Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

THIS POST IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. Cover it with your hand if you must, but it gets gross. Well, on the Zick grossness scale, which goes to 15, it's about a 2, but I'm well aware that my grossness scale is not calibrated normally. In fact, I offend peoples' delicate sensibilities right and left lately.

Still with me?

This morning, while chasing a blue-winged warbler, I found a lone feather on the grass of the lawn. Funny. I hadn't heard from this species for quite awhile, and had just speculated the other day that perhaps they'd moved on. It was kind of nice to find a calling card on the grass, and in another way, not so nice.** Any guesses as to whose it is?

So I'm mowing this evening, having spent the entire weekend, dawn to dark, cleaning the inside of the house. And there in the grass on the other side of the house is a whole mess of feathers from the same bird. Woo! I notice immediately that they're tousled and messed up, not perfect as they would be had they been dropped in a molt (like the first feather I found) or a preening session. They're all beat up.
Not far from the feathers is a big gutpile. Oh, yeah. Since my attention span's too short to run a quiz, and I have my doubts as to whether anyone wants to guess while gagging, I'll tell you that that's the many-chambered stomach of a cottontail rabbit. (Since I wrote this I cut the close-up of the gutpile. It appears as a reddish-brown blob in the brownish bare area to the left side of the picture. Anybody could look at that. The close-up was nice, though.)

And the feathers are from a great horned owl. From its belly, to be precise.

Rabbits, as anyone who owns one can tell you, can be tough customers. Every carnivore finds them delicious, but that doesn't make them wussies. Before this owl ate, it got kicked, hard enough to rid it of a mess of feathers and some skin. The rabbit eventually lost, but I'm sure that owl was sore this morning. Perhaps it was a juvenile; someone who knows great horned owls might be able to tell from the feathers. Perhaps it just had a bad grip on a big animal. But it's not easy being a predator, having to kill your dinner with your feet.

I ran and got Liam to show him this drama in the grass. He emerged from the house with more than a little trepidation. Poor little guy--he actually gagged.
" Ucccccch! That's so horrible!"

"Well, it was horrible for the rabbit, but that's how great horned owls have to get their dinner, honey. And as you can see, it wasn't easy for the owl, either."

"I hate nature!"

"Sweetheart, this is only a little part of nature. Nature is also flowers and butterflies and hummingbirds and trees. But carnivores have to kill what they eat, and that's natural."

"You make me feel like the whole world is made of this!"

"Of what?"


He stomped back to the house, leaving me to ponder that accusation. It's not one that gets thrown at me every day.

He'll get over it. His little boy love of all things disgusting will kick in and soon I won't be able to gross him out. And now he knows how owls eat.

Lots of Liam and Phoebe's classmates around this area raise goats or rabbits for 4H. Some raise calves or lambs. All of them have to get used to the idea that this beloved charge of theirs is going to be sold for its meat at the county fair on Labor Day Weekend. This weekend, all those goats and bunnies go, and they don't come back from where they're going. Now, other than weathering their reactions, I have no trouble showing my kids rabbit guts on the lawn, or bones in coyote scat, or a roadkill. But I'd have a whole lot of trouble letting them raise a couple of goats for slaughter. Not least because I'd fall in love with them, too. We'd have the only goats at the fair with NFS spray-painted on their sides.

We all have our thresholds, I guess.

**On why it's not so nice to have great horned owls around: The screech owls are singing like crazy on these late summer nights. The barred owls hoot and cackle, starting a little later in the fall. And great horneds eat them both, darn them. We've only had great horneds for about the last five years, and as thrilling as that basso profundo hoot can be on a January night, I do worry about the smaller owls who were here first. Ah well. Nothing to be done about that. They'll have to sort it out among themselves.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Happiness Is...

...being on NPR's All Things Considered again this afternoon, Wednesday, August 29 . I've got a commentary on living with mice airing right after a story on pet store rabbit sales. Both stories are in the second hour of the program, which is sometime after 5 PM Eastern. If you miss it, you can hear the file by clicking here.

And Happiness is...a new plant to love. Specifically, Hibiscus syriaca (Rose of Sharon), cultivar "Satin Blue," a Proven Winner variety new this year.

All my life, I've heard my mother grouse about how much she hates Rose of Sharon, that big, somewhat gangly flowering shrub that keeps old houses company in their dotage. I don't know why she hates them, but she does. The unkempt growth habit, sparse foliage, messiness of all the dropped flowers, maybe. Mom likes things neat and tidy. And so I've never even had them on the radar screen as something I'd grow. In a similar case of unfair bias, I had a landlady in Connecticut who over and over professed her hatred of gladioli. They reminded her of funerals, she claimed. The effect on me in that case was just the opposite; I planted two long rows of them in the garden I was ostensibly keeping for her. Hee hee. I felt the glads were getting a bad rap. Not their fault that they're used in funeral bouquets. Let's just plant a couple dozen more. And, while I was a caretaker on her capacious property, that didn't mean I couldn't assert my admittedly contrary horticultural rights and preferences, and secretly gloat about it.

So I went through life not thinking about ever growing Rose of Sharon at all, until I made my yearly pilgrimage to a neat, funky little nursery right outside Chautauqua Institution's gates. And I saw this little bitty Rose of Sharon bush in a gallon pot, with a single enormous flower of the most bewitching silken blue I'd ever seen. A deep maroon throat, a creamy white pistil and stamens. I was instantly in love. Little did it matter that we would have to juggle it around in the van for the next three days and hundreds of miles. I had to have it.

If I'm lucky, it'll grow to 8' tall and 4' wide. I'll plant it on the corner right by Liam's bedroom window, where my much-mourned blue columnar juniper expired last spring. It'll bloom in late summer, when lots of other things are tired out. And I will love it. My God! the promise in that shining bud.That first night in the van, three big fat buds got knocked off it, and I cried real tears, but I put the biggest one in water and was able to wear the full-blown blue flower behind my ear for breakfast with my whole family Sunday morning. I showed it to my mother, and she exclaimed about what a pretty color it was. Maybe she's forgotten that she's always hated Rose of Sharon. I sure have.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

An Audience with the Pup

If the wedding was fun, the reception was even better. I don't have many pictures because we were too busy dancing. There aren't many occasions when I get to dance with my brother and sister, nieces and nephews, kids and husband, and fetch wine for my mom. I don't often get to see my nephew Eric chatting Liam up. They get along like a house afire, and can always be found off in a corner somewhere, yakking about guy matters. The morning after, we had breakfast at the historic Hotel Utica. At this point, we're 12 hours from home, and hoping to hit the road early enough to pull into the driveway by about 11 p.m. Liam got to show off his brand new mad two-wheeler skilz for the whole clan. He'd just pulled the trigger on that the afternoon before, with a lot of help from BOTB. He's a cautious little thing, and doesn't like to try anything new until he's sure he's got it perfect. Waited until he was 21 months old to walk, then just stood up and walked. Pretty much the same story for biking. Cousin Evan looks like he's about ready to leap out and catch wobbly Liam. Phoebe's praying he won't crash in front of everyone. It was a cool morning, and we parked in the shade of the building. Chet Baker waited in the car for his Big Moment, the one we'd promised him the entire trip. He'd get to meet my whole family. It wasn't quite like showing everybody your new baby, but it was a lot of fun, anyway. My lucky niece Karen got that gig. Here's Will, mangeing on one of Gramma Barb's famous cinnamon scones (he had to fight my kids for it).Doesn't look a thing like his momma, does he? A total cutie.
Will was delighted with Baker, almost as delighted as Phoebe was to present her precious pup. He wanted to see if Chet could spin around if given a push (something all Will's adult admirers are happy to do for him).Chet is sending me a telepathic message at this point. Mether! Come in, Mether. What am I supposed to be doing here?Baker's theme when close to a baby's face: Wash it. Wash it good.

Sister Nancy remarks on how much Baker's calmed down since he was a puppy. They look good together. Yes, I am calm, but you will notice that I am just as cute as I was then. I still retain my little white glove and my slightly spotty tuxedo shirt.Chet Baker went into cute doggie overdrive when my nephew Eric finally got hold of him. Unbeknownst to me, Eric's been suffering from Boston terrier acquisitive disorder for a couple of years. I think Chet might have something to do with that.Eric's fiance, Tera, wasn't so sure about Eric's obsession at first, until her personal Audience with the Pup. She had always had this notion, not having met one, that Boston terriers were kind of big, drooly, and muscle-bound, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Chet was none of those. Why, he's a little American gentleman! Look at that cute little face! And he's so playful!I will take this leash from you and chew it to shreds, because although I am cute, I am also very bad sometimes. Rrrrrrrrrrr! Umph! Umph! I know exactly what I am supposed to be doing in this situation. I am going to pour on the cuteness now, and help this poor young couple with their affliction. Everyone needs a Boston terrier, because there can't be too much love or too many kisses in this sad old world.

Anyone afflicted with a severe case of Boston terrier acquistive disorder after reading this post should give me a holla. By a series of flukes, Chet Baker's breeder has two gorgeous male pups ready and looking for homes--one ten weeks, one ten months, both sweet and adorable.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Snapshots from a Wedding

I like weddings. I especially like weddings of people I love, like that of my niece Courtney. I wouldn't want to be a wedding photographer, but I love taking grab shots at weddings, just little side details that tell a story, just as much as do those lineups of each side's family. Maybe more.
Everything is on Courtney's face here as she walks down the aisle on Dad's arm. Grace, trepidation, excitement, anticipation, an almost unbearable tension, emotion at seeing all these people she loves...oh, how beautiful.

The obligatory hopelessly adorable tiny tot with flowers...a collective sigh from the she made of porcelain? A perfect reminder of one of the reasons we get married.
Courtney and Tyler listen to the male choir singing an adaptation of the 23rd Psalm by Bobby McFerrin.Aftermath: the bride and bridesmaids taking off across the lawn for pictures. Note that they're carrying their shoeswhich were so fabulously stylish as to be painful, and thus were left in an unceremonious heap right on the church steps immediately after the ceremony...everyone was talking about those shoes. Bill said, "Now, there's a name for pumps like that. You know, with the stiletto heel. Somebody help me?" Such a wag.
A glimpse of faeries, male and female, out on the lawn...stepdancing?
a bit closer...we could be in Ireland. Prince Liam and Princess Phoebe, Stars of the County Down. Allemande!
There were lots of irreverant little touches about this wedding that I enjoyed. No big fancy cake. A tiered "cake" composed of Red Velvet Cupcakes, Courtney's favorite from way back. Yeah.
Christy, sister of the bride, and dad Larry.
Now. Who didn't get the memo about dressing in solid color pastels? Why, it's Wilma Flintstone! or is it Jane of the Jungle? Eee! Eee! Eee! Is this going to be a dress I regret in 20 years?me and my sisters and mom--Barbara, Micky, mother Ida, Zick, Nancy (mother of the bride)Take a bow, Nan! Micky is a great writer and very funny. Nancy is a fabulous librarian and probably the nicest person I know.Must be a bird on top of the church steeple. Photo by BOTB.

My cool brother Bob with my cool sister Barbara. She's a gourmet cook and there's nothing she can't do. Bob rides his bicycle 13 miles to work and back every day, rain or shine. He teaches engineering and knows all about alternative energy. Modern male bonding: Bill of the Birds watches a Will Ferrell video on nephew Eric's new iPhone. Bill has been a model of restraint, waiting for the second generation iPhone, which will be out in oh, about forty seconds from now. When we're around Eric we hit YouTube and pretty much laugh the whole time.
Ida to Barbara: Smell my roses. Don't they smell good? So now you know where I get it.
There was an imp on the church steps. Jane of the Jungle's offspring, perhaps? Oh, I love weddings. Thanks for having one, Courtney and Tyler. It was lovely.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Releasing Magic

I was going to try to hang on to Magic until Sherri got back from a trip on Monday, August 20. But Saturday the 18th dawned bright and clear as a bell, in the 60's, dewy, and Magic was a changed bird. Instead of loafing around and going to the feeder and loafing around some more, he was supercharged. I brought the feeder out around 7 AM and he was so hungry he hung before it, gaping, before he remembered to insert his bill and lap up some nectar. When his crop was full he commenced circling the ceiling of the tent, something he hadn't done before. He circled like a trapped thing, like a hummingbird that had blundered in and couldn't find its way out.I couldn't stand it.

Why was I keeping this wild bird, who knew all he needed to know to survive?
What was best for him? Keeping him until it was convenient for us, or opening the tent to the wide blue heavens?
I didn't have to call Sherri to know the answer. She'd want me to release him when the time was right. And that time was 10:30 AM, August 18, 2007.
And so I did, zipped the tent open and hung the feeder in the doorway.
It took Magic a little while to get the concept, or perhaps build up the courage to explore. I have to say, it was a pretty nice suite. Kind of Romanesque. But after noting the clear air just beyond his feeder, he simply zipped out, hung in the air for a moment, poked his bill into a coneflower, and fetched up momentarily in a birch tree. He hooked around the corner of the tent and was gone, just like that. No goodbyes.
I hung his feeder up in the birch where I'd last seen him, and dismantled the tent. I watched for him all day long. Finally, at 3:30 and again at 7:10 PM, I saw him at the sugar water feeder by the front door. He was nervous but competent, shouldering his way into the crowd to feed.
I haven't seen him since.
Usually, I get an opportunity to follow my wild babies in the days and weeks after release. But Magic had had enough of me and my tent and sink bath and hose spraying and protein formula. He was ready for the world, and like an arrow shot from a bow, he left.
I know there are enough hummingbird flowers here for him to live on. More than enough.

Can you find him? He's in tall corn.Godspeed, little ship.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Feast of Flowers, a Macaw's Birthday

Of all the things Magic enjoyed while he was a guest in my fledging tent, it was the daily influx of fresh-cut flowers. I had to come into the tent with camera locked and loaded, because the minute I put that vase in place, he was all over those blossoms. It was a neat opportunity to learn what he liked and how he approached each species. But then everything is an experiment for a Science Chimp, right?Agastache, or Mexican hyssop, is a plant that's come into some favor lately. I like it because even though it looks exotic and its leaves smell divine, it's a perennial, and it gets bigger and nicer every year. Hummingbirds love it. Magic found its somewhat floppy flowers a challenge, and he'd probe deep into them, bringing them from horizontal to full upright in his quest to plumb their nectar.
Lots of insects and birds enjoy the nectar of oregano. I imagine it might have a kick to it. Magic seemed interested in it, and visited repeatedly. You might not think a small, white, clustered flower like this would hold attraction for a hummingbird, but they feed on a surprising variety of different flowers. Buddleia, for instance, is something I'd always assumed was for butterflies, until I saw the extent to which my hummingbirds feed on it.
In between feeding bouts, he'd rest. It's important when housing hummingbirds to provide them with the smallest possible twigs for perching. I taped these fine birch twigs all over the tent.
Cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a huge rubythroat favorite. Its blooming is timed to coincide with peak hummingbird abundance, and its incomparable hue is the best, truest red going in my garden. When you see a wild hummingbird with a white, powdered forehead, it's been anointed with pollen by the protruding stamens of this plant. My cardinalflower gets pollinated, boy does it, and the seed children are proof, coming up everywhere. I never thought I'd be giving cardinalflower away, but I'm almost at that point.
Time to stretch a wing and tail.And if you've ever wondered whether hummingbirds yawn, well, they do. And they sneeze, too, but that's harder to photograph. Maybe someday.I took these pictures on Magic's penultimate morning with me, August 17. It also happened to be Charlie the macaw's 20th birthday! I could do a "What is wrong with this picture?" post with this photograph. Let's start with the fact that he's standing on the keyboard of my laptop. He spends quite a bit of time there, but I kick him off when he starts preening, because I don't want greasy little bird sheath bits in my keyboard. Next, we can notice the tipped wine glass, right over the keyboard. Durr. And we can end with the Surgeon General's warning about alcohol as pertains to parrots. A no-no. But if a bird can't have a swig or two of King Shag Sauvignon Blanc on his 20th birthday, when can he? Ye gods, that bird adores wine, and he's got a bit of a taste for beer, too. Totally up to us to limit his consumption, which we do, we do.
Here's to 20 years of companionship from my sweet, irascible, tender, nippy friend. If my orchard oriole and Savannah sparrow made it to 17, Lord only knows how long Charles will party on. Wine and all. Love ya, Chuckles.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Turn on Your Radio

This just in: I've been told that one of my commentaries will air this afternoon (Wednesday, August 22) on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. It will air in the first half of the second hour of the show. Here in the Eastern time zone, that would have it airing between 5 and 5:30 p.m., since our show starts at 4 p.m. It should air right after a story about a survey of married couples.

The piece is about some of the things that happen (and don't) when you've been married for a long time.

It's been a bit of a dry spell; I haven't been on the air since May, when I admitted to doing dastardly things to house sparrows. There wasn't a Zick embargo that I know of; I was just traveling too darn much to write or record anything. This is a piece that NPR's been holding for a couple of years, and my genius editor remembered it and found that it fit right in with a story that came up. Hope you can tune in and hear it! If you miss it, listen here after 7 p.m. today.

In another bit of shameless self-promotion, I've received word today that Letters from Eden is one of five finalists for a Great Lakes Book Award. Didn't win it, but it's a finalist. Not going to argue with that. Life is good.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hummingbird Flower Camp

Part of conditioning this orphaned hummingbird for release is making sure he gets a high-protein diet while he's still growing. I'm holding him until Day 41 in part to make sure that he gets a decent diet, and doesn't park himself on the sugar water feeders by the front door like the clouds of other hummers at Indigo Hill. Some excellent literature written by hummingbird rehabilitator Connie Sale asserts that hummingbirds are left by their mothers to fend for themselves around Day 42-47. Which I find very interesting, because The Birds of North America (the definitive tome by the American Ornithologists' Union and the Academy of Natural Sciences) states that female hummingbirds feed their young for only 4-7 days after fledging on Day 18, which would mean the fledglings would be on their own by Day 22-25. In my experience raising hummingbirds, there's no way that can be correct. They just aren't strong enough to sustain hovering at Day 25. They spend most of their time sitting around, peeping for food and growing. How they could forage for themselves when they're that young defies logic. While I realize that captive-raised hummingbirds may not behave as do wild ones, I'd be shocked if the Birds of North America assertion were backed up by actual observations of wild birds. Hummingbirds have got to be darn tough to study, disappearing as they do in a zip, and unable to wear color bands so that individuals can be distinguished. More study of wild hummingbirds needed here! This, I believe, is a situation where rehabilitators who sub for hummingbirds' mothers can teach ornithologists a trick or two.

When I raised three baby hummingbirds in 2003, I released them on Day 32, then wound up having to feed them with a dropper--outside, in the yard--until Day 36. Now, that was a job. Good thing they answered to their names with a peep, so I could find them, and learned to come down to find me when they were hungry. On Day 36, I reduced their subsidy to one feeding before they went to roost in various trees and shrubs around the yard. All I had to go by was the Birds of North America account, and by those standards, it seemed as though my birds were being big ol' babies, and should have been independent ten days earlier. Not so. I was actually kicking them out into the world before they were truly ready. Still, they all made it to return the following spring! The things you learn when you live with birds and talk to other rehabilitators... Magic, on the other hand, has been self-feeding since a week before he fledged (which could explain some of his messy chin feathers!) He's a snap to care for, much easier than my spoiled hummingbirds from 2003. I mix fresh formula three times a day, and wash the feeder each time, to keep things from spoiling in the heat and humidity.

It's great fun to introduce him to different flowers, including geraniums, snapdragons, delphiniums, gladiloi, mandevilla, impatiens, and cardinalflower. He eagerly checks out each one as I bring it in, and visits them constantly throughout the day. I see him flycatching gnats and whitefly.
The plan is to release him and continue putting his protein solution out for him, in the Little Beginner feeder he's become familiar with.
With each passing day he gets more attractive; his feathers benefit from regular mist baths. After I spray down the enclosure, hopefully getting him doused too, he sneaks in and wallows around on the wet geranium leaves. Such a wary little thing he is; I have to use the 300 mm. lens on him just as I would on a wild hummmingbird. It'll be interesting to see if he keeps his standoffish ways after release. I'm looking forward to it. He certainly has a built-in social group to bicker with here!When it's full, this Perky Pet feeder is so heavy I can hardly lift it above my head. It takes my crowd three days to drain it! So there will be no lack of company for Magic. Even now I see hummingbirds hovering in front of his tent netting and perching in the birches close to him. "What are you in for?"
"Fell out of my nest, into a puddle."
"Bummer, man. When do you get out?"
"Gotta hang in until Day 41. Got any smokes?"

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Monday, August 20, 2007


Magic at Day 8, the day I first laid eyes on him and gave Sherri a crash course in hummingbird care.

It takes a lot of trust to hand a bird you've raised--a hummingbird, no less--over to someone else for release. My hat's off to Sherri, who realized that Magic was better off out here than he would have been in her back yard in a heavily settled section of town. She'd poured everything she had into this bird since July 16--and I know how much that is.

If I could put a cartoon balloon on this shot, I'd have Sherri say, "My life has been turned upside down by a bird THIS BIG."
She'd worried over his nutrition, his condition, his housing; she'd ground up mealworms for his formula and put a screen tent up in her backyard and had supplied him with flowers and rotting fruit to attract fruit flies; she'd brought him in when the weather got unbearably hot and thought about him every single minute. She'd brought him to within a week of independence. And now she had to take a leap of faith.
And yet I could tell there was something liberating in handing her charge over to my care. She was so happy; I would have been too. She brought our mutual friend Smokestack Betty for the ride. Betty was playing and singing the blues in this area when we moved here 14 years ago and she's still playing, wherever she can find a crowd that will listen. Betty's musical inspiration is Melanie. She asked Melanie to sign her shoulder at a concert, and then had it immortalized in tattoo ink. Here, Sherri's laughing, and Betty's showing me her tat:

I'm thankful to have friends who do things. Who reach out to rescue exotic birds; who play music in bars and restaurants, who develop their natural talents and help the less fortunate.
Sherri and Betty qualify.

Chet Baker couldn't stand the thought that there was something going on in the screen tent that didn't include him. We heard a sibilant sound from the zipper and Chet was making his way in.
He's no threat to a hummingbird; wouldn't think of molesting one. We let him in. Magic was fine with that. Fifi. Change out of your jammies, willya?

I had some geraniums already in the tent and it didn't take Magic long to zoom in on them.Crop full, he retired to a perch, where he ran his noodle-like tongue in and out, emptying his crop and savoring a second go at spicy geranium nectar.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Magic Comes to Indigo Hill

You'll pardon me, I hope, for the delay in posting about the baby takes awhile to download the photos and compose the posts. Here's his story:

August 14, and I am deleriously happy, happy as only a bird weighing half as much as a penny could make me. Magic, the tiny eight-day-old orphaned hummingbird I wrote about in July, has come to stay with us. My friend Sherri raised him, with a little good food from hummingbird rehabilitator Connie Sale and a bit of advice from Connie and me. She did the hard part, and she did a wonderful job. Magic was self-feeding before he ever flew! I wish I'd had Sherri's touch when I was raising the four orphaned hummingbirds four years ago. I fed them with a dropper long after they were technically able to feed themselves. Man, what a lot of work. Sherri made him fend for himself.

Magic is a lovely little bird, energetic and inquisitive. His feathers are a little patchy, nothing a few baths and a good molt won't take care of. It's really hard to keep a young hummingbird from dribbling formula on himself, unless you feed him with a cannula, inserting it deep into the crop. I don't blame Sherri for not wanting to do that! The first thing I wanted to do upon receiving him was to wash him. I knew that, with Magic in a little pet carrier to come from Sherri's house to mine, this would be my first and last chance to handle the bird, and I wanted to get the bath over with. So I took him from the carrier and put him right in the sink.

After soaking Magic in the bath, I worked on the caked-on formula with my fingernails and a tweezers. There were a couple of clumps I had to pull off. Better Magic have a couple of bald spots than a bacterial medium on his chin. The feathers will grow back quickly. As I washed I found a lot of pinfeathers coming in. He'll look great in no time.Here he is, all dry. This is his bad side. He doesn't look that much worse than a lot of the hummingbirds at the feeder, who are all in heavy molt right now.

Washing a hummingbird is not for the faint of heart. First, they hate it. Second, it's a little scary. But I've had seven injured or orphaned hummingbirds in my care over the years, and from time to time you have to wash them, because fouled feathers don't insulate or give lift. Buzz, Lily, Diamond and an unnamed adult male--all were injured, and all got kind of grotty after living in close quarters for weeks on end. So I'd put a little tepid water in a shallow bowl or sink and soap 'em up with a weak solution of baby shampoo or Aveeno oatmeal wash. A good rinse and then a blow dry, and it did wonders for their appearance and attitude. Hummingbirds are very easy to handle. As long as you keep them from buzzing their wings, they're putty in your hands.You have to get used to the little pitiful squeaky cry they give when you first pick them up. Awww.

You need to give them something to eat a few times during the process.When the eyes close and they go kind of dull on you, it's time to end the bath.They hate being blow-dried. I gave it up after a little while, and let Magic blow dry himself with his own wings.

The first thing I did Monday morning upon returning from Chautauqua was put up the nylon fledging tent. I bought it at It's a Wetzel tent, 15 x 17', meant for picnic tables but fabulous for bird rehab. I love this bit of gear. Easy to put up and take down, and perfect for songbirds. The soft mesh can't hurt their feathers. Best $100 I ever spent.

We took him out to his new tent, festooned with flowers and tiny branches for perching, and a feeder full of good maintenance solution. It wasn't long before, soaking wet, he lifted right off the perch and circled around the tent. Whew.You can see Magic, perched like a dot right above Phoebe's head. It still amazes me how a bird that is the size of a dust mote on this picture can run peoples' lives so thoroughly.

Over the course of the afternoon, he sampled red mandevilla, blue delphinium, Salvia coccinea, and yellow trailing snapdragons. I am so proud of him, and looking forward to the day he can be released. He was Day 37 on August 14; I'll probably keep him until around Day 41, to make sure he has a good fix on the place and all the myriad hummingbird flowers and feeders here. What an honor to host him. Thank you, Sherri, for all your hard work and love.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Looking for Mr. SlackLeash

It does happen, occasionally. You see someone with well-trained dogs. Look at this. They are digging Chet, but their leashes have all kinds of slack in them. Slack to burn. Grrrr. This lovely woman was walking her Brussels Griffons near South Lake and Peck Avenue on the Chautauqua grounds. I was frantically running over the pictoral encyclopedia in my head. Many of the images are more than 40 years old. Petite griffon de bassett? Durrrr.... Griffon kept coming up in my nearly overloaded memory. At least I had the operative word by the time we spoke. "Petite Griffons?" I muttered. "Brussels Griffons," she ofered. Ahhh. Cute, in a monkeylike way.Gee, do you think I need to keep a tight grip on Chet's leash? He comes on like a steam locomotive where other dogs are concerned. He's not aggressive, just interested beyond all reason. This is why he wears an extra stout collar, meant for large breeds, and thick leash. This is why I have Wonderwoman arms. He's a bundle of enthusiasm, barely contained in a shiny seal brindle coat.This poor little gal silently submitted to a thorough examination. I hauled Chet in before it became a full pelvic with Pap test. He's so helpful.

I met the coolest pair of brothers while walking Chet. They were about 8 and 10 years old, riding their bikes from Boy's Club. It turned out that their mom shows Bostons. We met Miles, their show dog who's well on his way to championship, a couple of nights later. He was tiny, with a pushed in face and perfect markings. He was petrified of Chet. Well should he be. Chet is Magic Johnson to his Barney Fife. On a whim, I asked this 10-year-old boy, who's been handling little 13-pound Miles toward his championship in numerous show rings, to evaluate Chet. He was succinct and professional.

"Nice stack. Nice head. Big. Real big. Good feet. Tail's too long."

Smothering a chuckle, I thanked him for his evaluation. I know all that. I also know he's canine me. If I'd wanted a toy sized dog, I'd have bought a show Boston. I wanted a pet, the finest pet anyone could ask for except for the pulling which we're gonna fixFor those of you who don't do showring lingo (and I barely do)--THIS is a nice stack. Dang, look at those lines. That tuxedo. He does it naturally. It makes it easier to pull on the leash. The female model is my adorable sister Nancy.

I am sick of all this talk about pulling on the leash. Here I am with a perfectly slack leash. There are no Brussels griffons or bunnehs in sight. And for the moment, I am calm and composed. Can we go home now, where I can run free? I have Bunneh Patrol to do. They are running wild in your gardens without me. I am not a show dog, or a leash dog. I am a country dog, and your best friend. Do not forget that.

I won't, Bakey.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Chet Baker, Baby Magnet

You gotta love this little cheesebox in her itty bitty Steelers dress and even tinier Krocs. Lookit those LEGS! The slightly bigger one is a piece of work, too. I like taking pictures of little kids as much as I like taking pictures of dogs, flowers and birds. They're in kind of short supply around our house.

There's something about the friendly, wide-open face of a Boston terrier that attracts adults and kids alike. They just look like nice doggies, perpetually puppylike and cute. And they are. Chet Baker loves little kids and babies; he strains at the leash to go greet them. At 2 1/2, he's ceased jumping up on people except when he's home and greeting them in the driveway or at the door. So there's little danger that he'll bowl anyone over, and parents appreciate that.
Chautauqua is a bastion of cute, cute babies, little pink bald babies, lots of strawberry blonde ones, and even one that was almost the spitting image of Phoebe, with wise ice-blue eyes and tufts of red hair. Her name was Maya, and I ate her up with my eyes, remembering. Of course I had no camera. Rats.
But I was armed and ready for this little Steelers fan. Oh, my. What an angel, set on earth. There are lots of folks from Pittsburgh up here.
This sweet little boy was enamored of Chet, but already had been taught enough about dogs to offer Chet the back of his chubby little hand to sniff before petting him. Babies know so much more than we give them credit for.
photo by Bill of the Birds

We're in what I dubbed the Dog Zone of the big open-air amphitheater at Chautauqua. It's over on the right side, and during a big concert there will be five to ten different dogs there, listening with their owners just outside the gates. I prefer hanging out in the Dog Zone to sitting on the hard wooden pews, because if we feel like having some ice cream, we can saunter off without offending anyone. Also, I am now a dog person.

It was really fun to have Chet up in New York with us. People enjoy meeting him and asking about him, and we enjoy introducing him to them, and to other dogs. The most common comment: What a nice little dog. I 'd like to have a dog like that. (Sure to make any dog owner glow inside.)photo by Bill of the Birds

This was Baker's third season at Chautauqua. He was just a puppy of 9 months when he first came here. He knows the apartment like the back of his paw, and it was hilarious to see him scoot down the stairs and charge around inside, remembering the place and its smells when we first arrived. He was ecstatic when we arrived and put his bed in the living room, because for the entire ride up (7 hours) he was apprehensive that we might just drop him off in the kennel on our way here. That dog thinks too much. He was to sleep all the way home, knowing the destination.Note taut leash. Most of the time, Chetty pulls so hard on that thing you could twang it like a banjo string. It's an UpCountry Lead. Man, those are nice leads and collars. Hard to go back to the cheap stuff when you've used them! His pattern is the lavender dragonfly, called Meadow. Phoebe thinks it's a bit fey, but I say he's man enough to wear lavender.

There are so darn many fancy dogs up here that I was sure we'd spotted my first duck-tolling retriever. But he turned out to be a golden retriever x border collie. Jeff Gordon, my personal dog guru, had him guessed right. Overall, Chet's been a perfect gentleman on this trip, at least when meeting strange dogs. I'm discouraged about his leash skills, though; he pulls like a husky no matter how many times I correct him with a sharp word and yank of the leash. Like, hundreds of times. Chet, no pull! (yank). Chet, no pull! (yank) CHET! NO PULL! (yank). Stop. Take him by the muzzle. Talk sternly to him. Resume walking. Chet! No pull! That's the sound track for our walks. I'm about desperate enough to get him a Halti collar, though I wonder whether it will work on his super-short nose. He is as strong as a husky, too. My arms are sore! Any tips on leash-straining dogs would be more than welcome. To save you time: We also try the ploy of stopping dead when he's straining hardest; of shortening up the leash the more he pulls, and even of turning around and going the opposite direction for awhile, then going the direction he wants to go when he stops pulling. Arggggh. I will not resort to a choke chain, or something that hurts him when he pulls. We probably wouldn't have this problem had I been willing to do that.

Footnote: I did make some progress in our last walk, when I pulled the leash straight up, momentarily lifting his front feet off the ground, every time he tightened up on it. That got his attention, and he was better after that. But, to allude back to Katdoc's training advice, which is never to try to make your dog other than what it was bred to be, I feel like I'm fighting a basic breed trait: boundless enthusiasm for life. It's part of what I love about Chet. And I think it's what makes him pull at the leash, so eager for the next experience. But man, I wish he'd shape up.

Now I'm going to sit back and collect advice from dog people. Let's see what y'all can do.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Twilight Porches

I don't generally think about hydrangeas much, until I come here. And then I realize what utterly cool plants they are. I even like the white ones when the flowers age into green. So structural, so textural. This, by the way, is the same place with several hundred bucks' worth of Salvia farinacea, and the fab hanging basket.

Fans of generous old Victorian homes are in hog heaven at Chautauqua. That group would include me. And if you like drowning in flowers, this is the place to visit. We had one, count it, one, evening while we were here when it wasn't raining, and we used it to best advantage. We strolled around the grounds as night came on, watching the colors of lilies and coneflowers, phlox and hydrangea shimmer in the dying light. When it gets dark enough you can't see the stems, and the flowers seem to float without visible support.The blues of night:matching perfectly the hydrangeas below, and the warm glow of incandescent lights:
The front porch is an art form at Chautauqua. People seem to be in competition for the Most Inviting Porch; the Best Decorated; the One You'd Most Like to Invade Quietly and Read On. Pass me a julep, Lovey. I'm sneaking in these two photos from last year, when the Lord let there be light. This year, pahhhhhh. Rain.
But my all-time favorite snapshot of a Chautauqua porch is this one, brought to my attention by the super-observant eyes of BOTB. Can you guess why? Hint: I DIDN'T set it up.

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Monday, August 13, 2007


Liam makes his way to Boys' Club. Such a big boy. This was before he learned to ride his bike. He didn't want to be seen using training wheels, so he walked. Lotta pride in that golden head.

If you're wondering why there's such a paucity of Liam and Phoebe pictures from this trip, it's because they were off to Boys and Girls' Club and hangin' with friends and rumbling around the grounds on their own. We barely saw them. After an entire summer of being with them around the clock, it was a great break for me, and them. I got some writing done; they got some socializing done, and spread their independent wings.

Little Chet Baker, on the other hand, spent all his time with me, and got hisself walked at Chautauqua. He was on a lead almost the whole time, except for rare stolen moments when I could let him loose without worrying about his running into a dog he might pick a fight with, or a cat he might tree, or a fancy garden he might barrel through in pursuit of a squirrel or chipmunk. He did get to chase two bunnehs, but it was right back on the lead afterward.
It is a particularly foolish feeling to have to follow your dog by the end of his leash along a stone wall as he roots around for the chipmunk he knows is in there. Snorf! Snorf! Please don't dig, Baker. Note turd-tail, straight out in excitement.Bill and Baker blur along the brick path coming down to Bestor Plaza.
One morning, right before it started raining again, Chet and I fit in a walk. I let him off the lead so he could explore the dock unimpeded.Thanks, Mether. I like docks. I like ducks, too.Come here, little duckie. I don't want to hurt you. I just want to pet you.
My favorite dogdock shot. Baker doesn't get to see water where we live, and he gazed out over it, thinking his dog thoughts, for a long time, until I called him to me.

Today, he slept all day, exhausted from a solid week of bad beds and disrupted schedules. God, I'd love to sleep all day like Baker can. The Fed-ex guy, who he loves, arrived, and Baker managed only a feeble tail wag. Couldn't even jump up for a kiss. The UPS truck rumbled up the driveway. Baker went a quarter of the way out the side walk, woofed twice, then watched idly as the delivery man climbed in the truck, turned around and rumbled away. Normally, he's dancing around on his hind legs, smiling and woofing. He came back to life around dusk though, as it cooled delightfully, and pestered us to throw his Air Dog toys until we had to put them away.

Home again, I've been deeply engrossed in clothing management. Four people for a week can make a mountain of laundry. I ponder the oddity of these cloth sheaths we have for our naked bodies, the weirdness of having to individually handle each piece six times, to put it in the washer, pull it back out, shake it out and hang it on the line, take it down, fold it, carry it to the right room, and then put it away. And how that can take all day. And why that should be, and why I do it so compulsively (well, that one's easy; if I don't, it piles up even worse). I wonder what would happen if I just quit, didn't mow the lawn or pick up clutter or wash dishes or sort mail or change the cage papers or sweep or vacuum. I guess we've all seen houses where that stuff doesn't get done. Mostly on Cops.

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Drowning in Flowers

On our one lovely evening stroll at Chautauqua, I collected flower pictures. My gosh, I realize just how jumbled and crazy-quilt my gardens are when I come here, where people either have the sensibility to plan their gardens, or the rocks to pay somebody to do it for them. Don't get me wrong: I love my flowers. I just wish I could have a couple of weeks and two lean, tanned young men to dig everything up and REDISTRIBUTE IT for me. To clump things that would look better in a mass planting. To move those elephantine hostas into a neat row. To throw down a little mulch. And to bring me wine, rub my feet, and laugh at my witty repartee as I lie in a chaise lounge, idly pointing my dainty finger with its highly-polished nail this way and that, directing them where to replant my perennials. A girl can dream, can't she?
These purple coneflowers, rudbeckias and perovskias look good together. I have them together at my house, too. Score one for Zick.
I don't have any of these five-foot-tall Asiatic lilies that perfume an entire block as evening comes on. But I would like to have them. Another photo from last year, when it was sunny.
The rain was a little cruel to these pink and blue hydrangeas, but they were bewitching in their varying shades. I love the way they're peeking out of a mass planting of Salvia farinacea (Victoria Blue). That's oh, about $200 worth of salvia. It goes all the way up the other side of the stairs, too. And it's an annual, folks. Mass planting. Good thing. Something I haven't quite gotten the hang of. I mass a million different things together, which does create a mass, but not one with the overall impact and effect of something like this.I found this hanging basket just bewitching. Two tuberous begonias, some lobelia, and licorice plant. This would be a tough combo to keep happy in 100 degree heat back home. As much as I complain about the rain, I'm glad we missed that!
But as gorgeous as all these were, I think my favorite little garden moment was here, on a low wall.There was a display of tiny dolls in the window just beyond the plants. It takes real dedication to plant water-hogging impatiens in arable clay pots; you've got to be there to water them every day, maybe twice a day. But oh, how lovely, how perfect for the spot. Plastic pots just wouldn't cut it. Chautauqua is full of visual moments like this, because it's full of people who place a high value on aesthetics, and who are happy to tend the beauty they create.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Watchful Chet Baker

It's been a busy week. I wasn't planning to post at all this week, but when I fired up the laptop in our rented Chautauqua condo, boom! there were a couple of different unguarded wireless networks to choose from. Bless those folks who pay through the nose and don't guard their networks with a password. Anyone who came to Indigo Hill could sit at our picnic table and poach, that'd be fine with us. Nobody comes around to do it, but still...that's how I rationalize poaching off our neighbors here.

Chet Baker is in a constant froth at Chautauqua. For one thing, there are designer dogs at the end of every leash, and a lot of them. He gets to touch noses with Portuguese water dogs and goldendoodles and soft-coated wheaten teriers and a whole lotta French poodles. Yesterday, a Catahoula leopard dog. Weeee-oooh. He's matured quite a bit and he hasn't picked any fights so far this year. He did lock lips with a little dustmop dog at the Farmer's Market this summer, but so far so good in New York. I keep him on a tight lead, because despite having had a ballectomy, he's all man.

The other thing that spins Chet's top is the preponderance of gray squirrels. This morning, he had twin bubbles of drool at the corner of each jowl. They were the size of gumballs, and remarkably, mucilaginously persistent. I wanted to photograph them, but he was pulling so hard at the leash I couldn't manage both him and the camera. I don't know when I'll ever see that again.
But I have wanted to use the word "mucilaginously" for a long time. Ahhh.

He's always watching for squirrels and chipmunks.Such fun to photograph, this little doggie, with his clear eyes and white shirtfront.

Here squirrly, squirrly. Please come down. I don't want to hurt you. I just want to pet you.

Boston jowls grow as the dog ages, just like people jowls do. I can age Chet in old photographs by how droopy or un-droopy his jowls are. He can probably age me, too. Just more to smooch, right, Chet?

And so I leave you for the weekend with a little Chet Baker fluff that requires no pondering. But do try to use the word mucilaginous at least once before Monday. Ta!

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Chimes of Chautauqua

We've been in Chautauqua, New York, for the past week. It was a truncated trip, not our usual seven-day stay, chopped off at either end by family obligations. I had to give two talks and we both played music, and Bill was working every spare moment on a tight book deadline. It also poured much of the time, rats. One of my greatest pleasures in coming to Chautauqua is walking Chet in the mornings, looking at the lovely gardens and homes, and meeting other nice doggies. I also love watching the kids navigate around on foot and bicycle, unafraid and confident in this gated community. They can make their own way here, going to and from Boys and Girls' Club and our rented space. The vistas are beautiful and the atmosphere is one of peace and restraint.This shot's from last year, when the weather was more conducive to walking, photography, relaxing, and well, everything...

I stole a few moments from frantic preparation for a talk one morning to walk down by the lake with Chet. We were nosing around Chautauqua's famous belltower when the chime mistress, Carolyn Benton, welcomed us inside. I hope that's the right title for this lovely lady. Bell ringer? Lady of the Carillon? She's all that. She plays a small keyboard that runs fourteen huge cast iron bells hanging up above.She plays a huge selection of sacred and secular music found in fake books and hymnals on a shelf nearby, and she takes requests, as I was soon to find out. She does this double-bell thing that kills me, hitting notes very close together. Hard to describe but it sends shivers up my spine.

First we had to meet Baby, Carolyn's sweet little black dog, um, third child. Chet was absolutely sure on first spotting her that Baby was a cat, and he dropped to his stomach in a slow stalk. "Chet. Chet. That's not a cat. That's a doggie." With a sheepish glance up at me, he rose to his feet and touched noses with her. She really had him going there. I was glad I figured out why he was stalking her before things escalated!
Chet thought she was a Persian; I thought she was a schipperke, but Carolyn said her mother was a purebred Pomeranian who had an indiscretion. Baby gave Chet a warm welcome, then retired to her chair next to her mistress. Clearly, she felt this was her proper station in life, keeping Carolyn company while she played. Man, I love dogs. They know where they're needed and figure out how to fit in. Baby is a wise little animal.

It didn't take me long to pick a couple of hymn requests. Carolyn played "Be Thou My Vision," a traditional Irish melody that I know as "Lord of All Hopefulness." My brother Bob sang it at our wedding. If that wasn't enough to raise a tear, hearing "How Great Thou Art" ringing out over Lake Chautauqua was. That hymn always breaks me up, with its reverence for all things in nature. "How Great Thou Art" makes sense to me.I loved meeting Carolyn, and hearing her play hymns that are sacred to me. This is a woman who loves her work. "I have the best job in the world," she said, and anyone seeing her smile would have to believe it.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Hummingbird Tracks

Mandevilla sanderi, the red mandevilla featured earlier.

As mandevilla flowers open, I have noticed that they twist clockwise. A petal which was at 6:00 when the flower opened will be at 9:00 by the next day. I don't know why they do this, but I know they do because I scrutinize my mandevilla flowers every morning. I'm looking for something, tiny scratches on the lower petals. They will tell me who's using the plant.

Mandevilla "Alice DuPont" is a fabulous plant, but it has a problem where native American pollinators are concerned. Its brilliant pink color pulls tiger and spicebush swallowtails in from afar, as well as hummingbirds. But it guards its nectar in a very deep throat, and I'm not sure they can access it. The hummingbirds try once or twice and give up--no big deal. But tiger and spicebush swallowtails get stuck trying to reach that throat, and when I've grown this plant, I've had to go around all summer and free struggling butterflies, or remove their carcasses, from the flowers. I'm not saying this is a huge problem, but it does make me sad, and it underscores the importance of planting native plants, or at least ones whose nectar is accessible to native pollinators, in preference to exotics.

By contrast, Mandevilla sanderi is highly attractive to hummingbirds, and they can access the nectar in its shallower throat. And they leave little scratches on the lower petals when they feed.

I first discovered scratches on the petals of an orange daylily in Connecticut, back in the 1980's. I watched a hummingbird feeding at the lily, landing lightly and scrabbling for purchase on the lower petal. When it left, I wondered if it had left tracks, and examined the petal. Tiny scratches. Hummingbird tracks. Tracks, from a bird that flies so well it never walks; that was put in the family Apodiformes (without feet) when the first specimens, with feet conveniently or accidentally removed, were sent to Europe from the New World.

I loved to show these marks to visitors to the Connecticut preserve where I lived for ten years. "Ever seen hummingbird tracks?" I'd ask. People would look puzzled until I showed them the little scratches. A simple thing, a tiny thing, hard to see and harder to photograph. But sometimes the simplest, tiniest things hold the greatest magic.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

The Great Red Mandevilla

One of my greatest (and easiest) horticultural triumphs this past winter was the successful rooting, in water no less, of two cuttings of a red mandevilla that I love. Here's how it (and Phoebe!) looked in September 2006. The mandevilla was so beautiful I could not leave it out to freeze. (Brought Phoebe inside, too). I sighed and grunted the plant into the greenhouse for a long winter of cutting back its wild tendrils, spraying it for aphid and whitefly, and dumping two gallons of water on it every other day. Urrrrgggh. I put it in the biggest pot I own (which also happens to be the upper size limit of what I can lift, not coincidentally), and it completely dominated the greenhouse all winter, cutting sun for everyone else. It wound its long tendrils around every plant within six feet of it, and I had to keep slashing it back. I cursed it and wished I had thought to root cuttings in the summer of 2006, so I wouldn't have to house that 60-pound, eight-foot-tall monster in my tiny Garden Pod all winter long. I had found this plant at the Greenbrier Nursery in West Virginia, and I was loath to lose that wonderful genetic material. It was the first red mandevilla I'd seen. By about January, to my great surprise and delight, I had two tiny cuttings throwing out roots, and after a winter in the greenhouse and a summer outdoors, they're just now coming into maturity, putting out delicious red blossoms. Come the first of May 2007, I just about broke my back getting the mother plant out of its pot, and I put it right into an enormous hole I dug in the ground next to the front door, where it is putting on a spectacular show and climbing a trellis up the front of the house. Thank you, darling. You've been an asset, overall.There it lives and thrives, and there it will die come November, because I have these two gorgeous little starts from it, who have promised not to dominate the greenhouse the way their mother did. I love this plant so much that I'm also layering it, burying low-hanging stems in moist soil. Those buried sections should put out roots by fall, and then I can cut them off the mother plant. This is one of the great joys of gardening, and Bill likes to say it's my only vice: plant propagation. What I'm going to do with the starts come October is anybody's guess. Most of the people I'd give it to don't own greenhouses. Given the growth potential of this tropical vine, I'll probably be cursing those cuttings all through the winter of 2007, too.

This plant was formerly in the genus Dipladenia, along with a pink variant which I also grow. Now, though they've put it in the genus Mandevilla, where it's called M. sanderi. The other Mandevilla is M. amabilis, sometimes called Chilean or Brazilian jasmine. The most frequently grown variety of M. amabilis is "Alice Dupont," boasting enormous, fragrant pink flowers and quilted, rugose leaves, unlike the sweet, shiny dark green leaves of M. sanderi. There's no denying that Alice Dupont puts on a spectacular show. I've grown them for years, and always used to plant one for my mother, where people would stop in front of her house to ask her what it was. I give them to my mother-in-law every year, too, and she loves them. This vine loves the cruel humidity and heat of Virginia and Ohio summers, though like mine, it dies at the first frost. It's much more a vine than a shrub, growing in a straight line if you don't cut it back.

Of the two mandevillas, I now prefer to grow the shiny-leaved red-flowered M. sanderi, because it's much less prone to attacks by whitefly and red spider mite. It also has a much more compact growth habit, gorgeous shiny deep forest-green leaves, and dark red flowers that just can't be beat for beauty.

There is one more thing I love about this plant, but I'll tell you about that tomorrow. I seem to have gone on a bit long about mandevillas. It's going to be a long winter in the greenhouse, with three to bring in!

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About the best $2.50 we spend is for those big plastic play balls that sit, two for $5, in towering bins in the big discount stores which we frequent when we need something like a big plastic play ball or a good belly laugh.
If you haven't figured it out from previous posts, play balls push Baker's buttons in a big way. The leather basketball he guarded so ferociously (see Uppity Puppy) started mysteriously losing air, wouldn't bounce, and is now his property. We don't think he's at fault... He lugs it all over the yard, and has pulled its stem out as a handle. You can try to kick it a little ways but nobody is about to try to get it away from him. It takes a little pressure off Phoebe and Liam when they're playing basketball for Chet to have his own now, so it's all good.

Giant plastic play balls light up a whole 'nother section of Chet's switchboard. They make him krazy. He runs at warp speed around the house pushing the ball before him with his conveniently flat nose. Rowf!
The object of any game involving inflatable balls, of course, is to pop the thing.
So Chet runs the ball into a tree, shrub, or clump of blooming salvia and tries to get a purchase on the slick surface so he can sink a canine into it and hear that satisfying pop and wheeze of escaping air. Then he can shake the remaining life out of it.Of course, we try as best we can to prolong the ball's term on earth by intervening, and throwing it for him. The game starts with a play-bow and a bunch of barkin'. Or, in Chet's case, rroo roo roo-in'.Baker lifts off the ground, catching a whole lot of air, trying to connect with the ball. Oh, he's a fine sight. When I was thinking about what breed of dog might fit our lifestyle, I had to turn away from pugs and French bulldogs, which I absolutely adore, because I wanted a smashy-faced dog that could also leap and run and hike for miles. We needed something with legs. After a winter when his left hind knee had a strained ligament, Baker's beautifully sound now, but we try not to overdo the leaping, especially on concrete. Cue theme from Jaws:Such a beautiful little animal. I will never tire of watching him, photographing him, and just running my hands over that sleek little bod.
Chet connects, and knocks the ball up and out of Bill's hands, boom!
Back to earth for my flying puppeh. That's yer Chetfix for the week, served up hot, hold the onions.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Shiver Me Timbers. A New Cockroach!

It was a magic moment, the kind Science Chimps live for. I was bathing Liam, and from the bedroom Bill said, "Zick! Look at this!" with that note in his voice that could only mean a kind of gross but interesting bug. He came into the bathroom with a wad of Kleenex in his hand, and this huge shiny cockroach, almost 2" long, squirmed free of it and plopped down onto the bathmat. It crawled methodically, squirming side to side like a little Sherman tank, most unroach-like.I noticed first that its cerci, the two antenna-like projections at the tip of the abdomen that are one of the roach family's distinguishing characteristics, were very small, but still present. Its legs were heavily barbed, strong and stout. It looked like a miniature version of the Madagascar hissing cockroaches I used to visit in their plastic shoeboxes in the Harvard Biolabs. I knew that I had seen this bug before, but only in a photograph. A photograph in my brand-spankin' new Kaufmann Field Guide to Insects of North America.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Mad scramble for the book. And there it was, the brown-hooded cockroach, right there on the roach page where I remembered it being. But there, too, in one tantalizing paragraph, was its story. The hair stood up on my legs (which took some doing, since I'd just shaved 'em) when I read this:

The Brown-hooded Cockroach (Cryptocercus punctulatus), often placed in its own family (Cryptocercidae), is a unique social insect of northwestern mountains and the Appalachians. It lives in family groups in rotting wood, females giving live birth to three or four offspring. These nymphs feed on adult feces, consuming protozoans that help digest cellulose. They take six years to mature.

So we've got a native insect, an endemic, almost, with a disjunct range. Which gives live birth, instead of laying a gross little egg capsule like most roaches that infest houses. Whose offspring live on the feces of their parents. Which is social. A social roach. Which takes Six Years to Mature. It was almost too much to take in at one time.

I did a little digging around on the Net. From came the following synopsis, which differs in some details from the Kaufmann story:

Wood roaches are monogamous and exhibit considerable parental care: a mated pair stay together for several years and raise a single set of offspring. After a sexually mature wood roach finds a mate (how? I don't know), the pair establishes a nesting site in a dead log on the forest floor. They will probably stay in one log for the rest of their lives. Wood roaches have ecological and physiological similarities to their close relatives, the termites. Like termites, they feed on dead wood and live in galleries they construct within fallen logs. Since insects lack the enzyme cellulase, they rely on microbes to digest wood. Termites and wood roaches house these microbes, primarily flagellated protozoa, in their gut. The mated female lays a clutch of 50-100 eggs. A newly hatched roach nymph's gut is empty - it does not have any symbiotic microbes. To get these from its mother or father it uses proctodeal trophallaxis (feeding on fluids from the adult's anus). The necessity of obtaining gut microbes is a constraint on the life history of the wood roach: these insects cannot grow to maturity as loners. Initially the nymphs feed exclusively by trophallaxis and are completely dependent on their parents for their nutrients. As they mature, they acquire their own gut flora and begin feeding on dead wood directly. Development to sexual maturity takes more than two years.

Here's a roach and its nymph, a picture taken off the Net. Vastly superior to mine. I found this insect a bit tough to photograph, since being out in the light upset it and it made endless circles around the perimeter of its enclosure. This is a jolly good shot, even though it's lifted.

So. Do they lay eggs or give birth to live young? Dunno. Does it take two or six years to reach sexual maturity? Dunno that, either. See how much we don't know for sure about insects? When it comes right down to it, they are unknown, weird piled on weird.

. Hidden cerci. Yeah. Punctulatus would mean spotted. In the words of Tom Morrison, the foreman of the construction crew that built our birding tower, I was "all ate up." I jumped up and down, pumping my fists like Tiger Woods after a birdie. High-fiving Bill. New Bug! Weird Social Long-Lived Bug! In our House! Still am all ate up, to have this venerable Appalachian social cockroach circling around in a plastic pitcher on my kitchen counter. But none of that could have happened unless Kenn Kaufmann and Eric Eaton and my beloved publisher, Houghton Mifflin, had gotten it together to make this brand-new field guide to insects, this gift to the planet, to Science Chimps everywhere. Get yourself one at your local bookstore, or order it online. Give yourself the gift of knowing your roaches, your stink bugs, your odd long-horned beetles, your Midas flies and scorpion flies. Let your curiosity rule the day. Tune in to the previously inaccessible world of insects.

I let it go the next day in rotting wood, of course. Hoping there would be a new social group of brown-hooded cockroaches for it to join. What it was doing in the bedroom I can't imagine. As Bill said, "I'm just glad I didn't flush it."

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hummingbird Orphan: Tiny, Cute and Helpless

Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to have your maternal/paternal instincts tweaked. I got a call on July 16 from a parrot rescuer and sometime rehabilitator nearby. Some children had found a baby hummingbird floundering in a puddle in a park, and brought it to her. What and how to feed it; how to care for it? Oh, I wanted to take that bird, badly, but my summer travel schedule has precluded my caring for anything but what I've already got. My friend had a good idea already that sugar water wouldn't nourish a growing bird, so she'd ground up dry-roasted mealworms and added them, making a slurry that she administered with a dropper. Good going! But we could do better...
A quick e-mail to Connie Sale, a Virginia hummingbird and songbird rehabilitator, established that the diet du jour for nestling hummingbirds is half Nekton Lori formula (a powdered formula, high in protein, that's for nectar-feeding lory parrots) and half Nekton Nektar-Plus, a hummingbird maintenance diet. Connie Fed-exed some packets of powder that were there the next day! I also recommended that S. dice up newly-molted mealworms or squeeze the innards out of them and administer that on the end of a blunt toothpick. Which she faithfully did. Hummingbirds aren't hard to feed when they gape! In a brief training session held in a parking lot in town, I taught S. how to wait until Magic got really hungry--he had a bad habit of lazily lapping nectar from the tip of the dropper. Nope. You'll be there all day hoping he gets enough. You have to make them open up wide, and then you can give them mealworm bits and a good squirt of protein solution deep into the crop, and it's all over in about a half-second. Nothing to it, except that you've got to do it every 30 minutes, dawn to dusk. That's the hard part...
This is what you want to see in a hummingbird baby's morning poop. Lotsa solids. That means it's getting enough protein. Not trying to gross you out, but a big part of mothering something well is poop monitoring. I absolutely love how my friends with new babies talk about their business as if it's dinner table conversation, which it is when you're a new mom.

Magic, as S. named the orphan, thrived from the get-go. He was about eight days old when she got him. He fledged on my birthday, and S. was ready with a screen tent in her backyard. We've been in close e-mail and phone contact. Yesterday, she emailed, worried that Magic wasn't really able to maneuver well enough to hover before his feeder. Today, she called, because not only could he hover and feed at the feeder and at any flower she offered, but he WANTS OUT!
At only 24 days, though, he's not nearly ready to be on his own, however jaunty and sassy he may act. 41 days is more on target. Even though the Birds of North America species account says that hummingbirds feed their fledglings from 4-7 days after first flight, I don't believe it for a minute.

My great hope is to erect my big fledging tent here and welcome Magic upon our return from our NEXT trip. At that point he'll be nearly ready to be independent, and he can have Eden at his doorstep when we zip the tent open. S. thinks that's a good idea, too, as she lives in a heavily settled area, full of cats, cars, wires and windows. Given hand-raised hummingbirds' predilection for landing on outstretched fingers, we think he's probably better off where that's an expected event. Here. With Mama Zick. Ooh, I can't wait. Cross your fingers for Magic and S., and for me, all but slobbering at the thought of having a hummingbird guest to care for.
Here's to S. for doing right by a tiny bird, for turning her life upside down to accommodate him, and here's to the overflowing kindness that makes such a thing possible, for a human being to mother a hummingbird.