Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tracks That Talk

This snow tracking is taking on a life of its own. The tapestry of events is so incredibly rich that I'm having trouble thinking about much else than getting out to read it. And I'm not the only one who's excited that we finally got a little snow. My neighbor, Rusty Fleeman, found a very interesting set of tracks when he was riding his ATV near his house, about four miles from here. They were interesting enough for him to slam on the brakes. Through the wonders of e-mail, he and Missy asked me if I could confirm their suspicion that they belonged to a black bear. Those of you who live in Minnesota and Alaska may find this no big deal, but black bear sightings in Washington County, Ohio, are usually limited to about three per year, and most of those are young animals seen in the fall dispersal time. Rusty could see fine claw prints, over an inch long, protruding from each paw, five in a neat, forward-pointing row, slicing into the snow. This, and the 6"long, plantigrade heel, as well as the long span between prints, point only to black bear. It's a poignant set of tracks for me, though, because this little bear should be hibernating now, not wandering through the snow. It's been a funny winter, and I think the bear isn't the only one who has been caught out in the cold. As each day dawns in the teens, I think often about the little woodcock that has been twittering up whenever we walk in the meadow at dusk. He's got to be hurting badly by now. There are eastern meadowlarks hunched miserably in the fields, birds that normally pretty much clear out in winter, but that took the risk of hanging around this unusually mild winter.

Today, I had Skip Trask from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources here all day filming a segment for "Wild Ohio," a nature show on cable TV in Ohio. It was a full day, and I hauled out paintings and drawings and answered questions and tried to make a cogent artist's statement while managing Chet Baker, who has a knack for gnawing noisily on a Nylabone or leaping suddenly into my lap just as the camera or mic starts rolling. Finally I asked him to stay in one of the bedrooms, and he understood, but he didn't like it. It was about like trying to film with a two-year-old around. Which, in fact, he is.The hind feet are ahead of the front feet, typical of a bounding mammal. Think of the rabbit's exclamation point !! tracks and you can envision what's happening.
Skip and I went out to do some outside shots, and I looked down as we walked out the sidewalk and noticed a set of tracks that didn't compute. They were too big for a white-footed mouse and too small for a gray squirrel. The thing that really attracted my attention was the span between each set of four bunched pawprints: twenty inches. I knew a chipmunk can't leap like that; about the most you'll see between their tracks is 8". Besides, they're all hibernating now. I hoped it wasn't a Norway rat. We've had them, maybe two in 14 years, coming from who knows where to the bird feeders. But there were no drag marks from a tail, and rats tend to walk rather than bound. The tracks led up to the porch, evenly spaced in 20" bounds, to where peanut feeders hang. Hmmm. The only thing I could arrive at was flying squirrel. I grabbed my Murie track guide, and sure enough! The span of 20" between imprints is just right for flying squirrel! I surmised that it landed on the garage roof, leapt out from there, hit the sidewalk, and bounded up to the porch. Unfortunately, the sun had melted the part of the sidewalk that might have shown the imprint where it landed. Another snowy day, please!

From the porch, it's an easy climb up the rain chain to leap onto the peanut feeders. I'm delighted, over the moon, and you can be sure the Science Chimp and family will be aiming a flashlight on the peanut feeders at random times throughout the ensuing nights, trying to confirm this nocturnal feeder visitor. We had one at a sunflower heart feeder two summers ago, and have never seen another since. When we found that one, we ran out and put two squirrel boxes up just inside the woods. Maybe that effort paid off.
Our front yard is a mishmash of Baker, junco, cardinal, jay, towhee, sparrow, dove, mouse, rabbit and deer prints. I was lucky to notice these in all the background noise.

And now, a set of tracks I love. This mourning dove landed on the patio, the two deep imprints on the right side of the frame. It walked, that little mincing, head-bobbing walk, to the left. Stopped, had a sudden thought, took a right, a little run, and was airborne. The tracks appear and then vanish, with only the mark of the right wing to say how. Beautiful.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

White Safari

I love Mary from NC's name for the last post: White Safari. Indigo Hill continues to enjoy snow cover that the rest of Washington and Athens Counties lacks. I love it, though I haven't been able to get out today, and it's driving me nuts. I'll just have to go out in photos. As promised, I'm going to post some more tracks from my last foray. My guide in this has always been the late Olaus Murie's Field Guide to Animal Tracks, published by my own Houghton Mifflin, source of all good things in natural history. I love this book because it's written by a real, suspenders and plaid-wearing woodsman, who could read what he saw in the snow and mud. He's got different patterns for different gaits, and he drew them all himself. What more could you want?
Here's the thing about tracking: The closer and longer you look, and the more you think about what you see, the more is revealed to you. It may seem like magic, but if you just wait for it to come to you, the animal's motivations and actions reveal themselves in its footprints. Little smears and blurs can mean something. You can tell how fast the animal was going, and sometimes what was chasing it.
Cottontail prints are hard to misidentify; that oblong, heavily-furred rear foot is unique. Bunnies do a lot of squatting and shuffling on their butts, so their tracks are often clustered. They also sit in one place for a long time, so you can find melt marks and body prints.Where there are bunnies, there will be other animals, particularly those that enjoy dining on them. Right by the bunny prints were some beautiful fresh mink tracks. I was delighted to find them, and to know we've still got mink. I'll never forget the summer morning soon after we moved here in 1992 when we saw a very bedraggled rabbit come loping out of the meadow into the yard. Bill and I were watching it, and I remember commenting, "That rabbit ain't right." It was listing from one side to another, the fur around its throat matted and wet. And not long after it emerged came a gorgeous ebony-brown mink, humpety humping along on the rabbit's trail. Neither of them looked to be in a particular hurry, but they'd probably been running in circles for a long time. They wove in and out of the tall grass. Eventually we heard the squeal that told how it ended. Mink tracks are typically in pairs, with forefeet landing in or near the hind foot tracks. The span between pairs is about 8-10". The hind foot is longer; the forefoot is rounder. In this photo, you can see drag marks from its tail, appearing as straight swipes parallel to the tracks. Love it!

It takes snow or mud to see the dew claws on a deer track. Big, heavy buck tracks show dew claws more often than do those of the lighter does. This animal was sliding down a little incline. I'm always amused at how much slipping and sliding deer do. Where I tend to fall on my ass, I see that the deer have, too. We use the same trails and cut-throughs. And this is a slippery old ridge.
I've started putting corn out now that the weather's finally gotten cold, and glory be! a couple of does and this gorgeous buck came out to sniff around. I've seen a lot of bucks, some more impressive or magnificent than this one, but I think he's the prettiest ever. His rack is so tall and proud, it looks like he's wearing a crown. The brow tine on his right antler is just a nubbin, so he's probably a seven-point buck. Good of him to hang onto those antlers this late into January, so I could admire him. This, taken through double-pane glass in a snow squall at dusk, is the best I could do without frightening him off. After what seemed like the longest damned hunting season in the history of Ohio, even the bloody muzzle-loaders are silenced now, and I'm happy to know that he (and I) can relax and wander in peace on our land. I'll be watching for him come velvet time, in June. And saying a little prayer that he knows when to lay low.Beauty comes quietly, when no one is particularly watching for it.

Monday, January 29, 2007

TrackSafari 1

To those of you who wonder: I know well how blessed I am to live where I can just walk out the door and discover something, whenever I wish. Life gets in the way, and it has lately, but just knowing the woods are waiting for me is such a comfort. Snow is a dual blessing, because all my neighbors leave tracks, and I get to find out who's come around in the last day or so. It staggers me how many animals are out there. So come with me on a little track hike, just an hour of puttering around in the field and woods. I found so much in that hour I'll have to split it into three posts. The trick, now that Chet's along, is to keep him from overlaying the good stuff with his messy litttle dogprints. Luckily he ranges in ever-widening orbits out to the side, while I stick to the trail, where most of the tracks go. Everyone likes my cut paths; everyone uses them. Makes it nice for them; they don't get poked in the eye with twigs and briars. Makes it nice for me: I get to see the signs of their coming and going. I really, really want a remote wildlife camera. Imagine the pictures we'd get! Here's just a sampling:
A gray squirrel goes unerringly to the spot where it buried an acorn last fall, digs it up and has a meal. Could you find it, under snow? Would you remember where you buried each of hundreds of acorns, under two inches of fresh snow? They're even smarter than they look.
A white-footed mouse or meadow vole hops quickly across the crusty snow. Boing boing boing boing. Mice are always in a hurry, because they are so tasty.
An eastern towhee hops across the white-footed mouse's trail. I'm guessing it's a towhee because it's taking such long leaps, and has long hind toenails.A junco checks out some grass tops for any seeds that remain. It twiddles and shakes the seedheads to free them, then pecks the seeds out of the snow. I don't realize how much food is out there until it snows, and I can see the evidence of its consumption.
A big male coyote stops to pee on a hapless beechlet, leaving his skunky scent behind. The front pawprints are smeared, because he has most of his weight on them as he hikes his hind leg high.
Farther down the meadow, a gray fox looks for mice. These prints are catlike at first glance. I did find housecat prints, but deigned to photograph them. I'd rather forget that housecats hunt these woods. The way I can tell they're gray fox prints is by the way the front toes are stacked in an elongate way--not in a perfectly round circle like a cat's print. The "heel" is hard to see, because it's furry. I painted a gray fox that I watched hunting grasshoppers in this exact spot, for Letters from Eden. It's nice to see there's still one around, with all the coyote sign. Coyotes kill both red and gray foxes, raiding their dens. I have to say that as additive as the songdogs are on autumn nights, I miss my foxes. When we first moved here we frequently saw both red and gray foxes hunting our meadow, carrying mouthfuls of meadow voles to hidden dens. The coyotes took care of that. They do the same thing to foxes that great horned owls do to screech and barred owls: eat them. But it's best to worry about the things that you can change. Which turns out to be not very many things at all.

A Day Well Spent

Howdy! Just home from a day at WOUB, our local NPR affiliate. I drove through four inches of fresh powder on our driveway and township road--innocent of sand, cinders or salt. Slid around on ice on the county road, in the tracks of other intrepid souls. They let us deal with it ourselves out here.
I was on air for part of two hours, exhorting listeners to call in and get their donated copy of Letters from Eden when they gave at the $90 level. We raised $500 for the station. What a good feeling, and what fun to chat with Jeannie Jeffers and Chris Riddle on air. I dig radio.

In that vein, this is just a quick post to tell you that one of my commentaries--on the OK 1902 beech tree I blogged about not long ago--will air on All Things Considered at about 4:55 and 6:55 today. If you miss the first airing, try for the second. It will air right after the sad story of Barbaro, the gallant race horse who, unable to heal from complications of a shattered leg, was finally euthanized today.
If you miss the commentary, you'll find it archived here.
My boyfriend's coming back! winging over Georgia as I write, no doubt. Gotta scramble around and straighten up. Why, who knows. Just feels right.
Bill first found the writing on the beech's trunk about 14 years ago, and it's been a special tree for him all along. He goes down into the woods to check on it. Our checks are more like a wake these days, since it came down.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Dog Doing Man's Work

photo by Chuck and Nora Kegley
As you may have gathered, it's been a long January. First, Bill was in Florida for five days. He was home for three days. I left for Florida for four days. I came home for two days. He left for Florida again, for seven days. Not that I'm counting, or anything, but my gosh. A girl has her limits. OK, we've been together 15 years. But I MISS MY MAN. He killed 'em, by all reports, at his keynote at the Space Coast Festival in Titusville, Florida. Humor and music are right in his wheelhouse and he serves them up with aplomb. It ain't easy to get up in front of 150 people with only a guitar and your imagination, but he did it, and I am very proud of him. And more than ready to hear his voice rumbling out of his chest, rather than over the tinny speaker of the damn telephone.
Chet Baker does his best to help. He pesters me to play and go for walks.Photo by P. L. Thompson
Mether, I am ready to play. Try to get this rope. Just try.

He nudges me and moans and pinches me with his toenails until I finally get up and lace on my hikers. We took our first walk on Friday, the first since he was diagnosed with some kind of ligament problem in his left hind leg. I had high hopes that a month of total rest would set things right. And he held that leg up more than he had a month ago. Rats, rats, rats. I don't know what to do now, except to haul him back to Dr. Lutz and let her feel his knee again. Maybe he's got an X-ray in his future. Maybe surgery. Maybe he's just stiff from not using it. I dunno. But I'm pretty bummed about it. We both lay around for five weeks, only for this. I'm trying not to think of all the things we missed out there on the trail.

We were well down the trail, though, and I decided to just do the Loop, bum knee or no knee. Part of Chet's job description is Walk Companion, and we were both itching for the exercise. There were lots of vole tunnels to explore.
And there might have been a squirrel up in the pines.

The overlook was a perfect Grandma Moses scene, all stark and cross-stitched in black and white. Color flees in winter, but it makes its return in spring all the sweeter.
I was bummed to find one of our fine shagbark hickories, a line tree no less, had blown down in a storm the other night. RATS! You can see the sign where Bill posted against hunting. I hate to lose a good tree to wind or anything else. Baker inspected and declared it past hope.
It's a matter of hours now until sweet BOTB darkens this door again. I've knocked myself out cleaning the house, to make it nice to come home to. I've made a wonderful beef stew; I have just the right bottle of Pinot Noir to complement it. Hurry home, darlin'. Until then, I'll have to get my kisses where I by P.L. Thompson. Look at those overgrown toenails! Gotta get out the Dremel.

Ah kin love you like that, Mether.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

For Daddy

A couple of snow days this week turned into a golden opportunity for me and Phoebe to do some girl bonding. We studied a single-spaced, front and back list of spelling words for the elementary school spelling bee, held Thursday night. We had a blast, especially with the foreign words.

There was a run of words in the bee that felled kids like sheaves of wheat: Burrito. Chimichanga. And Phoebe got up and spelled Mariachi correctly. She may have been the only kid in that room who's actually heard a live mariachi band. She's heard several, in fact, most recently in a little bar in New Mexico.

Naturally, I burst with pride when the Marietta Times came today with a picture of Miss Coco Chanel spelling Mariachi to take the fifth grade trophy. Her friend McKenzie won for the fourth grade, and her friend Allie won for the sixth. We think the bee on the trophy bears more resemblance to a cockroach, but we'll take it.

Who designs these things??

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Star of Marco Island

From a life sketch of a burrowing owl in Fort Meyers, Florida. To me, these little birds look perpetually annoyed. They have good reason.

My last morning in Florida. I am agog at Marco Island. It seems there are houses on top of houses here. Each one has a little mown lawn and a palm tree. Lots of them have manatee mailbox holders. Now there's a niche market for you. Wonder what Gene the mailman would have to say about a manatee mailbox holder on Whipple Run? That's a thought.
The whole idea of going on a field trip to Marco Island to look at raptors, more specifically burrowing owls, seemed a bit odd. But it was one of the many enticing offerings at the SW Florida Birding Festival. I've seen burrowing owls on the North Dakota coteau region, and sitting on fenceposts in Montana. I've tracked them down in a sprawling Fort Myers subdivision. But Marco Island is so...manicured to the cuticle. So built up. So commercial. So sanitized. I just couldn't imagine any wildlife making a living here. Nancy Richie was about to prove me wrong.
I'd met Nancy at the booksigning the night before. I wish I'd known when I was inscribing her book what I know now. Trained as a marine biologist, she works for the City of Marco Island as an Environmental Specialist. She checks surface water quality and monitors all protected species populations. That includes burrowing owls, bald eagles, osprey, nesting shorebirds, sea turtles, manatees, and gopher tortoises, those hulking heartbreakers that somehow hang on in South Florida. She enforces Federal, State and local rules that protect them. She deals with permits. And she spends much of her time monitoring and protecting burrowing owl nest sites. That's the least of it. Since 1999, she has worked to educate residents and seasonal visitors to Marco Island about these incredible little birds, and why they deserve respect and protection. And she talks to developers, many of whom would rather not hear what she has to say.
The first thing Nancy did when we met at 8 AM at City Hall was to give us a brief natural history of these diurnal/crepuscular birds, who hand-dig their own burrows in Marco Island's sandy soil. (Elsewhere in the country, they use gopher or prairie dog burrows). Feeding largely on insects, herps, small rodents and some birds, burrowing owls can be seen during the day at the mouth of their burrows, which extend from inches to several feet under the sod, and in which they lay up to a dozen eggs.Lesson finished, Nancy handed us each a map, with highlighted X's marking some of the 100 or so burrowing owl nest sites on Marco Island. I stared at the map. 100 burrows! Perhaps 65% of those produce young in a given year, but still! How could this be? Where was the habitat? We carpooled to the nearest site, where two pairs of owls have dug burrows on what constitutes a double house lot. I was stunned. Here they were, carrying on their lives on a perfectly rectangular piece of closely-mown lawn, hemmed in by asphalt and concrete sidewalks on every side. The actual burrows were marked with yellow tape and small wooden posts, and a T-perch had been erected just at the mouth of the burrow. In a subsequent drive around the island, I saw marked burrows on nearly every vacant patch of land I passed.
Though she'd much rather leave them natural, Nancy puts these markers up to prevent lawn-care workers from driving over or collapsing the burrows, and to try to keep people from trampling them or otherwise disturbing the birds. The city stipulates that all vacant lots be mowed; any vegetation over 15" high must go. This manicuring has a negative impact on wildflowers, insects, quail, ground doves, shrikes, kestrels,nighthawks and kildeer. And burrowing owls.
I couldn't believe it when Nancy led us right up to the tape, and we were allowed to peer into the burrow at the beautiful, bright-eyed owls just inside. They glared back at us, as unperturbed as it seems possible for wild owls to be by the sight of twenty humans surrounding their nest site. Like many raptors, it's possible to tell the difference between the sexes just by their faces and build. The male, in the foreground, seems smaller-headed and slighter, even longer-legged , than the bulkier female, behind him. Males are also paler, because they get bleached by the sun as they stand guard outside the burrow while the darker female incubates in its cool recesses.Although it seemed the owls were unafraid, I could feel their tension and read it in their glowing golden eyes. This male crouched when he felt pressed by the crowd, and I suffered with him as each person leaned in over the yellow tape to examine him more closely. When the tension got too great, he'd spring into flight, only to land a couple of yards away. Then, torn by the desire to flee and the need to stay and protect his mate, he'd return. This seemed to me to be a marvel of acclimatization for any bird, much less an owl.
Ironically, the two birders with the longest, most expensive lenses seemed to want to get closest to the little owl. Again and again they crept up on him, and his nervous glares went unnoticed. With the optics they were packing, it seemed to me they must have been trying to photograph the mites on his eyelashes. So tiny he was, so vulnerable, so very brave.The closer everyone else pressed, the farther away I moved. I looked up at the wires overhead, to find a pair of loggerhead shrikes, witnessing this bizarre scene. An American kestrel joined them. No one else seemed to notice the shrikes, but they're hanging on by a thread, too. They call these little vacant house lots habitat, and they eke a living in grasshoppers and rodents, Cuban tree frogs and lizards from what little remains. Nancy tells me there are even gopher tortoises persisting on Marco Island. Such riches on these barren little postage stamps of land, all that is left of what must have been magnificent habitat before we overran it.Photo by Susan Merchant
This is Nancy Richie. Listening to her, looking at the handouts she'd prepared, I flashed back to my three years heading up the Least Tern/Piping Plover Recovery Program in Connecticut. This is a woman who has taken it upon herself to protect a vulnerable species. She will stop at nothing to do it. She speaks to developers, who confide in her that the way to deal with burrowing owls is to put a hose on your truck's exhaust pipe and run it down the burrow. She speaks to homeowners who call her hotline to complain about "this awful bird that stares in my bathroom window," asking her to remove it. She works with city maintenance people and lawn care companies, educating employees about proper maintenance around the fragile burrows. And she despairs at the limp regulations the state of Florida has in place, that actually allow developers to collapse nesting burrows as long as the nesting pair is not in residence. As in: During the winter. So the owls come back to nest in February, and their burrow has been destroyed, and there's another McMansion going up where they once raised their young. I was so flabbergasted at this that I asked Nancy to repeat the statement. Yes. You can destroy their burrows as long as the owls aren't actively nesting there at the moment. The wonder is that there are any burrowing owls, gopher tortoises, shrikes and kestrels left here at all.

"Build out," an ominous phrase, is predicted within 10 years. That means that every vacant lot on Marco Island will have a house on it. How do these birds persist on some of the most expensive real estate in the country, in the face of such relentless pressure? Two words: Nancy Richie. Stop and think for a moment how it would feel to take on such a responsibility. To make each owl's fate your problem. To watch new houses being built atop the vanishing vacant lots on this hotly contested bit of sand and beach. To see known nesting burrows legally destroyed that only the spring before put forth wide-eyed mocha-brown owlets. To make cold calls to homeowners, asking them to dig starter burrows, to invite displaced birds to their own yards. To try to counter the inevitable takeover of every bit of free habitat on this jam-packed island. To care that much.

If the owls could hand-pick an ambassador, they couldn't do much better than Nancy Richie. She's the bomb. She likes people, and even the ones she'd privately like to strangle, she befriends. She's got 25 volunteers she calls, collectively, Owl Watch. When an announcement was made that a beach on Marco Island was being considered for designation as a critical habitat for wintering piping plovers, there was a predictable outcry. Almost nobody in a community like this wants to hear that a threatened species might be using their beach (or their lawn, for that matter). A local jeweler began making pendants depicting dead piping plovers, feet in the air, with X's for eyes. Nancy paid him a visit, and from then on the jeweler began making his piping plover pendants right-side-up instead. And he made Nancy a burrowing owl with emerald eyes. That's the kind of effect, the effectiveness, she has. She is the owls' guardian angel. Thank God for people like Nancy, and for these tiny owls that find a way to live cheek to jowl with people, people who, but for her efforts, might put an exhaust pipe down their nesting burrows. You can make people care, but as often as not you have to take the long way around, and gently show them why they should care. Give Nancy a place to stand, and she will move the world.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Down to Naples

Friday, January 19 was a big day. After my bittersweet morning taking the ecological temperature at Sanibel with my new friends Dan and Judy Davis, I met my old friend Jerry Jackson at noon at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he teaches biology. We hadn't laid eyes on each other since the late 80's. My God. I told him I liked him in gray. He told me I hadn't changed a bit. Men. I laughed and told him he was a liar.As well as teaching ornithology and now herpetology, Jerry does a daily radio spot about nature in the Fort Myers area on WGCU, the NPR affiliate on the campus where he teaches. I met several local birders who told me they get up early just to hear it. Imagine coming up with a script and recording a spot to air each day. Kind of like blogging! (You can hear his segments on WGCU's website, Jerry's a much-admired teacher and naturalist. He knows there's no end to inspiration in nature, and he loves sharing it with others. Ben and Judy are taking his ornithology course, which they describe as like a big ice cream sundae with chocolate on top. I'd call that high praise. He thought that while I was in the area, we might as well do a little interview and record a commentary to help plug the Southwest Florida Birding and Nature Festival to be held at the Rookery Bay Environmental Education Center January 19 and 20. And so. with the help of producer Valerie Valker, we did. Photo by Jerome Jackson
I read a chapter from Letters from Eden called "Twice Bitten," about my adventure with a copperhead. Really fun. I love radio, love getting all the way through a three-minute piece without choking, stumbling or gagging on my words. It's a challenge! The piece aired at 5:30 that afternoon.

Then I had to take my reluctant leave. Jerry's been so kind to me, asking me to illustrate ivory-billed woodpeckers for various publications, buying my paintings, occasionally bouncing ideas off me, and ready to help whenever I have a question about log-gods. I treasure our connection. I walked out into the parking lot of the campus radio station where Jerry was recording his pieces, and a pileated woodpecker came yakking out of the palmetto scrub and landed on a palm tree near my car, brilliant crimson crest blazing. Well, hello to you, too! Had to be a sign, of what I don't know, but a good one. I wished I had had time to hang with Jerry, but he runs like a long-tailed cat in a room full of fiddlers, and so do I. I raced over to Naples to check into my hotel, and to get an early dinner with Rookery Bay director Randy McCormick and staff biologist Renee. Lobster ravioli, yummmm. Wonderful company. I hurriedly grabbed a shower and dumped my gear in my luxury room at Olde Marco Island Inn. Thanks, Houghton Mifflin! I feel pretty, oh so pretty! Zow. Being here without BOTB: what a waste of a sexy suite. I especially liked the hot coral walls and giant plastic palms and orchids, and the balcony surrounded by waving palm fronds. There was a cage full of peach-faced lovebirds squeaking right underneath my balcony all night. Better that than idling diesel trucks, which BOTB reports he's enjoying in his Florida hotel tonight.

At 6 pm, it was time to sign books. Guess who showed up? Susan Merchant, of Lake Life! She and Sherm had come to my talk at Ding Darling the afternoon before. I can't imagine wanting to hear the same reading twice, but they did. And we both chose lime green. Susan is terrific, and so is Sherm. We felt like old pals. She reminds me so much of my sister Nancy!Randy had helped me set up the laptop before the book signing, so it was ready to rock. We made a lot of comments to each other about our blood pressure going down 100 points once we got the equipment working. I got a sweet, soulful introduction from Randy, stood up, went to hit the Play button...Wait! There was no Play button. Something was wrong. There was my Keynote program on the computer screen, but I couldn't find any way to make it play. The friendly toolbar had vanished for reasons unknown. Anybody have a Mac in the audience? Murmurs, blank looks. May I call a lifeline? Dialed Bill on my cell phone, and stood for 10 agonizing minutes at the podium, 60 people staring at me and shifting in their seats, trying this and that and that and this and sweating bullets and freaking quietly out and whimpering into my cellphone. Bill launched Keynote on his laptop, held my hand with his smooth voice, and finally figured out what must have gone wrong. "Go up to View and pull down to Play Slideshow! "Bam! My program started. "That's got it!" I hung up unceremoniously on my sweet husband and got on with it. The show must go on. It was alarming, after the silken-smooth program I'd given at Ding Darling, to find out just how close to the edge I have been dancing with my relatively green Keynote skills. We've all been in the audience when the speaker is futzing with his or her laptop, unable to get the show on the road. It's painful, but know that it's way worse for the speaker. Technology is terrific when it works! and terrifying when it doesn't. The talk went fine thereafter.

That ended my responsibilities for the trip, and I was greatly looking forward to tasting some of the natural wonders of Marco Island before dashing to the Fort Meyers airport for a 2 pm. flight home Saturday. I was determined to squeeze the last drop of orange juice out of my too-short trip to Florida. I decided to join a morning field trip to observe burrowing owls. There, I would meet the Star of Marco Island. More anon!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sanibel is Hurting

How I missed my mate. I thought of him as I watched these two white ibis pick their way slowly down the messy beach. Truth be told, I thought of him the whole time. Tonight, he's the one in Florida, calling to say he's renting a car, driving with the windows down, looking at a wood stork. Sigh. What is this work we do, that separates us time and time again?

Everything had changed this year at Sanibel. For one thing, the famous Australian pines that once graced and shaded the island are all gone, every one of them blown down by the hurricanes. The native canopy trees in the flatwoods are virtually all gone, and the palmettos and ferns bake in the unrelenting sun.The runes on these trees were in bas relief. Still unreadable to me.

But even more had changed this time than it had in March 2006, when we were last there. The first and most obvious change was in Sanibel's justly famous white-sand beaches. I couldn't see any sand, except high up near the dune grass. The beach was covered, as much as a foot deep, in red drift algae. It took awhile, and some questions to residents, for it to sink in on me what the things I was noticing really signified. I'm glad I didn't know what it meant while I was photographing birds. I was just thrilled to be on a beach, near the ocean, weedy or not.A willet makes its way along. I'll bet it misses the sand, too. How do you forage in this stuff?

Red drift algae is a plant that flourishes in the presence of nitrates and pollutants. At Ding Darling NWR, there were mats of green filamentous algae on the bottom of the impoundments, and floating near the top of every body of water. This crud has the same dietary preferences as red drift algae. Nitrates. And where do those come from? Read on. You can see the green mat algae on the mangrove roots in this otherwise pleasing picture of a tri-colored heron.

As I picked my way through the red drift algae out on the beach, I found something I'd never seen before--dying calico scallops. We're all used to seeing their shell halves cast up. That's normal. These were alive and clapping their shells, dying by the thousands. I picked up the first dozen or so that I saw, and winged them back into the water. And then I realized that if I were going to try to help every scallop on the beach, I would be there a very, very long time. I was there quite awhile as it was, until I realized that these scallops were all going to die whatever I did.It was a massive die-off, and it wasn't normal, because healthy scallops don't permit themselves to get washed up. For as long as I watched the gulls and shorebirds, not a single one attempted to eat these large exposed morsels of protein. That seemed really strange. Why would a ring-billed gull walk right past an open scallop? But birds know much that I can't fathom, and they know what is fit to eat and what is not. I saw them as fellow animals, and felt them suffering, these humble mollusks who receive little empathy from anyone. We put them in sauces and serve them with pasta, but we don't think about them as fellow beings. The way they'd close when they sensed me near, then slowly re-open, broke my heart. You can tell the girl from Ohio, because she's the one flinging scallops back into the sea.

So there was a very strong visual element to my distress, but what bothered me most was what wasn't there. Namely, fish-eating birds. No wood storks. Almost no pelicans. Few cormorants. Only a sprinkling of shorebirds, even at low tide. Very few ospreys. And few herons and egrets. I think I saw one great egret fly over Ding Darling, only a handful of other egrets fishing. It was eerie, and wrong, and scary as hell.

What few fish were there were hotly contested by brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and a small flock of red-breasted mergansers. You can see the white collar of the drake merganser right under the airborne pelican's right foot. He's periscoping, looking for fish with his head underwater. The drab duck is a hen red-breasted merganser.
So what happened? What is happening?

Well, when the multiple whammy of hurricanes hit Florida, Lake Okeechobee way up north of Miami got really full. Since the lake is surrounded by land owned by an entity referred to by Floridians as "Big Sugar," and stands in heavily sprayed and fertilized sugar cane, Okeechobee gets the worst agricultural runoff imaginable. It's full of nitrates (which act as fertilizer for algae), herbicides, pesticides and other toxins. If nature were allowed to take its course, the cane fields would have flooded. But the Army Corps of Engineers, protecting Big Sugar's interests, decided that that would be unacceptable, and released huge pulses of toxic water into the Caloosa River, whose mouth opens out onto that precious bit of sand and mangrove flat and habitat called Sanibel Island. Flood an ecosystem with toxins and fertilizers, and you get mats of algae, massive fish kills, shellfish kills, bird die-offs, and repercussions untold for years to come.

Ding Darling NWR was quiet, too quiet. I cursed my inquisitiveness, and wished I could just shrug and shake my head like the woman from Michigan who I stopped and asked about the dying scallops. " Never seen anything like it! They're just a clappin' away!" she chuckled, and slogged on through the red algae. Yeah.

The coastal beaches on Sanibel were all but unwalkable, their famous shells buried inextricably in mats of fibrous algae. The mullet whose splashing leaps were such a signature sound and sight of the refuge were completely gone. I saw one lone mullet, cavorting in a mangrove channel, where there were thousands before. (I saw more human mullets fishing than actual fish.) There were no fish, so there were almost no birds. I saw not a single wood stork on the refuge. And I fear for the upcoming nesting season for all fish-eating birds.

But the cane fields didn't get flooded. Ay, oh... way to go, ACOE.

I could tell on approaching this yearling yellow-crowned night heron that he wasn't right. Even a tame night heron shouldn't have his eyes closed when a human's only eight feet away. He swayed on unsteady legs, eyes shutting. His soft part coloration and his eyes were dull. And then I saw his feet, covered with suppurating sores. This heron is not long for this world. Wading in poisons has opened these sores, poisoned his blood.For someone who has seen this refuge in its glory, so many birds crammed into the pools that they have to take a number, it was hard to witness the quiet. I wept inwardly as I wandered from empty pool to empty pool.

So it's up to the mangroves now to slowly filter and heal these waters, to shelter what baby fish are able to hatch in poisoned water.Hurricanes happen. They're nobody's fault, though we have to wonder whether global warming is making more and bigger hurricanes than ever before. As for water releases from Lake Okeechobee, we've let Big Sugar call all the shots; the Army Corps has done what it can to satisfy that entity's economic interests and make sure the cane fields don't flood, and the Sanibel mangroves have a big job, and strangely quiet waters, in front of them.It was good to see a raccoon acting like a raccoon--rummaging through mudflats instead of trash cans. I remembered the book, "Ring of Bright Water." What a lovely title.And yet the red mangroves seem hopeful. Their seeds, among the only ones in the plant world that germinate before leaving the mother plant, send a fine green root down before falling into the mud below. May they do their work well.

A cormorant stares into the water beneath its perch, looking for fish.
When it leaves, the branch springs up: a perfect fish, complete with eye, gill cover, pectoral fin and tail-- but one no bird can eat.

Heartfelt thanks to Dan and Judy Davis, refuge volunteers who took me out to the quiet pools and explained so much to me. Sorry to have a bummer post, but it isn't all beautiful, this place we called Paradise.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Old Dog, New Tricks

So I have this camera, a Canon Digital Rebel that's better, way better, than I am, smarter too. And until now I've put it on two settings, both automatic, one that permits flash and one that doesn't, and I've been utterly at the mercy of whatever light there happens to be out there. So occasionally, when I'm shooting at a white bird on a dark background, the white bird gets overexposed -- blown out-- and the detail disappears. Or if I'm shooting a moving bird in poor light, the moving parts get blurred. And though I've been delighted with what happens then (see the Sunset Beach post!) I've also known there are things I could be doing to counter that.
Enter Lillian Stokes, she who gently nudged me toward a digital SLR in the first place, toward higher megapixels and interchangeable lenses, and I haven't been sorry for a moment that I took the leap.
Don and Lillian were at my talk at Ding Darling NWR on January 18, and I shoved my camera into her capable hands, and she took a ton of pictures of what went on, happy to be given a camera to play with.Photo by Lillian Stokes
She is very skilled; she made me look acceptable! She's a portraitist, among other things, and she knows when her subject looks good and when it doesn't.
The line took over an hour to clear, and I signed maybe 50 books.Photo by Lillian Stokes
I love what happens when I get to meet people who are interested in my work. So many quick but heartfelt conversations.Photo by Lillian Stokes
Here, I'm refusing to sign Don Stokes' book, saying I'll catch him later.Photo by Lillian Stokes
Lillian is really something. I'm sure the fact that I didn't have the faintest idea how to use my nice new camera was driving her nuts. So she offered to meet me at 5, a couple of hours after the signing ended, to show me a few things. I went out on the refuge by myself to bang away at the birds, all the while wondering what new things Lillian would be able to teach me. I'm the proverbial old dog. And I have to confess that when I've looked at professional photographers' work, I have always ignored the f-stop and ISO and aperture stuff as just so much Greek.

An hour with Lillian changed all that. She is a dynamo, and she has a natural way of teaching that makes counter-intuitive things suddenly understandable. We raced the dying sunset to Captiva Island, where there was a bit of beach where we could practice. And there was a group of tourists who saw the opportunity to co-opt Lillian into taking their picture. She made them take off their sunglasses, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. It was so cute! You ask a pro to take your picture, and you hand over a certain amount of control. Even if she's using your tiny point-and-shoot. Lillian can't help it: she's compelled to make the best picture possible under the circumstances.
Lurking behind the tourists was a great blue heron who I feel sure came down from heaven to make sure I learned what Lillian was trying to teach me. It offered itself up and kept coming back and posing for us until the sun sank below the horizon and I finally got it.

The sun was sinking fast when we got there, and without having a chance to ask Lillian any questions, I crouched down on the sand and took some images of the bird against the sunset. Soon I was lying on my side, risking an earful of sand, completely lost in the beauty I was trying to capture.

With the camera set to automatic, without flash, I had only a silhouetted heron. Granted, some very nice images, some I'm happy with. But there was more to learn.
Here's how little light there was when the sun was gone. Practically none. I could barely pick up any features or markings on the bird. Lillian grabbed my camera and said, "Now let me show you something." My last shot, the wind combing the heron's plumes to look like Garuda, a Balinesian god.
She set my camera to AV, which she told me all the nature photographers use because it allows you to program "film" speed (ISO) and aperture (the diameter of the opening that allows light into the lens, commonly known as f-stop).
She dialed the speed up to 400, and opened the aperture up a couple of stops. And magic happened. Instead of the painterly blurs I'd gotten at the first sunset I'd shot, suddenly detail appeared on the bird. Remember, there's almost no light by now, less than when I'd started. The water should have been a blur; the bird a silhouette.Photo by Lillian Stokes
And yet here it is, with features and color, and its legs are sharp though moving quickly, and the wave is frozen in mid-fall. That's the fast "film" speed (ISO) and the wide-open aperture working. I was floored. The Rebel was sucking in light, just like my little point and shoot Olympus does. Oh!
There's still going to be room for the art shots. But now I have the understanding that gives me the choice to make a shot whatever I want to make it. I'm beginning to get it. Serendipity will always play the largest part. And thanks to Lillian's generosity and this one lesson, I now understand something about making a photograph, rather than simply taking it.More on f-stops and light in later posts. A note: I wrote this post at probably the exact same time Lillian was writing hers on the Stokes Birding Blog.
To see the photos that Lillian took of the same scene, check it out! I find it fascinating to see how different our photos are--two photographers, one professional, one trying; same subject. It all makes me think about the art of photography, and the passion each individual is able to bring to it. Knowledge sure helps. Thanks, Lillian!

Alone Again, Unnaturally

I'm sitting by a roaring fire (ahh, wireless!) in our living room. Chet has his paws on my knee and is licking my face. Nobody seems to be getting enough kisses, least of all me. Bill's playing music for a very small brunch crowd at the Blennerhassett. You'd have to be an avid jazz fan with a four-wheel drive to come out in this weather. Small subset of Parkersburgians. Phoebe is reading a book about a mistreated beagle named Shiloh. Liam is ferrying little chunks of snow from the deck to the fireplace, watching them melt, chattering away the whole time. There are maybe three inches of fresh powder on the ground--our first snow of the winter, and here it is January 21! The kids have been sledding all day, and their run has gotten slick enough that it now dumps them in a stand of multiflora rose down along the edge of the woods. Hot cocoa has been imbibed. They had four days off for MLK day right before I left. Chances are there won't be school Monday, either. Moms, can you read between the lines? Gimme a silent scream if you can.

I've spent the day processing clothing. Romantic, exciting... exactly like signing books and schmoozing people, only different. When I'm home, I average a load, often two, of laundry washed and folded per day. So when I'm gone, it piles up really fast. I've plowed through my suitcase and backpacks, and cleaned the living room and kitchen.

Hi, Mommy! We missed you so much!
Hi darling! Mwah! I missed you so much, too! Now pick up your toys!

As a reward for putting myself right back into the yoke of domesticity, I downloaded the last of the Florida shots. Memories...It feels so good to be able to put birds up on the blog! When people describe this as a birding blog I scratch my head. It's anything but. I couldn't limit it to birds if I tried, so I don't try.

It was really disorienting to come from temperatures in the teens to temperatures in the upper 70's, from gray and brown to green and magenta and blue. After the initial confusion, I just reveled in the warm, moist breeze and the feel of sun on my skin at long last. I drove around with all four windows down, scraps of paper with directions on them blowing around the front seat. Every moment with nature was stolen, though, because having two flights, two talks and a radio interview, with two dinner dates thrown in, and each of those an hour or more apart, in only four days meant I had to hit the ground running and not stop. Put 375 miles on the rental car, and another 225 on mine. The rental car was a little silver Pontiac with a hopelessly slanted windshield (impossible to bird through); inexplicably huge blind spots (giant struts like blinders, holding said windshield up) and the turning radius of a school bus. I am only 5'5", and I had to fold myself double and bend my head sideways just to get into it. Bill would never have fit in this car. He literally would have had to lie down to drive. How do they do it? I mean, when they pick cars for rental fleets, do they go to manufacturers and say, "I want the MOST ANNOYING little car you've got! I mean, a REAL STINKER. And I want thirty of 'em!" Not complaining, but allow me to complain some more.

I missed breakfast and lunch the whole time I was there. I lived on a little container of seafood salad, some prefab sushi from Target, Corn Nuts, clementines, and a screw-top bottle of Australian shiraz, gnoshing as I drove from one thing to another. I'd fall into bed at midnight and get up at six. Still, it was really nice not to have to worry about anyone but myself. I could never subject the kids to a schedule and diet like that. It reminded me of college days, when I'd stick my finger in a jar of peanut butter and dip it in my parakeet's millet for texture. Dinner, taken care of. It was a nice change from caring for my family. Bill took that over and did a wonderful job. How I missed them! even as I enjoyed the solo time. Ahh, I wanted my sweetie there.This male osprey is preparing to deliver a fish to his incubating mate. She was shrieking at him the whole time. But male ospreys almost always eat the fish's head before they bring it to the nest. It's like a little tax on the present. They make their mates wait, but they hear about it the whole time. Shreeep! Shreep! shreepshreepshreepshreepshreepshreepshreep!!!

There are birds everywhere in South Florida. They're big and showy and tame. Wood storks stalk the roadside ditches (though there were not nearly as many as before). Herons and egrets are common, since they winter and nest there, too. If you can't get a good picture of a bird on Sanibel Island, there's something wrong with you. So don't be too impressed with these pictures, because the birds just SIT there and let you shoot away. They are completely acclimated to the press of humanity. Wish I could be so cool about it (more on that later). I noticed this little yellow-crowned night heron after I'd taken about twenty shots of a preening brown pelican across an inlet.
The night heron (an immature) was literally right at my feet, standing silently, waiting to be noticed. Or, more correctly, not giving a dang whether I noticed him or not. Here, his nictitating membrane is coming across his eye, cleaning it.
The everyday beauty on Sanibel and Captiva Islands is stunning. Even in raunchy light, these roseate spoonbills took my breath away. I loved the little Degas dancer, preening her tutu in the hard afternoon light. What I could do with this in watercolor! Figures that the most colorful birds were situated in almost impossible lighting conditions.

My friends Judy and Dan, who very kindly took me birding in the closed refuge on Friday morning (thanks a million!!), told me that roseate spoonbills, unlike scarlet ibises and flamingoes, don't need to get carotene from their diet to turn or stay pink. Flamingoes and ibises eat shrimp, and that's where they get their carotene, which they dump into their plumage, enhancing its color. Spoonbills eat fish. No carotene there. Isn't that cool? And nobody figured it out until recently because spoonbills in zoos were automatically fed the same carotene supplements the flamingoes got to "keep them pink." So why would it work that way, that one species produces pink plumage automatically, and another has to make it with the food it eats? Dunno.

Beauty, and its abundance: The residents doubtless get inured to it, but you do see a heartening number of people flocking to the beaches to watch the sunset each evening. That's neat--to see people planning their evening around appreciation of a natural event. It's also nice to be out photographing things, because nobody stops to comment on it or ask questions or stare at you. Since I take most of my bird photos from a prone position, getting in the most unthinkingly ridiculous postures in search of the right point of view, that's a real plus.Morning light bathes some little blue-winged teal and a pair of preening mottled ducks. Mottled ducks are mallard-like, except that they're a distinct species, for now. Males look just like females--a lovely tawny tan with pale tan heads. And catch that shade of teal on the wing speculum! Note that it lacks the white speculum borders that mallards show. Apparently mallards are mating with mottled ducks elsewhere in Florida, endangering them further. Those mallards--they'll mate with anything with a pulse. So we must enjoy mottled ducks while we can, because before too long, thanks to genetic swamping, they'll just be motley ducks.
The only other alligator I saw, besides the ten-footer sunning along Alligator Alley. I doubt this guy was three feet long, but he was lovely, and I was glad to see him.
As you can imagine, I took a LOT of pictures in Florida. So there will be lots of bird posts coming up. For awhile, this will be a birding blog, and then we'll go back to Chet Baker, kids, laundry, trees, suet dough, and general navel-gazing.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bluebird Suggestions

This is a staredown, bluebird style. These birds know me so well.
A situation has developed on our front porch with an unusually aggressive male bluebird. If I had to guess, I'd say he's got testosterone poisoning, resulting from the abnormally warm winter. Maybe I should call him El Nino. But he defends the suet dough feeder, and he beats the other bluebirds up when they try to feed. This is unusual for bluebirds in winter, expected for bluebirds in breeding season. He's screwed up. Darn him!

So the bluebird pair who nests in our front yard has taken matters into their own alulae, and they've started a campaign to get me to establish another suet dough feeding site, out of sight of the one El Nino is defending. It's working.

This little female sits on the plant hook off the back deck, where in winters past I have fed her suet dough and mealworms, and she stares in the deck door at me. She fixes her beady eye on me and pleads, nay demands, that I put food out there. Think about the thought process here. She knows that I'm the dough lady. She can see me running around inside the house. She knows that she's been fed on the back deck before. She's tired of being bossed around by El Nino. So she makes an appeal to HQ, and it is received. Because I know she's not sitting on that cold metal hook because she likes to. She's sitting there because she wants me to notice her there.

OK, Mrs. B.--I get your message. You're right. We do need a second feeding station.

The other day, I put out a healthy handful on the back deck railing, and it was gratefully accepted not only by the bluebird pair, but by this lovely little junco. Traditionally ground feeders, juncoes will go where the good stuff is. They adore suet dough. I think of them as vegetarians, but they obviously appreciate the lard in this mixture. House finches and goldfinches are observant vegetarians, however, and won't touch the stuff, no matter how harsh the winter. Cardinals eat lots of animal protein, and are delighted to follow the bluebirds' lead.

And along came a white-breasted nuthatch. They always take the biggest chunk they can handle, and process it offstage. This is a male, with jet-black cap. Females are grayer in the cap. I love those busy little birds. Smart as whips they are. I had a nuthatch in rehab for a couple of weeks (a cat casualty with muscle and nerve damage. Dratted cats!) He was depressed in his cage until I moved him in with my other birds, and provided him a shaggy-barked log and a dish of sunflower seeds. That boy got busy and shelled them one by one, pounding away, storing others in every crevice. I named him Hank. I released him, flying rather weakly, but flying, figuring a compromised life in the wild was better than life in a cage. You can read any interpretation into that you wish.

Sorry about the discontinuity, but I am whipped flat from a fabulous day on Sanibel. The talk at Ding Darling NWR went really well. I think there were 130 plus people in the room, and the book signing line took over an hour to clear. The crowd was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and very appreciative. I snuck out onto the Wildlife Drive for two hours afterward, met some wonderful birders from Alabama (is there a sweeter accent in the world?). Then, went on a photo safari with Lillian Stokes and out to dinner with her and Don. Wow! She taught me SO much about what my Rebel can do, in less than a half hour. Just back, tired as can be. I have gobs of glorious photos from today but no time or energy to download or write much.

Friday, I give the same talk at the new Southwest Florida Birding and Nature Festival in Naples. Birding at Ding in the early morning. An interview with the local NPR affiliate at noon. Then to Naples for a reception, talk and book signing. I'm gonna be really fried crispy this time tomorrow. Think I'll take the weekend off to make my way back to Ohio. Hope there's not another canceled flight in my future.

Emergency Chet Baker fix, as much for me as for you: He's in good hands, getting lots of love, and Mission Control checks in with me periodically. My latest instruction to Bill: If he won't eat, put rump roast gravy on his food. I suspect it worked. You gotta love his polka-dotted pink tuxedo. Think this little girl loves her doggie? As wonderful as roseate spoonbills and flowers in January are, I do miss my babies.

Just Barely On Sunset Beach

You know what it's like, taking a trip. You think you have it all figured out, and this time you're going to get to the airport on time...and something always happens. It's always somethin'.

The last detail worked out, I finally collapsed at 11:30 PM. Tuesday. We live two hours from Columbus, and my flight was at 10:30 AM. So I set the alarm for 5:30, hoping to get on the road by 6:30, and slept fitfully, as I always do when I have an alarm set. It took 1/3 of a bottle of Pinot Noir and a Benedryl to finally tame the pacing lion that is my brain and grab four hours of sleep. I was really sawing it off at 5:30 AM, but I sat straight up in bed and stared at the clock. 5:30 on the button. And my alarm hadn't gone off. Because I had set it for 5:30 PM.
I had to flop back in amazement at the simultaneous weakness and sheer power of my poor brain, setting the fricking alarm wrong, then silently counting the minutes anyway until it knew it was time to wake up. If we only trusted that power, who would need alarm clocks? Think about it. I'll bet if you pinned me down, I could tell you exactly what time it was any hour of the day or night. I'll bet you could, too.

Dear B. got up, too, and saw me off, shrugging on a parka to load my suitcase, giving me bleary good-bye kisses. I was at the airport by 8:45. The Delta counterperson apologetically broke the news: my flight had just been canceled. I looked over my shoulder. The sky was blue, I was on time, for seemed a pilot had called in sick. How unfortunate. She said it happens maybe once or twice a year.

ZICK!! WHATEVER YOU DO: Don't get mad at her! It's not her fault! You think your morning is would you like to tell 50 people their flight is canceled, then try to re-route them all? Suck it up and change your plans. Smile. She doesn't need to hear how you feel about this. She knows. She's been hearing it from everybody else all morning. The good angel sat on my shoulder, kicking her little pink feet.

So I bit my tongue and silently overhauled my plans, and prepared to trudge back to long-term parking, collect my car, and find something to do for four hours in Columbus. "Well, girlfriend, I'm going to Easton for the day," I said with an attempt at a smile. I was clickity-clacking away, suitcase in tow, when the attendant called after me. "Ma'am? We could fly you to Fort Lauderdale, and you could rent a car and drive to Fort Myers. It's about a two-hour drive."

I considered the offer for a few seconds, and gladly accepted. At least I'd be in Florida during the daytime. I could bird my way across the peninsula. Cool. Little matter it that it turned out to be closer to a four-hour drive. I got to see the northern part of the Everglades, and drive through Big Cypress, with its ghostly winter-gray trees and Spanish moss. There were gobs of waders--white ibis, like these juveniles; wood stork, tri-colored, great blue and green herons; great, snowy and cattle egrets; anhingas and double-crested cormorants; common gallinules and American coots, all ID'ed at 70 mph, cars right on my tailgate, me unable to pull over or raise binoculars or camera. I spotted a gator hauled out on the bank that had to be 10' long if it was an inch, but I was so far past it by the time I realized what I'd seen, I couldn't stop without causing a 30-car pileup. I guess that's why they call it Alligator Alley. I settled for a long Indian whoop. I whooped again at this endless bank of bougainvillea, magenta, better than sex for the winter-weary eye.

Why would anyone need a sign along I-75 that says, "Sanibel/Captiva?" Everybody here knows where it is, right? So the highway is innocent of any indication that Sanibel even exists. And the rental car map must have been drawn by Avis' CEO's 7-year-old son. I shot past the well-hidden exit (turns out to be Colonial Boulevard--yeah, that sounds like a beach road) that would have taken me to my much-desired destination. By the time I saw signs for Cape Coral I knew I'd blown it. Too far north by 15 miles. I pulled a U-turn through an Official Use Only crossover, called BOTB on my cell and he fired up my 'puter at home and talked me into the Sanibel Island causeway. Cellphones. Hate 'em, love 'em. Husband. Just love him.

By this time, I had been traveling for 12 hours, and I had a neurotic desire to watch the sunset with my feet in the sand. My eyes were rolling back in my head, but that simple vision was all that kept me going. I fought bumper-to-bumper traffic half the length of the island, helplessly watching the sun plummet down to the sea. The warm, moist breeze played over my arms and ruffled my hair. I tuned out the exhaust and the exhaustion, and tried to block thoughts like: Why do I do this? There are too damn many people in Florida! I could walk faster than this! I miss my babies! Has anyone fed Baketon?
Stopped at a grocery, nabbed a small container of seafood salad and some Terra chips and a bottle of Shiraz (with a screw-on top because I'm sick and tired of buying $6.00 corkscrews every time I go on a trip). Only $29! for a $15 value! Special Island prices! But there were cute parrots and macaws in the courtyard.

Dashed to the hotel lobby, glugged some wine into a Pepsi cup, draped myself in camera and binoculars, and planted myself in the sand just in time to see the last rays of light bathe a snowy egret in pastel. I take back every nasty thing I said about my Digital Rebel in a previous post. It was Kremey Delight in the twilight conditions, focusing on the bird like I asked it to, gathering color from the waves. Look, just look, at the afterimage of the bird's head turning in this shot. Oh. Oh. Oh.
And this one, an Impressionist painting. I haven't the faintest idea what's happening here. I just push the button a lot. My God!!!

A couple walked down the beach toward me, and I noted a Buckeyes logo on the lapel of the gentleman's shirt. "Go Buckeyes!" I muttered, and he chuckled and said, "You still rooting for them?"
"Well, not really." We chatted for awhile, and just as they were leaving, I asked, "Where in Ohio are you from?"
"Marietta." I could tell he was expecting me not to know where that was.
"Me too! My name's Julie Zickefoose."
"Oh! The bird girl! I'm Dr. Spindler." Well, dip me in corn batter and fry me up.
The veterinarian who refers the most busted birds to me. His office is about 9 miles from my house. His vet tech lives three houses down, on our road. I'm not even going to think about the odds here. It was kismet. As was the perfection of this snowy egret and the gentle waves. Alllll bettterrrr.

See how the light gives her wings? See how the light gives me wings? Beauty: the best, the only medicine that really works.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Heal, Already!

This enforced rest for Chet is killing both of us. He's bored to tears. I'm feeling blobby. I miss our power walks so much. Thank goodness it's raining and yuckky outside, so I don't have to sneak out on him. He got up and went outside, then slept this morning until 3:30 in the afternoon, got up to eat, played for a few hours, and now he's working on a Nylabone. He'll be ready to go to bed again at 10. If this doesn't fix his wanky knee, nothing will. Because we are giving a new definition to REST.

It'll be two weeks on Wednesday that we've been without our hikes. And then I have a week of leash walking him. There have been occasional lapses, like when he sees a bunneh or a durr and streaks out the door before anyone can stop him, but overall I'd say he's gotten about 1/10th of the exercise he normally gets, and I expect he's put on some weight, because his appetite seems to have increased. Hey, me too. I think I have pica. If I had to write down everything I eat every day I'd be jotting notes all day. Boston terrier 'tocks. I'm hooked on Cute Overload, and have picked up some of their lingo. (Muzzlepuffs, 'tocks and the like). If you haven't tried it, and you think Chet's cute, look out. It's pretty cat-heavy, and also weighted toward hamsters, but there are lots of puppies, a few Bostons, and baby moose, which look like a tangle of furry coat hangers that someone put together in the dark. The kids and I like to start our day cuddling together in bed with Baker, looking at Cute Overload on the laptop. I have a feeling the proprietor makes a living (and probably a pretty good one) off her blog sponsors. Hmmmmmmm. There's an idea.
I'm preparing a talk about Letters from Eden for my "book tour," and I've gone through something like 13K images in my groaning iPhoto library finding just the right ones for the talk. It's really fun, but probably the most time-consuming thing a person can do. I tell you, it's something, to relive 2006 in photos. I have this giant lump in my throat most of the time as I see spring and summer flying by, Liam smelling Easter lilacs and the bleeding heart blooming, fading and dying and chalk drawings washing off in a warm summmer rain and Phoebe whacking wiffleballs and Bill staring out over a summer meadow and Avis and Luther growing up and flying away (or not)...and then I find Chet, trying to hide behind a little bouquet of zinnas and goldenrod, soaking up some sun in a forbidden spot. He thinks I don't know he does this.A person who gnaws on her dog's muzzlepuffs probably isn't going to worry too much about the hygeinic consequences of having him lounge on the kitchen table. Chet knows this too. But Bill, who still retains a shred of propriety where Chet's concerned, makes him get down.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Larval Humans are the Best

Phoebe holding Oona. Photo by Shila Wilson.

Phoebe should know a good baby when she meets one. She was a really, really good baby. She'd sit there, as my mother-in-law would say, "like a basket of laundry" while the world went on around her. You could take her anywhere, secure in the knowledge that she'd be contented just watching everyone else, looking at the lights overhead, or playing with hand toys. When she did cry, her voice was so soft people didn't realize she was crying. Oona occasionally says things like "Gwaah." and then there will be a long pause and she'll say, "Mmmm." and then Margaret or daddy Zane does something for her and she's quiet again for an hour or so.

You last saw Oona in the hospital when she was brand new. Although I am really and truly done having kids, if someone could guarantee me a baby exactly like Oona, I would be sorely tempted to go for it. I looooove Oona. I'd be like one of those Italian ladies who conceives at some ridiculously old age. I'd make the papers. The tabloids should be talking about my "bump" anyway, if any of them cared. I look at pictures of Angie and Brad while I'm in the grocery line, waiting to buy my Splenda and yogurt, and the Star is screaming that she's PREGNANT AGAIN and there's a red arrow pointing at her "baby bump" and I look at it over my glasses and think, "Man, I wish my belly looked like that. She is a TWIG."

Whenever Oona makes a public appearance, she has a ring of admirers two deep around her. We all pass her around. The problem with that is, the second I get her in my arms, my blood pressure drops and I go into babyspace, just smelling her head and making faces at her, and I forget that there are other people who want to hold her, too. I'm a bad, bad baby hog, almost as bad as Phoebe. Who, I think, will be the most wonderful mother. It's amazing to look at your ten-year-old and know she's going to be a fabulous mother, and to be able to welcome that thought (in due time, of course). Studies with rhesus monkeys show that good mothers beget good mothers. It's certainly true in my sister Barbara's case.

Barbara's daughter Karen, speaking of fabulous mothers, is outdoing herself for baby Will. Here he is, modeling one of probably twenty hand-knitted hats. He looks secure, doesn't he?I think I see my sister's needlework here, but can't be sure. She tends to go for fruit and vegetable themes (my kids got eggplant, raspberry, pumpkin and corn hats). I can hardly stand being this far from Will, who lives in Providence. Word has it he's the sweetest. We'll meet in March, and I intend to hog him, if he will have me. Thank goodness Karen and Jason send us monthly digital photo albums. Mainlining baby cuteness hits. Larval humans are the best.

Headed for Florida Wednesday (today, for most readers). I'll be frightfully busy and only hope to spend some quality time with an ibis or stilt or skimmer somewhere. I'm taking the Rebel and hoping for good light and a little time at Ding Darling. It's closed on Fridays, which is when I'll be there....but there are lots of birds on Sanibel Island. It would be hard to have a bad time.
I absolutely killed myself cleaning today. We're having a VIP staying here while I'm gone. I'll hate to miss him, but at least there won't be hair in the corner spiderwebs. Wish me luck on my flight, that I remember to get all my gels in a plastic bag and don't make any nervous jokes about explosives. It happens.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Evening at Streamside

Oh, if only I could put a soundtrack on tonight's walk. I wanted to see what our stream looked like after three inches of rain. I can hear it from the house! Roaring and singing...It has been raining for three days, Noah's rain, on and on, and while I'm glad for Baker, because he's laid up and he hates rain anyway, I had to get out to see my streamfriend in its glory.I put dinner in the oven and took off at 4:30--ill advised, I know, and without telling a soul I was leaving. The kids were home for MLK Day, and Bill was home reading copy, and I just slipped out. I hadn't been alone for days; they had Friday off, too, and Bill was gone the whole time...and it rained and rained and rained...I'm out of here. Nobody knew I was gone. One fine day I'm going to break my ankle on one of these slippery slopes and nobody will know where to start looking for me, but while I'm still youngish and strong I exult in conquering the slippery slopes without falling. Stupid, I know, but we all have our little rebellions. I find myself thinking, "Well, I could crawl home from here. I'll be OK."

How I love the white of fast water, especially when it's in a stream that's normally all but dry. It made me think of obituary pictures. I look at them, and I see someone in the bloom of youth, and then read that they died in their 90's, and I think, Well, that's nice that they used a picture of her in her 20's, but is it really representative? And then I muse about whether an elderly person should use a recent, recognizable picture of themselves in an obituary, or whether we are free to choose the face we wish people would remember. Which, of course, we are. Which leads to some interesting issues about author far I've been truthful.

And that brings me back to our stream. Today, the stream was in its glory, in its twenties, roaring and ripping over the rocks. And I thought, This is really the stream. That dry trickle I see 90% of the time is the stream in its dotage. So I decided to capture it today, now, even though there was little light and worse footing on the slopes, so you'd all know it as I'd like you to know it, beautiful and vital and young.

These tributaries I call Bridal Veil Falls, because the water fans out like lace. Like a train, being dragged down the center aisle of a church. Fanning out at the bottom, perfect.

They only flow when the rain has pounded for a couple of days, but oh, they are lovely! When ice forms they're even better.

I took the old Olympus, because if I'm going to roll down a slope and onto a camera, smashing it on a rock, I'd rather smash a $400 camera than my Digital Rebel. And frankly, the Olympus does a much better job in the purblind dark than the Rebel ever could. I fell back in love with my tiny good camera.

The roar of the stream covered any sound I made, and three deer made their way up the opposite bank, totally unaware that I was watching and smiling. Of course, without light they were but ghost deer for the lens, but they made nice images anyway. I love watching wild things when they don't know I'm there.There is a spot I was working to reach, and it is no small thing, because once you get there you're boxed in and you can't get back out. But I knew it would be a sight, the split rock with white water rushing out of it. So I crept and slid along the impossibly steep face, the ground saturated and treacherous, thankful that I didn't have my heavy SLR to worry about and favor like a child around my neck. I wore my green Wellies, and was glad of it, because I had to wade in the stream for much of the trek, as the slopes were too treacherous. Finally I could hear the roar of water through the enormous split rock, a rock about the size of an institutional refrigerator.

The thing about this stream is that it gets more beautiful the farther you go, and before I knew it I was caught up in its siren song, pushing farther and farther down the hollow even as the light died and I got farther from home. After a certain point, I didn't care how I was going to get back out of the box canyon I'd gotten myself into. I had to see the Ice Cave, a place where Shila and I almost died last winter. We were photographing the amazing ice formations under the falls when --thunk--just as quick as that, a piece of ice that probably weighed 800 pounds smashed down inches from where we were kneeling. Oh. We laughed our heads off, but wondered: Is this how we'll die?

Tonight, the ice cave was pure magic, well worth cheating broken bones to witness. It sang and hollered , exulting in an explosion of white down onto the rocks below. The scene, made all the more enchanting by the dying light. My God! I stood rooted. Wondering if the bobcat were watching me. Thinking about Indians sheltering there, showering there. I know they did.
Wonders appreciated, death cheated, I knew it was time to turn for home. I was a good 30 minutes away, and the light was all but gone. Having once run a cedar twig into an eye at dusk, I never want to do that again. So I all-foured up a ridiculously steep and slick cliff face and headed for the nearest pasture, where I could climb the slope unimpeded by brush and briars.The shagbark hickory that died last summer, in such a hurry to decay. How I'll miss it.
Where to roll under the fence? Why, where the deer do, of course. Look for the muddy patch, where hooves have pawed the mud; for the hair caught in the barbed wire, and you will have found the spot with the greatest clearance for people, too. I did a limbo, got under it without a speck of mud on my comfy fleece pants.
Watched the lights twinkle on in the valley below.
Heard my footsteps fall on the familiar trail home, walked to the rhythm of my breath. There: the lights of home.
The wind roared and giant drops sluiced down on me, a wall of water, thankfully warm, and I doubled over my optics, bundled them in my jacket and ran the rest of the way home, water flying from my boothits.
Nobody had missed me; nobody knew I was even gone. I stood in the front hall, panting and grinning. I had gotten away with it. But Chet had seen me go, had missed me terribly, and while everyone else went about their business, he showered me with kisses. Just another thing to love about dogs: they notice our leaving, they mourn our every absence, no matter how fleeting. And so they grant us importance, and for that and the scent of their fur and the honesty in their eyes, we love them.

This, taken on our last walk to Beechy Crash.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Line Tree

It is odd to find
This rotten base, live wood curled over it
A hard scar, rolling in slow motion
Over the lifeless trunk.
I come closer to see.

Is this what trees do?
Do they seal off the wound
with living tissue
Get on with growing
Let the hopeless core remain?

It will go hollow one day
When the dead part has crumbled away
A home for animals
Quick claws clicking in the trunk.
One choice, tree: Grow, or die.
There will be a gnawing within.

I look closer, muddy clean knees
rooting for the why of it.
Here: The wire.
This good tree
a helpless fencepost
Sixty years later
Still paying for a man's careless moment.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

My First Meme

My favorite Christmas present, hands down: the silver bleeding heart pendant (far left) made by Russell Strawn Smith and Barbara Samuelson. I have wanted it for a year and Bill tracked the jewelers down and surprised me with it at Christmas. Bawwww. He had the jewel box in one hand and a gob of Kleenex in the other; I guess he knows me pretty well.

Snagged off Somewhere in New Jersey:

two names you go by: Julie and Zick
two parts of your heritage: Scots-Irish and German
two things that scare you: deep water and teenage drivers
two everyday essentials: rooibos and Baker kisses
two things you are wearing right now: yellow sweater and silver bleeding heart pendant
two of your favorite current bands/artists: Death Cab for Cutie and Damien Rice
two things you want in a relationship (other than love): honesty and trust
two favorite hobbies: I am one big hobby
two things you have to do this week: two talks/book signings in Florida
two stores you shop at: Trader Joe's and Amazon
two favorite sports: Roller skating and um...hiking? Nothing that involves a ball. Define sport for me?
two shows you like to watch: American Idol (I know, I know) and The Daily Show (Redeemed?)
two things you’d buy if money were no object: the land to the west and the land to the north
two wishes for 2007: peace of mind and good health for my mom

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Handprints on the Land

Boy, there was some weird energy flying around today. I went into town right after dropping the kids off at the bus stop. And didn't bring a camera with me. And wouldn't you know the frost was lying on the fields and some cattle in Buck's pasture were just cresting a smooth sere hill with the sun rising behind them, and I almost went into a fetal position. I guess I'm kind of a photographer now, because it causes me physical pain to miss a shot like that. Not bringing the camera has something to do with its not having a case yet, being worth so darn much, and too big and fragile to fling into my purse wherever I go. So, because I only want fabulous 10.2 mpxl pictures now, but I'm afraid something will happen to my Rebel, I don't take either camera and miss the shot of the year. Duh.

At Wal-Mart, I took my watch to the jewelry counter to have the battery replaced, my sweet little Timex Expedition, and the woman couldn't get the back replaced. The manager couldn't either. When they finished with it, it was all beat up and good for nothing. So she slid three new Timexes across the counter and told me to take my pick. I didn't want a new watch, but I got one anyway. Maybe it's just as well I didn't bring my camera to town.

I came home then, to find a hostile comment on my (seemingly inocuous) prior post, the one about mosses and ferns. Seems I didn't do any measurements to quantify just how tight the bark was on that pine the pileated woodpecker was scaling yesterday. Well, I haven't been mistaken for a scientist for quite awhile. I take walks in the woods, I write about it. There are no charts or graphs in my book or blog, last I checked. There's none as queer as folk.

Immediately following that I got chewed out by an editor for something else I'd done, again innocently. Then I got a letter saying a course I'd proposed had been rejected. OK, well, I guess the moon is in Weird. There was so much stuff coming down I put a hat on.

I looked at the work waiting on the drawing board, did a couple of kinglet drawings, and couldn't draw any more. There was nothing left but to go to the woods. I stole into the closet, got my hikers and a down vest, shouldered camera and binoculars, and crept noiselessly down the stairs, right under the nose of a sleeping Chet Baker, who had positioned himself so as to catch me should I try to get out without him. Whew! I'll do anything not to have to face those sad eyes of his. (Later, when we went to pick the kids up, Baker got a little fresh air. Poor guy.)

From today's walk: I was amazed at the strength it must have taken to shred this sassafras, even though I have no urge to quantify it. I can tell you that I couldn't budge the fiber with my fingers. Pileated woodpeckers are strong birds, dig? Take me to court. I'll testify as an inexpert witness.

I've become fascinated by my late neighbor, Gary, five years gone, whose bottle gardens and watering can were featured in a previous post. I've decided to look for more traces of him, and find out more about him. This morning, I ran into another neighbor, who filled me in on a number of things about Gary. My friend works in the grocery store in town, and we talked so long I melted two half-gallons of Edy's Grand and had to take them back to the cooler and get hard ones when we were done. It was just flippin' fascinating. Gary kept a log book in which he recorded all the animals he shot and ate. 100 squirrels in one year. No wonder I've had exactly three fox squirrel sightings on our land. No wonder all the squirrels run like banshees when I approach. And that's not all. He ate EVERYTHING. And, apparently, right off our land, too. He marked his trails with beer cans stuck on branches. I've found those. Now I know who made the wide trails, too wide for a deer. And he had a walking route to a store about 5 miles away that went entirely through forest. Wow, wow, wow. I tried furiously to remember everything my neighbor was saying without being gauche and whipping out my Moleskine notebook in his face. As soon as I got home I typed it all up. It's good stuff. I'm hanging on to it. I feel another Gary piece coming on.

So this afternoon I walked in Gary's footsteps. Yes. He was here. Blatz, the worst beer in Ohio, mother's milk to him.
Snow was on the logs, and only on the logs. I decided to see who had been here in this quiet woods, where nothing stirred, so I trotted from log to log, reading signs.
The gray squirrels on our land must be the wiliest in Ohio, after the hunting pressure they've seen. Here are their tracks.
In this one, you can see the marks his haunches made as he sat down to eat or groom himself.
A possum walked here. If you study it, you can see his thumb sticking out to the right in the lower handprint.
I was beginning to flip out at how many species seem to like to walk atop logs when I found two logs neatly lined with coyote tracks. Oh, how cool. This is the hind foot overstriking the front foot of an animal heading to the right. Here's another coyote print from a different log, same kind of overstrike, probably the same animal.

I sure don't see many ruffed grouse any more, but I'm pretty sure this is the track of one that hopped over the log, pausing briefly on top.

I ended my walk reflecting on man's heavy imprint on the land. The animals' tracks are ephemeral, melting with the snow. Here are ours: This is erosion slump, caused by cutting the trees off a steep slope, and letting the cattle run all over it. Of course, this happened 50 years ago, but the scar remains. The snow, a lacy highlight. Here's what slump looks like in an overgrazed pasture. See the red scar, and the terraces and shelves? Once again, we've got timbering and cattle to thank for the shape of the land. There's nothing to hold the soil, no roots, and it just falls away and winds up in the stream, then in Goss' Fork, then in the Little Muskingum, then in the Ohio River, and on and on. The highest use of land this steep is renewable forest, but everyone cuts and cuts and turns cattle out onto it.

And yet, it's better to hear cattle lowing than lawnmowers. I decided to be happy in all the unseen neighbors I'd found today, in the clues I'd uncovered about Gary, and in the hope that tomorrow won't be quite as bizarre.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Following the Moss Muse

In thinking about why I blog, I have come up with this: I feel greatly blessed to live on 80 acres of land. I want to share it. I want to take people out on walks with me, people who might not otherwise be able to get out on a given day, people who are stuck in offices, people who have too much to do to get out themselves. Maybe they can't hike over uneven ground and leap over streams. I can, although as I get older I wonder what would happen to me if I broke something and was a mile from home. I'm careful. Especially so since I got a nice camera. I walk as if I have a baby on my hip. Sometimes I stuff it in a camera bag and line out, but since Chet's been sidelined I creep along, noticing little things. (One full week into his month-log sentence of rest, Chet's bored to tears but fine, by the way, and today when he saw my sad face, and I said, "Chetty, you have to stay home because of your bad leg," he put his ears back, moved away from the door, and sat down at the foyer window, where he could watch me walk out the yard. Perfect little gentleman. He understands everything. I cannot wait for the day when I can ask him if he wants to go for a walk with me.)

I did five drawings today for this 200-drawing project that seems never to end. 34 to go. Aggh, it's a sentence, it is, and it strengthens my chaotic resolve to write my own stuff and paint my own stuff. Soon come. We all have to work, and my definition of work is something nobody else wants to do or can do, so somebody pays you to do it. I heard about a woman who worked in a slaughterhouse cutting ears off cattle. Now that's work. Drawing birds is a massage by comparison, but after cranking out this many since the end of September, I'm ready for a change. I'm ready to see if following my muse can feed my family.

So I let my inner dog out at 3:30 this afternoon, and walked. I was alert and very quiet, and I saw a pileated woodpecker and a whole mess o' wild turkeys, golden-crowned kinglets and some deer. I saw a lot of gorgeous moss. I spent time on my knees, the cold wet soaking through my pants, admiring moss. Fernlike it a moss, or a teeny fern? In the world of primitive plants, the lines are blurred. The interface of haircap moss and snow was bewitching. Oh my, I love my camera. Although moss doesn't run or fly away, the turkeys, pileated woodpecker and deer would have been denied me had Chet been trotting ahead of me. Sorry, Chet. I miss you, but I like watching turkeys again. Their footfalls in the leaves sounded just like rain. You'd have heard that before I did, and raced after them, and all I'd have gotten was their loud putt calls and sound of them crashing away. Durn dog. (This is how I deal with missing him. Please excuse my forced rationale.)
The pileated was working on this Virginia pine tree, scored and incised with bark beetle tunnels. Ivory-bill fans note: It was quite ably scaling tightly- adhering bark. Don't underestimate those "delicate" pileateds. They're powerhouses.
When I got down to the Chute, a tiny brown winter wren squirted out from under a ledge and disappered in this mossy cave. I couldn't catch the wren with the camera, but I watched it doing deep knee bends and giving its little chimp call, a call that sounds much like a song sparrow's. Lovely little thing. A brown pom-pon on legs. While examining the liverworts in its cave, I found two nice walking ferns, Camptosorus rhizophyllum. Rhizophyllum means "root leaf" and it's an apt name for this ancient fern, which "walks," in a botanical sense, by rooting from its leaf tip and making an offshoot, then sending another out, hopscotching down the rock face with its vegetatively propagated children.
Breaking out into the Cut (a natural gas line clearing), I was delighted to find my first mockingbird of winter, buried deep in a nasty clump of multiflora rose. I love mockingbirds. I wish they would nest on our place. Someday, when our "pygmy" ornamental red barberry is 12' high, we may be blessed.It was feasting on the shriveled, merlot-colored multiflora rosehips. I loathe the plant, but I have to admit that multiflora rose, a noxious Asian exotic, keeps a lot of birds alive, as I point out in my chapter "The Cursed Tangle" in Letters from Eden. I tried hard to get a better picture of it, but the mocker was having none of it.
Four eastern bluebirds were calling softly, and I fired a pointless shot at one male, impossibly far away for my 135 mm. lens. But when cropped, gol dang, it wasn't all that bad, and it captured something of the experience of seeing this musical bit of blue and rust on a sunny winter day. Thanks for coming with me. You always see something good when you get out, even if it's only for an hour. Look at everything, think about why things are where they are, when they are, and you can never be bored.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Fickle Birds, Steadfast Birdwatchers

I really like winter, for all the walking opportunities it affords, free of thorns, sweat, deerflies and choking vegetation, and I like winter birding for the cool birds that come down from the North. The Wilds, a 17,000 acre reclaimed strip mine less than an hour from our home, is our favorite local birding spot. It looks nothing like anything around here. It looks like Mongolia, or Wyoming, or even maybe New Mexico. Well, maybe not. But it's open, and expansive, and quite lovely. We joined about 70 people from the Ohio Ornithological Society and the Columbus Audubon Society on a perfectly horrid day last Saturday, to test our resolve and see what birds we could squeeze out of that acreage, with a soaking rain and no light. Hey, when a date is set in advance and 70 people want you to show them birds, you show them the birds.
Or you try.

I have to say that the mood was somewhat less jovial than might be expected from a large group of like-minded birdwatchers gathered in the morning. I'm sure we were all thinking some version of, "What am I doing here?" It rained pretty steadily until almost 3 pm. when the sky made a grand apology for mistreating us all day. Think about that--9-3 in the cold rain. Phew. But late in the afternoon, as what light there was was failing fast, Somebody up there opened a pillowcase of great birds, and sent us a golden eagle, an immature bald eagle, a skein of snow/blue geese that flew wavily right over our heads!!!, a handful of short-eared owls who tussled and barked and flapped mechanically over the sere grasses, and a whole mess o' northern harriers, most of them silvery males. Of course, not being a bird photographer, and there being no light, I have no evidence of this. You'll have to take my word for it. It was mahvelous.

I was lucky to be leading a caravan of six cars with our friend Jason Larson, who gave an incomparable behind-the-scenes tour of the Wilds, having worked there. I loves me my Jason. I never realized what a fashion statement we were making until I saw this picture. Nice red hands, Zick. Nice hoods, JL. Shila came along, using her mad birdspotting skilz (she saw practically everything good, FIRST), as well as Hugh and Judy Kolo-Rose, so we had a great bunch. Bill of the Birds was otherwise occupied, leading his own group, as were my friends Jim McCormac and Jen "Dahling" Sauter. Bah. I wanted to form a supergroup so we'd all get to hang out, but a caravan of 21 cars would have been a little much. So we wandered around the perimeter of The Wilds, seeing what we could see.

For most of the day, this was mammals, who aren't hampered quite so much by rain as birds. Birds have to keep their feathers dry so they can fly, so they tend to hole up or hunker down in weather like this. I really dug watching the white-tailed deer who aren't supposed to be inside the enormous enclosure, but who can leap the 9' fence and be safe from hunters and well-fed at the same time. I bet they love Rhino Chow. Here's a lovely 9-point buck. Most of the bucks had shed already, but he was carrying a proud crown of points.We enjoyed training our scopes on takin (a weird Asian goat), Przewalski's horses (with a foal!), Bactrian camels (which look fab against an Ohio landscape), and onagers (a wild ass). Only the animals from temperate zones that can take the winter were out that day--the giraffes and rhinos were all locked away in sheds. The Wilds is a breeding and research station for endangered wildlife from around the world. It also happens to have native grassland birds that drew us there. The exotic stuff is a bonus. I like training a scope on a harrier, and having a wild ass in the same field. Don't you?

My absolute favorite moment of the day came at the very end, as the last light was ebbing from the sky and land. These puddles picked up the sky, looking like perforations in a thin skin, stitches of light.
Two short-eared owls locked talons and barked in an aerial scuffle. Shila and I stood transfixed beneath them, rooted, unable to take pictures from darkness and sheer awe. As we watched, a herd of American bison hove slowly up over the hill behind the owls. Perfect. Now, they looked like they belonged there. Isn't that just like nature, to hide the best and save it for last?

Monday, January 08, 2007

There's More to Think About in Weirdness

The drumhead. Bill said he felt he should be playing a dirge, "Paint the Drum Slowly," while I worked on it. There are a LOT of letters in The Swinging Orangutangs. Thanks to Katherine Koch for the great logo design. No thanks to me for putting the mic hole at the top. Durrrh.

I have been mum on the topic of New Year's Eve, mainly because BOTB did such a fab job posting Shila's wonderful photos and writing about the experience. It was mostly fun, but there's a reason the New Year's gigs pay more. It's hard, hard work. People come to a New Year's Eve gig with expectations already supersized, that they're going to have the party of their lives. Each wants to hear the music they prefer, and, while we worked overtime to provide the best experience possible, rehearsing for hours and tweaking the set lists, we couldn't meet the expectations of every person in the room. I'd daresay no band could. One person wants to hear Radiohead, and the next person wants to hear Bob Seeger. Almost everybody wants to dance--that's a constant. So we put all the songs we've learned together in what we hope is a cogent way, and we pour out everything we've got. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. They danced, they laughed, they seemed to have a great time. But one never knows for sure.

I've been chewing over something that happened the morning after, in the restaurant at the hotel. I've decided that having someone say something weird is almost always to be preferred to having the usual "You guys were great!" kind of comment, because there's nothing to think about in the latter.

The Music Critic January 2, 2007

Bill and I have this band, The Swinging Orangutangs. We've been playing in bars and nightclubs for 13 years, with a changing cast of other musicians. Five of us get together and rehearse before each job three, maybe four times, trying to get in ten hours of rehearsal for each performance. The pay is lousy, the work is hard, and the hours are terrible. We have a sign we tape on the bedroom door when we stumble home at three in the morning, a sign for Phoebe and Liam. “Mom and Dad had a bad night. Please don't wake us up.”Actually, we usually have good nights when we play, but it's awfully hard to be cordial to a bright-eyed kid at 6:40 AM the morning after.

Even with all that, we play music because we enjoy it, and because we can.

Our last gig was almost five hours, played pretty much straight through. It was our first New Year's Eve gig, and we were excited about it. The hotel management offered us triple our usual rate, and asked us to play high-energy dance music. So from nine to one forty-five AM, we played as hard as we could. There were lots of bobbing heads on the parquet floor, smiling faces and bursts of laughter.Note the gentleman in the green shirt, supersizing his bustline with balloons.

Twice during our music marathon, the events coordinator wove through the crowd and up to the stage with a worried frown. Each time she asked the same question. “Could you play something people can dance to?” Bill and I exchanged glances, looking out over the sea of bobbing heads. “Could you define DANCE?” he shouted back, over the thumping drums and bass.

All in all, though, it went pretty well. The next morning, the band members collapsed in the hotel's restaurant for a well-earned breakfast. Guests who'd also stayed the night stopped by to wish us well. One man pulled a wheeled walker up to our table and sat down.

“Y'all did a pretty good job last night. I enjoyed it. I used to play in a band around here--mid '80's. Rock bass. I had the long hair, the clothes, the whole deal. It was a good time.”

We compared notes, finding a few local musicians we knew in common.

“I can't do it any more. Can't hardly walk. I've got MS. Most people have to go out and spend a lot of money on drinks to walk and talk the way I do. I tell 'em I'm this way for free, all the time.”

He couldn't have been out of his 30's, this sidelined player. An uncomfortable silence dispelled the afterglow at our table. He seemed to have more to say, leaning forward.

“You want some constructive criticism?”

If five people can collectively stiffen, we did at that moment.

“Work on your vocals. Your vocals were shaky. All of you need to work on your vocals.”

With that, he rose, shook hands all round, and moved slowly off, leaving us to wonder. Had we been shaky? We hadn't felt shaky. What had just happened?

Of course, we crashed, our feeling of accomplishment in a job well done exploding like so many silver balloons at midnight on New Year's Eve. All the compliments we'd received were prodded into the background by one pointed comment. We finished our breakfast in silence. I found myself thinking about our critic all the way home, and in the middle of the night. As a performer, I know how hard it can be just to watch someone else performing. I'd rather be up there, dishing it out. That option is open to me. It would never be open to him again.Most of the people seemed like they were digging our music. Toward the end, nearing 2 AM, it got incredibly loud, with hundreds of popping balloons, pounding drums, and deafening bass and guitar. The monitors were completely drowned out, and we were singing by the seat of our pants. Had we been all that bad? The answer was out there in the music we'd played, swirling like smoke across a parquet floor.

Finally, I had no recourse but to lay my disappointment to rest. And to work on my vocals.
Many thanks to beloved Shila Wilson for her support, great photographs and for watching out for the youngest revelers. Sheels, you made it possible for the kids to be with us on NYE, and we're forever grateful.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Hundred-Acre Wood

Although I deeply appreciate your enthusiasm for our little sanctuary and the stories it contains, as a onetime assessor of habitat quality for the Nature Conservancy, I know in my rational brain that this woods is nothing special. It's been grazed and cut over too many times to count, it is eroded and exploited, and it's still struggling to recover a fraction of its former diversity and glory. All it needs is time, and we're giving it time. It gets a little more special with each passing year. But in truth, it is special to me, because it is ours to protect. The core of its enchanted nature: It's being looked at a lot more closely than most given 80-acre parcels.

The same could be said of Chet Baker. He's really nothing extraordinary, any more than anyone else's dog, despite what I may think as his proud owner. He's cute and smart and comical, but all dogs are. The difference is that Chet has a dedicated chronicler of his every move, down on her stomach taking pictures of him as he goes about his doggly bidness. Listening to dogs having a barkarama down Goss' Fork, here. His spirit, captured. Did Erma Bombeck lead an extraordinary life? She'd have been the first to deny it. What she did was use the ordinary to create something extraordinary. We all responded not so much to the events she described as the way she described them and brought them to our attention as funny or poignant. Noticing what was funny or quirky was her art. I feel that noticing things like bottle gardens is my work. I find the best things when I head off in a direction I've never taken before. A good metaphor for the creative journey.

It makes me happy to think that "The Hopes of Ferns" post might inspire someone to get off the trail and kick around behind an old homesite. I think that most of us are too afraid of getting lost in the woods, bitten by a snake, or caught doing something illegal, so we mindlessly stay on the beaten path and miss a lot of the coolest experiences by doing so. We let our fear be our guide, and fear is a dull guide.

Down in the woods to the left of this road that I travel every day is a pond, and in that pond is an enormous breeding population of red-spotted newts. It is the most magical of places. Would you know it by looking at the road? Would you know it if you sat in your car every afternoon, waiting for the bus to come at 4:18 p.m., and never made the time to take the kids down the enchanted path?
People leave traces of their inhabitance everywhere, and the visible efforts of nature to repatriate old homesteads are very moving to me. I owe that spirit of curiosity to my dad, who loved to poke around in tumbledown sheds and bring home relics. When I was old enough, I joined him, though he was always afraid I'd fall through the floors when I ventured upstairs (especially spooky!). Nobody else much liked going upstairs, and I still climb the stairs of abandoned buildings in a half-crouch. As for taking relics: I'd clean up those liniment bottles, and leave a few for the greenhouse fairies. I felt Emily Morgenstern smiling as I picked up her watering can. I think the spirits would rather see their belongings--even their discards-- being appreciated than left to moulder. Abandoned homesteads aren't tombs with a curse. They're just what they are--poignant leftovers for most to ignore, and a few to cherish.

On leaving Baker home: A touch of melancholy and loneliness pervades most of my favorite songs. It's a potent creative kicker. I had a huge lump in my throat as I walked out alone--it reminded me of my first shopping trip without Liam in the seat of the grocery cart. He was in his first morning of preschool, and as nice as it was not to have to buy animal crackers and open them before buying them, I cried all the way through the market. I didn't realize how absorbed I had become in Baker's enjoyment of the woods--seeing it through his eyes-- until his happy little presence was taken away. Dogs do change one's encounters with and perception of things. Like squirrels, foxes, turkeys and deer, to name four. I have two weeks to think about how taking Chet Baker along changes my experience in the woods. (Taking Liam to the grocery store certainly changes that experience!) By walking without him, Ill be able to see better what walking with him actually is. I'll see the negative space he leaves. And perhaps I'll be able to alter my brisk "dog-walker" pace and outlook when he's finally able to rejoin me. There are runes on the beech trees, and they all need to be deciphered, so I must be going.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Hopes of Ferns

The last picture of Chet, free to run, for at least three weeks. I know that every dog owner thinks her dog is the breed standard, but my beautiful little man-dog makes me catch my breath. At 24.3 lb., he'd better quit filling out or he'll be too big to be "perfect!" (The breed standard has an upper limit of 25 lb.) Three weeks of enforced rest aren't going to do much for his waistline, that's for sure.

The surveyors who are shooting the corners on our land came again this morning and were all happy to see their "little buddy" again. Chet Baker had run himself ragged escorting them around our place yesterday. One mentioned that he'd noticed that Chet was favoring one hind leg. Yeah, I know. That's why he can't come with you today.
Chet was vexed at me for keeping him inside all day. As consolation I let him come out to visit with the surveying crew when they came back for lunch. I never cease to marvel at the speed with which Chet is able to win hearts. It was clear they wanted him along. He just makes you feel good to be with him.
And so, when I finally put my boots on and gathered camera and binoculars and notepad to take my sunny-day hike, it was very hard to look Chet in the eyes and tell him he had to stay home. He was play-bowing and wagging and so eager to go. And yet I think he understands. I keep telling him we need to rest his leg, and sending him mental pictures of himself holding it up as he walks, and I believe he is getting them.
I took a new route, something I wouldn't normally do with Chet, because there are cattle nearby. I walked north into one corner of our land, and followed a stream all the way out to a neighbor's big pasture.
There are ghosts in these woods, ghosts of the people who used to live in a white Ohio farmhouse atop the hill to the east. They've all died in that house, and the house has been bulldozed and gone four years or more, but the ghosts still wander, I can feel them. I was in a bit of a skittish mood because I hadn't been down here for at least a decade; I knew there was a big coyote den somewhere here and, while pre-Chet I'd have been eager to find it, now it spooks me a bit. I found the skull of a domestic cat at the mouth of a coyote den on our land once, and my worst nightmare would be finding Chet's little round skull on a mound of well-worn earth at the mouth of a den. So naturally, the first thing I found was a pile of bones.Even though I love a good mystery, I always jump when I find bones in the woods. I'm convinced that one day, if I keep exploring this much, I will find a human body. Deer bones are just about the same size as human bones, and there are always a few moments before I can convince myself that I'm just looking at the remains of an ungulate. Eep. I found the foreleg bones and felt my own arms to make sure they were deer and not human. The great big scapulae were reassuring.
I remembered there being a dump in a gully down here, and I found it. Old dumps aren't as depressing as recent dumps; it's not as jarring (get it?) to see glass and metal as it is to find plastic. The colors go better with the woods, and old trash almost seems to belong there. I did bring this lovely old watering can home for the stone fireplace. It's useless but evocative, and I hate to see it rust to nothing in the woods. I think of Emily Morgenstern watering her flowers with it and it makes me smile. I never knew her but I heard that she would wave from her window at the former owners of our house as they went by every morning. If she wasn't there waving, they'd check on her. Country stuff, survival stuff.
I love finding bottle gardens. And what a treasure trove I found today. It's not hard to see how gardens get started in old bottles that are uncapped. A few leaves blow in and rot, rain collects, fern spores blow in or get carried by insects; the garden begins to grow, a natural terrarium, protected from the harshest weather.
They were all cool. But you have to love this one. The only possible entry point for these fern spores would be the tiny crack in the Sanka lid. There is no soil in the jar; the fern is living just on its own rotten fronds from seasons past. You have to hand it to plants, you really do. Something in me wanted to open the jar, and free these ferns to the air and soil, but I left the garden just as it was, to return and see what becomes of it.

This one blew my mind. I couldn't find so much as a crack in the jar lid. And yet, inside there was a lump of soil, and a mound of moss, thriving in its closed environment. The only clue as to how it might have gotten there was a creeping moss frond that had worked its way through the jar lid. But the soil? How did it get in there? Beats me. And why would the moss want to work its way into the jar? Perhaps I shouldn't try to ascribe goals to moss. There isn't a reason, purpose or intent for everything. Finally I broke out into the Cut, and gazed out on what our neighbors have made of their woods. I looked back over my shoulder at the forest on our land, and realized that there's a place and a purpose for both. The forest holds ever so much more promise, though, of hidden life and birdsong. Two squirrels dashed away, spattering through the leaves, and flocks of golden-crowned kinglets followed me all the way home.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Chet a la Vet

Today was Chet's long-anticipated visit to Dr. Lori Lutz, to see what might be going on with his left hind knee. I innocently reported his skipping gait on my blog, to be met by Boston owners and a bona-fide veterinarian expressing concern that the behavior might indicate a slipping patella (kneecap)--something Bostons as a breed are genetically prone to. Yipes! Add this to the vast galaxy of things I knew nothing about.
I kept my mouth shut, did a lot of online reading, consulted with Chet's deeply concerned breeder, consulted further with Katdoc, and made an appointment to get Chet's knees checked out by Dr. Lutz.
This morning, surveyors showed up to shoot the corners on our property, part of a conservation easement we're working on (don't worry, we're not putting in the Indigo Hill Mall). I let Chet out to chat with the surveyors while they were having lunch and typically he followed them deep into the woods for the afternoon. I started to get worried about him around 12:30, and began calling him in earnest around 1 pm, when I was packed up and ready to go. I had to make a big circle around the house, calling and whistling, before the sound waves reached him. When he finally heard me he must have been all the way down to the back forty, but he came galloping up, panting and muddy and thoroughly delighted with himself for having escorted the surveyors around the borders of our 80 acres. I always knew he'd come back--he knows our woods like the back of his paw--but still! I didn't want him to miss our appointment!
On the way into town, we followed this truck. What's that on Poooooh's paw? I'm sorry. I have to do this. It is the kind of humor endemic to my region of Appalachia. Good thing there's a sign that says "Sewage Only." Somebody might accidentally put pasteurized milk in there.

Even though Chet has boarded there for as long as nine days, even though he gets his shots there, he loves to go to the vet's office. He loves the vet techs, the boarding staff and especially Dr. Lutz. He does stick rather close to Mether, though, sitting on my lap like a little beggartick as he watches the goings on at the front counter. This is one situation where my little old Olympus shines. I cannot take a picture of a dog on my lap with the Canon EOS, no way no how.
Dr. Lutz was busy with other patients, and we had to wait in the exam room. Chet listened intently at the door to the howlings and yowlings of other patients, cocking his head and swiveling his bat radar ears.
He was nervous, panting and yawning. I yawn when I'm nervous, too. I could empathize. It's OK, Bacon. Dr. Lutz is just going to feel your legs.
Finally Dr. Lutz arrived, sat down and allowed Chet to wash her face. He adores her. She said she would like some of her other patients to observe him and perhaps follow suit. While he sat on her lap she began his exam, then put him up on the table to follow up. He is SUCH a good boy for her.
Patellar luxation (slipping kneecaps) is something to watch for in Boston terriers and many other breeds, including dachshunds, Yorkies, and chihuahuas, to name just a few. Some of them are born with too-shallow grooves in the end of the femur, and that allows the patella, nestled in a long, straplike ligament that covers the knee, to slip from side to side, out of that groove. Both Chet's parents have been checked and are clear of the defect, as are his grandparents.

The more Dr. Lutz moved Chet's kneecaps around, the more convinced she became that they were fine. The right hind kneecap moved a little, but it wouldn't even rate a 1 on a scale of 1-6 for patellar luxation. The left patella moved more, but tenderness in the knee joint (evident when she tried to flex the joint from side to side) and some loss of muscle mass in the left hind leg (from favoring it) indicated that this was probably due to a strain or stretching of one of the cruciate ligaments inside the knee, which in turn stretched the tendon holding the patella in place. In other words: Chet's knees are built fine. He has just hurt himself somehow.

I cannot imagine how he might have hurt himself. Dr. Lutz described Chet as an "athlete" who is subject to the same kinds of ligament strains and tears that a basketball player might incur. This is the Michael Jordan of dogs, people. He flies with his tongue lolling out. He lives to hear guests exclaim, "MAN! That dog can JUMP!" or "He got me right on the LIPS and I wasn't even bending down!!!"

So that's the good news. We know why he holds his left hind leg up occasionally, and it isn't because he was made wrong from birth. I can hear a big sigh of relief from eastern Maryland. There certainly are some sighs around here, not least from my new Certificate of Deposit account.

Now the bad news. Dr. Lutz has prescribed two weeks of couch potato behavior for Chet. Aggggghhh. And two weeks after that of leashed walking. No jumping, no racing after deer, no bounding, no humpty running, no leaping up to kiss us or grab sticks held high. I don't know how we're going to accomplish that. The thought of taking a woodswalk without my pied sprite is killing me. Leaving him to watch me walk out the meadow alone? Unthinkable.

Maybe it'll rain for a month. Maybe I'll be able to slip outside while he's sleeping, and sneak up on deer, fox and turkey like I used to do. The silver lining is that Chet's patellae are fine, and that this is something we stand a chance of achieving a cure for, without surgery. Yayyy!Dr. Lutz is well aware that she's palping a blogstar here. I thank her for allowing me to use her image in this report. Any errors in the translation of her diagnosis will be mine.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Bloggers Who Crow About Their Cameras

There ought to be a German word for bloggers who crow about their cameras. Germans are so good at those portmanteau words. Something like Kamerageliebterblogunpfaffers. We're here, we're crowing, get used to it. Arooka rooka rooo!
I was happily shooting away with my 70-300 mm. Canon zoom lens, getting some modestly good pictures. I was after a nice junco shot, because I always seem to be shooting down on juncos, and they look so dull against grass. My pictures make them look boring, instead of sweet but feisty, which they certainly are. So I was pleased to catch this little immature looking properly jazzy as it prepared to jump over to the suet dough feeder. I like the way that inner toe is holding to the branch--something I do in my drawings, too. I waited a long time, until my bluebirds finally showed up, and this was the best shot I got of one of the males. Is there anything prettier than a winter bluebird, all chubbed up on suet dough?
Like I said, I was happy, schlicking away at these birds. And Bill had to come and ruin it all by saying, "Zick! Try my lens! You'll love it!" His is the fancy-schmancy fixed 300 mm. Canon lens, that advertises itself by being a highbrow taupe color instead of black. And he has a doubler on it, so it's functionally a 600 mm. lens. You get better quality out of fixed lenses than zoom lenses. I knew that intellectually, but had not yet experienced it.
I said, "No, I'd rather not fall out of love with my lens just as I'm learning to use it, thank you." And he turned away and got all pouty because after all he was just being sweet and generous because that's all he ever is so I sighed and got up and got his giant lens and chonked it onto my camera and fell smack in love with the !@#@$#$%# thing just like I knew I would. As Emeril would say, "BAM! KICK IT UP A NOTCH!" Rats rats rats rats rats.
This cardinal isn't in the best focus (the camera kept focusing on the durn dough) but oh, what a pose. I mean, how lucky are we to have bluebirds, and these solid red grosbeaks in our yards to admire? The Europeans just swoon over our birds. Don't get me wrong--they have some brilliant birds over there, but most of them are brown. I'm trying to get a rise out of European Zick blog readers, if there are any out there. Think it's gonna work?

And then it happened--I was shooting away at a cardinal when he decided to leap down to the suet dish. He spread his wings, of course, and fluttered the rest of the way. But he definitely had a Nureyev moment. Boinggg! I loooove this picture. I'm sure professional bird photographers throw out shots like this all the time. I am so not a professional bird photographer. These are the ones I love most--the outtakes, because they tell me something I didn't know about birds. Imagine just flinging yourself out into space like that with your parachutes still folded. He looks like a little seahorse.

I heard a couple of nuthatches arguing off my left shoulder, and swung the camera around just in time to catch this little guy threatening another bird offstage. The hunched back, spread tail and drooped wings are nuthatch for GET LOST. Of course, next time I want to capture the bird with its wings fully spread. There will always be a next time, as long as there is bright morning sun and suet dough. Oh, my my. Yes, I am in love, a card-carrying Kamerageliebterblogunpfaffer. Apologies to the Germans. Zickefoose is a German name. Some of my favorite relatives are German.

Naraht's 15 Minutes

What a nice surprise, an email from my friend Debby Kaspari in Oklahoma, informing me that my commentary on Naraht, the rehabilitated box turtle who lives on our preserve, had just aired on NPR. While it aired, I was up to my ears in pork ribs, mashed potatoes and apple crisp, working feverishly with Bill to whip up dinner for nine. We had arrived home from our New Year's Eve gig at 1:45 pm, following a leisurely morning and brunch at the hotel where we played. Guests were due to arrive at 2 pm. You read right. We managed to hold everyone off until 4, by which time we had dinner well underway, the music equipment unloaded, and the suitcases and extraneous stuff cleared from the foyer. Guess who was in bed and asleep by 9:30 pm last night? Everyone. And guess who's fried crispy today? You got it.
There will be more New Year's Eve news to come, but I need to borrow some photos from Bill, and that could take until tomorrow. We're both buried in all the things that didn't get done while we were doing other things. I mean, it's not like we were sitting on a tuffet with our finger in a pie.
If you'd like to listen to the turtle commentary, click here.
Baker is standing on my lap, front paws on the desk next to the mouse, staring off into space. The sun is hitting little rainbows off his hair. I am semiconscious.