Thursday, May 29, 2008

I Didn't Get a Picture

This post is for all the ivory-billed woodpecker seekers out there, whether they slog through bayous or dream from their chairs.

As you know, I carry my camera wherever I go, and I've gotten pretty fast on the draw, shooting marginally acceptable to OK to pretty good pictures of the jittery likes of warblers and wild turkeys as well as mushrooms, butterflies, blowfly larvae, and rainbows.

But there are some times when you can't get a picture. Naturally, they are the times when you'd most like to have one. Hence the dedication of this post.

On my last day in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I was driving south on Route 123, just north of its intersection with Route 28, on my way from Paradise to Sault Ste. Marie. Several animals crossed the road, bounding and running, perhaps a quarter-mile up ahead. I didn't see much remarkable about the first two; I'm assuming, since they didn't catch my eye, that they were deer, but I couldn't swear to that, since my attention was focused like a laser on the third animal. The first two animals were darting and zigging erratically as they ran. The third was loping, a kind of rocking-horse gait, taking a more direct path, different from the other animals'. It was very long-legged, with a longish neck held erect, and pricked ears. A bushy tail, held low at a 45-degree angle, flowed behind it. It was solid, coal black. I believe it was chasing the first two animals. Whaaa?


Not my photo, though I wish it were. This is a National Park Service photo. But it's exactly what I saw. Aggggghhhh!

It was more than twice the size of any coyote I've ever seen, and entirely too dark. Good of it, to be a black morph animal; no confusing that with a little blonde songdog. Gasping, I realized that I had just seen my first timber wolf.

I slammed on the brakes as I whizzed by where it leapt up a small bank and disappeared in the yard of a deserted log cabin, backed by extensive woodland. I backed up, fishtailing wildly, and pulled into the driveway, looking all around me at the woodland edge, hoping hoping hoping to catch another glimpse of my life wolf. The woods were silent, giving nothing away. I am sure it wheeled around, panting, in dense cover and was watching me. I scanned with my binoculars, looking hardest where it's hardest to see. Nothing. That is how the wolf would have it.

Shaking, exhilarated, I drove on another half-mile when I saw a middle-aged couple with trash bags, picking up litter along the roadside. They looked kind and were dressed for the weather. I figured they lived there, to care that much, and I was right. I pulled over and rolled down the window.

"Excuse me. May I ask you a question?"


"Could I have just seen a wolf?"

"OHH, yeah!" the man replied, smiling broadly.  "They're here, even though the DNR will tell you they aren't. They don't want to admit it. But they've been killing our neighbors' dogs two roads over, and when they showed the DNR biologist the tracks he denied it. They (the biologists) don't want them here if they don't have radio collars on."

"So, do you hear them howling?"

"Oh, yes, and coyotes too. You can tell the difference!"

I described my sighting and they smiled and nodded. Yep. That was a wolf. It was really nice to have confirmation from people who live right where I saw the animal, people who know enough and care enough about nature to pick up others' refuse along the road.

A friend with extensive UP experience advises that there is an estimated population of 500 wolves there at present. He's seen them in Canada, but never on the UP, and he was just about as excited as I was to hear of it. That I was given to see one of the few, and a coal-black one at that, seemed like an extravagant gift, a surprise party for my soul.

Photo of a black Denali wolf by Ron Niebrugge, at Used by permission of the photographer. Thank you, Ron and Janine!

Thank you, Bob Pettit, college biology professor, WPBO board member and hardworking 20th Anniversary Spring Fling organizer, for inviting me to Michigan, for taking good care of me wherever I went, including feeding me pasties, and for arranging to have a wolf chase a couple of deer across my path as I left. I know you had something to do with it. You arranged everything else. Long live Bob, the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, the Spring Fling, the little cedar in the waterfall, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and the coal-black wolf on Route 123.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tahquamenon Falls


In "The Song of Hiawatha" there's a reference to "golden waters." Wipe that smirk off your face. It's a reference to the cola-colored effluvia that flows through Upper Peninsula rivers, dyed by the tannins in hemlock needles. Nowhere does this color impress more than at Tahquamenon Falls, the second highest falls (after Niagara) east of the Mississippi.

Loggers who sent their hard-won trees down the Tahquamenon River wept when they saw old-growth trees "reduced to matchsticks" by the power of the falls.

I was there simply to gawk. This is one impressive piece of water.
Photo by an unknown Japanese tourist who asked me to take his picture, so I hit him up for mine. Yes, it was that cold.

It's impossible to stand at the falls and not imagine oneself swept over, in an errant canoe or, for whatever reason, swimming. I lost myself in the amber tumult, thinking about what that
would mean.


It's hard to convey how impressive these falls are in a still photo, without the roar and the flying spray, without the immense scale.
Getting a bit farther away, so the mature trees are in the picture, helps.
I was impressed by a lone spruce, growing with its feet practically in the falls, and apparently doing all right.


But I was even more struck by a tiny white cedar sapling, growing IN the falls. It was buffeted by the flume, coming up every few seconds for a breath of air. I couldn't believe it not only germinated there but survived that punishment, day in and day out, all night long, too. But it was alive.

Ever feel like that little tree in the waterfall?

Maybe the next time I visit, it will be up above the tumult, growing strongly up into the sunlight and air, like the spruce. Hang in there, little tree.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Spruce Grouse!

It's not very often I get to behold a life bird in North America any more. The last one was a female black-backed woodpecker in the mountains outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, last November 2007. That species, like the related three-toed woodpecker, had eluded me, well, all my life.

I was hoping, but not very hard, to see another life bird in Michigan. I wasn't hoping hard because I've been skunked before, trying to see it in Maine.

Gosh, it was great to be led right to a female spruce grouse, just as it was getting dark outside. I'm grateful to Mike Sefton, a longtime board member of Whitefish Point Bird Observatory and editor of the WPBO Migrant, for taking the time to find her for me. Groups of happy festivalgoers had been enjoying the sight of her all day. Mike wound his way through what was to me a featureless dune forest to find the cryptically colored hen grouse huddled in a pine. We had no sooner emerged from finding her than another birder asked, "Did you see the spruce grouse?" and Mike turned right around to take her to the site. What a kind thing to do.

Spruce grouse are pretty cool customers, and they don't seem to mind going about their business with an audience. But calling them "fool hens" doesn't seem fair.


A gorgeous little cantaloupe of a bird, her markings perfectly define her form.

Such exquisite colors and patterns she shows. I wasn't in the least disappointed that it wasn't a slate-blue male.

What a nice life bird to end a good day in the April cold of the Upper Peninsula.

New Blog Alert! Please stop by my neighbor Jane's blog for lovely horses and the cutest spotted donkey, for tales of life on her farm and her gorgeous hand-hooked primitive-themed rugs, which are anything but primitive.

And while I'm at it, please check out my neighbor Beth's blog for frequent posts on her ossum, multi-layered paintings and cyanotypes. Whipple, believe it or not, is a teeny-tiny artists' colony. We make up for our small numbers in large talent. I've added links in the giant blogroll to the right.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

A Bad Day for Saw-Whet Owls

Back in the pines on Whitefish Point, birders attending the festival were clustered happily around a major find. You had to kneel to see it, the pine was so thick with branches.birderswatchowl

It was a long-eared owl with prey. Close examination through the scope revealed the russet flank streaking of a saw-whet owl in the mess in its talons. Bummer. But that's what big owls do to smaller owls. LEOW's themselves often fall prey to great horned owls. And so it goes.

(September 10, 2008: Nova and Chris from Whitefish Point Bird Observatory have just written to say that examination of the leavings under the LEOW's perch proved that the prey had been a hermit thrush. Thanks, Nova and Chris!)

  Nobody much eats GHOW's. Doesn't seem fair somehow. There ought to be a great horned owl-eating owl. Now, that would be a bird. I'm beginning to sound like Jack Handy (Deep Thoughts.)


Another saw-whet owl who considered himself fallen on bad fortune, I'm sure, was in the gentle hands of Nova Mackentley, acting co-director, with Chris Nery, of WPBO. Two years ago, they started a summer banding program that illuminated an enormous movement of juvenile saw-whet owls that no one knew about until they started playing tapes next to mist nets. We're learning volumes about these tiny owls thanks to Nova and Chris' efforts, and those of the volunteers who help them. To band saw-whet owls, you have to stay up all night. And consider this: they've caught nearly 1,000 saw-whet owls at Whitefish Point this spring alone!! That's a lot of coffee, a lot of sleepless nights and bleary days.

I am too much of a weenie to band saw-whet owls. This I believe.


With its wing stretched, the banders could tell its age. This is a second-year bird.

As long as we were annoying the owl, I asked if I might take a peek at its ear.SWOWeareye
Wanna know what the Science Chimp really, really loves about this picture? That makes her jump up and down, pant-hoot and throw bananas at the ceiling? Well, the bluish bulge inside the ear is actually the back part of the owl's left EYE. Yeah. You're looking at its eye, inside its skull, thinly covered by inner ear skin. Owl eyes are so huge that they are quite vulnerable, so they're protected by bony sclerotic rings, and fixed, immobile, in the skull. This is why owls turn their heads to look at the tiniest thing--because they can't move their enormous eyes from side to side or up and down. And I discovered that you can see an owl's eye by looking in its EAR. Which I didn't figure out until I uploaded the picture and wondered what I was actually seeing. Having skinned a few owls, I realized that I was looking at the bony sclerotic ring. Eee! Eee! Eee! I have to go lie down now.

A heavily ticked-off saw-whet owl. Good thing there isn't a smaller owl in the East. It'd get eaten.

With all thanks to Nova, I prefer my saw-whets on the hoof. And not far from where one had been turned into dinner, and another into an ear model, there was one who was able to rest just a bit before flying north over Superior. Sleep well, little owl. Soon enough you'll be away from all this hubbub.
Thanks to everyone who wrote in about Ruby. You're all so nice. It helps.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ruby's Gone

May 23, 2008

The impact shook the floor under my feet. A bird had hit the window of our downstairs bedroom—a big bird, and from the force of the impact I knew it would die. After 15 years in a house with big windows, you learn such things whether you want to or not.

She’d been coming to the back deck railing for three years: Ruby, a red-bellied woodpecker with two scarlet feathers in her gray forecrown. By these two small feathers I knew her, named her, and allowed myself into her world. I knew her mate, the male with wide black bars on his wings, and red feathers pulled down low over his eyes like bangs. Ruby waited for me every morning in the weeping willow, watching me at my morning routine, waiting for the mixture of peanut butter, cornmeal, oats and lard that I made and put out for her every day. I knew the sound of her voice and she knew mine, flying to the deck railing in expectation when she heard me first thing in the morning. I knew that when she hit the window she was feeding a brood of young in the woods behind the house. And here she was face down in the painted ferns beneath the window, stretching her wings one last time.
I looked down on myself, doubled over in grief with a dead woodpecker in my cupped hands. Another bird might hit the window; so many have, to be cradled with an abstract and fleeting sadness before I buried them. But I knew this woodpecker. It wasn’t just another bird. This still-warm body in my hands was Ruby.

I listen to reports from China every afternoon. Tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes; the sheer scope of their destruction can numb us, cast us into the realm of the surreal, our ears closed and our minds floating away. In one, I heard a doctor speaking in halting English about the flood of patients he was seeing, most of them living in tents or under tarpaulins, all of them showing the effects of exposure and inestimable loss. He spoke matter-of-factly about his efforts to help as many as possible. At the end of the report, it was revealed that the doctor’s 26-year-old daughter had been lost in the earthquake; that he was working doubled over by his own grief, the greatest a parent can know. I pulled my car over, laid my head on the steering wheel, and wept.

In a classic children’s story, the Velveteen Rabbit becomes real when a boy loves him enough. The toy, tattered from too many hugs, sheds its threadbare skin and leaps and gambols at night with real rabbits in a moonlit meadow. So do stricken people in a far-flung land, and yes, even woodpeckers, become real in our minds and hearts. In the end, I think, it’s better to have listened for their voices, to have allowed ourselves into their world, to sit down sometimes and weep for them.My last photo of Ruby, taken May 22, 2008.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Out on Whitefish Point

I was in Michigan to speak at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory's annual Spring Fling at the end of April. These are hardy people, with a different way of defining "spring" than we have down here in subtropical Ohio. They go by the calendar, not by the weather, and if the calendar says it's spring, well then it is. They go out.
I love nautical disaster art. I find myself wondering what it might be like to look at a beautiful work of art, having lived through a disaster. Hey, it wasn't teal blue out there. It was PITCH BLACK and you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. But that's a really nice painting.

Whitefish Point is famous as the place where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, taking 29 souls with it. This billboard is for my friend Grady, who loves shipwrecks most of all. Well, at least he did when I saw him last. He may have moved on to trainwrecks by now.


Among birders, Whitefish Point is famous for being a fabulous migrant trap, welcoming tired birds who've winged across Superior in the fall, and stacking up apprehensive birds (especially raptors) who don't much feel like facing the crossing in spring. Either way, it works real well for birdwatchers. I spent a fun afternoon watching hawks on the WPBO platform. A goshawk made my day!


Sandhill cranes breed sparingly here. I was lucky to spot a couple of pairs, prospecting for nest sites.

But it's the pines along the shore that hold the big treasure for birders.


I had to keep reminding myself that I was not on a beach in Cape Cod, so similar was the vegetation.

There's something disorienting about not having the tang of salt and fish in your nostrils when you're walking on dune vegetation.

Looking out at Superior, I got a graphic demonstration of how shifting lake ice can plow up gravel and make landforms. It was like seeing a glacier in miniature. Here, a tiny moraine.
When glaciers plowed along the land, they picked up ridges of gravel and sand. At their terminus, they piled up these deposits as they melted. The same thing's happening here, on a miniature scale, and seasonally.


The beach rocks were so beautiful that I dared not start to look for a favorite. Even so, my
pockets were heavy when I left. The more closely I looked, the more beautiful the stones became. I couldn't get over the mix of blue, pink, flecked granite, and terra cotta. Phoo. Imagine having that in your landscaping, or your aquarium! Pebble lust.


My friend, festival organizer Bob Pettit, told me of seeing people staggering out with bagsful of the lovely water-worn stones, even though they're not supposed to.


You get the feeling that people have been here for a very long time, and in the cool temperatures and acid conditions, their traces linger. Here's a Model A fender, the same kind I used to sit on as a child, clinging to the headlight strut, as my friend Billy Jones drove us around the neighborhood in the evening. I wondered if there might be an entire Model A in that hummock under the birches.

I was soon to find out that the dune forest hid even greater riches.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

To Michigan!


It's taken me awhile to get to my Upper Peninsula trip that happened at the end of April. I've wanted to, but the lilac was blooming and the asparagus was 'sparaging (still is!! Had another pick this morning!) and the birds were coming through and it seemed like it could wait. It was a trip straight back to winter. A pattern is emerging with festivals I've attended this spring. "It was SO GORGEOUS until you got here! And then it started to (insert noxious precipitation here)! Ha! "

At Paradise, Michigan, the word was snow. Cold also got used. That was OK. I had packed my down parka, hat and thick gloves. I was layered to the max. Even had my jammie bottoms on under my jeans, just as April was turning to May. Having survived a snowy weekend in May 2007 in Chequamegon Bay, WI, I knew the drill. Those Great Lakes--those huge inland seas of ours--are cruel mistresses.

The trip started auspiciously, with an obliging group of gulls. Since it was the first bunch of birds I came across after leaving the Sault Ste. Marie airport, I pulled over. I was birding now.

One of these things is not like the others.
One of these things is not the same.

Even without my Sibley, I knew this lesser black-backed gull when I saw it. The pale-mantled birds in the upper left section of the picture are all herring gulls, the uppermost bird being a second-spring bird. The small pale-mantled bird in the lower right corner is a ring-billed gull. But the small dark-mantled bird with yellow legs and a red spot on its bill is an adult lesser black-backed gull. Whoo-ee. Good start.

As the forest began to close around me, I found a male bufflehead in a dark roadside pool.
He took flight, but only after I was able to admire and capture the oily teal and rose sheen of his puffy head. He looks like he's wearing a powdered wig. Maybe I watched too many episodes of John Adams on HBO.

A female northern harrier made a Cindy House painting as I came out onto Whitefish Point.

Yes. I was finally birding. I can't wait to show you all the wonders of the U.P. Blogger hasn't let me post photos for two days running, but I spent an evening uploading via Flickr. Thank goodness for Flickr. It's a couple of hoops and about five extra clicks per photo, but at least it lets me in when Blogger is having its period. I haven't figured out how to keep the photos from flopping over my template borders. Sorry about that. Later: OK, Kyle, I'm trying your suggestion about adjusting the width to 400 in HTML (it was showing a width of 500). WHOOT! It works! Thank you!

AI fans: I want David Cook to win, but I'm predicting that Lil' Oop Oop will prevail.
Update: I'm so happy to see David Cook win. What a sweetie. Hope he keeps his head in all the hoopla. Hope he can ignore most of what the industry tells him.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nest Check

Amidst all the other things that happen in spring, the lawn-mowing and the softball, the graduation ceremonies, the bird festivals, speaking engagements, sinus infections (somewhat better, thanks) and the intensive gardening, there's box-checking my bluebirds. I'll admit it--I'm behind. Behinder than I've ever been. Cough, snuffle. This is the first spring that I haven't managed to hit each box once a week. So the babies get old, they get away from me. I try to change every nest when the young hit one week of age, replacing the (usually parasite-infested) nest with fresh clean dry grass. I'm after blowflies, blood-sucking larvae of bluebottle flies that hide deep in the nest lining and wriggle up at night to drain my baby bluebirds of their life
force. During the day they retreat into the nest, so nobody can see them to preen them off. Eeeeyew. You can see the gray larvae in the lower third of the nest, and the yuccky wet layer of blowfly- processed bluebird blood below that. After awhile you can smell them as soon as you open the box, and you know when the nest needs to be changed.

This is a bad infestation, 80 or more. I put the infested nests in a pail and take them to the driveway cement to count larvae.


I've seen a load like this contribute to the death of broods in the kind of cold, rainy weather we've been enduring, when the parents can't find enough food to offset the blood loss the young birds suffer. But you can't use pesticides around baby birds, whose tissue-thin skin and high metabolisms make them extremely vulnerable to poisons as seemingly innocuous as pyrethrins and rotenones. I won't even talk about bluebirders who swear by Sevin dust. They're out there, merrily dusting their boxes with pesticides, saying it's the only way to go. And I think that's a terrible thing to contemplate, much less to do.

In one of our organic bluebird nest checks, Phoebe volunteered to hold the babies while I fashioned a new nest for them.

Everything went pretty well until the baby bluebirds decided to find a better place to hide. They're only about 12 days old, not ready to fledge, but they're getting fledgy. This is the last day we could handle them safely without their trying to exit the box prematurely. Try this on Day 13 and you'd have babies popping around like popcorn, calling frantically and refusing to
stay in the box. Times like that, you have to stuff a sock in the box entry hole, give them a half hour to settle down, and then quietly remove the sock. But sometimes even that won't work, and the babies spill out and hop around on the ground, where their beleaguered parents do their best to feed and protect them. You don't want to mess with bluebirds after Day 12.

Wuh-oh. They're starting to scatter. Wait. There were five before. Phoebe began giggling helplessly as a clammy little bluebird made its scritchy way up the sleeve of her hoodie.
I retrieved it from its nice warm lair and replaced it in the new nest.
You little goofball of a baby bluebird. Pretty good thinking, though, to hide like that. Notice how Chet Baker patrols around without bothering anybody. phoebeeablputback
I know. It's not a real Chetfix. But I figure even his receding form is better than no Chet at all.

Today's hiatus is going to be happening more in June. There will be times when I can't post. I'll do my best, but don't be surprised if there are pauses. Life's running me.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Visit With Buck

Faithful readers and archive diggers at this blog will remember Buck the Bull,
the sweet, low-slung Angus tank who lives the next road over. If my calculations are correct, Buck should be pushing 11 or 12 now. He's still throwing nice calves. Here are some of this spring's progeny.
The gray one belongs to beautiful gray Betty. Here she is, backlit.I think the Warren's cattle are the prettiest cattle around, with the best-managed pastures.
Although the Fleeman's Limosins are ravishing, come to think of it...I am a card-carrying cownoisseur.

Buck's still just as nice a guy as ever. I stopped on a sunny afternoon last week to visit with him. He had been scratching his forehead and brisket on a rough post and was up nice and close to the road.
There's something I like about touching a multi-ton animal who could, if he wanted, annihilate me, something I like about knowing that he enjoys the contact as much as I do. A few strands of prickly wire separate us. I scratch his forehead and tell him what a magnificent, good boy he is. I tell him how much I like to see him and how beautiful his new calves are. I ask about the little red cow I always see him with but he's not talking.

He snorts, sending a spray of flobber over me, and shakes his head. I could reduce you to a spot of grease. Don't forget that I am a bull, a very big one, a dangerous one. Mean. Unpredictable. Slobbery. Pffffuuuuf.

Yes, I know. I'm flirting with death. You are a highly dangerous bull, and I have received your warning. But I still love you. And next time I come I will have an apple and some carrots with by Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Thanks, honey.

Well, all right then. You bring me an apple, and we'll talk.

I have taken dozens of pictures of Buck in his many moods, but this is my favorite so far. I like to think he's remembering Dale.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

All This Useless Beauty

Nashville warbler in a young cherry tree.

It's all happening too fast, going away too fast. The blackpoll warblers are in; they're the latest migrants. I'm starting to see female warblers coming through, another sign that migration is winding down (males migrate first, so they can set up their territories before the females arrive). It's been a beautiful spring, what we've been able to see of it through the constant travel and the pouring rain. Everything is lush beyond belief; my gardens are burgeoning. I planted some zinnia seeds today, looking forward to July blossoms for the butterflies and hummingbirds. Everything grows when it rains all the time. I'll have mesclun and arugula (rocket!) tonight.

I'm off again this weekend to give a Saturday talk and lead a Sunday morning field trip at Beaver Creek Wetlands near Dayton, Ohio. Praying that whatever digital projector they come up with will talk to my Mac laptop. Hoping it doesn't rain for the field trip, but figuring it will. Why break precedent with the rest of the spring? Nursing a whopper of a sinus infection, sore throat and all, trying to get my voice in shape to record some commentaries tomorrow before I leave. I sound like Timmy at the bottom of the well. Schlepping kids to sports events 30 miles away. Whoops, gotta go to town on the way and buy red tube socks and black pants for the uniform, gotta buy a third ball glove for Liam, who has a knack for leaving them wherever he happens to be. Hope whoever found them is enjoying them. Cleaning house, again. I wouldn't mind it so much if I didn't have to do it every week, if it would just keep for a bit longer. How does a boy not notice he has a Driscoll strawberry stuck to the sole of his shoe? They're big.

All right. Enough about doing too much. We all do too much. Outside, it all goes on without us, all this useless beauty*, and we can go out and look at it, or we can keep running on the gerbil wheel. Outside, the hooded warbler sings his syncopated song, higher than you'd think to look.He checks his flank for a louse.Right across the driveway, the Kentucky warbler answers with his galloping trill. He doesn't willingly grant a glimpse, much less a good picture, but he's so worth the effort.How did we get so lucky, to have both these birds breeding along our driveway?

Back on the deck, facing the day, I see an indigo bunting, a piece of lapis snagged in the willow top.He flies to the sycamore we transplanted from the vegetable garden to the back yard. How it has grown--it's a little giant, an open-grown, symmetrical beauty, just beginning to show leopard spots on its bark.Its other choice was to be pulled up. I'm glad we transplanted it. It drinks the water that comes off the roof and pretends it's on a riverbank.

Such riches we're given, bounteous treasure for free, and most of us don't even stop to collect it. I count myself in that number, most days, as my gerbil wheel of the things I should do turns.

A Nashville warbler finds caterpillar after caterpillar in a young cherry.
He shows me his ruddy crown
and strikes a pose that pleases.
Thank you, warblers.

Try to catch the last salvo of spring migration, wherever you may be. In the far North, it's just getting going. In the South, birds are already fledging young, the migrants long gone to their breeding grounds. It all goes on around us, and it's good to gather it in, like a flower that will soon be spent.

*thanks to Elvis Costello for that album title

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Last Rocket Standing

Some of the wild mustards are known as rockets, for the speed with which they shoot up and bloom in the springtime. Some of them, particularly the yellow rocket, are horrid, invasive pests--this species is from Europe. You'll see it blanketing bottomland fields in a cloak of brilliant yellow. Blaaa. Pretty but bad, bad, bad. Bill and I have been pulling yellow rocket since it first showed up on our farm three years ago. It's an annual, and it has the grace, like the dreaded and horrific invasive garlic mustard, to pull up cleanly by the roots. That's about the only thing I like about either plant.So I'm walking along the driveway, coming back from taking the mail out, pulling mustards from the ditch, planning to take them to my fire circle to burn (the only safe disposal for those darned seed-bearing siliques). There's a new word for you, quite a pretty one--a silique is the slender seed capsule of the Cruciferae. And I come to the last rocket standing, and this pearl crescent butterfly flutters up and nectars on its uplifted, tubular yellow flowers, and I hesitate and watch. The butterfly flies off and finds a mate and they hook up right there in front of my eyes, fueled by rocket sauce, presumably.Rocket, rocket, all of my rocket sauce.

Voyeuristic butterfly photo captured, I turn back to the rocket. Now I'm gonna pull it. I really am. And from underneath a leaf, midsection, pops the cutest little jumping spider I have ever seen, even cuter than Boris, the black Phidippus who used to live on my studio windowsill and leap on mealworms that I'd toss to him. Jumping spiders are my favorite spiders, thanks to their fabulous faces and endearing ways. They watch you, just like mantids, and they're very curious and , being territorial, they can be revisited again and again. I'm always delighted to get to know an individual, be it bird or spider.
Oh, let me see you a little closer.
Cute doesn't do it. You are adorable, with your RocketMan hair and your bright black eyes.
Woodsman, spare that tree! It was a microcosm of the death of my beloved Privacy Tree, with me the jumping spider, looking at the logger as his chainsaw snarled into its yard-wide trunk. The spider kept ducking under a leaf, then popping back out to see if I was gone yet.

I left the mustard standing.

The next day, I went back and carefully checked for RocketMan. He had vacated. I pulled the plant and tossed it on the fire with the others. I'm a softie, but I still hate yellow rocket.

Just as much as I love Eastern Tailed Blues. This is the best blue butterfly picture I've captured. You can even see his tiny tails. The 70-300 mm. zoom telephoto makes a darn good butterfly lens.A little flake of sky, fallen to earth.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tanager Toilette

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to be watching the Bird Spa when a tanager or oriole stops by to wash the grime of a long migration from its brilliant feathers. This tanager was singing lustily in the birch just outside my studio window. I’d been gardening all morning, and had just come in the studio to check my e-mail. My camera was still outside on the picnic table in the front yard, naturally. I dithered in agony. If I tried to sneak out the door to get my camera, I might spook the tanager. But in my experience, this is usually a once-per-spring event.

I finally decided to go for it. I walked out, hugging the side yard, head down, as if the last thing on my mind was the beautiful bird bathing in my Spa. I grabbed the camera off the picnic table and walked back, head down. The tanager never budged. Once back inside, I focused and snapped, capturing his beauty to share. My studio is like a big ol’ blind, and birds readily give up their portraits and secrets to me as I lurk in its friendly confines.
How lucky we are to have such a bird in the treetops, singing its hurried, burry song, the robin with a sore throat.

This is why I’m happy to scrub, rinse and refill the Spa every four days without fail. Tanagers like it sparkling clean.

He hadn't been bathing long when a female bluebird, weary from brooding her young, came down and body-slammed him out of the water. Nice. Mrs. B. You can bathe any time. Why must you be so obnoxious?
Oh, I'm not bad. But this garish woodland bird needs to understand that this is my bath, and there are rules about its use. Mainly, I use it first and always. What's he done to contribute to society? Sing? Fly 4,000 miles to get to his territory? Donate sperm here and there? I am a working mother. I've got babies to feed. I bathe first.
The tanager repaired to the poolside birch, where he sorted through his glowing plumage only a yard from the bossy bluebird.Must dip into the oil gland to waterproof my feathers.Ahh. I don't expect to see another tanager in the bath until fall. Who knows what goes on while I'm traveling? Best not to think of the things unseen, unappreciated; best to be happy with what I do manage to capture.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

LIttle Spots of Red

Fifteen years ago, when we first moved to our place, we saw a spot of brilliant red under the pussy willow on the site of the old farmhouse. The house, which sat on a rise to the east of our current home, had been burned down in the late 1970’s and replaced with the undistinguished raised ranch that, with quite a bit of modification like, say a 42 foot tall birding tower became our home in 1992. The old plantings remained, the peonies and hairy ol' Rip Van Winkle daffodils; the grape hyacinth and the pussywillow. The willow has grown into a monstrous tangle, but every spring, there’s that spot of red. It’s an old-fashioned tulip whose bulb could easily be a century old. No other tulip I’ve seen has outlasted it. Every spring it comes up in the tangle of pussy willow, protected from the deer by its branches. Every time I see it I think, “I should dig that tulip up and put it in the flower bed.” And I discard the thought just as quickly as it pops into my head, for I get so much more joy in the wonder of seeing that spot of red every April, shining through the intertwined branches of the sheltering willow. And as sure as I dug it up and planted it in a “proper” place, Bob the chipmunk would find it and eat it. So there it stays, and there it blooms and prospers.

I had just turned from photographing the tulip to my garden, where the snap peas were germinating. Admiring the way they pushed up through the soil, I knelt down to examine another spot of red. A red velvet mite was making its way down the pea row. I love these mites, and I always stop to wonder why they should be so brilliantly, extravagantly scarlet. It may be aposematic; they are said to taste very bad. Wonder who tasted one? To me, they’re the tanagers of the arachnid family. A bit of looking online revealed this at
Red velvet mites are members of the subphyum Chelicerata, a group of critters that have tiny lobster-like claws that serve as mouthparts, a feature that relates them closely to spiders, scorpions, and harvestmen. Red velvet mites make their home in the litter layer of woodlands and forests. They live from one to several years, depending on the species. As larvae, they attach themselves to a variety of arthropods and feed parasitically. They will suck blood from a gnat or grasshopper, for instance, sometimes hitching a ride with several other mites. When red velvet mites become nymphs and then adults, they take to the soil to devour much smaller prey, including other mites and their eggs, the eggs of insects and snails, and primitive wingless insects. They do not bite humans; neither do they sting. Adult male mites release their sperm on small twigs or stalks. That ritual is followed by the male laying down an intricate silken trail to the sperm. Females spot these trails, then seek out the individual male. If he's to her liking, she sits in the sperm.* But if another male spots one of these sperm gardens, he'll promptly destroy it and replace it with his own.**

*Now, what fun is THAT?

**Now, that sounds like more fun.

I thought I could grow ANYTHING. But I'm gonna need help with a sperm garden.

Little spots of red—how they brighten my day.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Lovely Pear

Speaking of flowers gone by, I would like to show you some pear trees. We have an ancient pear tree on the old home site. The pears are hard as rocks, no matter what you do to them. You can wrap them in newspaper, you can put them in a brown paper bag with a ripe apple; you can dance the tarantella on them and they remain astringent and resolutely inedible. But the deer and the question marks and commas love them; the woodchucks and raccoons and opossums eat them too. The pear is a tree of great value, and not least for its spring blossoms. It’s a blizzard of white. I remember rocking Liam in the old Scotch rocker two springs running while he nursed, watching that tree ready itself for the fruit to come, watching it come into bud and burst into dazzling bloom against the rainclouds.

Phoebe against the pear, with her new glasses.

A lone pear in our neighbor’s hayfield, wearing her party dress.

Our pear, losing its petals, springtime snow. Liam and Phoebe were enchanted, standing in the warm blizzard. “Does this happen every day at this time??” Liam asked. “No, sweetheart, it’s only happening now, and we must enjoy it while it’s snowing.”

Blue spruce catches spring snow.

Because not everyone pauses to read the comment section, I'll offer this tidbit, sparked by a comment from rmharvey, who speculated as follows: "Years ago, in colonial and frontier days, cider was the most common alcoholic beverage. The apples grown for the cider were lousy for eating. Today those varieties of apples are mostly lost to us. I suspect that pears were used that way too, and can't help but wonder if your tree might not be such a variety."

Indeed, exactly the same kind of pear grew on the old farmstead at the Burnham Brook Preserve in CT where I lived for ten years. My landlady used to put the hard little pears in a covered stoneware crock in a cool dark place and cover them with sugar. Lifting the lid a month or so later revealed a fine clear alcohol that they enjoyed. She said it was the only way to use them, and thought it was just fine. I may try it someday, just for fun. Hic!

Coming home today from the New River Birding and Nature Festival. They had gorgeous weather until I arrived on Thursday. It commenced to rain as I turned in to Opossum Creek, and it rained and rained and rained. (They told me the same thing at Whitefish Point two weekends was in the 70's until you got here, and then it started to snow...) Saturday, my new friend John and I took an intrepid group to Cranberry Glades, where it was 42 degrees, with a blowing cold misty rain. Yeah! But one thing I love about birders is that they roll with it, and they're happy for what they're able to see and experience. A couple of friendly warblers (Canada and Blackburnian) saved the day. Home again, home again, jiggity jig. Happy Mother's Day.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

The UberLilac

I’m torn in spring between telling you about my travels and showing you the things that are blooming at the moment. As I write, the heirloom lilac is at its absolute peak, every floret open. The entire yard, all the way out to the vegetable garden, smells heavenly. It wafts into the house. A rain last night brought some rust-brown edges to the oldest florets. Sigh. It's almost done. I’ll miss it so when it’s by Bill Thompson III

Just look at the color and size of the clusters. The individual florets are nearly the size of a quarter; the trusses are almost a foot long. Any other lilac looks wimpy by comparison. I mean, they're all nice, but this one is a superhero. Not only that, but it blooms a full week longer than conventional lilacs, having slow-opening buds and tremendous holding power.

For those new to the blog, this lilac grew on Bill’s family farm in Marietta for many years. The Highway Department grabbed the farm property by eminent domain, and Bill’s Great Aunt Lolly saved the lilac, some American hollies, and a Magnolia grandiflora to bring to their new home in town. They didn’t want to leave the farm; they didn’t want to sell it. They were run out. Now it’s a highway interchange, Exit 1 on Interstate 77. But I have a child of Aunt Lolly’s lilac, given to me by Bill's mom and dad, and I treasure it beyond any other plant on the farm. We planted it in 2000. It's as old as Liam. At eight years, it's enormous.
When the buds were about to open, we had a frost scare—it was supposed to drop to the 20’s for two nights running. Having watched the lilac freeze black while in bud last spring, I was not about to give up those flowers, that scent. So Christo came to Whipple. I emptied my linen closet of its bedspreads and sheets to protect my gardens. I topped the lilac off with a tarp, hanging it as high as I could reach. It was not easy. I had the one of the kids hand me clothespins and the other hold the ladder as I teetered and reached.I hadn’t realized how big this plant had grown until I tried to cover it. I managed to secure only about half of it. As it happened, it didn’t freeze after all, and the buds swelled

And opened.

I’ll look at these pictures in late summer and remember when the lilac bloomed in May. There is no finer lilac on the planet, for size, color and fragrance, but it’s the history behind the plant that makes it even more special. I love it. Every time I pass by I bury my face in it. I tried to pose with dignity but it seduced by BT3

Big, fat homegrown asparagus and my favorite lilac. Life is good.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Turkey Days II

Yesterday I left you hanging. Well, at least those of you who didn't immediately scramble around, chimplike, to find the answer. Why should the base of the beard of a turkey gobbler be richly supplied with nerve endings?Ooh, I love this picture, a perfect bronze gobbler bathed in afternoon light right by our mailbox!

The answer lies in the mating behavior of wild turkeys. When the gobbler is excited, he’s puffed up to three times his normal apparent volume, every feather on end until he’s practically spherical. Like anyone who’s climbed on the scale with a bit (or a lot) of a pot belly, it can be hard to see what lies below; you either have to suck that belly in or crane your neck. In mating, the hen turkey lies flat on the ground, her head sticking straight up, wings out to the side. The tom climbs aboard and treads her shoulders with his feet. As it happens, his beard brushes the top of her head. (We've seen this twice in our own backyard!) Maybe that’s nice for the hen, but it’s essential for the tom. Because he can’t see over his own massive bulk, it’s how he can tell he’s in the right position to mate successfully. He keeps his beard in contact with her head throughout the treading and copulation. And so the beard seems to have a function besides the decorative, and those nerve endings make all kinds of sense in light of their behavior and the mechanics of copulation.

When the Warrens tell me some bit of natural history lore, I listen, because they’ve gained their knowledge through direct experience with wild things. When I tell them something, they listen right back. It’s good.
Jay lowers the turkey back into the cistern, a natural refrigerator.
I know that there are many who will look at these pictures and be repulsed by the sight of a wild turkey, sprawled out, turned into food. But the more I think about how and what most of us carnivores eat, the more sense it makes to me to walk out on your own land and with a couple of shots, fell a bird that will feed you for several days. Surely it is more in harmony with nature than eating a steak from a cow that was fed grain—a diet that doesn’t agree with it, a diet that makes it gassy and bloated-- in a Montana stockyard, slaughtered and trucked halfway across the country. I felt only a twinge of sadness on seeing the bird, knowing that there are a lot of turkeys around, knowing that it only takes one dominant gobbler to father many broods of poults, knowing a little about their impact on the understory vegetation and on the vanishing ruffed grouse in our area.I have to tell you, the best book on wild turkeys I have ever read, or ever expect to read, is Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey by Florida naturalist/artist Joe Hutto. He raised a brood of 14 from a clutch of orphaned, pipping eggs and walked with them in the woods to learn their ways and protect them, and return them gently to the wild. If you read nothing else, You Must Read This.

After the turkey viewing, we sat on the hill, enjoying the warm sun and soft breeze. Chet Baker cried until I let him out of the car and he went from Jay to Jeff and back again, meeting and greeting, snuffling, leaping and licking. They worried that he’d run away; I knew he wouldn’t. For a Boston terrier, home is where the heart is, where the people are. They’re such happy little dogs, so loving and sociable. The Warrens are nuts about him. Jay always sings "My Funny Valentine" to him.

Funny Valentine he is. His mouth is a little weak. But his figure is completely Greek.

When he’d get off on the trail of a rabbit or vole and begin to stray, a quiet, “Hyah, Bake!” would turn him on a dime and bring him smiling back to us.
I always dreamed of having a dog like that, a dog who listens, a dog who cares. A dog who responds not to shouted commands but to normal quiet tones; to English words and whole- sentence suggestions. It’s a two-way dance. To have a quiet dog like that, you must be quiet yourself. To have a dog who comes back at a word, you must first let him off the lead.
so take the darn thing off already. Ah, but Bake, there are cattle in the pasture below. Sometimes a word is not enough.

I don't know how a discussion of turkey beards turned into a Baker fix. It's been awhile, and he's just such a good doggeh. I thought you wouldn't mind.

Tomorrow morning bright and early, the rest of us head to Fayetteville, WV, to join Bill of the Birds in entertaining the happy festivalgoers to the New River Birding and Nature Festival who want to see Swainson's warblers, golden, cerulean and blue-winged warblers, and a plethora of other fabulous Neotropical migrants. I'll be speaking at Opossum Creek Resort Thursday night, a talk on the biology and natural history of migrant warblers. Bill and I, along with our fabulous faithful bassist Clay, play music for the Friday night gathering, and we're leading field trips Friday and Saturday mornings. It's festival time. But I'm happy because we'll all be together, even that good lil' doggeh, the Mayor of Opossum Creek. He will not be on the lead. He will be going cabin to cabin, meeting and greeting, bumming hamburgers.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Turkey Days

When we go out on these balmy soft spring mornings, it’s not long before the air is shattered by the explosive gobble of a wild turkey. Something about this call makes me laugh; it’s more like a sneezing fit than a song. Turkeys are doing well around here, despite coyotes and great horned owls, raccoons, opossums and free-roaming cats. They’re doing so well that wherever they appear, ruffed grouse seem to vanish. I’ve seen the changeover on our own land. Granted, I may not have the whole story; other factors such as a maturing forest could have more to do with grouse disappearance than does competition with turkeys. But if you think about it, turkeys and grouse eat essentially the same thing, but turkeys have a much higher reach for buds and seeds than do grouse. I don’t know. It’s a theory, like almost everything else in natural history.

I’d rather feed turkeys than hunt them; I’d rather watch them court than call them in to shoot them. I do have a certain admiration for anyone who can get close enough to a turkey in the woods to shoot it, though, because as a deer hunting friend once said, “Deer are deaf, dumb and blind compared to turkey.” Turkeys don’t miss much.
You have to go out before dawn and camo up and be still, and you have to be good with calls.

I was checking bluebird boxes along a country road near our house when I saw my pals, the Warren boys, in a red pickup ahead. Like turkeys, the Warren boys don’t miss much. They recognized my car in the their rear view mirror, pulled over and got out. Jeff pulled out his crow call and cawed to me. I cawed back. That’s how we make contact in Whipple. They were dressed in camouflage and grinning ear to ear. “Got a 20-pounder this morning,” Jeff drawled. “Ooh, can I see it?” I always like to see wild things up close, even if they’re dead.

“We put him in the cistern to keep him cool.” So we drove up to the barn and the Warren boys grunted a big slab of sandstone to the side, uncovering a magnificent shallow cistern half-full of water. Dangling just over the surface was the turkey, relieved of his innards. There was something spooky, mysterious and ooky, about the giant bird slowly twirling over the cold murky water.
They hauled him up and laid him on the grass for me to admire. Jeff showed me his short, straight spurs, suggesting that he was in his second spring. I showed the Warrens the brown vermiculation on his tertials, suggesting the same thing to me. We traded bits of information.

“Ever feel the beard?” Jay asked, and I was intrigued to find it just as stiff and tough as horsehair, stronger even, perhaps. The feathers are without barbules, black and wiry. Now it was my turn to tell them something. “Recent research suggests that the beard isn’t just decoration. It may be a sensory organ that helps the tom mate.”
Apparently, on dissection, ornithologists discovered that the bony pedicel, or base, of the beard was richly enervated. Now, why would a decorative bunch of bristles need a lot of nerve endings? I will tell you tomorrow. Tee hee hee.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Looking for Bill of the Birds?

Blogger rejects any and all of my dear husband's attempts to post this past week. It's a known problem with anyone who posts via FTP; i.e., anyone who's not hosted at Blogspot. And it must be a big'un. In desperation, he's changed his address, but he can't even post THAT on his poor benighted becalmed befuddled blog. So please, go find Bill of the Birds here:

Do leave a comment so he knows you've found him. He'll be at the above URL until further notice. Chet Baker thanks you, I thank you, and BOTB thanks you.

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Visiting Dr. Payne

The finale of my trip to Ithaca, the plump maraschino atop the sundae, was a breakfast invitation by bioacoustician and writer Katy Payne. In the 1970's, Katy and her husband Roger blew the world of cetacean biology wide open with their work on the songs of humpback whales. They were the first to record, study, and try to decipher the astounding underwater songs of what whalers used to call "sea canaries." What a wonderful name for a multi-ton animal.

More recently, Dr. Payne has worked with elephants in Africa. It started simply enough, with a visit to an elephant house at a zoo. She felt, rather than heard, a rumble in her breastbone, the same kind of thrumming you get when you feel, rather than hear, a ruffed grouse. It was more like a thrill than a sound. She turned to her friends and said, "There's something going on in here." That moment of enlightenment led her to her discovery that elephants communicate in ultra low-frequency infrasound, and that communication may travel over hundreds of miles. Yes. What are they saying? I'm reading her book, Silent Thunder, and it is setting me afire.

Katy Payne's grandfather was Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

She never knew him, since he died so young, but I have studied pictures of him and I can tell you that he is there in her eyes, in her warmth and kindness, in her sensitivity to animals, her inquisitiveness, her deeply artistic way of thinking, and in her writing. I was almost overwhelmed on meeting her; I had a jolt of recognition that came from somewhere other than mere physical resemblance. I felt as if I were meeting Louis himself.

There are some L.A.F. paintings in Katy's homey, naturalist's living room. One is this little crow study.
"Remember," Katy said, "that he had no photographs to work from. He had to figure out the wing positions on his own."
What a gorgeous wing, what a gorgeous little painting, so full of crow lore and winterchill. Look how the shading on the distal half of the crow's raised wing makes it bend out toward you. Ahhhh.

I was utterly arrested by this Fuertes life sketch of a ferret, perhaps a black-footed ferret. How perfectly he understood how its weight is distributed, how its fur flows and reverses; the sacklike bunching up of the abdominal skin. You can see how it could turn inside that loose skin, as weasels are said to do. And there's something birdlike about the neck and head. It could only have been done from life.

As Katy and I talked and looked through photographic scrapbooks of the Merriman Arctic Expedition, of which Louis was a vital part, I felt as if I'd known her all my life. And especially so as she dithered about the soy-milk waffles she made for us, which were quite delicious, but which she felt weren't quite up to snuff. Sounded just like something I'd try, just like the things I'd say. Chet Baker could see he was in for a long haul as we talked, so after casing the entire house and watching squirrels outside for awhile, he jumped up in a comfy chair and pawed up a hand-loomed throw just so, flopping down and curling up with a piglike grunt. "Make yourself at home, Bacon!" I said, and we laughed. Sometimes you meet someone like Katy and you wonder why you haven't been friends forever, but you feel like you ought to get it started already. Even our cowlicks are mirror-image. Pfffft.
photo by Alan Poole. Thank you a million, AP.

What a gift to the world is this scientist, this writer. Read Silent Thunder. Louis would be so proud.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Living Building

The Lab of Ornithology appears to me to have been designed around two major aesthetic concerns. First, the trove of bird art, like that in the Fuertes library and the Fisher’s Island panel, which have been beautifully integrated into the space. A second goal was to showcase the natural wonders in the wetlands just outside, visible through huge windows all around. It’s like the biggest blind you’ve ever seen.

Though my time was limited, I was determined to take in just a bit of the gorgeous swampy bit of Sapsucker Woods immediately around the building. It’s truly another world, quiet, laced with mulched paths, swarming with birds. Canada geese were living their lives, getting it on, preening

and making a general honking ruckus. One pair has claimed ownership of a part of the path near the bird feeder, and challenges passersby in a quiet way. I saw several toddlers try to pet this bird. Not recommended.Does this goose look intelligent to you? It does to me. There's really something going on in those eyes. It hisses and intimidates people who come too close. You don’t want a bite from that bony, serrated bill. There were a couple of geese with permanently injured wings, making a good living, mates by their side, at the pond. One bird acts as an unofficial greeter, hanging out right by the entry. It's neat to see birds the second you pull into the parking lot of the Lab.

Mallards kept bombing over and dropping in, and I played at photographing them, with some pretty cool results.As a young bird painter, I devoured a book called Prairie Wings, by Edgar M. Queeney. Using the rudimentary black-and-white equipment of the time, he captured amazing photos of ducks in flight. If only I could go back in time and hand Mr. Queeney my little Digital Rebel. What fun he'd have.
A mushmouse swam by a resting hooded merganser (the white spot directly back of the rat).

A pair of common mergansers. When they hauled out on a log, I could see the bulk of their bodies. They’re like icebergs. Note the wood duck nesting boxes, which common and hooded mergansers may also use. The place is set up for birds, and the resident geese know and exploit that.

I had to chuckle when the black-capped chickadee I photographed turned out, on closer inspection, to be color-banded. This is the Lab of Ornithology, after all. Who knows what secrets these birds have revealed?

The incandescent glow of a mallard’s head. His mate hides in shadow.

I was stunned to see a big brown bat flying in daylight, dipping down to drink. I never thought my photos would be acceptable, but they aren’t bad, considering that I was focusing manually, and the bat was dipping and diving like, well, a bat. This is a really neat shot, and it's even, finally, in good focus.
I hoped he wasn’t ill; bats all over the Northeast are turning up with “white-nose syndrome,” a disease of apparently fungal origin that is killing them by the thousands, and sending them out of their hibernacula much too early. Please be well and travel safely, brown bat.
This ends my sojurn at the Lab. The "Letters from Eden" show hangs through mid-July. Please check it out if you're in the area.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Fuertes Library

The old Lab of Ornithology was a humble block building which subsequently grew to include a string of offices housed in mobile homes in the woods. I doubt that anyone who worked in the old buildings misses the good old days, when the organization’s needs and staff outgrew the original structure. I was eager to see the new building, and it didn’t disappoint. One of the things I was most impressed with was the loving, careful reconstruction of the jewel of the old Lab: the wood-paneled library, adorned with Fuertes paintings. The paintings all appear as they originally did, though it seemed to me the ceiling might have been raised considerably. It’s still warm and intimate and exquisite, and a local artisan contributed handmade chairs with a nodding heron design to finish it off.

Here are some of the panels in the library. I adore this old man turkey, and the winter pastels of the landscape around him. There’s such a mood in this piece. And there's a victorious peregrine with bufflehead buffet. Fuertes did terrific upside-down dead birds, probably because he had one right in front of him to draw from.
A magnificent tryptich of snowy owl, king eider, and Canada goose.

The same owl, with scaup and scoters.

An autumnal gem: a strutting ruffed grouse in glowing sugar maple and white pine woodland. Don’t’ you want to walk with him? Look at the perspective and handling of his tail. I love this piece. I can hear his soft footfalls in the leaves and smell the curing forest litter, hear the calls of migrating jays and feel the melancholy of autumn seeping in.

More panels, these of puddle ducks and a red-shouldered hawk, in situ. You can see a little peek through to the fabulous Wild Birds Unlimited shop just beyond. They sold quite a few copies of Letters from Eden during the show and talks!

The whole works. What a room.

Half of my show, spitting distance from Louis’ work. Happy sigh.

When I was a baby bird artist in the mid-80’s, I gave a talk in the old Fuertes Library, awed that I was surrounded by my hero’s work. I was no less humbled this time, especially by hanging my simple watercolors in a room immediately adjoining the library. Though the Letters from Eden show comprises over 60 paintings (with another bunch still waiting to be framed), we had to cherry-pick the ones we most wanted to hang, and in the end had room for about half of them. In hanging the show, Charles Eldermire and I had to balance our desire to show all the work with the realities of the space. The system involves clips and wires, such that the paintings are suspended from molding near the ceiling, so there was a lot of scurrying up and down a ladder on Charles’ part; it was like a two-day Stairmaster marathon for him. My role was mostly that of fussy arbiter. We were in sync, though, and the hanging went smoothly, even though it took a lot longer than either of us anticipated. There was an international symposium of migration biologists meeting at the same time, so we could work only at night, after the meetings were over. Here's one wall of paintings.
And the second one. We struggled to get the important things up, without overcrowding things. It makes me happy to think that, at least until mid-July, the same air molecules will be circulating over Fuertes' work and mine; that people will be able, perhaps, to see the influence of the master in a student he never knew. If staring holes in book plates can teach a kid how to paint birds, I learned. Here's my favorite plate from Forbush and May's A Natural History of Birds Of Eastern and Central North America. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for that first Fuertes book. It was $3.95 well spent. I remember trying so hard to write straight as I made it all mine.
Come see me at the Scioto Bird Club's one-day bird festival on Saturday, May 3, from 7-noon at the Mound City Group Visitor's Center in Chillicothe, Ohio. I'll be giving my Letters from Eden talk at 10:30 AM and leading a bird walk at 9 AM, as well as signing books. I know at least one blogreader who's coming!

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Song for the First of May

I've been haunted lately by this beautiful song from Kris Delmhorst, formerly of Redbird, a roots-folk group whose work I love. It’s one of those rare ones where the melody and lyrics mesh perfectly. It captures that gentle and overwhelming obsession when your every thought is filtered through your feelings for someone you love. I can't get it out of my head.

So many love songs celebrate the obsession of infatuation, the fun, first part; the fire whose own heat gradually but inexorably melts it into something quite different, more complicated. It's so easy, so alluring, to run with infatuation, which is so uncomplicated, so unburdened by history, shared experience or disillusionment. It's tricky and demanding to abide with its aftermath, to stick around for the long train ride into the unknown. Listen to country radio if you want to hear about infatuation. Listen to Kris Delmhorst if you want something approximating real life.

I’m thankful for artists like Kris Delmhorst, who walk on the uneven ground.

Birds of Belfast Kris Delmhorst

The field grew wild all that buzzing summer
We dozed a while, woke a little younger
Hung your clothes, waited on the weather
Thorn and rose twine and grow together

When did all the birds of Belfast learn to sing your name?
When did all those silver ashes breathe into flame?
Who are you without your sadness? Who am I without my shame?
When did all the birds of Belfast learn to sing your name?

Which was right, the fight or the surrender?
You my light, my solitary mender
Still the sun will rise on every weeper’s mourning
Tearstained eyes, pearly light adorning

When did all the birds of Belfast learn to sing your name?
When did all those silver ashes breathe into flame?
Who are you without your sadness? Who am I without my shame?
When did all the birds of Belfast learn?

Who am I to sing a love song? Who are you to do the same?
With our weary little hearts full of broken little claims?
Will they even recognize us? Should I give you a new name?
And then all the birds of Belfast would sing it just the same.

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