Monday, June 30, 2008

Not a Wren Falls...

Carolina wrens do not mess around when they fledge. The parents call them and lead them as fast as they can to the nearest deep cover, and they keep going deeper. I’ve watched the fledging process for years, and I’m amazed afresh each time by the parents’ intuitive grasp of their chicks’ individuality. For strong fliers, an adult will fly to the nearest tree, and encourage the chick to make the flight across the lawn in one leg. For later-fledging, weaker chicks, the adult will fly a few yards, land on the ground, and encourage the chick to make the trip in short fluttering hops, leading them from shrub to lawn chair to flower bed in a zigzag path. The whole process of vacating the nest area is usually complete within minutes.
So I was alarmed to find this lone baby still moping on the downspout, long after I’d last heard the family moving into the woods the equivalent of a half-block away. He fluttered down to the base of the downspout, not up to flying like his siblings. You can see the cardboard tube that is my snake baffle in this shot. It closes the gap between downspout and house and keeps the snake from wrapping around the downspout to get up to the bucket.So tiny, and so very vulnerable. I had to help somehow.

I listened for the other birds. Nothing. Though it had been alone for two hours, the fifth baby continued to squeak, making the contact call that all new fledglings use to say, “I’m here! I’m here! Care for me!” It was extremely vulnerable as it fluttered on the ground and clambered up the side of the house. One sharp-eyed jay, one clued-in rat snake, one lightning-fast chipmunk, and it would be doomed.I grabbed my iPod and dialed up Carolina wren songs and calls. Played it on the west side of the garage, into the woods where I’d last seen the family. No response. Ran to the east side, and played a Carolina wren alarm call at full volume. An adult appeared, zooming up from deep in the woods. I paused the recording and watched. It flew right to the hostas where it had last seen the baby, and they made contact.

I smiled and sighed with happy relief as the adult perched on the crusty ol’ Pig of Good Fortune and lured the baby out of the flowerbed with insistent calls. S(he) led it to the shelter of the Japanese maple, then the forsythia bush. Baby #5: last seen headed deep into the woods, in the company of an adult.

As you read this, we will be slogging back home after a day on a tiny jet coming out of Salt Lake City. In addition to the mountain of luggage it took to get us through a week of field trips, talks and banquets, we'll have two large suitcases that JetBlue lost on our Maine trip, then sent to Utah...Extra luggage charges, anyone?

Sometime Tuesday, after I run into town to fill the car with fresh groceries, I will meet David and Mary Jane who will hand over our doggeh. Then, we will be smothered in Chet Baker kisses. I'm ready for a good gnaw on the muzzlepuffs, and a handful of sugar snap peas from the garden.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bucketful of Miracles

I’ve written about the little copper bucket under our eave. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, it held a philodendron plant that trailed around the stone fireplace in our home in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Somehow it got passed on to me, and I’ve thrown it in with my stuff and moved it a dozen or more times. It reminds me of my mom.

One day, about five years ago, I saw a Carolina wren trying to make rootlets, leaves and grasses stay on the elbow bend of the downspout by our front door. He’d bring a bunch of stuff, only to see it slide off; I noticed it by seeing a trailer of skeletonized leaves and rootlets hanging down in front of the foyer window.

I caught the wren’s eye as it perched on the gutter. “Hang on. I’m going to help you. I’ll be back in just a minute.” I went to the garage and got my 8’ stepladder and the little copper bucket, a roll of utility wire, a hammer and roofing nail. Climbed up the ladder, drove the nail, wrapped wire around it and secured the bucket up under the eave, where no rain could get into it. Took the nesting material, laid it in the bucket, and climbed down the ladder. Before I had so much as folded the ladder, the wren, who had been watching the whole operation, was hauling moss and trash to that bucket. By nightfall, he had a nest nearly complete. There was no hesitation whatsoever—just immediate, presumably grateful acceptance of my gift.

Having watched a black rat snake climb partway up the gutter two years ago (and removed said snake to another part of the yard), I’d hit upon a way to secure the nest. I wedged a big, heavy cardboard mailing tube between the gutter and the house, which keeps any snake from wrapping itself around the gutter and gaining access to the nest. It’s perfect. So I’m always thrilled to find Carolina wrens setting up housekeeping for a first and often a second brood in the little bucket. Carolina wrens keep the cleanest nest I know; I’ve never found one infested with parasites.

The wrens were sneaky this year, but I knew by the increasing size of the food items they brought that their chicks were nearing fledging. Finally I heard the chicks' sibilant, soft piping change to a squeaky chdeek! –the fledging call, the rally to flight.The first baby got a peek at the world, and stayed out front for most of the day.

By the next morning, they were lined up on the downspout, sizing up the world. It wouldn’t be long now.

Fluttering and clambering, they scrambled up and onto the bucket top. One of them was going to have to try its wings by default.The first buzzed off, crash-landing in the hostas, and four others soon followed.
I call this the popcorn phase. Babies are hopping around as if they're on a hot griddle. A slight perturbation around the nest (say, too close an approach, a slamming door) can cause the nest contents to explode. I have been hit by flying baby shrapnel in such instances.
The fifth chick (still in the nest in this picture) stayed for awhile. Awhile being a couple of hours. This was a bad choice on its part.

Next: Science Chimp to the Rescue.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008


I had been waiting for school to end to haul us all in to town to see Tina at her salon, "At Your Fingertips." Poor Liam; I’d been hacking away at his superfine white mop with a dull scissors whenever it got too far into his eyes. His look was institutional, to be kind. I’d been working on Phoebe to let me just trim the ends of her growing mane. Nothing doing. I can hardly blame her, though I can do that. She wanted a professional to handle it.
If I had hair like that, I'd be fussy, too.
As for me, my hair had become a winged helmet worthy of a Valkyrie. I get these wings and they must be cut off, lest I start looking like something from The Brady Bunch.Exhibit A. Seventies wings.

Tina gets a kick out of us. She’s a huge Swinging Orangutangs fan, having become intrigued when I walked into her salon with an overgrown head, sat down in the chair and sang, “Rescue Me” in full Aretha belt-mode. That’s an attention-getter.

Liam went first. I never tire of watching him get his hair cut; he’s so expressive and ticklish that he amuses me no end.

Phoebe has such gorgeous hair, but it gets a bit lanky when it’s too long. I was so relieved when she finally agreed to a “trim.”
No progress pictures of me, thanks.

The final result: A Neopolitan Hair Surprise, Choc Van Straw. The chipping sparrows will love it. We have a little nest we put in our Christmas tree every year that's woven of Phoebe's hair.
And now for the Afters. Liam looks ten years older!Phoebe was very pleased to have her load lightened.And I like drying my hair with a towel and not having to think about it.It makes Hat Head less of an issue when leading birding trips. I wrote this post on Hog Island, Maine, where we'd spent the morning in the company of harbor seals, harbor porpoises, black guillemots, common loons in breeding plumage, and bald eagles on the nest! It was misty but not too cold, and the kids were digging it!

And now we're enjoying our third full day at the American Birding Association convention in Snowbird, Utah, having spent the whole day doodling around the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Terrific birding, with clouds of Wilson's phalaropes and brine flies, heavy smelly air, bison, pronghorns and bighorns. The kids were with us and birding with the experts. Phoebe on the bus, adding birds to the triplist. BOTB is writing an acceptance speechlet for an award he's getting this evening. We are grateful and life is good.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I grew up watching “All in the Family” with my parents and older sister. We loved its edgy humor. In one episode, Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) comes home from shopping with an item she hadn’t intended to buy and never paid for, and becomes convinced that she’s a kleptomaniac. She turns to the camera, a look of abject horror crossing her face. “I don’ wanna be a kleppa!” she wails.

Well, I’ve been collecting incidences of kleptoparasitism here in my yard. Kleptoparasitism describes one animal stealing food from another. Cardinals, it seems, are good at it. This May, I was watching a juvenile eastern bluebird struggling with a large black beetle on the lawn beneath my studio window. An adult male cardinal flew down and displaced the bluebird, which dropped its catch. The cardinal masticated the beetle briefly, then dropped it. Perhaps it was distasteful. Perhaps the klepper cardinal was just being mean.
On August 11, 2005, in the midst of a severe drought, I was watching a robin foraging in the lawn for grasshoppers, there being no earthworms within a yard of the surface. I was feeling bad for the robin, which was processing a hard old crusty grasshopper, when an adult male cardinal came down, bumped the robin and grabbed the hopper. I commemorated that event in a watercolor. I couldn’t help but put a triumphant glint in the cardinal’s eye, and a kind of forlorn look in the robin’s, because that’s what I saw. They’re standing on crispy grass amidst birch leaves that turned brown and fell off the trees—in August.

But the third and most recent instance is my favorite. On May 28, 2008, I was sitting on the front porch, having just called my mom for her 88th birthday. I was idly watching an adult Carolina wren which was perched on the telephone wire. It had a big white moth in its bill, and it was hesitant to come to its nest, which was in a copper bucket just over my head, under the eave. As it perched there, trying to make up its mind whether to blow its cover and bring the food to its young (news flash, Mr. Wren. I put the bucket up there; I know perfectly well you have five babies in it), a large brown bird flew directly at the wren, bumped it chest to chest, and snatched the moth. The wren spiraled down to the ground, caught completely off guard. The brown bird flew right past my astonished face, and as it passed I caught bright rufous in its outer tail feathers and yellow on its belly—a great crested flycatcher! Wow!
How I wish I could have photographed the incident. I had to settle for a photo of one very pissed-off and mothless Carolina wren, who was doubtless wondering what the heck just happened. Nope, didn’t get a photo of the perp. Sorry. But maybe I'll do a painting of the chest-butting, moth-snatching flycatcher assaulting the wren. See? We'll never be able to completely replace artists.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I would point out that in all three instances, I was calmly watching a common bird going about its business when the kleptoparastism occurred. I was certainly not expecting such cool behavioral interactions; they were completely serendipitous. There is much to recommend watching common birds go about their business, and then making a written record of what you observe.

Because, in the words of R.T. Peterson, "If you don't write it down, it never happened."

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Buck Bellers

There is a young Angus bull in a pasture that's catty-corner to Buck's, over on the next road to ours. His name is Satan.

Not long ago, Buck was put in a new field with his ladies, where he's closer to Satan's corner. He got himself all riled up, and sent out a challenge to Satan.

If you've never heard a bull challenge another, it's a series of short gasps, Uhhh! Uhh! Uhhh! Uhhh! After each series of calls, Buck would paw the ground, sending up great clouds of dust.
I'd never seen this side of him, but it was good to remember that he is a bull, and not some big overstuffed friendly sofa.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Horses and Dogs

While we watered the horses and their thirsty riders (Liam was waterboy), we passed the time just watching them interact with Chet and the kids. We're looking forward to their next visit, and hope we'll be here when they suddenly appear in the driveway. Jane and Kim don't mess with the paved roads, riding a defunct extension of our road right through the deep woods between our homes. I have yet to walk that road, but I mean to. I love the thought that there's a woods road connecting us, clear enough to accommodate horses and riders. I want to know what's breeding there, whether there are summer tanagers. I think there might be.Gilly is a very oral horse, nibbling everything like a foal. Walk up to pet him, and he starts in on your clothes, fingers, have to watch him. So we gave him Cuz, a rubber toy Chet has never liked. Chet don't like rubber. Gilly chewed it and then flung it into the weeds. Score zero for Cuz on both the dog and horse front. Notice that Gilly is not wearing a bit. He has never needed one. He'd be chewing on it nonstop, anyway.
Jane showed us how Gilly drinks from a cup. I love how he sticks his lower lip out to catch some of the dribbles. That's got to be hard to do, when you can't see the glass over your long nose. How much cuter could a horse be? Think he knows he's loved? While all this was going on, Phoebe got acquainted with Gonzo, a Chihuahua cross who Jane also got from a rescue outfit. He had multiple issues when he came to live with her, but he's a happy, loving little guy now. (See a pattern here?)
Baker was tolerant of Phoebe's attention to Gonzo, but he wanted Gonzo to understand who was the Boss of Number Two.Hello, little foxy dog. Allow me to dominate you.I am taller and stronger than you are, and have the potential to be much, much meaner if it were to come to a fight or something like that. Not that it would. I'm just sayin'.As a concession to you, I will allow you to sniff my tail. Mether tells me it came from Tennessee. She also tells me I smell like sunshine and fresh-planed wood. I am sure you will agree.

A penny for your thoughts, Gonzo.

Too soon, it was time for the girls to saddle up and go. We hauled out a couple of cinder blocks as makeshift mounting blocks. I had forgotten that dilemma from my days as a teenage bareback rider--if you dismount, you have to figure out how to remount, and when your horse stands 16 hands, that's no joke.
Both Gonzo and Gilly seem to know how lucky they are. Here's to people who rescue animals and give them a life they might never have dared to dream of. Gilly's whole story can be found on Jane's blog. Try her May 2008 archives.
By the time you read this, we'll be on our way to Utah for the American Birding Association convention. I'll be speaking, Bill will be an awardee (hooty hoot!) and we'll both be leading field trips, kids in tow. When we get home, I get to stay home for two whole weeks. I'm giddy at the thought.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Horse Nipperer

My neighbor, Jane Augenstein, has a glorious horse named Gilly. She got him from a rescue group, which had found him starving with a bunch of other horses in a muddy paddock. His hair stood straight out from his body; his bones showed through his skin, and he was desperately trying to grow (he was just a foal) without much at all to eat.

Jane has worked with him now for five years, and he's grown up to be a splendid, strong animal. Though she'd never owned a horse before, she trained him and gentled him with the help of her neighbor, Kim, another equestrienne friend, and a lot of reading and videos from horse whisperers. Now, she rides him without a bit, and he is the light of her life, standing 16 muscle-packed hands tall. He's a mix, with some quarter horse, some Tennessee walker, and probably some draft blood somewhere back in there, to judge from the heft of his bones and the size of his feet.

One afternoon, Jane and Kim (on Lacey, her lovely, gentle Appaloosa) came to visit. Baker found them first. This is not as I would have wanted it, since Baker's never been around a horse. But he raced out the driveway, barking, and circled around them.

At first, he just stood them off, barking. This is the biggest animal he'd ever been up close to.
Thank goodness, both Lacey and Gilley are well-used to dogs, and seemed bemused by Chet's excitement.
Chet sniffed and sniffed. He couldn't get enough of that good horsey smell, and the feel of that velvet muzzle. When horses meet, they touch nostrils, and exchange breath, breathing each other's exhalations. It's a nice way to greet a horse, to breathe the warm, grassy breath of their lungs, to touch that plushy skin with your nose.
Baker trembled with excitement, fear, playfulness, and not knowing what to do with it all. Gilly was patient. For whatever reason, Chet's entire focus was Gilly; he barely sniffed at Lacey, perhaps because Lacey ignored him; perhaps because Gilly returned his interest. Chet's always hoping someone will want to play with him. I think he and Gilly are brothers from another mother.
When Gilly would raise his head, Chet would leap up, trying to touch noses, and twice he nipped Gilly's nose. Bad idea, Chet Baker. At the first nip, Gilly jerked his head up and looked down on Chet with surprise. At the second, he laid down the law. He snorted loudly and planted one enormous hoof right next to Chet--STOMP! The message was clear. Try that again and I'll turn you into a spot of grease on your driveway, kid. I was glad for Chet to learn a little bit about horses, though I think he's a long way from wise about them. His devil-may-care terrier half comes through loud and clear. Note that his tail antenna is straight out. I think he got the transmission. I love this picture, even though I missed the actual stomp.

This post makes me miss Chet Baker something awful. I have been Bakerless for 9 days, and I have another 8 to go. We're home for less than 24 hours. Baker remains happily ensconced with our friends David and Mary Jane. This morning's report has him helping with gardening and on constant chipmunk patrol in the yard and woods. He is also eating well, getting enough kisses, enjoying two hikes a day and rides in the car. Sigh. I need a Chetfix, but it would only confuse him and make me want to smuggle him in my carryon to Utah. And I wouldn't do that to any dog, much less the Tennessee Turd-Tail. If I could just bury my nose between his shoulder blades and fall asleep holding him, I think everything would be right with the world.

Our homeward bound experience with JetBlue was not as bad as the outbound; we just idled on the dark runway, stacked up behind 15 other jets, breathing hot diesel, for an hour and 45 minutes at JFK, and then they misplaced my suitcases. We got to Pittsburgh around midnight last night, and were just too tired to drive the 2 1/2 hours home, so we sighed and quietly coughed up another $180 to stay at the airport hotel. Bill and I put the kids in a hot tub and went downstairs to have a drink and get some chicken wings to take back up to the room for our midnight dinner.

When we travel anymore I feel like Scrooge McDuck, watching his precious $100 bills flapping little wings as they fly up toward heaven. You'd think, as expensive as flying is, that you might expect to reach your destination feeling a little better than roadkill, but I now understand that expecting to reach your destination when promised, or to reach your destination at all, is really expecting a bit too much. I hope they get my suitcases here before we leave for Utah. That would be nice. They have 19 hours to do it. But again, probably expecting too much. Flying in the age of fuel shortages is all about having contingency plans, and waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop right onto your fold-out tray, spilling your plastic tumbler of warm tomato juice all over the only outfit you have.

Having said that, Hog Island was terrific, and we showed 29 people a fine time. The kids were a delight to be with, and seeing the two of them sitting together on a boulder, watching the solstice high tide come rushing in, was a beautiful sight. Time to rustle lunch and mow before it rains. More horses and dogs tomorrow!

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Howdy from Hog Island

I've got posts pre-scheduled to get us through this week AND next, but I couldn't resist breaking in for a dispatch from Maine.
Taken yesterday on Harbor Island. I am holding Liam's head up because he had the wiggles, bad. That boy had holes to dig and porpoise bones to uncover, and he just couldn't stand for a picture. Obviously I did not get the Wear a Blue Shirt memo.

Gosh, it's good to be here, with a parula warbler singing just outside in the misty cool air. We've had the most amazingly fantastic time birding, and the sun, which had been predicted to hide all week, blessed us yesterday for our cruise to Eastern Egg Rock to see puffins, and for a butterfly-studded hike on Harbor Island. This is my favorite puffin shot of the day.

The kids are enjoying themselves; life is good. Here, Liam has discovered that it is possible to make a sand angel, just as one would make a snow angel. He is putting a special twist on it, though, making his sand angel enormously anatomically correct. BOTB's son, that one.

This morning, we take a walk originally plotted out by Roger Tory Peterson in the village of Medomac, when he led birding groups around Hog Island. The place hasn't changed much, and the walk is birdy as all get out--even though Roger would be 100 this year.

Yesterday seems like a dream--an all-day cruise around Muscongus Bay. The sun broke out and smiled on us all afternoon as we picnicked and hiked on Harbor Island. Butterflies danced in the hawkweed and we squeezed through a dark cave and found a fairy house on the other side. A perfect day was capped by the news that Bill would be on NPR that afternoon. He went birding with Melissa Block and her adorable almost-six-year-old daughter Chloe, and it was all captured on tape. We got to tune in and listen, with our whole Joy of Birding group attending.
Go listen here. It's like birding with Bill.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Walking the Fen

Remember the Beaver Creek Wetlands? Here's another dispatch from a beautiful morning spent there. As we entered the swamp forest, a bunny hopped along a log.As we came out of the open fen and made our way to a shrubby wetland, the sneezy Fitz-BEW! of willow flycatchers floated on the air. This little bird could be called nondescript, but it's such a lively sprite, so typical of a certain kind of wet shrubland. There was an overgrown, swampy part of a Big Lots parking lot right near Bird Watcher's Digest in Marietta that sat immersed long enough to get a healthy community of black willow and other wetland shrubs growing through it. It had willow flycatchers. Of course, it was drained not long after the ecosystem had gotten going, blank asphalt being much the preferred option overall .

Soon the unmistakable song of a yellow-breasted chat drifted to my ears. Oh, how I wanted everyone to see this great love of mine, this species I am blessed to call a regular in my yard. Having no iPod or speakers, I resorted to imitating his whistles and ratchety scolds. He came in for a clear look at the imposter.
The chat has a most entertaining way of jetting his long neck out when he sings; of puffing his throat to froglike proportions. He reminds me of one of those toys whose eyes pop out when you squeeze him. Every utterance is accompanied by an outrageous posture, a kind of razzmatazz vaudeville delivery.All this is made even more striking by the chat's flash markings, great for long-distance visual transmission--his yolk-yellow breast, his white spectacles, and his amazing black mouth lining.Twice, he performed his butterfly display flight, no doubt for the benefit of the unseen rival (who happened to be me). The bird looks as if it's suspended on a yo-yo string, bouncing with exaggerated flaps and cocked tail, dangling feet and head up, over the shrub tops. This chat pulled out all the stops for us, and I was grateful to be with an excited bunch of birders, some of whom were seeing their first ever yellow-breasted chat. Their collective gasps of wonder were worth the slight embarrassment of having to whistle and stutter loudly through my teeth. I have been trying to send that bird a check, but "Siebenthaler Fen, Shrub Border Near Gazebo, Beaver Creek, Ohio" just keeps getting returned to sender.

Knowing that this remarkable wetland had been made accessible and protected in perpetuity by ordinary citizens made my heart sing with the chat.
A painted turtle, the size of a quarter, with a future.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Crack is a Better Name for It

Upon viewing the bluebird foot photos, I put in a call to my favorite avian veterinarian: Robert Giddings, DVM, Diplomate, Association of Avian Veterinarians, of Kensington Bird and Animal Hospital in Kensington, Connecticut. Two decades ago, he was Charlie the macaw's veterinarian, he patched up my busted wild birds in return for help around the office, and I still turn to him with avian health questions.

Zick: "Hi, Bob. Can birds get gout?"

Bob: "Oh, yes. It's pretty common in caged birds. There was a pellet made by Pretty Bird that had too much protein and Vitamin D in it, that caused gout in quite a few cockatiels, but any diet that's too rich can cause it, just as it can in humans."

Zick: AH-HA!!!

I described the bluebird's feet to Bob--red, swollen, inflamed, and obviously causing the bird great pain. He agreed that articular gout was the most likely culprit. It's caused by a diet too high in protein (peanut butter?) and fat (lard-- You think?). Lots of purine in lard, it turns out. Gout is caused by an excess of uric acid in the body, which can be caused by increased intake of foods containing purines, which are metabolized to uric acid in the body. Over time, elevated levels of uric acid will lead to deposits of it in connective tissue around joints. Eventually, the uric acid may form crystals in the joints, leading to acute pain and inflammation.

In pet birds, gout is treated with alepurinol and colchicine, both antipurine medications, as well as pain medications. In wild birds, the only possible course would be to remove the offending food. I had already done that; had been cutting slowly back over the last three weeks. Now, I was putting out just enough "Zick dough" on occasional mornings to bring the birds in for a few minutes so I could photograph their poor little feet.

Bob: "Surely, these bluebirds are eating other things than this suet dough, right? A wild bird shouldn't overeat any one item when there are all kinds of natural foods out there."

Zick: "You'd have to know bluebirds. They are the ultimate addictive personalities. Offer them mealworms or suet dough, and they'll take the easy out every time, gorging on it to the exclusion of anything else."

Bob said that I should see a clearing of symptoms as time passed and the bluebirds resumed taking a natural diet. So for the past three weeks I have been photographing bluebird feet at every opportunity. It's become a little hobby. And I am delighted to say that the front yard male is standing strongly on both feet, showing just a little residual swelling in what we'd call his right "ankle"--the junction of his toes. And the backyard female now stands up tall on both feet, and the redness is gone, along with the worst of the swelling. She's not puffed up any more, and she's building a nest for her second clutch of eggs.

WHEWWW. I am so sorry, bluebirds. You deserve much better than to be fed mass quantities of a food that's flat-out bad for you. News flash: Mass quantities of mealworms are JUST AS BAD for bluebirds as is Zick dough. They're deficient in phosphorus, too high in protein and fat, and they mess the birds up. Don't feed mealworms in summer. Just stop it. They do not need your subsidy. I know, they'll tell you they're starving without you. Don't believe it.

I know there are many of you out there having tons o' fun feeding suet dough to birds this summer, watching them feed it to their babies. I've been doing that for years. I field calls all the time from people who have their birds addicted to mealworms, who suddenly panic when they go on summer vacation, and call me to ask what they should do about their bluebirds. Surely they'll starve without me!

What's wrong with this picture? It's the conceit that we are indispensible to wild birds; that our artificial foods (and yes, mealworms, fed to the exclusion of anything else, are an artificial food) are keeping them alive.

I have one plea. Stop NOW. Feed them in ice storms; when snow covers the ground; when they truly are having trouble finding food. Give it to them when it rains for a week in June and goes down to the 40's at night. But don't give it to them in the warmth of spring and summer when natural food is abundant, when the grasshoppers, crickets, spiders and caterpillars, bursting with nutrients and live enzymes and amino acids, are everywhere to be found. You wouldn't feed your kids candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner and expect them to thrive. Make no mistake: they'd be happy to have it, and they'd gobble it down and beg for more, but kids don't know what's bad for them. Neither, apparently, do wild birds. It's up to us to have the good judgement to do what's best for them.
Bluebird fledgling, staring at a natural food item

Never forget that we feed birds for our own pleasure and enjoyment, not because it's good for them. Feeding birds is a human conceit, and coming to the conclusion that they depend on us for their very survival is a scam that they encourage us to believe. Don't buy it. They're much, much better off without our food stamps. Mealworms or suet dough: if you're feeding your bluebirds every day, you're doing them no favors. You're compromising their health.
This photograph was taken June 12, 2008, of the same female bluebird who was suffering so in the photos taken May 28. Withholding the offending food has done wonders for her. See how the redness and swelling have subsided, and she's perching normally? Yaaaay!! She's having a little snack of mealworms here, in case you're wondering. And she'll have no subsidy for the rest of the month!

Happy birthday, DOD.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Uh-Oh. Zick Dough.

Sorry for the interruption. JFK airport looks on the surface like it has wireless Internet, but the terminal we occupied all day yesterday was overloaded or bereft, probably both. So I couldn't post. I went directly from my (fabulous!) writer's weekend at Murphin Ridge Inn in central Ohio to Pittsburgh on Sunday and stayed overnight with the family in an airport hotel hoping to fly out for Maine Monday morning. The Airline Gods declared that it was Not to Be. Instead of flying out of Pittsburgh at 7 AM, our flight was delayed, causing us to miss our connection in New York, and we wound up challishing in a windowless terminal crammed with miserable people at JFK for 7 hours. Every flight we could take to Portland, Maine, was canceled for the day, but they told us we might just get out at 10:30 P.M. if we were very lucky. Or, then again, we might not, and we'd have to spend the night in that terminal. Ohh, wouldn't that be luverly. As we had been languishing there since 10 A.M., we rejected that notion. Think crying babies, blaring alarms and announcements, flourescent lights, nowhere to lie down. One sandwich stand with bread like wallboard. Baaaaaaaaa. We put our heads together with a similarly stranded couple, decided to catch a flight to Boston, rent a car and DRIVE to Maine. Anything, anything, anything but more sitting at JFK. We finally fell into bed at 12:30 A.M. on Hog Island, Maine, where I'm writing now.

The kids were great, real troopers. All day long at that airport, Liam acted like he ate jumping beans for breakfast, when actually it was Frosted Flakes. Thinking about it, that's pretty much the same thing, isn't it? Speaking of inappropriate foods...

I've been winding up to write this post for quite awhile, because I wanted to be sure I knew what I was talking about before committing anything to electrons. I've figured out something about the concoction popularly known as "Zick Dough," and what I've figured out isn't good.

As many of you know, I've always been a little squeamy about people calling this stuff, a mixture of cornmeal, quick oats, flour, melted peanut butter and lard, "Zick Dough." I didn't invent it; the recipe's been around for years, first as "Miracle Meal," and then, with some alterations (less sugar, fewer ingredients) as "Peanut Butter Suet Dough." I first wrote about it in Bird Watcher's Digest in the fall of 2004, when I'd been feeding it for two years. So I guess I've had a considerable hand in popularizing it. Every time I post about it, people want the recipe, and it pops up on blogs all the time, usually as Zick Dough.

In 2002, a BWD subscriber in Port Orchard, Washington had sent in photos of herself feeding it to a wild male pileated woodpecker--from her hand. Not only that, but over the ensuing seasons the big woodpecker brought his fledglings to her deck railing, where he'd stuff them with what she called "bird pudding." She sent me the recipe, we talked on the phone, and I came away convinced that this was some kind of stuff and I'd better start making it for my birds.

I've posted, more or less ecstatically, about suet dough for two years now. I fed more of the stuff this winter and spring than ever before. I'd multiply the recipe (yes, it's in the link above) times six each time I made it, dragging a huge lobster pot up from the basement and using my stoutest stainless spoon to stir it. It takes all my strength to stir a batch like that, and I get down on the floor and hold the pot between my knees as I grunt and groan the mixture into smoothness. But oh, the birds it attracted, especially my beloved bluebirds. I felt I was helping them through the winter.

Most of the U.S. had an abnormally cold, wet spring (or long winter, however you want to look at it). I kept feeding the dough at winter levels well into May, because it just refused to warm up, and I knew there couldn't be many insects stirring when it rained all day, and the nights went into the 30's and 40's.

And two bluebirds in my yard turned up lame. She looks fine--until you notice the missing scute on the outer toe--that pink zone.

First, the male from the front yard nestbox started holding up one foot, balancing awkwardly on the other and catching himself with an outthrust wing when he'd fall. Almost at the same time, the female bluebird from the backyard nestbox started sitting very low, puffed up as if she were in pain, and favoring both feet alternately. Now, this isn't necessarily something that would alarm me had it occurred in just one bird; I'd figure it had pulled a muscle or gotten its toe bent the wrong way. As I thought about it, though, I've seen lame legs in other songbirds at my suet dish over the years. I always figured they were coming to the suet dough dish because they were compromised. It didn't occur to me that they might have been compromised because they were coming to the suet dough dish.

Hmm. What's that going on with the heel of her right foot?

One of the nice things about having a 300 mm. lens, Mary, is that you can make a close-up examination of a bird you can't handle. I decided to photograph the afflicted birds' feet and legs, to see if I could blow up the pictures and determine what was going on. On getting my photos on the screen, I was sickened to see the backyard female bluebird's feet swollen, red and misshapen. No wonder she was acting as if she were in pain. She was in a great deal of pain, and she had to feed a brood of five young right through it all. And what was she feeding them? Why, Zick dough, of course.

Because the front yard male held up his foot, hiding it in his belly feathers, I couldn't get a picture of him, but I noticed that he switched off--sometimes he'd hold up the left leg; sometimes the right. That makes injury unlikely, and points even more directly to a metabolic problem. The mental leap I immediately took was that this condition had to be dietary in origin. When a pet bird turns up with a problem--any problem--the first place you go for answers is its diet. As I thought about it, these garden bluebirds, for all practical purposes, ARE pets, since they are eating prodigious quantities of an artifical diet. They're living on lard, oats, cornmeal, flour and peanut butter. Does that sound like a proper diet for a wild bluebird?

Wouldn't you think someone who has kept an orchard oriole and a Savannah sparrow going for 17 years as captives, feeding them everything from live wasp larvae to lasagne, might have figured this out before now? I can be a little slow.

As my friend Shila points out, the foods that are seasonally available to wild birds (and people) are the foods that are appropriate for them at that time of the year. Feeding unlimited lard and peanut butter all winter and well into the spring can't be a good idea. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I had created this problem in otherwise healthy birds. So I got on the trail of it. I'll tell you what I learned tomorrow.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Rabbit Heroism

All my container plants are up on blocks. This is Appalachia, after all, it matches the cars. Actually, it's because I have a rabbit nemesis in the yard who climbs up into my planters and eats everything down to stubs. She chews up geraniums, reducing them to a pile of leaves and stem segments. Some thanks that is for saving her babies.

I am happy to report that the shadbush she bit down from 14" to 1" has resprouted, and is now enclosed in chicken wire. Thought you'd like to know, TreeLady.

On Thursday, July 12, my commentary on heroic rabbit mothers aired on All Things Considered. You can listen to it here.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Adventure in Beaver Creek

There is a remarkable thing going on in Beaver Creek, Ohio. For twenty years, an extraordinary group of citizens, scientists, teachers and naturalists, all of them de facto conservationists, have been working to save a complex and diverse system of wetlands that winds through this beautiful community not far from Dayton, Ohio. Over 900 acres have been brought under protection in those 20 years, each one of those acres seething with birds, herps, amphibians, insects and a remarkably diverse and intact native plant community. There are fens and streams, swamps and sedge meadows and wet prairies. The Beaver Creek Wetlands Association wants to protect them all, and the priceless aquifer flowing beneath them. A slight slope of the land keeps water flowing through the wetlands, draining into Big Beaver Creek, one of the myriad creeks in Ohio that was "improved" by channelization. We always think we can improve on nature. The BCWA knows perfection when it sees it, and they make contact with landowners to secure conservation easements or outright ownership of the many jigsaw pieces of an irreproducible puzzle.
Common yellowthroat, Siebenthaler Fen.
I was honored to be asked to speak at the BCWA's Twentieth Anniversary banquet. Here assembled were biologists, boardwalk builders, weed pullers, land donors (including Mr. Siebenthaler!) and financial backers, all brought together by a common goal. I felt abashed and useless, as I often do in the presence of people who accomplish concrete things in conservation, but I tried to entertain them anyway. The talk went well. I was pampered beyond all reason by my gracious hosts.

Sunday morning, we made an excursion to Siebenthaler Fen, the jewel in the BWCA crown. It's a special sort of wetland that is underlain by a water-bearing gravel deposit left by the Wisconsin Glacier as it melted 15,000 years ago. Cool water continually circulates to the surface, nourishing a plant community that includes cottonwood, sycamore(see the oriole?) and box elder forests, open shrubland dominated by shrubby cinquefoil, swamp rose, willows and dogwoods, and squishy fen with queen of the prairie, sweetflag, bur reed and countless other wetland plants. It's a tremendously exciting and inspiring place to be, especially since the Ohio DNR and BCWA cooperated to build a mile-long boardwalk that winds through all these communities. You can be in the middle of a fen, birding with perfectly dry feet, in habitat that would require hip waders to negotiate. What a gift to give the community. Without the boardwalk, the fen would be all but inaccessible, all its wonders off-limits to any but the hardiest naturalist. With it, those in wheelchairs and strollers can go birding in a marsh. To see landscape and habitat photos from the fen, please go to Nina's gorgeous blog, Nature Remains. She posted about it ages ago, right after it happened, but it takes a blog ant quite a while to catch up. Nina and her husband Anton came to experience the fen, and it was so wonderful to see them again. Here we are, with Anton behind the camera and the swamp forest behind us.G's Cottage came, too. I really enjoy meeting people whose blogs I read. You have so little catching up to do.

Birds appeared as if on cue everywhere we walked. A pair of tree swallows was flaunting the obvious intent of the person who built their nestbox. Two indigo buntings were singing in the parking lot, hurling birdy insults--even singing over top of one another. This is the avian equivalent of making a very rude hand gesture. I like this photo, with his mouth lining lit up by the morning sun.

While we waited for everyone to show up, I fired away at the little songboxes, the color of a summer evening sky just before it drains to tangerine.There are certain angles and lights that show indigo buntings to best advantage. I like them best when they're turquoise.
With a lens that goes to only 300 mm., you have to be right on top of your subject to get decent shots.
The buntings were so engrossed in their border dispute that they paid little attention to me as I stood quietly near the contested corner. I took a lot of pictures, none of them publishable, except for here. That's what's fun about a blog. We'll explore more of the fen on Monday. I'll leave you with bunting overload.

I'm preparing to head over to Murphin Ridge Inn tomorrow in Adams County, Ohio, in the heart of Amish country, for a weekend writer's workshop. Boy, that sounds enticing to me, but doh! I'm giving it...I'll do my best to make it fun and informative for the participants. There's still room for people who want to come on Saturday; I'll be giving a morning workshop on nature journaling, and then we'll take a walk with superb naturalist Chris Bedel, ending in a fabulous picnic lunch at the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, a north-meets-south sanctuary where both whip-poor-wills and chuck-will's-widows sing. Saturday evening, I'll talk about Letters from Eden and the writer's life. It's all happening this Saturday, June 14, at Murphin Ridge Inn.

You won't find better, fresh, local gourmet food in Ohio--it's the most gorgeous rural inn, nestled in the hardwoods and fields of Amish country, with the most delicious meals and delightful proprietors. If it sounds enticing, well, it should, and we'd love to see you there. Call 1-877-687-7446 for more information. They're at 750 Murphin Ridge Road, West Union, Ohio.
That last picture in this lineup is me, giving you one-on-one instruction in nature writing. Heh.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More Orchids

In March 2006, I bought two little seedlings, tiny enough to both fit in my palm, at a flower show in Chicago where I was speaking. It was so cold that I put them in my shirt for the ride to the hotel and airport. I didn't know what they'd look like when they bloomed, but I was willing and eager to wait. Hey, I'd be waiting anyway. Might as well have something to look forward to. One is blooming now, and here's what I got.
It's Phalaenopsis "Brother Coral" x "Everspring Pearl." And guess what? It's fragrant!! I do like it! Worth the wait!

With orchid crosses like this, people hand-pollinate the flowers with a brush, and when the dustlike seeds form and ripen in the pod, they scatter them on agar (a seaweed derived nutrient medium gel) in a closed flask. When the seeds germinate, they're almost microscopic. The seedlings are grown on in the flask until they're big enough to transplant. You don't really know for sure what you'll get, since some seedlings will have more properties of one parent than the other. Buying seedlings is a bit of a crapshoot, but I like that kind of gamble.

Iwangara 'Appleblossom" is a hybrid cross of Brassaevola, Cattleya, Diacrium (Caularthron) and Laelia orchids. Yes. A quadrigeneric hybrid. This is part of what is so dang cool about orchids. They are man-made, and yet manage to be so beautiful through it all. Someone decides he (or she) likes the growth habit of one, the fragrance of another, the color of another, the form of another, let's say, and crosses the plants and comes up with something unknown in nature, something virtually unnameable. So then they have to come up with a new genus name for this creation. Hence the bizarre genus Iwangara. It has a terrific growth habit, with nice fat pseudobulbs and springy arching paired leaves. And, like most of my others, it's wildly fragrant. Stinks up the room, it does. Ahhhh. In the picture below, you get a hint of that growth habit. Big plant! Has its own pedestal.
For pure bizarreness, it's hard to beat the Paphiopedalums, or slipper orchids. This is Paph. Emerald "Buint Ruby" x Paph. superbens "King." They're the most fun to photograph, with light coming through their petals.
It's on its second year with me, and it's made incredible growth from the seedling stage. The whole affair is about 2' tall. Love that checkered foliage, too. This flower will last two to three MONTHS on the plant. Most of my orchid flowers last two or more months. That's just another thing to love about them.
Back in February, I wrote about a very special orchid I bought last May--Psychopsis Mendenhall "Hildos." It was just a seedling, with two leaves (sound familiar?). Over the past year, it put out three great big mottled leaves, and in February 2008 I noticed something protruding from beneath them. It was, against all expectations, the plant's first flower spike. I really had no idea what I was in for, but I knew it would be good.

Here's what it looks like now. The spike is 37" tall. Yes. From a plant in a 2" plastic pot. Obviously, a very happy plant. Hildos lives in the east bedroom window, and loves to be bathed in sun for a few hours a day.
At the tip of that yard-tall spike is a very hopeful and bizarre-looking bud. The stem flattened out like a newt's tail and made a little tulip-shaped bud at the end. It has changed even more over the past few days since I took these pictures. And it is driving me crazy, because I think it's going to open while I'm away.
There is a precedent: Phoebe took her first steps the evening I left her with her daddy overnight for the first time. Some things in life just aren't fair. I came back from my overnight trip, and my baby was walking. I fully expected to come home from North Dakota and find this flower open.
Psychopsis Mendenhall "Hildos."

Since I wrote this post, I found that the bud had swelled and enlarged until it looked like an elf's shoe. Yesterday, I photographed it, but I was troubled by its color--a bit yellow. This morning, I looked closely at the bud again, and touched it oh so gently with a fingertip, whereupon it promptly fell off. Well, isn't that special. You wait since February and watch this thing grow to three feet and you know it only has one flower at a time but that one's a lollapalooza, and the very first bud falls off before it opens. However...there is another bud right beneath the stump of the first one, and I choose to interpret this inauspicious event as the plant trying not to bloom while I'm off giving a talk somewhere. Ahem.

Can I get an ARRRGHHH from the choir? It was my personal Belmont Stakes moment.

And looking on the bright side, this spike will live for years, unlike those of the Phalaenopsis orchids, which generally wither when the flowers do. It will throw out one blossom after another. I'm already nervous about repotting this plant, since they are said to resent disturbance. I would too, if I had a 3' flower spike. Oh well. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

So that, my friends, is what's blooming (and dropping much-anticipated buds) right now on Indigo Hill. Inside the house, that is.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What's Blooming Now?

Doritaenopsis "Sogo Gem", on the left, and an unnamed Phalaenopsis on the right. They're lighting up the foyer.

If there were one thing I could change about orchids, it might be their tendency to bloom their fool heads off just as everything else OUTSIDE is doing that. They sit all winter, planning and vegetating, and then go ape in June, just like my roses and columbines, valerian and delphiniums, geraniums and violas...Oh, well. I'm not complaining. Just joy on top of joy, that's all. We can't expect to spread it out through the dreary months.

This is the little private party in one south-facing window in the bedroom right now. Pretty ridiculous, if you ask me. And oh, how I love it.
Years ago, maybe seven? Shila gave me a little keiki (baby) that had grown off her big purple Phalaenopsis. It was about 2" tall, with two tiny leaves. I never got its name. It's a mature plant now, flawless, and it makes more huge intricate flowers every year.

It's important not to turn a phalaenopsis while the buds are forming, or the flowers get confused and turn toward the light, and the ranking gets all messed up. I waited until the buds were all open to turn their faces away from the window and toward the denizens of the house. Ahhh. This is a HUGE plant, and I suspect it has Phalaenopsis gigantea somewhere in its parentage. It's so big and floppy that I had to put it in an enormous metal cachepot to support its heavy leaves. Gad, you'd think I could remove the tag from the cachepot. Having orchids all over your house doesn't necessarily mean you're a class act.


I bought this little Phalaenopsis "Universal Dream Stephanie" x "Taipei Gold Star" mostly for its fragrance. Yes, some of the Phal's are fragrant, usually the ones with smaller, waxy blooms. That tends to indicate that Phal. violacea is somewhere in their lineage, for it is wildly fragrant. You must wait until they're warm and the sun hits them, and then look out!

Orchids are nothing if not durable. This exquisite little Phal. very nearly died; it caught some kind of fungal disease and all its leaves turned yellow and mushy and fell off, all but one. I sequestered that sorry-looking thing in the downstairs bathroom, doused it with antifungal sulfur powder and waited two years. Now look at it! It's back up in the main collection and blooming its head off. And it's fragrant, too.
It's Phal. leucadia "Red Pepper" x Phal. goldiana "Zuma," and I think it's saying, "Thank you for having faith in me, and believing I'd come back."

Twyford "Lava Glow" is one of my favorite Phalaenopses. It's a gorgeous plant, with shiny dark-green leaves piled one atop the other. This year, it's got 24 blossoms, and I'm told a mature plant can have upwards of 50 at a time. The lip is an indescribably rich magenta-flame color, lost in this photo. The flowers are about the size of a quarter. If you see this plant in a big box store, and you may, pick it up! It's all I can do not to grab Lava Glow plants when I see them languishing at Lowe's. But I've got about fifty orchids now, and they're not getting smaller by the year. I'm out of room, with a bullet.

Best horticultural tip of the year, thanks to my friend Boneman. When you have 50 orchids to keep up with, you're going to have scale and mealybugs eventually. I used to use pyrethrins, and I hated to do it, and it didn't seem very effective, anyway, but I won't use the really poisonous stuff. I now spray my plants with Windex (with ammonia) and the scales just dry up and die. Windex doesn't burn the flowers like pyrethrins do. And I'd much rather have a spritz of Windex on my windows and floating in the air than insecticide, wouldn't you? I spray my orchids, it gets all over the windows, I wipe it off, I get clean windows instead of poisoned, murky ones, and everybody's happy. Thanks, Boneman!

More orchids tomorrow!

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Chet Baker, Bean Planter

My first planting of lima beans did not take. I'd planted them too early, and out of 90 beans, only five became viable plants. I wasn't counting on weeks of nights in the thirties and forties, and the beans weren't happy about it, either. My string beans, planted at the same time, germinated lustily. I look at the two seeds, one large, white and flat, the other small, white and oblong, and wonder at the differing cold tolerance encoded, along with all the other information, within that inscrutable seed coat.

There was nothing for it but to soak another batch of 90 limas until they swelled to three times their size, and try again.

Chet Baker's normal attitude in the garden while I work is that of Wilbur the Pig, snuggled in a bed of shiny, sweet-smelling straw. Note his glorious brindleation. He is a chunk of caramel fudge.

But he sat up and watched dreamily as I dug out the furrows and laid the soaked (and rather corny-smelling) lima seeds within. Because I was low on seed and wanted to make sure they were spaced properly, I didn't cover them as I went. I laid out three rows and began covering the first.

And looked up to see Chet Baker moving up the second row, methodically covering each seed with soil and straw.

I knew as I 'd walked out the door to plant with Chet that it was a mistake to leave my camera inside. I actually did one of those little half-turns--should I go get it?--no, it might get dirty when I'm digging--and kept walking. But I know that something interesting always happens when I leave the camera inside. Heck, something interesting happens all the time. I should just sleep with the darn thing around my neck.

I lit out for the house, a curious Baker close on my heels, switched lenses (the wrong lens is always on it), and ran back out to the garden. Hunkered down and readied myself for the magic.

Chet Baker. You with the dirty nose.

Do you think you might plant some more lima beans for me?

The moment has passed. I no longer feel the urge to plant beans. My nose is full of dirt, as you noticed.

Please, Chet. Please plant some more beans for Mether.

More of the same from Chet. He pricked his ears at a distant swallowtail, looked over his shoulder, hummed a little dog tune, and drummed his little dog fingers.

I sighed, put the camera down, and began covering the seeds myself.

Chet sighed, walked over, and resumed planting the row he'd been working on.

I will say that Mr. Baker is not a particularly thorough bean planter, seeming to consider soil and dry, loose straw to be equally good bean growing media. When he was finished I had to redo his row.
But he made me laugh, and that is something.
And a good snorgle on a sun-warmed puppeh will ease any heart.

I have just returned from North Dakota this evening, and promptly retrieved Chet Baker from luxurious and loving accommodations with dear friends who live deep in the West Virginia woods. They had left two phone messages on our home and cell: "If you were planning to pick Chet up tonight, it's perfectly all right for him to stay another night or two. We aren't anxious to see him go. In fact, we'll miss him very much. He's been an absolute joy."

That he is. Knowing he may never see the inside of a kennel cage again fills us all with absolute joy. I figured, after all the mining and whining, you were about as desperate for a Bacon fix as I was.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

His Heart Will Go On


Update on Ruby's mate and brood: I didn't see much of Ruby's mate after she died on May 23. For reasons to be elucidated later, I cut way back on suet dough feeding after her death, so I didn't have much opportunity to see him. I noted the presence of three other redbellies--a very colorful male with rich red belly feathers and face feathers, a disheveled male with some kind of goo messing up his nape, and a plain-fronted female. Finally, on May 29, I saw Ruby's mate at the suet dough dish, and grabbed this shot of him. Here he is. He filled his bill with food and took off into the woods, on the same path he and Ruby always used to feed their brood. They're alive and he's taking good care of them. I thought you'd like to know. I was sure happy about that.

Holed up in a hotel in Fargo, flying home in the morning. Have been without Internet since last Wednesday, which felt kinda good. We've worked at the Potholes and Prairies Festival in Carrington, ND. Think pre-dawn field trips and evening entertainment by BOTB and JZ. Laura from Somewhere in NJ, Ruthie from NatureKnitter, and Birdchick were there, along with Susie who comments sometimes. It was so nice to meet them, and to see Sharon again. Lots of killer pictures of grassland birds to share. It was pretty cold--50's--with a little sun but mostly clouds and rain. It was gorgeous, as always.

Monday we fly home, and then pick up Baker from our friends who kept him for us. I miss his kisses. Zzzzzzzzz. I could sleep for a week.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Misty Mountains

Some things are a lot more beautiful in the rain, and West Virginia's New River Gorge is one of them, I think. There's an overlook where you can lean over a fence and gaze down on the river and the slow-moving coal trains grinding along the tracks at the bottom of the Gorge. Hearing them gives me a wild, nameless feeling, mystery and longing rolled into it, marveling that those hundreds of cars are rolling along to a nameless destination, pulled by a locomotive a mile ahead.

Watching the coal in the seemingly endless train, I wondered how much longer we'd be taking coal out of these mountains. I hoped what I was seeing had been mined the old-fashioned way, by excavating from below, rather than by taking the mountain apart and dumping it in a valley.We always pause here and study the river and the rocks, looking for birds to fatten the festival list. It's like a game of I Spy--we scan carefully with binoculars and scopes, hoping to be the one to find the special hidden bird. Spotted sandpipers, black vultures, a gorgeous pileated woodpecker (seen flying from above!) and common loons rounded out the list for us this year.

At higher elevations, Blackburnian warblers sing their thin song, a jingling, loose series of notes that ends in a fine, wiry spiral up past the limits of human hearing. Females are pretty--this one was in our yard this May--

but males are breathtaking. They are fiery coals; you'd think they'd set the wet spruces aflame with their color.
A typical Blackburnian move--craning its head around to look under needles and leaves as it gleans for insects.The little warbler was named for an ornithologist named Blackburn (hence the capital letter), but the name fits it so perfectly--black and burning at the same time. I love to show Blackburnians to people, to hear the gasp when they've finally got the little midge in their binoculars. I especially remember my friend Patti's first Blackburnian. I never tire of hearing that sharp intake of air, that wonder exhaled.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Parula Interlude

Six years ago, I gave the inaugural keynote at the very first New River Neotropicals Festival, which has now evolved into the New River Birding and Nature Festival. The talk was about the natural history of wood warblers, with details about their lives, their foraging behavior, and their habitat use on the wintering grounds. Having given a talk every year since, I finally ran out of talks, and had to recycle this one. Whereas I'd used a Carousel slide projector in 1992, this time I had slick new photos in a Keynote presentation. And this year, I had a whole new section on threats to warblers, culminating in mountaintop removal mining. It wasn't fun to talk about such a thing at this festival. But a lot of people thanked me for making them aware of it, and I felt better when it was over.

Bill and I give talks at this festival, and we also lead field trips. Most of these convene at 6 AM with a very nice hot breakfast (eggs, bacon, the whole works) under a picnic shelter, and then everyone loads into those long church vans (most of them borrowed from the Baptist church in Oak Hill) to go to different warbler watching sites.

You can see 23 different species of warblers around Fayetteville, West Virginia. Not migrating, but breeding, on territory. These rumpled mountains hold the highest diversity of plant and animal species outside the tropical rainforest. Sometimes, well a lot of the time, it IS rainforest.

It rained this year, started raining the minute I got out of my car on Thursday night, and it stopped raining as I got out of my van at the very end of the last field trip on Saturday afternoon. Of course, it had been beautiful the whole week before I got there, and everyone had enjoyed field trips in sunshine in this week-long festival.

So I don't have as many pictures as I usually would, and many of them were taken in pouring rain. But rain or no rain, when there are so many warblers around, it's hard to have a bad time.
The northern parula is the smallest North American warbler, smaller than a chickadee, hovering around kinglet size.
But the parula packs a lot of beauty into its tiny body. White eye crescents give it a quizzical look, and chestnut and blue bands adorn its breast. A peculiar olive-yellow patch marks its back. I love this head-on look.
The parula's song is a buzzy, ascending trill: zzzzzzziiiiiiiip!--hard to mistake for anything else. Soon enough, the session was over, and the little parula headed for a spruce top.
It's hard to believe such things are tucked into these mountains, but they are. If only more people realized it. If you get a chance to go to this festival, grab it. If you've got holes on the warbler section of your life list, holes like golden-winged warbler and the elusive Swainson's warbler, parula, black-throated blue or Blackburnian warbler, it's the place to go. Shoot for April 27-May 2, 2009. We'll show the birds to you, serve them up on a silver platter, and your money will go toward nature education in local schools. Which I believe is the only hope for changing West Virginia's appallingly short-sighted giveaway of its very soul--its mountains--to huge international coal companies. Take down the mountains, and what will be left of "Almost Heaven?" Will people still come to hike, fish, camp, hunt and watch wildlife on exhausted, hydroseeded barrens? Will ginseng grow, or thrushes sing at twilight on what remains of SugarTree Road?

West Virginians have to come to believe there's a better way to live than by the rape and pillage that is the modus operandi of the coal companies many of them work for. Enlightenment will have to start with their children. Go to this festival. Find out what's there to save. Help fund nature education in West Virginia schools. It's a win-win deal.

And write your Federal representatives. Tell them this horrendous pillage of Appalachia must stop. Tell them to support the reinstatement of the Clean Water Act that the Bush Administration so insidiously gutted. Tell them that mine tailings are poisonous WASTE, not "fill." Tell them to call it like it is. And tell your friends. Click here to find out how.

Every time I start to write about what's so wonderful about West Virginia, every time I look at my pictures of these lovely birds in their sheltering trees, this is what comes out. We have to do something about it. Thank you for your help.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

How it All Works

Mountaintop removal mining is a huge thing, of enormous scale and destructiveness. It's a permanent blight upon the land. There can be no mitigation for removing a mountain and filling a valley with poisonous waste. What hubris could be greater than to take a mountain down for profit and leave it gutted, blasted and baked; to leave the streams buried and the communities below poisoned and without drinkable water? To promise jobs and then yank them away when the project is finished and the mountain is destroyed? Git-r-now. Or somebody else will.

It was a great struggle for me to speak about MTR in my keynote for the New River Birding and Nature Festival, and it has been a struggle for me to wind up to speak of it here. To me, it's an obscenity, and I did not want to defile this web log--which I fight to keep a celebration of what's good and right in this world-- by speaking of it. Nor did I particularly want to rail against it in my keynote talk, which was ostensibly about the biology of migration in warblers, at a festival, no less. Aren't festivals supposed to be fun? But the insult to our forests and birds and water and people is so great, so outrageous, so devastatingly permanent, that I had to say something. It seemed so ridiculous to be leading a field trip, pointing out cerulean warblers, with this going on all around us.
photo of a furious cerulean warbler by Brandon Holden,

Cerulean warblers are going extinct, thanks to this practice, pressure on the wintering grounds, and this administration's unbelievably arrogant, self-serving, hugely protracted and wholly illegal freeze on adding any more species to the Endangered list. There are species that have been waiting 15 years to be listed. Oh. I almost forgot. The administration, with much hoopla and self-congratulation, just added the big, sexy polar bear, while denying that global warming might have anything to do with the fact that its pack ice habitat is melting out from under it. Huzzah. Who cares about little blue birds?

 So it's May, 2008, and I'm standing there, pointing this endangered sky-blue warbler out to happy festivalgoers on the slopes of a beautiful forested mountain that, this time next year, will likely be gone. I did that in two places, two mountains covered with mature mesic deciduous forest like Sugar Tree, that are slated for destruction. Do you think that bothers me? It feels like fiddling on the listing deck of the Titanic.

I want you to know that this is going on all over Appalachia. I want you to know what people are talking about when they mention mountaintop removal mining. Even the name is so sanitized, so clinical. It should be called Blasted Earth Mining, or Habitat Destruction Mining, or Community Devastation Mining. It should be called off. And I'd suggest that our president, and the president of Powellton Coal Company, and the Director of the WVDEP, while we're at it, should have to live in Ansted or Gauley Bridge, little communities beneath mountains that are being taken down, where he'd have to drink bottled water, watch his neighbors fall two by two to cancer, and listen at night to the rain pounding on the roof, and wait for a flash flood to take his little house by the poisoned creek clean away.

It is the business of the coal companies to operate where they will meet little resistance. It is part of their plan. Just like the huge chemical companies, that have all situated their plants along the Ohio River in Washington County, where I live, they're counting on us hillbillies to be too ignorant and compliant to complain. They belch their toxic, fetid waste out in the wee hours of the morning, leaving a sickly brown stain on the sky for 360 degrees around, leaving our cancer rate astronomical and growing every day, and the Ohio EPA nods and takes our calls of complaint and nods and smiles again. Thank you for your call. We're working on, (er, with) it. You may be assured we'll keep your views in mind.

That's why Washington County is the second dirtiest county in Ohio. There's been a judgement made about us, and that judgement is that we're too backward to stop them. Back to West Virginia: You aren't going to see mountaintop removal in the Catskills or the Adirondacks, and you're not going to see a filthy chemical plant belching smut into the skies along the lower Connecticut River. These things don't happen where there's money. These things happen where the corporations can wave their JOBS banner and dazzle us all with the hope of being able to pay for our gas to get to work. It's not a deal we should accept, but we do, we do.

Yes, I love nature and every single wonder she grants us, every moment of grace, every perfect petal, leaf, and feather. But the other side of a love that great is caring a whole lot about it, and that sparks a kind of fury. And so I'm telling you this. In the next posts I want to show you just a few of the things we lose when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of West Virginia make a few strokes of their pens, smile and nod, and let them take the mountains down.

For a spectacularly thorough discussion of mountaintop removal mining--how it could be allowed to happen, why it keeps happening, and what it does to all of us-- with links to myriad organizations dedicated to fighting MTR, please see the inaugural post of Arms Around the Planet.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Mountaintop Removal Mining

A mountain that's been mined from below still looks and acts like a mountain. A mountain that's been removed is never a mountain again.

Gentle readers, I've been absorbed lately by something that is happening in West Virginia, and all over Appalachia. Over the 2 1/2 years I've been blogging, I've tried to keep it light and entertaining. But keeping a blog is like living a life--it gets hairy sometimes, and to try to pretend otherwise, to keep the shiny happy veneer polished, feels like hypocrisy to me. I hope you'll stay with me for the next few posts.

Going to the New River Birding and Nature Festival in Fayetteville, WV, always feels like coming home to us. For one thing, the Zickefooses find their center of abundance around Buckhannon, WV. For another, Bill, Phoebe, Liam, Chet and I have built good friendships with the festival organizers over the six years we've been working at the festival, and we believe in their mission. They've raised a potload of money over the years for nature education in local schools. I can't overestimate the importance of bringing the next generations along with a better understanding and appreciation of the natural resources all around them.

Educating her children, starting an uprising from within, is going to be the only way to save West Virginia from the gigantic coal companies who are blowing her mountains up, dumping the tailings in streams, and stripping the land of its coal. For if West Virginians can't see the value of leaving their landscape intact and functioning; if a mountain is worth something to them only when it's torn down and turned inside out, then there will be nothing to stop Big Coal, the Army Corps of Engineers, and West Virginia's own "Department of Environmental Protection" from linking arms to tear the last mountain down. West Virginia's DEP routinely grants variances for coal companies wishing to remove mountaintops, looks the other way when streams are buried and valleys are filled with the toxin-loaded tailings, and even brings its own sham, placeholding lawsuits against coal companies for the sole purpose of pre-empting legitimate lawsuits bearing real complaints and evidence of horrendous environmental devastation. This beautiful state is being torn up from inside by the cancer of greed, the collusion and complicity of its own "environmental protection" department, and the more insidious disease of apathy, the feeling of powerlessness against such titanic forces.

Between 1992 and 2002, there were 380,000 acres of mountaintops destroyed in West Virginia alone--more acreage than is in her state parks. The destruction has accelerated with each passing year, until more than 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried under "fill," the new, Bush administration approved wording for what used to be called "waste." Under Bush, the Army Corps of Engineers changed the wording of the Clean Water Act in 2002, renaming surface mine waste “fill,” and allowing it to be dumped into streams and valleys. Slick move. This is a valley fill. You see the leveled area to the right; well, all the waste from that leveling is being dumped in the big mound to the left. Imagine what happens to this sheer sided, naked pile when mountain downpours occur. What happens is massive, devastating mudslides, and immediate flooding of the communities below. Selenium is a major byproduct, and severe fish deformities are showing up where they aren’t killed outright.

With that single wording change in the Clean Water Act, this administration streamlined and gutted the permit process to allow coal companies to very quickly move into a pristine area, blow up the mountaintop, extract the coal from narrow seams, and then dump all the tailings into valleys and streams directly below the flattened mountain. They bury the streams in selenium-laden mine tailings; they poison drinking water and render whole communities uninhabitable. It's the Git-R- Now mentality, brought to us by an administration that is happy to let our children worry about its environmental policies.*

*(thanks to my artist/environmentalist friend Mike DiGiorgio for that particular crystallization).

These sites have to be seen to be believed, and the coal companies make sure no one can see them from the ground, strictly guarding access from below with locked gates. But there are pilots (SouthWings) offering free flyovers for anyone truly wanting to know what's going on in West Virginia, and I'm told that flying over these moonscapes of ruined, bare earth is a devastating experience. Just looking at these pictures is bad enough. To give you some idea of the scale, the dragline (the white crane in the middle of the picture) is 22 stories high. That massive machine takes the place of hundreds of men who would otherwise be working in traditional, underground coal mines. And that machine completely destroys the mountain in taking her coal.This was Kayford Mountain, 45 minutes from Charleston, about two hours from my home.

Kentucky and Tennessee have been similarly denuded, and for even longer than West Virginia. Much of their landscape is a completely unrecognizable moonscape; it might as well have been paved. The coal companies "reclaim" the stripped, leveled mountains by hydroseeding nonnative grasses onto the baked-hard subsoil that remains. Because all the topsoil is removed, there is no seed bank by which the mesic deciduous forest can replace itself, so the notion of calling this feeble effort "reclamation" would be laughable, were it not so tragic.Let's look at a mountaintop that's been removed. We'll start with mesic deciduous forest, holding the slopes from rain and erosion, full of cerulean warblers, as well as American redstarts, Kentucky, worm-eating, black-and-white, and hooded warblers, blue-headed and red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes and pileated woodpeckers, to name just a few. This was Sugartree Road.Sugartree Road looks like a place where you'd drive with the windows rolled down, listening to the birdsong, sifting through dozens of species as you watch for wildflowers on the forest floor.

First, the coal companies do a clearcut. They are usually in such a hurry that the valuable timber is bulldozed and buried or burned. There's money to be made here, and speed is of the essence. Sugartree Road, after clearcut. Now the mountain is ready to be blown up with dynamite to expose the coal seams. It's gutted and leveled, and the waste is dumped in the valley below.Sugartree after mining.

The rubble in the foreground has been reclaimed. In the middle is a strip that wasn't clearcut or mined. In the background is an older "reclaimed" area. Since there is no seedbank for trees or understory vegetation in the soil, the dominant vegetation is autumn olive, a bird-dispersed noxious exotic that creates a stable shrub community and prevents forest regrowth. It is scrub, and scrub it shall remain.More "reclamation" on Sugar Tree. Good job! We're done here. Coal's out, so's the forest; so are the jobs we promised. We made a bunch of money, and took it all with us. Time to move on to the next mountain.

See anything here for wood thrushes or Kentucky warblers? Or people, for that matter? Ever wonder why the cerulean warbler is headed toward extinction? Does this image help clarify it for you? It certainly helped me understand the larger picture. It's easy for us to point a finger at Colombia, and decry the deforestation that accompanies coca plantations in the highlands where cerulean warblers winter. And so easy to turn a blind eye to what we're allowing to happen on the cerulean warbler's breeding grounds.

Here's one mining project by the Powellton Coal Co., superimposed on a map of greater metropolitan Cleveland. Cleveland's a big city. One project is the size of Cleveland.
And here is a map of Fayette County, the center of warbler diversity in the East, with 23 breeding species of warblers and countless other Neotropical migrants. This is where the New River Birding and Nature Festival is held. It's got the greatest diversity of plant and animal species of any place on the planet, except for tropical rainforest.
The red areas have been removed by coal companies. These mountains are gone forever.

Would you like to do something about this? Would you like to email your Federal representatives, and ask them to put teeth back into the Clean Water Act that the Bush Administration gutted in order to allow this environmental catastrophe?

Not sure who they are? That's OK. All that matters is that you care enough. Go to where you can find out, by typing in your Zip code, to whom you should direct your polite outrage. I did it. I actually got responses, some automatic, some semi-automatic, and one that said, "You can be sure that I will keep your views in mind should this come to a vote."

I wrote back saying, "Well, thank you. That's very nice. But how do you plan to vote?" No response to that one.

Sen. Sherrod Brown is the only one of my representatives who wrote back with anything of substance. He is now my hero. He wrote:

"Environmental protection should be among our nation's highest priorities, yet all too often the current administration has acted to weaken existing rules and regulations protecting our environment. Mountaintop removal has serious consequences for our environment--from deforestation to toxic runoff in our streams and rivers. I was disappointed by the Administration's recent rule allowing for the expansion of this troubling practice. We have an obligation to protect and conserve our natural resources and I will keep your thoughts in mind as legislation pertaining to this issue progresses through Congress."

That's what I'm talking about. That's a politician who is willing not just to nod and smile at his constituents, but who is willing to say what he thinks. And he's thinking.

You can learn more and find out how to take more action by visiting the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy web site.

My deepest thanks to Deborah Griffith, writer and activist, for waking me up and providing these pictures and the mind-altering information behind them. Thanks also go to Cindy Ellis of the Highlands Conservancy for her support, and to both of them for fighting. This is not a good thing, this thing that is going on in our mountains.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Timberdoodle Time

Woodcocks are one of the little miracles of early spring. While they were pretty much done performing their twirling display flights back home, on the U.P. they were just getting going. On my last day birding, this little gentleman careened across the road in front of my car, landing with a soft plump in the leaf litter beneath some spruces. I pulled over and very quietly trained my lens on him.


When they're aware of being watched, woodcocks do a little deep-knee bend that is utterly charming. They bob and weave, perhaps making themselves even harder to detect as they putter along. This could also help camouflage them from the prey they're hunting, making them look like part of the moving foliage overhead. But then, do earthworms have eyes? So much for that theory...I suppose some of the woodcock's prey has eyes.

I don't think anyone really knows why woodcocks do constant plie's (I have no idea how to spell that, and am too lazy to begin to know how to look it up) while they work. While I was at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a woodcock dropped into a moist section of Sapsucker Woods and entertained hundreds of people over the course of the week (I missed it, unfortunately). The main topic of discussion among the ornithologists was the bob and weave behavior of the bird. It's impossible to know whether the bird would do this if we weren't looking at it; it's one of those "if a tree fell in the forest with no one to hear it" questions. ** You're looking at it; it's bobbing; would it bob if you weren't looking at it? I tend to err on the side of giving the bird credit for being supremely aware that it's being watched, and for altering its behavior while being observed, no matter how calm and nonchalant it seems.

**A permutation of that concept that I like is, "If a man made a statement in the middle of a forest without a woman to hear him, would he still be wrong?"

I don't know why I said that. This is a bird post.

As I watched, the woodcock foraged. Note the very high placement of its eyes. The woodcock has the largest field of vision of any North American bird, almost 360 degrees without turning its head, with very narrow blind spots directly in front of its forehead and at the back of its head. Imagine being able to see a panorama all the way around you. That's got to come in handy when you've got your bill stuck deep in the mud, feeling around for earthworms. It's also probably great for keeping watch on your rivals as you all display together in a meadow.

Its bill is also very cool. The woodcock can insert the bill up to its hilt in the earth, and, without opening it, grab a worm. How? It has a tendon running along the upper ridge (the culmen) of the upper bill (maxilla) that, when contracted, pulls open just the tip of the upper bill. If you're ever lucky enough to have a road-killed woodcock in the hand, try playing with its bill. I have. It's like a miniature can grabber. Obviously, it works. Slurrp!

I often wonder what woodcocks ate before the colonists brought their earthworms to the New World. And I'm still wondering about that guy, standing out in the middle of the forest.

This brings to a wormy end the posts about the Upper Peninsula. I truly hope to get back sometime when I don't have to rush right off somewhere else. It is a magical place, and it makes me want to get in my canoe and paddle off to see what I can see. Still can't believe I saw a wolf there.

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