Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Puffin Stuff

Daddy hauls a comatose Liam up the gangplank from the boat.

When you've been birding since you were 7 years old, and seriously birding since 1976, life birds don't come along too often. You usually have to leave the country, or go on a quest for one special bird in a habitat that's hard to get to, to add anything to your life list. I've been skunked by the Atlantic puffin, even after six weeks in Newfoundland. Only a dedicated trip to a nesting colony on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, Maine, could fix the hole in my life list.
I was ridiculously excited on the morning of our field trip. But I was worried enough about rough seas--the wind was tossing the spruces on Hog Island--that I took two Benadryl as we pushed off from the dock. Gave one to each kid. Mistake. It turned out to be almost flat calm out on the bay, and the medication rendered me and the kids little more than zombies. Poor little Liam, right before he konked out:
Don't worry: he held on until he saw puffins. And then he retreated to the cabin and collapsed on a pile of windbreakers and fleeces.
No amount of sedatives could dull my delight in finally laying eyes on the sea clown. They're so much smaller and cuter than I even thought, and I was sure they'd be small and cute. Wow. Everything they're billed as, and more.
They patter over the waves, trying to get airborne, their wings buzzing furiously.
Feet that match their bills:Does this look like a man in a puffin suit? Small wings help reduce drag underwater, where they use them as oars. I think they dive with the wings only partly extended, the way guillemots do, so they're beating them half-closed. Companionable little things, they travel in pairs. Their call, which we couldn't hear over the boat engine, is a lowing moan, kind of sheeplike. Link
Puffins nest deep in burrows beneath rocks. There, they enjoy a measure of safety from gull predation. We wouldn't have puffins nesting in Maine but for the reintroduction program, and stringent gull control efforts of Project Puffin. What a gift to give the world. Speaking of gifts, my lovely and thoughtful friend Jen, who also saw her life puffins on this trip, adopted a puffin in my name. He's 26 years old. Puffins live into their 30's. Most seabirds do...low replacement potential means they have to have a long reproductive life.
This is my favorite puffin picture from the trip. Every once in awhile I get a shot that's worth all the others piled together.
And every once in awhile I get a life bird what AM a life bird. Thanks, Maine Audubon. Thanks, Project Puffin, for adding the sea clown back into Maine's avifauna.


Monday, July 30, 2007

Gnomes and Fairies

Ever get something as a gift that you never knew you wanted? Example: I never thought I was the kind of person who would wear socks with dogs on them. But I do, I do. I've gone through four pairs of Wheelhouse socks with Boston terriers on them. Yep. Just got a fifth pair for my birthday. Looking forward to wearing the heels out on them, too.
When a box appeared via UPS from my sister Barbara in Massachusetts, I was intrigued. It was big--two feet long. There was Styrofoam. Inside, there was a gnome. Definitely in the category of something I never realized I wanted until I got it.Lovely delphiniums...but what's that poking up through the vegetation?

I liked him immediately because Barb sent him, but also because he wasn't particularly cute. He's pushing a wheelbarrow that fits loosely into his permanently clenched hands, and he looks kind of ticked off. Like somebody filled his wheelbarrow with rocks and he's stuck moving them all the way across the bed to the delphiniums. I often look pretty cross when I'm gardening, but it's because I'm transferring my frustrations to the weeds I'm pulling or rooting out.

" 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

Pull them out, shake the dirt off the roots, toss them in a pile. Would that it were so easy to do away with one's negative thoughts. No wonder I love gardening.Malva fastigiata and Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed). That's one Asclepias plant. When they're happy, they do well.

Gnomes, and fairies. My garden is buzzing with fairies. There are so many hummingbirds this summer, and I revel in the thrum and hum of their wings and the staccato arguments they seem to keep going all day long.

It's a delphinium and rose summer. I've salted all the shady beds with delphiniums and all the sunny ones with roses. I'm a freak for true blue flowers. There are a lot of lavender and purple flowers out there being called blue, but when I want blue, I want sky blue. And delphiniums are one of the few flowers that deliver. They like rich, moist soil, cooler temperatures, and they don't like to bake in the sun. I have one bed, on the north exposure, that gives them what they need. They come in white, too.So much for the old adage that you need red or orange flowers to attract hummingbirds.

This is the "Connecticut Yankee" series, an airy, wiry variety with deeply cut leaves and good winter survival skills. Love them, love them. And I love my gnome. Thanks, Barbie!

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Urban Woodchuck

It was not a salubrious place for a woodchuck, this parched little courtyard just a half-block off North High Street in the middle of Columbus, Ohio. I was having a wonderful day, moseying and nosing around in the shops. Bill and I had taken breakfast at North Star Cafe, a fabulous all-natural organic eatery with good music and magazines and interesting people-watching. He’d gone off to an Ohio Ornithological Society board meeting, leaving me to poke around at places like The Urban Gardener and Loot and Pet People. Oh, yeah. I was having fun. Bought myself some Knockout landscape roses, a small pink mandevilla and a real jasmine vine. Breathe deeply...jasmine. Ahhhhh. And some nice mesclun and mache seeds for the fall greens crop I always mean to plant but never seem to. This year I WILL.
But the Science Chimp is ever watchful, even when shopping. In this apartment courtyard behind Pet People I spotted a young woodchuck, belly down on the sidewalk. What a lovely animal. I have a huge soft spot for woodchucks. No. I love woodchucks.

Urbane as he (she?) doubtless was, this was a suspicious woodchuck, and he raised his head and started for safety as soon as he noticed me looking at him. His home was a little crevice under a stoop, pretty bomb-proof, actually. He’d be fine in a tornado.
I saw a man pulling weeds just around the corner of the building. I sized him up and decided that he didn't look like someone who'd bother to kill a woodchuck. "I saw a little woodchuck just around the back of the building. Have you ever seen him?" I asked. No, he hadn't.
"Does he bother your flowers?"
"Never has. I guess he doesn't like flowers, or something."
Or maybe, I thought, he's too smart to chew down the flowers, knows he'd get kicked out for it. Sticks to clover. Could be. They're really smart animals.

Look at the view out onto the street. How did he get here? Would he be OK in such marginal habitat? Yes, he’d be fine. That’s why he’s there. The resilience of wildlife will always astound me.

Speaking of astounding...Sweet Mon@rch nominated this blog (and Bill of the Birds!) for Best Animal Blog, or Best Hobby Blog, or (this is a stretch) Best Education Blog on Blogger's Choice. Umm...wow. Thanks, Mon@rch. Now I need to find out what that means.

So while I was away, Bill had my web wizard Katherine put a button up on the blog--you can see it to the right. I guess when you hit that button it takes you to a page where you can, uh, establish an account and vote for this blog so it might be in the running for a Blogger's Choice Award. Considering that Cute Overload is ALSO up for Best Animal Blog, maybe we'd better vote for it under Best Hobby Blog. Even Chet Baker can't compete with about nine thousand tiny baby kittehs, bunnehs and puppehs for cuteness and sheer vote-amassing popularity. At least not in the hearts of the general populace. True Baker fans know that his cuteness surpasses that of any other life form, juvenile or not.

Heck, I've even seen a knock-kneed baby moose on that blog. Nah, we have not a snowball's chance under Best Animal Blog. Let's go for Best Hobby blog. Much as I bridle at calling what I do a hobby, or collection thereof...There really isn't a category it fits into. It's neither gardening, nor animal husbandry, nor painting, nor wildlife rehabilitation, nor mommyblog, nor dark poetry, but some amalgam of all those things.

I hit the button, established an account (which isn't a big deal) and voted for myself. How pathetic is that? Help me.

This is a roundabout way, I guess, of soliciting votes. Pick me! Pick me! For what, I don't know. My Blog Resume? To add to my copious general mystique? To give you something else to do to waste time whilst at work? Yeah, that's it. You've got nothing better to do, right? Go vote! Vote for BOTB and Monarch, too!

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Garden Tour

Oh, the things that are blooming. We invited some friends over, including some very avid gardeners--one a professional landscaper, British no less. I decided to be loud and proud about my gardens, which look like they were planted by an insane monkey. What choice do I have? Tim was kind. He said it was really a classic cottage garden, informal, and quite charming. And that what matters is that it makes me happy. Thanks, Tim. But I know it still looks like it was planted by Bubbles the Chimp on speed. Hey. Anybody remember Bloop Bloop, Penny's spacechimp on Lost in Space? Me, too. Wonder if she outlived Dr. Smith? Hey, nice hat. Nice spacesuits too, Will and Penny. Looks like it's the Bloop's birthday. Aww. Somebody baked her a cake.

Just a few things, other than ridiculous late-night surfing for images from old TV series, that I love. Red daylilies from the Marietta Farmer's Market, backed by pink garden or musk mallow (Malva alcea fastigiata) from White Flower Farm. It behaved itself until this year. Now it is EVERYWHERE and I cannot dig it out. "Naturalizes well from seed." To say the least. Tap root to China. I guess I still like it, even as I hack it back. Those durn mallows will sneak up on you and try to overtake everything. They spread babies everywhere and you don't know it until it's too late. But it does a nice job of stitching together hot and cool colors with its shell-pink blossoms.There are some terrific daylily people selling their lilybabies at the Farmer's Market each Saturday. I cannot resist them. They fit easily just about anywhere, being so ectomorphic. The lilies, not the people. Good for a "cram and jam" gardener like me.

I like containers a lot, though I've planted fewer this year than any other year in memory. Just gone too much, I guess. But this is where I grow pelargoniums like the bright coral "Grey Sprite," a true miniature geranium. "Frank Headley" is another dwarf I adore, with its broad white edgings and salmon blossoms. The new "Renegade" series (pale pink, in the front container) has chocolate leaves and is very floriferous. I give it two trowels up. Laurentia is the blue star-shaped flower in the rear container. WHATTA PLANT! Brand new. I adore it. It has bloomed hard since May. Yeah!

Bill and I planted purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds along our driveway about twelve years ago, never really expecting them to establish. But oh, they did, in five different spots along the quarter-mile, and they are so much more beautiful, grown en masse and in partial shade, than the sun-drenched dwarves in my garden. No wonder I find excuses to take letters out and check the mail. There is always a great spangled fritillary or a tiger swallowtail enjoying the coneflowers when I go out to get the mail. The plants are as tall as I am. The flowers look me right in the eye.
Here's the hummingbird garden. They're all hummingbird gardens, but this one is dedicated. The cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinalis) , salvias and agastache are competing with lush plains coreopsis ( yellow with red center) for space here. Goldfinches adore plains coreopsis, and they help scatter its seeds. I haven't planted it but once, years ago. It pops up everywhere, and I adore it. Native, too!Just a look. More flowers come in every day. It's turning out to be a pretty darn good garden year. Little rains and a lot of hand-watering are keeping things going. And it hasn't really gotten beastly hot. I'm thankful for every little mercy, and especially glad to be home to enjoy it all. Dang it all, I'm off again. See you next week. Garden on, Garth! Garden on, Wayne!

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Watching at the Window

Lately, I've been tethered to the drawing table, doing a journal cover. I don't know why my number keeps coming up for the Auk, but it does, and I'm not arguing. If they're not sick of me yet, I'll do another cover for them. I've had the ivory-billed woodpecker flying through the fall bayou, the long-tailed manakins dancing, and now I'm working on a subtly beautiful fringillid. Fun!

It's a terrific hummingbird summer, after a horrible one last year. Last year, my high count at the feeder all summer was four birds at once. This year, it's 14, and the humming and bickering and thrumming and chittering never stop. I LOVE it. I stand right next to the feeder and play with my camera and the willing subjects. I've got endless flight pictures of hummingbirds now. Like this one. I know it's no prizewinner, because I was too lazy to make sure there was a nice background, but I like seeing them frozen in mid hummm.

I like even more seeing them sitting on favored perches, and feeding from the flowers in my garden. This little dude sits in the birch right outside the studio window most all day, every day. He's guarding the cardinalflower bed directly below him. Oh, how I love to take pictures of him, trying to get his gorget flashing. Almost:

And better:I sneak glances out the window every time I go to dip a brush back into the paint. And I see the most wonderful things, so I keep the camera with its 300 mm. zoom lens on and ready at hand. I especially like watching the bath on these dry, late-summer days. It's almost never empty, especially when it's just been cleaned. The birds really appreciate my scrubbing it with Comet to get all the slime and droppings out of it, so I do that about every fourth day. Then, they literally line up to bathe there. Birds know from clean: they have to, to keep those flight feathers in top condition. They hate to be dirty, and they don't like dirty water or feeders, either.
This time of year, we've got oodles of young scarlet tanagers, as well as molting adults in every motley plumage. We've noticed that scarlet tanagers are very feisty birds. They love to chase and fight and defend what they believe to be theirs. Like the entire Bird Spa. Bad judgement on this young tufted titmouse's part to challenge Miss Bossy Boots. Titmice are feisty, too. This one gives a mewling call and threatens with open bill. But it still won't go in the water with that big toothed bill pointed at it. And finally: the shot I guess I was waiting for. I was waiting for all of them, really, but this is the kicker. The titmouse reminds me of Garuda.
The tanager won, as it has in every confrontation I've witnessed. Notice that she is sitting right on the bubbler, turning the spa into a tanager bidet. And feeling not one bit apologetic about it, either. Maybe she just had a birthday and is feeling like she's entitled. The titmouse had to wait to bathe until she went up to to the birch to scratch and preen. Note: tanagers are overwing scratchers--they bring the leg behind and over the wing to scratch the face. So are hummingbirds. Raptors, parrots and waterfowl, to name just a few, are underwing scratchers. Just another little thing to notice and watch for...Hmm. What are woodpeckers? Doves? I can't remember. Must watch and see.
The wingbars are a function of the bird's youth. I'm not even sure this is a female, though her bathing habits might suggest as much.
When we go away, one of the things I ask our housesitters to do is to keep the bath full. Running out of seed or suet dough is no big deal, but on this dry ridge, water is the most precious commodity we offer the birds, and we take the responsibility seriously. If you do nothing else in your backyard, get some clean moving water going. The rewards, like the water, continually recirculate.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Copperhead Catcher

Good morning. We will now demonstrate Zick's favorite gadget, the Ronco Copperhead Nabber. I like this thing even better than I like Safer's pantry moth traps, which use pheromones to lure those annoying beige moths into some stickum inside the cardboard traps. I like nontoxic, effective methods of interacting with wildlife that I want out of my territory. I also like things that work really well.

As some of you will recall, my snake-catching skills have been honed over 26 years of country living. I have trapped and transported probably 15 copperheads in the 14 years we've lived at Indigo Hill. I used to use a stick or implement to pin the neck, then pick them up by the tail and lower them into a bucket. Copperheads tend to be docile animals, and this approach usually worked. Usually.

Four additional snakes were not with the program, and took violent exception to being pinned and picked up, however gingerly. The one I remember best was a huge, thick girthed beast in excess of 3' long. Ye gods. I got her pinned and picked up, only to find that my arm was not long enough to keep her far enough away from my tender parts. Here I was, in the middle of the concrete driveway, with little Phoebe looking on, twirling this enormous, heavy snake by her tail, absolutely frozen with terror that she'd bite me in the bicep or the stomach or thigh. She doubled back up her length and just about grazed my upper arm. Somehow I maneuvered her to a trash barrel and got her in it. Eek, eek, eek.

Three others were striking so madly and dangerously from the get-go that I couldn't get close enough to even pin them. Yeeks. Wasn't going to pick those bad boys up by the tail. They didn't get the courtesy of Zick's witness protection and relocation program. I like copperheads, but not enough to take another bite from one.

There had to be a better way.

I went online, found a good wildlife control gear site, and ordered myself a 3' long snake tongs. Such an elegant tool. The best $48 I've ever spent. Suddenly, no snake was big or vicious enough to rattle me. A squeeze handle like a bike brake tightens a steel tendon that brings the tongs together in a gentle but very firm grip. Now I look forward to encounters with copperheads like this little one that Phoebe found poking out of a crack in the concrete. I like that evil little orange head. I also like the way he's got a coil out that I can snag with my snake tongs.
My heart rate doesn't speed up one bit as I gently grasp the snake by its middle and lower it into a barrel.It can writhe and strike all it wants. It's not going anywhere but where I want it now.

Generally, I drive the snake two or three miles into an uninhabited, rocky area and release it. I don't take kids or dogs along in case the bucket somehow tips on these windy roads. I want to be the only one dealing with a snake in my car.

This particular snake--a nice, docile one-- accepted a fresh mouse that had accidentally drowned in a cooler, some nice fragrant straw and fresh water, and then went to be the resident exhibit copperhead at Salt Fork State Park. Our friends Jason and John made a mad midnight run to pick it up, so excited were they to get the call that I'd caught the copperhead they'd been lusting for. If it won't eat for them it'll come back to the Indigo Hill environs. All in all, a pretty good exchange. Yes, that is a Life is Good T-shirt , with a trout on it. I would like one with a copperhead on it.
All photos taken from a safe distance by a very brave Phoebe Linnea Thompson.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Smiles of a Summer Night

A warm golden evening, four people and a small plastic disc. Who'd think that you could get so much fun out of those simple elements? We found a nice soft Frisbee at a Scheel's store in North Dakota. Soft Frisbees don't hurt little hands even when they're thrown hard.

In any athletic pursuit, Will has a nonchalant ease.Phoebe is enthusiastic and pretty darn good at it now.Liam is still getting the hang of throwing the disc on the level. Like his mother, he tends to cant it upward, making an embarrassingly steep arc that never gets much of anywhere. But even I can throw this little yellow one. I'll spare you any photos. Nobody's lining up to photograph me at an athletic pursuit, anyway. Not when there are little fauns like Liam to ogle. We've finally broken Chet Baker of grabbing errant discs. His teeth rip up the edges and the hard pointy bits hurt when you throw a dog-chewed disc. So most of our past Frisbee games were marked by loud shouts of BAKER NO! when he'd romp in and grab the disc. Now he retreats to a lawn chair to watch, a slightly crestfallen look on his face. Don't worry, he has plenty of toys we throw just for him. Supposedly durable dog Frisbees are chewed to smithereens in minutes.

This dog. We love him. Somehow we've all grown together over the two and a half short years we've enjoyed his company. Liam cannot walk past him without giving him a kiss and a hug. Neither can Phoebe, nor I. He smells good, he feels good, he's smart and pretty and he makes us laugh. What more could you ask for in a 23-pound package?

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lost in a Gull

I’ve blackened the gull’s name and reputation in previous posts. It feels odd to be passing judgment on birds I admire so much. Gulls can’t be blamed for taking easy prey, and exploiting spilled bait and incidental catch of the lobster boats. They are supreme opportunists, long lived and crafty. But what kind of predator virtually eliminates its prey base, takes almost every hatchling? What is going on here between gulls and eiders? And what will we do about it, if anything?

On Monhegan Island, we hiked across from the ferry dock to the cliffs on the lee side of the island, some eight miles out from the mainland. Vicious currents make this a deadly spot for anyone who enters the water. No one who has gone overboard on the lee side of Monhegan has ever been saved, according to the tourist brochure that spells out a detailed code of conduct for this tiny but heavily used island. All right. We wouldn't so much as stick a toe in the surf.

This gull noticed that we had food with us, sandwiches and other prime gull fare. She pressed close, close enough for me to notice the sloping brow that characterizes a female herring gull. (The male’s is much steeper. The same difference applies to male and female common loons). She appraised us with icy yellow eyes, looking for her chance, perhaps beseeching. We tossed her a bit of pizza crust now and then, and I got lost in the intelligence in her cool lemon eyes.This creature might live 30 or more years. She knows a lot. She knows I am going to cave in and give her some pizza now, and maybe a little bit of my Italian panini sandwich. Oh, yes, she knows.

When she felt conflicted or ill at ease, she'd stare at her feet, the way a raptor does. I found that interesting--that behavior crosses taxa. And found myself wondering how many other birds foot-stare when they don't know what else to do. Herons? Storks? Rails? Ostriches? I'd love to know. I like the old-lady pink of her feet, the out-turned toenail on the outer toe.

Lost in the curve of her wings, and the ease with which she lifted off over the roiling ocean. How I wanted to fly with her. My bones felt like lead, rooted to the rock and lichens.She preened calmly as the surf boiled hundreds of feet below. Overcast, pewter surf--could there be a more perfect photographic salon for a silver and white bird?She took grass to her nest on the cliff face. A shape-shifter, she is. How does she do that with her primaries?She was perfect, immaculate, mistress of the updrafts, bent on survival.
Who can blame her for taking what is offered her, be it bread or duckling? She is no different from me. I don't hate gulls. I wish they didn't eat eiders, that's all. And I feel immeasurably blessed to have spent a few hours in her company, and to be able to share her beauty with you.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Eiders in Trouble

After seeing packs of female eiders swimming along without young when each one should have been followed by a brood, we were getting depressed. Productivity in Maine eiders is extremely low, while productivity in Maine gulls is extremely high. The predatory gulls are heavily subsidized by lobster fishing and fast-food dumpsters. Nobody’s subsidizing the eiders. They’ve got to deal with more gulls than they’ve ever battled, and they’re essentially defenseless. What's a duck going to do when a great black-backed gull drops out of the sky and snatches her duckling? In an email today, Scott Weidensaul told me that the female eiders stick together and form a creche with their young. He wrote, " Sara Morris, in her years out on Appledore Island, once saw two hen eiders reach up at an attacking gull, each grab a wing, and slam the gull into the water like a stone, almost killing it." And yet even this spirited defense has little efficacy against so many gulls. A common eider productivity study by Kim Mawhinney in 1995 in the Bay of Fundy had 3000 ducklings hatched. Twelve of them made it to fledging age. Nearly all the rest went down the capacious gullets of gulls. Does that sound sustainable to you? Strenuous gull nest control efforts in 1996, including oiling gull eggs to prevent hatching, resulted in no decline in gull predation on the eiders: eight eider ducklings in the same population survived to fledge in 1996.

Finally, as we left Monhegan Island, we saw a couple of hen eider with young. Not many, but some. It’s interesting to watch the females when they’re swimming with flightless young. Normally, they’d fly when pressed by an approaching vessel. When they’ve got flightless ducklings in tow, they resort to “steaming,” paddling rapidly over the surface using their feet and wings. It’s this evasive behavior that named the flightless Falkland Island steamer ducks, creatures of rushing mountain stream habitats. The birds have no need to fly, and have lost the ability. These female eiders are steaming in solidarity with their as yet flightless young.

Everywhere we went, we saw eiders loafing along the rocks, often with seals. I fought back a tinge of sadness even as I admired the drake’s beauty and the hens’ perfect rockweed brown camouflage, because I knew that the females should have been busy tending their young in the second week of June. What future does the common eider have in Maine, or the entire Atlantic? The same trends are occurring in the Pacific populations. Perhaps only aggressive gull control--eliminating adult gulls as well as their eggs-- could give the seaducks enough edge to enjoy some population growth. We can't take for granted that there will always be eiders. As the long-lived adults die off, what will replace them? We can be sure that, thanks to our landfills, fishing boats and dumpsters, there will always be gulls. Are we willing to lose eiders altogether? We must always be mindful of our impact on natural systems, and be ready to counterbalance the imbalance we unwittingly create.

A fishing boat, swarmed with feeding gulls

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Uncommon Eiders

Common eiders are big ducks, adapted to deep diving and processing mussels and other bivalves with their powerful gizzards. They are supremely well-insulated, spending summers and winters in cold North Atlantic waters. They get on with courting in what seems like midwinter, and by the time the hens lay eggs in spring, the males’ work is done. So here it was, early June, and the drake eiders were already molting out of their nuptial finery and looking pretty patchy.

I don’t know why I wanted to shoot pictures of an eider in nice plumage. Molting eiders are still eiders, but… I got plenty of opportunities to shoot molting males. When this nearly immaculate drake decided to spend the afternoon bathing and preening in easy shooting distance of the Hog Island shore, I grabbed the chance.
He fluffed and splashed and kept rising up to beat his beautiful wings. There’s a faded citrus-green on the back of a drake eider’s head that is hard to find anywhere else in the bird world. And I’ve thought about it, but I can’t guess the function of the fleshy processes that run from the bill toward the eye. Maybe they just look cool to female eiders.
The females make the most amazing nests, great rings of thick mocha-brown down over a grass-lined depression in the ground. They pull the down from their breasts, and draw it over the eggs like a blanket when they have to leave to feed. No help from the drake! If a female eider is surprised on the nest, she’ll evacuate the foulest contents of her caecum onto the eggs. Even a hungry fox may refuse eggs so anointed.

I skinned a drake eider once. Two inches of feathers and a thick layer of fat covered a dense, strongly muscled body. The gizzard of an eider can take a clam and reduce it to liquid. When I got the skin cleaned and sewed it back over the cotton body I’d fashioned, that bird looked like the nicest sofa pillow you could want. I understood why people made feather muffs and blankets of eider skins, sewn together. I’m glad those eider-using days are over, except for some Inuit artisans, because the common eider is declining throughout Maine. They can’t raise young around the abundant and voracious greater black-backed gulls, which pick their ducklings out of the water as soon as they’re hatched. I'll think more about this unfortunate situation in my next post. Not trying to be a downer, understand: just hoping to sound an alarm for a signature bird of the Maine coast.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Watermen and Seals

It is humbling to be around true watermen, people who can hold their stomachs while putting putrid bait in lobster traps as the boat circles while sloshing side to side. I’d last about ten minutes at a job like that, and then I'd be calling my friend RALPPHHH! Maine lobstermen are people who know the weather and water and run their pots all winter long, who get up at 3:30 to start their day. This is my favorite snapshot of a waterman and his tiny daughter, already pulling food from the sea. Little known fact, one that I learned in Newfoundland and that holds true in Maine: Most watermen can’t swim. How would they ever learn? Water’s so cold that if you go in, you don’t have a chance anyway. It’s all about boating in Maine. There’s no frolicking in these waters.

Unless you’re a harbor seal. Being around pinnipeds, like most of us are used to being around deer, is a huge thrill. Harbor seals look like people in bathing caps, or, at close range, startlingly like big, sweet googly-eyed dogs. I was missing Baker at this point and thought a pat on a seal's head (a very bad idea) would do nicely.They adorn most every emergent rock around Hog Island. I looked for gray seals but wasn’t lucky enough to see them—they’re much larger and longer-faced than the little harbor seals—watermen call them horseheads.

Like dogs, harbor seals can get distemper. Phocine distemper virus claimed a huge number in an epizootic outbreak in 1988. There was another die-off of harbor seals from avian influenza in 1979-80. Still, there are plenty of them, hauled out on every little islet. I found this skull near the end of a whole-island hike led by Scott Weidensaul. It was the perfect hidden treasure for having thrashed my way through waist-high wet ferns while windmilling my arms against whining clouds of mosquitoes. Look at the enormous eye sockets, the broad, round cranium. These seals can see in the dim, wavering underwater gloam, and they have powerful masseter (jaw) muscles that pass through those round holes and allow them to crush mussels, clams and oysters, crustaceans, and the softer squid and fish that comprise their diet. Harbor seals can live to 30 years and dive more than 500 meters deep to find their food. This animal had worn, blunted canines and molars. I hope it lived a full life.
Speaking of living a full life, Phoebe found the first copperhead of the season today. Had to be captured and saved for a wildlife educator. Yes, we got pictures. Then to the dentist. Then to meet a sometime wildlife rehabilitator who had what turned out to be an eight-day-old hummingbird. I put together a care package of food, instructions and equipment for her and taught her how to feed and house it. Yes, pictures again. Then to the grocery store, and to put new tires on my car. Then to watch Bill play a double header in church-league softball. All with kids in tow. I'm thwacked. I did write four Maine blog entries while watching the softball game. It can be done. You type madly while watching the game. You have to watch the game...

A foul tip rose up backward, over the batter's cage and into the bleachers. I looked up and it had "MacBook Pro" written on it. A frozen moment in time, staring at that ball, coming down on me and my laptop. Leapt up and crab-hobbled, bent over the precious computer, about ten feet to the side. The ball narrowly missed Phoebe, who was right behind me. When it landed, not on my daughter or computer, I held the laptop over my head in victory and the bleachers erupted in roars of laughter. I got a whole lot of grief about saving the laptop first, then checking on Phoebe. Guilty as charged. This, I do for you.

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To Maine!

It has taken me quite awhile to work around to telling you about Maine. As wonderful as it was, our Maine trip was the last in a string of big trips that started full force in February. Five talks in Ohio, then Guatemala, West Virginia, Boston, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Maine. Each one was wonderful in its own way, but it's nice to have done them all now. I was so thrilled to get home again to stay for awhile, to water my flowers and plant a few late ones, to harvest the snap peas and beans, to feed the buzzing crowds of hummingbirds around the front porch, that I got caught up in it all. Still am. There's so much weeding and gardening to be done... But now I'm going to take you to Maine.

It was such an honor to be asked to join writer/artist Scott Weidensaul (yes, he paints and draws beautifully!), author of Living on the Wind, The Ghost with Trembling Wings, and Return to Wild America, to join him in teaching a first-time course on Hog Island. Maybe calling it a course is a bit of a stretch. We birded, talked about birds, pointed out birds, gave talks…we had a blast. Thirty-two campers, most of them great birders, came to experience the boreal forest and Maine coast. A number of them, me included, had a not-so-hidden agenda to see an Atlantic puffin, after a lifetime of yearning.

Most of the buildings on the island date from the turn of the 20th century. They’re pretty, uninsulated, creaky, and basic, just what you need and no more. I snuck up on the boys in a rare afternoon moment of repose in our little cabin. Bill has collapsed, in full birding dress, in between the morning field trip and lunch. Liam mowed through a pile of chapter books on the plane and in spare moments like this. He’s resting on Piggy (pronounced Pr’GAHH), a pillow that, for better or worse, goes with us everywhere. At least there’s not much danger of losing a titty-pink pig pillow in a hotel room.

Staying on Hog Island immerses you in 11-foot tides, tangy salt air, the cries of gulls and terns, and the putt, hum, and roar of lobster boats. Scott warned us that the lobstermen get going pretty early in the morning, so we might not want to stay up too late. Down this far east, the June sky starts getting light around 4:15 AM. Just when most people are deep in REM. Black-throated green warblers tune up around 4:30. And the lobstermen come to check their pots, whose colorful buoys are so thick that it’s an absolute wonder there are any lobsters left, at the same time. Sound carries over water, and the boat engines do not purr. They go BRAAAAP.

Reminders of the past are everywhere on Maine’s coast. Near Hog island lies the wreck of a five-masted schooner, the last one built, and among the last to be decommissioned. Here's one like her. She was used as a lobster pound until she deliquesced into the sea. And there she lies and rots, the whisper of her beautiful form collapsing to decay.
You may be sure there is more. I was up until midnight downloading and resizing just some of the Maine photos. But now, there is weeding to be done. We got 1/2" of rain last night and I now have a prayer of uprooting some of the iron-hard weeds in the gardens, so off I go.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Offisa Pupp, On the Beat

Offisa Pup, in his sleek black and white cruiser, starts a round of bunneh patrol. For those old enough to remember the incomparable comic strip, Krazy Kat, 1913-1944 (and, for the record, although I am as old as dirt, I'm technically NOT old enough to remember it...) Offisa Pupp is always busting Ignatz the mouse, who spurns Krazy Kat's attempts to court him, mostly by hitting her in the head with a brick.Yeah. Let's hear it for the Internet. I LOVE Krazy Kat. You can tell the cartoonist, George Herriman, either played a musical instrument or bothered to study how it was done before doing this deceptively simple drawing. Compare the expression on Offisa Pupp's face here to the last photo in this post. See why we call him Offisa Pupp?

This used to be a flower bed, before the bunny ate all the flowers and dug it into a big old dustbath. I knew it was bunnies that did it, but it took about a week to catch one using it. It rolls around and digs some more and lounges and rubs its sides in the dust. It's probably choking out fleas and ticks in the process. Pretty cute, as long as you forget about the flowers.

Chet Baker likes to chase bunnehs. He makes sure that the bunnehs, which ran riot in my flower beds while we were in North Dakota and Maine, don't chew any more gazanias, portulaca, geraniums or salvia to the ground. Baker takes his job very seriously. He goes out probably ten or more times a day to make the rounds. Bunneh patrol.
Baker's no dummy. He mixes up the route, and he knows where the bunnehs hang out. Sometimes he approaches from the west, sometimes from the east. When he sees a bunneh out in the yard from one of his observation stations, he knows that the best way to chase it is to go out a door on the opposite side of the house. He leaves his jangles (our term for his collar and tags) behind and goes naked. At first he really wanted us to let him out the door closest to the bunneh, but he quickly learned that the bunneh could hear him when he did that. A sneak attack was the best.
It's all we can do, once we let him out the back deck door, to make it to the window in time to see the black and white streak that is Baker come rocketing around the corner. He almost always compltely overshoots the bunneh, which just honkers down and then makes a dash for the tall grass after Baker corrects his charge. I don't think it's my imagination that has the bunneh waiting until Baker gets really close before it runs. They like to cut it close, and they count on their split-second maneuverability and burst of speed to avoid capture. I know of only one rabbit that he's actually caught. The rest he just makes nervous.

Around dusk, Chet does near-constant loops around the yard, patrolling the edge of the tall grass. He has this businesslike, head-down lope, silent and deadly, wolflike. He can't be bothered to sit on laps or play. He's all business. That's when we call him Offisa Pupp.Note the dirty nose. He had just finished burying an ear of corn we gave him to chew and play with. I love this picture, Baker in the forget-me-nots, eyeing the camera. He walks the terraced bed walls like a little cat, hoping to catch a chipmunk by surprise. Offisa Pupp busts bunnehs, chipmunks, deer, squirrels, and raccoons (the hardened criminals in our yard). He is fearless, and more than once has come back from a nighttime tussle with a 'coon with a bloody lip. I cannot imagine putting my face next to an angry raccoon, but then I am not a Boston terrier. I shudder, clean him up, and put my faith in his yearly inoculations.
I will say that, now that we have Chet Baker, raccoons no longer take impertinent dumps on the front porch, nor do they molest the hummingbird and peanut feeders hanging from the awning. Chipmunk damage is minimal, and I can grow way more than I should be able to, given the rabbit population. Thanks, Offisa Pupp!

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Rabbit, Taken Away

Dreaming of wounded birds and you, I was
deep in sleep
When the cries came I floated up
Through dark water to an unwelcome light
Five bleats, anguished and raw
A young rabbit in the clover beneath the window.

No scuffle or fight. I hold my breath, waiting for Act II.
Five cries again, but these from high in the air
Halfway down the meadow and fading away
It hangs from curved talons
Borne away into the night
Flying for the first and last time.

In the morning, a single tuft of fur lies in the grass
Too soft to be felt.
I turn it over with my toe
And wonder at a rabbit’s life
The old ones must dread the sudden clutch
Night’s claws, come to take their due.
The young ones: eyes wide with the surprise of it all.

July 12, 2007


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Eleven Years Ago

this evening, I was mountainous. Sitting, cradling my heavy belly, swaddled in fleece, for it was a cool July evening--as rare as the baby I was about to bring forth. The indigo buntings were singing and cris-crossing the meadow; the butterfly weed was in full orange bloom, and I had just baked a chicken and new potatoes, with fresh green beans from the garden, and eaten as much as I could, being short of stomach space. Bill had a big, old-fashioned video camera trained on me, and he was asking me questions, interviewing me.
"How are you feeling this evening?"
"Well, I am having some strong contractions, about five minutes apart. Please take the camera off me now. Please." (puff, puff, puff)
"Why don't you go to the hospital?"
Because I felt like making dinner, and they won't give me anything to eat there."
"Do you think Phoebe will arrive tonight?"
"No, I think this is just a little false labor."
Ah, the denial of pregnancy. I was in labor for at least 12 hours, and heavy labor for six of that, before I gave in and let Bill drive me to the hospital in town at midnight on July 10.
By the time we got in the car I could barely hobble.
When we got to the hospital the outside doors were locked. I crabbled around the huge building to another entrance. Found a wheelchair and wheeled myself down two endless corridors to the admission desk, while Bill was parking the car. I will never forget the Greek chorus of people, smoking just outside the hospital door, who just stared at me as I limped over, bent double, unfolded the wheelchair from the stack of them just inside, collapsed into it, and then wheeled myself painfully down the white corridor. Wouldn't it have occurred to any of them to help? and, as a corollary, why couldn't I ask for help? Because I'm tuff, that's why.

When we got to the delivery room, I couldn't speak. And the nurses started shouting and running around and clanging instruments and getting the baby check station ready because I was so...ready.

Ten more hours went by. I knew I had time.

It was not fun. For drugs, only half a dose of Demerol, in transition. Lotta back labor. Ow, ow, ow. I didn't want an epidural, though it was offered, because I didn't want to compromise Phoebe. But they tell me I was very polite, thanking everyone for the little things they were able to do to make me more comfortable.

Back to the interview.
"What do you hope Phoebe will be like?"

"I hope she'll have your legs and my mom's sweet temperament."I got both those wishes, in spades. She's looking me in the eye at 11. She charts out to be a six-foot redhead. What a thing that will be. Bill says she should have her own band, Six Foot Redhead.
Posing next to pink chicory. We seek it out every year on our road.

When Phoebe finally came into the world, just before noon on July 11, they brought her up to me and pulled her little knit cap off, and this tuft of bright red hair stood straight up. If I'd had anywhere to fall to, I'd have fallen. Her eyes were smoky blue and held mine in her gaze.
"Hello. Oh, hello."

I was instantly, irrepairably in love, and remain so to this day.

I would not change a hair on this child's sweet head. She is kind, intuitive, empathetic,getting a little course in bell ringing from nature writer Scott Weidensaul on Hog Island, Maine

literate, curious, hilarious, and intelligent. She is my friend.

Phoebe, for the bird.
Linnea, for Carolus Linnaeus, namer of all life forms.
Thompson, for her big ol' daddy.
I look at her and marvel that this wondrous creature could have come from us. Happy birthday, beautiful Phoebe.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

July Perspective

Awhile ago, Mary asked us all to send pictures of our blogitat. I procrastinated for a couple of weeks, started to straighten up, gritted my teeth and then sent a picture of it as it is, papers and dog and all. This morning, I'm outside at the picnic table, looking over the meadow. Early sun slants across the grasstops. It's 58 degrees. A Carolina wren is caroling to my left, cardinals, titmice too. A scarlet tanager is teed up and singing slowly in a water maple. Hummingbirds bicker and buzz around two feeders. I can count six perched at once. A baby red-bellied woodpecker hops along the towertop, wheedling its dad to give it a peanut. A couple of fledgling blue-winged warblers are following their mother along the east border. I know because I chased down that zitt call two days ago, and found them, all green and wing-barred, pestering her to death. A white-eyed vireo sputters and cusses nearby. I can hear two more down the orchard. Two male eastern towhees bicker and fuss in the birch, posturing to each other with cocked, fanned tails and whisper songs of rage.

Now, here comes the blazing red male scarlet tanager who, along with his faded mate, bathes in the Bird Spa. Oh, he's feeding a baby! I snap a few bad photographs, then pause to examine the baby through binoculars. It's a brown-headed cowbird, whose biological mother laid her egg in this tanager's nest. What a waste of tanager energy and goodwill. I take comfort in having seen two baby scarlet tanagers being fed by the female in the front yard, only yesterday. Dad's clearly been hoodwinked into wasting good caterpillars on a cowbird, but it hasn't been a lost season for them.

I'm out here because it's ridiculous not to be out here. I can get a weak wireless signal from the picnic table, maybe 100 feet from the front door. And I'm out here because on the morningof July 6, while watching a dozen barn swallows trundling happily out on the garage roof, where we strew baked eggshells for their calcium-boosting pleasure, I saw a newly fledged rose-breasted grosbeak hopping among them. You know those cartoons where the character's eyes pop out of his head --ah--OOOO---gah! and then pop back in? That was me. Nearly 15 years I've been watching everything that happens in and around these 80 acres, and I've never seen a baby rose-breasted grosbeak, in July or any month. My mind flew back to my little spring gift--the pale male rose-breast who ate peanuts on the front porch for almost a week, past the rose-breast's "safe date" of June 4 after which you can suspect the bird is a breeder in Ohio. I had convinced myself he was just a late migrant, in questionable condition. He smacked himself hard on the studio window, showed up on the bonsai bench that afternoon, perched on my hand for a few golden moments, and I really lost hope that this peculiar little bird might be a viable breeder. I just hoped he'd live through it all.

So I'm sitting here, tapping away, looking at everything that happens, listening to the bluebird babies piping in their newly-changed, mite-free nest just 50 feet to my left, and I hear the thin, sharp EEK! of a rose-breasted grosbeak. A pale streaky brown bird flies over, white wing patches contrasting weakly against the sky. All right, then. The juvenile grosbeak is still around. I leap up and trot around the corner of the house,following him, Chet Baker thundering in front of me, he hoping for a long photo-safari, me hoping just for a lousy snapshot to document the occurrence. I stare at the line of trees. Two cardinals, a white-eyed vireo...and a parti-colored bird flies out of the thick cherry leaves and tees up for a moment in a dead ash. Binoculars lock on him--and I think I know this bird. It's an adult male rose-breast, with a little dash of white behind each eye. If he's got a pink breast, it's too pale to see in profile. He's a bit messy. Yes. Maybe my little spring gift never left. And perhaps he had a mate hidden away, or where would that baby have come from?

I trot down the orchard after him when he flies. Baker thunders ahead like Secretariat in the last furlong, brrrump brrump brrrump! I stop in the clearing where I stand a chance of seeing the bird again. A pair of indigo buntings scolds indignantly, and a rank young towhee, barely recognizable in warm brown, pops up while his parents dither around him. I get an acceptable photo of the male bunting, but only because he's so mad at me. I wait, but there's no grosbeak. And then he sings, just one phrase of his liquid song, from the sugar maples. Thank you.

I still don't know for sure whether it's the same bird who visited my peanut feeders in the first week of June. Chances are that it's not. But it's a rose-breast record, with a freshly fledged juvenile, in early July, and that's good enough for me.

This is unprecedented for Indigo Hill, way down here in southern Ohio, at least 100 miles south of where rose-breasts might be expected to breed, and yet a gentleman in Devola, 18 miles southwest of here, has had two males, an adult female, and now a juvenile rose-breasted grosbeak being fed at his feeder all summer. How I envied him when that e-mail came in! And all along, it was happening on my own turf. One of my favorite birds of all, and a well-marked, distinctive individual at that, never before (to my knowledge) recorded breeding in my county, raises a baby practically on my doorstep, and it takes until mid-July for me to find out.

Why do I ever leave this place? What else has happened while I've been chasing warblers and wildflowers? I'm trying to come to peace with my life, to settle back in where I belong. Quite aside from the packing and unpacking, the turmoil and time spent sardined in airplane seats, travel has a psychic cost for me that I pay, with interest. Traveling so much makes it hard for me to settle when I do come home. It stacks up deadlines and obligations just as it does laundry and housework. And yet...those things will always dog me. And I've had the most wonderful tiime, chasing spring north, smelling lilacs from April to late June, from Ohio to Wisconsin to North Dakota to Maine. And I've seen warblers and godwits and puffins and Bigfoot, and I've taken gobs of pictures and written tens of thousands of words and shared it all with my husband, my kids, and with you. It's a good life, and I am deeply blessed, and my time home in July is for sitting back and realizing that.

Wherever you are, you're missing something somewhere else. As if to punctuate that simple maxim that's come of an hour's writing, a cedar waxwing lands and fluffs his feathers, wiping his bill in the birch right in front of me. It's the same tree where the towhees fought, the bluebird rested, the indigo bunting sang, and the tanager fed the cowbird. All in the space of an hour. I wonder why he's wiping his bill so much. Birds do that after they eat something messy, like the pin cherries that are coming into ripeness. They also do it when they've just fed young. Has he got a nest nearby? Watch, note, and wonder. Most of all, notice. No detail is so small as to be unimportant. It's by ascribing significance to the smallest things that naturalists make their observations, and synthesize them into a story. It's good to be home, and working again.

So, if you're still with me, I've got a question for you bloggers out there. Are you a grasshopper, coming up with something new each time you post, or an ant, patiently storing away blog posts against the time when you'll be too busy to sit down and write one de novo? Tell me true. I understand that we're all one or the other from time to time, but on the whole, which one are you? It might be good to add how long you've been blogging, since I suspect that a grasshopper might on occasion decide to act like an ant, and an ant might cross over to the grasshopper side.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Saving the Mousie

It's a gorgeous early July morning, and I've been sitting out at the picnic table for two hours, "canning" blog entries. As bloggers go, I'm an ant. Remember the Aesop's fable about the grasshopper and the ant? The grasshopper got up every morning and ate whatever happened to be around, and he made fun of the ant for laboriously carrying seeds and grains to her larder, hedging against the cold winter to come. When that cold winter arrived, the grasshopper showed up at the ant's door, starving, and acting like the ant was his bestest friend. The ant said, "Honk off!" or something like that, and slammed his little ant larder door in the grasshopper's face. Having been a grasshopper for most of my blogging life, serving it up fresh every day, I find it fits more with my temperament to write when I feel like writing, prepare some entries, and the coast on that work for awhile. Burned out bloggers, take note. It's one way to cope, to cheat that



So I'm writing this morning, as the sun climbs higher and I move around the yard looking for shade and a wireless signal. I've been out here since 7, and it's 9, and the whole time I've heard this little hollow plonking sound from the depths of the garage. I thought it might be a bird trapped in there, bonking on the window. So every now and then I'd get up and look around in the garage, and the plonking always stopped. Not a bird. Finally, I crept inside while the plonking was happening, and it sounded like something soft hitting plastic. OK. Let's look in the plastic bird feed buckets. And this is what I found.
A tiny baby white-footed mouse, the same kind that crawls into my recycling bins, my car manifold, the false cloth ceiling of my Explorer, or my dryer vent (to name just a few places on record) and conveniently dies.

Oh. You are CUTE. And so hungry and dehydrated.
Now, my first instinct was to tip the bucket into the flower bed and let him go. Kind of like when you catch a hummingbird in the house, and all you want to do is turn it loose. But it occurred to me that he might like some water, some suet dough, and a bing cherry. I sure would, if I'd been in a plastic bucket all night and morning, plonking away, eating the few moth-eaten sunflower seeds that remained stuck in it.

Oh, yes, thank you VERY much. I would like that.
He tied into the suet dough the second it landed in the bucket. And put a hurtin' on the cherry.
Sweet mousie. I hope you've enjoyed your stay in Hotel Rubbermaid. Now stay the ***** out of my dryer lint trap*

*whose stench is slowly receding into a more acceptable composty smell. I hang the clothes out all summer anyway. I figure by October, I ought to be able to tumble clothes in there without having them come out smelling of my new fabric softener scent, Corpse. Prince and Britney have their own fragrances. Why not the Science Chimp?


Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mighty Mites

It's been a tough year for bluebirds in Ohio. First, there was the mid-April cold spell--a ten day marathon in which many early nests were lost. It's tough to incubate eggs and feed babies, when it gets down to 20 degrees at night and barely gets above the 40's during the day. The weather settled down for awhile, and then we had the driest May and June since 1988. That hurts insect populations. Clutch sizes fell accordingly--three-egg second clutches were the norm. But mites, which are more closely related to spiders and ticks, flourish in dry weather. Man, do they flourish. This is the first year I've lost bluebirds to mite infestations, and I've been monitoring at least 20 nest boxes each year since 1982. That's a whole lot of nests peeked into, a whole lot of notes taken. Never have I seen mites like I'm seeing in 2007. Five of my boxes were heavily infested, and I've lost three young in two boxes to mites. It drives me nuts when I'm traveling a lot and can't be there to change nests. But I got to the one in the far orchard just in the nick of time. The day after we came back from Maine, I was out in the morning, checking boxes. They hadn't been checked in two weeks--an unavoidable, but unacceptably long interval. Sure enough, this nest, which had only a couple of eggs when I left, was overrun with mites. One baby had just died, and a second was dying. The third looked all right, but both remaining young had mites seething over their tender skin, and worse, stuffed into their ears. Bleccch!
I closed the box and ran back to the house, picking mites off my arms and out of my eyebrows the whole way. Eek!

I grabbed my bag of dry grass, a toothbrush, a Tupperware container, and a thermal mug full of boiling water. Reaching the box, I took the babies out of their infested nest and put them in a paper towel lined Tupperware. For some reason, when you put mite-infested babies on white paper towels, the mites swarm off them and onto the towels. I don't know why, but I'm glad they do. I removed the seething nest, carried it a good distance away and pitched it into the woods. Next, I scrubbed the box with the toothbrush, loosening the mites packed into its seams. Then, I dashed boiling water into the box, three times for good measure. Dead mites ran out with the water. Why use poisonous insecticide when hot water is so much safer and faster?
When the box had cooled, I made a new nest and stuffed it in.

While the box cooled, I used fine blades of grass to flick mites out of the nestling's ear openings. Poor little things. The weaker baby was badly dehydrated, not even able to right itself, and a sickly yellow in color. Any more, I can tell immediately when a box has mites, even before they swarm up my arms, by the anaemic yellow skin of the nestlings.
I gave this baby a 50/50 chance of survival, improved by the fact that the parents had only two to tend, and vastly improved by their now mite-free box. I closed the box and came back two days later, to find the once-dying baby all pink and plump, cuddling with its sibling in their crude hand-made nest, comfortable, hydrated, in possession of all its red blood cells, and well-fed for the first time. The chance to make a difference, even in one bird's life, is part of what keeps me going. That, and the things I see as I make the rounds...butterflyweed in full glory.
A bumblebee, navigating fields of nectar.

And an indigo bunting nest, eggs an unexpected white (why in the Sam hill would an open-cup nester have WHITE eggs? They stick out like a sore thumb! Somebody explain this to the Science Chimp, pleeeeeze. I'm staying away from this nest, though the thing I'd most like to do is stick my camera in it every day. What would be the point of photographing it if I just wound up leading a 'coon to it? Ahhh, it's torture, but I have to do what's best for the birds. The little hen bathes in my bird spa every afternoon at about the same time, and her handsome mate uses the backyard bird bath. They're my neighbors. I have to keep my big nose out of their bidness.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

More Prairie Birds, and an Auction

There’s a dry, insect-like bzzz bzzz bzzz that echoes in the silverbush and sage. It comes from the clay-colored sparrow, a bird I tried to photograph in Wisconsin with blurry results. This little bird was a lot more cooperative, whiling away the minutes on a barbed-wire fence. Such a pallid, pretty little thing, with stripes within stripes on its crown.Though there’s much talk about distinguishing it from a chipping sparrow in the field guides, there’s no mistaking the bird once you’ve come to know it. When I ran across one in a flock of spring chippies in Oak Hill, West Virginia two years ago, I called it without hesitation. It’s like the pale gray ghost of a chipping sparrow.

Here’s one of the real prairie gems—the black tern. Although it does eat small fish that it catches in the larger lakes and potholes, the black tern takes most of its food in insects. Imagine, that gorgeous streamlined tern body and wings employed to catch insects. We happened upon a colony of black terns that were just re-laying their eggs after having been flooded out. They were in a bit of disarray, milling about. Only two pairs that we could see were on eggs. We set up the scope on a nest and watched as the male and female politely exchanged incubation duties every ten minutes or so.
Oh, they are gorgeous, these terns in negative, pewter, smoke and coal. Rare is the bird whose underside is black, darker than its top. Why would a black tern not need countershading? All the other terns I can think of have darker mantles than bellies. (Countershading is what happens when an animal with a dark top and lighter belly is viewed at a distance, and kind of flattens out and fades into the background. It's thought to be protective coloration, helping animals avoid detection.) Black terns turn that formula on its head. I don't know why, but I'll think about it.

I did some sketches, and Bill wheedled until I agreed to do a painting, to be auctioned off the same evening for the benefit of the festival. The only problem? I didn’t have my watercolors with me. (We'll overlook, for the moment, that key phrase, "to be auctioned off the same evening."It was about 2:30, and the painting and I had to be ready at 5:30. Oh, and I had to give the keynote too.) Our friend Ann Hoffert came up with some watercolor pencils, which are supposed to create a watercolor-oid wash when you run clear water over the colored pencil-like marks they make. I decided to give it a shot, though I had never held one in my hand and was deeply suspicious, as many old artists are, of new-fangled things. When we got home, I had about three hours to prepare for my keynote that evening, get clean, and create an original work of art worthy of auction. Eek. “Painting” with watercolor pencils when you’re used to the drip and flow of washes is…well, let’s just say that I told the kids to leave the kitchen because they shouldn’t be hearing what was being muttered and occasionally blurted as I struggled to make something worth being held up in front of a festival crowd. Bombs were dropped.

Immediately upon bringing the piece to fruition, I tore apart my keynote address and inserted a bunch of North Dakota bird photos. Having your talks on a laptop is both a blessing and a curse. Nobody in their right mind would tear apart a slideshow right before giving it, trying to tailor it with still-wet photos from the specific area, nay, the very afternoon, of the talk. We computer-lovin' people glory in doing stupid things like that, just because we can. It's part of what makes us such a delight to be around, such surpassingly bad company. We stare and tap at our little silver boxes, mutter and hiss, and get way too involved with them.

I did not take a picture of the black tern creation as I sped out the door, trailing still-smoking laptop, artwork, colored pencils, hairbrush, lip gloss and hastily bathed and dressed kids. Despite my bad artistic karma, it came out just fine.

And went for a tidy sum at auction, for the benefit of Birding Drives Dakota. Picture Gomer Pyle, saying, “Gaa-aaw-leeeee.” Paul B., you rock. Birdchick, thanks for sparking the bidding. I don’t know if it was altruism, mercy, or partial blindness, but I am grateful. Maybe it helped that Bill was the auctioneer, sweet Phoebe was taking it around, showing it to the audience, and Liam was doing impromptu fancy-footwork dances in an attempt to whip the placid crowd into a bidding frenzy.

I resolved at the moment Bill's imaginary gavel fell at the auction never to travel anywhere without my paints and some decent brushes and paper. You’d think I’d know that by now. Durn camera. It’s too easy and fun to take pictures. Harder to make them. I spent part of this afternoon squeezing paint into tiny pans in my travel kit, and packing up a few brushes. Should the Muse or my husband, Thumper, call upon me to paint something on our next trip, at least I won't be teaching the kids new combinations of familiar old words.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Mysterious Sighting

Rails: birds of great mystery. So few of us ever get to see them. One Friday, Bill and I led a trip out to a large piece of virgin prairie, studded with potholes and heavily vegetated in native silverbush, buckbrush, buffalo grass and buffalobean. Oh, it was gorgeous. BOTB thought there might be a sora hiding in a shallow wetland, and he played his iPod to find out. There was an immediate answer, whinnying from the reeds.

Our group lined up along one edge of the slough, waiting for the little actor to take the stage. And he strode out, silently, right up to Bill, walking back and forth before us, his corn-yellow bill matching the hawkweed blossoms. It was everyone's best ever look at a sora, a shy rail who's often heard, but seldom seen. Lovely, lovely.

He flew past us, legs dangling and wings whirring, into the light and perched momentarily on a rock. Oh, please. Behave!Then he retired to the cattails, where he did railly things like preen his shiny feathers. This would normally constitute a fantastic look at a sora.On Sunday, Bill and I led the same trip, and we decided to try for this cooperative bird once again, knowing that from here on out, he'd be left completely alone for at least a year, and probably for the rest of his life. Nothing doing. We waited and strained our eyes until they dried out, but he never appeared. Called, laughed derisively at us, but would not come out.
This couple is doing a darned good imitation of BOTB and Zick, but they're not us. 'Cuz I'm behind the camera, remember? And I'm more a cowboy hatter than a mushroom hatter. We stood and stared and waited. No sora today. Show's over.
One of our group--it may have been BOTB, with his sharp eyes-- looked over a distant line of shrubs and spotted something unusual moving about.

Eek. That big black biped looks like an anthropoid ape. It has to be...it must be...can it be...Sasquatch?

Oh, yeah. That's Sasquatch, all right. Never thought I'd see that. But you never know what you'll see on virgin prairie.

At this point, sweet Phoebe Freaked All the Way Out. She was buyin' it, bigtime. Oren Krapp, the rancher who owns the prairie and the bison we came to see, waved his hand. "That's a bison." Oren, who can tell the sex of a bison a mile away... We begged to differ. Phoebe and Liam clung to me, trembling. "Is it real? Is it real?"

"Oh, yeah, honey. It's real. It's so real, I can tell it's a female. You know how? It's got a coconut shell bra on, that's how."

At this point, Phoebe's curiosity overcame her fear, and she ventured a look through the scope.
Sasquatch ducked and hid, sniffed the air, scratched herself, and disappeared. The next time we saw her, she was four-wheelin' toward us.She kindly posed for a group picture. I cannot tell you how North Dakota this was. You just have to spend time there to know. But trust me, this is textbook NoDak humor. Any wonder that I love the place, and the people, so much?You have to love Phoebe in this picture. I'm next to Bigfoot. I'm next to Bigfoot. Eeeeeyewww!

Know all ye: The only reason she's letting me post this is because I upgraded her account on DollWar to Supermodel today. My stock is high, for now.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Malicious Melodies

Wherever there are cattails, you’ll hear the windup-toy song of the marsh wren. It’s much more melodious than the dry, ticking song of the sedge wren. Like some other wren species, (think house wren), marsh wren males build several “dummy nests,” perhaps to show the female their nest-building and territory-holding prowess. They sing and posture next to the nests, and eventually a female will select one to line and lay her eggs in.
Marsh wrens share a bad habit with house wrens, piercing and throwing out eggs in other birds’ nests.

I wouldn’t do that.Yes you would.

Whether they’re trying to eliminate competition for food on their territories, or just being narsty, marsh wrens will go into red-winged and yellow-headed blackbird nests and throw the eggs out. Hmmph. Carolina wrens are much better neighbors. They build one nest and stick to it, and they don't bother anyone else's eggs.

Boy, are marsh wrens cute, though, straddling the stalks and winding up their song, a feast for the eye and ear. Springy little things. Wrens are pure bird spirit.
These were photographed along Pipestem Creek near Pingree, North Dakota, on a pellucid June day, in good company.

Chet Baker was a perfect gentleman today, in case you're wondering. He had one more episode of uppitiness yesterday and I rolled him on his back and pinned him down and Darthed him good. Tonight, he waited in the car while we were at a restaurant and, courtesy of Liam, there was a bag with a cheeseburger in it on the back seat, wide open, and he didn't even touch it. Didn't even need to warn him not to mess with it. Now that's a good boy.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Uppity Puppy

major chetfix comin' up
In Chet Baker lingo, Uppiteh Puppeh. Every once in awhile you read about a dog that "snaps," that becomes something Other for a fleeting moment or a lifetime. Now, Phoebe and I have seen the Other in Chet. We finally got a half-inch of rain last Thursday, and everyone was feeling revived. Birds were zipping all over the place, bathing in the Spa, feeding, singing, playing...Phoebe got frisky and got her basketball out to play. Chet loves basketballs. He really, really loves the leather one. Too much, he loves that ball.It was clear that Chet had plans for Phoebe's basketball. She held it up, not daring to bounce it, because if she did, Chet would have it in the blink of an eye.Finally she tried to dribble it. Big mistake. Chet wanted to puncture that basketball so badly. He set upon it, snarling, trying to dig a canine tooth into it. Oh, how he loves to pop balls. It's a bad habit he picked up as a puppy--remember Scooby? The deflated basketball he carried all the way around The Loop? I posted about it back in January 2006, back when a Chet Baker post brought one comment if I was lucky. Check it out, there's such a cute puppy picture of him...He has a Thing for Basketballs.

While I was there, I dug around in the archives and found Gremlin's Gold. One of my favorite posts. No comments. How times have changed. You young whippersnapper bloggers who come to this thing with a built-in audience, gettin' comments right off the bat...why, we used to have to walk through thigh-deep snow for a year or more to get a comment, right, Birdchick? But I digress. Back to the Changeling:

Chet planted his feet on the ball and barked defiantly. My ball. Mine, mine, mine, mine. He barked so loudly and so sharply that Bill, who was out at the end of our quarter-mile long driveway, called us on his cellphone to see what was wrong. He thought it sounded like Chet, but then again it didn't. Well, it wasn't quite Chet Baker. It was the wolf in him, out for an airing. Baooooooow!Chet successfully held me and Phoebe off for several minutes. Every time he tried to puncture the ball we scolded him, but we couldn't get it away from him. His terrier half was all the way out. He was just this side of being out of control. There was a weird light in his eyes that told me not to touch him. So I pulled out Darth Vader. The voice that the kids fear; the voice that puts a stop to anything they might be doing immediately. Above all else, Boston terriers are sensitive to tone of voice, and this is a tone I don't use very often. Maybe once or twice a year.
He stopped barking. I got the ball.
I demanded to know what he could possibly have been thinking. And he deflated, visibly. I wasn't thinking, Mether. I wanted the basketball. I wanted to pop it. I still want to pop it, and I think you are a party pooper. If I had my own room I would go in it and slam the door.
photo by Phoebe Thompson

Well, you aren't going to pop it. And you are a naughty dog. A very naughty dog.
Take your AirDog dumbbell, and chew that up.I am still so mad at you. But all right. I will.
And for good measure I am going to disembowel my new cat. And you can clean it up, because I think you are mean.Don't forget your ABC's, young man. A is for Alpha. And you are not Alpha.

But I love you very much, and you are the best doggie in the land.

the real Chet Baker

I love you, too, Mether.

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