Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Chicken of the Woods!

When we came back from our New England trip, we noticed something different on the enormous red oak tree by our mailbox. It was a growth, a spectacular one.
It took the Chimp awhile, but I finally remembered its name. Chicken of the Woods, so called because it is edible, and has a texture, if not a taste, similar to chicken breast. Oh! Oh!

Also (dully) called Sulfur Fungus, Laetiporous sulfureus comes in two forms--shelflike, and globby, like ours. They may be two separate species. You can tell that I did a bit of Web research before committing to eat this beauty. You can't be too careful with 'shrooms.Both forms are edible, and I mean to cook some of this big mess o' mushroom up. You're supposed to cook them when they're very fresh (which this is) and sautee them for 10 whole minutes--wow. I guess the chances of your lips going numb are less if they're well-cooked. OK. I can do that. I loooove wild mushrooms, especially big obvious ones like Chicken of the Woods. Wonder if I'll be able to get the bairns to try it?I can see them now, sticking just the tip of a quivering tongue out to touch it briefly to the fungus, even drowned in garlic and butter and served over pasta. Probably too smart to eat a wild mushroom, even one identified by The Science Chimp. I won't try it on Baker. Who knows if dogs can eat wild mushrooms? If macadamias, grapes and raisins are poisonous to dogs, all bets are off.It don't smell that good to me, Mether. I would not eat it. But I will pee on it for you if you would like me to.

Being a blog ant, I wrote this post before I cooked it up for the family. It sliced and sauteed beautifully, keeping a firm meaty texture. As predicted, the kids each ate about a square millimeter. Liam said he liked it but refused seconds with a polite, "Ummm, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but no thank you." Phoebe made no pretense; just the thought grossed her out. But she did eat a tiny bit. Bill liked it OK, but he's not much for mushrooms. So I ate my portion, and both kids' and some of Bill's. And, like an idiot, had a couple of glasses of Sauvignon Blanc with it.

Along about bedtime, I felt kind of droopy, a little toxic. This progressed to feeling like crap. At 3 AM, I had the sensation of having an esophagus level full of stomach acid. Nice. What a disappointment for a hopeful and enthusiastic woodswoman. I've since learned from my woodswise neighbor Sherm that wine and mushrooms, much as they'd seem to be pals, are a no-no. Sherm asked if he might carve off a shank to cook, and I gladly assented, after warning him about my experience. I ate a lot of wild mushrooms, including Chicken of the Woods (oyster mushrooms and morels being my favorite) when I was living on a Nature Conservancy preserve in Connecticut, but that was before I became a wino. Not the mushroom's fault. My fault.

Chicken of the Woods, for all its homey name, is a serious tree pathogen, which infects and kills trees with brown rot. Buhhhmer. I hope it's slow-acting. We love this old oak, which shades our mail (good for shipping mealworms in summer) and the bluebird box. It's made its own island of habitat for northern fence lizards, and many kinds of birds and animals, who perch in its branches and feed on its acorns. I cannot imagine our entry without it. I hope it's true, as my DOD used to say, that trees are 50 years growing, 50 years living, and 50 years dying. Then I won't have to say good-bye.

A little Halloween present for you, courtesy of my sister, Micky. When we were in high school, we absolutely lived for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents story collections. One of the stories was called The Desrick on Yandro, and it has stuck with me over the thirty years since I last read it. It was written by Manly Wade Wellman, and it evokes a strong sense of place. If you've ever driven up a winding North Carolina mountain road so steep you wonder if your car will tip over backward, it's guaranteed to give you shivers. Tonight, I'll read it to our babies by the light of a jack-o-lantern. Click the link, and tell me what you think! Sweet dreams of Bammats and Flats!

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Trick or Treating with the Indigo Hillbillies

OW! My brain hurts!

Finally, after the basketball game and the school party, it was time to go trick-or-treating in Marietta. I love this part. Marietta homes are so lovely, and it seems that each one has a generous front porch, where the residents sit in chairs to dole out their goods. Oh, I love it. It was just cool enough to keep us walking fast, a little spit of drizzle every now and then, but not cold enough to overcome the three pairs of winter pajamas under Spiderman's suit.

This lady was really getting into the spirit with a home-made costume. I thought she overdid the whiskers just a bit, but she gets an A for effort. You make do with what's in the closet when you're 80. This is not a PETA-approved costume.
Phoebe with her cousin Annalea (in the black wig) and one of Annalea's friends. They're zombie prom girls. May they dress up and trick-or-treat well into adulthood, and keep rockin'. It works for us. Sooo cute. Gotta love that little red bow, and the bruisy makeup.

Speaking of makeup, here's cousin Jake, as Dracula. Man, he was a sight, running down the street with his cape flying behind him, candy bouncing out of his plastic pumpkin. There's something a little Michael-esque about those enormous eyes, outlined in black...
Some people really go nuts at Halloween. I thoroughly approve of it. It's much more interesting than going nuts with Christmas decorations.
This is Chet Baker's costume. He went as a Neopolitan mastiff. Seriously, this was the first NM I'd ever laid eyes on, though I've marveled at them on televised dog shows. This is one of the giant breeds, quite rare. At first I thought he was a Cane Corso, and asked the owner, who said that their other dog was a Cane Corso. Wow. What a pair. It probably isn't a coincidence that they live in the most lavish house in Marietta. Their owners probably need two massively protective guard dogs to safeguard all their fancy stuff from the meth freaks. I noticed that the Cane Corso wasn't out greeting children...Actually, this mastiff, by all appearances a hound from hell, was extremely sweet and gentle, and his lead-gray hair felt like velour. What an incredible animal. I think he overdid it on the jowls, though. Blblblblblbbbbbbb! I cannot imagine what his dog dish zone must look like. Bacon's bad enough, dribblin' little bits of kibble from his tiny jowls.

That wraps up our Halloween report from Indigo Hill. I'm still getting little blebs of black makeup out of the corners of my eyes, and my skin feels like it was sucked dry from the greasepaint, but I'm staying out of the kids' treat pumpkins, so far. It'd be really scary if I raided 'em. Happy Halloween!!!
Oh. If you're in the Marietta, Ohio area, I'll be giving a lecture at Washington State Community College Thursday night, November 1, at 7:30 pm in the Harvey Graham Auditorium. It's part of the Evergreen Arts and Humanities Lecture Series. I'm really looking forward to it. There will be a reception and book signing afterward. I've been working on my talk, working in a bunch of new stuff, some poems and essays. I sooo want to deliver it in my skull makeup, in honor of Day of the Dead, but it's probably a bad idea, don't you think?

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Chet in his costume. Note the enormous fungus on our mailbox oak, the subject of a future post...

Oh, how I wish that trick-or-treating were done as it was in my childhood, on the actual night of October 31, when elves and trolls creep out of holes; but alas, it's always the closest Saturday to the date. That's good for blogging, though, because it means that blog ants have it all tied up with a bow by Halloween.

Chet greets the season by wearing his Halloween pumpkin t-shirt (size 3T) to meet the bus. The really scary part of his costume is the pee that soaks the entire underside of it. Pheeew! Boy dogs are hard to dress. He smells like a ferret now.

Every year, the kids' school has a Halloween party, and we like to dress up for it. The kids expect it. So we need to come up with four costumes each year. I love doing it, though, and try not to stress too much about it. I don't have a complex about making my own costume, and I'm happy to buy them after they get marked down a bit. I love going through the discount store costume racks. I find that a bit of artful makeup can push a storebought costume over the cliff. That's one of my favorite parts of the holiday--makeup hour.

Liam wanted to be Black Spiderman. Bill tried to talk him into something more interesting--I had found a groovy bat costume on sale the year before.

"Liam. There will be fifty Black Spidermen at the Halloween party this year."

A triumphant chortle in his voice, Liam crowed, "And I'M gonna be ONE OF 'EM!"Liam communes with Ethan, one of the many Black Spidermen running around, crouching and shooting imaginary webs, at the party.

He couldn't believe he didn't win a prize in the costume contest. Here, he's grumping about it while his ghostly mother (who took home the prize for Ugliest Adult) tries to jolly him out of it. Wouldn't that make you feel better, to have a ghoul come up behind you? Nothin' doin'. He stayed in a bad mood until trick-or-treat hour, when several double handfuls of candy jolted him out of it.

Phoebe had a dream a few days before the party, that a woman in surgical scrubs came up to her and said, "You should be a punk rockin' granny for Halloween." I was dispatched to Wal-Mart to find the right costume. Here, Phoebe vamps with her friend Chelsey, who I guess was just a rocker. I drew wrinkles on her with eyebrow pencil, and carefully bled lipstick up into the wrinkle troughs. Yeahh! She won Most Original.
Bill was planning to go as a football player, since he had a fabbo letter sweater from the 1970's. He borrowed a helmet from Zide's Sporting Goods in town (how NICE of them!). I thought his costume needed a little push toward the creepy edge, so I made a squishy pink and gray brain that protruded out the top of his helmet. Baaad accident on the Astroturf.Our costumes always have a little creepy edge to them. The former school principal didn't much appreciate that, but he's moved on now. I know I was scaring the pee-pee out of some kindergarteners, and my smile didn't help. It just made me look more like a skull. Sorry. Hey. It's Halloween. It's supposed to scare you.

More anon...Mwoooha ha ha ha ha!!

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Birds of Passage

A molting juvenile male indigo bunting gets a shower from a field sparrow.

They’re gone, almost all gone, the birds of passage. Every year, the Big Sit rolls around, and it seems uncannily timed for the moment that the last warbler of autumn quits the place entirely. Sure, we usually see the first junco of the year on Big Sit Sunday, but many of the birds that peopled (or birdled) our trees only two days earlier are gone like a puff of smoke.

The nights have turned cold lately, finally. It feels final, anyway. It feels like time to haul plants into the greenhouse . It feels like time to take the last desperate measures to propagate plants whose cuttings didn’t root, or give it up and dig them up and bring them in as mother plants. It feels like time to get the garden cart and load it up with tropical mandevillas and bougainvilleas and grunt it down the side hill to the Garden Pod. Time to fire up the little gas heater in there and bask in warmth. I am thinking these thoughts, this same person who was cursing the 90-degree days just a couple of weeks ago.

And I've spent the entire day outside in the first nice weather for what seems like two weeks, hauling plants and digging geraniums, planting a serviceberry my friend Cindy gave me two years ago, planting a daylily Margaret gave me for my birthday, planting the beautiful blue rose of Sharon I got at Chautauqua, planting two propagules of the heirloom lilac bush. I've pulled the pond pump and drained the filter and taken it all inside. I've drained the hoses and taken them in, too. I've cleaned the Spa and made sure it's bubbling furiously so as not to freeze. I've filled the feeders again. I've mowed the lawn for the last time (I hope) and I can hear the growl of the weed whacker as Bill trims the long hair around the beds and edges. I'm going to go out before dark and cover the huge red mandevilla with a sheet, maybe drape some sheets over the salvia beds. I brought in the Pig of Good Fortune, who is made of terra cotta and who is slowly sloughing away, nose first, and found the cellophane of a monarch chrysalis that had hatched out, affixed to his belly. Good fortune, indeed.

My legs and back ache and I'm tired to the bone, a good tired. It's a good thing it's getting dark; I'm collapsing. The greenhouse is bursting with beautiful flowers in fresh new pots and it's all clean and sunny in there and it makes me look forward to the winter, to know I have it to go to when I'm needing a dose of green and fragrant things. I filled it last week and put some more plants in there today. I think I've got everything I'll need for the winter...heliotrope, mandevilla, hibiscus, impatiens, fuchsia, geraniums, my big ol' cacti, the jade tree with a trunk as big around as my arm, my rosemary tree...on and on. It's lovely in there.

The Carolina chickadees are looking sleek in their new winter plumage. As Mary has pointed out, this is a hard bird to get in the frame, much less in focus. Ahhh, Mary. Are you ready for your new Digital Rebel yet? Ooh, I love to tease you, especially with chickadee pictures. Once you get your new camera, you'll try to catch the highlight in a chickadee's eye, instead of trying just to catch the chickadee. Easier said than done!
Looking back at the birds of passage: I photographed what's probably the last indigo bunting in the Spa on October 12. This is a gorgeous first-year male, just coming into winter plumage. It reminds me very much of the cordon bleu finch of Africa (and aviculture). Immature male indigo buntings undergo an extra molt in the fall that gives them some blue nuptial plumage. Most birds would travel to the wintering grounds in first basic plumage. It's an energetically expensive thing to do, so there must be a reason for it, right? It's thought to perhaps confer competitive advantage on the wintering grounds, where they're fighting mature males for territory. But we don't know that for sure.

Chipping sparrows have massed and largely departed, making way for the juncos and tree sparrows. They appreciate our wild “lawn,” studded with crabgrass of many kinds. The nice thing about crabgrass if you’re a bird is that it makes so many little seeds, and it heads out so quickly that there are always crabgrass dinners available. The nasty thing about crabgrass if you like a neat lawn is exactly the same thing. Good thing I look at crabgrass as chippy food. Here’s a little klatsch of chippies under the Bird Spa, going at the seedheads. Love it!

One from the seed eating bunch flew up briefly to perch in my studio birch. I really like this shot. Such a pretty little sparrow. I miss them when they leave, and I’m so happy when they come back in April. Something to get me through the winter. I'll be saving hair clippings all winter for them to weave into their nests come April.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Approving Dog

Chet Baker's First Book Review, as dictated to JZ:

Here's the thing. Most of Mether's books don't do much for me. I look at them when she is away, right after I get up on the kitchen table to see if there are any Cheerios left from breakfast. But I would rather nap than read most of her books. She does not let me chase birds, and most of them are about birds.

This book came in the mail the other day. I thought it might be liver treats, but it was something better. It is different from the rest of the books I have seen. It is by some friends of mine, Sharon and Bill, people who really ought to have a Boston terrier instead of a grumpy old red bunneh.

This book has pictures of bunnehs. Lots of pictures of them, especially of their lips. Bunnehs have cute lips.

Each picture has a caption. Some of which make me laugh out loud.
Some of them I do not get, but I think that is because they do not make sense anyway.Bunnehs, you should try approving of something now and then. It takes more muscles to frown than to smile. Boston terriers approve of almost everything except kennels and vacuum cleaners. I approve of Disapproving Rabbits.

You should get your own copy of Disapproving Rabbits from Sharon. She will sign it for you. I can tell you that you are not getting my copy. Even when I am asleep, I keep it near.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Meadow Deer

This morning I saw a big doe sneaking through a sumac thicket just behind the house, and I ran to get my long lens. She’d changed over into winter hair, all soft and blue. Her two fawns ran to join her.

Deer used to come right up to the house and graze in the yard all winter. I loved that, and took a lot of wonderful pictures with my little Olympus. That was BC: Before Chet Baker. Deer no longer graze in the yard during the day. He’s all over them. In fact, he starts many mornings by standing on the high back deck, scrutinizing the meadow for the dim shapes of deer. When he spots them, he lights out down the steps and streaks across the meadow, his hind legs flying out behind him, sometimes tripping and rolling over a few times in his haste. He chases them, their hooves thudding ahead of him, but he slams on the brakes and stops when they enter the woods. I love that about him. Truth be told, it probably has to do with protecting his protruding eyes. Chet hates the thick briars that ring our meadow, and he won’t run through them, thank goodness. Corneal abrasions are good things to avoid.

I’m always amazed at how widely deer can flare their tail hairs when they need to signal alarm, and how they can tuck that same tail when they’re trying to escape unnoticed. . When they have some warning, they flare the tail to tell you they know you’re there. It’s a white flag, but not one of surrender. The message is more like, “There’s no use trying to catch me. I know you’re there, and I’ve got a lead on you.” On the other hand, you know you’ve really surprised a deer when it tucks its tail, drops its head and flattens out in a dead gallop. In this situation, it doesn’t want to draw any more attention to itself.

This little button buck had to stop and stare over his shoulder at me before joining his mother and sister. What a cutie.

They moved across the meadow, stopping to sniff at our freezer-burned meatpile, which the turkey vultures have been enjoying immensely. I love how the Virginia pines set off the emerging autumn colors. And oh, how I love deer in the meadow. I did not tell Chet Baker they were there.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Shed, Asleep

A hundred years I stood
Sun and snow on my roof
Icicles dripping sharp
Snakes and ivy, grease and bolts
Planks and parts, bottles, tools
Once, a pony, whose old belly sagged
Almost to the grass tops
Taking shelter under my roof.
One by one the boards rotted
From the ground up
A scalloped edge starting
Where they no longer met the dirt.
Behind the dripline, a chipmunk highway
Powderpost beetles ticking a death watch.
Phoebes in and out; the furtive rustle of mice
Piling pignuts against a rainy day.
One day I lay down
Like a cow slowly, falling to my knees
Dropping the hindquarters last.
I lay against your trunk
You: sprung from a seed
Spat forty years ago
from a jaw long gone to dust.
May I rest here, lean on you
In the fine autumn rain?
Of course I may.
You're stuck here, too,
dropping apples small as a monkey’s fist
On my weary roof.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.


Tennessee Toilette

Tennessee warblers are common here in fall migration, distinctive for their grass-green upperparts, unmarked whitish underparts, groovy pale line over the eye, short tail, and needle-sharp bills. After seeing enough of them we can tell them naked-eye by their unique grass- green, and by their dumpy shape. That’s a great luxury, to see enough fall warblers every day to get the general impression, size and shape (GISS)--er, I mean gestalt-- down. It’s a luxury we’re thankful for, but one for which we’re also responsible, because we started planting for birds 15 years ago, and that hard work is bearing copious fruit.

The mulberries and willow and grey birches and glorious hummingbird gardens join all the wonderful bird-friendly plants that already grew here—sumacs and sassafras, grapes, Virginia creeper, native bittersweet, poison ivy, dogwood and tupelo and spicebush and black raspberries and Virginia pines, to name just a few. It’s a bird’s paradise, and as such it’s a paradise for us. I do indulge in tropicals, too, like the Cuphea "Batface" pictured above. Roly-poly little batface plant.

Tennessee warblers LOVE water. They dive right in and pester the big birds, sometimes right out of the bath. This little guy was attracted by the droplets flying off a bathing mourning dove, and he shouldered right in to enjoy a shower as well as a bath.

Not much intimidates a Tennessee warbler in the bath. He's nose to nose with a bird who could smoosh him.

Gotta love this pose--wings up!

When the dove left, he went right on splashing, and showered a juvenile male cardinal in his turn.Cute, but not particularly friendly...
that's a Tennessee warbler in water.

Thanks for your comments on these fall warbler posts. I think this is a good way to learn about fall warblers. One at a time, with a little behavioral commentary and photos from multiple angles. Maybe that way, their salient features will sink in better, and you'll know them better when you see them again. The little Spa keeps giving, even as fall comes on. If I'm going to be showered with blessings, I'm going to throw them around a little.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Blessings All Around

The blue jays are moving. An early Bruce Cockburn song went:

Mmmm—every day
Flashes like a spray of blue jays
Mmmm- a golden crown on every one
Like an eagle, seen against the sun.

Jays flashing from tree to tree against autumn foliage do something to me. I try and mostly fail to capture their beauty in a picture. I’m grateful to have such a big, boldly beautiful bird be common around here, and abundant in the fall. If you’re ever tempted to take blue jays for granted, just have a birder from England or Wales stay at your house. You’ll never look at blue jays, cardinals, hummingbirds or lightning bugs the same way again. Imagine life without them!

We had a Welsh family spend a week with us some years ago. Steve Moon is a birder who gives new meaning to “avid.” He chases vagrants and can endlessly discuss the pattern on the third tertial of some juvenile stint. But let a blue jay land on the feeder and Steve would drop everything and stare, open-mouthed. “Brilliant!” he’d shout. He’d stand under the porch light at night, gently capturing and examining moths, and he announced that he could stay here for a year and never identify them all. To him, we owe the small bit of knowledge that we have Setaceous Hebrew Characters at our lights at night. What a moth name. It refers to a little black scrawl on the wing that looks like a Hebrew letter, lying on its side (setaceous). Yeah!

Peter Lawson, a peerless bird guide from South Africa, had a similar reaction to our throngs of ruby-throated hummingbirds when he stayed here. The closest thing Africa has to hummingbirds is sunbirds, which clamber around on inflorescenses, probing with curved bills. They’re colorful, in a greasily iridescent way, but they’re too big to hover and dart; they’re five times the size of hummingbirds. Peter was enchanted with the hummingbirds and the colorful warblers and tanagers in our forests. And his favorite North American mammal was the opossum, another animal we tend to take for granted. He was deeply impressed with the forest everywhere, and kept asking who owned and managed this or that tract we’d drive by. He couldn’t believe I didn’t know. In South Africa, any existing forest is under some kind of official protection, and likely to be surrounded by high game fencing. Peter just couldn’t get over the thought that he might see white-tailed deer running free across the road, when we weren’t even in a game preserve. He couldn’t believe that garden centers left their flowers outside all the time—he said they’d all be stolen the first night in South Africa. Think about it—living in a place where anything that isn’t tied down is stolen; where the forests are all known, circumscribed, heavily protected; where all “game” is accounted for and certainly not wandering out amongst the populace. We are truly blessed, with our hovering hummingbirds, wandering deer, our blankets and miles of forest, our sprays of blue jays.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hanging On to Fall

Fall warblers—all but gone. A few yellow-rumps, maybe a late palm... I miss them already. Well, we did pull black-throated green, palm, yellow-rumped and Tennessee out of our hats at the Big Sit, but you have to be looking hard and close to see even that much now.

One of my favorite fall warblers is the chestnut-sided. Oh, what a gorgeous lime-green on its back, such a clean gray on its underparts, a surprised little white eye ring and yellow wing bars to top it all off. For those who know the chestnut-side, its posture is distinctive—it often cocks its tail like a wren, drooping its wings and hopping springily along branches as it gleans the undersides of leaves. This one cocked its tail as it inspected the Bird Spa, and I knew, from its clean green coat and cocked tail, what it was without picking up the binoculars. This is a pose I believe I'll use in a painting someday. Warbler poses don't get much better than this. It’s such a revelation when you realize that each warbler has a distinctive shape and style of movement, little things it does that help you identify it. It's what British and some American birders refer to as GISS (general impression of size and shape; a military term referring to airplane ID)--such an ugly word! or even worse, jizz. Blaaaa. I refuse to use either, but I will make fun of it.

Magnolia warblers are active little things, often falling off branches in pursuit of insects. In fluttering, you’ll see their largely white tails, which look like they’ve been dipped in black ink. This fall magnolia is clambering about in the gigantic leaves of our red mulberry tree. Does ya think I yam a Schmoo? I don’t know why our red mulberries (we’ve got three) are putting out new leaves in September and October, but they are. They are still putting out new leaves as I write, on October 16. You’d think it foolish to put new leaves out just before frost, but the tree seems to have a plan to grow as much as possible before it has to stop. Kind of like getting a facelift at 97...Sometimes I wonder if it’s trying to get some branches up out of the reach of the deer, which browse it back hard all winter.

This is the last phoebe of fall, sitting on the porch railing, looking for flies against the siding. Luther? Is that you, bathed in blue skylight in the morning?
Yes, the warblers and phoebes are gone, but we’ll have smooth smoky blue and mauve bluebirds all fall and winter, and they gladden my heart.
Hey, lady. Ya got any suet dough in there?

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Boot Haikus

It's odd, but I know
Whose boot this is, growing moss
His name was Gary.

He ate the squirrels
For acres around his house
Those remaining, run.

He died in his house
Standing alone at the sink
Was found, still standing.

People spoke his name
And then, quietly, "He drank."
Here: His jars, his boot.

Yesterday afternoon, my commentary about my neighbor, Gary, aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. If you'd like to hear the whole story, listen here.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Warblers Past

One of the drawbacks of being a blog ant is perpetually living in the past. A minor ancillary risk is confusing those who know that the goldfinches should have changed into winter plumage by now, to name just one anachronism I’ve been busted for lately. And thus this disclaimer. Sometimes beauty comes so thick and fast that I’d have to have a mile-long post to fit it all in. And I’d rather have time to reflect on it than download and post frantically as it happens. I like to write posts when I’m in the mood to write them. It cuts down on the pressure and the feeling that I’m chained to the computer every day. Some days I’d rather paint, walk in the woods or clean the house than write posts.

Ever wish “blog” weren’t such a homely word? Me, too. I always have this faint squirmy embarrassment when I talk about my “blog” or the fact that I’m a “blogger.” I think it’s because it’s a made-up word and it sounds like a wad of something you’d find under your foot. I’d rather be a “poster.” But that sounds like “poser.”

There were so many warblers around in the last couple of weeks of September and the first week of October that I stored up a bunch of images to pull out later, enough for a couple of posts. They’ve moved on, but I haven’t. Here's a bay-breasted warbler, a tough call, I know. The even-colored underparts, fairly plain face, lightly-streaked back and plain pale gray feet point toward bay-breast and away from blackpoll.

A lousy picture of a bay-breasted warbler, but I wanted to show you the trace of bay on his flank that gave him away, and unequivocally distinguished him from a blackpoll. Cool! You usually don't get that big a hint.

This little black-throated green warbler was inspecting my sickly birch tree for insect damage, and finding plenty. If you watch leaf-gleaning warblers, they invariably head for leaves that have been chewed or curled by insects. Look at the holes in the leaves he's picked out to check. They’re good entomologists and they think like hunters, looking for signs that their prey has passed by. Black-throated green warblers look much the same in fall as they do in spring, but they have white frosting on their black throats. Those pale feather edges will wear off by spring, revealing jet-black bases. I like this shot.

A sweet little female Cape May warbler. Hands down, our most common warbler in fall, and one of the rarest in spring. They must take an entirely different route north than south. Just one of the mysteries of bird migration. But man, I’m glad to have them in the fall.Unremarkable, until you notice the lemon-lime badonkadonk and heavy streaking all the way down the belly. Here ends our little fall warbler tutorial, a day late and a dollar short.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Stupid Bird (and Human) Tricks

One of the nice things about this fall is the preponderance, the sudden influx, the modest inundation, of red-breasted nuthatches that we are enjoying. Apparently, we're not alone. Much of the country is commenting on the larger than normal numbers of red-breasted nuthatches visiting yards and feeders. This is a species which breeds farther north, where evergreens predominate. Four or five at a time constitutes an inundation for us, and that's what we've got at the feeders, for the first time in 15 years. They're adorable and quite vocal, and nice to have around for awhile. Make that really adorable.

There's been a pack of RBNU's at the feeder for about ten days, busily stashing seeds in the gashes and wounds on my poor gray birch trees. At first, they found the homeboys a bit intimidating, and made big loops and sallies around the feeder before they could screw up the courage to alight. It's hard to watch these poor little boreal forest dudes trying to compete with all my obese home-grown, seed-fed cardinals and goldfinches. They're much more used to the rabble now, and slip in and out like watermelon seeds.

On any given autumn morning, it's a snap to call in red-breasted nuthatches. Listen to their high, nasal ank ank call, and try imitating it. You don't have to be very good to bring them right in.
I can't remember a RBNU that didn't respond. Maybe one or two. The others all just had to come in for a look at me, calling madly in response. This is a fabulous parlor trick when you're leading a bird walk.

It's best done away from houses and glass, however. I will never forget the time I was showing off for friends on their patio on Martha's Vineyard, where RBNU's breed in the thick pines. I heard a nuthatch calling, and said, "Watch this!" (often an idiot's last words.)
I anked, and it answered. I anked again, and it came to the border of the yard. Everyone got a great look. I anked again, and it flew just like an arrow right at my head, bonked itself on the patio window behind me, and died right there.

Duh. Doh Doh doh doh doh!

I was about 26. I'm older now, and wiser, and I don't torture nuthatches any more. I talk to them, and then quit while I'm ahead. I usually learn by doing something wrong first.

We had four or possibly five RBNU's whipping back and forth from the birches to the feeder all day yesterday for the Big Sit. The way we do it, it probably should be called the Big Stand, since we have to stand up to see over the retaining wall atop our birding tower. It might also be called the Big Stairmaster. Bill and I always forget how much work it is to hold a Big Sit. We haul about a ton of gear and food up (and the next morning, DOWN) three flights of stairs, the penultimate set narrow and the last set (think folding attic stairs) downright rickety. I haul Chet Baker up and down, slung over my shoulder like a bag of black beans, since he wants to be with Mether wherever she goes and moans if I leave him behind. The day started off cold, so he had to be swaddled in his monogrammed Chet Baker sweater made by Sue Robbins, plus some Polarfleece bankies. He is popping out of that sweater, all 24 pounds of him, having filled out considerably since puppehdays.

We stand around in the towertop until nature or food prep call, and then climb down to fetch this or that. Phewww. It's deceptively hard work.

Very fun, though. For me, the Sit is a social event as much as a birding event. The more Bill works to up the total past our best count of 65 species, the lazier I get. I grab a bar stool and sit there with Baker on my lap, staring off into the distance, eating or yakking with friends, while BOTB tirelessly scans the horizons until his eyes turn into barbecued potato chips. It's a great luxury not to care all that much what the final total is. Secretly, I hope some of my easy-going sloth will rub off on my husband, but so far it hasn't worked too well. I'll let Bill of the Birds give the official story on his blog.

Margaret thought she had a nice little doggie on her lap. Knowing Chet, she did harbor a suspicion that he might launch a sneak tonguebath attack at any moment. Correct.
For me, there were several highlights, but the one that raises the hair on the back of my neck was hearing a northern saw-whet owl (another species having a banner irruption year) holla from the row of Virginia pines along our oil well road. YeeeeeeEEEP? it yelled, again and again. We had played a saw-whet tape perhaps a half hour earlier after hearing what we thought was a saw-whet calling at some distance to the northwest. It took its sweet time flying over and winding up to call back, but when it did, it was unequivocal. Bill and I stared at each other in the pre-dawn darkness, all alone up in the tower with our auditory find. Then high- fived and laughed. That was sweet. Only the second saw-whet record for our sanctuary.

I also loved watching cars roll up and using our binoculars to figure out who each one held. Before the sun came up, we used our owling spotlight to reveal the solid form of Jim McCormac approaching through the dark yard. He responded by darting behind a telephone pole, then dashing to the forsythia bush like an escapee from the exercise yard. Late-arriving visitors were greeted by a shower of pretzel sticks, bits of goat cheese and pumpkin bread, and the occasional bottle, hurled from towertop. It gets a little Monty Python-esque up there by about 4 pm.

I like never knowing what might fly over at any moment. We don't get many Canada geese around here, so they were a nice surprise, as were the double-crested cormorants that arrowed by almost beyond the limit of conjecture. We couldn't get the wood ducks who've buzzed over the last couple of evenings and mornings to make a cameo though. Doh!
I also liked having the leisure to watch our regular yard birds go about their business. This little female bluebird is so glazed with winter frost on her plumage (the fresh feather ends making her look powdered) that she's barely blue--a mysterious, shimmering stonewashed blue.Speaking of blues, check out the distant hills. This one's for Trixie and the Fitzsimmons family.
We almost always notice the first dark-eyed junco of the winter on Big Sit day. Crummy photo, but you get the idea. It's a junco.
As night came on, the colors deepened and shimmered. Ahhh. What beauty. We ended up with 65 species, the same number as our best year ever. Poor Bill tried. This morning, we walked the kids out to the mailbox to catch the bus, and species #66 flew in a tight, chattering flock right overhead, headed for the tower: pine siskins. It is ever thus on the Day After. Bill of the Birds contemplates the unfairness of life and birding, encapsulated in a flock of pine siskins. Look at my saucy little shadow taking his disconsolate picture. I'm like Tinkerbelle. Who cares! Birds are cool, however darn many of them you see. That's my spotty, anecdotal, unconscientious Big Sit report. Notice that I do not go into much detail, nor can I be bothered to use the obligatory, trademarked Exclamation Point! after the Big Sit! Spank me until I can't sit down. I do, however, use the original name for the event, and as a one-time Nutmegger, I have the greatest admiration for the New Haven Bird Club members who hatched this wonderful idea, for a bunch of friends to hang out together in a 17-foot circle, eat a ridiculous array of strange foods, act stupid, laugh, gasp at the beauty of birds flying over, and stare at the sky and trees from the screech of dawn to the clonk of dark. I LOVE it.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Rock Me On the Water

On the afternoon I got the canoes registered, I beat it a couple of exits north on I-77 to Salt Fork, Ohio's largest state park. Now, like all but two of Ohio's lakes, this lake is a dammed reservoir (I could easily have spelled it with an "n"). Repeating: Ohio has two natural lakes. Yes, that's sad, but I'd have to take that issue up with the glacier, and it ain't answering questions. So if we Ohioans are going to disport ourselves on big water, we have to be happy with our dammed reservoirs.

Salt Fork is big, and some people waterski and jet ski on it (bleccch), but there are two long arms of it that are designated as no-wake zones. It is here that I appreciate the men in khaki; they can bust speedboats all day as far as I'm concerned, if they're not too busy busting small women in 10' canoes.

I was not the happiest of campers when I finally got to Salt Fork. I'd had a tough couple of weeks. The sun was already low in the autumn sky and the best part of a glittering day had been spent on getting the boats legal. But the water's gentle rocking worked on me like a masseuse and before long I was humming and noticing and one with the elements like I ought to be.

The pokier the water, the happier I am. Shallow water means the roaring smelly boat engines can't follow me. Shallow water means dragonflies and algae and wading birds and warblers
and banded watersnakes and painted turtles. My canoe draws about four inches of draft so there's very little water I can't navigate. Or: I can navigate very little water. So I launch at the boat ramps and beat it for the nearest elbow or embayment or slough--the places nobody else wants to go.

It was pretty quiet at Salt Fork, a few killdeer, the aforementioned herps, some warblers sifting through the trees. Let's face it--reservoirs are useful and pretty for people to look at, but they're not exactly burgeoning wildlife habitat. When you've got oak-hickory forests marching down right into deep water, there's little room for sedges and cattails, little habitat for the crawlers, waders and sliders. They're picturesque, and sometimes little else. I yearned for the messy, mucky wild rice marshes of Hadlyme, Connecticut, the salt marshes of Great Island, rich with the scent of sulfur and decay, teeming with life. Lois and I had navigated those waters, gotten all muddy doing so. This was too clean for us, like a decorated store window or a movie set. I mulled this over as I stroked over the quiet water. I decided to revel in the reflections of early autumn leaves rippling before the bow.
And then I noticed it--the soft popping sound of fish lips all around me. Evening was coming on and there was an embarrassment of fish, everywhere. Fish feeding, jumping, swirling, everywhere. And then an osprey beat by, and another, diving again and again, right into the light, impossible to photograph but so deeply appreciated. And right behind the fish hawks, a phalanx of Forster's terns. Oh, oh, oh, oh. How I adore terns, how they bring me back to New England. Their creaky calls and slicing wings speak of sand and surf, even on this manmade inland lake.
Oh beautiful bird, with your bandit mask, thank you for saving me.
Hold on. I'm coming. Hold on.

The fish are feeding and so are we. We're not afraid of you; the fish are all around you in your little boat, and we're catching them.
Thank you. I'm all better now, not grousing about sterile Ohio reservoirs any more. I'm going to come back soon. Will you still be here?
We may have to move on, it'll get cold before long. But we'll look for you, and you look for us.

I will. Thanks again for coming to me.

Oh, people Look around you
It's there your hope must lie
There's a seabird above you
Gliding in one place
Like Jesus in the sky

Jackson Browne, "Rock Me on the Water."

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

UnCanna Beauty

I never wanted a canna here.
I'd missed it in the digging.
It lived through two hard winters
Its thick ugly root, an ankle underground
Pushed up a spear, then another
Unfolded emerald chalices, ready to bloom.

Silly tropical thing, shading rightful lavender.
I didn't bother to dig it out but
Neither did I wish it well.
When he rides his bicycle
He hits it with his palm.
Its leaves are tattered. I haven't asked him to stop.

You are facing me and we are talking
and neither wants to be here
In this particular moment
Sixteen years calls a familiar tune
For this awkward pas de deux.

It's the wrong time to say it
But knowing me, you do.
Look behind you, turn around slowly.

She hangs before the canna's lip
Up, back, dip, probe, kissing deep
Wings backlit, fanning flame.

This ill-timed beauty, this misplaced grace
Survives our best attempts to root it out.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Candy Wrapper Games

Autumnal evenings are when we come out to play. Liam has taken a great shine to Charlie lately, and it's mutual. I'm awfully proud of my boy for having the courage to pet a macaw, and of Charlie for being a gentleman and being affectionate with both Liam and Phoebe. It can so easily be otherwise with older parrots...they'll decide that they love but one person in a household, and nobody else can have much to do with them.

For both Charlie and Chet, anything can become a toy. All you have to do is hold it up high, over your head, and it immediately becomes an object of great desire, whether it's a stick, a tennis ball, a wadded up Kleenex, or a candy wrapper. In this case, it was a Gushers wrapper. Once Chet saw Charlie with the wrapper, he had to have it. There ensued a game of keep-away that kept us amused until well after sundown.
I should lead off by stating for the record that it's generally a bad idea to let dogs play with parrots. It's a rare situation where a dog is trustworthy enough to keep from squishing the parrot. The converse is also true: a macaw's beak can crack a Brazil nut, and you can imagine what it could do to a muzzlepuff. In Charlie's case, we think he got a good nose-nip in on a very curious Chet when Chet was very young. Chet's inquisitive air changed overnight to one of great respect. This established a dominance hierarchy that persists to this day. Chet is playful but extremely respectful of the vise-like grip of Charlie's beak.
The other factor operating is microbiological. Dogs have bacteria in their mouths that aren't found in birds' digestive tracts, and they can cause trouble. It's rare that Chet and Charlie trade saliva; once Chet got the wrapper from Charles, we didn't give it back to the macaw. For now, though, let the Candy Wrapper Games begin! Chet studied Charlie, trying to figure out how best to grab the coveted Gushers wrapper. They both love things that crackle when chewed.Go ahead, you hairy little Mama's boy. Make my day.

Finally, Baker decided a quick grab would net the best results. Do not ask how I got this picture. It just happened.Baker immediately set out on a victory lap. Note t-tail position--straight out. High excitement. A Boston's favorite game is keep-away. They get to show off their blazing speed and agility. Premise: simple. One animal has wrapper, the other tries to get it back. Liam tries to tempt Chet with a chewy stick 0n Charlie's behalf, but Chet's not having it. Baker keeps a wary eye on all of us while gloating over his new toy. He takes stubborn new places. Note Charlie, watching from his perch on my lap.Speaking sternly to Baker just sets off another victory lap. Charlie is crowing like a rooster at this point, thoroughly enjoying the scene of Chet taunting the kids with the coveted wrapper just out of reach.That bird does not need this toy. I need it. And speaking in a stern voice to me won't get you anywhere. You will just have to chase me some more. That's right. Try to catch me.and my favorite shot of the evening:

Oh, just keep it, Baker. It's all slobbery anyway. We'll play with something else until night falls. The heavy steel finial from the chaise lounge should do fine.

It's the little things that are the by Bill Thompson III

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Queer Eye for Birds

We all have bad hair days. I'm having one right now. After what seemed like the perfect haircut only a week ago, I suddenly have this WAVE that comes up out of my forehead, stands erect, then crashes and foams high over my right ear. So I could empathize with this cedar waxwing, who was apparently having a bad crest day.
There was some kind of goozum above his left eye, sticking the feathers together. An occupational hazard of fruit-eating. He didn't contemplate long in the birch by the Bird Spa. He took action.
Much as I love to watch birds bathe, there is always some part of me (probably the photographer) that says, "Don't go in the water!" I hate to see those porcelain-finished feathers get wet and rumpled. Like me, this goldfinch couldn't tear his eyes away from the spectacle.

Dude, you are ruining your 'do.
The marvel to me is how, having been so mussed up, these birds manage to get their crests just perfect again, like the Werewolf of London. Barbules and barbicels all interlocking, the finish smoother than before, and all that without product. I have probably five different kinds, no, wait (Philip Pelusi's Hair Honey, Origins Hair Dresser and University of Mane, Biolage's gel, Bioterra's phytogel, some kind of gawd-awful crystal hair set gel that makes it feel like dead straw, Bedhead by Tigi's fruity slimy green gloop, some kind of hair wax whose name I forget...even Dep...make that nine and counting) and I still can't get it to look the way I want. Pffft. Maybe I should take a hint from the waxwings and go give myself a swirlie in the Bird Spa.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Magic Cuttings

Salvia coccinea (red) and S. guarantica "Black and Blue" (ultramarine). A hummingbird fiesta.

I know that all too soon, summer will be gone. Heck, it's gone already. Finally, after a sweltering September, the nights are crisp again. I can't remember a hotter September--days in the 90's, nights in the 60's. October: even worse. Everything is fried to a crisp. Took Baker on a hike yesterday and he took off after something and came back overheated. There was no water to douse him in where we were so I found a hose and drenched him. But they're promising a cooling off for tomorrow, and the sun has this wine-rich quality that, even when it's hot, isn't. The light is pellucid and penetrating; the heat somehow false.
Every year, I've fallen into the trap of taking my cuttings too late. I wait until October or, worse, November, when the plants are practically dormant, when their hormones are not flowing any more, and I take cuttings, and have a heck of a time getting them to root. Duh. You take cuttings when plants are actively growing. My plant friend Gordon told me that. So this year I took my cuttings in early September, and as I write they are already throwing out roots.

I'm a plant hoarder. There are plants I have decided I cannot live without, and I carry them over in the greenhouse from year to year. One year I lost ALL my fancy-leaf and miniature geraniums in the greenhouse, 28 varieties, to a power outage on an 8-degree night. It hurt. But the mercurial electric heat has now been replaced by good ol' gas, and we put a drip valve on the gas line, and we haven't had an unplanned gas outage since. And so I take cuttings.
I cannot live without heliotrope. Smells like cherry vanilla pie. Ergo: Must have it. So, apparently, must this clearwing hummingbird moth. Heliotrope roots well from cuttings, though I usually wind up digging up the whole plant, cutting it back to about 4" tall, and keeping it over the winter that way. Heliotrope is very forgiving. This time, I rooted cuttings. My three-year-old plant is getting too darn big for the greenhouse.
Here are some of this September's cuttings, already dipped in rooting hormone. Did you know that rooting hormone has pretty much the same chemical makeup as angel dust? Well, it does. Maybe that's why it's getting so durn hard to find in the grocery store any more, kind of like cough medicines that are a precursor to methamphetamines. I can't be bothered with either angel dust or meth. Life's too good, too full of beauty and possibility, and too short for "recreational" drugs.
The cuttings, ensconced in their rooting planter. I put Saran wrap over the top for humidity for the first week or so, until they settle in and stop wilting.Dinner outside, with hibiscus and parrot. A touch of tropicalia in the waning light of summer.

In the fall of 2006, my friend Mary Alice brought me a large peach-flowered hibiscus. She apologized for its size and the lateness of the season, but said, "I walked up to it and it spoke to me. It told me it was meant for you." And it occurred to her that I had a greenhouse where it could live over the winter. All true. I kept it over the winter, and it got about three feet tall and took a gallon of water every day. Come spring 2007, I breathed a sigh of relief, took it out of its pot, and set it in the lower garden. It's now as tall as my chin and covered with huge peach blossoms. Needless to say, it's not coming back in.

At the start of the winter of 2007, my horticulturally-inclined friend Jason took a few cuttings of this hibiscus, because we both knew it was going to get too big for the greenhouse. He grew it over the spring and summer, and gave it to me this August. Oh, thank you, Jason, for all the wonderful plants you brought me. You are theRooting King, the King of Salvias. Here's its first blossom. And mine. Come spring, they'll probably both be looking me square in the eye.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Chet's Baby

Chet Baker is really tough on stuffed toys. It usually takes him anywhere from ten to forty seconds to open a seam, remove the squeaker, and strew Hollofil from one end of the house to the other.
But he feels differently about stuffed Boston terriers.
I bought this puppy-two of them, actually, in December 2004 at a Toys R Us when Chet was still just a bunch of puppy pictures pasted into emails from his breeder, Jane Streett. Christmas was coming, and the kids knew they were getting a puppy, but, having been born on December 12, he wouldn't be ready to leave his mama until (gulp) February 2005. The kids were so anxious to hold him in their arms that I had to do something, so I got them each a stuffed Boston terrier. It helped.

Naturally, since they've got Baker to hug now, the stuffed versions have fallen into disuse. This is how Chet comes by most of his stuffed toys.

When Chet was first introduced to this toy, he treated it exactly as he would a real puppy. He sniffed inside its ears and under its tail.
He licked its face.
Sniffed its ears again. The more he licks it, the more it smells like a real puppeh.
When we pick it up and hold it, he watches us intently, as if he's worried we'll drop it or mistreat it. It's Chet's baby.He knows to go find it when we ask, "Where's your baby?"
But we have to watch him, because he licks its face so much, and sometimes sneaks in just the tiniest nibble on its eye or ear or nose.
I called him the other night to come in and keep me company while I read--Jane Goodall's new biography, signed to me!!--thanks, Lisa and Taryn! -- a terrific, utterly absorbing book. Normally, this is an invitation I don't have to extend twice. He didn't come. I peeked into the living room.
Chet was grooming his baby. He tries to get all the long fibers off its ears, and of course more follow those, and those have to be nibbled off. He gets a little weird about it. He overgrooms it, while pretending he's taking care of it. You said it was my babeh, Mether. Leave us alone. Ah'm being a parent.

I have to limit his access to his baby. I put it up on a high shelf when I think he's had enough time with it.
No you do not have to do that. I would never hurt my baby. He likes it when I suck his ears.

But you might lick a hole in him, or nibble his nose, eyes or ears off, and then what would you do?
I would take his stuffing out for good measure. The eye socket is a good place to start.
Exactly my point.

Mether's note: Since this post was written, antblogger style, Chet Baker has in fact removed his baby's left eye, and now is allowed only supervised visitation. Good thing he had a nutectomy. Some dad he'd make.

Mether's second postscript: Now both eyes are gone. Chet's babeh is blind!

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Evening at French Creek

Paddling French Creek, I had a wildlife show unfolding all the time.

A little yellow-rumped warbler dawdled around on a black willow overhead, showing me its buttery badonkadonk. Also puttering around in the gallery forest: bay-breasted and magnolia warblers, white-eyed vireos, Carolina wrens, blue jays, flickers and robins.

I found a lovely painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) who seemed not to fear me at all

and a musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) who was so alarmed at my approach that he tipped off his basking perch on a dead tulip limb, landed on his back and scrabbled frantically over and into the water. See that pointy nose and rounded dome of a shell? That's a stinkpot. I like them. I'm sure that in Buck's book they're good for nothing (see below).

When I'd done the entire perimeter of the embayment, almost a three-hour paddle, I was about to turn for the boatlaunch when I saw some animals on the shore. The cutest little grulla pony with a smeared strip of a blaze came up to check me out. I don't think she'd seen a one-man canoe before, and the waving paddles intrigued her. She blew and stamped like a deer. The cow with the moon and stars on her flank was less intrigued, and turned her back on me.

Finally it was time to turn for home. There was a man fishing on the boat launch, and he moved his lines so I could cruise in. When I finally came close enough to see, his face broke into a smile. "Oh! A pretty woman!" he said. He grabbed the bow of my canoe and pulled me in so I wouldn't get my feet wet getting out. What a nice man. We talked for a bit and he said, "I like to come down here. It's peaceful. I lost my wife exactly four years and nine months ago today."

"Not that you're counting, huh?"


"I said, you're still counting, huh?"

"Yeah. You count for awhile."

His name was Buck and he quickly added that he felt lucky because he had two grown children and two grandchildren living nearby, and they were "the light of my life."

He seemed lonely and he knew a lot about this place so I decided to hang out with him for awhile. I learned from him that there are both soft-shelled (Good for nothing! Can't even eat 'em!) and hard-shelled (snapping) turtles in the embayment. That there are channel cats upward of 40 lb. here. Muskellunge too. He showed me a lure he'd had for 30 years, all beat up, almost broken, that's been his best muskie lure. I told him I'd hit three huge carp with the canoe in the shallowest part of the embayment, and they were big enough to rock the boat. Durn carp. I told him about the drake wood duck I'd heard stumbling through the leaves on a steep slope above the water. I figured he had been looking for acorns and beechnuts until I scared him into flight. I had thought I was hearing a turkey because it sounded like a biped, but it sounded too clumsy for a turkey, so I waited on it and darned if it wasn't a duck walking through the leaves!

Buck said he always brings an extra rod and reel in case someone comes down and feels like fishing for awhile with him. And there it lay, ready to go. I felt bad leaving him, he was interesting and sweet and I didn't even mind his cigarette smoke that much. He asked me why I was carrying my stuff and canoe way up to the car, why didn't I just back the car down the ramp and pick it up? I told him I don't like backing down a steep ramp when I can't see what's behind me and I don't mind carrying everything because it was only two trips and the canoe only weighs 28 pounds and could he tell me why a man always needs to tell a woman a better way to do things? At that he laughed and said "I guess we do, don't we?"

I told him I'd be back again, and that I'd be glad to see him, and I think he'll be glad to see me, too.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

French Creek Interlude

Last Sunday, I threw the boat in the back of the car, packed a backpack of play clothes, took the kids to church, ate too much at the All Members Potluck, dropped Phoebs and Liam off with cousins and took off by myself for French Creek, on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River. French Creek will live in infamy because it's where Bill and I spotted (and I sketched thoroughly) West Virginia's First of State Little Gull (Larus minimus). NOBODY else we called to come see it managed to see it. This was B.C. (before digital cameras). And so, despite pages of may I say perfectly adequate Zick sketches from life, comparing it to the ring-billed gulls all around it, it remained as "Hypothetical" on the WV Rare Bird list. Please. How could Bill and I mistake a Little Gull with its slaty underwings and minuscule size for anything else? This is a question I've asked of rare records committees before. Substitute this question: How could Zick mistake Ohio's first of state Eurasian Collared-Dove for anything else? Durn thing flew by our birdwatching tower below eye level. I saw its collar, its large size, its pale sandy coloration, its square-tipped tail and its red eye, for Pete's sake. Sign me, "Hypothetical."

Digressing again. That was winter. This is the end of summer. That was about rare birds records committees. This is about boating. The tulips are turning yellow, a few maples are ablaze, it was hot hot hot--I believe we will be catapulted from summer straight into winter this year-- and rather still and I was swaddled in the only shirt I'd thought to bring, a heavy denim long-sleeved affair, with a thick PFD atop that. But I was alone and peaceful and having fun. There were a bunch of great blue herons striking poses wherever I looked,
Love the spray of wild iris behind this bird, and the two posts. Herons are so decorative.and I got some decent shots. I really like this one, with the spray coming off foot and wing, and the accidentally good composition (I was just leading the bird so it wouldn't fly out of the frame, and gave it room to fly in the picture). While I know these are not the only decent photos of great blue herons (possibly the most photographed bird on the planet), they're mine and I like them.

Wood ducks exploded out of every cove. Here's a pair, hen in the lead. I couldn't get the binocs on them fast enough to tell, but when I blew up my photos I could see that some of them had been drakes in full nuptial finery. Gorgeous! We're so lucky to have this ornate little duck as our most common breeder--yes, more common than mallards in this sycamore-laden biome. Yeah!I love doing that--taking a photo, just sort of randomly firing away at something you can barely see with your darn new bifocals through the viewfinder, and then finding that the camera saw all the detail you couldn't see, and did its best to identify the bird for you. It's a bit tricky getting the focus dot on the bird when it's doing about sixty and you're twisting your torso around trying to follow its trajectory without tipping your canoe. I'd love to say I can approach birds more closely in the canoe than I could otherwise, but all the birds at French Creek were super-spooky on Sunday.

A great egret circled overhead. I could see the bones in its wing as the light came through it. I never expect to see great egrets. They're always such a creamy white delight, and they always fill me with surprise and awe.Belted kingfishers scolded and rattled ahead of me. If there's a spookier bird, I haven't seen it. Those birds are just impossible to get close to. Bye, Sucka! You'd think they tasted wonderful, as leery as they are of humans. I got a couple of identifiable shots with the 300 mm. This one, where she's framed in sugar maple, is pretty nice, if you're not worried about seeing the bird.
And then I finally got a little closer. Obviously, she's wound tight as a spring, but she's still sitting...That's the wonderful thing about a little canoe. Mine is absolutely silent and smooth as silk on the water. When I see a bird ahead, I give it a few power strokes and then drift on my momentum as close as I can, firing away as I go. I wish my shutter were as quiet as my vehicle.

Though I was only paddling for about three hours, the things I saw and experienced will have to last me all week. I can't tell you what a difference it's made in my life to get out on the water. It seems the perfect anodyne for all that troubles me.

The only problem I've found is that I spend much of my mental energy now daydreaming about the serene waters I'd rather be paddling. I have friends who say this pleasant affliction/addiction will only get worse.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Messing About in Boats

There is nothing-absolutely nothing- half so much worth doing
As simply messing about in boats.

Ratty to Mole,
Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

This fall, I've resolved to get out in my boat, Lois, as much as I can. To float around on quiet waters. To move silently through water weeds, companion of heron, duck and kingfisher.

But first I had to get our two canoes registered. A man in khaki and aviator glasses and a mustache and too many badges busted Shila and me at Wolf Run, one of my favorite retreats, for not having numbers on the bow of our two one-man canoes. I played dumb that time, but knew I couldn't play dumb twice. There was a hundred-dollar fine awaiting the next time he busted me. And, as an aside, he'd already busted one of my friends in the same (borrowed) boat twice on the same lake...clearly it was time to get legal. I mean, you can't have people paddling around in UNREGISTERED one-man canoes, can you? Lawlessness would prevail; we might load the bulkheads with Lord knows what and sneak in close to some strategic building and...oh, who knows. People in one-man canoes are not to be trusted. I'm told this is all new since 9/11, just another little noisome fillip to be coped with, along with taking your shoes off in the airport and having someone in a uniform throw your bug juice and Swiss Army knife away.
orange sulfur interlude in the fire and brimstone...seen from the canoe

In Ohio, you've got to get even hand-made one-man canoes registered; you have to put three-inch high white letters and a registration sticker on both sides of the bow; you have to pay $10 a year to operate them. But there's more. You have to drive them, yes, load the boats on the car and take them to the nearest watercraft office (Cambridge, OH, an hour north). At least the drive was pretty.

There, you have to fill out an affadavit of ownership because of course if you had a bill of sale you've thoroughly lost it and hand that back to the cute Watercraft Officer who's been inspecting your boats and then get a serial number assigned and from there you get a title and you have to go find a notary to notarize it (the first guy at the pawn shop was out on Mondays, but a used car dealer in Cambridge obliged) and then you get your OH number assigned back to the Watercraft Office and then you go to Wal-Mart and buy sticky boat numbers in a pack of 154 which really ought to be enough to put four OH numbers on two boats and try valiantly to follow the detailed instructions on how to apply them reading left to right with the registration sticker EXACTLY six inches from the first number, and you get them crooked anyway and sure enough daggone it you run out of O's and H's and have to cut the tails off the Q's and make H's out of E's, and by then you're cussing a blue streak and about five hours later counting two hours in the car you are all legal and ready to rock on the water.

And you can get
anything you want
at Alice's Restaurant.

So. Having gone through all that on a fine September day, culminating in a fabulous Legal Paddle at Salt Fork State Park, I decided that I had better take my newly legitimate canoe out as much as possible this fall. How many of us have canoes in the garage or out back of the house, malingering, languishing...unused? It's a crime, with only ourselves to blame. I'm convinced that it's all because we have to tie them atop the car, a stressful, stupid and inefficient way to carry a boat. When I discovered that BOTH my canoes would fit in the back of my Explorer with only a couple of feet sticking out the back I was just about the happiest girl in the whole USA for that golden moment. It takes me about eight minutes (yes, I've timed it) to throw them in the car, grab the PFD's, paddles and seats, tie the back hatch down and git goin'. The whole point being to be able to go canoeing on the spur of the moment (ever the best part of the moment for creative souls).

I take my good camera. Yes, someday I may tip over, but as badly as I swim, the camera will be the least of my worries. I wear a PFD all the time, and I take the good camera, because that's what it's for.

Boats in the harbor are safe
But that's not what boats are made for.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

The Peace of Pets

photo by Bill Thompson III
Bill calls this photo, "The Crazy Pet Lady of Whipple." OK, call me crazy, but I know what I need.

Ever wonder what you would do, or who you might be, without a beloved pet? I do, all the time. They save me sometimes. We've all heard about the studies where researchers hook people up with a blood pressure cuff, take a baseline reading, and then let the person's pet into the room. A couple of caresses or strokes down the pet's back, and the blood pressure falls. I feel it acutely, and I look forward to those quiet times of day and evening when I can turn to my pets for comfort and slowing down. A little Shiraz doesn't hurt, either. That is a Baker noseprint on the lens, by the way. photo by Bill Thompson III
I'm showcasing the photography skills of Phoebe Linnea in the next few pictures. She's the creator of my new profile pic, and these were in the same series. Sure, Mom's setting it up and coaching her, but I hardly need to say much anymore. "Come in closer." "Now just the heads." That kind of thing. And she does the rest. I would have liked to wield a Canon EOS at age 11, but never so much as touched a real camera until I was about 21. Photography is just another of those things that she'll have grown up doing, lucky little thing. She'll have grown up with the instant gratification and education of looking at her picture within seconds of making it. I sent my film away for years, waiting a week or two to see what I'd done. She doesn't know how good she's got it. I love it when she reviews her work and comments, "That's a keeper."photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson
I think about what it is that's so comforting about animals. For starters, I don't think I'll ever stop marveling at the fact that one can bond so strongly with another life form, one that can't talk or hold a verbal conversation, one with a completely different set of social signals and foreign yet deciperhable body language. Yet both of us reach out and we manage to bridge those gaps with ease. We understand what they're telling us, and they understand us. And here's this psittacid on my shoulder, serenely preening his feathers, and here's this canid on my lap, watching for lagomorphs in the yard, and I get to pet them and talk to them and accept the comfort and companionship they lavish on me. Charlie throws in dermabrasion as a by Phoebe Linnea Thompson
Here's the second thing about animals that I think sets us at ease. Aside from food, water, and shelter, their demands on us and estimation of us are pretty simple, and change very little. Our children are constantlly growing and evolving, and their demands on us change radically with each passing year. The bald squirming little grub that needed to be nursed every hour, needed its diapers changed, now needs a ride to and from basketball practice, needs to have friends spend the night, needs a grilled cheese and ham sandwich, but doesn't like tuna. The people we love all go through changes, walk through doors in life, and sometimes we can't come along. Through all the evolution and changes swirling around me, I'm pretty sure that Chet will be just as excited to see me come through the door when he's 13 as he is at 2 1/2, sure that the idea of a walk in the woods with me will always be the best thing he can imagine, now and forever. That, my friends is something.
And so there is a special peace and uncomplicated simplicity to being with our pets that often eludes us in the company of family and friends. You hear the phrase "unconditional love" bandied about; that we wish we could be the kind of person our dog thinks we are. We know our pets will always love us and want to be with us, no matter what. No wonder they bring us peace.
photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson. New glasses. Whaddya think?

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