leaves and preened and relaxed. At nightfall they were gone, doubtless hidden in some high, thick vegetation. We'll see what tomorrow brings. Methinks 'twill bring a pair of phoebes, chipping for their breakfast.

It's Time

Avis, top, and Luther, bottom, June 27, Day 29. Just about full-grown.
June 27 2006. It’s time. They don’t want anything to do with us. I put a light in their tent all night and in the morning it’s full of craneflies and moths, gnats, mosquitoes, millers and fireflies. And that’s what they want. I zip it closed before dawn, get the phoebes from their safe harbor in our stairwell, and release them to the feast. I tickle their bills with mealworms and they seem taken aback. Why would I want that? they seem to ask, then flash away on agile wings. They land, tails bobbing, looking at me balefully. Go away. We’re feeding ourselves now.
Avis is hard to approach. That's how phoebes should be. They are the antithesis of pets.
I watch from the kitchen window as they whirl up after all the flying insects. One dips down and grabs a mealworm from the Pyrex pie plate, takes it back to the perch, bashes it and eats it. Luther bashes crickets until the legs fall off. They pile into a shallow bowl and bathe, preen, shake their feathers, and bathe again. Yes, it’s time. They’re 29 days old. Their parents would have quit feeding them by now. They seem too proud to beg even when I know they’re hungry. Their tails are almost full-length; their gape corners shrunken and almost gone. The soft phoebe chip has largely replaced the cricketlike begging calls.
It rains and rains. I hate to let them out when it’s pouring. So I hold them, hoping for a break in the weather, some sign that it’s OK to open the flaps. I guess I’m hanging onto them. I think I’m going to draw and paint them some more. I try to find the time to do that. I have to take the kids to a dental appointment; I have to do the grocery shopping; there’s a book the library is threatening to make me pay for that I must find and return. The vacuum cleaner is worthless, needs to be returned, our closet shelves have fallen down with all the clothes on them. My car needs an oil change. A hummingbird plate is due in four days. Good thing it's not a grouse plate. The kids fight incessantly. Oh. It’s lunchtime. They’re hungry, that’s why they fight. I miss my husband. There’s band practice tonight and tomorrow, a gig Saturday. We’re so rusty. How will we get up on stage? I have to dream up dinner. One more load of Bangor laundry. I want to take more pictures of the birds. There’s no light; it rains all the time. And so my mind chatters and my days piss away and the phoebes grow and whirl and hit the sides of the tent. It’s time. I have to let them go.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Yes, It Hurts

So read the sign on a tattoo parlor Bill and I passed once. Zick art has appeared in many situations, from the expected to the strange. I've done art for books, magazines and posters; for feeder packaging, mailing labels, jackets, sweaters, tote bags. My drawings have shown up on dog collars and leashes. I have painted the head of a bass drum for a band, and done CD liner art. I have painted a Jersey cow on an old milk can. I have yet to do a toilet lid.
A couple of years ago I did a series of detailed drawings that were engraved on a green marble headstone. They were of the woman's cats, and they had to look EXACTLY like Tiggy and whatsername. Many adjustments later, the client was happy.
And now I have done a drawing for a tattoo.
Kestrels have always been special birds for me. Here's a youngun that was abducted from its family two summers ago. By now you'll recognize the setting--my drawing table, locus of all living things on Indigo Hill. They all end up here, getting their pictures made. It took about seven phone calls and a day and a half for me to track down exactly where he was picked up, but I did. I drove up the driveway of the place, and immediately saw an adult male kestrel feeding two babies exactly this one's age. I walked over to the tree where they were sitting, kissed the abductee on top of his dear little head, and put him on a low branch of the same tree. Dad gave a shrilling call of welcome; I got in the car and left, feeling very good indeed. Kestrels should be raised by kestrels.
Now, I watch a pair of kestrels at our Kroger parking lot. This is the female, a shot taken right after she mated. In afterglow, I guess. I don't know where they're nesting, but I saw two fresh fledglings in the same parking lot a couple of weeks ago. Yayy! May they dine on house sparrows and starlings, as well as mice, rats and voles.
So when I was asked by a friend who shall remain anonymous, in deference to the privacy of her spinal zone, to design a kestrel tattoo, I leapt at the chance. Here's the drawing.

I did a cleaner version of the drawing, as well as a colored one, to guide the tattoo artist. Who did a very nice job. Here's the final version. Dang, that's nice, and it's six inches across:She said it hurt like the dickens, but she's very stoked to have a kestrel hovering on her spine. Skin: my newest medium. I especially like alabaster skin.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Virtual Garden Tour

Things are beginning to color up around here. Bill and I spent a lot of time weekend before last sprucing up the gardens and trees, trimming and weeding and pruning, in honor of a visit by the Marietta Garden Club and the Barlow Bluebells. Love that name! It's a good thing to do, we decided, becuase it gives us an excuse to get the house and garden ship-shape. It's easy to let windows go unwashed and clutter accumulate. But when you know about 30 pairs of sharp, appraising eyes are going to be roaming over your house and grounds, it is a serious motivator. Luckily, I'd been home enough this spring that the gardens were in really good shape.

I couldn't help thinking, as the crowd descended on Indigo Hill at noon June 20, how much I'd like to have some of my readers in the group--you who share so much with me, every day. The gardens are just coming into their own, slowed by a cool, wet spring. The first coneflower is starting to color; the liatris is still in bud. But there's a lot blooming, and it's sooo beautiful right now. So, since you can't leap out of my computer, I'll show you what the garden clubs saw.
The phoebe tent was a big draw. They were charmed by my tail-bobbing fairies. One of the women asked why I was the only songbird rehabilitator for at least three counties around. Bill piped up, "Who wants to feed birds every half-hour?" True enough. Much easier to throw a frozen rat in front of a raptor and be done for the day. You don't have to take your redtail to the movies and grocery store with you.
This huge bromeliad, supported by the arms of one of my "liberated bonsais," drew a chuckle from the group. What better place for it, in the light dappled shade of Japanese maple leaves, living in the canopy as it would in the wild. I have two Japanese maples that were a bit too rangy to be good bonsai subjects. They live in the yard now, taller than me, and happy, too. I've had this bromeliad species for years--Vriesea "Splenreit." In midwinter it sends out three or more swords of flame-orange, lighting up the foyer. Its zebra leaves are beautiful all the time. It loves its summer vacations. I've given many a pup away from this plant. It splits like an amoeba and I get to spread the joy--one of the things I love most about gardening.
This year, I've decided to add interest to a forgotten part of the yard by making "shade stations" under the birches. We have so little shade here on the ridgetop, and it's all taken by hostas, columbines, hardy fuchsias, ferns and the like. So I'm using containers under trees as spots of alluring color, destinations to get us out the side yard. It's working! I've got to get out there to water them, and while there I enjoy the birches and pines.
These containers are going to be stunning in about a month. Gotta love this fuchsia with its red hat lady flair. I have to say these colors look better on a fuchsia than on a zaftig woman. But that's just my opinion. Beneath it in the blue pots is a more modest upright fuchsia called "Gartenmeister"--ever a favorite with hummingbirds and Zicks.
The garage beds are a wild tumble of volunteer daisies, lavender, snapdragons, pink hibiscus, hollyhocks, Rudbeckia, tall ironweed, coreopsis, and cactus. Missouri primrose is the pink mass at left. These beds are alive with bees and skippers, who love lavender as much as I do.
Much of what's cool here has volunteered. This is my fritillary and monarch ranch--common milkweed, barely kept in check by patio and pond. Those are great spangled fritillaries , drunk on the blossoms. When it finishes blooming, spreading its honeyed scent up to the bedroom windows, I'll cut it to the ground. The shorter new shoots that come up in late July will be dotted with monarch eggs and chewed by caterpillars, and I'll be able to see my pond again. The monarchs are delighted to find new shoots in July, when all the rest of the milkweed around is so grotty. It works fabulously: I've had as many as 26 monarch caterpillars on this small patch at once.
A glimpse of the pond, which lies directly behind the milkweed ranch, framed in larkspur. This is where my famous bird-eating frog, Fergus, once lived. The big hanging basket, with trailing snapdragon "Sultan," a mini variegated alpine geranium I can't live without, Calliphora "Rose Star," and Lobelia "Laguna Blue w/Eye." These are plants that get greenhouse space all winter so I can have them always.

A particularly successful combination of Osteospermum "Yellow Sonata," Calliphora "Hot Tamale," and fancy geraniums "Mrs. Cox" and "Frank Headley." Fire and ice. My favorite pot of all. Color. I eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Friday, June 23, 2006

All This Bull----

Luther pants in the muggy heat inside his tent. Day 24.

June 22. Luther is 24 days old. While Shila and I watch, open-mouthed, he launches himself from his perch, grabs a little white miller off the tent wall, returns to his perch, masticates it, and swallows it. We cheer and whoop. I kiss Luther atop his head. I can taste freedom, theirs and mine.Avis pecks the lens. This behavior is very Avis. She is a stinkpot. She pecks Luther and me, too. They don't call them tyrannid flycatchers for nothing.

This morning, Phoebe took a dish of mealworms out and put it atop an overturned joint compound bucket where the young phoebes could easily land and pick them up. Each bird ate ten worms from the forceps. So we know they like them. We'll see what happens. If we can get them feeding themselves, maybe we could, um, go to the grocery store? Go out to dinner? Ride the bike trail? See a movie? Just get in the frickin' car and drive?
This is why I am not a full-time wildlife rehabilitator. I have waaay too much living to do, too many other people and too much else to care for, to devote my life to nestsful of baby bunnies that need to be fed every two hours all night. There are women who do that, and I am deeply grateful that they do it, but I am not one of them. I will gladly give a month of my life to baby hummingbirds, phoebes, chimney swifts. But I won't raise baby house sparrows, starlings or grackles. I'm in this for what I can get out of it, and I'm not ashamed to say that. I'm after birds that are, quite frankly, worth my time, birds that can become part of my life's work. My vision for our future does not include acres of cages, teen-age volunteers, or Boy Scout troops coming to look at all the busted birds. It fiddles with, but skirts around burnout. I tell people who call with baby bunnies or squirrels or coons that I don't deal with mammals. I'm happy to field calls, but most of the time I tell people to put the bird or animal right back where they found it, because they've unknowingly abducted it from its parents. I admit that I have an aversion to hearing the phone ring in June and July.
(Unless it's my darlin' on the other end of the line.)
And yet...I know I'm in deep. I've been told as much. Someone who has known me for years once spent some time at our house, and witnessed first hand the whirl of work and activity that sustains the arksworth of life forms here at Indigo Hill. He sat me down, and with real concern, incredulity and conviction, said, "Julie, why don't you get rid of all this stuff? It's bullsh-t! All that writing, that painting... You don't need all this! All these plants and birds and turtles and fish, the bonsai trees, the gardens, all this stuff you take care of, it's all bullsh-t! Get rid of it! Just take care of your children!"

I stared back at him, thankful that he hadn't thrown Chet Baker into his carpetbag of what constitutes bullsh-t. (That could have gotten ugly.) For once, I took the time to collect my thoughts. I was astonished, taken aback, more than a little angry, and thoroughly unrepentant. I chose my words carefully.

"All this bullsh-t is what makes me who I am." Raising the nurturing fist. Photo by Shila Wilson.

"And being raised by a mother with a lot of outside interests makes my children who they are. And I happen to like the people we are."

Arizona, 1990

From an old sketchbook
Another life and lover
The owl's fire undimmed


He drew flowers here
The rain made short work of them.
I'll keep him in chalk.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Phoebes Growing, Phoebes Learning

Luther, June 21. 23 days old.

Avis, June 21. 23 days old .
Avis, top, and Luther, June 20. 22 days old.

Like the White Rabbit in Through the Looking Glass, I'm always running, always late. I'd love to give you daily updates on the phoebes, but I'm too darn busy feeding them and taking care of my family and houseguests. The phoebes are growing, flying, learning new things every day. We have a routine; I take them out to their fledging tent at dawn, feed them every hour until dusk, and bring them back inside, locked in a pet tote, for the night. I put them in a dark stairwell so they won't flutter and fuss; they hate to be put in the tote. But raccoons and black rat snakes, as we all know, are ever vigilant. I looked out just in time to see a coon peering into the tent yesterday afternoon. Now that they're flying so well, there's little chance it could catch one, but dang! I'd hate to lose them now.
Today, June 22, they are 24 days old. Little things tell me their brains and neural connections are maturing. When a baby bird grabs a moth from a forceps without having it stuffed down its throat, that's progress. It's a mental leap from being fed to feeding itself. Moths prove irresistible to these birds. They already know what they like.
On June 20, day 22 of their short lives, they started to process their food, beating crickets against the perch. They get better at it every day. They aren't able to knock the legs off them yet, but they will get there.Today, Luther, the smaller, sweeter one, whirled out, grabbed a housefly off the tent wall, brought it back to the perch, and released it. Well, he's getting the idea, anyway! My heart sang. They're acting like phoebes. They sit on high perches, bobbing their tails, sally out after nothing in particular or perhaps to peck at a moth, then return to the perch. They're flycatchers at last.
We've got maybe another week of this hourly feeding, until that magic day when they fly down and take crickets out of a dish. I did my huge weekly grocery shop at 5:30 AM today, so I would get back in time to put them in the tent and feed them at 7:30. Grocery stores are weird places at dawn. You do what you have to.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Solstice Reverie

These summer evenings are so luscious, I can't wait for Bill to get home so we can lapse into our chairs, share the events and conversations of the day, and breathe the sweet, moist air. Sometimes we cook out; sometimes I have something ready so we don't have to mess with it. A little wine, a beer, the kids playing in the yard, a little wiffleball, our sweet Phoebe smacking the ball farther and farther, reveling in her newfound strength. Barn swallows skimming the air and chattering on the wire, a prairie warbler teasing Bill from a birchtop, Bill cussing and scrambling for his scope and camera. Oh, there's nowhere else I'd rather be. These are the sweetest days.

No one else I'd rather be with than this dear man, drawing flowers in chalk . He's got a lot of what they call The Most.
No sky I'd rather gaze up into than this one, amber clouds swimming in turquoise. My favorite shirt has a prowling tiger on it, seal brindle just like Chet. Summer is the time for Leos: heat, passion, fervor and sweat; strength in the sun and the coiled green spring. Warm days and soft nights. Solstice, everything coming back into perfect balance, equilibrium.

We stare out over the meadow until the lightning bugs start to blink. Heat lightning plays along the southern horizon. This landscape has grown around us, and we have grown into it. We have given it gardens and bluebirds; it has given us everything. B, this one's for you, a taste of home.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


She hauls herself from the mucky edge
Cruel gravity, friction, sun
Eggs like lead in her womb.
She feels them every spring.
She is an old scrap of tire flung on the grass
Her eye a bright jewel in the wrinkles.
She drags over the clipped lawn.
All around, failed nests: white wrappers strewn
Where the coons had their way.
These are too close to the water.She is big because she is old
She is old because she is wise.
She lumbers on.
Here, higher than ever, she will dig.
Her eggs are coming.
This time, they might hatch.

Monday, June 19, 2006

My, How They've Grown!

Luther, looking contemplative on his last day at the old nest, June 16. Check out his picture from June 19 later on in this post.
There's a little lag time in the phoebe blog. It hasn't been easy to keep them fed, take care of my family, house, and grounds, paint some bird pictures that are due, write a piece here and there, and keep the blog up-to-date. I'm prepping the gardens for two garden clubs' visit on June 20, and it's hot as Hades. There goes an hour and a half of each day, just in watering. Rain in the summer is so nice, but it doesn't happen in southern Ohio, generally. What we get sometimes is lovely, cool, rainy springs, and then virtually always these crispy hot summers. All the tender fuchsias and impatiens and ferns I thought I wanted in May become anchors around my neck in late June, their existence utterly dependent on my hoses. Hanging baskets, no matter how well-watered yesterday, are crisp again today.

After refusing to gape for five straight days, Luther and Avis woke up this morning hungry. Well, glory be. I don't have to force-feed them every hour. If that sounds like a drag, well, it is, for everyone concerned. But I was not going to lose these phoebes, so I did what I had to to keep their eyes bright and their outlook good. I knew this anorexia couldn't be normal, and was probably linked to dehydration, but I couldn't seem to get enough water into them to combat it. I'd had the same problem with seven chimney swifts I'd raised two years ago. Both chimney swifts and phoebes take flying insects. Coincidence? I doubt it. There's probably a lot higher moisture content in flying insects than in mealworms and crickets. After trying to get to it for two days and being too busy, on June 16 I mixed up a sloppy formula consisting of soaked kitten chow and the same spirulina-based protein powder I mix for my daytime meals, and started feeding it to them with a syringe. That was the only way I could think of to get them both nutrition and moisture at the same time. And the morning of June 17 they were gaping. What a beautiful sight, those tangerine-orange mouth linings, what a lovely sound, the shrill of hunger. I poke a cricket or a syringe in there, and am done.
They watch flies and moths intently. Here, Avis is watching a moth. Every moth I find, I put in the tent. One day I'll see a phoebe with a moth in its bill, and my servitude will end. Already Avis snatches them from the forceps, processes them, and gulps them down. She even launched herself at one today! On June 18, a new call: an insect-like tri-didd-ddit. I'd swear it was a field cricket if I didn't see it coming out of their bills.

They're growing like weeds, bobbing their tails, flying around their tent, getting all uppity. Here's Luther, June 19--how he's grown! And Avis is looking like an adult today:Sorry about the schmutz on the camera lens in these last few shots. It's probably milk from when I had the camera on the kitchen counter this morning... They hate the lawnmower, the weedwhacker, and the tractor, as they should. They watch Chet Baker intently, as he watches them. They gape and beg whenever one of us walks by, and now they know the sight of the syringe I use to feed them means that a meal is on the way. They sleep smashed together like one little birdlump. How we love them. And now that they're begging for food, my life is much easier. I can pop a cricket or a squirt of formula in their mouths and get on with this life of dawn-to-midnight toil, joy, worry, and care. 'The only time I sit down, ever, is to blog and check my email. No wonder I like blogging.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Raising the Fledging Tent

Avis, top, and Luther, bottom. Avis is bigger and has a longer tail. Luther still has a fuzz peruke.

June 16 was fledging day, Day 18 for the two homeless phoebes. On the evening of the 15th, we all worked together to put up the 15 x 17' nylon screen tent that serves as a halfway house for my orphaned songbirds. I could never build a flight cage this nice for $100. It's just what the bird doctor ordered.Meant for dining out in mosquito country, it folds up and stays in storage until it's needed. I got it at Whatta deal!
The main virtues of this tent are that it's nice and roomy, and the birds can't harm their feathers on its soft mesh. Birds should never be kept in wire, though they frequently are. Since it's so flimsy, though, they can't be safely left in it overnight. So I bring them in before dusk to sleep in a pet carrier, in safety. When they get older, nearer the age where they'll be thinking about capturing their own flying insects, I'll put a lamp in it overnight to lure moths inside, and give them something to work on during the day.
Avis fledged first, flying strongly across the tent, back and forth, clinging to the walls. By golly, she's looking like a phoebe in this shot.She's perched now on an ash branch that I drove into the ground, and seems content to stay there and be fed. Luther just fledged around 1 pm. He's less adventuresome and perhaps a day behind Avis in development. And very sweet. By the way, the sexes and names have been arbitrarily assigned by Phoebe. No way to tell at this age.
A host of physical and psychological changes accompany the moment of fledging. The bird's droppings, formerly neatly contained the mucous membrane called a fecal sac, become looser and more frequent. It ceases to wiggle its tail and back up with the elaborate display that alerts its parents that it's about to void. Why bother, when there's no longer a nest to keep clean?
The bird becomes more alert, and takes more notice of its surroundings. New vocalizations emerge--in the phoebe's case, a dry chidick!
Most frustrating for me, the birds cease gaping for food. This happened with the chimney swifts I raised two summers ago. It's a kind of peri-fledging anorexia that doubtless helps them lose weight for better flight. But it's darned inconvenient, and worrisome. I have to pry their little bills open to put crickets and mealworms in, followed with a chaser of water so they don't get dehydrated. I'm praying that once they really start flying, this nonsense (which doubtless makes perfect evolutionary sense) will cease. It's clear to me that there's nothing wrong with them; they're bright and healthy and active, preening and flying. They just aren't interested in food, at least not from me. It will be another 18 days before they're able to catch their own food. I'm in the hoosegow until July 1. If I'll be gone more than a couple of hours, I have to pack them into a pet carrier and take them, their mealworms and crickets, along. It's a bore. Think about going to a softball game out in the hot sun and having to have live birds with you. Grocery store. Bank. Movie. Bike ride, pool. Whatever. No matter what you're doing, you have to shuttle them along with you (no leaving them in the car!) and you must stop every hour or so and cram crickets down two birds' throats. It takes a kind of dedication and constant preoccupation that's not everyone's cup of tea. I have to admit, it makes me a special kind of cranky.
So I make them work for their keep, posing for my paintings. And in the end, I'll have a hand-painted record of their development that is available nowhere else. I'll know something about phoebes, having been their momma. And there will be two more phoebes in the world. Worth it? Oh, yes.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

To a Bleeding Heart

It is yellowing now, its stems watery, weak
This bleeding heart that on the first of May
Exploded over my garden with its weeping blossoms.
It was beautiful then, but now it is rotting.
I want to tear it out.
I want it to subside, just
A mass of thick roots, deep underground
To yield to the joyful fire of zinnias
Rightful heirs to its space.
Summer clouds drift overhead.
It throws forth a blossom, one, two
Asking for more time in the sun.
I am the gardener.
I'll decide when it's done.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Mini ChetFix

Here's Chet Baker, watching us as we put up a large screened tent for the baby phoebes, who began flying today. I like the deep intelligence in his eye. He seems to be evaluating our work.

Taking a hint from beautiful Robin Andrea, keeper, with Dread Pirate Roberts, of the New Dharma Bums blog, I'm going to take a break this weekend, and tell you all about Fledging Day for the phoebes on Monday. I figure it this way: I get only spam in my inbox on weekends, which tells me that most folks are out doing stuff and not plopped in front of their 'puters. We're running around like mad on weekends. Softball tournaments, guests, cooking out, breaking up constant kidfights, gardening and that kind of thing. Add feeding baby phoebes to that mix. Phewww. See you Monday!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Blessing of Thrashers

Thrashers on the front stoop are a fine, fine thing. The brown thrasher: such a lovely, big bird. I never see one without thinking how lucky we are to count them as our close neighbors and friends. Where I grew up in Virginia, we had a brown thrasher coming in for bread, raisins, and cold spaghetti, of all things. I loved that bird. Thrashers were extirpated from that neighborhood years ago, but they hung on long enough for me to grow up with them.I like their strong legs and bills, their bold personalities. They're common out here, like eastern towhees and yellow-breasted chats. All three love multiflora rose and honeysuckle tangles, just the kind of vegetation the farmers most despise. Our decrepit "farm" has plenty of wild tangles and gnarly woodland edges. Each year, we have at least three and often four pairs of brown thrashers on our land. One's out by the oilwell, one's in what once was an orchard, one's out by the mailbox, and one's in our yard.
The yard thrashers start off the year being shy and wild. Soon they observe the steady stream of birds coming to the suet dough dish, and decide to try a little for themselves. They're not dumb. This pair began ferrying dough to their younguns about a month ago. I thought we'd never see the fledglings.The parents hauled away prodigious amounts of suet dough, stuffing their gullets and bills to capacity. This seemed to go on forever. But little by little the fledglings started coming around the edges of the yard, waiting for their parents to load 'em up with suet dough. And now they're feeding themselves, sitting in the dish for long periods, picking at crumbs. This is a juvenile on the right, with its parent. They're recognizable by their grayer faces, dark gray (not yellow) eyes, and finer breast streaks. Not to mention their silly, hesitant behavior.
My favorite picture: a baby brown thrasher takes the sun, with that peculiar ecstatic expression. I didn't see the bumblebee buzzing by until I downloaded it. That's one of the things I love about digital photography: it froze the bee in flight. If I were the type to write cute captions, I could probably bowdlerize this cool shot. But I'll let you do that.According to the laws of physics, the bumblebee should not be capable of flight. Perhaps this thrasher is mulling over that tenet. Or perhaps he's thinking, "Look. A bee."

Divine Intervention

Baker loves phoebes. He also likes to sit on my lap while I work. Or try to work.
It's just one amazement after another lately. Stars must be aligned. I don't know. The four phoebes I painted, so lovingly protected, so sadly mourned, are now incorporated into the muscle of a black rat snake who prowls our deck and porch. I put up a little shelf in a safer spot for the pair, hoping they'd nest again. The male is singing nonstop. I haven't seen the female. No eggs in the nest yet, but I'm hoping.
I was totally bummed the day the phoebes were taken, and half the next day (June 8). The phone rang just after noon, and a tentative voice asked if I were the bird person. This always means that there's a bird in trouble on the other end of the line. The caller explained that she and her husband had been tearing down a shed in their backyard and found a bird's nest. My heart leapt in my chest. Carolina wren, house sparrow, phoebe. Make it a phoebe.
I asked her what color the babies (two) were.
I dunno. Fuzzy.
Fuzzy is good.
They've got long beaks.
Long beaks are good.
What does the nest look like?
Some grass, maybe a little moss.
Moss is good.
Where are you?
We're in Wingett Run. (This is about 15 minutes away from me. Most of my calls come from far flung spots, well over an hour's drive. I'm the only songbird rehabilitator for at least three huge counties around. NOBODY calls from Wingett Run).
How did you get my number?
You're never gonna believe this. I looked up "BIRD" in the phone book, and didn't find anything, so I figured there had to be a number like 1-800-WILDLIFE (which happens to be the Ohio Wildlife Center's Columbus hotline). I dialed it and they gave me your name and number.
Wow. Good thinking. Is this really happening?
I don't want these birds to die. We didn't know what else to do so we put their nest up in a tree and it rained all night.
Urggg. Can you bring them to me?
I'll do anything at this point.

I gave the caller directions and scrambled to make a bird omelet. Egg, ground eggshell, dried fly larvae. Ummmmm. So disgusting.
The car rolled up not twenty minutes later. In a little mud and moss nest were two baby phoebes, aged ten days. Just a day younger than the four were when the snake ate them. They hadn't eaten for 18 hours and had spent a night in the rain, so I had a little backfilling to do.Here are Kandy and her daughter Sandy, holding the phoebes. I don't know who was more amazed when I showed them my half-finished painting of phoebe development, and where their foundlings fit into the series. I began painting them the next day. The series continued, unbroken. "I don't know what you think," Kandy said, "but I think God did this."

I am still reeling from the perfection of it all. And feeding the babies every half hour.They're fine, growing, feathered out. I'm up to my elbows in mealworms and crickets. Phoebe just called from the kitchen, saying the bigger one (Avis) just fledged. Which means she leapt from the plastic container and landed on the kitchen table. Time to scalp the lawn one more time, and put up the screen tent outside, where they can practice flying. Here's what they looked like on June 12, on Day 14. Their diet is obviously agreeing with them.
It has taken me this long to absorb this event and be able to tell you about it. I just couldn't wrap my mind around it. I've been doing avian rehab on and off since 1982 and I've never even come close to getting phoebes. And now, when I needed them most, they came to me. Maybe Kandy has it figured out.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

More Adventures in Nest Protection

Zick, trying to tip the balance toward the underdog again. Photo by Phoebe Thompson.

This time, it's box turtles. For 13 years, I have gone out in the evenings, looking for box turtles laying their eggs in our meadow. I look in all the spots where I've found dug-out, ruined nests in the past. Boxies lay 3-5 eggs in a gourd-shaped hole in the ground. They lay in early June in southern Ohio, and the eggs incubate with the warmth of the sun, for three months or more. The baby turtles, about the size of a quarter, hatch out in September and October. Usually, they dig their way to the surface and go their own way. But sometimes they hatch, and just stay in the nest until the following spring!
So I look for female turtles laying eggs, and I've found a few, always on June evenings. But as luck would have it, the nests they've started weren't completed--they hit a rock, or a root, and had to move on. By then, I'd moved on, too; it got dark, and I never knew where they finally laid their eggs. But the coons and possums and skunks and snakes knew, and I find many dug-out nests every summer, the white, curled shells scattered like so many candy wrappers, and it breaks my heart every time.
Here's the female I found on the evening of June 6, laying her eggs. Her right leg is deep in the nest hole. She alternates legs, scooping out the nest chamber. She works all night, sometimes two nights, to create the chamber and lay her eggs. She's so vulnerable, it scares me. Chet found another female laying that evening, but she hit a root and moved on to dig another chamber in an unknown place. The next morning, Phoebe and I went out, breathless with anticipation, and found the successful nest beautifully covered over and concealed. I dug down carefully, just until I hit an egg, to be sure that this was a successful nest. The egg is leathery, easily dented, almost squishy when it's fresh. Beautiful!
I covered the nest back up and set about protecting it. An iron milk crate would help with the coons, skunks, and opossums. Because I found a nest in Connecticut, protected it with a bicycle basket weighted with cinder blocks, and had three attempts by coons to dig it out, I knew I couldn't fool around. This same nest hatched out on an October night. I was returning, 10:30 at night, in a driving cold rain, from speaking at the Yale School of Forestry. I thought, "You know, that turtle nest really ought to have hatched by now. I'm going to check it." I got a flashlight out of the car, shone it on the caged nest, and was flabbergasted to see a 5' black rat snake just entering the cage--in the dead of night, in a pouring rain--and a baby box turtle just poking its head out for the first time! I caught the snake and flung it as far as I could into the woods, ran and got a joint compound bucket, weighted it with a boulder, and put it over the nest for the night. The next morning, five baby turtles were scurrying around under the bucket! Their cast eggshells smelled fishy, and I imagine that's what had attracted the snake. I felt as if someone had tapped me on the shoulder and said, "You're needed here." That's a beautiful feeling.
So. I was not about to let any predator get this first precious Ohio nest. So I made a cage within a cage. The small-mesh copper basket (found in the home organizing section of Lowe's) is for the black rat snakes. The iron milk crate is for the furry fiends. That cage ain't goin' nowhere, in Southern Ohio parlance. The only thing this contraption couldn't stop is a bear. Which, in time, may be something I have to contend with. For now, coons and rat snakes are more than enough. Baker approves the cage.
Now, to sit back and wait three months. That's OK. I'm waiting anyway. It's good to know those eggs are cooking slowly, under the ground, making more box turtles.
Obviously, my Type A tendencies made me try just one more time to make this post. Slow and steady wins the race.

Blogger Won't Cooperate

I have some really neat things to tell you about box turtles, but Blogger won't take my pictures this morning. Darn! Gosh!
It's hard enough to work in the time to post every day, without having Blogger balk. Phooey! Pah!

There's so much living to be done. I'm gardening like mad, getting ready for two garden clubs to come here on the 20th of June. I can't stop creating container gardens. They're everywhere. Every time I go to town I bring back two more bags of potting mix--the big ones you can hardly lift. I usually buy a cubic yard of potting mix at a time but they're only available in springtime. Here, I would put lots of beautiful pictures of flowers...including a Cuphea called Bat Face that made me squeal with delight when I found it. A long-lost friend, great hummingbird plant, found crouching amongst pinwheel petunias and cockscomb in a local garden center, just waiting for somebody who would appreciate it and introduce it to some hummingbirds.

Hey-la, my boyfriend's back! Bill and I have a LOT of catching up to do after his week in beautiful North Dakota and Minnesota. Last night, he struggled for several hours to write and post the story of his adventures, seeking two elusive life birds--see the Bill of the Birds link to the right of this post (Safari won't let me post links, and Firefox won't let me do ANYTHING today). It amazes me, what he'll do to find a bird he really wants. It shouldn't surprise me, though. I was the bird he really wanted 14 years ago, and he moved heaven and earth to find me. Sigh. Reverie. He's dead tired and all stove up, but it's so good to have him home. I feel like a ghost in this house when he's gone. Liam was campaigning hard to have Bill take him into work with him today--oh yeah, that would work! (Cute picture of Mr. Wrecking Crew here).

I'll try again later to tell you about nesting box turtles. Must back away from the computer now. When Blogger gets this way I need to put a brown paper bag over the monitor, scrawl "PUMP BROKE" on it, and get on with my life. I've learned my lesson about trying fifty times to post something. It's like beating your muse over the head with a hammer. Apologies. See you tomorrow?

HAH. Foiled ye, Blogger. I've gone in and posted me photos after the fact. Arrrrr! Pinked ye!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Baker Likes the FedEx Guy

Oh, yes, he does. Chet Baker hasn't really met anyone he didn't like. This dog does not normally accept biscuits. He is much more a liver treat or Trader Joe's chicken breast jerky kind of guy. But when the FedEx guy comes with his Boone and Crockett milk bones, Baker is very happy. I think it's mostly that someone bothered to give him something special.
The bandana is an affectation imposed upon Chet by Phoebe. He likes wearing them. Here, he's trying to decide whether to eat the bone or bury it. He went with eating it.
All the delivery people like Chet Baker. He comes out barking like mad, and then his ears go back and he leaps up and tries to lick their faces. I know, my dog shouldn't jump up on people. My fault entirely. But Boston terriers are made of Flubber, and jumping is one of the things they do best. Say, "WOW! Your dog sure can jump!" and it spurs him to even greater heights. We're talking 4 1/2 ' from a standing start.
Of all Chet's toys, about his favorite is this soft nylon lead rope. He will hang on and let us swing him around. He enjoys flying.You'll have to forgive me this fluffy post. I've switched over into scullery mode. I've been cleaning the house for three solid days. I get up at 5:45 and start picking stuff up. Today I finally got everything picked up and put away, and started the actual floor washing and bathroom polishing. Phew. This house just seems to go on forever. And Liam is a little wrecking crew following right behind me. I'd just finished washing the studio floor (I know, that sounds like a nonsequiter) and turned around and Liam was doing a large painting on manila paper, slopping poster paint all over the still-damp surface. I was hauling the heavy vacuum out of the closet, having finally cleared the living room floor, and he began setting up wooden train track even as I plugged the machine in. Liam, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So does his mother.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

What Made Me Happy

In Saturday's post, I mentioned that I'd received something in the mail that made me stop dead in my tracks, turn off my car, put my head on the steering wheel, and weep for joy. I should preface this by saying that my publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has been sending out bound, black-and-white galleys of my upcoming book, Letters from Eden, to a lot of people, many of whom I've requested be included on the recipient list. The idea is to garner quotes, blurbs and reviews in advance of its release on October 4. I've poured everything I've got into this book--eight years' worth of essays, and 130 paintings and drawings.
It's a great leap of faith to write a letter to one's hero, the person who, since I was about eight years old, I have most wanted to emulate. It's an even greater leap to write a cover letter for the galley of your first book, asking for a cover blurb. But unless you do it, you never know how your hero might react to your own work. And finding that out is something well worth doing.

I found the postcard face down, and read it in puzzlement. Who had seen the galley, and taken the time to send this nice note? I couldn't think which of the two Janes I know and love might have written it, because I had sent a galley to neither one.

I turned it over, looking for the answer. Yours ever, Jane?? And wept for fifteen minutes.

For B.

Big man on the prairie
Wind sweeps out his restless heart
Peace settles like dust.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Bird Miracles, and Why Shila's So Cool

First flight: young robin, probably 16 days old. Photo by Shila Wilson.

Even though she has been ridiculously busy lately with work and family stuff and helping sick friends and packing for a trip to New York and making fabulous prints and having her car broken into and looking for her keys, my friend Shila follows the butterfly. She knows that when natural moments present themselves, we must settle down and watch. Robins, itching to fledge, are not going to wait until we're ready for them. This is the first time a robin has nested so close to Shila's house--all she had to do was open the kitchen window to photograph them. She'd call me with progress reports and questions about fecal sacs, all that good bird stuff. The babies were bursting out of the nest, flapping and stretching and preening, and Shila knew something was going to go down. But she never expected to hit the shutter button at the moment the first one took off, into the wild green yonder. This is why I love Shila.

Big day here. I got a postcard in the mail today that made me turn off the car, put my head on the steering wheel, and weep for joy. I'll tell you all about it Monday. I'm going to garden and paint this weekend. As to things I can't do: keep my house, with two kids going full bore all day long, navigable and presentable. I have met my Waterloo, and his name is Liam. But I am going to try to reclaim it by Monday. We'll see what wins: real life, with all its miraculous distractions, or the artificial and oh-so-ephemeral state of cleanliness. I have so many cool photos and stories to tell; so much has happened in the last few days, that I'm on overload. Almost 10K photos on my computer, and I can't stop shooting. Shila knows the feeling. May she never stop shooting!

I'm really going to miss showing you baby birds. Crazy cool stuff. Remember the three hatchling tree swallows I served up on a cracker for you? Well, here they are at Day 17. We've changed not at all in that three-week span, and they have grown all the way up.And here is one of those little swallows at Day 20, sitting proudly on the wire leading to our house, chirping with that peculiar jingling tone unique to fledgling tree swallows. It fledged only this morning, and flew the length of the meadow on its first flight. Imagine that. From helpless hors d'ouvre, pink and squirmy, to elegant flying machine in only 20 days. This is the miracle I witness over and over, and never manage to get over.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Best Doggie

Chet Baker's got a way of making me feel better when things go badly. He helps me do everything, follows me around when he knows I'm feeling low. He helped me trim the bonsais the other day. Here's my biggest tree, after trimming, with a pile of twigs and leaves after its haircut. And here's Baker for scale, with my oldest tree, a 25-year-old Japanese maple grown from seed. I think he looks like a racehorse in this picture. Check out how much hair it lost!
Baker helps us check the bluebird boxes. His concept of "bird" is becoming increasingly refined. Baker sniffs a sixpack of bluebirds. Note the right paw, raised. He's pointing, I guess.

I feel that if he is trusted, he will be trustworthy, and so I invite him to sniff birds and their nests, to satisfy his curiosity and impress upon him that they are not to be harmed. He's terrific about it. He'll give them a few sniffs and then walk away. That's just how I want him to behave around birds. He's the same with turtles. We're working on snakes, but I have little hope that he'll ever be mellow around chipmunks and bunnies. I think he can tell how I really feel about them, as they work to stamp out my progress in the gardens. Plus, they are furry and fast, a deadly combo for the rat terrier in him. He had his first run-in with a raccoon two nights ago. There was a lot of really terrible sounding snarling from the 'coon, nothing but jingling tags from Chet, a long pause, and then he came back with ears pasted back, big rolly eyes, and two tiny scratches on his chin and one in his ear. Though it was midnight, I put him in the tub and washed him, and put antibiotic ointment on his scratches. No coon spit on the body pillow, thanks. He still races out at night with a gruff bark and snarl--a lot of bluster--and heads right for the compost pit. I'm not sure whether he's learned much about coons or not, but I'm pleased that he's still in one piece. Coons are a fact of life out here. I tell myself that's why we have vaccines.

I got this lovely citrus-green body pillow on a rare visit to a Target about a year ago. The closest Target is two hours fom here. Imagine that...two hours from a Target. It's one of the drawbacks of living in the sticks, a minor one, but still. Where am I to get my stylish housewares and fantastic plastic? And need it be said that Target's dog section is the end-all?
Chet decided at first sight that this pillow, which is not from Target's dog section, was to be his familiar. If I want to use it, I have to drag it away from him. How this dog suffers. Poor little waif. Never mind his Wag Bag, the best dog bed on the market, faux lambswool and soft stuffing and bolster and all. No, Chet looooves this body pillow. He can always be found on it, as can his little black hairs. Gotta love that catfish mouth and dolphin smile.

Sweet dreams, Chet Baker. You are the best doggie. I wish I were geek enough to attach an MP3 of his snores. You'd swear it was your father.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

You Win Some...

One of my studies of the phoebe chick, nine days old. Here, they end.

Heartbreak. Liam came running this morning to tell me that there was a big black rat snake by the pond. We went down and watched it drink. Even as I was admiring its beauty, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. I raced to set up the ladder and check the phoebe nest I'd been watching, just a few yards from where this elegant creature was lazing on a rock. Turns out, the snake needed to wash down its meal of four about-to-fledge phoebes from the nest atop our TV relay box under the deck. Despite my fugly, painstakingly built glass-panel baffle, despite my fierce devotion to protecting the nest, I had inadvertantly put one of the shower doors wrong-side-out, and there was a little metal handle halfway up its length, and that was all the big snake needed to give it a hitch the rest of the way up. I stared at the baffle, wondering how I could have been so stupid, how I could have overlooked that fatal flaw. Last year, I must have put it up correctly, because the first phoebe nest fledged successfully.
These weren't just any phoebes; they were the subjects of a number of paintings for my next book. I feel the loss keenly, personally and professionally. They were just getting their feathers, ten days old. I'd watched and painted them since they hatched. Last year, I was traveling while the first brood was in the nest. When I finally got home, and the second brood hatched, the chicks only lived for a day before an infestation of mites killed them. And again, it seems that I won't get to see a brood through to fledging. Unless...
Not one to stand around lamenting, I got a small piece of wood, some long nails, a hammer, and my ladder. First, I removed the used phoebe nest, and put rocks atop the relay box so nobody could nest there again. It's too hard to safeguard, and I'm not even sure that the metal handle on the shower door was at fault. There are dozens of ways a snake could get to that nest. Then, I put up a shelf where the snake would have to grow wings to reach it--about ten feet away, with no downspout beneath it.
Next, I put the old phoebe nest in the oven to kill any mites or other parasites that are doubtless lurking within it. 250 degrees for an hour should do it. The kitchen filled with the scent of baking bird nest. Chet was intrigued, as he is with most of my antics. With a spray bottle, I dampened the mud in the well-cooked nest and stuck it securely to the new, safe shelf.
Photo by Phoebe Thompson. I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time on ladders of late.

As I was putting up the shelf, the male phoebe sang a couple of bars from just down the hill. Imagine, singing on the day your children were eaten. Birds just get on with it. He's moving on, and so am I. Now I just have to wait, and hope that the phoebes decide to take one more chance on raising a family on Indigo Hill.
Rats. Rats. Rats.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Foiling The Narrow Fellow

My, my, the things you see when you’re gardening. Today, I got up early to trim the bonsai trees, which were terribly overgrown and not showing well at all. While trimming happily away, I noticed this elegant creature slithering over the front porch. At first, it was shy, and went under the stoop when it saw me watching it, but it soon came out and began trying to figure out how to climb up to my beloved Carolina wren nest in the bucket under the eave. Once again, I saw a terrific opportunity to learn something about snake intelligence, and to find out once and for all if the bucket nest is as safe as I’ve always thought it would be. So I settled back to watch.
First, the snake (a newly molted black rat) worked its way up the bonsai bench, which stands near the gutter. In this photo, you can just see the gutter off the right edge of the picture. And you can see what bonsai maples are supposed to look like, when they've just been trimmed... At the top of the gutter is the bucket where our beloved Carolina wrens are currently laying a second clutch of eggs (their babies, documented earlier, are popping all over the yard, and feeding themselves now).
The snake wound through the branches of my tallest bonsai, and got an impressive distance up the kitchen window. Always orienting toward the nest, it was obviously looking for the highest point it could attain. At this point, I was thinking it would give up. Then it turned and looked directly at me, and glided over, seemingly wondering if I might be climbable. If I were the anthropomorphic type, I’d say it was asking for an assist. I held out my hand, palm down, and it briefly considered climbing aboard, then thought better of it. The intelligence in its eyes was palpable. After all, it had noticed the nesting material protruding from the bucket ten feet over its head, put two and two together, and set about reaching its goal. Once again, I reflected that wild creatures do nothing without good reason.
It descended and began examining the bottom of the gutter. Uh-oh. Here, I have no pictures, because I was too busy doing damage control... An aha! moment—it began to loop itself into the narrow space between the gutter and the foyer window, and up and up it went. Whoops. That snake was going to get those Carolina wren eggs. Time to intervene. Apologizing to it, I gently worked it out of the crevice (not easy) and carried it to the middle of the lawn and laid it down. Like a good black rat snake, it lay there looking befuddled. With little time to lose, I went into the garage and rummaged around, bringing out two 24” lengths of aluminum stovepipe. I fit them around the gutter and stacked them to make a 48” baffle. But there was still enough room between the baffle and the window for the snake to work its way up. Rats. Nix the stovepipe.
And then I saw it—that 8’ long super heavy duty cardboard mailing tube that I hadn’t been able to throw away. I just thought it looked useful. And boy, was it. As if made for its job, it fit perfectly into the space between gutter and window. Checking and double checking, I saw a space between it and the house, so I put another aluminum pipe in behind it just to make darn sure there was no space a snake could navigate. And then I went, picked up my teacher, and brought it back to the front porch. It glided smoothly under the stoop. Thank you. You deserve to live here, just as much as the wrens do. But you’re not going to eat them, or my phoebes. Another good lesson from the narrow fellow in the grass.
Liam watched warily from behind the foyer window, but later he came out and blew bubbles over the snake as it lay sunning on the lawn. He's cool with snakes, as is Phoebe. In this, as in so many things, kids take their cues from their parents. He sees me calmly handling the animal, and he figures it's all right.
Chet Baker was sleeping inside during the whole event. The tube baffle in place. It's the brown unit between the gray downspout and Chet. How slick is that?

But he came to supervise, and approved this elegant solution to a wriggly problem. I am proud of my cardboard tube baffle, oh yes I am. Having a garage full of crap comes in real handy sometimes.

Monday, June 05, 2006


The pond sizzles, dark
Tiny circles, light falling
I am barely damp.

Lilies in the sky
Or is this made of water?
If only I'd paint.

Dragonfly spins, dying
On a vacant silken strand
Yes, I set her free.

The Beautiful Arboretum

What a pleasure, to be invited to Kirtland, Ohio's gorgeous, 3,500-acre Holden Arboretum to give a talk on warblers! I spent the weekend in the company of friends, birds, and innumerable plants, each and every one of which I lusted after. The plants. I mean I lusted after the plants.
I learned what constitutes a "good" rhododendron from my new friend Marian, who is director of public programs. It's a completely round ball of flowers, served up in a "cup and saucer" arrangement on a saucer of leaves. Oh. I've been looking at "bad" rhododendrons all my life, I guess, and enjoying them anyway. I was struck by the arbitrary nature of the adjustments we make to plants to make them more pleasing to our aesthetic. And yet I'm as immersed in that arbitrary aesthetic as anyone...I see a lobelia with flowers twice as big as mine back home, and I snap it up. It's a "good" lobelia. And don't even get me started on orchids, those wacky children of crazy breeders' fevered imagination.
Speaking of wacky manipulations and strange aesthetics, this woman appeared in the Rhododendron Collection sporting a very "good" head of hair--glimmering lavender, served up in a "dotted i" arrangement, her head nicely balanced atop her neck. I so wanted to ask her to pose, crouched in a pale lavender rhododendron, but held myself back. It rained, of course, as it has for every field trip I've led this spring, but it was a gentle, English rain, and it gave the landscape a special serenity. Mountain laurel about to burst. This cultivar is a lot redder than wild types.
One of my favorite moments of the breeding bird symposium was when we all gathered for lunch under a shelter in the woods, and disturbed a big brown bat who had been sleeping in the rafters. It swooped and flittered in low loops over the assembled birders and plant mavens, and instead of shrieking and ducking for cover, everyone held their ground and simply admired the little creature. That's when you know you're in good company. Note the bat's creamy throat, fairly pale fur, and lovely grin, hallmarks of a big brown.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Horseshoe Crab Festival

My big sweetie digiscoping. His pretty much most favorite activity.

Part of the immense attraction of Delaware Bay in late May is the concentration of shorebirds that come to feast on horseshoe crab eggs along its shores. These birds are tired and famished from flights as far away as Argentina, and they depend on the precise timing of crabspawn to replenish their wasted bodies when they arrive. Needless to say, overharvesting of horseshoe crabs has played havoc with shorebird populations worldwide, but we're beginning to wake up and protect these utterly prehistoric looking crustaceans, if only because they nourish more glamorous life forms. Each huge female lays thousands of eggs, each one no larger than a pencil point. The turnstones, knots, and peeps dig holes in the sand at the high tide line, and gobble down crab caviar as if their lives depended on it--which they do.

A river of semipalmated sandpipersRuddy turnstones are so beautiful they're almost unbelievable. Why so ornate? Only the turnstones know.
When, when, when will we wake up and stop pulling the shorebirds' resources out from under them? When will the State of Delaware step in and at least put some signs up along this narrow strip of beach on Port Mahon Road, asking people not to walk and frighten these exhausted birds? As we watched, there was a steady stream of people blundering around amongst the flocks, forcing them away from their much-needed meals. We were told that at one time there was a guard there, asking people to respect the birds. It's the least we can do for these weary travelers. As you know, this is usually a light and cheery blog, but I feel compelled to quote Paul Baicich's excellent Swarovski Birding E-bulletin on this issue:


The Red Knot predicament continues to attract increasing attention this
season. As you know, this shorebird makes a remarkable 18,000-mile
round-trip annual migration from its Arctic breeding grounds to the tip of
South America every year. Each spring, Red Knots, along with great numbers
of Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Sanderlings stop on their
marathon flight to "refuel" on the beaches of Delaware Bay, specifically to
devour the eggs of the world's largest breeding aggregation of Horseshoe

Recently, however, the over-harvesting of the crabs has contributed to a
disturbing decline in the North American population of the Red Knot. A
drastic increase in the take of Horseshoe Crabs for use as bait in conch
pots and eel traps in the mid-1990s significantly diminished their numbers
in Delaware Bay, an activity that also resulted in a diminution of the
birds' food supply. Without the fat-rich diet of Horseshoe Crab eggs at
this major stopover site, the Red Knot's ability to complete its
long-distance migration to the Arctic is severely compromised. Red Knot
numbers in the Delaware Bay dropped from a high of perhaps 150,000 at the
end of the 1980s to about 13,000 in 2004, which some authorities suggest
could be just barely above the number needed to maintain a viable population.

Within the last year, the USFWS denied an emergency request to list the
North American race of the Red Knot as Endangered, and the final "90-day
decision" determination is now overdue. (Gee, why would we worry about a bird whose population has dropped from 150K to 13 K in 25 years? Mr. Bush, care to answer that? Didn't think so--JZ)

Red knots (the big ones with the robin-red breasts) at Port Mahon Road. There were maybe 50 birds all told. There should have been a carpet of them. Those days may be forever gone.

Last month, at the meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries
Commission (ASMFC), the Horseshoe Crab Management Board voted against
imposing a moratorium on Horseshoe Crab take in Delaware Bay. This was
actually against the wishes of Delaware and New Jersey, which both sought
the moratorium. Instead, the Board decided to adopt something called
Addendum IV to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Horseshoe Crabs,
which would reduce permit each state's take from 150,000 to 100,000 crabs
and limited the harvest to male crabs. The moratorium would have been an
important step toward securing the survival of the species.

Although the Board decision reduced Horseshoe Crab landings for each state,
New Jersey has wisely imposed its own moratorium, meaning that no crabs
will be taken in that state. Delaware has not decided whether it will
implement a full moratorium, but unfortunately Virginia continues to
advocate for the highest possible take of Horseshoe Crabs. At the moment,
Virginia is the largest obstacle to a moratorium.

For more information on the situation, see Defenders of Wildlife.

Off to speak at the Holden Arboretum Saturday. I'm going to poke around, hit an orchid supply house, a Trader Joe's, a Border's...all the things we have none of down here in the foothills. I'm going to take my notebook and scribble some NPR commentaries and maybe a couple of poems. Time alone, it can be a beautiful thing. See you Monday!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Beach Blanket Baker

Chet Baker had never experienced salt water before our trip to the Delaware shore last weekend. Lake Chautauqua was as close as he had come to any large body of water. The first lesson he had to learn was that it wasn't drinkable. He'd lap a few times, then get this sick look on his face, cough, and throw up. After awhile he wouldn't even pick up a stick thrown into the water, for fear he'd get that yucky stuff in his mouth again. Some retriever he'd make.
The concept he really flashed on, though, was waves. He'd never played in waves. And so, though these waves were indescribably foul, thanks to Delaware's thriving factory chicken farms that pump untold ppm of nitrates into the bay, he romped and played in them. He had a peculiar humpty-backed posture as he skibbled up and down the beach, and a wide grin on his face. It's not hard to tell when a Boston is having a really good time; they grin. This was a dog's idea of heaven: REALLY stinky waves and sand to roll in and a bunch of people laughing along with him.
I let him go in twice in the same day, and then bathed him with a spaghetti pot full of hot soapy water back at the cabin. Clean again, he was ready to play with our fabbo bass/guitar/vocal expert Vincenzo Serafino Mele
and flake out on the cool tile floor of the conservation lab with the kids. As much fun as we had, we're sure Baker had more fun.