Monday, July 31, 2006

The Boy Can't Help It

When we pull out the lawn chairs, we always put up an extra one for Chet, who enjoys being part of the dinner table conversation. He listens attentively and hopes that someone hands him part of their dinner, but he is never pushy about it. He looks particularly hopeful here.

Chet Baker has one of the most expressive faces, human or animal, I've ever seen. I never tire of capturing his moods with my camera. He loves to be photographed and I am certain that he mugs for the camera.
I have mentioned in earlier posts that Chet occasionally suffers from flatulence. It is sad, but true. Some of his little issuances are audible. He knows that these are a real no-no.Oops! Did I just....umm....did anyone hear something?

I am terribly sorry. It is the dried chicken breast strips from Trader Joe's that do it every time. I wish I did not love them so much.
You are hurting my feelings now. It is not that funny.

Boston terriers love to be laughed with, but not laughed at. So after the air clears, Baker always gets a kiss to make it all better. Phew! BAKER!
Bill will kick him out of bed for such a transgression. I never do. Every Boston terrier puppy should come with a book of matches. Other than that small, easily overlooked flaw, they are the perfect dog.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Luther Came Back

Luther checks out our front awning. He's all grown up. Note the rusty wingbars--hallmark of a juvenile eastern phoebe.

On the morning of July 24, I was sitting in the Air Chair, dangling and doing nothing but watching birds. A phoebe came to the nearby sycamore. I got out of the chair and called Luther's name. The bird flew out of the sycamore, straight toward me, then thought better of it and turned the flight into a loop, landing in a birch. I had time to see its cinnamon wingbars--sign of a juvenile phoebe. Again it came toward me, landed in the mulberry, and then flew off. It was my birthday, and that bird was Luther.Luther on his first day in the tent, clinging to his old nest.
July 25, afternoon. Bill and Phoebe are out playing in the yard and grilling hamburgers. A phoebe landed on the wire over Phoebe's head. When she called Luther's name, the bird flew down at her, then landed on the wire again. Phoebe came running into the house, breathless. "LUTHER'S BACK!" she squealed. I came out, a dish of mealworms in my hand. The phoebe watched me. Through my binoculars I saw cinnamon wingbars again. It lingered, then flew up into the ash where Luther always sat in between feedings. Then it darted out, bill snapping, and caught an insect. No need to come down for mealworms.Luther has a knowing look, to this day. Here he is on June 27.
When my orphans come back to visit, it fills my heart. When they politely refuse food, I know they're on their own. Wildness overrides hunger. But they do come back to say hello, and that is a beautiful thing.Hard to believe he ever looked like this. June 19.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Little Ad

Is a blog the place to reveal one's deepest thoughts, insecurities, and fears? Is it a romp through daisies? A place for shameless self-promotion? A place to talk about your dog's flatulence? A blog can be all of these things. The tricky part for me is keeping a balance. I'm afraid that if I hit you over the head with this thing I'm trying to get out into the world, you'll say, "Uck. I'm just here for bluebirds" (or copperheads, or Boston terrier pictures, or whatever...) I don't want to violate your trust. I don't want to be crass.

Phew. Having confessed that, I would like to give you a link to an archived radio interview for WOSU Columbus' Open Line talk show. Host Bob Singleton had obviously read the advance galley of Letters from Eden and asked some really fun questions. The interview is here.

When you get to the OpenLine archive page, just scroll down until you find the July 21 show. I think my favorite moment in the interview is when a faithful subscriber to Bird Watcher's Digest calls. She's 89 and very sweet.

I like doing radio interviews, though I get so excited that I come off as kind of intense and nerdy. I talk too fast and just get all balled up in the thrill of it. You can almost hear me panting. There will be a bunch of interviews coming up though, as the book gets closer to its release date of October 4, so maybe I'll have a chance to display some coolness in the repetition.

If you'd like to find out more about the book, I'm taking advance orders on my web site. You can read a bit about it here

and you can actually order it here.

Most computer-savvy people automatically go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble for books. If you order it from me, I will inscribe it to you. Amazon can't do that. So that's worth something, I think. It has been a blast to keep a list of people wanting this book sent to them. 71 and counting. A couple of orders arrive every day. I'll have copies in mid-September and will be sending madly thereafter. Just can't wait. I have this vision of the studio full of cases of books and me and the kids wrapping and stuffing them to send. It's a good picture.

End of ad. Back to the flatulent Boston terrier, he of the dangly soft jowls.Please don't, Chet. Not now.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Scenes from a Party

photo by Shila Wilson
Last night, Shila came over bearing two things. One was a big laeliocattleya that will, at some time to be determined, produce fragrant huge magenta blooms with blue throats. I can wait. Orchid people learn how to wait for gratification. We think it's part of the fun.
The other thing Shila brought was a disc with her photos from my party. I felt like a bride who just got her album. T0 have that evening and the slanting sun and the laughter and fun captured on a piece of plastic was magical. Shila is queen of the beau geste. And such a photographer.

Here we are, the birthday witches: Shila, me, Ali and Margaret.

Here's Ali, laughing. I love this shot. photo by Shila Wilson

The boys: Zane, Bill, and Matt.
Margaret and Zane. Shila is there for the moment, as ever.

Bill, cracking up. He's wearing a tie that my father gave him, when Dad realized he wasn't going to need a whole lot of ties going forward. Talk about vintage; this thing is probably from the 1940's. You have to love somebody to wear a tie like that on a hot July afternoon. Shila Wilson, again
The evening sun was hot; we were all sweating, but it felt lovely. Summer is supposed to be hot.

I can really understand how people become barflies. You find a place that's just exactly right, and your friends go there, too, and it's such an escape from everyday life (which isn't saying that everyday life isn't wonderful; it's just full of things that you have to do, some of them dull). And before you know it, it's like Cheers, and you're there at the same corner of the bar every afternoon, having your martini or your beer...which can never happen to me, too much to do, too many other fun things vying for attention, too darned expensive and far from home...but I do understand how people turn into barflies, regulars.

The Blennerhassett Hotel is an island of sophistication and gentility, quality and attention to detail--live music, great food, perfect atmosphere. I know we can't do this every week; I know it's more a once-a-year thing, but thank you, B, for this little dose of true romance.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Baker Loves Jen

Jen Sauter, peerless event organizer and heartbeat of the Ohio Ornithological Society, meeting Luther. This picture was taken right before Luther left on July 9. Not many people get to have a phoebe eat out of their hands. Jen appreciates the moment fully.
Since we've had Chet Baker in our family, having guests has taken on a different meaning. Whether our houseguests are dog lovers or not matters not to Chet Baker. His personal mission is to MAKE them love him. Most of the time it works really well. Even when he's not getting quite the attention he had in mind, he keeps trying. When Nancy Tanner visited, Chet kept landing on her well-groomed lap. She'd laugh and say, "Go sit on Janet's lap! She LOVES dogs!" Chet chose never to receive that message.

Other visitors, like my friend Mary Alice, have actually plotted to smuggle him out of Indigo Hill. This is something that Chet would probably go along with, but then he'd start missing us and get all mopey. So be warned, MA. It's not going to work in the long run. Mopey Bostons are much worse than many other breeds: more eye to roll, and lots more google in the eye.

When our dear friend Jen Sauter came to visit, Chet was in doggie heaven. Jen has an Australian shepherd and loves dogs. She knew all the right games and caresses, and she loved having Baker as her lapwarmer.Jen made Baker fly with one of his favorite toys, a soft nylon lead rope.
Baker returned the favor, making sure her neck and face were clean to his exacting standards.I have a Brazil nut scented body butter that drives Baker wild. Don't know what Jen's wearing.
We have friends who I'm pretty certain come to see us more regularly now that Baker's part of the picture. He does know how to make people feel welcome. Come back soon, Jen!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Birthday Weather

Today is Amelia Earhart's birthday. It is also mine. However I am here to celebrate and for that I'm thankful. The fun started last evening when Bill and I took Phoebe and Liam on the bike trail that winds along the Muskingum and Ohio rivers that back Marietta. The day was pellucid, clear, cool, just like today. We reveled in the breeze on our faces as we tooled along. We ended up at the levee, where there is an ice cream stand, and there is always flood debris to be turned into boats and pitched into the river. What a lovely town this is. If only the river would stay in its banks it would be perfect.
There is a mural of sorts at the levee. Dancing hot dogs, doing the mashed potato, or something. It seemed to need a live re-enactment. Phoebe took a picture of Bill and me dancing like weiners, but I'm not going to show you that one. I look like I've escaped from somewhere, the kind of place where they shave your head and dress you in white.
First birthday present: I saw a dog wearing shoes. The dog seemed remarkably cheerful, despite the tappity tappity tappity noise it made whenever it moved. But I could see something in its eyes, something that told me it would one day turn on its owners and kill them in their sleep. I winked back at it and wished it good luck with its plot.
Today will be amazing. It already started auspiciously. I walked out the meadow to check on the formerly starving bluebirds, now 9 days old. Big present: The three remaining nestlings are looking skinny, but healthy. I changed the nest, which still had some blowflies and mites. I fed two of the young, who were just a little hungry. All the mealworms I'd put out yesterday were gone; they were also in the nest where they'd been dropped. And scolding and chittering from a nearby pine were their mother AND their father. I don't know where he was, or what he was doing, but he's back. Oh, glory hallelujah. I left them with clean kids, clean house, and food for the rest of the day. Their future looks bright.
Bill and I sat out this morning, watching birds. The first one to appear in the willow was a juvenile male cerulean warbler. Ahhhhh. They have a turquoise green that is theirs alone. Next was an Empidonax flycatcher who would definitely leave comments as "Anonymous" if he read blogs. Next was a yellow-breasted chat, feeding a baby so young it had virtually no yellow on its throat at all. Whee! Confirmed! And next was an exquisite summer tanager, a bird of the year, and I finally had my camera awake and ready to record the moment. Happy birthday to me!
As if that weren't enough, BOTB has planned a terrific evening. The cocktail dress, dress shirt and tie, and shoes of Spanish leather will be deployed. Little does he know that all I want is right here.Photo by Lisa White.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Chet kept me company as I walked out to check the bluebird boxes, and drove over to Stanleyville Road to look for a possible foster box. How I love taking him along! The sunset was breathtaking.

It appears, as of Saturday evening, that three of the four active bluebird nests remaining in boxes on our property are abandoned. Two sit, with three cold eggs each, never even incubated. The eggs are beautiful, shiny and blue. A third has week-old chicks in it, four of them. The chicks were standing up, shrilling with hunger, when I opened the box Saturday evening. You never want to see this in week-old chicks. At that age, bluebirds know they're bluebirds, and they know you are not-bluebird. The proper response to having their box opened is to hunker down, eyes screwed shut. Unless they are starving.

In the nest cup was a giant cicada, well mashed, far too large to be swallowed. I sniffed it--still fresh. Good. And a fresh, still-moist and writhing earthworm. You never want to see either of those in a bluebird nest. Earthworms may be beloved by robins, but bluebirds disdain them unless they have no other alternative. Earthworms and too-large cicadas are the foods of desperation, of starvation.

I walked back to the house, got my tweezers, mealworms, and a jar lid to tape to the box roof. I trudged back out to the end of the meadow and fed each shrilling chick eight or more mealworms. They were growing cool to the touch, and had trouble swallowing. Not good. Their skin was wrinkled and yellowish--a sign of dehydration. Three voided small fecal sacs, one with blackberries in it. Again, a sign of insufficient food. Fruit has little protein for growing nestlings; it shouldn't even be part of the diet before the babies are about ten days old. They had been fed today, but when? There were no fecal sacs in the nest. So they'd been tended fairly recently. I took heart at the live earthworm. Someone was still trying to keep them alive.

I left the rest of the mealworms in a jar lid taped to the top of the box for the parents to find, if parents there still be. In all the time I spent there, not a single bluebird appeared, and I heard not the slightest twitter, even as I sat on the ground with the brood in my lap, stuffing the peeping chicks with food. This should normally evoke a storm of protest from the parents, chittering and swooping. Nothing.

I looked through my notebook. I had only one box, on Stanleyville Road, that might just have same-age chicks inside. If these were still starving in the morning, my only choice would be to take them there. First, to drive over tonight and see if the Stanleyville nest is viable, and if the chicks are indeed the same age. There would be three. I could add these four, for a large but not impossible brood of seven. I crossed my fingers and said a prayer. I don't want to raise these bluebirds. I don't do rehab for fun. I do it because the alternative--turning my head-- is something I can't do.

I thought about the abandoned nests as I trudged back and forth up the quarter-mile-long meadow. The two clutches of eggs left cold, and this brood of four young left unfed, bespoke dead bluebirds to me. Perhaps there's a sharp-shinned hawk in the area, picking them off. Bluebirds and other wild things don't just up and abandon their families for no good reason. That's the sad, and sole, province of the angel-beast.

I drove over to Stanleyville Road as night fell. The nest that should have had week-old young in it stood empty. Its beautiful 24" x 7" stovepipe baffle had been breached. The nest was undisturbed--not pulled out of the hole as it would have been had a mammalian predator climbed up. Only a snake or another bird removes the young cleanly, surgically. Since there was no foreign nesting material added, as there would be had a house sparrow or wren done the job, I decided it must have been a giant black rat snake. Damn the luck. I climbed back in the car and headed home, despondent. I do not want to be a bluebird mother for the rest of the summer. Neither do I want the four to die.

I awoke before dawn Sunday and lay there, waiting until it was light enough to pull on my rubber boots, arm myself with mealworms and tweezers, and walk back out to the troubled nest. There was a tiny peep from the box as I approached, and a female bluebird burst out of the hole. The babies were warm; no fecal sacs littered the nest. Some of the mealworms I'd left on the roof the night before were still in the bowl, but I think some had been taken, too. I replenished them and closed the box, flooded with relief that, once again, the bird fairy had tapped me on the shoulder, and sent me out to the box in time to save this brood.

I went out again Sunday afternoon to check on the nestlings. Unsurprisingly, one had died, but the other three looked much better. The nest was clean, but for another cicada. I fed them--they weren't all that hungry--cleaned the nest of a good load of parasitic blowfly larvae, and left more mealworms on the roof. I'm beginning to suspect that the male bluebird has been killed, or has left the territory because he was having trouble finding enough food for himself and his brood. I'm telling you all this because I think you'll find it interesting. I do. I never stop gathering information, synthesizing it, trying to build a picture of what might be going on with these birds. After 25 years of monitoring bluebird boxes, I have learned enough to know when something is amiss. The signs can be as obvious as shrilling nestlings, or as subtle as an earthworm in the nest cup.Birds are already massing for migration: robins, barn swallows, red-winged blackbirds, starlings. They gather in flocks on the wires. The signs of autumn come too early to those who watch birds.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Zickefoose Wines!

I have been quietly having fun on the side for several months now. I've been asked to draw a wine label. Wine labels are right up there with postage stamps in the pantheon of things I have always wanted to illustrate. Let's face it: they're sexy. They have to be nice to sell the wine. (Speaking for the vast majority of we noncogniscienti who select our wines by the label).

Imagine, though, being asked to draw something for the label of Zickefoose Wine. Oh, he had me at the first e-mail. Yes, out in California there are some Zickefooses who make wine. And somehow the Zick blood running through James Taylor's veins led him to my web site, and led him to ask me to draw a goat for the label of his small-batch, superpremium Cabernet Sauvignon. His daughter is the winemaker, and she's really good. Jim describes his winemaking as a hobby gone wild. Having quite a few of those myself, I could sympathize. Poor Jim. He asked me if I would work for wine. Oh, yeah, I'll work for wine. And we were off.

Why a goat, you might wonder? Well, Zickefoose is derived from the German Ziegenfuss, which means goat's foot. Not literally, you understand; it was probably intended way back when to describe an agile or sure-footed way of walking. I take a certain amount of pride in being sure-footed. I've had maybe three bad falls in my life. One was on ice, one was on roller skates, and the other was when I was eight months pregnant and quite front-loaded. (Watch me get up from the computer chair and trip over Chet now).

First, I went to my sketchbooks and found some goats drawn from life. Strange heads, strange eyes, but very fun to draw.

First I did a sort of goofy goat, with my own label design. It wasn't quite what Jim had in mind.

I went through a series of drafts, but somehow I wasn't hitting it. OK, I'll draw more. Jim sent us all fabulous Zickefoose Wine hats. I redoubled my efforts. I was still having fun. I like drawing goats, and I sympathized with Jim and his family's desire to have JUST THE RIGHT GOAT on their label. I drew goats in my spare time, when I was tired of drawing birds or nursing baby phoebes. Goats, goats, goats.
Finally, I drew a goat that everyone in California liked. There were tweaks and fine-tuning, but this was clearly The Goat. She was friendly, nonthreatening, but regal, too. We fiddled with her eyes a little. Goat eyes are a little too weird, being naturally placed high and outside, to be really appealing, I think. So I brought them down a little. This is the final scratchboard drawing.

And here she is on the label.If you double-click on this image, you'll get a bigger image so you can read Jim's text. I told Jim that if he's as picky about his winemaking as he is about his label art, this is going to be a really nice wine.
Jim has promised a case of the precious Cabernet. I am VERY excited. I can't wait to uncork my first bottle of Zickefoose Wine. I promise to document the event here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Daddy's Home

I have bought an orchid at Smith and Hawken, just because I wanted it.

I went to pick Bill up at the airport Tuesday evening. I felt all flustered and excited. I had my best dress on and had taken myself to Origins in a chi chi town center, and let them paint my face with some fabulously expensive cosmetics. As you might guess, this is not something the Copperhead Hunter has ever done. It was cool, though, to surrender myself up to someone young enough to be my daughter and have her decide what looked good on me. Then, feeling guilty, I bought a bag of cosmetics about the size of your average school sack lunch. Origins is smart. They don't put prices on anything. So instead of saying, "How can a little pat of eyeshadow cost $25???" you say, "Gee, you made me look terrific! I'll take that and that and that!" and then they oh so smoothly ring it up and you're wincing inwardly, cooly writing a check for your entire last day's slaving at the drawing table. But you know what? It felt great. Now I'm exfoliating and tonicking my face just like I would imagine Jennifer Aniston does. I finally get it. All those little pots of creams and scrubs and colors and ground up whatevers actually do make you look better ouside, and feel better inside. Oh.

Smith and Hawken has orchids. There's a store right across from Origins. I love those stores. I go in and just bask in all the cool furniture and cachepots and plants and garden ornaments. I have never bought an orchid at S&H, because they're overpriced. There was a shipment, just in from Hawaii, and they had those ridiculous S&H prices on them, and one of them was Encyclia alata. It was tightly in bud and I didn't know what it would look like but I had a hunch it would be wonderful and fragrant to boot. Now it's open and it is fabulous, and it emanates a scent like honey when the eastern sun hits it in the morning. So I have had my face done at Origins, and bought a full-price orchid at Smith and Hawken, just because I wanted it. See the theme here?

When Bill got off the airplane, he said it looked like a scene from Beauty and the Beast. Poor thing had been in transit for 30 hours. Brutal. But he looked real good to me. Since I'd blown my wad on makeup and orchid, we went to Steak and Shake for dinner. He's ordering a double steakburger platter here, and mighty happy about it. I'm just watching him, hardly able to believe he's finally home.
My three boys are very happy to be together on the couch, where there is plenty of leg room.

Smell their heads, and do the best you can.

Happy parents, reunited, laughing our heads off because the cameraman (Liam) is so darn cute, with the camera strap dangling in front of the lens, holding it crooked, kind of knock-kneed. Looks like our overloaded bookshelves are going to topple down over us. Baker chewing away on a Nylabone, delighted to be part of the scene. Crunch, crunch, crunchity crunch.
Since there are so many kisses flying around the house, Baker got up on top of my flat file this afternoon and requested a few for himself. Note cute lips.Kiss me, you fool. You know you want to.

I'm in Love

from afar, with little Will Salter, my grand-nephew. Here is a picture of Will with my mom, Ida, my beautiful, kind and lovely niece, Karen, and my sister Barbara. Since I was the youngest, Barbara was almost as much my mom as Mom was. I remember being crushed flat when she went to college. But oh! how I loved visiting her in her exotic, slightly wild college digs. I found her friends to be the most interesting people I'd ever met. They still are. We must make our way to Rhode Island before Will develops Michelin rolls. How adorable is he? And Karen is a child development specialist by profession. And his daddy Jason is the sweetest doctor. And the only person on earth who loves babies more than Karen is his wildly delighted grandmom Barbara. Well, it's a dead heat between all of them. This is one lucky little boykin.

I have lots of baby bird pictures on my blog. This is only because baby humans are scarce in the greater metropolitan Whipple area. I for one am fresh out of them. The situation is no better in Dalzell, or Fifteen. Darn! So I shoots what I gots. Barbara sent these pictures. I suspect Jason is behind the camera, and deserves credit for their fabulosity.My sweet mom: still a natural brunette at 86. Will is checking her out with every immature neuron he's got. It's pretty obvious they're all firing. This baby probably got a perfect 10 on his APGAR test. Ida Zickefoose walks three miles each and every day. They call her Speedy at her independent living community. I hope to grow up to be an old lady just like her. Perfection, thy name is Will Salter.

Bill is home. I am complete, woozy with love and relief. Let the pre-prepared blog posts roll!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Saving the Yellowthroat

It's been raining a lot, and until today has been exceptionally dreary. Probably just fine, because I have a ton of drawings to do for the New York breeding bird atlas, and for another book project. If the sun shines, I'm out in the gardens, can't help myself. Confined to the studio like a good drone, I do glance up at my birches every few minutes. This lovely scarlet tanager stopped by to brighten my day. He's one we know well for his lighter-than-usual orangeish plumage and his persistant song. Such a blessing!

Got my bird mojo workin', yeah. I went outside at dusk while talking on the phone to a slightly shaky Phoebe, calling from New Jersey, where she'll be spending a week at the beach with her grandma. Although it was pouring, I walked around the front yard, enjoying the feel of rain on my face. I heard a plup-plup-plup sound and assumed it was water dripping into the muck bucket that serves as my rain barrel. But the bird-protecting fairy tapped me on the shoulder, and I looked, just to make sure. There was a newly fledged juvenile common yellowthroat, no doubt the offspring of our beloved orchard pair, treading water in the bucket! Aggh! I scooped it out and saw that it was at the very edge of exhaustion. Oh, poor little thing! I set it in a flowerpot and stepped back to evaluate it. When it didn't immediately try to fly, I decided to warm it up and give it something to eat.
I fetched a nice fat newly-molted mealworm and my forceps. Got that obstinate little bill open and placed the larva inside. The yellowthroat held it, considered for a few seconds, then greedily gulped it down. I held it awhile longer in my warm hand, and watched the life seep back into its eyes. Then the moment came, and I carried it to our thickest arbor vitae and opened my hand. It stood on my palm, ruffled its feathers, and hopped gladly into the shrub, scolding all the while. I liked hearing it cuss me out. Yellowthroats are volatile little birds. And it was lovely to know it would go to roost with a full crop.
There is now a little wooden raft in the muck bucket. I was heading for the garage to get the raft when I found the copperhead in an earlier post. Ah, hello!
I'm surfacing from a ten-day funk, brought on by Bill's extended absence in Africa. I don't begrudge him the trip one bit; I'm delighted he gets to commune with elephants, but man, the timing is rough. He's been gone 20 of the last 40 days, and has been so swamped with work when he is here that we're like a couple of ships passing. No need to wonder how single moms cope--I know too well. Being on duty around the clock day after day is hard on the spirit. I'm guilty of working too much, and totally neglecting my own needs. Those of you who wonder aloud how I manage to do so many things take warning: I'm a messed-up cookie.
But I am so looking forward to welcoming Bill home. He's my driving wheel. I have lived life without him too much lately, and I know to my bones that I need him every minute of every day. Does this describe a needy, weak woman? No. I am the Copperhead Hunter. I could forge my way alone in the world, but I don't want to. I know exactly what, and who, I need. It's a blessing to know what you need, and who you love most of all. Such are the rewards of getting older.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Friends With History, and a Future

When you live as far off the beaten paths--and I mean the coastal highways so many people frequent--as we do, it's a true honor to have friends come especially to visit. Let's face it: there's not much in southeast Ohio people would come halfway across the country to see. That's mostly because most people don't think about southeast Ohio at all, unless something here blows up, or some chemical plant gets awarded Dirtiest in the Nation. We know better. My dear friend Lisa Hsia, who I've known since freshman year in college, has been keeping up with us via this blog. Her son Kai, 7, has an intense interest in natural history, and he devours each blog entry, especially if it involves nests, snakes or turtles. Liam, my train fanatic, should be half so electrified by the constant barrage of natural history to which he's subjected.Photo by Lisa Hsia

It was hilarious to see Liam watch Kai, who was utterly enthralled by all he was experiencing, and wonder what the big deal was. Ho-hum, Hmmmm. Maybe this nature stuff has some merit to it after all... Photo by Lisa Hsia
Here, Kai's holding my new captive-bred hatchling box turtle, that we're raising for release on the preserve. This is about as thrilled as he gets. I have Kai in mind a lot of the time when I'm blogging!
I met Lisa in Nat. Sci 5, taught by George Wald, in the first semester of our freshman year. She and I both had hair past our tailbones, mine blonde, Lisa's raven black. We introduced ourselves, started talking, and walked back from class with our hair mingled together in one enormous braid between us, laughing our heads off. It was the start of a beautiful friendship that lasts to today.
Kai and Lisa spent a weekend with us, and it was just wonderful. We did the rounds of the bluebird trail, peeking into boxes and talking about baby birds. We visited the iron-caged box turtle nest, which I'll have to start checking for babies in the first week of August. The kids played around the pond and in the gardens. They fooled around with the hose and played with trains and watched a few videos and had a slumber party. There is something perfectly magical about watching your kids play with your friends' kids.Photo by Lisa Hsia
You think back: could you ever have imagined this scene when you were college freshmen? Nope. Life can go terribly wrong in some arenas; in others, it can turn out to be better and more beautiful than we can anticipate. Sharing those passages with friends, especially those with history, gives us new perspective, peel us off the ceiling, and give us the strength to keep going. Seeing our children play together made Lisa and me appreciate what we have even more, and realize what our greatest achievements truly are.Photo by Lisa Hsia
While the great achievements played, Lisa and I yakked and yakked. Friends with whom you have a history--who know you from when you were just a bud of a person--who have seen you through ups and downs--are rarer and more precious than opals. We can go months without talking, then pick up as if we'd just hung up from a previous conversation. We had so much ground to cover over the weekend. I'm deeply grateful to Lisa for making the trip and for being such a good, strong, brilliant, supportive and dear friend. Given time and enough fresh sugar snap peas from the garden, I'm sure we could figure out how to save the world.
Photo by Lisa Hsia.
Beautiful, beautiful boy, keeping the rain off with a dock leaf. He is even sweeter than he looks. Hodge, this one's for you!! Thank you, Lisa. XO JZ

Just Hit

Roadside turtle waits
I run as fast as I can
Too late for this one.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Copperhead Hunter

The country people all say that copperheads go in pairs. Catch one, and its mate will come looking for you. I have lived here long enough never to scoff at what the people say. Most often, they're right on the money. Today, I stepped out to get something out of the garage, and there, not a yard from the front stoop, lay the most gorgeous 30" copperhead I've seen. It shone against the wet earth like a dropped scarf. It was so beautiful there under the bonsai bench that I considered going for my camera, but I couldn't take the risk that it would disappear back under the front stoop in the interim. So I sprinted for the garage, grabbed the snake tongs and a joint compound bucket, and without a second's hesitation had that snake in the bucket. I doubt the whole exercise took 30 seconds. Damn, I love my snake tongs.

What I love more is not being afraid to just deal with venomous snakes. When I was picking them up with the tail, so much depended on whether the snake was going to take offense. And then there was getting hold of the tail. What that involved was pinning the snake behind the head and waiting for the tail to writhe past my tentatively extended hand. I finally settled on a snow shovel as the tool of choice--it acted as a nice shield in case things went south. But it was far from perfect. The sharp blade ran the risk of injuring the snake's neck, so I had to press firmly but not too firmly, or I'd negate the whole point of transporting the animal. Pressing firmly but not too firmly is hard to do when you're about to soil yourself. You know that if you don't press firmly enough you could get a couple of fangs in your forearm, and then where would you be? Alone with a useless arm, that's where. And 20 miles from the nearest help.Once I had the animal by the tail and suspended in the air, the real fun began. I had to maneuver this wildly wriggling animal into the comparatively small confines of a joint compound bucket. Miss, and it could use the bucket's rim to push itself up and have a go at me.

This is the same copperhead, right after capture. It's really mad--you can tell by the flattened body. Terrific color--a real shiner. And then there were the super-athletic ones that managed to rear back up along their own length to try to bite me. Arrrgh. Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) is reputed to put his venomous snakes in the fridge for awhile to chill them out (literally) before filming those super-courageous capture segments. I don't have that option. I've got to get down and deal with the things as they are.

Catching copperheads one of those things you do for love of your kids. Not many of us are put in a position anymore, living such sheltered lives in our luxurious boxes, both stationary and rolling, where we have to do things like this. That's the thrill and spice of living in the sticks. If you do it right--if you engage nature instead of hiding from it--it gives you back your whole life.

Thirty inches if it's a centimeter. Living free again, a few miles from here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Tale of Two Bluebirds

It's been a weird year for bluebirds. On one hand, production is up. On the other, I've had four boxes in which some or all of the babies have died mysteriously, some with heads hanging out of the boxes. I'm zeroing in on the cause. All have been in boxes that were along fencelines, well-kept. Which usually means herbicides have been sprayed along them at one time or another. This is a thorny problem. The best bluebird habitat is on the well-kept farms and fields. I'm stuck with mounting boxes along fencelines, because the cattle will knock them down if they're in the pasture, or I'll interfere with haying. And bluebirds hunt along fencelines, no matter where the boxes are mounted. What seems to be the best course is working more closely with the farmers to ensure that no spraying happens while birds are nesting, and I'm doing that now. The township, which also sprays herbicides along the roadsides where my boxes stand, is another issue, one that will be harder to address. Wouldn't want any chicory or butterflyweed blooming around those guardrails!
Reading that I've done indicates that seemingly inocuous herbicides like the widely touted "safe" Roundup, when ingested, can interfere with thermoregulation in baby bluebirds. The young ones die of exposure or heat exhaustion, which helps explain the heads hanging out of the box hole, perhaps.
One such box, which has since been relocated, lost its first brood this way. When I checked the second brood, the box had three long-dead nestlings and two just barely clinging to life atop their bodies. I could tell as I walked up to the box that there was trouble inside. Flies buzzed around the hole. Sure enough, I had a nauseating mess to clean up. And it was pouring rain, and I didn't have a blade of dry grass with me to make a new nest once I'd cleaned the noisome goo out from under the two surviving young. I swabbed them off with Kleenex as best I could, cleaning crud from their feathers, bills and eyes. One couldn't hold its eyes open; the other looked slightly better. In desperation, I wiped out the box, and made a thick platform of clean tissues for a makeshift nest. I said sadly to the kids as I got back in the car, "They'll die. I know they're dying. But I need to give them one last chance. Maybe the parents can feed them out of this, now that the dead babies are out of there and the nest is clean." I considered bringing them home, and discarded the idea just as quickly. I was pretty sure the parents were still in attendance. At that time, I was struggling to keep Avis alive, and the last thing my heart needed was two more orphans, and sick ones at that.
Exactly a week later, I pulled up with Phoebe and Liam to the box. Heavy-hearted, I trudged up to it, took it down, holding my breath all the while, and looked inside. Here's what I found:
Seventeen days old, a little behind, but very much alive and healthy. Hallelujah!

Tonight, I am very lonely. Phoebe's at the beach with her grandmother and cousin; Bill's somewhere on the Dark Continent. It's just me, Liam, Chet and Charlie. I work and work; I've got piles of drawings to do before fall. Do I feel like drawing? Nope. I feel like watching birds in Africa with Bill. The house is a mess again; there's that to do, too. Lawn's getting long; it just keeps raining. Drawing is the only thing that keeps me from falling into a real funk. That, and the continuous chatter and rain of wonderful drawings from Liam. He's doing his level, six-year-old best to keep Mom smiling. He took off his sneakers, smelled his foot, and gave this synopsis:
"My socks smell like seashells mixed with rotten bananas and rotten pears." Oh. Thanks for sharing, honey.
Here's a poem that hit me like a ton of bricks this morning. It was in the Writer's Almanac:

Poem: "Sunday Morning, Late August" by Deborah Cummins from Beyond the Reach. © BkMk Press. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday Morning, Late August

She's never sat at a steamy café near Pont Neuf
and fed a lover a perfect tarte tatin,
never slept naked in a rented room
on Place de la Madeleine, shutters open to the rain.
Already, a thousand times before this morning,
she's wished to be someplace else if only
a little further down the beach.

In this small town on the Cape, even clouds
drag away their important business.
Flimsy chairs face seaward, as if in wait
for something glorious, drastic.
An ocean away from Boulevard St. Germain,
the water shimmers like unspooled foil.
Some other life lies elsewhere:

hers, unclaimed.
But why, now, as her husband crosses the yard
and with customary gestures plucks—
oh, how banal—a common daisy,
does her blood, running its old familiar route,
deliver such bounty to her heart?

There's so much encoded in this poem. To me, it speaks to a wife's unspoken but burning need for acknowledgement, however simple. You can forget Paris; even Africa, though I'd love to be there right now. What I need tonight is a daisy.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Happy Things

Well, Phoebe's birthday party was a roaring success, despite overcast and a warm drizzle that intensified into a light rain by its end. We didn't mind; we were wet anyway at the water park. I was hampered only momentarily by having forgotten the bottom half of my Tankini. I wore my clamdiggers and went in anyway. Phoebe and her friends had a wonderful time. The angelfood cake had mocha icing. She liked her presents. Biking was fun and there was almost nobody at the water park, so the girls went down the big slide 50 times without waiting in line.
Things that make me happy:
I heard my big love's very own voice coming out of the telephone this noon. He called from a South African pay phone to wish Phoebe a happy birthday. He seemed a little surprised that I had been agonizing over his whereabouts and welfare for oh, 30 hours. Of course, he was fine, didn't I know that? Hmmmmph. But his voice was a tonic, a balm, the only thing that could fix me. After 14 years of marriage, should I miss him this much? Oh, yeah. That's how it's supposed to be. Hurry home, Big Stuff!!!
This miniature African violet loves hanging above my kitchen sink, basking in even north light and the steady steam from the dishwater. I feed it orchid food, and water it with rainwater, and it pays me back in a ridiculous profusion of blossoms. Every year or so I trim the lower leaves off it and repot it in fresh soil. That's it.
Another blue blossom, this one much harder-won, has issued from a small Vanda alliance orchid that I bought two years ago in Columbus. Blue orchids are rare, and you have to go to the Vanda alliance to find them. This plant started putting out tier upon tier of leaves when I repotted it. Vandas like baskets; they like sun, and a lot of air circulating around their roots. Finally, finally, it sent up a spike with these fabulous blue stars on it. No wonder they call it "Blue Star." Another victory for the orchid hobbyist. Ahhh.
Plants that give: The sugar snap peas are almost done.At least half of them turned out to be snow peas, but that's OK with me. I love 'em all. We've had enough rain to make them put forth another flush of pods. Yum, yum. Only problem: Cardinals and house finches love them, too, neatly excising the peas from the pods. Darn 'em. But I don't blame them. You have to be fast to get an unbitten pea around here.

Remember the snake baffle, made from a cardboard mailing tube, that protects my Carolina wren nest under the eaves? Well, here is evidence that it works. Three baby Carolina wrens fledged yesterday from the copper bucket nest, thanks to that innovation. Happy day! Here's one perched in an Asiatic lily. Note yellow clown lips. Good perch choice, don't you think?
When I go to release snakes like the copperhead I caught last week, I get to visit the Buttercream Cows owned by our friends the Fleemans. I used to visit these cattle before we even met the Fleemans. Now they're good friends, and they have the loveliest cattle around. They're Limosins, a French breed, but they're Cadillacs to me. Signing off...

Happy Birthday, Phoebe!

An auspicious day: Phoebe's tenth birthday. Today, I will shepherd five kids on bikes along Marietta's fab new bike trail, ending up at the Aquatic Center, where I will screw up my courage to go down the big slide while not allowing any of them to drown. I will bake an angelfood cake and wrap presents all morning, then load up the bikes, presents, plates, beverages and said angelfood cake and head for town. Lord, help me do this well. Just one of the times when I miss Bill's help and presence.
The best present of all arrived via e-mail. Bill made it to South Africa safely. We suffered mightily all day yesterday; he was supposed to get in at dawn Monday, and as of midnight we still had heard nothing. I had no itinerary, no contact numbers, no nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Along about dinnertime I started rattling cages, called my good friend Clay Taylor, (Swarovski's birding field rep), who rattled the right ones, and finally received word from Swarovski Optik in Austria that the trip participants had arrived safely and were busily digiscoping. Whewwwww. I got that message at dawn this morning. Not knowing whether your love is safe and sound is nooo fun. Knowing that he is, life can go on. I felt like I'd been hooked back up to a heart-lung machine. Latest word: Bill's already gotten many lifers and seems very happy. Yessss!

To add to my misery Monday, Luther disappeared Sunday afternoon. After hanging around the yard like a dirty shirt, loudly suggesting that we serve mealworms every few hours, he vanished. The last time I saw him was about 4 pm Sunday. He was sitting in the tallest twigs of a dead tree a good ways out our driveway, farther than he had ever ranged. Then he was gone.
I knew the time would come when Luther would leave, but I have to say his timing stank. Bill was gone, whereabouts and welfare unknown. Jets and vast expanses of ocean were involved. I knew he had an hour layover around midnight in Senegal, and my mind was going in circles, driving me absolutely nuts with what-if scenarios.
I was thinking along the same lines with Luther. There are sharp-shinned hawks nesting nearby. What if he landed on some farmer's shoulder? What if...
I got up before sunrise this morning, a bundle of miserable nerves, and raced to the computer. There was an email saying that Bill was safely in Africa, racking up lifers and very happy. Oh, how a couple of lines can turn a day around. So much better than, "We regret to inform you that we have no information on your missing husband." I went to the sink to prepare breakfast for Charlie and Chet. And there, on the hummingbird feeder in front of the window, was Luther. Gone and catching his own grub for a day and a half, and back again, big as life. He even took a bath in the Bird Spa this morning.The Bird Spa is one of my favorite products. It attracted a yellow-throated warbler yesterday, one of a very long list of amazing birds that its splashing water has brought in. It's available through Wild Birds Unlimited stores.

When Phoebe woke up, I told her the good news about Daddy, for she had been suffering right along with me. She beamed and hugged me, and Liam, Phoebe, Chet and I danced around the room.Then I put some mealworms in her hand and told her to go out on the porch. Luther landed on her hand and gobbled down three worms. He dropped the fourth, whirled down and caught it before it hit the porch. Wowwww. Now that's some fancy flyin.' Think he's ready for the wild? Her smile said it all. Happy birthday, sweetest Phoebe. You share a birthday with E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, writer of innumerable wry and understated but hilarious essays, and surely one of our most beloved scribes. How's this for a quote that resonates?

E. B. White wrote, "All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world."

Chet, giving Phoebe a birthday buttin'.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Doe at Dawn

Driving down a country road June 4, I saw a car pulled over. The driver, a man, was standing by the car, watching a woman, probably his wife, as she tried to catch a fawn. The fawn was bounding ahead of her, clearly in no need of her help. They both looked at me pleadingly, hoping I would stop to help round the little thing up. I stepped on the gas.

People pick up fawns, thinking their mothers have left them behind, thinking they know best.

How could they think a mother forgets her child?

She knows where he is. A story from home, too sad for prose:

Oh, poor doe.
I have been watching for you. You stand, ears forward,
Looking down at your child
Who I stretched out in the meadow only yesterday.
My daughter, her hair fox-red like his
Found him under the willow tree
His legs soft and pliant, body warm
His eye wet, not yet filmed
A cloud of flies working over
where the dogs had rent him open.
The wound was not new.
You had done your best,
Licking away the blood
Offering your milk
Walking slowly as he hobbled.
You drove the dogs away |
Punching them with sharp hooves.

You have stood over him these three days since
In the end, you could not stop the flies.
Young things shouldn’t die
But children often find them
Looking, as they do
for everything.

It is dawn. Your udder bursts with milk.
You must leave him to the flies.
You will remember him
And I will not forget you
For what comfort that may bring.
I send my grief out to you as you turn and bound away
Crashing branches, windy cries
Ringing down the hollow.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Hold the Venom, Thanks

Hi. Mind if I live in your garage? Well, in fact, yes, I do mind. Nothing personal, but today is Moving Day for you.

On his blog, Bill of the Birds has told a wonderful story of his late-night encounter with a copperhead.

I couldn't do it better. He's got that jittery snake thing down real good.

The snake tongs I used to catch it were the best $50 I've ever spent. Three feet long, lightweight aluminum, with a gentle but firm gripper on the business end and a pistol-grip handle on my end, they sit by the garage door, just a couple of feet from where I found Bill's copperhead the morning after their late night pas de deux. Wearing only underpants and a digital camera, I strode out to the garage for my date with destiny. I felt that snake's presence, and there it was, coiled in a corner, the first place I looked. It was a cinch to grasp the snake around its fat middle and gently lower it into a joint compound bucket for transport to an uninhabited bit of woods about two miles away. Here it is, considering its new location. Such a lovely little thing.

It feels odd for naturalists to be attempting a very local extirpation of a rare species. But we're forced to do it, by the fact that they're too dangerous to have in our dwellings, and transporting the snakes to nearby good habitat seems the only thing to do. We find most of them right by that darn garage door, where we come and go at all hours. I imagine I've transported as many as 14 copperheads in as many years. Four, I was forced to kill, and I was bummed out about it for days, but they were just striking too actively for me to get hold of them. That was before The Tongs. I used to pin their heads with the crossbar of a shovel handle, then grab them by the tail and hoist them into a bucket. Dicey, not fun, and damned dangerous, especially when the snake is aggro. One snake struck and struck at the shovel handle. Venom ran down in rivulets. After I'd disposed of the animal, I grabbed the shovel to put it away. My hand touched the handle and instantly went numb, up to the elbow. It stayed that way until midday the next day. Wowwww. Venom is weird, weird stuff.

I have been bitten, and gotten off lightly, but that's another story.

Most copperheads are really docile, but the two that were ferocious were also the biggest ones I've ever seen. The smaller of the two I found by the popping sound of its jaws as it struck at me in the dark. I was spreading dried blood in the flowerbeds to deter rabbits on a lovely summer night. (You may voice a quiet DUH! here.)

Pop! Pop! Pop! What's that? Pop! Pop!
It was a copperhead, throwing its entire length at my shin, again and again, and just barely falling short. So much for their purported docility. This thing was out to get me. Only dumb luck prevented a real good bite.

One female was in excess of three feet. There I was, holding her by her tail, and she's raring back up her own length to try to sink her fangs into my arm. Kids a terrified Greek chorus, witnessing the whole thing. Now what do I do? Fling her as far as I can, and chop her head off, that's what. Oh, I just hate doing that. I shake like a leaf and cry the whole time. But the thought of having a snake like that sunning on our sidewalk where the kids play just doesn't fit in my world view. Living deep in the country, we are forced to draw some lines with the wild things, even when it's the last thing we want to do.
A painting from my upcoming book, Letters from Eden.

And so I have taken them away, these snakes. Venom is fine, used for killing mice and rats, but I can't have it where we live, work and play.

Which reminds me: I have, most reluctantly, begun to screen the comments that come in. It was inevitable, I guess, after almost 42,000 hits, but knowing that doesn't make it any easier. The amazement is how few negative comments ever come in. For that, I thank you all. My blog is a happy place, full of beauty, wonder, light, and joy--things this weary world badly needs. It's freely offered, for no other reason than that it's worth doing. By the vast majority of its readers, it's accepted with gratitude, grace, and understanding of the effort that goes into it. I promise to keep it that way for you.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Finishing the Towhee

Time to finish that towhee painting! I'm determined in this one not to get bogged down in the leaf litter or other unessential elements. To my eye, too many wildlife paintings give equal focus to the minutiae of vegetation or gravel or whatever the background might be, and the viewer's eye doesn't know where to settle. It roams all over looking at detail and then gets tired. Blaahh. I want the bird to be the focus, with some other nice restful elements to set it off. I want to suggest complexity without getting too literal and picky about it. Also, I am lazy.

To get myself in the right frame of mind to paint I always go to Lars Jonsson's work. I sit on the floor flipping through books written entirely in Swedish, just staring at the paintings. Lars manages to suggest entire habitats without delineating so much as a leaf. I don't come anywhere close to doing that, but I look anyway, and some of it rubs off on me, I hope. All you can do is expose yourself to the best stuff and then do it your own primitive way anyway.
As soon as I have a passable habitat it's on to the bird. At this point it's about 3 in the afternoon. I block out the towhee's colors and set about sharpening and modeling it with deeper blacks. I'm sticking with ivory black right out of the tube; it's a nice warm black and it moves beautifully in solution, lifting back up without staining. I love ivory black. I think it's made from burnt bones. It used to be made from burnt elephant tusks, hence the name.
I model the bird and take another look at the background. It looks all right to me, but Bill steps in and comments that the distant background looks too flat and seems to come forward. Hmm. He's got a point. He suggests darkening and defining the distant trunks. So I do, and it immediately looks better. Thanks, sweetie. Now the ironwood trunk is definitely in the foreground. I knock off for the day and decide to do the final fiddling in the morning.
I get up and look at it again. I decide to fiddle a bit with the moss behind the towhee's head. The color isn't working, so I green it up a bit. A light wash of Chinese white over the top of his head and back helps him to pop out of the green, which has about the same value as his head, oops. There's this constant tuning of darks and lights so you have darks against lights and some edges that are "lost" and some that are sharply defined. Hard edges make things pop off the paper, so you have to watch those. But some hard edges are nice, like along the white tail panels.
I think it's done now. It's always good to stop a little before you think it's done so you don't noodle it into fussy obscurity. I want it to look like a painting, not a photograph. The whole time I've been painting, a pair of towhees has been scuffing around under the feeders just a dozen feet away. Ahh. How nice, to be able to refer right to the living bird. It should always be that way.

By the way, Luther is doing spectacularly. I see him cartwheeling after flying insects, and yesterday he took a nice bath in the Bird Spa. He's probably taking about 1/3 as much food from us as he was only a couple of days ago. The weaning is in full swing. But man, it's nice to have a free-living phoebe answer when you call, and come winging in to say hello. They are such lovely little birds.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Towhee Develops-Part 1

While all the phoebe raising has been going on, I've been painting, too. I'd like to walk you through the latest: a commission for ornithologist friends of mine. They want to give a towhee painting to a cousin, whose spark bird was an Eastern towhee. What a good spark bird, and one I adore painting. I think I've mentioned that browns and blacks are really nice to work with in watercolor. Grays, too.
I wanted the towhee to feel comfortable in its setting, so forest floor was an obvious choice. I know better now than to even attempt a bramble tangle. That is a watercolorist's nightmare. I had found a striking ironwood trunk on one of my winter walks that would serve nicely as a backdrop for a strong vertical compositional element, one with lots of movement of its own. The concept sketch came out in a minute or two:
I like towhees any old way, but puffed out is a favorite pose. This is a winter scene, but it's intended to be seasonless, and really just focused on the roots and bird, rather than evoking any specific time of year.
I worked from a nice road-killed specimen (I'm licensed to handle them) and got this detailed drawing. I can't tell you how much drawing nestlings all summer has helped me understand avian anatomy. I just feel how they are put together. One of the things I've always loved and tried to emulate about the late Don Eckelberry's work is the strong structural drawing he did, feeling the planes so clearly.
The ironwood trunk and roots were handled in wet on wet watercolor, and went so quickly I didn't pause to shoot until they were all blocked in. Here's the first maybe 20 minutes of the painting.
I used my KopyKake opaque projector to transfer my drawing to the watercolor paper. Made by Kobra (don't you love K's? They apparently do...), the intended use for this rather expensive but wonderful machine is to project an image down onto a cake surface so you can trace it in frosting, or something. How weird. But artists find it very useful for blowing up or reducing nice sketches or even projecting photographs to be traced and copied. David Sibley turned me on to it, and told me I'd never regret money spent on it. I've since turned my fabulous artist friend Debby Kaspari onto it, so we're all prepared to project our favorite tiny sketches, and make fancy birthday cakes, too, if the occasion presents.
Here's the second installment. You can see that I've worked more on the roots and trunk as they dried, and begun to suggest the forest receding off in the distance. The bird is for dessert, once I've clobbered the habitat. Believe it or not, this painting was basically finished in a single day (I spent the first afternoon coming up with the concept and drawing; the entire second day painting, and most of the next morning refining). As always, painting the bird is the very least of it. Putting it in a believable setting is a way bigger challenge! To be continued.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Avis Didn't Make It

Nurse Baker has a job to do today.
It's almost 3 p.m., and we've seen neither hide nor feather of Avis today. When I last saw her, it was dusk, and it was raining. She was already wet to the skin, but able to fly, and she was flying nervously from tree to tree in the yard, as if looking for a place to get dry. Luther was tucked into the lilac and dry as toast. It poured all night and most of the morning. It would be Avis' first night outside the tent or the pet carrier.
I thought that perhaps she was too wet to fly this morning, so I kept calling and waiting to hear from her. The sun came out, long enough to dry a bird, but Avis never appeared. I searched under all the trees she liked to sit in, but found no traces of her. Luther came in at first light, perfectly dry despite the downpour. Well, one out of two isn't bad, I guess. It hit me that a bird has to be operating at 100% capacity to make it out there. A rainy night shouldn't kill a healthy bird. She was doing so well, but apparently doing well wasn't good enough.
I know these birds well enough to be heartbroken today. Luther has been around all day, albeit ranging farther and higher all the time. Phoebe and I are struggling to accept the loss, and let Avis go. Some birds make it, and some don't.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mainline Hit of Chet Baker

It's been a long time since Chet Baker made a real cameo on the blog. I'm pining for him myself. There's been too much to say and too much happening for the fun and hairy luxury that is Baker, and for that I'm truly sorry. He is my court jester. He keeps me laughing out loud, no matter what else is going on in my life. Jane, this one's for you!

Chet can make Liam giggle and scream like nobody else.

The bulldog in him comes out when there's something to tug. We tried feebly to follow the book advice, but long ago forgot the dire warnings about letting our dog play tug-o-war with us--all that business about how it makes him think he's top dog. He growls ferociously and grunts and pulls--and is still our sweet Baker. In his case, at least, that advice is just a lot of hoo-ha.
When I'm busy painting, Baker often comes up and tells me that he has to sit on my lap NOW. Will he do this when I'm not busy? No. Will he do it when I need a little sweet doggie on my lap? No. When I really want him to sit on my lap he dances away, grabs a toy, and chews it on me. Here's my BALL! Have a BALL! Don't you love my BALL?
Noo, Baker just likes to sit on my lap while I'm painting, and makes me work around him.You can still see what you are doing. Never mind me. I just want to breathe your air.

Both my kids used to like to do this, too, before they were too big to fit there. Now, they hear the creak of my drafting chair as I ease into it, and think of something that they need that only I can get. Will you set me up with watercolors? Can we make popcorn now? I need some more juice but it's in the basement up too high for me. That kind of thing.

Baker is an inveterate chair stealer. I have not yet sat on him, because I've learned to check to see if my seat has been usurped. Since he was a little pup, he has preferred to sleep in chairs, and he likes to join us at the dinner table if we will allow it. He also plays musical beds at night, especially when it's cold. I never know whose bedroom he's crept into until first light, when I get up.
He has radar for when I'm getting ready to go somewhere. Should I leave the car door open, what do I find in my seat?
Oooo, please don't leave without me. I can come along. I am small and very portable. You can take me in the grocery store. Even in restaurants. People will not mind.

Today was a happy phoebe day. Both birds came and went, eating mealworms in their tent. I didn't have to feed them once. Avis caught a slug and beat it up before eating it. She spent most of the morning in the tent and the afternoon exploring the yard. This is her first night out of the tent or pet carrier. At dusk, she was rainbathing and flying nervously from tree to tree, looking for just the right roost. Luther was tucked into the lilac next to the house. I look forward to seeing them both in the morning.
A pair of Carolina wrens, a pair of house sparrows, and a pair of song sparrows--all feeding young--have discovered the largesse inside the fledging tent. So I'm going through lots of mealworms trying to keep the babies in food. I saw Luther swoop down and peck a house sparrow that was raiding his worm tent, then give it a looping chase all around the yard. He's discovering his tyrant flycatcher roots! I can't tell you how cool it is to see these birds becoming wild phoebes.
At one point I walked out to check a nest box in a far corner of the yard, and both phoebes escorted me, chipping and fluttering by my head. How odd. They'd never done that before. "You're not begging from me anymore, kids!" I said, and walked back to the house. Hmmm. Maybe I'd better check the worm dish. And it was empty, raided by the aforementioned birds. Think the phoebes were trying to let me know? Yeah, me too!

Happy Fourth!

Fresh pictures, evidence that both Luther and Avis made it through the storm.Luther's not talking about the storm.
Luther was cleaning all the moths out of the tent when I got up this morning, and Avis soon joined him (here's a moth meeting its end in Avis' bill).Baker, as always, inspecting my work.
I whacked away at what's left of the bleeding heart last evening, and decided that a Dreamsicle orange osteospermum was just the thing to take its place. So many cool plants come from South Africa, and osteopermum is one of them. Soon, Bill will be taking off for his second trip there. We're hanging all over him in anticipation of the drought ahead. The kids like having a dad large enough to serve as a human chaise lounge.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Ah, Poor Avis

There was a powerful thunderstorm tonight, and Avis got soaked to the skin and knocked to the ground inside the bucking, billowing tent. As soon as the lightning subsided, I ran out and found her, a sodden, helpless little lump in the grass, just waiting to be eaten by the nightly coon. So she's in the house, in her carrier, slowly drying out. Luther, last located roosting high in an ash, is probably just as wet. I pray he wasn't knocked to the ground, too. I can only hope I'll see him in the morning. Arrrrghh. Thanks for all your kind words, everyone. They are appreciated. I've been thinking a lot about why I do this, and I felt the need to clarify exactly what I'm trying to accomplish.

Avis Does it Right This Time

When last we left Avis, it was Thursday, June 29, and she was being force-fed and medicated with antibiotics. She was moping in a pet carrier in the studio, facing out the window where she could watch for and call to Luther. By Saturday, July 1, she was feeling well enough to be released into the fledging tent. She was self-feeding again, and looking brighter every day. On Saturday morning, when I took her out to the tent, Luther was watching. When he saw the pet carrier he began chipping excitedly, flew over to it and hovered in front of its door, chittering and scolding. I took it inside the tent, zipped the flaps closed, and opened it up. Luther perched atop the tent, calling excitedly, his shadow right overhead. Avis shot out and Luther threw himself against the tent walls, trying to get in. I opened a flap and Luther shot inside. They spent the day together in the tent, gorging on mealworms. Avis and Luther thoroughly enjoyed each others' company, sitting glommed together on a perch, and Avis ate and bathed and preened all day. (Self-maintenance is one of the best signs of health in a bird. When a bird stops preening, it's not feeling well). I was moved by the strength of their bond. They definitely know they're phoebes!
By Sunday morning, it was clear that Luther was ready to get back outside. He was bored and wanted to get at all the flying insects he could see outside the tent. I opened the tent flap and held it aside, and he gladly zoomed out. Avis stayed put. She wasn't quite ready for prime time, and we both knew it. These birds are not dumb.
I'm writing this on Monday afternoon, July 3. I opened the tent today at about 3 p.m., intending to release Avis into the yard for another try at true freedom. Luther came right back inside when I opened the flap. He and Avis hung out for awhile, then both left. Avis flew all around the yard, perching in the birches, sunning on the telephone line. At 5 p.m. I took some mealworms out, and to my vast relief Avis swooped down and took two from my outstretched hand. She would need to learn to associate me with food if she would be able to make the transition to the wild.
At 6 p.m. I went back out to locate Avis, and she was sitting in the tent, having just had a meal from the feeder within. I couldn't have been more delighted. She knew where to return for food, without my being involved. She zipped back out to a distant birch clump. Good going, Avis.
In the interim, I've stopped hand-feeding Luther; he's got to take his food from a dish now. I'm making my forays outside less and less frequent, and I've been pleased to see Luther foraging actively all over the yard. Moths seem to be a particular favorite. Both Avis and Luther do a great deal of plunge-foraging, wherein they land on the ground, search around for a prey item they've seen, and take it back to a perch, bluebird-style. Luther even pulled an earthworm from the ground once, but he tasted it and rejected it. I wouldn't have thought a phoebe would do that. It is this behavior that makes them capable of eating out of a dish, and for that instinctive behavior I'm thankful. Swallows, for instance, do no plunge-diving, so they're pretty tough to feed once they fledge.

Those with no concept of the extended juvenile dependency period of songbirds might find all this feeding and training incomprehensible. Why don't I just kick them out the door and tell them farewell? Most people, even birders who should know better, seem to believe that once a bird leaves the nest, it's on its own. Not so; the parents feed it until its neural connections are all complete, until it's able to catch sufficient food on its own. The more complex the bird's foraging strategy, the longer the juvenile dependency period. American oystercatchers, which must learn to chisel shellfish off rocks and open bivalves by inserting their bills and cutting the adductor muscle, are dependent on their parents for at least 60 days! The adults open shellfish, feeding the edible parts to their young, as the juveniles watch and learn techniques.

I don't know how old phoebes are when their parents no longer subsidize them. I doubt anyone does. I can only try to judge their competence in foraging, and make sure that they know where they can always find food. I've seen adult tree swallows still feeding juveniles in mass migration flocks in September! Having hand-fed these birds since June 8, I'm not about to take the risk of starving them now. The nice part of all of this is that Avis and Luther much prefer winged insects to mealworms, and their instincts are in place and operating well. I get a big grin when I see one with a moth in its bill, beating it on a perch before swallowing it down.
Those of you who understand what I'm working toward know that my last intention is to make pets of these birds. On the contrary, I want them out of my hair--badly. And so I leave mealworms in their tent, with the flaps open, and I pop out of the house several times a day to call to them, offer food and make sure they're OK, and go back inside, slowly cutting the apron strings. Now that Avis is out, I can leave the tent open all the time, with the feeding station inside. So far, only my nesting pair of Carolina wrens has had the temerity to come inside the tent and load up on mealworms. There's no hiding anything from a Carolina wren.

Someone who's never raised orphaned songbirds can have little concept of what's involved in making them ready to fend for themselves. I hope, through this journal, that I've given you a glimpse of the work involved. I hope that you'll view wildlife rehabilitators with new eyes, and know a little bit of what's behind the "warm and fuzzy" image most hold of them. We're anything but bunny huggers; we're hard as flint at the core. We do what it takes to get these birds out the door, and we're not going to fall down on the job just before the finish line. There's too much invested. The reward is truly understanding how a bird thinks, how it develops, what it might do in any given situation. It's an understanding so deep that it goes beyond words. That understanding and empathy with wild birds is my pay for a job very few would ever want to take on.

Avis sits inside the tent, food and water at hand, still free to come and go as she needs. Even though I know they're intelligent, I'm still agog that these two can maneuver inside the tent, feed, and then return outside. Phoebes have a penchant for entering structures such as caves and barns, so it's not surprising--but it is a delight.

Avis, 6:48 p.m. July 3. She's 35 days old. It's her second visit to the food station inside the fledging tent since I released her. Freedom waits just outside, and she's taking full advantage of it. I am so proud of her.

Luther, free in the flower garden. He and his sister are a couple of lucky phoebes. And I am honored to have been their caretaker.

The Swinging Orangutangs at the Blennerhassett

We started in daylight, mellow and soft, and slowly built in intensity as the night came on. We like dancing in the dark.
Such a weekend! The Swinging Orangutangs returned to active duty on July 1 at the historic Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, WV. I can't imagine a more ideal venue. In summer, we're outside on a real stage--like a tiny Woodstock. Nighthawks and chimney swifts beep and twitter overhead. People sit outside, eating good food and drinking real drinks. Any smoke wafts away on the humid night air.
You can get about any kind of martini there you might want. And we play from 7:30 until 10:00--humane hours for musicians and patrons alike. When you look at the alternative: playing on the floor in a cacaphonous, smoke-filled bar, starting at 10 and going until 2 AM, dodging fratboys who keep falling over the monitors, shouting out requests and knocking mike stands into your teeth (all of which we've done to surfeit), playing the Blennerhassett is like dancing on clouds of cotton candy.I owe all these pictures to our wondrous and beloved friend Shila Wilson, who took our cameras and made hay with them all night. Thank you, Sheels!
It was hot as Hades when we started, the evening sun wringing sweat from all of us,
but bassist (and incredibly versatile keyboard player, singer, guitarist and sax player) Vincenzo Serafino Mele held it down. Only wish I had a picture of his dazzling smile.Steve McCarthy pounded the skins and occasionally made us all whirl around and laugh with delight at his inventive fills. He's much more fun than Shila's elegant portrait might suggest.
Bill's Uncle Bruce DeMoll, granddaddy of Mid-Ohio Valley music, veteran of the Glenn Miller Band, graced us with his artistry on saxophone. Doesn't matter if Bruce has ever heard the song. He'll play it into the stratosphere on the instrument of your choice. By the way, he was Vinnie's teacher! And the beat goes on. At this point, everyone was up and dancing barefoot on the grass. Musically, we had shucked our shoes off a long time ago. No pain!Bill was en fuego, as hot as the July sun. His Stratocaster "Creamy Delight," growled and echoed and purred. If there is anything better than playing music with your husband, than being able to lean over and give that guitar wizard a kiss after a particularly nice solo, I don't know what it is. I am grateful to my bones to be part of this band. I love to sing, always have, and would probably be reduced to lurking around karaoke bars were it not for Bill's drive and commitment to keep our band a going concern over these past 14 years. It's a lot of work--hauling equipment, setting up rehearsals, devoting four-hour chunks of time to learning new material and relearning old. We schlepp tons of music equipment in and out of our basement, haul it to the stage, set it up (speaking strictly for Bill here), load it in the van, and haul it back to the basement. We give weeknights and Saturdays to rehearsal. And the payoff for all that is pulling off a three or four-hour performance, and watching happy people dance on the lawn, taken to a different place by the music we are able to give them. Anyone who plays music on a professional or semi-professional level knows that the pay is hardly commensurate with the work. I hand fully half my take to the babysitter, who has been lounging on the couch most of the evening, as soon as I walk in the door. We don't do it for money. We do it for joy.
When the music ends and the loadout is finally over, we sit and stare over the empty chairs, happily exhausted, aswim in sweat and afterglow. And I get to go home with that lead guitarist. Life is very, very good.