Thursday, August 28, 2008

Gardening With Exotic Plants

It occurred to me, looking at my photos, that pretty much everything I shot this morning was an exotic plant. Collective gasp. I've got natives, and I've got exotics, and I don't get my panties in a bunch about being true to one or the other. I go for pretty and useful, fragrant and beautiful, and as long as it doesn't take over, and it's one or more of those attributes, it gets a place in my garden.

A stroll around the yard on a sunny morning... Here's a variegated bougainvillea vine I've had for several years. I've discovered a few things about growing bougainvilleas in Ohio.

One: They will drop all their leaves if a cold draft blows into the greenhouse.
Two: They will grow more if you wait around.
Three: They will only bloom in the greenhouse, starting in January, and they quit blooming the minute I bring them outdoors in May. That has to be OK with me.
Four: They love a lot of food, and their favorite is Jobe's Plant Spikes. You can't give them too many Jobe's.
Five: They love water, too.
Six: I love these plants, though they are a bit fussy; I have two and they are both enormous, and they remind me of Mexico, and thinking about Mexico makes me happy. Especially in January.
This is a funny little abutilon, or flowering maple, from Africa, whose name is Abutilon megapotamicum. I got it as a cutting from a friend many years ago. The rabbits ate it down to stubs twice this spring, and this is its first bloom. I like the flower form. It's related to hibiscus, actually.Purple heliotrope is a year-round must for me. It smells like cherry vanilla candy. Mmmm. I can't pass it without stooping to sniff, which is why it's planted right on the edge of the raised bed. Gotta get those things up right under your nose or you miss what's wonderful about them.
Speaking of sniffing, a gardenia opened this morning. Show me a more heavenly scent, a better-rounded, more complex earthly delight than the aroma of gardenias. I will plant the flower. Or I probably already am growing it. (Tuberoses are in bud!!)

This little hosta, Baby Tears, is just going nuts this year. One-foot-tall gnome for scale. It's the smallest hosta I know, but knowing hosta freaks, they've come up with something tinier by now.Speaking of going ape, here's Fuchsia magellenica, from southern South America. It's a perennial fuchsia and the hummingbirds love it when it finally gets going in late August. There's something utterly disarming about having a fuchsia come up after the snow melts, having lived through the winter, and throw out little red and purple ballerina flowers all summer.
It's so vigorous this year, I'm wondering if it's planning to die, like the other three that used to be in this garden bed. I'll take some cuttings into the greenhouse this fall, just in case it has something up its sleeve. I've read that in California, this fuchsia can make a 6' high hedge!

It wouldn't be a Zick garden without Russian sage and Mexican zinnias, mixing together in perfect exotic harmony. I've had to individually cage each zinnia I've planted this year, no thanks again to the rabbits. But oh, they're worth it.
I hope you've enjoyed this little garden tour. How I'll miss them all when frost comes. I'm rolling in beauty right now. And we got three inches of rain thanks to the hurricane, so I won't have to water for a couple of weeks.

I'm in constant motion these days, delivering and fetching kids, rehearsing for a Swinging Orangutangs gig on Sept. 5...we play 9-2...AM; taking lessons, taking kid to lessons; recording commentaries. I'm tired, and so are the kids--the first couple of weeks of school are murder. I guess we'll get used to getting up at 5:45 but it hasn't happened yet. Ahh, country life.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Garden Tour

At this time of year, the planters I started in late April are overflowing with blossoms and growth. This is the part of the yard next to the Bird Spa, and my big north-facing studio windows. It might otherwise be kind of dull , but I've made sure it isn't.
I love those chartreuse sweet potato vines. Did you know that if you dig in the pot after frost, there are little potatoes in the soil? You can save those in your refrigerator over the winter, and you won't have to buy a plant next year. Plant propagation: Bill calls it my only vice.

The geranium in the blue pot is "Vancouver Centennial," a true dwarf with a lovely cushiony growth habit. This particular plant hasn't bloomed in three years, but it's the gorgeous small bronzy leaves I'm after. As an added bonus, it roots like crazy from cuttings, and never drops a leaf when brought inside for the winter. It's a good, good plant, a Victorian treasure. The tall fuchsia in the blue pot is "Gartenmeister," an erect fuchsia that hummingbirds adore.

The pot under the birches has coleus, Gartenmeister fuchsia, sweet potato vine, and a new begonia called "Bonfire." I loooove this begonia. Here's a spring shot of a planter just getting going.
A closeup of the hot-orange flowers.
The same planter, in August.The silver-leaved begonia in the upper right of the planter is "Looking Glass," a Glasshouse Works treasure that's all over my house now. It's the perfect turtle terrarium plant, the perfect bathroom adornment. Gorgeous and willing.

Some gerania, viewed from the top of our tower.

Thanks to the rotten lousy rabbits that infest our yard, I can no longer plant my beloved gerania in the ground. I must keep them in pots at least two feet off the ground, clustered like refugees. If you're a geranium, you have to be on a bench, pedestal, or in a hanging basket. The leporids have thus decreed.
Who are you looking at, Mether?
You, with the spotty tuxedo and the Michael Jackson glove, who said you would keep the bunnehs under control.

But the bunnehs cannot be caught. I try and try, and I patrol the property tirelessly. But the bunnehs run into the briars and I cannot follow them there. You would not want me to scratch my eyes.

That is true, sweet Chet Baker. I did not mean to be harsh.

I have to tell you a Chet Baker story that happened today, on the first rainy day in about a month. Chet had been sleeping, swaddled in blankets, all morning on the bed. I had to leave the house at 11 AM, and I'd be gone until 7, and I wanted him to go out before I left. So I took him outside. Here is a transcript of what happened.

Zick: Go pee pee, Chet. Just go.

(Shakes and looks up at me miserably).

C'mon Chet. Just go pee pee and you can go back inside.

(Dithers, flaps his ears, looks around, shivers.)

(raised voice) GO PEE PEE, CHET BAKER!!

Moves over and hikes his leg on my pants.

You want pee? I'll give you pee.

I jumped out of the way just before the stream started. And laughed hysterically all the way back inside. What a goofball! He's never done anything remotely like that in his life. But oh, did I laugh!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dog Massage

Brookstone sells these little massagers that are tons o’ fun for sore necks and shoulders. Sometimes you can rook your kids into working on your back while they’re hanging over your shoulder waiting to use your laptop, kind of a bribe/reward/timewasting thing.

Chet Baker is into appliances. He likes to mess around, playbowing, when we’re using hairdryers, vacuum cleaners, brooms and rakes. If it makes a lot of noise, so much the better. He is bombproof. This is a dog who pops balloons and play balls for the joy of the explosion, who will grab a paper grocery bag and shake it ferociously to make his own thunder.

So Baker showed some interest when Phoebe revved up the battery-powered massager. He poked me with his toenails and wurrfed.

It would be fine for you to use that on me, Chet Baker.
Ahhhh. I did not know that Brookstone made a Boston terrier massager. That is an innovative store.

The rump is a good place to concentrate on. Dogs store a lot of tension in their bottoms. Especially when they are trying not to fart.

I hope you will massage me again soon. Thank you, Miss Phoebe.
I will now give you a dog hug. Mether calls this a Toddler Hug. She says that I am just the same size and weight as a toddler. She seems to think that is a good thing. What is a toddler, and why would Mether want one? She has you and Liam, and she has me, Chet Baker, her little black son.

I am very kissable.
As I was finishing this post, Chet wandered into the studio, leapt up on my lap, straddled the laptop and positioned himself for a good massage. Coincidence? I don't think so. He got the telepathic picture from me, two rooms away, and came to get his massage. Now there are short black hairs all over the place, keyboard, mousecracks, nuhhhhh.

Update: He is becoming a real pest about the massager. He comes up and stands with his back to you, looking back over his shoulder with a come-hither smile. And when you run the massager over him, he turns his head back and rolls his eyes, or arches his back and raises his head way up and yawns--the ultimate sign of doggy ecstasy. What have we started? And, more importantly, can I come back in my next life as Chet Baker, with a houseful of obedient flunkies waiting to massage my back? Dogs have it SO GOOD.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

A Summer Place

All right, blogpeople. Is Percy Faith's theme from "A Summer Place" now playing in your head? Are you back in the sixties? Good. Whilst getting my teeth cleaned today I heard Elvis sing "Suspicious Minds" and rocketed back to the backseat of our '67 VW bug, beige, waiting for my mom to come out of the A & P. It was hot, and I fantasized that the car might start spontaneously rolling away with me, helpless, flapping my arms, to end my short life in a terrible fiery crash. I believe now, being a mother, that such unpleasant childhood fantasies are completely normal.

Some summer scenes from Indigo Hill, things I see almost every day, but never stop appreciating.

A nursing doe, caught first thing in the morning.
She and her fawn dawdle awhile, then tell me they've seen me
leaving just the slanting golden light.
The same meadow, from towertop:
And looking to the north, also from the top of the birdwatching tower. (For newcomers to the blog, we have a 42' tall tower built atop our house). You can see the hayrolls stacked along the road. Oh, I love the faded-denim blues of summer hills.Four titmice, points of the compass. It's hard to get a picture with four titmice in it at once, much less arranged just so. They're jumpy little things. Being a photographer at a titmouse wedding would be really frustrating, awful.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hummingbird Gardening

It had to happen, sooner or later. The hummingbirds are leaving us. I had been running two "World's Largest" Perky Pet feeders, which hold about a gallon apiece. I was making nectar about every three days, which tells you that I had a whole mess o' hummers here, maybe 10 or 15 at one time. By the timeworn formula, multiplying the number I could count times six, I had from 60-90 birds using my feeder. But they all started to depart on August 22, and I'm down to one feeder, and I fill it about 1/10 full...sigh. I already miss the humming masses.

While the hummer numbers were at their height, I took a lawnchair out to the cardinalflower beds one sunny morning, and fired away. The beds were in shade, with bright sunny background behind, so there was bounce light, but nothing direct. I liked the moody result--different from most hummingbird photos, which tend to be bathed in sun or (worse) flash strobe. Blaaa. I think a hummingbird's wings should blur, because that's how we see them in real life.

But I played with exposures and ISO and managed to freeze the bird's wings for one shot:
and then I relaxed and let them blur as they should. This is a young male, evidenced by his heavy throat streaking. Catch those green streaks in sunlight, and you may see a ruby glinting at you. I absolutely love this shot, of a bird feeding from my bee balm:
It's a gauzy fairy, suspended in air as if by magic. I was mercilessly baking my bee balm in a full-sun bed when I conferred with my garden landscaping friend Tim, oracle of all things planty. "You're cooking it. That's why its leaves turn yellow in mid-summer." So I dug it all up and put it in the north-facing moist cardinalflower bed in the shade of my heirloom lilac. It's the first time I've ever transplanted anything and not had it wilt. It was as if the bee balm had come home at last. I can't wait until next year. It ought to come roaring back. Monarda is a top fab fave of hummingbirds.
A lot of people are surprised to find that ruby-throats like to perch rather than hover when they're feeding. You have to hang around and watch them for awhile to get that simple truth.
Would you run in place while eating if you had a choice to run or sit down? Would you stand at the sink and gobble something down if there were a table and chair nearby? (Mothers are disqualified from answering). No, a normal person wouldn't, and neither would a hummingbird. Witness this:
and this:
See the white cardinalflower pollen on his snoot? He's been making seeds for the plants.

I keep these little wire cages around my cardinalflower, even though they're pretty much self-supporting, because the hummers love to perch on them. They're great for watching for rivals
below and above.
The Lobelia cardinalis that I've got here are all seed children from a couple of plants from Land Reformers Nursery here in southern Ohio. They specialize in Ohio-grown native plants. I've bought lots of cardinalflower over the years, but the only ones that have survived and prospered and made babies are the native ones from Land Reformers. Hint: When they go to seed and the capsules ripen, I break them off and lay them where I want more cardinalflower. Keep them watered and the soil open, and you should have more next year. They bloom in their second year of life. What a marvelous plant.
They are beautiful, and they attract the beautiful, and they bloom when everything else (of a cultivated sort) is gasping its last in the garden, when all the wildflowers go crazy in the meadows and streambanks.
Ahh, the gift of hummingbirds and cardinalflower. I savor them while I may.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Twilight at the Beaver Pond

Although I've had some wonderful experiences with large wet rodents during daylight hours lately, in general, if you want to see Castor canadensis, you've got to get out at twilight. (I hope you appreciate my delicate choice of words.) So Chet and I timed our walk so night would be falling as we reached the beaver pond. Baker: Wait, Mether. I have business here.

It's about a 45-minute hike to the pond, so we set out when the sun was slanting low, confident that we'd find our way back by using the roads rather than our tenuous woodland path. I took a lead along for that part. Chet runs free in the woods and on little gravel roads, but if we're near pavement he's on the lead. He knows that, too, runs up to me and grabs at the leash as we near the county road.

We broke out of the flowery woods and onto the place where a stream flows right across the little dirt road. Chet loves to wade there, but he was disappointed to find it dry this evening.
After a well-watered start, our summer has dried up like an old prune. For once, though, they got it right up there: Rain when things are growing; stop raining when things are dying. Generally the southern Ohio weather gods do the converse.

We got to the pond and marveled at its full-summer beauty.
Emergent aquatics have taken over one bank.
Everywhere was the clunk of green frogs; there are two in this photo, who I didn't perceive until I stepped closer, and both launched into the water with their sweet froggy EEP!
I was actually shooting for the beaver food on the well-trammeled bank. Imagine eating bark as your staple diet. Well, I don't have to imagine it...I love Grape Nuts and Fiber One. I bet bark would be cheaper and just as nutritious. Is the root of nutritious ...nutria?

Beaver highways led up from the pond into the woods. They're whaling on the trees all around the pond.
This highway crossed the road, leading up into the mystery of the woods.
To be truthful, I heard, then spotted the beaver immediately upon coming on the scene, but I've saved him until the end for dramatic tension. What you hear in the twilight sounds a little bit like a baby crying, but it's the beaver, muttering and commenting on everything he does. Watching him, I thought of a big, wet guinea pig, weee weee wee ooga ooga ooga.
He chomped noisily on his sticks, peeling the bark off them, sounding like a giant mouse somewhere in the wall.
He swam closer in a big loop, complaining the whole way. Chet stood riveted on the bank, not moving except to tremble. Good boy.
At the closest point, he rared his hinders up and slapped his tail on the water--ker SPLOOSH!! just to let us know he knew we were there. Then he went back to chewing and mumbling. Oh, it was wonderful. This is my best photo. I know they're not fabulous, but it was dark, folks, and the Chimp doesn't use flash on unsuspecting crepuscular animals.

I could hear a second animal somewhere near the bank, but never saw that one. This must have been Boss Beaver.

It was more than time to turn for home. It is so delicious to walk at night. But it's something that mothers rarely get to do, because children get antsy when their mother is out there somewhere in the dark. Thank you, B., for taking the kids camping, and letting me stay home to wander a little.
The lights of a nearby farm twinkled, and the moon rose over the tulips.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Late Summer Meadow

Here's how it looked last January. And here it is in August. Oh, what a difference. Summer, can you stay just a month or two longer?

Bill took the kids for a weekend adventure in West Virginia not long ago. I expect he'll tell you about it sometime. I was left with Chet Baker and a little time to myself to think, walk, and paint, commodities that have been in very short supply this peripatetic summer. Chet and I decided to walk our winter route down to a beaver pond. This is a little more daring than it sounds, given that briars have grown over our path and it was hard wading in some spots. Chet especially detests briars; he's very careful of his pop eyes, which are vulnerable to corneal scratches (thank goodness, none to date).A well jack, just about buried in ironweed. This is a classic southern Ohio sight, and I'm sending it out to Trixie in Alaska. We're rich in oil and gas here, and every 40-acre parcel has its well jack, pumping away or resting silently. We've got one on our meadow, and it gives us free gas to heat our house. Yeahhhhhh. Life is good. Now, if only our lease with the oil company would let us run a car off natural gas...or an air conditioner...hey, it's our gas. There oughta be a workaround. Maybe a Y in the pipe, before the meter? Nah, I didn't just write that.
Blackberries still hung heavy on the vine. These didn't taste as good as they looked, which is probably why the towhees, who were cheeping all along the path, hadn't cleaned them out yet.
I believe this is woodland sunflower, Helianthus divaricatus, but I would happily accept a correction. There are a lot of different yellow sunflowery things blooming right now, and I get cornfused.
I believe this to be tall ironweed, Vernonia altissima, but I didn't inspect its tiny bracts, so I'm not sure. Might be New York ironweed, V. noveboracensis. The curse of the Science Chimp--knowing there are many options undreamt, so the Chimp is never sure unless she brings her books along, which isn't an option when she's already lugging binocs, camera and two lenses. The second curse is having to KNOW.Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, so called because it was used in a poultice to help knit broken bones. Cool. I hope somebody somewhere is still using it.
This is another Eupatorium, one of the Joe-Pye weeds. Sweet-scented? Eastern, Spotted? I dunno. I'll have to smell it next time I'm out. It is gorgeous, though, about 10 feet high, making a pink mist over the meadow.
Ahh, wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. It was buzzing with hummingbirds. And oh, the smell of its leaves when bruised. Note that the leaves you see here belong to black raspberries.
And the pokeweed is setting fruit, ready for the migrating catbirds and thrashers, ready for the bluebirds in October. What a wonderful plant. We've got it all over the yard; the only place I pull it up is in my raised flower beds. If it's on the border, it stays. And the birds thank us for that.

We were drowning in flowers and briars, Chet and I, but we waded through the overgrowth and made it to the beaver pond. We'll share that next.

Summer hiking is a thing. It is harder than winter hiking, but there is a lot more to look at, and it's more colorful and tickful.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Roses, Dowitchers, Terns and Seals

Rosa rugosa, an Asian import, bears its cheerful orange hips against the sea spray. There aren't many exotics that seem to belong, but this lovely plant, with its giant single pink or white flowers, its pure attar-of-rose scent, and its edible hips, feels right to me.

It is good, especially in fall, when melancholy seems always to wait in the wings, to go someplace, someplace utterly different than home, as beautiful as home is. It satisfies some ancient urge in us to be moving, changing scenes, I think. I am gratefuul to Swarovski North America for taking me out to Cape Cod and letting me remember that somewhere, there are shorebirds flocking and waves pounding distant shores.

The herring gull told the season in the worn banners of its primary feathers. Melanin, the black pigment, strengthens wingtips against wear, but the decorative white spots, which birders call mirrors, melt completely away with the friction of the constantly beating air. This is why even pure white birds like ibises and snow geese accessorize with black wingtips. Black-billed magpies have a fringe of black around their white flight feathers. It's all about preventing excess wear.
They were massing, these birds, for the flight south; had already completed quite a leg of it. Hudsonian godwits nest where the midnight sun never sets--way up on Hudson's Bay.
A sanderling clung to its breeding plumage, but it was fading fast. Soon it would be winter-white, the whitest sandpiper around.
By some miracle, I was able to focus on these short-billed dowitchers without aid of my (disabled) image stabilizer. Hey, sometimes lightning strikes. Look at the uppermost bird-- how the white rump stripe runs all the way up their backs. The pale inner wing feathers--the secondaries--are distinctive, too. But the only easy way to tell them from long-billed dowitchers is by their toodleoodleoodle call. (long-billeds have a single note).
A roseate tern shone like quicksilver in the mass of darker common terns. His nasal zaaap! call rang out over his companions' keening complaints. Roseate terns are endangered; a frighteningly large percentage of the population nests on Bird Island off Cape Cod; other outliers are scattered throughout the Northeastern coastal islands. They depend for their survival on wise gull management; where there are nesting gulls, there will be no roseate terns nesting. Roseate terns, like Atlantic puffins, are completely dependent on people to fight back the gulls we encourage with lobster bait, landfills, and pizza. Relax our vigilance, allow the gulls to nest on tern islands, and the tern eggs and young simply vanish down gull throats.
Oh, it was good to be surrounded by shorebirds.
And how couuld I forget the young male gray seal who was slooshing around our landing site in a desultory way? Gray seals are a recent phenomenon on Cape Cod, having moved well south of their traditional pupping areas to breed on offshore islets in Massachusetts. Sometimes called "horseheads," they're huge, and more imposing than the little round-headed harbor seals. What a cool sight, one I'd only seen in Newfoundland or on Maine's Monhegan Island prior to this.

Looking up
and down the misty beach soothed my soul.
There's another post beneath this'n; don't miss it! Yesss, sometimes the Ant posts twice.

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Zick on NPR

Tonight, on National Public Radio's afternoon news show, All Things Considered, I'll be yakkin' about the Charlie Brownish peach tree in our backyard and how, despite some very bad ideas and some very dedicated raccoons, we managed to get some fruit off it. 

All Things Considered airs at 4 pm Eastern time, and the commentary could air at any time from 4-6 pm. Then again, some important stuff could happen, and it might  not air at all. But for now, it's on the board. Give it a listen! For those who miss it, here's a link to the archived soundfile at

That's five feet of jerry-rigged 'coon baffle there, people.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Piping Plovers on Cape Cod

My painting of a piping plover family, done on commission for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In our day's walk on South Beach (we started in the morning, and got picked up around 2:30 in the afternoon) I was delighted to run across two nesting areas that had been cordoned off for piping plovers, those Federally threatened shorebirds with the temerity to lay their eggs right on the sand of beaches all along the East Coast from Maine to Virginia. How dare they, when there are off-road vehicles to be driven, dogs to be run, raccoons, weasels, opossums, skunks, foxes and feral cats to be fed, towels to be spread, fireworks to be viewed, and volleyball to be played? You get the picture. It's tough out there for piping plovers.

I worked with these little birds for three very intense seasons in Connecticut, in the late
80's. At the height of the program I was wrangling 30 volunteers and patrolling beaches in an 80-mile range of coastline. I looked skeletal and just about wrecked my hip joints, walking miles in soft sand while carrying loads of signposts and string. I got a reminder of that on our walk, as my poor old heels sank into wet sand--a week of severe sciatica to enjoy afterward. That was what was wrong with me--cultures revealed that the back pain that I thought might be a kidney infection turned out to have been brought on by the exertion. Good thing I never got the antibiotics I wanted. Better now, though my back revolts when I paddle my little peapod canoe. Tough. I'm going out anyway.

Back to plovers--I was unpleasantly surprised to find new downy chicks--perhaps only a week old--in the first week of August. Since the first broods hatch in April, they should have been flying long ago had everything gone well. I suspected, looking at the evidence of overwash in otherwise suitable nesting areas, that low-profile South Beach might be a marginal place to nest. I conferred with supercute bloggrrl DeeAnne, who keeps a lovely blog about her work studying birds, and spent time this summer on South Beach, keeping tabs on its nesting birds. Sure enough, there were several overwash events, and some of South Beach's plovers were on their fourth nesting attempt. Egad. If you could see a piping plover egg, how enormous it is in relation to the little hen's starling-sized body, and think about her having to lay maybe 14 eggs in a single season, you'd feel my pain.

So here were these tiny downy chicks running about like blown thistledown, with a stern corps of great black-backed gulls staring them down. Between the waves, the wind, the water, the predators, the cruel and heedless morons who drive right through the posted nesting areas on off-road vehicles, and the trespasser who somehow managed to step on an about-to-hatch clutch of eggs inside the roped off area, I marveled that there are any piping plovers on this benighted planet at all.

And then I saw it--a recently-fledged piping plover, innocent of the black markings an adult would wear. Rare, and even rarer: that it wore no bands; had never been handled by a researcher. What a beautiful thing. I hoped hard that the downy chicks we saw made it to flying age, and were strong enough to migrate when the time came. Their parents hadn't given up. One of my favorite photos from the trip--a plover chick sneaking up on a bird chick.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

All Hail the Herring Gull

What she worry about bird dogs and people? There's pizza to be had here.

When they aren't eating eider chicks, piping plover or tern chicks, or snatching baby murres off ledges, herring gulls inspire quite a bit of awe and respect in me. You have to admire a bird that is able to both ignore and exploit people to its advantage; a bird that will eat everything from lobster bait and hard-shelled clams to pizza--and figure out how to get each of those in the most expedient way.

It's just a bird, right? How smart can it be? Very smart. And maybe older than you. Herring gulls can live into their 30's and 40's.This herring gull spent a bit of time sizing up a couple who had brought pizza to eat at Beavertail Park in Rhode Island--one of the places Clay Taylor took the bird bloggers when we traveled to the Swarovski facility in Cranston, RI. Webbed feet don't stop herring gulls from perching on almost anything. It's hard to do that without a functional hind toe, but they manage.
She moved in closer, eyeing the food to be had.
A close pass revealed that sky-silver that gulls and terns wear to perfection.
Hello. You seem to have reached your satiety. Spare a bit of pizza for a hungry mother gull?
Yes, yes, all that. Just give me the pizza.
For your amusement, I shall catch your bits of crust in mid-air. Gulls have binocular vision straight down--useful when we are cruising the ocean blue for prey or flotsam.
Thank you, Pizza Sources. You have performed exactly to specifications. I'll be off now.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Baker's Balloons

Chet Baker loves to accompany me to the mailbox, which is about a quarter-mile from our house. It is a most agreeable walk, being shady and studded with purple coneflowers. Fourteen years ago, we planted these gorgeous things, just raked seed into fresh earth, and it is clear that they are happy in the light shade along our driveway. They are spreading like something nonnative might spread, but whee!! They are native.
I love the wild type coneflower, with the retrose shuttlecock petals. The cosseted plants I bought to put in my garden beds are nowhere near as hardy or lovely as these, grown from Vermont Wildflower seed. Pretty much everything in that seed mix has died out except these, and they look like they mean to go on forever.I just can't stand what the plant breeders are doing to this noble gangly plant, dwarfing it, making it dibbly-double; making it orange and white and yellow and mango colored. OK, I'd take a mango-colored one, but don't show me those darned ucky frilly gnomish monstrosities.Eccccchinacea (my spelling) "Razzmatazz." Well named, at least. It's less than a foot tall, and there's no way for butterflies to access nectar, even if there were any, because the nectiferous cone is all covered with petals. Please. You take one of the most useful plants in the garden, full of nectar for leps and seeds for goldfinches and buntings--and you remove everything that makes it useful, ergo everything that makes it beautiful. And just for good measure, you dwarf it. Yeah! That right there is Improving on Nature.

This time of year my tall natural beauties--chest high to me-- are alive with fritillaries and swallowtails. I've counted more than twenty butterflies at once on one stand of coneflower. We have four stands, all along the driveway, so that's a lot of fritillaries.
On our last walk, Chet found a cluster of balloons that had doubtless been released at a baby shower or wedding. Mether. If ever there was a perfect thing for a Boston terrier to bring home, it is this. It is lightweight, and very very shakable. Listen. It goes wubba wubba wubba when I shake it. I will take it home with me.
Well? Are you coming with me?
Carrying these balloons home is nothing for a dog like me, who once carried a basketball named Scooby all the way around The Loop. You must, must click on the link to see me, Chet Baker, as a baby.

And once I get them home, I rip them up, completely. This picture shows my brindling very well. My father, Peanut Brittle, is a bright red brindle. I am a seal brindle, the best kind.

Because KatDoc will scold us otherwise, we have to say here that Mether took the balloons away from me as soon as I started shredding them. And it is true. Most good things must come to an end, and one of them is blue balloons. But wild purple coneflowers go on forever.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

American Oystercatchers

I consider American oystercatchers to be something of a miracle. Decimated by market shorebird hunting by the mid-1800's, the species has rebounded. They're big, hearty birds, the size of a bantam, the female bigger and heavier than the male, oddly enough. They were rare nesters in Connecticut--on the order of a handful of pairs--when I lived there in the late '80's and early 90's, but now they are the most common breeding shorebird on Long Island. Which, when I think about it, isn't saying all that much, because what's the other choice? Piping plover?? Willet? Anyway, they're more common than they used to be, that's for sure, and that's cause for celebration. They nest right on the ground in a shell-fragment lined scrape, and they defend their nests with piercing whistles and dramatic distraction displays. I was thrilled to see a pair with their yet-to-be fledged youngster striding along South Beach. Yes, he can fly, so he's technically a fledgling, but he's not going anywhere just yet.

American oystercatchers have an extremely long juvenile dependency period--fully 60 days of following their parents around, begging for food. Well, no wonder: opening oysters (or prying limpets off rocks, or cutting the adductor muscle of a bivalve) is no picnic, and not for beginners. Baby oystercatchers must learn their trade at the wrinkly pink feet of the masters--their parents.

So this gangly youngun, all pink stockings and oversized body, was peeping after his providers on the sunny flats. He's the one in the middle, with the underdeveloped bill.

Oystercatchers always have a comment on something--they pipe and whistle whenever they move.

And they move me when they fly, all flashes of white, black and blazing orange.
blurry photos are better than no photos blurry photos are better than no photos blurry photos
In case you missed it, I had the image stabilizing motor on my telephoto lens switched off all that golden day on South Beach...which is causing me great embarrassment.

As a partial antidote, I offer one of my drawings, of a still-downy oystercatcher watching closely as its parent chisels away at a limpet.This is among my favorite drawings, because it captures the sweetness of a young bird without being treacly.

It was done for the Birds of North America series. I drew birds for the print edition for the ten years it was in production, and they're now all online, too, thanks to the Lab of Ornithology. It's hard to draw baby birds well. There are very few drawings or paintings of them, in my opinion, that are true representations. Lars Jonsson does an amazing job with them, as does Al Gilbert. You have to sort of get inside them to draw them, and study what it is that gives them their special look. It helps to have one right in front of you.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How Do You Spell "Shitepoke?"

This is all you usually see of a shitepoke. They're shy.

My father had stories he’d tell, time and time again, and one of them was from his one-room schoolhouse when he was a farm boy in Iowa. The teacher asked the kids to make a list of all the birds they knew, and they were busy scratching away with their pencils when one boy raised his hand and asked, “Ma’am, how do you spell “shitepoke?”

Dad would always laugh, sometimes with a little snort, when he hit the punchline on that story. And I would laugh too, but I never quite got what was so funny about the story. I thought it was quaint that a child would ask the teacher to spell a colloquial name of a bird—“shitepoke” is an old country name for a heron. Kind of a funny name. I wondered about it then, and I've been wondering about it until just today.

I spent the day in my little canoe, drifting along on Seneca Lake and Wolf Run, messing about with herons. I got close to two green herons and three great blues, banging away with my 300 mm. lens, trying to get a decent photograph. The herons were less than thrilled with my attentions. One of my sharper photos was this one.

A dark but otherwise o.k. portrait of a green heron, only slightly compromised by the giant dollop of fish emulsion exiting its cloaca.

I looked at that photo, thinking at first the white thing was a branch, and when I realized what I’d photographed, I burst out laughing. And, perhaps the recipient of a cosmic tap on the shoulder by my Dear Old Dad, I started to think about the name, “shitepoke.” Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the derivation of “shite.” It’s a polite way to pronounce it, to make the i long, but it’s still feces. And poke? What IS a shitepoke? And suddenly, like a bolt, it hit me that  "poke" is an archaic word for a sack or a bag. Pig in a poke. So “shitepoke” means “sh-tsack.” Aggggh!

Anyone who’s ever flushed a heron and watched it fly away, a streamer of white trailing out behind it, knows what a descriptive name that is. "Chalkline" is another colloquial name for a heron. Shitepoke. I….love….it.

I sat alone in my canoe in the quiet little cove, laughing until I made the boat rock, laughing until the ripples spread out around me, and I felt my daddy right there, laughing with me. I’ve been trying for most of my 50 years to figure out what was so funny about that story. DOD, I finally got it.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Birding South Beach, Cape Cod

Because Swarovski rep Clay Taylor, liason to the birding and naturalist community, is a birder’s birder, he knew just what antsy birders needed after a day in the boardroom. That would be birds, lots of them. Here, he's in his element, surrounded by waders, happily digiscoping the day away.

If I ever wondered whether fall migration had started, my doubts fell into soft mud as we reached South Beach, a long spit of sand off Chatham, Massachusetts. There were so many birds here, migrating shorebirds all, that the sand was dark with them. All were gorging on the clean mudflats, probing in the sand, or simply resting up on the dune.

The first thing we noticed was the plethora of horseshoe crabs both old and very young. Dakota, Birdfreak’s nephew from Indiana, was beside himself at handling his first horseshoe crabs. I imparted what little of their natural history that I knew while we examined and played with them. Dakota keeps his own blog, liberally spiced with his photos and those of his uncle Birdfreak’s--stunning work. Check it out! He impressed me most by carrying a large cast horseshoe crab shell all day in one hand as he made his in-depth exploration of the shallows and dunes. I like to think of that crab hanging on a boy’s bedroom wall in Indiana. Here's a live crab, steaming away. I love those things, love to pick them up and look at their crawly undersides and feel the primitive strength of them. And these are the crabs whose eggs feed the shorebirds in May. May we not fish them farther into oblivion feeding our boundless greed.

It was energizing to have young bloggers and thinkers around, and Helena from the Adventures of BirdGirl was fun to hang with. Dakota and Helena have come to blogging as a natural extension of an involvement with computers that started in early childhood; they’ve never known the Luddite world in which I grew up. The Google search is as natural as breathing to them, as natural as it has become to me, old dog that I am. Having an online presence is no big deal to the MySpace generation, and I am huffing and puffing to keep up. Helena came on the trip with her mom, and watching them laugh and share observations together made me miss Phoebe something awful. Helena told me that this was her mom’s first real birdwatching trip, and it was a beautiful thing to see her soaking in the diversity and wonder of birds, with help from her daughter. Those role reversals are part of the stunning surprise that is parenting.

Corey, 1/3 of the 10,000 Birds team, was enthralled by the shorebird throngs.
Most everyone was digiscoping on South Beach, using Swarovski equipment. Their blogs bear the beautiful evidence. Since I had a 300 mm. lens on my Canon Digirebel, I couldn't adapt it to shoot through a spotting scope. Sigh.
I will say right now that the bird pictures you are about to endure are emphatically not my best. Somehow the Image Stabilization feature on my telephoto lens, which helps cancel out hand tremor, got switched OFF in the shuffle or the duffle, and I didn’t discover the problem until we got back in the boat for Chatham. I banged away at the birds all day long, unable to get a clear photo. And it was so darn bright out on the beach I couldn’t see the screen to check my work, anyway. (To be fair, it was a tough mileu--they were a long way off. Shorebirds have little tolerance for close approach). So if you ever wonder whether an image-stabilized lens is worth the extra money, look at the raggedy—ss photos I’m showing here and dig deep into your bank account. I’m nuthin’ without me image stabilizer. On to my flubby photos.
A belted kingfisher made an elegant finial for a boat mast, then took off, as they always do. It's a boy--no chestnut "bra" band.

One of the "It" birds of the day was a Wilson's phalarope in winter plumage, showing its odd proportions as it danced like a ballerina chasing sand flies.Because the phalarope usually forages while swimming in tight circles, it has outsized feet, studded with fleshy lobes that act as oars. It looked so odd to me, dancing around on hot sand.The needle-fine bill is a real tipoff for phalarope ID. I have to say they look better swimming.
Do not adjust your screen. I will inflict more destabilizing images on you anon.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Swarovski Optik

The blogworld being what it is, my trip to Swarovski Optik's Cranston, RI headquarters is no secret; it just takes me longer to get around to writing about things than it does most bloggers. It's been quite a summer, and I've seen more airports and put more toiletries into film canisters and quart-sized plastic bags and taken off my shoes and stood barefoot on the carpet of the unwashed millions many more times than I'd like to, but there was one more trip that came up and I couldn't say no. And I'm so glad I went. It was an honor to be asked by Swarovski to come meet with their management team and a number of other bird bloggers, and the trip was intellectually stimulating as well as just plain fun. And delicious.

Although Swarovski Optik has been making binoculars since 1949, they're a relative newcomer to the U.S. market, having hit the scene here in 1988. I got my first pair of 10 x 42 EL's in 1999, the year Liam was born. I remember looking through them at the Midwest Birding Symposium at Lakeside, Ohio, lowering them to rest on the great bulge that was to be our son Liam, and saying to Bill, "If these binoculars drop down out of the delivery room ceiling when I'm in transition, I won't need any Demerol." I got them soon after Liam's birth, and I've loved them hard, throwing them in tote bags and backpacks, birding on the ocean and the desert and in the humid forest of Guatemala, lugging them up volcanoes and down into canyons.

First on our agenda was a visit to the new repair and assembly facility in Cranston. Before this facility came into being, binoculars were sent to Austria for repair, but no more. They're now repaired right here, and turned around in an average of ten days. For those who can't go without their bins, there's even a loaner program.
Gail Fisher is head of repair and assembly. She's a great person, full of life and good humor and practical know-how. Still, my heart stopped when she took one of the three pairs of Swarovski's I'd lugged to Rhode Island for a look-over, dug her fingernails into the rubber armoring, and simply ripped it off, as casually as you would peel a banana. Wha-ha-happened? The photo's blurry because I was screaming.

Once I'd calmed down, realizing that these binoculars were in the Best Hands at the Source of Optics Care, Gail gave us a look at what goes into them. I immediately discarded my plan to disassemble and clean my own binoculars some rainy Saturday.
Birdchick checks out one of the fabulous crystal prisms that channel images through the binocular's mysterious interior.
And here the prisms are in place. Crystal works for optics as well as it does for jewelry; many people know Swarovski's name only from its peerless crystal. Birders know otherwise ; these are the binoculars against which others are measured. When Bill and I got married in 1993, he gave me a gold watch with something sweet inscribed on its back. The first time its battery ran down, I took it back to Baker and Baker (yes, that's the jeweler's name) and asked to buy a new battery. The jeweler took the watch and replaced the battery without charge. I was mystified. He said, "When you buy a watch that nice, the least we can do is keep you in batteries for its lifetime."

Swarovski has a similar philosophy, but they take it even farther. Fully 60% of the binoculars that come in are given upgrades to a newer model; customer loyalty is so important to Swarovski that they want us to have the best they can offer. Quality control is paramount. If a batch of ten spotting scopes comes in for assembly and one doesn't pass muster, all ten get torn apart. Spotting scopes and rifle scopes will all be repaired here, as well, guaranteeing a fast turnaround for those of us who can't live without our optics.

Gail showed us how she tests to make sure a binocular is sealed and waterproof; she hooks it up to this machine, which forces air into it. Once she's sure there are no leaks (and amazingly, the SLC's shown--Bill's oldest, thoroughly beat-up pair of Swarovskis-- was leak-free) she runs nitrogen gas into it to purge it of any moisture that might have crept in. She also submerges binoculars in a tank of water and watches for bubbles: old fashioned but effective.

There follow several different tests to make sure the binoculars' two barrels are perfectly aligned; this is the twin collimator.
See the red dots projected on the wall in the photo below? These binoculars are badly out of alignment. For those who don't know what that means, if you have some old binoculars and you look through them for awhile, and they give you a headache, that's probably because they're out of alignment. Or if your eyes go all swimmy when you lower the binocs, it's probably because the two images from the twin barrels of the binocular don't line up--they're out of whack. So your poor brain and eyes have to work overtime to make a cogent single image out of those two discordant halves, and it hurts after awhile. You want your binoculars to be perfectly aligned!
Itty bitty replacement hawks for the rubber armoring.
A celeb endorsement. Birdchick and I decided it was probably high time for some 8 x 10 glossies we can send out like Jeff Foxworthy does. I'm sure there are lots of companies that are elbowing each other to tack a signed Science Chimp glossy to their workroom bulletin boards.
I was impressed by the level of care given a Swarovsi customer. I don't want to sound hokey, but the company seems to consider people who invest in their optics a new member of their family. Family members should take such good care of each other. When one customer's Lab puppy chewed up his binoculars, Gail returned them, good as new, with a bag of rawhide chews.

Getting Swarovski binoculars wet won't hurt them in the least! Dean Capuano, PR and Advertising executive, deliberately dropped his in 12 feet of salt water and left them there for four hours, just to prove a point. They were fine. And a researcher for Denver Holt's Owl Institute dropped a pair on the tundra while studying snowy owls, and they were lost for three years. When they were picked up again, they were a little cruddy looking, cosmetically, as you would be had you sat out for three Arctic winters, but optically they were fine. But one young boy got his dad's pair wet and decided to dry them in the microwave. They exploded. Gail replaced them.

So you see that high-ticket binoculars come with a high-end guarantee, and customer service that goes well beyond the call of duty. I've had my EL's in for cleaning three times, and this time Gail recalibrated the focus wheel so it snaps to with less than half the revolutions it formerly took. She did the same for Bill of the Birds' pair. What a delight. It gives me great peace of mind to know that whatever happens will be resolved quickly, Stateside, and overwhelmingly in favor of the customer.

After our Repair and Assembly tour, we adjourned to the conference room, where our small band of bloggers feverishly exchanged ideas and philosophies. We were honored to be there, and to have Albert Wannenmacher, CEO of Swarovski Optik N.A., (right) sit in on all the proceedings. That's Dean Capuano in green.
Albert is a kind man with a winning smile and a real interest in cultivating a relationship with the bird-blogging community. The Swarovski team listened carefully to what we had to say. They were all supportive and friendly and open to our ideas. Our approaches were all different, but it was clear that the seven of us bloggers had a common motivator--the desire to share what's interesting and good. It was wonderful to be treated as if we have something important to contribute; as members of what Born Again Birdwatcher called "the new media."

I don't know about that title, but it is clear that birding blogs are getting read by increasing numbers of people. I liken keeping a blog to publishing a little magazine five days a week. It's a responsibility and a job to keep content flowing like that, day in and day out. And Swarovski gets that. They're ahead of the curve in bringing bloggers together and forging a personal relationship with us. They've extended the first hand, and for that I am grateful.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Scenes from a Country Road

Mini-update: Mandated X-ray showed no kidney stones. Well, good. They sent me home empty-handed. I get to feel like twice-baked crap for another day, then I have to go back into town tomorrow to be told what I already know: I have a kidney infection. No duh. NOW can I have my antibiotic? That's what I get for assuming it was an open-and-shut case of complain, get scrip, gulp pills, move on. Self-Diagnosing Science Chimp, struck down by hubris. Never get sick in August. The doctors are all on vacation, and the nurse practitioner doesn't have time to talk to you.

There are at least two Lebanon, Ohio’s. This is not the big one. Most people never pass through this Lebanon, unless they’re heading to Rolling Ridge Berry Farm. Ever notice how places named Lebanon and Bethlehem and Bethel and Sharon--all those holy site names--seem to be heartbreakingly beautiful?

I wonder if they still repair RCA televisions at Hamilton’s. I’m thinking not, but you never know. You could probably buy Slim Jim’s there, though. You don't see many asbestos shingles any more...not that I'm nostalgic.

This little building, with its lilac sentinel, pulled at my heart. I thought of Kate Wolf’s 1977 song, The Lilac Bush and the Apple Tree:

A long time ago we were planted by hands
That worked in the mines and the mills,
When the country was young and the people who came
Built their homes in the hills.

But now there are cities, the roads have come,
And no one lives here today.
And the only signs of the farms in the hills
Are the things not carried away.

Broken dishes, piles of boards,
A tin plate, an old leather shoe.
And an Apple tree still bending down,
And a Lilac where a garden once grew.

thanks to Mikey DG for the lyric link and the CD!

After we picked berries, we wound back down the country roads, seeing wonders all along the way. First was some Queen Anne’s lace, fiercely backlit by the dying sun. Light is everything, everything, everything.

An odd-colored cow stuck her tongue out at us when we implored her to raise her head.

A thin bay horse raised his for a moment, then went back to grazing amongst the Queen Anne’s lace. No wonder he’s thin—the beautiful weed was thick in his pasture, and nobody likes to eat it.

I was so enthralled with the photo opportunities along the township road that I went too far and missed my turn on the county road. I think it must have been Fate’s hand, because I was able to help a box turtle finish crossing the pavement before I discovered my error. He had been manhandled years ago by a car, a coon or coyote; you can see the asymmetry of his spinal ridge toward the rear, and the chewed spots on the fringe. It’s hard to find an older box turtle around here who doesn’t tell a sad story with its shell. But he was heavy and bright and could close up well, so I left him with dinner, safe in the woods.

As the evening was dying and we neared our home, we spotted a neighbor, out with her baby. He looked so happy to be alive, and he gave us a goofy wet smile, kicked and wiggled, smooth and plump as a blueberry. He reminded me of a card Ruthie the NatureKnitter sent (along with a hand-knitted bison wool neckwarmer!) that said,
"I hope that I never become so used to the world that it no longer seems wonderful."**

**I would like it even more with drugs.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Picking Blueberries

Chee. Five comments on a non-existent post. Thanks, girls, love ya, mean it. Lemme try this'n again.

Our Net has been running at an arthritic snail's pace for 48 hours. Silly me, when a window popped up on my Mac telling me I needed ten software updates, most of them for functions I never use, I hit the "Download Now" button. Feeling reckless, I guess. I should have known that was taboo. Four hours into a fruitless download, our Net crashed. I spent quite some time on the phone with someone from Direcway named Dave, doubtless in Mumbai, and the upshot was that even at $93/month that we cough up for the extra bandwidth we need for our work, there are some things you just can't try. So he told us we'd have to wait 24 hours after the download event before it would regain its composure. And I didn't even get the updates.

Something made me try to put up a post this afternoon. I'm sick as a dog, and in between lying in a fetal position, gulping ibuprofen, and putzing around the kitchen wiping counters in a desultory way, I wanted to have one little thing I could point to as my product (besides the Tuscan chicken stew I made this morning). Everything was going at about one-fifth the normal speed, but I struggled through a photo-heavy post, hit Publish, and it simply vanished, as if it had never been there. Sorry, Mary, there aren't words foul enough to make that feel better, and yes, ladies, I cried. Bill drew me a hot bath and here I am, back again, watching Autosave like a hawk. Save this post, !@#@$#%$#%!!!
There's this blueberry farm, a you-pick operation, about 12 miles farther into the back of beyond from our place. Going there with the kids on an August evening is one of my favorite things in the world. I took Phoebe there when she was toddling, and got Liam there once, and he filled his dipe with evidence of his baby picking prowess. And then the farm closed down, because, with their kids in middle and high school, the owners just didn't have the time to run it. Yeah, I know the feeling. I prayed they would keep the old bushes; they were so wonderfullly grand. As it happened, the farm was closed to picking for eight years, time enough for that diapered Liam to grow into a fine young boy, for Phoebe to head to middle school herself. Every July I'd yearn for blueberries, to no avail, so we dutifully ate the pulpy store-bought ones from Jersey and Michigan and the Carolinas, working around the squashy hairy moldy ones, wishing...
Rolling Hills wanted to open back up last spring, but the April freeze that burned every plant in Ohio squelched that. And then one fine morning my mother-in-law called with the happy news: they were back in business at Rolling Hills. Life kept us away until last night, but we finally made it out there.
The plants are just about done, but there are still some berries. Mostly, you pick them singly, rather than rolling your hand down a whole cluster like this one.

Liam took to picking like a duckie to water, proclaiming, "Blueberry picking is the best sport in the world!
Phoebe prided herself on immaculate, large, unblemished berries.
It was all so primal, being hunter-gatherers for an evening, plucking live fruit from the bushes, popping them into our mouths, listening to the plunk of berries on bucketbottom, the low murmurs of other people hidden throughout the rows.
At one point I looked up and there were two Baltimore orioles perched on the phone line overhead; another time, with my camera about 20 feet away next to a full bucket of berries, I glanced up to see a flaming male scarlet tanager right over my head, his eye shiny and inquisitive, the shot lost, but the image burned forever on my brain. Robins, towhees, kingbirds, waxwings: they were all there, as they had been since the bushes first started bearing.

Finally, it was time to weigh in.

(I am getting nervous. Blogger won't save this post. Agggghh. Shoot me now, before you lose another post.)
All told, we picked 11 pounds of berries, and it cost $18.00; a mere $1.63/pound. A bargain at any price, these sweet, plump, tangy fruits.I'm thankful for this little farm, for the buckets and bales of blueberries in the fridge. Liam got all territorial; wants to eat only those he picked himself; he doesn't realize that I keep topping off his Tupperware with ones from my bucket.
We'll be back before the season ends for good. Picking blueberries in Ohio in August is a fine, fine thing. Tomorrow, I'll show you what we saw on the drive home. Right after I go to the doctor. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Self-Diagnosing Science Chimp: Hi, Tami. I've got a kidney infection (substitute tick-borne disease, sinus infection...).

Tami: Oh, yeah? What's going on?

SDSC: Lower back pain, radiating down the legs, jumping up every ten minutes all night, burning up with fever, feel like I've been hit by a truck and then it backed over me again. Gimme some sulfa?

Tami: Scribble scribble scribble

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Dog Training, Boston Style

I'm not sure what the point is, of training a Boston terrier to shake hands and roll over. Perhaps it's just to be sure you can teach him something, when he seems to be the one who's always teaching you. I do see the value of Stay and Sit and Come and Down, but beyond that, it's pretty much parlor tricks, like teaching your two-year-old to recite the ABC's for Grandma. Oh, yeah. There's Heel. We haven't quite got that one down, because we're never on a lead...

Chet Baker puts up with Phoebe's training with dignity. As long as there's a liver treat or a piece of sharp cheddar involved, he'll go along with the act. He ain't nobody's monkey, though, and he won't perform without the treat.You had better have a treat in your hand, Miss Phoebe, or nothing doing.

He hates Roll Over (gee, wonder why?), but he'll do it, as long as you trace an arc with the liver treat that tells him where to go.
Shake has turned into something that better resembles a High Five. He'll slap his paw over yours, verra cute.
Just give me the treat, and I will go back to chasing bunnehs, which is my Real Job.
He is really good at Stay, which is probably one of the best commands for an enthusiastic Boston terrier to master. It comes in handy around cars and cows. Notice that I did not include cats in that lineup. Nothing will make him Stay around a cat.
Oh, Miss Phoebe, please do not make me wait any longer for that delicious strong smelling pellet of textured protein.
Sweetness, thou art Baker. Here you go, good boy. Now you can go back to doing dog things.
Offisa Pupp, at your service.

This is a happy birthday to my dear friend Jane, who has brought black-and-white bundles of joy to so many people, and without whom there would be no Chet Baker. Imagine!

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Caterpillar, Butterfly

When Phoebe went to the garage to take out the trash not long ago, she was surprised to find this little character crawling on the can lid. Oh! what a marvelous little guy. She named him Fredward, and our quest to identify him began. He had to be the progenitor of something wonderful.

We turned to one of my favorite books, David L. Wagner's Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History.

Because I was in a hurry, I didn't have time to go through the whole book, and I failed to find him. Alas, my caterpillar classification skills are embryonic at best.

So when Martha Weiss, my dear college friend, came to visit recently, I described the little beast to her. "Did he have a head like an M&M?" she asked.

"Yes! An outsized ridiculous looking M&M wobbling around."

"Probably a skipper," she advised. So I ran to Wagner, turned to the section on skippers, and voila! there was Fredward. He is the larva of a silver-spotted skipper, and one of their brood plants is wisteria (among other legumes). Sadly, we are being devoured by the wisteria that was planted around the old farm place. But it is good for SSSK's, of which we have multitudes. Here is my painting of one, from Letters from Eden.

Reading further in Wagner, I found a citation regarding the anal comb of the silver-spotted skipper caterpillar, which enables it to shoot its feces quite a distance out of the little shelter it constructs in a glued-together wisteria leaf. The citation was for a scientist named Weiss.

It was one of those full-circle moments. Martha gave me the book a couple of Christmases ago, identified the caterpillar for me, and there she was in the text, telling us all how caterpillars keep their houses clean.

In a somewhat less-sublime lepidopteran moment, Phoebe spotted a pair of tiger swallowtails doing their thing. The male is yellow; the female often turns up in a black morph, especially in late summer. We happened to be having a band practice that afternoon, so when she sounded the alert, everyone came out of the garage to see this marvelous thing. Here's the money shot, female superior.
And, because these are my friends, I was not surprised but highly amused to find our bass player Clay launching into a beat-box porn soundtrack.
Chickawow chickawow wow wow chickawow.

Yes, that is my sweet Liam in the foreground, wondering what on earth these people could be doing. Well, honey, they are performing a porn music soundtrack for mating butterflies. I'll explain more when you're 21, but by then you'll have your own band, and you'll be goofing around just like us.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Tool-Using Animals

Dust bathing helps birds control parasites such as feather mites and lice. Dust particles get under the scutes of mites and lice, causing the parasites such discomfort that they drop off. It's the same principle that makes dolomitic earth (derived from the silicon-based skeletons of microscopic sea creatures) such an effective pest control. Why use poisons when an irritant will do the job? Both dust and dolomitic earth are non-toxic.

I've noticed that certain bird species are really into dust bathing. Wild turkeys, ruffed grouse (indeed, all the gallinaceous birds); house sparrows, chipping sparrows and brown thrashers are the big dust bathers in our yard. I'm delighted when a dust bath develops within sight of a window, as it has this year.

Brown thrashers have been the instigators in creating a dust bowl in our side yard. We have a family of recently-fledged thrashers in the yard, and we see them dust bathing several times a day. I took these pictures through a double-paned window, so they're no great shakes, but they're amusing anyway.
A dust bathing bird goes through the same ritualistic motions that it does when it's in water--dipping the head, scrubbing the breast around, and ruffling its wings so as to send the bathing medium, be it dust or water, through the plumage.

It turns and wallows in circles.
This thrasher, having completed its toilette, did something I found very interesting. It zeroed in on a couple of large chunks of dry clay and, with a few strikes of its strong bill, pulverized them, creating more dust for the bath. Here, it is pecking a clod into pieces.

To me, this behavior--seeking out and pulverizing clods of dirt-- suggests that the thrasher realizes that, in order to have ample dust for the bath, he's got to create more. It seems to me to represent tool-making, if the dust so created could be regarded as a tool for feather maintenance.

Traditionally, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the human species was the ability to create and use tools. Through the work of such ethologists as Jane Goodall (who first observed chimps using grass stems to fish for termites), Bernd Heinrich (who has documented tool use in ravens) and a host of other scientists who have found birds and animals consciously employing tools in their everyday life, that distinction has ceased to be the exclusive property of Homo sapiens. Egyptian vultures hurl rocks to break ostrich eggs; green herons, tri-colored herons, black-crowned night herons and great blue herons--my own observation adding them to the list of baitfishing species--use bread as bait for the fish they eat.

I lifted the following from Wikipedia.

The following observations were made by a team led by Thomas Breuer of the Wildlife Conservation Society in September 2005. Gorillas are now known to use tools in the wild. A female gorilla in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo was recorded using a stick as if to gauge the depth of water whilst crossing a swamp. A second female was seen using a tree stump as a bridge and also as a support whilst fishing in the swamp. This means that all of the great apes are now known to use tools.Here is a gorilla seeking out and creating a tool appropriate for her pre-meditated purpose--as a depth gauge for crossing a stream. I found these photos profoundly moving, especially the last one, in which the line between gorillas and humans seems, but for a bit of hair and some skin color, to disappear.

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