Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fuertes and Other Luminaries

As promised, we'll walk down the halls at the Lab of Ornithology, savoring the paintings that hang on its walls.

Here’s one that’s the rarest of the rare: A Fuertes study of the extinct Cuban macaw. Of all the extinct birds in the world, the Cuban macaw is one that gives me great remorse. Imagine: A small macaw, perhaps the size of my chestnut-fronted macaw Charlie, but colored like a huge scarlet macaw. Wow, wow, wow. Looking at this painting, I could see that Fuertes painted it from a study skin. This colorful little macaw was extinct in the wild by 1864, and gone from the face of the earth by 1885.From the Smithsonian Institution's web site, here is a picture of ornithologist Katie Faust holding a mounted Cuban macaw. People always smile for photos, but I'd bet she's sad, too. What a massive bill this bird had for its size. One wonders what hard nut it had to crack. It was unique in so many ways, such a loss to the planet. But Cuban macaws were edible, and they probably ate fruit that people wanted for themselves, and for that, they were extirpated, and another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one will be seen again.

Just down the hall was a stunning gouache of a gorilla, a frequent subject for Fuertes. I’m always impressed by his handling of hair. Take it from me, when you’ve been painting feathers all your life, hair is kind of a stretch. This guy jumps right out of the frame at you. His hair is perfect. Gonna order up a plate of beef chow mein. I have GOT to do some portraits of Chet Baker in his young prime. Just have to. If LAF can master a gorilla, I can paint a shiny little dog.
I adored this gorgeously drawn study of a whitetail buck—another unexpected treasure from Louis. My guess would be that he worked from a mounted head; a photo of him working in his studio shows several on the wall above his easel. The sweep and structure of the antlers is so convincing and three-dimensional; the treatment of the deer’s various textures utterly convincing. What a wonderful subject for “life” drawing the ubiquitous mounted deer head would be. We all ought to try it. Those things are everywhere. Well, they're everywhere where I come from.

There are other bird artists represented here, as well. Robert Mengel is one of my favorites—he was a painting ornithologist whose works are possessed of great accuracy, vigor and life. Here’s a running bobwhite by Bob, who passed away in 1990, another painter I would very much have loved to meet.It’s really hard to paint something as intricately marked as a quail without getting too fussy. This is a masterpiece of understatement and grace. It has the mark of Fuertes, and Sutton, with whom Bob studied informally, but it is all his own, and instantly recognizable by its almost careless painterly beauty and truth to the species.

Peter Scott was a British artist who simplified even further, and in my opinion has never been surpassed in his mastery of waterfowl in flight—even (or especially) by the legions of hook-and-bullet painters to follow. How many paintings of waterfowl flocks have been churned out--but are any of them as true or beautiful as this? Look how each swan in this flock has a slightly different angle and wing position; there are no cookie-cutter birds in Scott’s paintings. Flocks are among the hardest thing a bird artist can attempt to paint, because the slightest variation in size or proportion can make the viewer think there’s a different species tucked in there. In addition, perspective demands that distant birds be depicted smaller—but making a convincing statement without suggesting that some of the flock members are miniaturized, or of another species, is extremely difficult. You can see me, hunkered over with my camera, reflected in the glass, wondering at the perfection of this small, seemingly simple but utterly exquisite painting.

This has got to be one of the coolest Francis Lee Jacques paintings I’ve seen. Anyone who’s been to the AMNH in New York has seen Jacques’ work in the dioramas. A peerless painter of landscape and wildlife, Jacques could put birds and animals in space better than anyone before or since. I love how he dwarfed the barn, giving us a (doubtless frightened) frog’s-eye-view of sandhill cranes. Jacques vastly preferred painting waterfowl and waders to songbirds. A paraphrased quote from him that I love: “The difference between warblers and no warblers in the landscape is very slight.” That little gift, from my friend, painter Bob Clem.

An incubating female common nighthawk, painted from life by George Miksch Sutton. Sigh. Again, Sutton’s handling of the intricacies of the nighthawk’s vermiculated plumage—something an artist could fall into and not get out of—is masterful. To me, this bird fairly breathes; she is aware of being watched but holds tightly to her job.
I'm grateful to Charles Eldermire, Benjamin Clock, and Alan Poole, who took me to hidden areas of the Lab where many of these paintings hang. It was a privileged peek at a treasure trove of ornithological art.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

The Fortunate Tooth

When I was eight years old, an extra tooth pushed through the roof of my mouth. My mother had had the same thing happen as a child. I doubt the extraction of my extra tooth by oral surgery was much nicer than hers in the 1920’s. To soothe the pain, Ida took me to an old bookstore in downtown Richmond near the dental hospital, the only time I can remember having anything bought for me in such a place. If I remember correctly, my dad met her at the bookstore and helped pick out just the right book for me. I remember picking up a weighty forest-green hardcover book from a table in the center of the dark, wood-paneled reading room, and knowing that this would be the finest book any child could have. It was A Natural History of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, by Edward Howe Forbush and John Bichard May. I know now that the slightly florid but vivid writing style of Forbush and May, the expert integration of natural history information in readable anecdote and liberal quotes from direct observers, had a massive influence on my writing style. But though I read each species account many times over, it was the paintings I thirsted for most of all, and in particular the paintings of Louis Fuertes. I had never heard of him before; didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. I just knew that he got it right. His birds were alive.

In fact, Louis Fuertes died on August 22, 1927, his car struck by a train at a crossing. Ida, my mom, would have just turned 7 at the time. He’d been at dinner with friends; he’d brought his finest work, the bird portraits he’d painted in Abyssinia, along with him. They were flung free of the wreckage and miraculously unharmed; Louie was not so fortunate. I wonder where that crossing is, if anyone still knows. I’d like to go there, to see if any of that gentle man’s spirit still hangs in the air. I know I would have adored this man. I know it from reading his writings (To a Young Bird Artist by George Miksch Sutton is the perfect place to start). I know that just looking at his paintings.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a mecca for bird artists, with its vast collection of original Louis Fuertes paintings, as well as those of other luminaries. If you’ve hours to spend looking, Cornell has many of them up on the Web. What a gift, what a service to artists everywhere! Thank you, Lab! (and thank you, reader Harlow Bielefeldt, for alerting me to it).

Click here: The Fuertes Gallery at Cornell

If you don’t mind lousy pictures taken through glass in dim hallways, I’ll show you some of the paintings I was free to look at while prowling the innards of the Lab on my recent visit.
A golden eagle dives on a ptarmigan. Remember, in looking at these, that Louis had very little access to photographs of birds in flight. He likely worked from a mount here, though I don’t know that to be true. The birds’ wings are beautifully observed, even though the eagle’s somewhat static pose, with bill open, is a bit stylized and indicative of the fashion of the times. Modern photography of such action scenes would show the eagle’s feet flung far forward, directly under the head; the wings swept well back. I can only imagine the wonders Louis would have created had he had access to the kind of resources we take for granted.

I love this oil of a goshawk mantling a spruce grouse; the intensity of the hawk’s pose, the rounded curve of its arching wings. The grouse is particularly lovely, and I imagine Fuertes observing captive hawks and falcons and sketching them in an effort to capture this pose. There’s a gorgeous dawn glow in the sky.

Fuertes did a series of paintings for Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, which included them on collectible cards found in each package. Man, as little baking soda as I use anymore, it’d take a lifetime to get a decent collection, but my dad remembers eagerly searching for each one when his mother got a new package. Seeing my delight with the Fuertes paintings in the book he and Mom gave me, he spent years looking for a set of them for me, writing letters to Arm and Hammer, asking if they might consider re-issuing them. My dad was a letter-writer, patient and persistent. So far, it hasn’t happened, but I did see a traveling exhibit of the paintings at the Boston Museum of Science in the 1980’s. This exquisite little kestrel was one of them. He’s so perfectly captured the strange, boxy head and elfin look of the little falcon, I almost expect to see it rapidly bob its head as it peers at me.

Walking through the Lab is such a treat for a bird painter; treasures abound. I think my favorite treatment was this one of a magnificent Fuertes mural, depicting a peregrine on the hunt over Fisher’s Island, New York. I spent some of the happiest days of my life bicycling Fisher’s Island as a field biologist for the Nature Conservancy. It is a little jewel, full of piney maritime forest, open grasslands, marshes and salt ponds and dunes, and all the birds that go with those habitats. This painting of a ring-necked pheasant's last flight perfectly evokes the sweep and scale of the island, the sparkling summer salt air, and the tantalizing knowledge that in a few hours, you can pedal its length and breadth, and see what there is to see.

I think that Louis would have glowed with pride to see the places of honor where his work now hangs, so beautifully integrated into a bustling ornithology lab.

More Cornell treasures await.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Spring in Marietta

It’s spring in Marietta.

The deciduous magnolias dance in the breeze, their softly perfumed flowers blowsy and extravagant. This time of year, I drive slowly down Marietta’s brick streets, marveling at the sometimes perfect pairing of house to tree. This is one such, a gracious cream-colored house with a rosy magnolia confection gracing its flank. Oh, perfection.

The petals remind me of a fawn’s ear, delicately veined in pink.
Inside, the zillion stamens proclaim its tribe: the Ranales, or magnolias. They include tulip trees, sweet bays, Carolina pineapple bush, and the classic Magnolia grandiflora of Tara. Summer afternoons in Virginia, I’d bury my nose in the creamy, waxen flowers of our shiny-leaved grandiflora, vying for perfume with orange and black beetles. I can still recall the scent, though the tree has long since been cut down.I'm posting this from the parking lot of Curley's Motel in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I'm so busy taking pictures of birds up here that I haven't taken time to download any. I don't know when I'll get Net access again (I'm poaching at Curley's), so I decided to post this Sunday afternoon as I'll be traveling all day Monday.

Despite the frantic nature of my previous post, I began having fun the minute I got behind the wheel on the way to the airport on Friday. It is ever thus with big trips--the preparation is awful, but the trip itself almost erases that angst. If I didn't have so many other cherished life forms depending on me for so many things, it might not be so hard to get away. Talks went great. Whitefish Point Bird Observatory Spring Fling Festival, really fun. Terrific, kind people. Sleeping like a rock. Go figure. I guess I have to go to the Upper Peninsula to get some sleep.

Weather report from the U.P.: 38, snow squalls, peeks of sun. Don't want to guess the wind chill factor. Seen today: northern goshawk, long-eared owl, saw-whet owl. Common loons in breeding plumage. Yeah. This isn't Marietta. I have worn absolutely everything I packed--four layers including long underwear, two hats, two pairs of gloves. Off to find lunch at a restaurant near a spectacular high falls. You'll see it all in time.

Crazy moment: Cellphone rang while I was watching a common loon in breeding plumage powering by my frigid perch on a hawk observation platform. It was Bill, watching a least tern from his platform at So. Padre I. in Texas, thinking about me.

Life is good again.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

April Madness

Spring is many things to me, but the last of those is relaxing. There is nothing relaxing to a die-hard gardener about warm, sunny weather. Warm sunny weather means weeds growing toward the sky, things needing to be planted out, things cooking slowly in the greenhouse, things needing to be watered and pulled and mulched, cleaned, mowed and trimmed. Warm sunny weather means festival season, means travel and packing. For instance, this weekend Bill is in south Texas, and I am in Whitefish Point, Michigan at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory's 2008 Spring Fling. In a way, it will be good to get away from all this burgeoning vegetation and all this weeding and planting, and go back to early, early spring. I need a break. It's all happening too fast. Winter into summer, that's what this spring has been. 30's to 8o's.

I wish I could relax. I wish I could sleep. Both elude me. I am alternately a zombie and a weepy manic counterwiping floorwashing freak. Something about having all four of us in different places, having to arrange care for Phoebe and Liam and Chet and Charlie and Shoomie the turtle and the ancient bonsais and my teeny new tomato seedlings and all those gorgeous greenhouse goodies I've grown all winter makes me insane. Something about the end of April makes me sad. It's all coming too fast. I'm a tired bird trailing the migrating flock, trying to catch up. I can't stop it; I can't control it, so I sweep and wipe. Dirt, at least, I can control. Shila helps me. Shila is a healer. That's what she does. Here is photographic evidence. Not long ago, Chet Baker had a terrible couple of days, womitin' bad, sorr. I didn't know what he'd gotten into, but it was bad. He'd go out in the meadow and graze like a miniature Angus bull for an hour at a time, then clean himself out over and over. Shila came over, just to talk a bit and enjoy the spring and the daffodils. Chet vaulted up into her lap and turned to her with his most hangdog expression. I am sick, Shila. Maybe you can fix me. Will you try?

So Shila draped Chet over her lap and commenced gently stroking his ailing stomach. He relaxed immediately and completely, this poor dog who'd been rigid with cramps for two days. Look at his hind legs. Limp as a noodle. He snored gently. Shila and I think this picture looks like Silence of the Lambs, with a Tulumia orchid instead of a hawk moth over her mouth.I met Shila after I'd given birth to Phoebe, when I was in total shock about what having a baby really meant. It meant having this little person, this houseguest, who never planned to pack up and leave, who was here to stay, who might need anything at any hour or minute of the day, and generally did. It meant that I was suddenly in service to someone else, someone who didn't answer to a reasonable request to scale back the demands or maybe go somewhere else for dinner, give me a break once in awhile. It meant saying goodbye to the sleep patterns I'd taken for granted; it meant giving a couple of pints of my bodily essence to her nourishment every day. I quit sleeping and wandered around like a haggard zombie. Shila helped. We became friends. She's known both kids since they were babies, and she was often the only person other than Bill and me who could hold and soothe cranky Liam. I'll never forget handing him to her on New Year's Eve, when he was not even two months old. He went limp as a homemade egg noodle, from squalling like a banshee.

I watched her work her magic on Chet and marveled at the treasure that she is, at how lucky I am to call her friend and confidante. The first time she touched me in the course of craniosacral therapy, I asked sleepily, "How long have you been a healer?" There was a heat radiating from her hands, an energy and soothing power that I've never felt before.Clearly, it crosses species lines. Shila has worked on sore horses as well as infants and children and insane nursing mothers. Now she can add pukey Boston terriers to her list of the healed. He was fine from then on. When he got down from her embrace he walked over to his bowl and cleaned up yesterday's untouched dinner.

In this crazy, busy season, I wish you peace, and dear friends who know just what to say and do. Or, as in Chet's case, when to say nothing at all.Mr. Popcorn Paws, at peace.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Things You Never See

Ithaca turns out to be a good place to see things you never see otherwise, especially with Alan Poole as my guide. I had never seen people riding unicycles in my life. Maybe I saw a chimp ride one once on television. But here were these two dudes going along a very narrow, very fast road with nothing but two pedals and a wheel between them and Eternity. It's the mother in me, I'm sure, that made me gasp and immediately begin to worry for them. Think about it. They've got nothing to grab should they hit a rock or a pothole or a squirrel or a dead possum. How in the world do they dismount safely? How do they go down huge hills? Why don't they get down off those damn things?
I was completely in awe of them, and I couldn't stop taking pictures of them, something they found very funny. My inner Gomer was gaaawww-leeeeee-in' all over the place.I did get to see them dismount and remount near Taughannock Falls. There was a whole lot of arm waving going on as they attained their balance and rhythm atop those dreadful wheels. I was glad they were wearing helmets, at least. You couldn't get me on one of those things on a dare. But then, I won't even play volleyball, and I suit up in steel wrist guards to roller skate. I break a wrist, I'm S.O.L., and the workman's comp plan for freelance artist/writers is raiding the piggybank.
That said, they made excellent time, almost beating us to Taughannock Falls. But we were birding.

Taughannock Falls was a pilgrimage for me, because it was there that ornithophotographer Arthur Allen shot his famous peregrine photos, when a pair nested naturally there in the early 1900's. It looked like a piece of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, plopped down in the Finger Lakes country. That's Alan for scale.
I believe Louis Agassiz Fuertes also painted those peregrines at this spot, where they nested just to the left of the falls. Just knowing my greatest bird art influence had stood on this spot filled me with awe.
Chet Baker came with me on this trip, and it was absolutely lovely to have him along. Almost nine hours on the road each way, Baker kept me company and showered me with kisses. We talked and I ran my hand over his muscular little thigh as we drove. We ran around after squirrels at the rest stops and jumped creeks in the woods. Alan took an immediate shine to Baker, and was amused at how he'd leap atop walls, catlike, to walk along the tops.Baker was not allowed in the Asian Art floor of the Johnson Museum on the Cornell campus, so he spent the afternoon curled in bed instead. The sheer age of most of these artifacts filled me with awe. Here's a cloisonne Chinese dragon vase.

A beautiful man, carved from an elephant tusk. His backward lean is thanks to the curvature of the tusk, but it perfectly evokes the weight of the ivory basket he carries. I am sure there were carved fish inside the basket, but I couldn't see inside it. How do you carve a fishnet out of ivory? I could only shake my head.

A painting of Kali, my favorite Indian goddess. This is me, oh, about one week a month. Look out, demons and wrongdoers. I am riding the lion with my sixteen arms. Mess with me: I will slice and dice you. I find it interesting that Liam makes the same bloodspurts on his headless people that this artist did several centuries back.

Looking down on the magnificent Cornell campus. Because of its history of great ornithologists, this was the college I most wanted to attend, but when my parents drove me all the way up there from Virginia, an admissions officer told me I'd never get in as a biology major with my crummy math SAT scores. He told me I'd better emphasize that I wanted to major in journalism. Which I didn't. So, being a timid but principled high school student, I didn't even apply. That's OK. I got educated anyway. Still, the visit made me wistful, remembering and appreciating the vision of my father and mother walking little baby me up these same sidewalks. Dad was looking for a good ice cream place. He said college towns always have the best ice cream places, and he knew Cornell had a dairy somewhere. That was Dad. I sought out a local ice cream factory in his honor, where Bacon and I shared a hotdog and a coconut almond shake. Dad would have ordered maple walnut ice cream.
Because I knew the daffodils wouldn't be blooming yet in Ithaca, I cut a huge bunch of mine and took them up for Alan and Charles. I was sitting across from Alan, with the still-cold spring light coming in the window, and was struck by the beauty of the scene. It was a Vermeer interior, timeless and serene.
These are my two favorite photos from the whole trip. For me, they evoke the peace that animals bring to us, with their quiet, caring presence. If you want to see me happy, give me a cup of tea or a glass of Shiraz, and sleek little Chet Baker on my lap.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

For Mojo Man

This essay aired today on All Things Considered, in honor of Earth Day. You can hear me read it here. I couldn't have written it, much less felt it, without a letter that Mojo Man, a self-described frustrated forester, wrote to me more than a year ago, when I was complaining about selective cutting. In essence, he said, "Get over it. Think of the alternative. Logging is a sustainable use of a forest. Forests are dynamic systems, and even logged-over woods beat a housing development."

Sometimes we don't know the impact a few well-chosen words to a friend can have. Mojo's letter got me through the logging, got me through the snarling chainsaws and the shrieks and cracks of dying trees. Did I enjoy it? No. Would I allow it to be done to our forest? Never. But I repeated Mojo's wisdom to myself over and over throughout February and March; I repeated it to Bill and the kids; kept it in my head as I spoke respectfully to my neighbor, and it truly got me through. This old earth is a renewable resource, bouncing back after unthinkable injury and insult. Think of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the healing that's gone on in those diesel-soaked beaches. We owe her so much more honor, love and respect than we'll ever give her, but like a good wife and mother, she keeps coming back, taking care of us even at our spoiled, self-centered and destructive worst.

Our neighbor is logging his woods. We listened as the bulldozers and chainsaws moved closer each day. One by one, the big trees fell. The loggers were taking everything over 18” in diameter, leaving the smaller trees to mature. After three weeks, there was only one giant left, the tulip tree we called the Privacy Tree. We called it that because it shielded our house from the road, made it feel like a secret.

I knew the logger was saving the biggest tree for last. He couldn’t have overlooked it. It was time to say good-bye. I walked out through the snow, meaning to wrap my arms around it, and had to spread them for a good-bye hug. I know, I’m a tree hugger. But it’s something, in this cut-over, degraded forest, to find a tulip tree that’s 36” at breast height.

“Can’t we ask them not to cut the Privacy Tree?” asked Phoebe, her voice plaintive. “Doesn’t the logger have a heart?” Well, no, honey, we can’t ask him. A 36” tulip is worth money, and it’s on our neighbor’s land, and that, dear, is that.

While she was at school, I did call my neighbor and offer to compensate him for the value of the tree if he’d leave it standing. It was a reckless act, born of a mother’s desire to fix what’s wrong. I had no idea what it was worth, figuring I’d either be able to meet the price or not. I just wanted to buy it, to leave it standing, so the tanagers and wood thrushes could still perch in it and sing. He turned me down flat. “Nope, I’m gonna cut it. If it dies and falls down, I can’t get anything for it. And I don’t want it lying on the ground. Trees are a crop, just like anything else, and you need to harvest them before they fall down.” I suggested that trees might have another value as habitat, even after they fell down, and we hung up, agreeing that we saw things differently when it came to trees.

Two days later, my husband and I watched in silence as a chainsaw snarled into its base. The Privacy Tulip trembled, groaned, spun slowly, and smashed down, taking five other trees with it.

Four years ago, I watched with dismay as another forest I loved was logged just like this one. I’d drive by every day, watching it get thinner and thinner. The loggers took all the big trees, piling them like Lincoln logs on a flatbed truck, hauling the forest away in a cloud of diesel fumes. I ground my teeth and muttered as I passed. The next spring, underbrush sprang up in the newly opened woods, from seeds that had been waiting for decades in the soil for just such conditions.

Within three years, new, strange bird songs rang through the opened stand: Wild turkeys, American redstarts, blue-winged, prairie, hooded and Kentucky warblers flocked to the thick young growth that sprang up in the wake of the cutting. Come spring, I’ll park my car where the logging truck once sat, and watch jewellike birds fetching insects and nesting materials in the flickering sun, in the new growth racing toward the sky.

For birds like these to survive and thrive, some trees must fall, some sunlight must strike the forest floor. Even as I mourn the Privacy Tree, I know that my neighbor’s is a changed woodland, and not necessarily for the worse. Come spring, I’ll be listening for new songs.A postscript:
Even before the branches had settled, five hawks appeared in the sky directly over where the Privacy Tree had stood for so many years. Two red-shoulders and three redtails circled and screamed, keening an unearthly chorus in the space where the tree had been. Their cries tore through the pearly sky. Who can say why? I think that we are not the only ones who mourn it.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Old Bread Memories

Ithaca is gorges. It's waterfalls and snow, and for me it was also daffodils just peeking up through still-cold ground; phoebes just arrived and singing tentatively. I keep traveling north this spring, and I act like a big baby when I have to get my down parka and gloves back out. Looking at the bright side, it makes it all the more delicious to return to sun and warmth, such bits as we have. This is a view of the valley plowed out by the glacier that passed through what is now Ithaca. Winter keeps a grip on the place for a long, long time.

And yet...the first Ithaca Farmer's Market of the season was happening, and I joined my old friend Alan Poole for a visit to the land of hearty-looking breadladies and spun maple sugar. We got some white bean soup and braved the cold wind off the lake to enter the open-air barn that houses a very robust farmer's market. Oh, what wonderful things!We bought bread from this artisan stand. I bought a loaf of Amadama bread, a curious thing...it rolled around and around in my mind; I knew I'd baked it in the past; I knew I loved it, but I couldn't remember any more than that. Alan jogged my memory. "It was a recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book." Yes! Back in the late 70's I lived in a big old house in Petersham, MA, where we baked breads from that collection of monastery recipes. So I bought the loaf and brought it home--so sweet and brown and good. Here's what I've found about it on the Web, from a Los Angeles Times article from 1922:

"Amadama Bread--One pint of boiling water poured slowly over one-half cup of
Indian (fine corn) meal, stirring all the time. When cool, add one bread spoon of lard,
one-half cup of molasses, one dessert spoon of salt, one-half yeast cake
dissolved in one-half cup of luke-warm water, and flour to make a stiff batter.
Knead well and rise in again, let rise in the pans till almost double in bulk,
and bake."
The name "Amadama" is a curious one. It is almost impossible to find anyone
who can explain its origin convincingly. Perhaps the most feasible story
regarding it is the following:
When Mrs. John Johnston of Gloucester, MA first introduced the bread, she called
it "Epidemic Bread,"which name was mispronounced by an ignorant maid in one
customer's home, who called it "amadama" housewives clamored for it and it became
most popular. For this reason Mr. Johnston called it "Epidemic Bread," which name was
mispronounced by an ignorant maid in one customer's home, who called it "amadama"
bread (instead of "epidemic.") From that time on many customers, who heard of
the maid's mispronunciation, called it "madama" in fun--which name became a fixture.

I'm doubting that these women have lard anywhere near their kitchen, so perhaps butter would suffice. As you know, lard is a staple in my kitchen, if only for Zick dough. The amadama bread is the toasty looking loaf at the very bottom margin of the photo. I was to regret my purchase upon climbing on the scales back home. Bread and pasta are now struck once again from my diet. Sigh. Travel eating is the worst. Somehow, you think it won't count, until you get home. Why do carbs have to taste soooo good? Begone. No more.

I always get a kick out of kids in college communities like Ithaca. They all look like fortune-tellers.
There were some mighty thrifty looking winter carrots and taters, too. Alan says the carrots are incredible.
Later, Alan and I went to the Johnson Museum of Art, where there happened to be an Easter egg hunt and celebration going on. I was amazed at the biomass of mini-people crammed into the lobby. In my college days in Cambridge, children were an anomaly, evoking double-takes on campus. Things have changed. Graduate students and professors now reproduce. I was also amazed at the fortitude of this single stalwart folksinger, armed only with a gut-stringed guitar, who was belting out "Puff, the Magic Dragon" without benefit of mic or amp to what felt like several thousand chattering kids.
This would, for me, define the Gig from Hell. Give the man a Pignose.

Our Swinging Orangutangs gig at the Whipple Tavern last Friday night was anything but. We had a steady full house and the most marvelous time, and our tips plus the spaghetti dinner hosted by the tavern brought in over $500 for pocket money for the sixth grade class trip to Pittsburgh. We played a mini-set of songs from "Boogie Nights" that I'm fairly certain have never been played in that space, including "Best of My Love," with screaming female vocal harmonies between me and Jess; "Jungle Boogie," sung by Bill of the Birds, "Get Down Tonight," sung by JZ, "Brick House," by BOTB (he does a real nasty job on that one.) Jess does an amazing job on the vocal and antic keyboard of Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good." Yes, it was something completely different. It was such fun that we looked up and it was 12:30.

More Ithaca anon.

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When you live in a place long enough, and you're lucky enough to be able to work at home and stare out the windows at the birds for part of each day, you can get to know them as individuals. It helps when a bird has distinctive markings--maybe missing feathers on the hindcrown, like one male indigo bunting who nested here for many years. Perhaps there's a drooping wing, like that of the bluebird we called Mr. Troyer. He nested in our yard for eight years, and I still miss him. There's a long story behind him, but that's one for the next book.
Speaking of distinctive markings, this is Snowflake (who I began calling Queen Frostine), a leucistic female dark-eyed junco who has been with us for three winters, growing whiter each year. She's a Zick Dough freak, and I'd love to think that we've just sent her to Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire or Ontario with an ample pad of fat for the flight, and a good start for the breeding season ahead. The last juncoes left on April 17 as they do every year. You can imagine how excited we'll be should Queen Frostine show up again next winter. She's our friend.

Ruby is a beautiful female red-bellied woodpecker. This is her third year with us (that I know of). Year to year, she's displayed a consistent mark: two tiny red bindis in her otherwise gray forecrown. She's also got really red nares just above the bill, which is a sign of her maturity, as is the faint wash of red along her malar (jaw) area).
Those two simple feathers, and the fact that I happened to notice them, elevate her status from that of Just Another Redbelly to a Named Bird, a friend. It's a human conceit, of course, that she's special because I've named her, but it helps me to feel a bond with her from year to year, and it makes me more interested in watching her behavior. There's value in that, if only for me as the observer. She's certainly interested in my behavior; she waits each morning in the willow or on the chimney for me to pop out with the Zick Dough. Recipe here. She's probably noticed that I have more gray streaks in my forecrown this year than last, and a bunch more than three years ago. Ruby, we'll talk.

Sometimes she's dainty about helping herself to dough
and sometimes she grabs the biggest glob she can find to bear off and cache.
I never tire of watching Ruby, of noticing what, besides those two little red feathers, makes her an individual.
Wouldn't you think she'd spread her wings for the leap down to the railing? I think she wants to avoid knocking the dough to the ground with the backwash from her wings, that's what I think.

I like Ruby; I like knowing that she knows me and looks forward to seeing me, too. She's not a pet, but neither is she just another bird to me. She's my neighbor, my friend.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Raven Comes to Call

We live in Appalachian Ohio, but just in the foothills. What we have are hills, not mountains. The common raven nests at high elevations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but there may be but one pair nesting in all of Ohio, as we are short of mountains. Nevertheless, in the last five years, we've had four records of common ravens flying over our yard. As our eloquent friend and Ohio Rare Bird Records Committee poobah Jim McCormac put it, that makes us "the only Ohio backyard with multiple records of this jumbo croaker."
This is Liam's willow, planted the summer of his birth. Just to show you that it's indeed in our backyard.

The first record came on March 15, 2003, when my artist friend Cindy House and I were standing in our backyard. Bill was inside playing the guitar. Groop groop groop groop! croaked a raven. Cindy heard it and didn't give it a second thought, since she was visiting from Vermont where common raven was a yard bird for her. I heard it and started jumping up and down and flapping my arms and hollering for Bill. We saw the bird flying over the orchard, croaking all the way, but by the time I got Bill out, it was gone. Arrrgh. Anyway, it was #180 for our yard list. It was headed southwest.

On September 29, 2005, our friend Wezil Walraven, a professional bird guide, contender for Funniest Man on the Planet and all around sharpie, was lying out in a chaise in our front yard, skywatching, when a common raven flew over, croaking, and disappeared headed north. He figured it might be a good record, even though he was visiting from Arizona, so he mentioned it at lunch. I jumped up and down and flapped my arms again.

On April 7, 2008, while I was in Ithaca, Bill heard what sounded like a common raven flying over, but then a bunch of crows started cawing and he wondered if perhaps it was just an odd vocalization from a crow.

On April 9, 2008, Bill and I were preparing to take a birdwalk around the yard. "I'm going to leave my camera inside," he said, and I said, "OK, I'll take my long lens, in case we see something good that needs its picture taken." We had just rounded the corner of the house when we heard the unmistakable groop groop groop of a honking common raven. Our eyes bugged out and we shouted, "RAVEN!" at the same moment. The bird was huge, coming low over our driveway and the roof of our house, hollering all the way. It landed on our roof and croaked some more. This may have had something to do with the fact that Bill and I were croaking like ravens for all we were worth, trying to get the bird to linger long enough to be immortalized by my Canon. While flipping out that a raven was sitting on our roof, I was frantically trying to get my autofocus to listen to me. "Get it, Zick! Get it!" Bill urged, which helped a lot. My autofocus ground away fruitlessly, focusing on everything but the bird, so I switched to manual focus and managed to fire a couple of shots, to document common raven in our backyard at long last. Like the March '03 raven, it was headed southwest. A phalanx of crows came out to harrass it. I felt sorry for the raven, just croaking away, looking for one of its own kind. Bill realized that his bird two days earlier was probably being harrassed by crows as well.
The tail was a bit molty as you can see. The heavy bill and eagle-like wings are typical of common ravens. Man, it's nice to have a picture, however dull.

I've had a bit of friendly static from people who want to hear all about Ithaca and the Lab of Ornithology. The problem is that there is too much going on right now to carve out the time to write it up and edit all the photos. I've been working like a mule, reclaiming the yard from the grip of winter, tilling and planting, mowing (thanks Bill!) and weeding. I cleaned the pond, bleccch. Sucked up about ten billion toad eggs and then they laid ten billion more. Beats sucking up tadpoles, I figure. The peas and lettuce I planted April 9 are coming up! Meanwhile, both kids have softball practices two nights a week, which means I have to magically produce dinner by 5 pm and drive them to different fields for a four-hour block of time. Whee! While rehearsing for a Swinging Orangs gig tomorrow night. Here's the poster that Andy Hall, our awesome drummer/designer made.

Something about it makes me belly laugh. We are very much looking forward to playing for other parents from the school, and to making lots of tips which we'll donate to Phoebe's class trip to Pittsburgh. I have no idea what to wear, but it will not be cropped pants, nor will it be hula pants, nor a purple squall jacket. It will be something in between, or perhaps beyond. Purple cropped hula pants?

Have a wonderful weekend. We will!

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Digging the Corpseflower

The pear and the Russian prune hedge are just coming out; the forsythia's in full swing. Let's pray it doesn't freeze them all to black like last year. I don't trust God's rainbow promise. Spring in Ohio is usually brutal.

This is the time of year when the whitefly and aphids get so bad in the Garden Pod that trying to spray for them is like cleaning the house while the kids are around; like shoveling the driveway while it's still snowing. So I took advantage of a couple of warm thundery days last week to give everyone a two-day bath, washing the sticky aphid pee off the leaves, bumming out the whitefly colonies. I repotted plants that couldn't live another minute in their small pots, trimmed things back, groomed off the dead blossoms and leaves. And had to load everything back in when it dropped to the 40's Friday night. Sure enough, we had a mild freeze Monday night, which meant that I had to empty my linen closet to drape my 16' tall heirloom lilac with sheets. The whole garden looked like a yard sale, with sheets and pillowcases on everything. I'll stand out there with a space heater if it means I can save the blossoms this year. They all froze off last April 13. That is not going to happen this year if I have anything to say about it, because last spring nearly killed me.There is a terrible lot of biomass in that greenhouse by mid-April. Terrible. You can't even move in there without a clippers in your hand. But I've got to deal with it until at least May first.The bougainvilleas have done terrifically well this winter. I love these prickly old things, whether they're blooming or not. Good thing, because as soon as I set the pots outside, that's the last I'll see of flowers until next January. Go figure.

Sauromatum venosum, or corpseflower, is a truly icky plant. That's why I love it. A member of the Araceae, or jack-in-the-pulpit family, it has a long blackish-red spathe and a greenish spadix that it sends up in early summer from a bulb that can attain truly titanic proportions. The flower smells like something died. See my post, "Look, Darling, The Corpseflower is in Bloom!" from March 2006, when nobody but Mr. Gold Wow Powerleveling Runescape had much to say to me. The miracle of it all is that it's hardy over our Ohio winters. I plant it right near the front door so I won't miss it when it blooms, because that dark blackish-red color kind of fades into the background. This is the flower of a 1" bulb. You can imagine what a 6" bulb puts forth...Peeeee---yewwwww. But don't worry. The flower only lasts a couple of days. Then it sends up a single fantastic 2-3' wide pinnate leaf on a long stem that's speckled like a gecko. Sauromatum, with flowers that smell like rotting flesh, isn't for everybody, but the bulbs multiply and I've sent them to two similarly twisted friends already since I got my first, tiny bulbs from my friend Dave about three years ago. By the way, the rot smell is to attract fly and beetle pollinators. It works. I found the blossom among the hostas last year by following the smell and the sound of buzzing flies, expecting to find oh, maybe a dead raccoon. Mini-Baker fix, just so you know he's still alive and kicking. Sorry for the dearth of doggeh posts. I've been traveling and gardening (working like a mule). Bacon is still up to his old tricks.

I wanted to send a bulb to a special friend in New Jersey before they started growing for the spring, so I gingerly forked around where they were lying, dormant, under the soil. I was a bit concerned that all the tubers I dug up had soft gooshy spots, but I scraped out the rotten pulp until I got to firm living bulbflesh, washed the bulbs, and replanted them. I don't think there's much that's going to stop these things.
You can see where I scooped out the flank of the huge bulb. I still think it's going to grow fine; in fact it's already working on its flower. Weird enough for you, Chet Baker?
Mether. These are yucky. I am not a squeamish dog, but I have to wonder about a person who would plant something like this by her front door. There are other people in this house, you know. Namely me, Chet Baker. This bulb is bigger than my head. Do you remember last year, when I found the flower? Well, I thought it was something lovely to roll in, but it was only a plant.

Here's an excerpt from Scott D. Appell's wonderful writeup on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's web site:

This tuberous aroid, hailing from the Himalaya, is considered to be subtropical (tolerating a minimum temperature of 41°F) and technically has no place here, but I am including it because I cultivated a four-foot-wide colony of it in Columbus, Ohio (Zone 6), through decades of freezing hibernal Midwest temperatures. It could prove hardy for you too! Considered a horticultural novelty, the voodoo lily tuber will produce its purple-mottled shiny green spathe and purple-brown spadix on a windowsill even without soil or water. The early-spring inflorescence grows up to 15 feet tall and emits a profoundly strong smell of carrion. (When I grew the plant, it attracted every fly in the neighborhood. "Did one of your cats die?" a neighbor inquired.) After its inflorescence fades, each tuber produces a single dark green, two-foot-tall leaf divided into numerous lance-shaped segments. The leaves have puce leopard spots on their petioles, and in large clumps they make an impressive tropical foliar display. By midsummer, the foliage shrivels away, but in fall, clusters of attractive red berries appear. The tubers multiply rapidly, making propagation from offsets easy. Plant the tubers six inches deep in fertile, well-drained soil and partial shade. With adequate protection in the colder areas, the voodoo lily can be hardy from Zones 6 to 9.

He grew 15' tall voodoo lilies in his Columbus garden?? Sounds like a soulmate. Stand by. Pictures of flowers in May or June. I just hope I'm here for the blooming, because it comes and goes in a couple of days.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Waking Sleeping Trees

Picture Wayne and Garth wiggling their fingers in front of their faces, making time travel noises. We’re leaping ahead to spring, and for once I’m blogging about something that actually just happened in the last couple of days. April 10 is when I wake up my bonsais, drag them out of their snug little bed in the coldframe under the deck, and pot them up.You can see the thick foil trunkwraps that discourage voles, who like to girdle decades-old bonsais. And why? Because voles are sick little animals. Foil hurts their fillings.

First order of business is to mix up some soil. For bonsai trees, you need soil that drains well, but also retains moisture. The main problem on our windy dry ridgetop is keeping them moist in summer, and there are days when I water them twice. If you’re going to keep bonsais, you have to be around, and have someone you trust who’ll water them while you’re gone. These trees are so thirsty that it would be difficult to overwater them.

So I go to the woods and scrape up some nice humus, along with the clayey undersoil. I load as much of that as I can carry into my muck bucket, then mix it with storebought peat-based potting soil and some white builder’s sand. The peat helps retain moisture; the sand helps with drainage. I line up the pots and figure out who goes with which pot, kicking the rapidly growing smaller trees into larger pots each year. Then it’s time to trim the roots.

Ideally, a bonsai grower would trim the roots back all around the rootball by about one-quarter each spring. I can do that with most of my trees, trimming all around the rootball with a sharp shears. The idea is both to retard growth and to stimulate the production of new white “feeder roots” by trimming the old roots back.

In practice, it’s hard to do, because the roots get awfully dense and compacted, so I hack away as best I can. On this big old tree, the best I could do was lop off the bottom tier of the rootball. Nice form on this tree, if I do say so myself. It looks like a true miniature of a forest giant, doesn't it? Some trees don’t need to have their roots trimmed every year: the chamecyparis and junipers grow much more slowly than the deciduous maples.

I used to wash all the old soil out of the rootballs every spring, but I don’t do that any more, because I don’t like getting soaked and cold in early April.

Next, I chunk the trees back in their pots, with an infusion of fresh soil all around the outside where I’ve made room for it.
Now is a good time to trim any errant twigs and branches. It’s best to do these rather invasive procedures when the tree is just leafing out. Later, and you risk some bad wilting. It’s almost as if the tree has its mind so squarely on leafing out that it hardly notices the intrusion. The one caveat is: If the tree freezes after trimming, it can die. So I watch the weather very closely, and invariably I wind up dragging them all indoors a few times before it’s finally done freezing at night. Like, uh, tonight, and last night. Blaaa. I wanted to wash the foyer tile today but it was forested.

But I’m up against leaf-out, and I have to trim them before the leaves unfold, so I just sigh and schlep them around for a few weeks after I pot them up.I get the moss to top things off right out of our lawn. Moss is vital; it keeps the soil from washing away, it keeps things moist longer, and it looks really pretty and finished, as if they've been growing here for years. The tree in the blue pot is the one I told you about that the coon split in two, that should be in a much more expensive pot, if you believe in such things.

Despite what mall and grocery store bonsai labels might tell you, true (non-tropical) bonsais are outdoor plants. You can’t bring them in the house for more than a day or two without stressing them. I break the rules in spring when they’ve just leafed out, and when they’re in peak fall color, and I’ll bring them inside for parties or dinners, but when the function’s over it’s right back outside. Bonsais are at their best in early spring and late fall. There’s no better conversation starter at a party or art show than a nice tree on your table.

I miss them over the winter when they’re all tucked in their beds. I’ve known these trees longer than I’ve known my husband or kids. It’s so wonderful to dig them back out in April, to see how they’ve fared over the winter, to wash them and trim them and pot them, to arrange them just so on the bench.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Putting the Bonsais to Bed

Last fall, I took a bunch of pictures of the process of putting my bonsais to bed for the winter. I had planned to blog about it in November, but we took off for New Mexico right after I took them, and it was all geese and blue skies from then on. Having just taken the trees out of said pit and gussied them up for spring, I thought you might be interested to see how one overwinters bonsai trees in southern Ohio. (I don't know how anyone else does it; the pit and the foil-wrapped trunks are my invention). After that, I 'll show you how you get them out of bed. You don't have to yell at them multiple times; you just yank them out.

To my great cons-tarnation last November**, I found that my bonsai pit, which lies under our west-facing deck, had collapsed a bit. More than that, it was just too small for my trees, some of whom have been growing for--gasp--25 years or more. I have a special love for Japanese maples, and my favorites get a few inches taller each year. This is the best one:
She's about 2 1/2' tall now. The split trunk is courtesy of a 'coon, who knocked her off the porch railing in 1993 and split her down the middle. I was sick about it, thinking she'd probably die, but I taped her together and dripped candle wax on the wound and darned if she didn't grow into the most gorgeous twin-trunked creature, the best of all my trees. Thanks, 'coon, sorta. I don't torture my trees with wires or carving to make them beautiful; I trim them and that's it, so I'd never have done anything that drastic.

A bonsai aficionado who looked at her about five years ago scolded me for having her in a cheap pot.
"I paid $25 for that pot," I replied, a bit indignant.
"Well, that tree deserves a several hundred-dollar pot," he replied. "Where did you get it?"
"I grew it from a seedling."
"Get out."
"I did. I didn't know any better." He looked at me closely, then shook his head, smiling in disbelief.

See, most people take older nursery stock and carve it up and stick it in a successively smaller pots and "train" it as a bonsai. My trees started with me as two-leaved seedlings, cotyledons still attached. This man looked at me like I was some kind of savant, which I guess I am, because I don't know nuthin' about how you're sposed to create bonsais. I just start small and wait, because hey, I'm waiting anyway. Heh.

This is my oldest maple. The picture doesn't do him justice; he's really big around and has terrific twig structure and very small leaves. Cicadas scarred him in 1996, the year Liam was born, and voles have chewed his trunk, nearly girdling him, but he perseveres. What a wonderful tree. If you're wondering, I assign sexes randomly. Japanese maples are bisexual. Mine have yet to bloom or make seeds, something I wonder about. Perhaps I've arrested their reproductive development as well as their upward growth.I hated to put them in the pit while they were still in full fall color, but we were headed for New Mexico, and the forecast was dire. Speaking of dire forecasts, it's supposed to dip to the mid 20's tonight, which means the entire contents of my linen closet is draped across my gardens. @$%&%$*$%!!! I can only reach half of my heirloom lilac using a stepladder, but I've got two bedspreads and a tarp on it. If I have to stand there all night with a hairdryer pointed at that lilac, I am going to have blossoms this spring. Didn't get any last spring; five nights in the 20's at JUST THIS TIME IN APRIL froze it BLACK. Please forgive me another string of expletives.@#$%$#%$^%^&%/!!! Gotta go out and kiss my golden forsythia good-bye, because by tomorrow afternoon it's going to be dark brown. @#$#%$#^%$!!!

I got a couple of the trees ready to put in the pit and realized that I was going to have to enlarge the darn thing if I was going to get any trees in there at all. So I grabbed my LadyGardener shovelette and started to dig:
Then, I reset the cinder blocks.The finished pit, trees in place. I've taken them out of their pots and wrapped the trunks in thick crumpled foil to keep voles from chewing them over the winter. Then I bury them in soil and water them well.
The last step is to roof the pit, once it gets cold, with a piece of tempered glass (a shower door). You can see it behind me, waiting to be deployed. More Zick fashions for your certain derision. I got the Land's End Squall Jacket for $8, probably because it was such a fabulous color that nobody else wanted it. But that's OK. You don't have to make fun of me this time. Remember, I don't have any neighbors, so I can wear what I want.

photo by Bill Thompson III

The bonsais would sleep here all winter, protected from frost and burning winds by their glass ceiling. I water a couple of times a month, otherwise forgetting about them, until April, when I creep softly in to pull them out of their beds and start their season of leaf and growth.

They're all in the foyer tonight. Pfffft.

**what we hillbillies call bein' upset, when "het-up" don't fit

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Whoops! Bunnies!

Upon my return from Ithaca, I was wild to get the garden ready for peas, lettuce and greens. It still had all the debris of winter standing blonde and pale, the old tomato vines twined in the cages, green plastic ribbon ties fluttering in the wind. I decided last summer to avoid weeding, so I mulched frequently and deeply with straw, smothering unwanted plants. This attention to mulching paid dividends this spring. I had much less weeding to do before I could rake and burn. But still some. This is Before.After I’d forked up all the clumps of grass (to tell the truth, the straw is full of seeds and begets nice fat clumps of green grass, which are nevertheless preferable to pigweed or lambs quarters), I raked up the trash and set a nice quick fire in the middle of the bed. Within a few minutes, the sticks and stalks were simply gone, reduced to a pile of white ash and a few small licks of flame.

I decided to save last fall’s mulch, since it was nicely rotted and still useful. I raked it into the center and got my sweet little Honda rototiller out of the garage. It started on the fifth pull (ahhhhh!) and I began churning soil. Thanks to the mulching, it was a breeze; the soil was loose and weedless. An old bale of straw still remained, almost rotted through, and I tilled around it, then went to move it. Hmm. Rabbit fur, right along the edge of the bale. This bears investigation. I peeled back the soft gray fur, knowing what I would find, hoping all would be well beneath. Warm, sleek baby bunny flanks, tiny pink paws, folded ears—two baby cottontails squirmed and huffed at me. Trying to startle me, they exhaled sharply and popped up like angry snakes. It worked. I was startled for a moment, then utterly charmed. Oooh, they looked so dangerous. When popping and huffing didn't make me go away, they pretended to be dead, rotten baby bunnies that no one in their right mind would want to eat. That didn't work, either. I took a couple of pictures, then pulled the fur blanket back over the babies and replaced the bale. Oh, it was warm under that fur blanket, though it was a cool day. I propped the gate open with a stick, closing the deer mesh gate, which Mrs. Cottontail, but not Chet Baker, could easily slip under. Baker helped me in the garden all day and never had a clue the bunneh nest was there. That dog don't hunt.After 21 Baker -free posts (I know nobody's counting), I thought I owed you a hit. Back to bunnehs.For good measure, I made a little hut for them, with a straw roof, because it was supposed to rain in the next couple of days.I knew the mother rabbit would be back in the evening, and I knew that she wouldn’t desert her children just because I had found them and built them a hut. Rabbits nurse their kits at night, under cover of darkness, and rarely approach the nest during the day for fear of leading predators to it. They are fearless and determined--the best of mothers. So the kits nurse all night and sleep all day. This rabbit was smart—she made her nest in the garden, which has a four-foot woven wire fence (designed to exclude rabbits), topped by eight feet of nylon deer mesh. I had left the door ajar in late winter, since there was nothing to protect any more, and she had availed herself of this protected enclosure.

When thunderstorms moved in in the afternoon, I took our old green wheelbarrow and leaned it against the straw bale, making a secure roof with a nice mama rabbit entry beneath. I smiled, looking out at it as the rain lashed down, knowing she’d crawl under that wheelbarrow tonight and find her babies warm, dry and hungry. Look out. Bunny lips.Since the bunnies’ eyes are open, it will be only a matter of days before they leave the nest, and when I’m sure they’re out of the garden, I’ll secure it again. I have no desire to be Mr. McGregor to her Flopsy and Peter.
I'll tell you all about the trip to Ithaca, but it will keep. The bunnies had to come first.The kids and I checked them this morning. I found them April 9, and today, April 13, they're so fat and big they fill the nest. Their huffing is more impressive but it still doesn't scare me away. It's been raining pretty much ever since the 9th, but the wheelbarrow is keeping them perfectly dry and cozy. I'd say those are some lucky bunnies, living here in a fenced garden. I am preparing Mrs. Cottontail's eviction notice, which I plan to deliver about when the sugar snap peas start coming up.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Last Guatemala Post

This lousy photo of the only bat falcon I saw in Guatemala is symbolic for me. The bat falcon is a bird I'd always wanted to see well, to luxuriate in for a little while. Thanks to some bad beans, I didn't get to see the bat falcon BOTB and Jeff Bouton digiscoped in Flores. I didn't get to go to Tikal, or take two other birding excursions on the schedule. But I did get to sit on my balcony and see what was going on with a pair of white-fronted Amazons, to watch a Guatemalan golden-fronted woodpecker excavate its nest cavity, to sneak up on a ringed kingfisher, to listen for the black-headed trogon and see his powder-blue eyering, to watch a rufous-tailed hummingbird sing his love song. It was terrific. Would I have traded it all for Tikal, for the company of husband and friends? Well, I couldn't, so I wouldn't. The moral: Lingering is sometimes just what we need (even if dysentery isn't!) Taking in one small scene (especially in lowland Guatemala) can be more rich and fulfilling than walking miles and ticking off bird after bird, but never getting to know any one bird for more than a moment. Lingering suits me fine.

A baby basilisk bites off a hibiscus flower.
He swallows it down, then poses in the sun. Who knew they ate flowers? Basilisks, or "Jesus lizards," are able to run over the surface of the water, light as the Holy Spirit.
A giant oncidium floops over with bloom.
A black-crowned tityra grunts, letting me know he is there. What a pretty little cotinga he is.I find the black-crowned tityra more elegant and cleanly beautiful than the more common masked tityra, with its beefy-red face. Here's another view of the male masked tityra. It's pronounced tit-TYE-rah, even though I thought they were tittyrahs as a freshman in college, before I heard anyone say the name.
A blue-gray tanager thinks about biting into a succulent fruit.
A pale-vented pigeon pants in the afternoon sun.
I was surprised to find a lone red-lored Amazon hanging out by the macaw enclosure, idly clipping off leaves and branches as it whiled part of a day away. I wondered if it was a refugee from captivity, since parrots almost always travel in pairs. Or perhaps, like the white-fronted Amazons of an earlier post, this is a male whose mate is incubating, and he's passing the time until the eggs hatch. I like that theory better. He's got a nice clean tail, undamaged by the interior of the nest cavity, which bolsters the evidence that he might be a mated male, batchin' it for the day. If only he could talk! but then he'd be somebody's pet.Continuing the psittacine theme, a gorgeous white-crowned Pionus fetched up in a treetop. I found myself wondering if all these lone soldiers were males, since it was the start of the nesting season and females were likely to be on eggs all day.

Just look at the color combinations in this glorious bird. Pink eye skin, steel-blue head and neck, bronzy shoulder, leaf-green wing coverts, sea-blue primaries, all underpinned by pink panties! and, I'd note, a perfect tail...
Hey, hon! Happy to bedazzle y'uns!

I most like my parrots on the wing.

As I made my slow way along a gravel road, a smallish buteo swept up and over my head. A roadside hawk! (Buteo magnirostris).
Roadside disapproval. Hey, Mr. Magnirostris, I'm just livin' my life, takin' pictures.

Yes, I was having tons o' fun. A steady pecking near the forest floor resolved into the same lineated woodpecker I had tried to photograph from my balcony--this time in subdued, but better light. Stealing beauty:We'd have to return to the States soon, and while I was sad to have missed the last few days of hanging out with everyone else, I didn't feel the least bit cheated or sad. The birds of Guatemala had stepped in to make sure I had a glorious time. Until next time, pajaritos. Hasta luego.
To all my dear friends in Guatemala: Ana, Marco, Hector, Kenneth, Hugo, Hilda, Claudia, Olga, Irene, Bitty, Estellita, Andy, Monica...thank you once again. I hope birdwatchers from all corners of the world treat themselves to some time in Guatemala with you. No finer people on the planet!
photo by Lisa White

This post is for my DOD, who never left the United States, but knew how to linger, and appreciate what he'd been given. He was born on June 18, 1912, two months after the Titanic set sail, and died April 10, 1994, the same date she sank. I planted snap peas and four kinds of greens, gladioli and tuberoses in his honor today. Called my mom from the cordless phone while standing out in the garden and told her I loved her.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tottering Farther Afield

Zick with the frond of a cahoon palm, the largest leaf in the world!! Thanks to Jeff Gordon for telling me that tidbit, and to BOTB for taking this shot.

After a day and a half of lying around like a burlap bag, I was really ready to get out and watch some birds somewhere other than off my balcony. My balcony had been beddy good to me, but a girl has her limits. So I wandered alone on and off the hotel grounds, seeing what I could see.

Others have blogged about the crocodile made of dough that greeted us at our first breakfast at PetenItza. Well, that was cute, but I thought this was cuter. A Morelet's crocodile Crocodylus moreletii (an endemic, rare, and sometimes quite dangerous creature native to coastal Mexico, Belize and Guatemala) waits next to the reflection of a sign warning us of its malevolence. Patricia says "Watch this!" and grabs a bun out of our basket and tosses it into the water.

CLOMP!B'bye, bun. Although one of the two Morelet's crocs who live in a small lagoon at Tikal has been reputed to be a man-eater, I felt comfortable walking the edge of this lake, knowing at least one of the crocs had a belly full of buns.

I decided to make a photo safari, to get pictures of as many lakeside denizens as I could. To tell you the truth, since I got a good camera, every excursion turns into a photo safari. I wouldn't know what it's like just to hike, swinging my arms and covering ground, without a lead weight on my left shoulder and my eye always ready for the photo-op. But I'm not complaining. Hunting down and bringing back digital trophies is tons o' fun.

A gray-necked wood rail padded softly by a muddy inlet.
Mangrove swallows, cousins of our tree swallows who've only just arrived in Ohio for the spring, showed white rumps as they waited for insects to fly by their little posts.
Yes, there's something very familiar about this Tachycineta (albilinea).

A northern jacana teetered on spindly legs as it pecked at...buns. I'd love to say it was eating crustaceans, but it was eating part of a bun the croc had missed.
Get a load of that inflated, cushy frontal shield. Oh, I'd love to poke it with my fingertip, to see if it's as soft as it looks. Birds like me, but not that much. Someday, I'll poke a jacana's frontal shield. Before I die. We all must have goals.
Not far from a huge exposed earthen bank along the road, a harsh call rang out. Thirteen "yik's" in a row. Then another 13, then another. A female ringed kingfisher (discernible by her blue "bra," which the male lacks) was perched on a wire, scolding me. I thought she probably had a nest in the bank. For a kingfisher, she allowed a ridiculously close approach. I remember Susan Gets Native's plaintive caption, "Does ANYBODY get a good photo of a kingfisher?" Well, until now, I sure thought not!
You will notice that this kingfisher is huge, and equipped with a dagger for a bill. It's 16" long, to the belted kingfisher's 12". Oh, I would hate to be a fish in a lagoon under a ringed kingfisher.

At the start of each series of 13 calls, she'd jet her tail and let it fall as she yikked her complaint out into the hot, still air.
She perched briefly in a tree, letting me see her brilliant rufous underparts.
Then she flew into the woods, where she could keep scolding from a leafy fastness. What a satisfying encounter with the King Kongfisher.I spent today pulling up last year's vegetable garden, burning the stalks, raking up all the straw and finally rototilling the whole thing. I am semi-liquid, but must gather enough energy for a band practice in 1/2 hour. Oh, and cook dinner in between. Yeah, I'm wondering how I do it all, too.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A-Birding from a Balcony

Like I told Bill of the Birds, who felt bad each time he had to leave me to take another birding trip, there are far worse places to be stranded alone than Hotel Via Maya. The balcony made all the difference. And then there was the location--on the edge of a large lagoon patrolled by herons, jacanas, bat falcons; even host to sungrebes, which some were lucky enough to see. For Lynne and Mary: A Guatemalan stinker, lookin' innocent.
Closer by, tropical house wrens burbled and chattered. Zick , following with the telephoto, trying to get a clear twig window through which to shoot. Gotcha! you little sneak.
A magnolia warbler, doubtless beginning to think about the black spruces of its Canadian forest home. Goin' home to see Sara and Kelly.

A black-and-white warbler peers into some rootlets, or perhaps they're hyphae. One never quite knows in the tropics. Maybe there's a spider there he can eat before it jumps out at April.
I'd like to think this American redstart is planning to bring coals to Indigo Hill.
Wood thrush, will you bring your flute to our forest?
Our neighbor cut down all the big trees where you usually nest, but you can come over on our land.
Pretty bug, you can stay right here in Guatemala.
In the afternoons, a soft, accelerating whoop, ending in a growl, would sound from the trees off my balcony. I'd struggle up out of bed, knowing that this is the call of the black-headed trogon. Oh, so worth getting out of bed to see, I finally got a passable picture of him. He's 11" long--quite a bird, with his ice-blue eye ring, his white-tipped tail, yellow belly and contemplative gaze. A fine thing to see from one's sickbed. Thank you, trogon. Persistant high chirps, sounding like a tiny bird scolding, resolved into the display song of a rufous-tailed hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl). Yes, hummingbirds often sing--our Anna's is a great singer! but not many of us stop to notice the song; it's like the voice of a Who.
His throat puffed, he gives it his all, which, if you're a female tzacatl, is just enough.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

From a Balcony in Guatemala

Through the haze of discomfort, it quickly became apparent that my balcony on the third floor of a detached hotel was quite the hotspot for birds. Of course, the same principle applies here as applies at home. Indigo Hill, as we call our 80-acre sanctuary, is really nothing special as far as Ohio mesic woodlands go. It's our close attention to it that makes it seem so abundant and miraculous. Which any piece of land, closely observed, can be. Here follow the observations and photographs I made while recuperating.

Repeated soft tapping from a branch stub that had been cut off to accommodate the hotel construction gave away the new nest cavity of a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers. Yes, I know, they don't have golden fronts like ours do in the American southwest, and the scuttlebutt in the birding community is that this is probably a discrete species, perhaps to be called the Guatemalan woodpecker. An endemic in the making. I say that with a bit of irony. The woodpecker knows what it is. It's we who are trying to decide whether it's a big deal for our lifelists or not.
Knock yourselves out. I'll just keep digging our nest cavity, thanks.

A larger relative: the lineated woodpecker, Dryocopus lineatus. Smaller than our pileated, it's a bit more ornate, too, with barred underparts and cool facial markings. The lineated woodpecker was interested in a cavity in a rotten snag just a few yards from the golden-fronted's home. But that snag was hot property, as I was to find out, and the lineated woodpecker didn't have a chance against the current owners. They weren't taking offers.Nope. We've taken it back off the market. You'll have to excavate your own.

A white-fronted Amazon, the smallest of the Amazon parrots, and arguably the cutest. In the pet trade, they're sometimes called spectacled Amazons, but their Latin name (ever the most reliable) is Amazona albifrons. I've seen these little birds kept as pets, but I've never seen one look happier than the pair incubating their eggs just 15' off my balcony.The female's in front. Can you tell what makes her the female? She's worn her tail off in the tight nesting cavity, incubating her eggs! I was thrilled when, the first time I could observe them at length, the tailless one I'd picked as the hen disappeared back into the nest cavity, while the perfect-tailed male took off yelling. (I'd add here that they were not the least bit visibly concerned about my sitting on the balcony. They were relaxed, preening, talking between themselves, and just being parrots).

Each morning, they'd both sit outside the cavity and scream, AK AK AK AK AK AK AK AK AK AK AK!! They'd preen a bit and scream some more and then one bird would quietly crawl back into the cavity and the other would take off, screaming AK AK AK AK AK AK AK AK AK as it arrowed into the distance over the lagoon. Wild parrots scream a lot, even when they're paired and incubating and conceivably self-actualizing to the hilt. I always smirk when I read bird behavioralists proclaiming that pet parrots are screaming "because they're lonely, bored, in need of attention..." Well, yes, all that might be true, because unless he's glued to your cheek, a captive parrot is de facto lonely, bored and in need of attention; but happy beautiful wild parrots scream all the time, even when they're in a flock of 30. Screaming is part of what parrots do. Ergo: Parrots are noisy pets. Apologies to Charlie, who doesn't scream much at all, but does it enough (say twice a day AGGGHAGGGH HAGGGHAHHAG AGGHAGH GGHAGGGH...until we close his sliding glass door)...to drive anybody crazy.

In better light the next morning, the male parrot amused himself by clipping brancheswatching mepreening, stretching and dozing--such lovely red primary coverts!!! Such lovely indigo primary feathers--feathers we parrotkeepers are instructed to clip off as soon as they grow in, so the parrot never gets to use them. Yes, I am having a mid-life avicultural crisis, in case you hadn't noticed.

Eventually he'd take off, you guessed it, screaming all the way.Flying, the way all parrots should. Screaming, the way all parrots do.

Both talks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology went very well. Man, I've had sooo much fun up here in Ithaca. I hate to leave, but home calls, and the peas need to be planted in the beautiful new moon. Heading home Tuesday, Baker by my side. He keeps me awake by regularly fumigating the car interior.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Grounded in Guatemala

blue-gray tanager, Via Maya, Guatemala

Earlier, I made reference to staying at Hotel Via Maya for the remainder of the Guatemala trip. Foreshadowing, all that. Somewhere along the way, after leaving Las Tarrales, I ran into some frijoles refritos that didn't want to submit to their duty to nourish my body. No, these beans staged a miniature version of the L.A. riots in my guts, complete with burning, looting, and Molotov cocktails. The Antibiotic Police were called in, but it took awhile for their forces to quell the uprising. Firehoses were deployed, to little avail.

Bad food happens. It happens anywhere, but it happens more often in the tropics, because there are more bacteria foreign to tender North American digestive tracts, because there's higher heat and humidity, and, well, just because. I always travel with Immodium, which sort of stops overzealous peristalsis in its tracks, and since this happened, I travel with ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic that's effective against the kinds of bugs that cause dysentery. Having had dysentery for six continuous months while in Amazonian Brasil, I needed Immodium to function on a daily basis. Cipro is a new, delightful development in the war.

One thing you don't want to do when stricken with dysentery is get in a vehicle. You don't want to do anything, in fact, that takes you farther than sprinting distance from a bathroom. This unfortunately includes birding excursions, boat rides, and (sob) going to Tikal. But hey. I've been to Tikal twice; I've had some of them most magical experiences of my life there, and as I told Bill of the Birds as he was taking leave of me in the pre-dawn hours, there are way worse places to be laid up than a third-floor jungle hotel room with an open-air balcony in the Peten region of Guatemala. I had my camera, I had my laptop to download and edit 8 bajillion photos; I had birds just off the balcony; I had a book to read, and most importantly, I had T.P.

The hotel maid looked in on me midmorning, at my sunken eyes and prone form, and visibly alarmed, asked auf Espanol, "Don't you want me to call your husband for you?"

"No. Absolutely not. There's nothing he can do for me. He belongs in the forest, watching birds. Please, do not call him."

Which must have sounded kind of weird, even though it was my most fervent wish, albeit in stilted, Portuguese-tinged Spanish. Perhaps she deduced that I was hallucinating, because about two hours later the loveliest lady doctor appeared at my door, carrying a small black bag and wearing a stethoscope around her neck. There followed a most interesting conversation, again conducted entirely in Spanish.

She listened to my description of my symptoms. Her eyebrows shot up when I told her I'd uh...gone...8 times since midnight.

"Ocho viezes?! Ehhhhhh."

She thought for a moment, then said, "Here's what I want to do. I want to take you in my car to Sta. Elena, to the hospital there. I want to put you on I.V. fluids, because you are dehydrated. And then I want to get a sample of your po-po from you and figure out what kind of germ you have, and give you the appropriate drugs for that germ."

The thought of getting in a car paralyzed me with dread. I had tried it just that morning, thought I'd surprise the group by showing up late for the birding excursion, and had had to stop the van for a little roadside interlude, and get the driver to take me straight the hell back to the hotel. Oh, no. Not getting in a vehicle for any hour-long ride over bumpy roads. Nuh-uhhhhn. I thought fast. Spanish bubbled up from the deep limbic recesses of my mind.

"Pardon me. But I want to stay right here, in my bed. And you can take my po-po to the hospital at Sta. Elena, and figure out what kind of germ it has, and then somebody can come back and bring me the right drug. My po-po can go. But I am not going anywhere. And I promise that I will drink and drink and drink and I do not need to be put on an IV."

I held my breath, watching her face, hoping hard that the good doctor would

a. understand my emergency Spanglish and
b.not make me get in a car again.

She smiled, shrugged, and asked if I had a little container.

I dumped out the rest of my Origins fruity facewash, maybe $20 worth, cleaned out the container, and quickly, yes, merrily produced the sample the good doctor had requested. We hugged and agreed that it had been a pleasant and fruitful exchange.

She came back that afternoon with a diagnosis:

"Se observo la microbiota moderamente aumentada con campos llenos de leucocitos."

which I gathered meant there were germs and white blood cells in my sample. She handed me a couple of cards of ciprofloxacin; we hugged again and shook hands. "Con mucho gusto!" I started the meds, and by late that night was feeling steady enough to wobble my way over to the thatched-roof bar, where my husband was yukking it up with the rest of the gang. I just as quickly wobbled back to the room, realizing that I was not going to be leaving at 3:30 AM for Tikal the next morning.

Well, that's some rotten timing, to get dysentery and miss the crowning birding excursion of a too-short trip. I'd have to make the best of it. I had the pre-excursion to Los Tarrales, there was that. Three days of bliss and manakins..And I have to confess, birding off a balcony in Guatemala, even sick, beats gazing out on sullen juncoes and dreary ice in Ohio. I would stay put, and make the best of it.
agouti, Tikal, 2007

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Livin' La Vida Maya

Like all monkeys, she was an itchy little thing. (So was the howler, har har.)
Blogger poll:Are my pants touristy enough?

After our various adventures at Cerro Cahui, Ixpanpajul, Sta. Elena and PetenItza, it was time to settle in for a few days at a very nice hotel called La Via Maya. It's not too far from Tikal, and is surrounded by some nice forest and some very nice birds. This turned out to be a very good thing for me, because I was to spend the rest of the trip right there. I am now using foreshadowing, a literary device intended to produce tension in the reader, with a desire to punch the computer screen. More on that later.

Like many large hotels in Latin America, La Via Maya has enclosures with native wildlife; the harsh squawks of captive scarlet macaws ring out starting at dawn, well into dusk. They are well-treated and free to ramble about a large area, socializing, a satisfactory lot when you think of how most captive parrots end up living: in solitary confinement. Another paddock holds a herd of Guatemalan white-tailed deer, which are noticeably smaller and darker than our whitetails, not quite as small as Key deer, but getting there. I considered trying to make you think I had captured these images by stalking and waiting, but it is not so. My main concern was poking my lens through the woven wire and not getting any of it in the picture.

By chance, one of the does had just given birth to twin fawns, and I was captivated by the tiny animalettes, their bodies no larger than a small Jack Russell terrier's, all legs and angles and huge liquid eyes. They'd totter a few feet, then collapse down in a defensive crouch, probably responding to low vocalizations from their mother. Think small loaf of Pepperidge Farm Toasting White and you have the size. Teeny.
The other does were fascinated by the twins, and they got a whole lotta lovin.' I was reminded of myself around our friends' children Oona and Sophia, the 1-year-olds to whom I am lucky enough to act as an unofficial auntie. Oh, I love those girls.
Also hanging around the grounds was a somewhat mysterious young female black howler monkey. She was a most placid and lovely animal, unafraid but unobtrusive. She seemed to enjoy the smiles and surprised reactions she got from hotel guests when she'd drop down out of the trees and sit near the tables, absent-mindedly scratching herself. Here are the incomparable bird painter Keith Hansen (left) and the illustrious co-author (with Sophie Webb) of Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Steve Howell. Both are much rowdier than the little monkey. Keith is a howl unto himself. Dude. I love this guy and his beautiful wife Patricia, a Yucateca from Mexico with a keen sense of humor and terrific taste in textiles and travel. We staged some wonderful pictures of Steve showing the howler some birds in his book, but I took them all with his camera--rats! I never saw her grab anything from anyone, the way many acclimated monkeys in India and Africa do. Even when Keith offered her his video camera (something I would not do), she thought about taking it and then gave it back to him. She was a perfect little lady.

I so wanted to groom her. She probably would have enjoyed it and reciprocated. But it's never a good idea to touch a wild animal, even one that's obviously been hand-raised. So I hung around hoping she'd touch me. I wanted to bury my nose in her hair and see what she smelled like. Missin' Baker.

In the morning and evening, we could hear the unearthly roars of wild black howlers coming from the forest all around. They're common in the Peten region. They're heavy, rather slow-moving monkeys who live on fruit and leaves. Their round bellies house chambers where the low-quality forage is fermented and digested. Tails are prehensile, and act as a fifth hand. Nice nonskid undersurface, too.
Something about monkeys freaks people out; I think it might in part be due to the contrast between their familiar (human) eyes and faces, and the fact that many have these long slightly creepy prehensile tails, that move with a mind of their own.

Male howler monkeys have huge round bony bullae, or chambers, in the gular (throat) area that act as resonators for their roars. They have the most amazing skulls. I wish I could find a ventral view to show you, but the bullae are in the vee, under those massive mandibles. Very cool skull. This picture, pirated off the Net at a site that sells skulls. You can buy any darn thing online. Monkey skulls. I like skulls but I draw the line at displaying primate skulls in my home. Too close. At a distance, calling howlers sound like a great wind through trees. Close up, they sound like mythic lions, very angry ones. I love the sound of howlers in the morning.

And now, I am off to Ithaca, to hang the "Letters from Eden" paintings, open the show, give some talks, and meet some wonderful birdpeople at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There is talk of ethnic restaurants and wine. Plans are being made. It ought to be a hoot, or a howl. Chet Baker is going with me as my mental health guide dog. Maybe I can sneak him into public facilities by saying I'll freak out unless he's with me. He'll be great company on the drive, which will push 9 hours each way. Howler monkeys and humid forests will be a distant memory in the Land of Ice and Snow, but I have been promised ducks in nuptial plumage, and I'll take them! Must pack his sweaters.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Birds of Cerro Cahui

After our twilight birding adventure at Ixpanpajul, we were really ready for some daylight birding. So when the sun came up, we were ready and waiting at Cerro Cahui for whatever winged treasures it could offer.

A ruddy-tailed flycatcher was pretty darn cute, stub-tailed and puffy. He's giving a squeaky call every few seconds. He looked like an Easter chick cartoon.
There are a LOT of flycatchers in Guatemala. This is one of the more distinctive ones.
A commotion of birds heralded the approach of an army ant column. When army ants are on the march, insects and animals of all stripes and sizes flee madly from their carnivorous jaws. Lots of bird species specialize in hunting out and following ant columns for the invertebrates they stir up. Many of those species have "ant" in their names. Antpitta, antbird, antwren, antthrush, ant tanager. They're all cool birds, and they get the birdwatcher's heart pounding, because you have to be in good humid lowland forest to see many of them. This is a red-throated ant tanager. Apologies for the photo, but I hate flash, preferring to open the shutter and up the ISO instead.
I loved shooting the birders, too, twisted into lots of back-wrenching poses as they strained to catch glimpses of a hidden keel-billed toucan. The toucan was yelping like a puppy somewhere in an emergent tree, but it took us quite awhile to find it. Hmmm. It's got to be up there somewhere.I have it!
Can that bill be possible?? Blood red, sky blue, apple green and tangerine orange??
Oh yes, oh yes. It is a keel-billed toucan, and it is looking right at me.

Where?? Right there!Oh! How could we have missed that? In a land that explodes with color, even the gaudiest toucan disappears against the brilliant leaves and sky. His black plumage reads as a negative space; his sulfur breast as just more vegetation. Green parrots are just about impossible to pick out, even with their flashes of color. It's all so bright and colorful, they blend right in.

Farther up the trail, another humid forest denizen--the rufous-tailed jacamar. Related to kingfishers and bee-eaters, it sits quietly on a perch, then sallies off after katydids and lizards--whatever it can subdue with its knitting-needle bill.
But my favorite bird of Cerro Cahui was the gray-throated chat, another hopelessly misnamed jewel of the tropical forest. Are you ready? I think the last thing you'll remark on is the bird's gray throat, but the ornithological powers seem to think it's a good name. Never mind all the carmine pink spilling down its front like strawberry jam:
Liam, looking over my shoulder. "Isn't that a pretty bird, Boom Boom?" I ask.
Liam: "Oh yes, but he's kind of blurry."

"Yeah. I know. Doing my best."

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Antigua Afternoon

Lisa, Liz and Jeff leading me through the streets of Antigua, Guatemala. That brilliantly-colored zone above the building is what is called a blue sky. Dig back into your memory...

Three trips to Guatemala, and I was finally going to see just a smidgen of Antigua, a gorgeous colonial city not far from Los Tarrales, near Lake Atitlan. Antigua is justly famed for its architecture, which has a Moorish influence, and its textiles. Its markets pull in the best Atitlan's Mayan weavers have to offer, and my head almost exploded when Jeff and Liz, who'd stayed here overnight, took me into the nicest textile shop. I overloaded, and couldn't buy a darn thing. Too much to choose from.I never got used to looking up and seeing a volcano, its massive dangerous head wreathed in clouds of its own making. Garden fans, this is what a yellow brugmansia looks like when it's really, really happy. Oh, I could spend a long, long time in Antigua, just photographing flowers and fabrics and buildings. Finally, with only about twenty minutes to spare before we had to leave for Los Tarrales, we bolted into the big marketplace, where hand-made papier mache monsters greeted us. How do you get something like this in your luggage? Darn it! Liam would have loved one.I finally assuaged my textile lust buy purchasing a couple of huipils, the traditional poncho-like overshirt worn by Maya women. See that hole in the middle? That's where your head goes through. Then it drapes over your shoulders, leaving your hands free.

It's as if the weavers know exactly what color combinations will drive me wildest. I bought one for Bill, covered in stylized dragons. I'm sitting now in a chair, my favorite blogging chair, an old family heirloom from the 1950's. It's got a tough nylon-chenille fabric, cut with a tracery of roses. It used to be rose-pink, but it's faded to an elegant dove-grey. And draped over it is my new huipil,embroidered in vibrant flowers and stylized quetzals, their colors fresh and new, and it still smells of woodsmoke from the cooking fires where it was woven on a backstrap loom. I paid about $20 for it, all that hand loomed fabric, all that work. I felt like buying the whole darn rack of them. They make terrific throws for weary furniture.

You can take it with you, just a little bit of it.

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