Thursday, May 31, 2007

Beautiful Bayfield

My Internet service has been down for a day. It took me almost three hours this morning to establish that it's because the kids are home from school. Well, not exactly because of that, but let's just say there's a bit (pronounced gigabyte) more Internet activity (think downloads of movies and graphics, Internet radio, PDF files, fancy wallpaper and signatures, RAM-eating games, and most importantly, endless instant messaging) than there ever was before school let out. So what happened is that we exceeded our daily download limit of 200 MB, and it's taking the system 24 hours to "recover." Like it's writhing on the ground, unable to send or receive, gagging on downloads, and it's all our fault. What I gathered from the carefully worded advice I received from the tech support person at is that my system would "recover" a whole lot faster if I just got out my Visa card and bought more bandwidth. In fact, I could cure it altogether! We're download hogs, and it's going to cost them ever so much more to accommodate us. It's clever of them, really, to make you sit and stew in your own Net-free juices for 24 hours, then make about five calls, wading waist-deep in automated menu choices that have nothing to do with your problem, trying to track down the branch you should be talking to, sit on megahold for 15 minutes, before finally get a human being (albeit somewhere in Mumbai) who seems to have the answer to your problem. At that point, you're on your knees, waving your credit card, pathetically grateful to hear a living human voice, and ready to do anything to get back online. I didn't cave, this time, but it was unnerving. I need to go back to Wisconsin now., Bayfield, Wisconsin is just lovely. It has given no ground to chain eateries and very little to condominiums (there's only one modest set that I saw). It perches on a high bluff over Superior, chock full of Victorian manses, drowning in lilac hedges, a serene and regal lady gazing out her parlor window at the ever-changing inland sea of Superior. I stayed at Gray Oak Bed and Breakfast, and slept like a baby in my room on half of the top floor. I felt like Queen for a weekend, eating my raspberries and cream and scones in my room. The Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival sure knows how to treat a country mouse, and I thank Neil and Susan for extending their considerable hospitality to me for the weekend.

There was a special magic in looking out my window to see the biggest American Chestnut tree I'd ever seen-maybe the biggest in all Wisconsin. Growing far north of the chestnut's usual range, it somehow escaped the killing blight that to this day beats back sprouts from chestnut stumps all over the country. Long may you run, noble tree.
I ate every meal but two at Maggie's Restaurant, on the recommendation of the incomparable Jess Riley. Yes. The food was rich, well-prepared, satisfying, fast, and fresh. I got the whitefish twice. Might as well eat what's coming right from the lake. I did draw a line at whitefish livers. Nah. I'll pass. Liver, bleeeagh, but fish liver?

Beyond my lovely inn, Maggie's fabulous food, the lake, and the nice folks who struck up conversations with me wherever I went, my favorite thing in Bayfield was a little red fox kit who was born under the toolshed of one of the houses there. Her bigger brother had left, presumably to hunt with his mother, and this little girl was waiting out the evening until Mom returned. The homeowners told me that one night they'd seen the vixen bring in a grilled chicken breast. I told them I admired their restraint, not feeding the foxes (I'd have a really hard time not accidentally dropping a chicken neck or a few giblets here and there). They were every bit as thrilled to have foxes under their toolshed as I would have been, but they had a lot more sense than I do. May they be blessed with foxes every spring.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gifts of Bark Point

After a brief Chet Baker interlude, we're still riding on the incredible birding Wisconsin offered. Hope you don't mind a little time-space de-continuum. I just have to show you Wisconsin, even if I break the real time barrier--boom!

You never know what you'll find. Especially when you're alone, on a pilgrimage just to see what you can see. I was in an utterly Zen state of mind, once I figured out that the absolute best birding in rotten cold weather, with a gale coming off the lake from the northeast, would doubtless be on the peninsulas that project out into Lake Superior. I looked at the map and targeted two peninsulae for my afternoon's birding.

The anticipation is even more delicious when you're birding in an unfamiliar biome. I had asked around a little about a few birds I really wanted to see, but a number of them still took me by surprise. A small, finely striped sparrow spooked around in a boggy patch near the northern end of Bark Point. I recognized it from the numerous fall records at our place: a classic northern nesting sparrow, the Lincoln's sparrow. It's like a delicate song sparrow, finely penciled, beautifully shaded. If I had to guess, I'd say this bird had just bathed, which would account for the ragged look.

Serendipity was with me this evening. Four big birds, thrasher sized but heavier, flopped across the road right in front of my car. The general impression was of silt-gray birds with big white heads. I lowered the electric window and threw a handful of roasted corn snacks out onto the road even before rolling to a stop. GRAY JAYS!! Hello babies!! Every birder I'd spoken to had warned me that gray jays, the tame, confiding "whiskey jacks" who haunt campsites, stealing everything that isn't tied down, were hard to come by in this part of the state. I'd have to drive 30 minutes south to the thick stands of spruce to find them. And I had driven down to the Clam Lake area, but not knowing where to go, had found none. I did have a really, really bad cheeseburger at a diner, where I got a dose of local color (including a loud, scary woman wearing a sweatshirt saying, "Save a Tree. Eat a Beaver. PETA Trapper's Association). Being a writer, I considered it a break-even proposition...bad cheeseburger, fabulous material.

Ryan Brady, state biologist and birder/photographer extraordinaire, said, "Don't get your hopes up. It'd be really unusual to see them around here." And so I didn't, but I was ready for them, hurling GladCorn (my favorite birding snack) when grace sent them my way.

Ryan thought that perhaps these jays were the remnant of a mini-gray jay invasion of northern Wisconsin that happened last year. Making their way back to Canada, perhaps, and stalled on Bark Point just like all the warblers and sparrows.

Gray jays have lived around people for so long that they have learned to look for them, going to investigate each curl of smoke or report of a gun, hoping it'll mean a meal. Perhaps these birds sought me out. I was mighty glad to see them, too. They swooped in without hesitation, five of them, grabbing corn off the blacktop, so close I couldn't focus. One stored his corn bits in some Usnea moss, then sat for his portrait. Oh, I love gray jays, and I love birding, and Wisconsin.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dogie Stogie

,I've been corresponding with a bunch of friends lately, both new and old, and as it happens all of them need a great big old Chet fix right now, for very different reasons. Jane, Lisa, Wendi, Fiona, Jen, Mary, Shila and especially Chris, this one's for you.A good cigar, a sunny evening. Dog gone it, I think I left my matches in my other tux. I'll check.

Not there. A nice stogie, and I have nothing to light it with. Wait. Here comes a gentleman. Perhaps he will help me. I hope he will not notice that I am beginning to drool. I am not ordinarily a drooly person, but this is a meaty cigar.Excuse me! I hate to bother you, but...would you be able to give a light to an American gentleman?I just so happen to have my lighter with me. Happy to oblige.Ahhhh. At last. Puparillo Supreme. Finest Cuban. Puff, puff, puff.A little bit harsh, I must say. My humidor must be malfunctioning. Ack! Gack! Don't worry, Mether. It is only kennel cough.The afterglow lasts. Anyone for tennis?
It is a good life I lead.

Thanks to Bill of the Birds for the light (for Chet's stogie and the inspiration for this post)

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Warbler Pileup

After giving a Friday night keynote at the Chequemegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival, I had a field trip Saturday morning, and then a free afternoon. Thank you, Ryan Brady, for inviting me, for letting me do my thing and experience the beauty of lakeshore Wisconsin. I owe you several! The keynote went really well; the field trip was fabulous. There's almost nothing trip leaders Matt and Betsy don't know about boreal wildlife and flora, from fungi right on up to bears. We noticed that there were waves of warblers going along the Sea Caves trail just west of Bayfield, and none of them seemed to want to fly out over the lake. Who could blame them? It was 32 degrees and snowing! This got my wheels turning about where to go Sunday afternoon. Using geography and bad weather to my advantage, I headed out to the two most prominent peninsulae on Wisconsin's north shore. I figured that migrants would not want to cross Superior with a headwind (it was coming out of the east, very strongly, whipping up whitecaps) and with the double handicap of severe cold and scarce food. They'd want to camp awhile, wait out the headwind, and fly when they'd had a chance to refuel and warm up a bit. And most importantly, I knew they would be stacking up on the north-pointing peninsulae, just as they stack up at Crane Creek on Ohio's north shore, and on Point Pelee after crossing Lake Erie. On Sunday, the temperature never got above 42, but it felt like a gift after Saturday, which stayed in the low 30's. Brrrr! I was swaddled in five layers, one of which was prime goosedown, and my best winter hat. I hadn't packed gloves (it just seemed like overkill for late May!), and by midday Saturday I was walking with my hands down my pants--first the front side, then the back--trying to thaw them. Note to self: Buns don't warm hands as well as belly does. Too well-insulated. Every time I lifted my binoculars it was like holding a big ice cube, and it would take my painstakingly warmed hands back to freezing again.
Roman's Point was just the ticket. Densely wooded in spruce, birch, sugar maple and balsam fir, it provided safe haven and caterpillars for more warblers than I've ever seen in one place at one time. When waves appeared, they'd swarm through the trees at all levels. Everywhere I looked was a bird, sometimes several. It was stunning, and I was completely alone to enjoy it. Maybe nobody else thought to go out the peninsulae, amazing as that seemed. It certainly would have been a good time to lead a field trip!
I rolled slowly along in my little rented Impala, snapping pictures out the window. When a good wave came along, I'd decar, and walk silently on the dirt road, moving as little as possible.

Wilson's warbler is quite common in the West, but a bit of a prize back East. We get them every few years on our farm, always in spring. The Wilson's male wears a yarmulke of black, and sings a staccato song that's somewhere in between a Nashville's and a magnolia's. It's one of the ones I have to chase down each time I hear it.

Finally-a Blackburnian low enough in a tree that I could get something recognizable. As cold as it was-42 degrees-these birds were pulling caterpillars out from under leaves with good frequency, and I felt happy to see them fill their stomachs with good food. I would hate to be a caterpillar on Roman's point, in an east wind at 42 degrees. There was a corps of gleaners looking to lay on fat, and they were gong to stay on the point until the wind shifted.
He stretched to grab a luckless caterpillar, giving me a pure shot of flame.

This little female magnolia warbler gave me pause for a moment; I'm always thinking about Kirtland's warblers and hoping for lightning to strike. But she was cute and she didn't have to be federally endangered to captivate me.
Black-throated green warblers were singing their distinctive whistling buzz--zee zee zee zu zee! everywhere I went. Black-bearded warbler would be a good name. It's rare to get one down low like this. Just another benefit of birding in rotten weather.

Asked why he never painted warblers, the great landscape and wildlife painter Francis Lee Jacques said, "The difference between warblers and no warblers in a landscape is very slight." As much as I love Jacques' work (he most famously painted the backdrops for the American Museum of Natural History's dioramas), I beg to differ.. To me, this spruce tree finds its spirit in the yellow-rumped warbler. His jingling song sifts through the spruce needles, hangs on the boughs like tinsel.
Wisconsin for spring warbler migration. Put it on your calendar for next year. Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival. Terrific people, ambitious field trips, migrants dripping off the trees. You might need to pack a parka and hat. And gloves. But remember: There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. Oh, and you pronounce it Sha-WAH-mah-gun. It only took me three days to get it right. Definitely beats stuttering, "Check-kwa-MEE-gone" and having the locals look at you with real pity. Do yourself a favor. Pencil it in on your calendar right NOW.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Merganser Surprise

On my solo birding day on Sunday, I checked out two peninsulae that project out into Lake Superior. One is called Bark Point, and it's long and narrow, with sloughs along the east edge. The sun was hitting beautifully off the rounded lake rocks and pewter water. You can see how far behind the trees are in this frigid lakeshore place--they're just coming out. Ours in southern Ohio are almost at full Juneness, even with the April cold spell that froze their first set of leaves right off.

A pair of common mergansers, which breed in large cavities in sycamores, usually, were paddling close into shore. This is the only duck in which the female sports a crest and the male doesn't. He does have a puffy pompadour on his hind neck (kind of like BOTB's).

I moved slowly closer to the mergansers as they paddled away. Got one more shot of the drake, lovely bird that he is.
I stepped out onto a little wooden dock and two different ducks burst right out from under it. From the intricate pattern of their wings, I knew I had red-breasted mergansers this time! I fired away as they pattered off into the lake. I felt so at one with my camera, so happy to be recording them to look at later. The moment was so fleeting, and I knew I was capturing something gorgeous. Beautiful, beautiful, and just about as much fun as I know how to have. Thank you, mergansers; thank you, Canon image-stabilizing lens!These two mergansers--common and red-breasted-- are among the largest ducks in North America. All the more amazing that they're cavity nesters. Red-breasted mergansers nest in Wisconsin, too, though I'm so used to seeing them on salt water in winter that it was strange to see them in summer on fresh water. They're almost tanklike--look at the proportion of head to body. The other thing I think is cool is their indeterminate number of tail feathers. Most birds have a determinate, even number--ten or twelve, and that doesn't vary. If I count right, these birds have something like seventeen tail feathers. You'll find this trait in grouse and turkeys too. Some have a dozen, some have 16, some have 19...I don't understand why that should be, but it is, and it's one of the things that bird painters need to know. Ah, birds.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Flash Horses of Wisconsin

A sweet pair of resting paints. I couldn't help but think about Boston terriers, on a slightly larger scale.

If any generalization can be made, here's one: I talk about things I love a lot in this blog. Like many young girls, I went through a heavy duty horse phase. Whatever the Freudian implications, I just had to be around them. I still adore them, though I know a little too much about vet bills and shoeing and housing and tangling up in barbed wire to want to actually own one. But man, do I love to feast my eyes on horses, the flashier the better. North Dakota drives me wild in that regard. Seems like every string of horses is made up mostly of paints and skewbalds. But Wisconsin came through for me, on my drive back to the airport.

This was a very nice strawberry roan paint.
This one had a bowler hat of black. I always like to imagine the owners, watching a foal being born. He's got a hat!! And a beard!
Not to be outdone was this half strawberry, half vanilla pony. He had glass eyes to top off the ensemble. This one would be fun to name. A Neopolitan pony.I'm a sucker for a nice buckskin. Look at the dapples in his coat. He shines with health, and that long mane is so appealing. Mmmm. I'd pay his vet bills.This is one of the more amazing pintos I've ever beheld, a crazy carousel horse, a work of art, a canvas in flesh and blood. Yes, the other half of his head was white, and so were his eyes--a pale ice blue.

But this filly just killed me. A leopard Appaloosa, blue roan to boot. Please. Could she be any flashier? I could have stayed and watched these horses all day. Given world enough and time, I'd paint horse portraits. I've done one on commission and loved every minute of it-a dapple gray Thoroughbred. That was years ago. Sometimes I think how much simpler life might be if I just painted pet portraits. I'd start with this little filly, whether the owners wanted a painting of her or not. Heck, I'd paint the whole lot of them.

Droooool. Horse fix.

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Nest Check

On May 17, I hurried out in the afternoon and evening to get my bluebird boxes checked before leaving for Wisconsin. I thought you'd like to see the life springing and burgeoning from these little wooden containers on our farm. In a rare photoglitch, brought about by an overburdened laptop, I lost all my photos of feathered young--I was going to show you how to sex baby bluebirds. I had a bunch of pictures of Lang Elliott holding Chet that vanished into the ether, as well. And some great pictures of Buck the Bull, with Chet staring at him. Rats, rats, rats. There goes your Chetfix. And your Buckfix.
Well, then, a Phoebefix. The kids help me do nest checks every week. I pick them up at the bus stop and we head down the country road where I have five boxes strung along. Phoebe's holding the nest in our sideyard here.

Can you spot the runt? Runts in bluebirds are fairly common. This one is delayed--the center bird at the bottom of the picture, who has fewer pinfeathers--but I think it will make it. There are earthworms stuck in the hair of two of the chicks--a sign that there's not a whole lot of food around. Bluebirds don't generally feed a lot of earthworms to their young unless there's nothing else around. I find it interesting that baby robins can subsist on earthworms, and that bluebirds tend to avoid them.

There were feathered babies in most of the boxes on Buck's road, and I had gorgeous pictures of their blue wings...ah well. There will be more.

The box at the end of our orchard had two five-day-old babies and three unhatched eggs. Generally, if the babies are two or more days old, and there's an unhatched egg along with them, it's safe to say that egg is not going to hatch. I took the eggs and opened them to see what might be going on. All three, infertile--as evidenced by the yellow, not red, contents. No blood vessels ever formed because the embryos never developed. Two of the eggs (top and right) were disturbingly thin-shelled, cracking like cellophane, while the bottom egg had a shell of normal thickness. I see this occasionally, and it seems to run in certain females. Perhaps she has a pesticide load; perhaps she's just young. Ensuing years may tell. This is why I write everything down.
Jayne begged me to photograph the's a Carolina chickadee, Day 9. Pretty cute, but nothing to when he gets feathers! Their nest is so fragile I can't take it out to photograph them all. It's a little tower of soft moss and hair, and it threatens to fall apart completely if I handle it. So I'll drag a baby out now and then for its portrait.
I wrote this post in Ashland, Wisconsin, killing a little time before going out on a kayak trip. It was 62 degrees and still when I awoke at 5 AM. A wind came in off Lake Superior, and it's dropping precipitously through the 50's and into the 40's. Yeah, I knew I'd need that parka. And looking at the whitecaps, I decided to leave the big camera in the car. Just the point-and-shoot, and that one is in some peril, I think. Bring on my PFD.

The kayak trip was great, I'm home, doing laundry (Something Different!) and preparing to melt my computer with RAMloads of bird pictures from Wisconsin. The weather here is NOT 32 and snowing, and blowing a bitter blue gale. It is 80 and sunny, just right for drying softball uniforms and socks. Bill announced tonight that he has softball practice, so he can't come to Phoebe's game in McConnellsville, a mere hour away. So now there are three people in this house with practices and games, all at different times. Maybe I'd better join a league of my own. In my ideal sport, I would meet other women to lie in chaise lounges and drink wine and eat Gouda on AkMak crackers, while watching birds at selected hotspots. While I was engaged in my team sport, I would not be able to feed anyone, pick up after them, do their laundry, or drive them to practice, nor would I be able to sit on aluminum bleachers and cheer them on, because after all I would be engaged in my very own, highly important team sport. Nightly practices, and then competitions to see who could spot the most birds. Glug, glug, yak yak, munch munch. lookit that! Anyone?

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Monday, May 21, 2007

I'm in Wisconsin; My Blog's Still in Pennsylvania

Yes, I'm peregrinating, and there's a bit of a lag from one trip to the other as I scurry around planting and watering and weeding and downloading photos and shuttling the kids to and from sports events. Agggghhh. I never even unpacked my Pennsylvania suitcase before I had to pack for Wisconsin (I'm headlining the first annual Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival May 18-20). There was so much happening in Pennsylvania on the weekend of May 10-13 that it's flopping all over my trip to Wisconsin, and even I'm confused. Sitting in the rockin' Duluth airport, on my way home again from WI, with FREE wireless Internet (hear that, stingy ol' Columbus?), sending a canned post your way. I've got to download the Wisconsin photos on my home desk computer or risk melting my'll be hearing about boreal birding in Wisconsin later in the week. In two words, Wisconsin ROCKED.

I'll be hitting you with some real boreal stuff, wildflower and bird, but for now, here are some more northwest Pennsylvania's dwarf ginseng, Panax trifolium.Do you know who this is?

Breeding Blackburnian warblers sing a song so high-pitched that it spirals up out of the range of my hearing at the end, and that's the single best way to identify it. I couldn't get anything but this tiny burning coal, straight overhead. Ah, well, you can tell what it is. Oh, to live where Blackburnians breed, that would be a very fine thing. Not complaining, mind you; Kentucky and cerulean warblers are fine, too.
We've got these, the wandering juvenile phase of the red-spotted newt, known as the red eft. Earlier this spring, I posted about our nearby newt pond. I was delighted to find this little creature moving through a mud puddle, on his way who knows where. Efts can travel for miles, spreading newt genes far and wide. They're gene-dispersal machines.
Blue cohosh, with its interestingly-hued flowers and leaves of glaucous blue
I wasn't in the hellebore swamp for long before I heard the annoyed squeal of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a bird I should have expected, but which took my by surprise. Of course they'd breed here, tapping sugar maples! About a mile farther down the trail, I found a glorious male, drumming his unique broken-staccato song. Oh, what delight to hear it ringing through the quiet woods!
The woodland was nearly flat, and the trails looped around on themselves. I wasn't at all sure where I was going, but I kept walking, hoping that they formed a loop, fighting the thought that they'd lead me away from my car to parts unknown. It was drizzling and I couldn't even tell where the sun was to orient myself. Needless to say, I got back to my car in a couple of hours, and was mighty glad to see it. That little flutter at the breastbone was part of the magic of being alone.
A young sugar maple surges upward, in the shade of its parent's corpse. I had to stand and look at this for a long time. The mature tree had broken off in the wind a couple of years earlier, and its child was wasting no time going on with life.

I'll be flying and hanging out in airports for the rest of today. Bill of the Birds is home from his weekend at Mohican State Forest in central Ohio, and he sounds really tired. I don't have the stay-up-late gene, and there was nobody to talk to but the birds, so I tucked myself in by 9:30 each night, and surprised myself by sleeping soundly for eight or nine hours at a stretch. This tells me that there's something going on with my life at home that keeps me up. Well, it's not something, it's probably about ten million things. But it's nice to know I CAN sleep like a normal person when I'm out of context. That the systems all work; I've just got to pare away some of the worry and work that keep me running like a hyperkinetic shrew from dark of dawn to midnight. Hmmm. Travel, if you do it right, is good for creating perspective.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Wood Nymph Reverie

A perfect boreal forest floor: Canada mayflower in bud, two violets (there are people who know their violets, and I am not one of them), and partridgeberry, still bearing its mealy winter fruit.

Thirty-one years ago, I was hired by graduate student Sally Kleinfeldt at Harvard to assist with her study of herbivory in understory forest plants at the Harvard Forest, in Petersham, Massachusetts. I was pretty nubile then, and I and three to four other female compatriates, who spent our days crawling around Harvard Forest on our knees, painstakingly assessing herbivore damage to individual plant leaves, were immediately dubbed The Wood Nymph Research Team. I silk-screened us all T-shirts, we drove around from contra dance to contra dance, whooping it up and eating breakfast at 2 was a wild and heady time. I blew out the joint of my right big toe pivoting on it in my patented smooth swing, and it hurts me to this day.
I got to know boreal wildflowers pretty intimately, checking their leaves for holes. Coming to northwest Pennsylvania was like visiting old friends. Their names came swimming up out of my deepest memory, for I hadn't seen some of them since the summer of 1976 and '77. This could be hairy Solomon's seal, Polygonatum pubescens, but I wouldn't put money on it. I didn't check for pubescence. Continuing the theme of flowers under leaves is the mayapple behind it.Ah, starflower--Trientalis borealis. I love this little plant.
Foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia. It's related to the garden Heucheras, or coralbells--can you see the resemblance?
More foamflower, shaded by false hellebore, Veratrum viride. It's in the lily famly, but its leaves look like something so exotic, maybe an orchid.Trillium grandiflorum and Senecio obovatus, Trillium and golden ragwort, with a sprinkling of what might be swamp blue violets.
The bog was one big garden, just breathtakingly lovely, with everything arranged just so. It was raining lightly, and I struggled to get pictures, to show you what I saw. I took this walk on Sunday, all alone, and it was my reward for being "on" all weekend--just communing with the northern forest.
The marsh marigold Caltha palustris was all done, and so am I, for this post. Getting on a jet pland this morning. Packing my down parka. It's about 42 degrees here...what will it be on Lake Superior? See you Monday!


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pennsylvania Dreaming

We now return to our regularly-scheduled apolitical ain't nature wonderful programming. Here's a dripping hillside.

Canada warblers were building a nest on this weeping hillside. Imagine. Oh, beautiful bird, but too skulky for me, with your fanning tail and yellow eyeglasses, to present here.
My group suggested calling last weekend's event the Oil Region Warbler Festival. They were everywhere, with yellow warblers leading the pack. Sweet, sweet, sweet, they're so sweet. It could also safely be called the Oil Region Oriole Festival. Pairs of Baltimore orioles were flying around at eye level, gathering nesting material, everywhere we looked. Males fighting, rolling on the ground, a riot of orange and black, rich whistles ringing. This is one of our own birds low in a birch at Indigo Hill, checking out the Bird Spa. I'm pretty sure I'm never going to get a better oriole picture than this, given their penchant for treetops.

On my trip to northern Pennsylvania last weekend, I gave the keynote address and led two field trips for the Oil Region Birding Festival. It's so exciting to help with a first-time festival, to see the organizers scrambling to make everything come together, and to help by entertaining the participants. Toni Kresinski and other festival volunteers made me feel welcome and took good care of me at the beautiful Cross Creek Resort near Titusvile, where the event was centered. I got to meet fellow blogger Delia Guzman, who followed instructions and blurted BLOG! before she even said hello. It was great hanging out with sharp-eyed Delia, who treated our group to our only flicker and best wood thrush, and showing her some life birds (I think she got 23!!) There she is, partially obscured, in the red shirt, doing the Life Bird Wiggle with a bunch of other (female) trip participants. All the males mysteriously disappeared when I went to line up this photo. What's with that? What guy wouldn't want to do the Life Bird Wiggle for publication on the Internet?? Pfft.
I also got to hang out with my friends Marcy and Kathryn, and we stayed up too late eating olives and almonds, drinking a little wine, and yakking. We decided we need a girl's retreat here every year.

One of the best things about this festival is that it was billed as an event for beginning birders, and they showed up, about 115 strong. Advanced birders would have been just as thrilled with the flood of Neotropical migrants coming through the Oil Region last weekend. The birding was excellent and steady, with exciting fallouts of warblers, thrushes, tanagers, cuckoos and others along Oil Creek. This somewhat unattractively-named river is absolutely beautiful, as is the whole region; it's named because it's where petroleum was first discovered and pumped--The Valley that Changed the World.
Oil reserves long since depleted, it's time for the Oil Region Alliance to take action to boost ecotourism, and that's just what happened last weekend. There's so much to see here. Only four hours from my southern Ohio home, it's possible to get into a whole lot of nice boreal birds and flora. For instance, the area is just lousy with breeding rose-breasted grosbeaks; people treat them as just another feeder bird!
I think it should be the Oil Region Grosbeak Festival. Hmmph.
Find me a sharper bird than a male rose-breast in spring. Please. Isn't he overdoing it? When I see birds like this, I pity the poor Brits, who go all gooshy over reed warblers because they have such a stunning eyeline...we really do have an embarrassment of bird riches in this wonderful country. I took this picture on my own feeder, just before leaving for PA. When I came back, they were gone...maybe some of the birds I'd helped fatten with sunflower seeds were singing to me in Titusville?

Speaking of boreal birds, veeries love the sugar-maple and butternut dominated forests here. Oh, beautiful bird, if only you'd have sung for my trip people...I was left to play a pale imitation on my iPod when this gracile thrush finally disappeared into the shadows.
Leggy, ectomorphic and ethereal, the bird fits its haunting, flute-in-a-well song beautifully.

There's way too much beauty in the Oil Region of northwest Pennsylvania to put in one post. More anon!

I'm taking off first thing Friday morning for the Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival on beautiful Lake Superior, May 18-20. I'll be giving the keynote on Saturday, May 19 at 7 p.m at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center near Ashland, Wisconsin. I'm so excited to see Superior, a lake I've never laid eyes on, except from the air. Oh, and that Gordon Lightfoot song. I'm hoping my kayak doesn't tip over, because Superior, they said, never gives up her dead. Think I'll take the little ol' Olympus point-and-shoot on that trip, just in case. The Canon would drag me down too fast.

There are piping plovers there, my old friends from Nature Conservancy days. I'm planning for a kayak birding trip and a hike to the Sea Caves. The organizers have done a beautiful job getting the information out for this first-time festival, with a great color booklet and schedule of events and good publicity. The weather looks iffy, but bad weather looks worse from inside a window. I'm figuring it'll be 50's and rainy, and anything else will be a gift. Hard as it is to leave southern Ohio in May, I'm fueled by the fun I had re-discovering boreal wildflowers last weekend, and the road is calling. I'm excited to help Ashland and Bayfield County Tourism and Chequamegon Audubon forward ecotourism in this gorgeous area. You can be sure I'll have my camera along. Traveling that far north in May will take me back to the beginning of springtime. This is like the spring that never ends.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Haiku for Jerry Falwell

Arms wide, he gives
Gospel amounting to Jack
To the touch-me-nots.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Heady May

Oh, there's just too much to do, and the weather is too beautiful. I'm letting myself garden, and even buy a few plants for the border. I realized I was all out of delphiniums, which are short-lived perennials, so I've bought four and am hoping they're sky blue. I made hanging baskets and planters all day today with the plants from the greenhouse. Ahhhhh. The sun shone and the birds sang and I got real dirty. When I heard a good bird I lit out after it with the long lens.

This picture may not look like much, but I'm thrilled with it, because it shows a foraging behavior characteristic of blue-winged warblers. They insert the closed bill into an insect-damaged leaf cluster--often a webby one--and open it, prying it apart to find treasure inside. I've watched them do this but never thought I'd get a photo of it! Note how the bird has keyed in to the insect -damaged leaves. When they hop through the branches they're scrutinizing each leaf for chew holes left by caterpillars, and webbed-together leaves that might hide food. They're doing so much that we don't even realize or appreciate. Watching quietly opens it all to me.

While I take photos or garden, Chet Baker keeps me company through it all. Such a pretty boy, with his brindle coat and little cat paws.

The blue-grey gnatcatcher nest in our driveway is occupado. Such vocal little birds; they can't help singing even while incubating! How perfect they are, how perfect their nests.

I took this picture when the cardinal was brooding her young. They fledged yesterday, and they're peeping incessantly in the thicket behind the garage. Hooray! That's how fast May goes--like lightning. I'm so happy she got a brood out before the snakes got to them. It's a race in May, a race to procreate before the predators wake up.

On Mother's Day, Baker helped me shoot some crappy redstart pictures. He watched intently as I focused on the tiny bird flitting over my head in the ash tree. A pair of towhees started scratching in the litter just inside the thicket. Baker's ears perked and he listened, considering whether to give chase.

He glanced up at me as a child would, looking for guidance. "Those are towhees, Baker. Just birds. Mother's birds." And that angelic little dog relaxed and sat down, content to listen, not chase.Yes, Mether. I know a towhee when I hear one. If that was a chiptymunk, I would chase it, just so you know.

It's a grab bag, this post, but then so is May. Everything happens in May.

Jane, this one's for you. Welcome home!! and thanks again for the best doggie in the whole universe.

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Mother's Butterfly

We had a beautiful Mother's Day out here--barely 70 degrees, breezy, crystal-clear cloudless sky. Bill and I started the day in pursuit of the nearest resident Kentucky warbler, who sings loudly just down the hill east of the house. He was responsive and cooperative, if you call flitting madly from branch to branch against the light cooperative. We got some decent shots, though, and had a lot of fun with him. I'll post those when I've got time to crop and lighten. iPhoto is a time sink like no other, and the one thing I don't have lately is time. Plenty of birds, plenty of sunshine, flowers, kids, chores, trips and love, but not much time.
I managed to photograph two yellow-billed cuckoos, a thing that is much easier said than done (as evidenced by this rotten shot). This one had a well-masticated forest tent caterpillar in its bill, and it flew off with it, leaving me scratching my head. It seems pretty early for cuckoos to be feeding young; they only just arrived.
Chet Baker was left inside for this little photo-safari, but it wasn't long before Liam forgot and let him out. He tracked us into the woods and was overjoyed to find us. We were a little less thrilled. I decided to take Baker back and let Bill get some more photos. A tiger swallowtail was feeding on my yellow osteospermum, in the mad tangle of greenhouse plants that have yet to be set out. I focused in on the butterfly, ignoring all else.
I was getting some nice shots when I heard the smallest little sigh to my left.

You are not the only person who likes betterflies. I have been watching this betterfly for a long time, before you even noticed it.

I jest need to smell it. I need to get it closer. I will use my catpaw to try to drag the flower over to me. I will not scare the betterfly. I will just get to know it a little better.
Yes, Mether. I know. It's Mether's betterfly. And this is a much more interesting picture, because I am in it.
Bill and I ended a long, nature-filled, pretty much perfect Mother's Day sitting out in the front yard (well, he was mostly pitching and catching softballs to the kids, and I was sitting). Our tree swallows, who are tending five pink eggs in a nestbox out in the meadow, made an emphatic suggestion for another activity. She's been sitting for over a week, which must get boring...
Bill grabbed my camera and made these pictures.
I have to say, I am glad I am not a tree swallow. Making love on a highwire looks way too difficult. But then, so does flying.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

West Virginia Backroads

There's someting to be said for being out all day for three days, just looking and watching. The things you see! I guess I'll get the not-so-pretty things out of the way first. Our group of 20 or so birders was probably the most interesting thing that had happened on a certain gravel back road for some time. We got an escort of kids, each armed with a different weapon, and a pack of dogs. Some looked healthy. Some didn't. Katdoc and I had a hard time with that, a real hard time. Demodectic mange. Awful. Katdoc said that all dogs are born with the mites that cause this horrible affliction, just like we all have mites in our eyelashes and and eyebrows. But some dogs with compromised immune systems succumb to the infestation. Still, there was a dignity and a certain beauty about this miserable dog the boys were calling Jake. I like this photo, heartbreaking as it is.
On the same road, sleepy duskywings were waking up in the unaccustomed sun.Not far away, a blue-winged warbler probed inside the blossoms of a buckeye tree, looking for insects. The scale of the leaves and this inflorescence seems positively tropical. I always love making pictures that tell something of how a bird feeds and lives. This killdeer is at home in riprap, sitting her eggs.You just have to love tree swallows. This little gal has made her home in a decorative house, over a matching mailbox, barely three feet off the ground. So close to habitation, she may just dodge the snakes. I said a little prayer for her and her eggs. You can't put a baffle on every nestbox, Zick.
I'll leave you with another quintessentially West Virginian image--an eastern kingbird, teed up on a gravestone, with lots of silk flowers as a backdrop. Birds lend such grace to any scene. The flycatchers make up in flair what they lack in bright colors. Our first kingbird--a female--arrived today. I hope she starts tugging at the basket of nesting material I put out for her!

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Scenes from the Mountain State

An empty coal train rumbles along the New River.

From Thursday until Saturday of last week, we were in Fayetteville, WV, in and around the stunning New River Gorge. This river has cut one deep gash down West Virginia's wooded flank. Something about the gorge scares me; the dizzying heights and fast water don't feel like my natural habitat. It's hard to see the sky. You see little bits and pieces of it. I'm used to big ol' friendly Ohio, with its gently rolling hills and open vistas. But there is an undeniable pull to this place, and it's largely because it's so stuffed with great birds, plants, butterflies and animals. And the people are top-notch, too.
I've worked at the New River Neotropicals Birding and Nature Festival every year for the past five. Gave the first keynote, brought Bill the next year, and we keep coming back. The organizers are old friends by now and we love them dearly. Our kids love their kids and it's like falling off a log to bring them along--they just disappear in a little pack. This festival attracts a really discerning cut of birdwatchers, people who know what they like and know how to find it. They're a blast to bird with. So leading the trips is pretty easy. We just use our ears and eyes and put the scope on as many birds as we can. Easier said than done when you're talking about coy, flitty warblers and 25 participants, but we do our best.An ovenbird cooperates for a moment. Bill puts everyone in the shade when it comes to getting the scope on warblers. I'm like the wife who never learned to drive because her husband does it for her. It takes me Forever to get a warbler in the scope, and it's always gone by the time the next person peeks in.
Chet Baker gets to come, because Opossum Creek Resort is pet-friendly. We gave our little doggie the run of the place, and he went cabin to cabin, checking on people and giving kisses and stumptailed wags wherever he went. When we were out birding, he sat atop the hot tub cover, watching chipmunks by the hour.Catdog. He walks on windowsills and the backs of couches; he leaps lightly atop tables and pads softly on ledges. Baker got to meet Katdoc, and I finally got to spend some time with my online buddy. What fun it was! She's the coolest, and rumor has it she will be starting her own blog before too long. I'm ready!We took the kids along on field trips on Friday, and they were terrific, amusing themselves for swix hours without a whine.With things like masses of puddling pipevine swallowtails to watch, who couldn't be happy?
Probably the sexiest bird in the Gorge is the one most birders have yet to add to their life lists: the Swainson's warbler. It's limited to the great laurel thickets along streams, where its clear, ringing whistle sings, "Screw you! Screw the world!" It's darned hard to see, and it seems to be taunting you as you peer into the dark tangles. Pretty much the only way to get 20 or 30 birders on this lovely creature is by playing a tape of its song. You play the song twice and shut the player off. If the bird is going to respond, it will respond instantly, and often sit right out on a bare limb, singing. We had our target bird by 7:18 AM and all laughed and said we wanted to go back to bed. Maybe smoke a cigarette. Ahhh. Life birds are sooo sweet, and six people in my group got to do the Life Bird wiggle.
Naturally, my best shot happened when the bird's head was turned. Buck fever strikes again.I got a life butterfly: an Appalachian azure. I didn't realize it was perched on a dead crawdad until I saw this shot on the screen. This is a lovely, silvery blue beast, way too big to be a spring azure, almost the size of a sulfur. Wow! I was befuddled, then thrilled. Wiggle, wiggle.
Got the garden planted, down to the beans and tomatoes, today. I'm wiped out. Two days hard labor in the sun, not stopping for anything. I could get used to it.

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If a Gnatcatcher Can...

Grazin' in the grass is a gas
Baby can you dig it

These days, so long awaited. Four days in which I have allowed myself nothing to do but plow, till, plant and weed. Go out first thing in the morning after putting the kids on the bus, and try to get a few bird pictures. Sometimes I'm lucky. I watched this female blue-grey gnatcatcher foraging, or perhaps gathering nesting material. I couldn't see what she was picking up, but she was scraping the stems of staghorn sumac, perhaps for the ultra-fine fuzz she'd use to line her neat little lichen-decorated tennis ball of a nest. Like most nest-building gnatcatchers, she was loudly announcing her activities with sputtering squeaks and elfin whistles. I love how the sumac twigs form a little chuppah over her, adding a ceremonial touch to the proceedings.She was not in the least perturbed by my presence, going about her business like Miss Tittlemouse, cussing and twitching and fussing. See how she has the barest line of black above her eye? Along comes her mate, guarding and overseeing. He's bluer, and has a black superciliary line. Magnificent!
As I watched these equisite creatures, it seemed to me that the male's bill looked a bit odd. Too fine and sharp. It wasn't until I blew the pictures up that I could see that the male's upper bill (maxilla) is broken off halfway out its length. What a handicap that would be to a bird that makes its living capturing small insects! I don't know how he gets by, but he's able to hold a territory and a mate, sing her love songs
and do a deep bow, to show her his beautiful blue crown. See that oddly attenuated mandible? That's because the maxilla is missing. I don't know how he's surviving, but he's figured something out that works for him. If the bone isn't broken, the rhamphotheca (keratinaceous covering of the bill) should grow back in time. I'll be watching for him, and hoping for him. He may have trouble feeding his babies. I hope Miss Tittlemouse is up for the extra work.

If a gnatcatcher can carry on with a disability like that, and still sing, well, then there's no reason to drag my feet. Yesterday, I dug out all the bindweed and grass from the vegetable garden, mowed the lawn, and did four loads of laundry. Today, I'm still doing laundry, and I've rototilled the whole garden (except for the peas and mesclun!) twice over. I loooove my little Honda rototiller. It starts the first time even after a whole winter, it purrs and whirs and gives me nice even soil like cake crumbs. I'm soaking three rows each of Fordhook limas and my homemade tricolor bean mix (Tendergreen, Brittle Wax and Royal Burgundy) to plant this evening. I'll put in another row of mesclun for when the stuff we're just now harvesting is done, and mulch the rest of the garden so I won't have to till again. May even put out the early tomatoes I started. I think the cold is gone for good. I can tell you that this kind of activity takes care of winter flubber really fast. I'm a lean, mean rototillin' machine. On to the flower beds, which need to be recovered. There are perennials in there, behind all the grass and dandelions! Maybe I can even get the greenhouse emptied out today. World enough and time, that's all I need. I'm thankful to have a sound body and sun on my shoulders, and I'm fully aware of how lucky I am to have a bit of ground to till. I treasure every moment, and I see Phoebe and Liam grazing in the snap peas in my mind's eye as I work to make that happen.

My good hoe, as it bites the ground, revenges my wrongs, and I have less lust to bite my enemies. In smoothing the rough hillocks, I smooth my temper.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

From a Country Churchyard

I'm diggin' Liam's T-ball practice. It is SO beautiful there, in the little dell below the church. The wildflower slope is the one to the right.
Wednesday, the wife of one of the coaches brought a baby Nubian goatlet, one of a set of triplets, who had been rejected by her mother. She was tube-feeding it, and the kid was coming back from near-death. Adorable. She was clearly completely gaga over the baby goat. I stole a kiss on the top of the baby's hard little head. The best thing the woman said was, "If you don't love on 'em, they ain't gonna live. They gotta know they're loved." AMEN. I told her that I'd found that applied to orphaned hummingbirds and chimney swifts, too.
The story from the country churchyard has not yet ended. May 2 was a fine day with high white clouds and slanting sun. There were only two women on the bleachers this evening, and I saw my chance to win converts to the cause of wildflower appreciation. First, I hung out with them and talked teachers, homework and school for awhile.

I've been thinking a lot about what happened last Monday, when I couldn't seem to summon any enthusiasm in my new companions for woods and wild things. I've come to the conclusion that it has much more to do with group dynamics and my own out-of-the-envelope behavior than any willful disregard for nature. Though most people visiting the comments section seem more than willing to give the other T-ball moms the benefit of the doubt, some of the comments that came in have been a bit biting, and that makes me unhappy...makes me feel I've miscommunicated something here. I hope it's clear on careful reading of my posts that I would not dream of looking down on the ones who man the bleachers. I have the greatest respect for moms who are there for their kids, and care enough to take them to sporting events. I have only felt sadness and frustration that they might--through shyness or simply not knowing what they're missing-- not get to experience even a fraction of the joy I feel when I walk in the woods. I burn with the desire to show them what's out there, just a few hundred yards beyond the playing fields. It's a pure, hot flame, and it has nothing to do with looking down my nose at them, or wanting to flaunt my knowledge to them. I just want to give them something of what I feel every day. They're living in paradise--we all are, truly-- and I want them to realize it!

These women are young-- only five or six years out of high school. I'm old enough to be their mother. Maybe I could talk them into a little walk. Slyly, I brought the conversation around to the beautiful weather, and then to all the birds that got in today. I ducked out for a few minutes to listen to my NPR interview on the car radio, something I thought it better to keep quiet about. When I came back, I said I was going to climb the fence again to see the wildflowers, and I made a show of inviting a reticent Phoebe along. She played it well, saying she couldn't do it because she was wearing flip flops.

"OK, then, we'll go on the road. I'd bet we can see just as much from there."
"Oh, I'd rather stay here. I'm tired."
"You're going, kiddo."
Casually, I turned to the other two women.
"Wanna come with us? We're going to see 21 species of wildflower in bloom. It looks like a magic carpet out there."
Shy, hesitant negative head shakes, but this time with smiles.
"I have flip flops on, too."
"That's why we're going on the road! No problem!"
"I should probably stay and watch my son."
"He's in good hands. It's just a practice. This only happens once a year. Greatest show on earth. You can't miss it."

I think I would have slung one over each shoulder if I'd been strong enough. It was an out-of-body experience, talking strangers into walking with me, but I was driven by my little flame.
And they both got up and came along. Phoebe shot me a pair of wide eyes and an incredulous grin. I could hardly believe it, but there they were, glancing back over their shoulders and waving at their kids.

"Mommy's gonna go for a little walk. She'll be right back."

I was pumping my inner fists. I walked ahead of them so they wouldn't see the big ol' grin on my face. Down, Zick!
We walked up a steep hill and hit the road. You could see most of the good stuff right from the road. Whew. I decided to treat it like a nature walk, a field trip, and I pointed out each flower, getting more and more excited as my new friends pointed out bigger and better specimens and commented on the color and form.Wild geranium. Hard to believe this delicate creature is related to the gaudy pot kinds. Oh, oh, oh. Sweet stuff.
Rue anemone, so called because the leaves look like meadow rue. Bladebladebla. I was jabbering. I knew the girls didn't know what meadow rue was but I forged on anyway.

They agreed that it was a lot nicer to walk on this quiet gravel road than on the treadmill. Apparently they'd both been exercising in their basements on treadmills (something I cannot imagine doing when there's a big ol' wonderful world to walk). Then they told me about a point farther up the road where the woods close in over your head and it's always cool even in the middle of summer. They know these roads a lot better than I do, having grown up here. We were talking, and enjoying the flowers and the wood thrush song and the hollow roll of pileated woodpeckers. We were sharing, and we were living.
We got back in time to cheer the kids on at batting practice. Speaking of beautiful...

Breakthroughs--they're nice to have every now and then.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Full Many a Flower

This little bit of Ohio woodland was aglow with blossoms. I couldn't believe the richness. How had it escaped overgrazing, timbering, erosion--how had such a rich seedbank built up on this one bit of hillside?I felt like a pirate, running my hands through a treasure chest. Riches!!

A carpet of wood betony. My God!
Virginia waterleaf, not blooming, but with those leaves, who needs to bloom?
Blue phlox and red trillium, or wakerobin, or toadshade. Take your pick. They're all wonderful names.

As Trillium grandiflorum ages, it blushes.Thomas Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” sprang into my head, as fresh as it was in 1751:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
For me, that was just it. I couldn't let this sweetness go to waste. Unseen flowers. It was too hard to bear, not to be able to share it. I started hatching a plan.
Speaking of flowers, blooming...Phoebe came running to see me when I finally came out of the woods.
She'd been hanging out with her friend Taylor, but she'd missed me. Oh, beautiful. Tried to frame out the darn portajohns, managed to in the first shot, but just had to get that smile in the second one..
There are always vultures around this churchyard. Here comes one now. I love this shot!
There's a big vulture roost--upwards of 60 birds--in a sycamore just across the road. Phoebe enjoys watching them from the school bus. Nobody seems to mind. Lord knows there are enough dead possums on the road to feed one to each bird. On our way home, we stopped and watched them gathering for the evening's socializing and slumber.

And I thought wildflowers were a hard sell...wonder if I could get the other moms over to see this? A girl can dream.
Writing from the New River Birding Festival at Fayetteville, WV, where I've been awake since 4 AM. I'll be helping a bunch of people try to spot their life golden-winged warbler this morning. Taking the kids on the field trips. They agreed they'd get up at 5 last's not looking so good this morning. Chet Baker's along, but he gets to sleep all morning, rolled in blankets. He met many of the festival participants (including Katdoc!) at the talk Jeff Gordon and I gave last night. There was a cookout. There were hamburgers and hot dogs, and dozens of people to meet and greet. The little Mayor of Opossum Creek was in his element.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

NPR Alert

Blue-winged warbler, foraging in the frost-burned black raspberries.

Remember when I was carping about having so much yard and housework to do? Well, the day I got up at 5 to start it, and had the whole day laid out to do nothing but gruntwork, I got a call at 11 AM from NPR, wanting me to report to the studio in Athens (1 1/2 hr. away) for a taped interview with Melissa Block. It was to be a followup on the one titled, "Waiting for Spring, Waiting for the Birds," that aired April 10. Well, OK. I can do that.

Before I left at noon, I threw together a photo gallery at Melissa's request, for an NPR Web Extra. They're all birds I've photographed in the last couple of weeks, right on our farm. There's also one by BOTB, the worm-eating warbler, which was too sublime not to include. Emailed those off, leapt into the car, arrived at the studio with 15 minutes to spare, disgorged what I thought to be true about this spring's migration, and jumped back in the car, arriving at the bus stop in Whipple with ten minutes to spare, at 4:00 PM.
It definitely beat doing housework.

Understand: I have never considered myself a bird photographer, but I am waaay more excited about the photo gallery on the NPR web site than about hearing myself blather on the air. You can see it, and listen to the new interview, here.

The piece aired at about 4:10 pm Eastern time (the third story in the first hour of All Things Considered) and in many places it will air again at about 6:10 p.m. Eastern. Give it a listen if you read this in time, or you can hit the link above to hear it online.

Part of what's working here is luck, and part of it is being willing and able to throw my plans out the window at a moment's notice. It sure beats scrubbing toilets. You were right. The toilets and floors can wait.

A white-eyed vireo, puffed up like a tennis ball in the frost-burned willow. Today, it's all leafed out again!

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The Herd Mentality

On May Day, you're supposed to bring flowers to strangers. Well, yesterday I tried to do that. I guess I'll have to settle for bringing them to you.
Wood betony, the red kind (it also comes in yellow) and bluets.

It has been so great to hear from all you women out there who feel rolled under by housework and the sudden, hot hand of summer, with all its associated chores. I got an email from Wendi saying she grinds her teeth as she sits on the bleachers and cheers, thinking of all the other things she'd really like to be doing instead. And one from dear Erin reminding me how much it means to Liam that I'm there "watching" him do his thing. His shy little smile and waving hand say just that. He's the tallest kid on his T-ball team, and the helmet's way too small for him. I love to watch him run, elbows flopping.When can I hit?? Everyone's hit but ME. He looks so much like his dad here.

Yesterday, I tried to do some of both--support the kids and self-actualize. My reasoning goes thus: A happy mom is a better mom. So I brought along my camera and, with a self-conscious smile at the other moms, watched the practice for awhile, then climbed down off the bleachers and headed for the woods. I had to cross the playing field and climb a pretty tall barbed-wire fence first.
I am sure this cow had never seen a sports mom get down off the bleachers and climb her pasture fence. She was flabbergasted.What in the blue tarnation is that woman doing?

And I stampeded the whole herd. Ack! Ack! She's going to kill us! They thundered away, screwing their tails in the air, spewing manure and lowing.If I were the kind of person who got easily embarrassed, I'd really have been embarrassed at this point, with an audience watching me climbing a barbed wire fence, festooned in swinging optics, ripping my pants, and stampeding the herd.

But I had a strong feeling there was something worth seeing on the wooded slopes of that cowpasture. Little did I know.Jacob's ladder, named for its ranked pinnate leaves. And golden ragwort.

A fairy carpet of wildflowers lay spread before me. I walked carefully, trying not to crush any of them. I counted 21 species in bloom, and another four (Virginia waterleaf, bloodroot, hepatica, Solomon's seal) that were either done or not yet blooming. Too many for this late night post. More tomorrow, I hope.This is dwarf larkspur, a wild delphinium.

The magic that lies out in the woods, for anyone who's willing to climb down off the bleachers and cross a barbed-wire fence, is inestimable. I felt sorry that I hadn't brought anyone with me. I didn't know if they'd appreciate it as I did, if they'd realize what a treasure this one wooded hillside amounted to. So when I got back I passed my camera around and showed them. I got some "Huh's" and a couple of raised eyebrows and silent nods. Nobody said "Wow," or anything resembling it. Nobody seemed to want to see more than one picture, even when I told them there were 21 species of flowers blooming all at once. Nobody had any comment at all. Just a kind of lackluster boredom, or perhaps just reticence, an unwillingness to be challenged. I wondered about that, about this apparent lack of any enthusiasm for the natural world at its most enchanting and spectacular. It made me so sad. Who wouldn't want to see firepink? It brings me to my knees with joy whenever I see it.

To be fair to them, I considered the possibility that they may be afraid to engage me, this strange woman who had just done a series of things far outside their comfort zone, things they'll probably be able to tell their friends about, how she climbed a barbed wire fence and stampeded the cattle and disappeared into the woods. Imagine. I'll never know, probably, what they were thinking, or if they were thinking at all. It was probably a mix of all the above, with shyness and trepidation in the lead. I'm strange to them. And strange might be dangerous. Just ask the cattle. My perspective on the scene. Undeniably different. Oh, how I loved crouching on the flowery hillside, watching and reveling, and wishing there were someone to share it with.

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