Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Ferocious Warbler

Black-throated green warblers are common fall migrants here. Sometimes they'll even treat us to a snippet of their buzzy, drawly zee-zee-zee-zu-zee song. But mostly they fight, with each other and with any other bird that crosses their path.
Two males square off, their golden-olive backs an exotic glow against leaf-green.

They whirl and chase through the branches.
Face to face, they spar.
Their fight takes them looping over to the shining sumac and out of my reach. That would have been such a gorgeous picture, given the right exposure and framing. Ah well. Warblers move fast, and I do my best. Sometimes the blurry ones are more evocative of their nature than the sharp ones.

A feisty male challenges a titmouse who outweighs him twice. Whatchoo lookin' at?
Nothing, sir, nothing. Just minding my own bidness.

And what about you, Camera Girl? Come on. Take your best shot.
Sorry, Mr. BT Green. A blurry one will have to do. You're too fast and mean for me.

As I write, the migration is winding down; the first yellow-rumped warblers have shown up, and they're among the most cold-hardy of warblers. Indigo buntings are sweeping in. Ruby-crowned kinglets are fluttering at the branch tips; field sparrows are flocking. But today we did have Nashville, Tennessee, Cape May, bay-breasted and black-throated green warblers in addition to the butterbutts. I'm considering making a teeny little batch of Zick dough for the FOURTEEN bluebirds who sit on the tower every sunny morning, calling my name. It's hard to deny them... After the late summer and early fall hiatus that all bluebirds seem to take, the gouty female bluebird is back with her mate, and she looks good, with no swelling or redness in her feet, but she still sits low on the perch, and one of her toes is stiff. Truly, I'm just glad to see her at all, glad she and her mate have survived the summer and come back with babies in tow.

Gosh, I'll miss the warblers, though. It has been one heck of a beautiful fall, graced with their company every morning.

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Monday, September 29, 2008


We've been starting every day with birdwatching off the deck and tower. Such joy, to spend an hour or two just watching birds. What a way to start the day. It's torture to come inside, but around 10 AM it slows down enough to let me go back into the studio. Soon enough, these little migrants, gaudy and flashy and delicate and exotic, will be gone, well on their way to their Central and South American wintering grounds. So we revel in them while we can, soaking them up and taking digital souvenirs of their stay with us.

It's a thrill to get enough pictures of a single species to make a little photoessay, perhaps get a tiny glimpse into their complex behavior, their lives. I gather what bits I may in the privileged moments I spend in their presence.

I glance at the bird Spa, which I do hundreds of times each day as I "work," and see something tiny, colorful, out of place. A warbler. Which one? Perhaps the titmouse wonders, too.
It jumps to the dry rock, revealing a cheek patch and the hint of a burning orange throat. Nice wingbars! A Blackburnian warbler. What a fine sight to greet the morning.
I study my books, but can't decide whether this is an adult female or a first fall male. No matter. It's beautiful.

Turning toward me, it shows its glowing throat. It takes a long, soaky bath.It repairs to the nearby birch to preen and fluff its damp feathers.Lots of work to do under the wings.I am flabbergasted at the length and flexibility of its neck. Blackburnians are such compact little warblers, but this neck would do credit to an ibis. And I'm stunned again to see it twist its tiny body into the most impossible position as it surveys the yard. If I drew a bird with its leg like this, any ornithologist worth her salt would shoot me down. Including me. Yep, that's the hind toe on the outside edge of the branch.
Soon, it's time to think about leaving. The warbler surveys the birch leaves for a morsel of food to speed it on its way, checks the sky.It hops up to an exposed branch, giving me a fleeting moment's more pleasure.It mounts to the top of the sycamore we planted close to our deck

and is gone.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

That Crazy Psychopsis

Speaking of growth, rebirth and change, the Psychopsis mendenhall "Hildos" orchid that started blooming on my bedroom windowsill in June is STILL blooming, throwing flower after flower off its meter-high spike. I LOVE THIS PLANT. SOOOO MUCH.

It's as if all it wants to do is delight me.

I was dying to see how it opened, so I took a series of photos of Blossoms #3 and 4 as they went from closed bud to crane head to flamenco-dancing lobster dude.

At this point the bud looks like the skull of a crazy bird, maybe an ibis or flamingo.

It doesn't take more than overnight for it to go to this folded miracle:
You can see the next bud cued up. How considerate of the orchid, to have another bud forming in the wings when this flower finally withers and falls with a plop in the middle of the night.Ta-DAA! I am OUT!And I am the kabuki lobster dude, mixing genres, phyla and metaphors, doing my manly flamenco for your viewing pleasure for the next week and a half.

Psychopsis mendenhall is native to Trinidad, where its brilliant blossoms dance singly on long stems in the forest gloom. Imagine such a thing, encountered in the wild.

And now, given sun, rainwater and orchid food, it opens five-inch wide blossoms on my windowsill. Life is good.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Chrysalis Magic, Captured in Glass

It's utterly captivating to live with caterpillars and chrysalides, to feel somehow a part of the transformation. Monarchs are so beautiful in every life stage, so extravagantly gorgeous, and so accessible. What a gift from nature.

It is a very powerful thing to "give" a chrysalis to a child, for the young one to watch and ponder. Phoebe and Liam name each one and rush to follow its progress. Phoebe hasn't even finished her pancakes here, interrupted by the slow undulation of her J-hung caterpillar and the excitement that surrounded photographing its emergence as a chrysalis. She's the one who noticed it undulating, and without her I'd have missed the whole thing as I stood at the stove flipping pancakes.

I lined the kids up to take their picture and Liam said, "Hold on!" and scurried off to make a sign. "Combo, My little guy."

They're pointing at "their" respective chrysalides. Phoebe named the caterpillar in her chrysalis O'Connor. Her current caterpillar is named Juliana. Juliana is in J as I write. Combo hatched out yesterday, and it's Combo I'll feature in the hatching series.

I'm not sure many of us naturalists, as Kathi pointed out, have the opportunity to really understand what happens between the caterpillar and chrysalis stages--we have this hazy idea that the caterpillar "turns into" a chrysalis or somehow spins a cocoon. Moth caterpillars that chrysalize (if that be a word) inside a cocoon spin the silk cocoon first and then shed their caterpillar skin inside the protective cocoon. We don't think of caterpillars having the ability to spin silk, but they do, and the giant silkworm moths take it to extremes.

Butterfly caterpillars tend to shed their skin and hang as a chrysalis, no cocoon involved. But they still produce silk, if only just to use as a sturdy, nearly unbreakable hanging system. The chrysalides tend to be cryptic, often brown or green. The monarch's chrysalis, I think, is the most beautiful of all.

Perhaps it is the bewitching seafoam color or the shining gold buttons that made me think a monarch chrysalis would make the most lovely pendant, but of course the means to do that evaded me. A gifted glass artist in Wisconsin thought the same thing, and set about making that thought a reality.

I first saw Jude Rose's work hanging around the prescient neck of my dear friend, naturalist Liz DeLuna Gordon. You may remember her wedding to naturalist Jeff Gordon, in which my fairytale girl Phoebe dressed up as a luna moth and Liam bore the (toy) train. Because Liz isn't the type to have a train dragging through the pine straw.We certainly remember it.

So Jeff and Liz turn up at my Letters from Eden art show opening at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania last October, and Liz is wearing this jade-green glass chrysalis necklace, and I zooped over to her and touched the pendant, murmuring, "Where did you get this? Must have this! Must have this!" It was one of those moments when you realize that someone has had the same thought as you, but they've taken it and run with it and made something of it instead of idly musing about it.

Bill noticed, and with Liz and Jeff's help, he got me one in time for Christmas. He's good that way.

I wore it once, and put it in my pocket prior to taking a shower. Threw the pants in the washer, then the dryer. The pendant, so longed for, so beautiful, emerged chipped and bashed, basically toasted. It is made of glass, after all.

Ashamed and abashed, I emailed its creator, Jude Rose. I explained what I'd done, how crushed I was at my own stupidity. I sent her some jpegs of paintings I'd done of the monarch's chrysalis transformation, so she could see I wasn't just a careless lummox. I was a creative careless lummox.
I asked if she might repair the damaged pendant. And, bless her generous heart, she suggested a barter --of a signed copy of Letters from Eden and one of my limited-edition prints for a brand new chrysalis pendant.

Jude went into the studio and fired up her blowtorch to make a chrysalis especially for me. She emailed me to tell me the piece was done. "You must have really good nature karma, because this chrysalis is one of the best I've ever done. It just made itself."

I've taken good care of it, never again putting it in my pocket, and here it is, hanging with two real chrysalides. I love this pendant so much, and everywhere I go, people ask me where I got it, who made it. It's delightful to find how many people recognize it as a monarch chrysalis, and they all ask, "Is that REAL?" Well, I guess it's a fair question, because the Science Chimp has been known to use cast-off cicada skins as earrings and brooches...

Go see Jude Rose at Ancient Child Studios, drop a heavy hint to your significant other, or just up and get one for yourself. I find wearing it empowering--it is such a symbol of rebirth and change. Rebirth and change--essential skills for women everywhere. Men, too. And it's imbued with the beautiful spirit of its creator, who looked at a chrysalis and somehow figured out how to replicate its shimmering color and delicate beauty in glass and gold.

Should you fall for this pendant as I did, tell Jude I sent you. She's the mother of twin toddlers, and can't do the kind of production she once did, but she tells me she's up to the challenge of making a chrysalis just for you. Let's hear it for artists who are also moms**. They do the neatest things, despite it, and, I've discovered, because of it.

**This links to the plot summary of a brand new film I'm dying to see, because Margaret says it's wonderful.
Waiting waiting waiting for it to come out on DVD, 'cuz it ain't coming to the Pioneer Cinema.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Shape-Shifting Chrysalis

Perhaps unaware that its skin has popped off, the chrysalis continues its wild loops. Perhaps it's just exulting in the last motion it will be able to execute before it hangs, motionless but transforming, for the next 14 days.
You can see its beaded antennae, running from the eye (at the bottom of the chrysalis) along the leading edge of the wing. You can see the veins in the wing, and the segments in its fat abdomen.

Here's a sequence of pictures that shows how the chrysalis changes its shape in the course of only an hour. It starts out still vaguely cylindrical, reminiscent of a caterpillar.
It writhes and pumps and changes as it hangs.The whitish line on its midsection moves up as most of the bulk moves higher into what will be the butterfly's abdomen. It's starting to assume the tapered shape of a mature chrysalis. (see the right-hand one for comparison).

But for the ravishing seafoam-green color, the fresh chrysalis on the right is almost there:
Over the next day, the whitish buttons on the midline and around the tip will brighten to burnished, 24 K gold finish. I don't understand or know how an insect creates the hue and sheen of iridescent gold, but it does, and I am in awe.

We let this caterpillar choose a place close to another chrysalis to hang and make its transformation. However, at this point it's possible to detach the silk anchoring the chrysalis with a sharp X-acto knife, and with a dot of Elmer's glue, attach it wherever you wish. The important thing is that the chrysalis hang absolutely clear of any obstruction such as a twig or terrarium side. The emerging butterfly is weak and must hang clear of obstacles, or its wings could dry crumpled, rendering it flightless. So a thin twig is ideal for anchoring the chrysalis.
Here, the glue is drying. When it hardens, I'll hang the chrysalis up where it can get light and air, to remain undisturbed for a couple of weeks. I'll spray it with a mister from time to time, but that's about it. The chrysalis has work and much magic to do.

If you like these photos, just wait 'til you see what I captured this morning. We have a butterfly to look forward to!

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Caterpillar Sheds Its Skin

Down at the Monarch Ranch, the caterpiggles were gettin' fat, poopin' and eatin', poopin' and eatin'. When they get this big and fat, they'll soon go on walkabout, looking for a place away from the milkweed patch where they can hang themselves up, shed their caterpiggle skin, and burst forth as a chrysalis. You have to pounce on them when they get big and fat if you want to be part of the process. This'n's ready to harvest.
We bring them inside and install them in a small terrarium, where we put a fresh milkweed top in a narrow-necked vase of water to provide food. They eat like crazy for a couple of days and then wander around, finally pasting themselves to the top of the terrarium with silk. Here, the caterpillar is creating the liquid silk pad that will harden and suspend it for the next couple of weeks. The head end is to the left. It can be hard to tell with monarchs which end is which. I think the silk comes out of spinnerets in the rear end.

Once secure, the caterpillar hangs upside down in a J shape, waiting for the transformation to chrysalis. Slowly, the caterpillar's brilliant yellow, black and white skin becomes dull and translucent. The first sign that something's going down is when the antennae, normally mobile and responsive, get all limp and crinkled. See how the antennae on the head are just hanging here, no longer turgid?

Here, I must stop and give credit to Phoebe, who watched this caterpillar like a hawk, and kept it with her so she wouldn't miss the moment when it split its skin to emerge as a chrysalis. She noticed an undulating motion as the caterpillar hung there, and the skin started to stretch and pile up at the fastening point at the rear. Suddenly it split down the back like a pair of my old skinny pants.
From there, things progressed quickly, and the undulating wave of the chrysalis' still pliable body sent the skin rumpling up into a pile at the rear end of the creature.
Seeing this glorious, fantasmagorical thing emerge from the dulled skin of the caterpillar was awe-inspiring.
More and more stripes and abdominal segments are visible with each wriggle.I especially love the next shot, because Phoebe's sweet red lips are blurred in the background. At this point we're all whooping and hollering, and I'm frantically shooting around both kids' heads as they crowd in to see the miracle. Look at the blue, gold, and white stripes!! Who knew?

Now the chrysalis changes its dance, with the undulating wriggle becoming a wild spiral hula as it moves the skin up and off its body.In the picture above, you can see the proto-wings of the butterfly-to-be, folded like shields over its body.

A few more wild loops, and the skin pops off-ptoo! to land on the vinyl tablecloth, creepy legs, antennae, and jaw parts intact. The chrysalis won't be needing those jaws any more. Transformed to a sucking straw, they'll be. It's all too much, really, to try to describe or assimilate, too miraculous and bizarre. More anon.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

The Monarch Ranch

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core

From John Keats' "To Autumn," written September 19, 1819

Fruiting and ripening is Autumn's theme. I've been bursting with the desire to tell you about our monarch ranch. But it takes time to gather the images and thoughts that I need to tell a satisfying story.

It starts with the Monarch Ranch, a coffee-table-sized area next to our pond. At first, it was just a plant or two of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) coming up and quickly spreading. Uh-oh. Milkweed is an aggressive invader of garden space, and my first instinct was to pull it and keep pulling it. Which I did, and what I got for my efforts was sticky white sap on my hands and more milkweed.

It was here, it was queer, and it was time to get used to it. I decided that I liked the buttery scent of its flower heads, which look like balls of pink cake decorations. I liked the masses of fritillaries, silver-spotted skippers, admirals, ladies, swallowtails and duskywings they attracted.
These are great spangled fritillaries.

But there was a problem. Along about July, after the gorgeous honey-scented blooms had dropped, the milkweed stand (for it was by now a hearty stand, a battery of plants) completely obscured my water garden. What's the point of having a water garden if you can't see it from the deck?

So one fine day I went down with a clippers and lopped the whole lot of them off. Pulling them was futile; they'd just resprout.
Smiling for Phoebe, who's behind the camera. Also smiling because I can see my pondlet again.

Before cutting each plant, I checked it carefully for monarch eggs and caterpillars. Nothing yet. July's a bit early for egg laying here.

When I was done, I had a huge heavy pile of plants to haul to the compost. That's that. Well, sort of. Within a couple of weeks, the roots had sent up healthy, tender new shoots. They were going to reconquer the water garden.
Ahh, but this time they didn't get so tall, nor did they bloom. They just kept putting out leaf after tender leaf. And the monarchs noticed. Monarchs like tender new leaves, unlike milkweed tussock moth caterpillars, which can eat the tough old holey ones. There was a monarch oviposition frenzy that summer--26 caterpillars at one time in this tiny area--and the idea for the Indigo Hill Monarch Ranch was born. These pictures were all taken this year, but the ritual has been the same since its inception. Wait for the milkweed flowers to fade and fall in late July, lop the plants down to ground level, stand back and wait for the new shoots to emerge. Enjoy your caterpillar ranch.
What could have been an aggressive pest has been tamed by the cutback. It's not spreading much anymore (we'll disregard the shoots that come up in the cracks of the patio...)
But the greater shift has been in my perception of the plant. It's gone from pest status to exalted, as a source of fragrant flowers, fritillaries, and intense joy. Next: the ongoing chrysalis party in our kitchen.

News flash!

Just a quick message, inserted sideways into the chrysalis talk, to tell you that one of my commentaries, about rescuing a common yellowthroat on a Chicago street, is due to air this afternoon (September 22, 2008) on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. The show starts at 4 pm Eastern, and the commentary could air any time in the succeeding two hours. If you miss it, you can listen to the soundfile here.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chet Baker and The Lady With Treats

Photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Chet Baker has Not Approved this Photo.

I am upset that Mether is using this picture. I think that I look like a toad in this picture. I cannot help it. They were squeezing me.

On Saturday, when Mether and I were hanging around the house, this very nice lady came to visit us.
She had treats, and she gave me a lot of them. They were liver, salty and chewy and good. Very good. Instead of giving them all to me, which is what I wanted, Mether took them and put them in a jar. No amount of woofing will get her to give me more than one a day. Mether is no fun.

This lady is a lot more fun than Mether. I am bored with Mether.

This lady knew how to give a dog a massage. When she did that, I decided to jump up on her lap whenever she sat down. I woofed at her when she got up so she would sit back down. The massage felt that good. It worked, the woofing. I got more massaging.

Which is a good thing, because my muscles are tight. I have a stressful life.
Well, I do. Do not think that you are the only person with stress in your life.

I sat on her lap as much as I could, even though she was jumping up and down too much, to look at turtles and spiders and flowers and birds. She and Mether laughed a lot and talked very fast. They talked a great deal about me, which is something that I enjoy.
In my opinion, she is a little too busy with her camera. She took pictures of my mouth. I do not know why. But she and Mether were laughing a lot, and a Boston terrier knows one thing: Laughing is good. So I showed her the whole inside of my mouth, which is big. I think she was impressed.
I really, really liked that lady, and I hope she comes back soon. The liver treats would be good to bring again. Also a stuffed cat, that would be good too, because the one that she brought me is already out of stuffing and the squeaker is gone. But I would settle for just some kisses. And a back rub. Do not forget to rub my tail area.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Liam and the Flosaraphtor

When I was learning to drive, my father used to sneak out to our beige '67 Volkswagen and put a folded dollar bill in the receiving end of the seat belt. It was like a little reward for buckling up, and it worked. The whole system fell apart when my brother figured it out and raided the seat belt for date money.

In this age of plug-in fun, where most kids' favorite places to play are near an outlet, I like to emulate my father. Maybe it's Cheezits and chocolate as a surprise in a backpack, or a monarch caterpillar of your very own to feed, watch, and wonder at.

But I digress. Back to the mystery claw...There was only one thing to do about it. We knew just who to turn to: to our friend Boneman, an artist who re-imagines and reconstructs extinct creatures for a living. And who also has a Boston terrier pup from Chet's breeder. Coincidence? I do not think so.

Dear Mr. Mohn,

what the heck is this? i saw a video all about dinosaurs. And i saw a flosaraphtors tooth/claw And it looks just like a tooth. Don't know what it is. And i found it in a stream (near where we live in Ohio) under a flat rock. Thank you!

- Liam

this is me finding it....
and this is me showing it to Margret.Hi Liam:

Now that really is a mystery! As far as I know, the fossil bearing matrix in Ohio is millions of years older than the oldest known dromaeosaur (droh-meh-o-sahr) fossil (the dinosaur family to which the Mongolian species Velociraptor and the North American species, Deinonychus (dy-non-ick-us) belong to).

That certainly looks like a dromaeosaur claw though. It may be that it is what paleontologists call an erratic fossil. Erratics are fossils that have been transported beyond the place where the original animal died, was buried and became fossilized. There are various agents of transport, ranging from animals that may pick something up and carry it for some distance to landslides, floods, glaciers and continental drift. I live in southeastern NJ, which is relatively young in geological terms, having been formed within the last million years and we really don't have any rocks that formed here and so no really old fossils. But I do occasionally find fossils of very ancient cup corals and crinoids which were transported from upstate New York by glaciers and rivers and then deposited here.

Dromaeosaurs are currently known from Western North America, Mongolia, China and South America. There are some other fossils which may be dromaeosaurs that have been found on other continents, but these are very fragmentary remains, just a few bones, which makes it hard to make a positive identification. The oldest known specimens are about 120 million years old, though there are some indications that they may have first appeared about 160 million years ago. Some dromaeosaur species survived until the end of the age of dinosaurs, about 65 million years ago.

Your claw appears to look like and be about the right size as those of the North American species, Deinonychus, which is known from Montana and a few other Western states. Deinonychus means terrible claw. You may have seen the movie Jurassic Park, which featured an animal that the movie's paleontologist called Velociraptor. As you may know, sometimes Hollywood plays fast and loose with the truth. The real Velociraptor is nowhere near as tall as the Jurassic Park raptors. Specimens have been found that are seven feet long, but only about three and a half feet tall and quite slender. The JP raptors are closer in size and shape to Deinonychus. There are specimens of Deinonychus that were four and half feet tall and nearly twelve feet long. There are other dromaeosaur species which appear to have been far larger. Utahraptor, which is only known from a few scattered bones, may have been twenty five feet long and six to eight feet high.

You've made a really neat find! I hope you enjoy it and that you continue to investigate the mystery of how it came to be in Ohio!
I can assure you that he enjoys it, Mr. Mohn.

It will be a puzzle, and an inspiration, for years to come.There is mystery beneath still waters, outside where so many children now rarely go. In the muck and the gravel, something wonderful may wait.

Many thanks to Bruce Mohn for his knowledge, expertise and skill.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Incident at Duck Creek

You never know what you might find in a good creek. Along its banks, tall ironweed and tickseed sunflower light up the meadow.

Down under the bridge, some unexpected animal tracks light up my switchboard. Anyone know what these are?
If the blunt, round front toes don't tip you off, maybe you'll slide into the answer here:Spoiler alert!

One of my favorite mammals of all, known for its playfulness: the otter, Lutra canadensis.
Oh rapture, oh joy. Otters have been the subject of reintroduction programs in this area, and I hope they're busy making more otters. I feel grateful to live in a state where otters and ospreys, American burying beetles and Karner blue butterflies are thought worthy of reintroduction. Ohio's Division of Wildlife is not just about turkeys and deer. Maybe someday we will see Lutra arrowing through the pools or hallumping along the banks of Duck Creek.

Phoebe repairs to her dreaming log.

Liam skips stones, peers into the deeper pools, and searches for nothing or something in particular. Looking for crawdads or salamanders, he turns over flat rocks. There is something very strange under this one. He turns it over in his hand, over and over.He takes it around, to ask what it might be. Everyone is mystified, even Margaret.

No one knows what it is, not even Mommy, but she's sure it's a claw, and not a tooth. It's too big for any bear that might be here in southern Ohio--too big for any bear on the planet. What could it be?Duck Creek has given up some of its secrets, but there are so many more to discover. We will track down this mystery by finding someone who knows...Boneman.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Chet Baker, Stream Wader

Taking Chet Baker along to Duck Creek raises the noise level considerably. There's the splash-splash-splash of his bounding through the shallows, the crack of his biting sticks into pieces (is that a mini Sasquatch wading in the stream??)the laughter at his attempts to swim (Awwwwww!!)

and the protests when he comes right up next to someone to shake himself dry.With, I'm sure, a few exceptions, Boston terriers are not much good in the water. It's hard to keep a short little nose clear of inundation. Chet spends a lot of time dithering about whether or not a pool is over his head. Forced to swim, he makes a good effort, but wastes a lot of energy panicking. I know the feeling; I'm a rotten swimmer. I'd like to think it's because we're both so densely packed with muscle.Pretty much everything Chet Baker feels shows on that little face.He'll do anything, even swim, to stay close to his people.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Duck Creek Idyll

It is that time of year, when the evenings are so fleeting and yet so lovely that it hurts. Why didn't I use the long summer evenings better? Why do these have to end so soon? We hurry down to Duck Creek for a wade before the light is all gone.

On the way, a creeper-strangled silo glows in the dying sunlight. How can it be this beautiful here, where we get to live? I want to roll in the sidelit grass.

On the path to the stream, a pawpaw hangs, still green and hard as a rock, giving no hint to the mushy tropical sweetness it soon will achieve. There is a small bowl brimming with pawpaws on my windowsill, and this morning in the dark of a power outage I smelled them ripening. Ahh. Soon I will bite into my first wild-gathered pawpaw.
Lower down in the tree, a pawpaw sphinx, Dolba hyloeus, eats, a pthalo blue spur springing from his hind end. He's done a number on that pawpaw leaf. That's his job. This is Joe Garris' photo of an adult, lifted from a wonderful silkmoth site.

It reminds me of a tabby cat.

Great lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica (so called because it was thought to cure the clap) glows at pathside.
We bring our friend Oona along, and she wades in to have a better look at a colony of whirligig beetles scudding madly on the water's surface.
The dwindling light renders her a Renoir painting. "Mommy all wet, Daddy all wet, Oona all wet," she says, flapping her hands. When and how did she learn to talk? It seems like yesterday she was getting her face washed by Chet, who was afraid she'd fall off the sofa.
Liam skips stones.
Why don't we just go wade in streams? There are so many things to be discovered.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008


Duck Creek is a placid little stream that flows through the bottomlands of Whipple. Placid until it floods, and then it can cut off our main access to our house (which is on one of the highest ridges in the county) for days at a time. That hasn't happened for quite awhile. It was a moderate summer in terms of rain and Duck Creek never raised out of its banks.

Most of the time, the creek is a wonderland for us. It's got tremendous diversity and abundance of minnows, darters, sticklebacks, sculpins, and gobs of crawfish. We love to take the kids down to wade slowly through its shallows, looking for stream life. The theme of our late summer has been aquatic.A monster mudbug, almost qualifying for lobsta status. We told the kids they were rock lobsters. We tried to teach them how to pick up a crawfish, but we both got pinched and there was a lot of hollering involved. Just when you think you have it, and that it doesn't notice you sneaking up on it, the little mudbug whips around and gets you good. OW!!

People are constantly asking me if we homeschool our kids. I've gotten the question often enough, and my answer is so often met with visible deflation and disappointment, that it puts me just a bit on the defensive. Before replying, I think how eager Phoebe and Liam are for school to start, because they love seeing all their friends. Direct quote from Liam: "Ahh, the sweet smell of the bus seats. The sweet smell of school."That said, he is equally able to soak in the wonder of a golden stream on a late-summer evening.

I deliberately keep the questioner waiting while I think, "Well, I show them things constantly, and explain what we're seeing. Does that count?" So I take my time answering. I suppose that I should follow Emily Post's recommendation for any question you find intrusive and reply, "Why do you ask?"
A baby bullfrog, probably metamorphosed only this year. Bullfrogs are two-year tadpoles. In their second year, they're almost the size of an apricot. You can tell it's a bullfrog and not a green frog by the smoothness of the skin of its back--a green frog has two raised ridges running from each eye to its rump.
Dodder, a parasitic plant that lacks chlorophyll, and twines from honest plant to honest plant, sinking little white teeth into their stems, sucking sugars away from them. It has the audacity to be orange, and it looks like a strand of fly-fishing monofilament caught in the vegetation. This dodder is in full bloom, with little white clusters of flowers. Sometimes it gets so thick on stream banks it looks like an orange tarp. A vegetable vampire.
Coming upon some peculiar bones at streamside, I summoned the kids to look and guess what they might be. We put the pieces together like a jigsaw, but they were no closer to the answer. The Science Chimp in me was pant-hooting. There are so many excellent clues here.
The long icky looking gray thing stretched over the bark is a piece of leathery skin. Any closer?

OK. I'm going to soft pitch it, kids. Here's a good piece of the thing that's still hanging together. The problem is, they didn't yet know this creature existed, much less lurked in the shallows of Duck Creek. I'm going to let y'all work on it in the comments section. Bruce, over there waving your hand, practically jumping out of your desk, I know you know!

So I tell them nope, we don't homeschool.
Not much, anyway.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Danger Rocks

On the weekend Bill took the kids whitewater rafting in West Virginia, one of the things I did by myself was go canoeing on quiet waters. It was kind of a protest. I wasn't too happy about having my family on whitewater, being a rapidophobe myself. I had to chuckle when I saw this warning buoy at Wolf Run:

No, actually, it doesn't. Quiet waters rock.

Phoebe and I were on high alert this day when we went out together, and it paid off in spades, because the beavers I'd spotted on my last visit to Wolf Run were around again. The first thing I needed to teach her was to be conscious of keeping the paddle from hitting the sides of the canoe. I told her that you can spot a rube a mile off over the water by the clunk-clunk of paddle hitting canoe sides. You should always paddle as if you're sneaking up on something, because in all likelihood, you are.

There is great pleasure in silent conveyance on still waters.

In the first cove we checked out, a beaver floated quietly, watching us. It circled, always keeping an eye on us.

Finally, it drew close, and I could tell it was winding up to smack its big flat leathery tail on the water. I could just see it in that glittering eye. So I focused on his back and was ready when it happened!

He's taking a big breath in. Something's going down.


This is one of my favorite pictures of the summer--it shows the enormous webbed paddles the beaver uses to swim so swiftly and dive so deeply. There is a big roostertail of water on either side of the tail, which has been smacked down on the water. Gosh, beavers are so cool. Beavers do this to let you know they see you--it's analogous to a white-tailed deer flashing its big white flag at you. Hey you. Don't bother chasing me. I'm already gone.

Herons were everywhere. I took a lot of heron photos. And no, I don't use the "burst" or rapid-fire/multiple frame function when shooting birds in flight--though I must try it soon. Probably would have been useful for the beaversmack.

Big birds that sit still and then flap off majestically are irresistible to me.Who says pterodactyls are all gone? His croaking rasp only enhances the metaphor--it sounds like someone opening a stuck root cellar door.

Speaking of irresistible, I saw a water naiad on the shore. Where's Maxfield Parrish when you need him?

Another heartbreakingly beautiful September 11 in southern Ohio. Soon enough, rain will come--all these hurricanes have to amount to something. But for now, it's pellucid and clear and the cool afternoon air is like a draught of Riesling. This morning before dawn I stood in the dissolving dark and listened to the calls of dozens of migrating thrushes--pips, peeps and queerps!--headed for destinations only they know. Most of them Swainson's, but maybe a grey-cheeked in there, too. There were so many, calling unseen from horizon to horizon, just as the shivering light broke. We marvel at them, so brave! flying through the starry night, but they have a clearer idea where they are headed than do we, and they have the wings to go.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

For you, of course, sweet B. Thanks for the sweet canoeing companion and the scowly little Art Elf; thanks for the 15 (17) years; thanks for the acreage and the warblers, and thanks for sticking around. I love you.
*thank you for this poem, Kris.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More Adventures In Trophy Hunting

You can only paddle for so long before your butt starts to rebel, so Phoebe and I beached our little craft and climbed a steep slope up onto, of all things, a plateau where perches the humble Noble County Airport. It's apparently unmanned on Sundays. There was a beautiful airstrip just full of dogbane and bursting with butterflies that love its nectar.

Here's a gray hairstreak, Strymon melinus, one of my favorite little delicacies of summer. Vladimir Nabokov loved hairstreaks best of all. Maybe it goes with writing loopy descriptive prose, to love those little trembling tails and sly hindwing-rubbing antics.
It never ceases to amaze me that an ordinary person with a halfway decent lens can get pictures like this. The 300 mm. telephoto allows me to photograph butterflies without creeping close enough to disturb them, and I like that. Here's a common buckeye, which is only common toward fall, when it makes a northward migration that brings it to Ohio, the Buckeye State. I think they named our fair state for the tree, but I'll pretend it was named for a butterfly.
I kept seeing a skipper on the rocks at lakeshore that bedeviled me. I worked and worked to get a decent shot of it as it whirled and settled, puddled and flew.
Wait. Is that a flare of orange on the leading edge of the forewing underside? Or just a trick of light?I think this is a tawny-edged skipper. I saw the same critter in the dogbane, and took this strange shot--just to show you how different skippers can look when they open their wings and show you the markings on their dorsal surfaces.
Finally, I captured an image that I felt confident depicted a tawny-edged skipper. It's the same butterfly as in the shot above, odd as it seems. People talk about the thrill of the chase. Well, you can shoot a trophy buck and cut his head off and hang it on your wall, or you can annoy a skipper for twenty minutes. I pick Option B.
A dun skipper, Euphyes vestris, perched quietly. It's notable precisely for its lack of notability. Which, in the odd world of butterflying, makes it instantly identifiable. Got that?
Actually, when you've been skippering for a couple of decades, the dun's elongated forewing sticks out like a happy thumb and tells you you've got something Other.For an Other, he's sure cute.

Our butterfly excursion over, we repaired to the lake. On our way back down, we found a little Fowler's toad, identifiable by the single wart in each black spot (American toads have 3-5 warts there). It's a toad of sandy soils, and those were in evidence in this dry forest. Everywhere, great blues perched on bowers of grapevine.
I amused myself by trying to get good flight shots. I much prefer shooting birds in flight to resting.  (That's an interesting sentence. It can be interpreted a couple of different ways, but both are true). It's harder to get a decent flight shot, and more fun to look at the results. Sometimes you get photos that make you crow like a rooster. That trophy hunting gene being expressed again, harmlessly...
And sometimes you look up, and there's a sylph fluttering through the forest ahead of you.
Never to be here, in this precise pose and lighting, again.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Canoeing with Phoebe

There comes a time in every parent's life, I hope, when you are struck by the wonder that this child you have so carefully raised and taught has suddenly morphed into a friend. That time comes along about when they begin to be able to pull their own weight around the house, offer a fresh perspective on a problem; commiserate and even comfort you. It's the most stunning thing--it's as if you've groomed this creature to understand everything about you, and it suddenly comes of age, wakes up and offers you sage advice, turns the tables on you in a most delightful way.

Phoebe can handle her own canoe now. This is a big deal for me. I adore canoeing alone, but I like having a companion even more. I like teaching Phoebs what I know about paddling and handling a boat, which isn't much, but is enough to get us where we need to go.
She is a quick student, propelling her craft with those spindly little arms. I wore her out, forgetting that mine are somewhat better muscled. Luckily we had calm water and light breezes, and Phoebe went to school on turning and maneuvering her decked canoe. We drew close to shore and Phoebs was transfixed by a bathing blue jay. It's not like a blue jay to bathe where you can watch--they're wary little corvids. But birds aren't threatened by people in canoes, nearly as much as they fear people on foot. Great blue herons are an exception--they know all about watercraft.
Right behind the jay was a great blue heron, preoccupied with his new catch. It looks a bit like a chub. I'm sure there are fishermen who could have told us what it was, but they weren't out on this fine, shiny Saturday afternoon. The Chimp is crestfallen not to have an ID. It's a neat looking fish. If I'd seen it in the Gulf of Mexico, I'd have called it a flying fish. Anyone?
One thing that fish was, was GONE, in short order. Phoebe watched in horrified fascination as it met its death in a herony acid bath.
I never watch herons process their catch but I imagine what it would be like to eat a live fish without benefit of silverware or even hands. Yiccccch.

Watching my girl float, cradled on gentle waters, filled my heart.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Crime Scene Photos

Toward evening, I happened on another thing you don't see every day. I've never seen it, in fact--evidence of a crime that is vanishingly rare, even in our birdy woods.

A big bird, black and white, met a violent end here. I can't imagine that pileated woodpeckers,
huge and wary as they are, very often become prey.

Blood sheaths on most of the wing and tail feathers indicate that the bird was in heavy molt, and probably a juvenile. The white areas have a faint lemon-yellow cast, something that I've seen on the only other dead pileated woodpecker I've seen--a roadkill.

My first hunch, that an owl was to blame, proved incorrect. When subduing and processing large prey, which can take many minutes or even hours, raptors generally relieve themselves a few times, and this one was no exception.

But instead of dropping its feces straight down in a puddle as an owl does, this raptor ejected them forcefully, creating a line of whitewash. Lacking goshawks in southern Ohio, my best guess on the killer would be a Cooper's hawk, and if I had to hazard a guess as to its sex, I'd say it was a female, who'd be big and bold enough to tackle such outsized prey. Of course, an opportunistic red-tailed hawk might take a pass at a pileated woodpecker, too, so I can't rule that out. We have nesting redtails nearby, but no Cooper's hawks that I know of, and this happened in August, a bit early for the fall accipiter migration. I'd hoped to find perhaps a feather from the predator, since long struggles with big prey often knock a few of the hawk or owl's breast feathers loose, but the hawk left only its whitewash for me to puzzle over.

Hawk it was, though, and we are one pileated down from the brood that was raised on our land this summer. Though they were a daily fixture before, I haven't seen a juvenile pileated around the yard since finding this crime scene.

Today, I am blogging outside, sitting under the four Virginia pines we planted in 1992. They were tiny, only 8" tall, and now they're 20' or more, and almost as big around the middle as I am. I listen to the crickets and katydids, the chirrup and mutter of dozens of birds, and the slow kuk kuk kuk of a pileated woodpecker.

In other news, The Swinging Orangutangs gig on Friday night went wonderfully. We held down five hours of music with only three short breaks, and the sets flowed as freely as the beer at the Marietta Brewing Company. The place was packed until almost 2 AM; we started playing at 9 PM. I was so proud to be there with our band, working hard at having more fun than you could imagine. I was proud of our product, and the four long, intense rehearsals that it took to get back to gig readiness. We tackled and conquered the nitty details of arrangements and vocal parts and just exactly where the guitar solo comes in and how many times the guitar twangs before the riff...all the work that goes into making a tight band. We're like a five horse team, throwing our weight into the harness and pulling together. At one point during  "Burning Down the House" I turned around from the microphone and watched Andy's flying drumsticks and Clay's strong but nimble fingers, a blur on the bass strings; I looked over at Vinnie with his gorgeous sinewy leads on guitar; at Jess, filling the room with her keyboard and her flawless voice, and then over at Bill, fronting us all with strong and melodic guitar, voice and his unique, irreverent and hilarious personality, and I thought, yes, this is it, this is as good as it gets, that is my husband right there, and I am grateful to be here, standing on these sore old feet, sure of my own voice and ready to sing the frat boys, all young enough to be my sons, to bed. 

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Dogbane and Sumac

Oh, boy. Fall is here. I can hear it in the cricket and katydid music, in the swell of cicadas and the whisper songs of vireos. I can see it in the softening colors and smoothing plumage of garden birds and the yellowing heads of goldenrod. It's coming together and coming apart at the same time. Plants are rushing to bloom and fruit; insects are rushing to mate and reproduce; birds are rushing to leave us.

I walk the meadow and look. Dogbane beetles drive their shiny little cars over the leaves of their namesake plant. Every time I walk by there is less plant. I wonder how it feels to be reflective in this very concrete way. Maybe the beetles wonder how it feels to think so much about everything, all the time. Perhaps we should switch places. But I would miss my supple skin. However iridescent and beautifuly polished an exoskeleton might be, I still think it would feel like I was in a car.
Smooth sumac raises proud seedheads to the sky, food for birds come frost. But what's this on the undersides of its leaves?
Great hollow lumps cling along the stem, obviously of the plant's making.Yes, but why would a plant make something like this? I break one open, to find it filled with small yellow aphids.
Which came first, bolus or bugs? They're sumac gall aphids, and I can't find anything about how this comes to happen--how these tiny, soft-bodied insects came to be in such a perfect hollow biosphere. I conclude that their mother must have laid eggs in the sumac leaf, and the sumac responded to the insult by creating a lovely capsule around the irritant. I don't know if I'm right, but perhaps the sumac gall aphid would follow the path of gall-making wasps and beetles, chemically co-opting the plant's growth potential into a sort of induced cancer that both feeds and protects its young. Some aphids are parthenogenic, too, and a single female can give birth to a whole raft of exact copies of herself without benefit of fertilization. So the possibility that a single female made her way in, then popped out a bunch of young, must be considered as well.

However the aphid colony came to be here, they're happily sucking plant juices, protected from predators, ironically enough, by the very plant whose energy they're sapping. There's a sociopolitical analogy in here somewhere, but I'm going to stick to bugs.

I draw back, walk on, and look at the evening sun slanting through winged sumac leaves.Oh, it's beautiful. Why does low golden light, cricket music rising as night falls, raise such a lump in my throat?
Young tulips, mown off only last summer, madly put forth new growth in September, trying to get too big for the mowing deck. A few more seasons of neglect, and saplings will be trees, and this golden meadow will be dark woods.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Asking for Bigfoot

I got a lot of cool stuff for my birthday. It was one of those birthdays where you can ask for pretty much whatever you want. I asked Bill for voice lessons and he came through. I am enjoying them more than you can imagine. My teacher is Jess Baldwin, who also happens to be our fabulous keyboard artist and singer in the Orangutangs. Once I got over the thought that I’d be singing pop songs in front of my voice teacher, which took about five minutes, everything was cool. Singing with Jess is like having a rocket booster behind me. She lifts me higher.

We sing this Friday at the Marietta Brewing Company, 9-2. Yeah, 2. Which means we fall into bed around 4:30, after packing up all the equipment and driving the half-hour home. But we've been rehearsing like crazy and we are ready, Eddie.

In Southeast Ohio parlance, I’m all ate up.

I also specifically asked for this item, and I did not get it. I don’t understand why. It’s only $98.95. Maybe it’s because the idea of a Bigfoot sculpture that is only 28 ½” tall is inherently ludicrous.
To quote Spinal Tap's manager, it is in danger of being trod upon by a dwarf.

Well, sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for. Have a great weekend. I plan to be on for half of it, comatose for the other half.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

More Than I Can Chew

I've been really tryin', baby
Tryin' to hold back this feeling for so long...

Running like a hamster on a wheel, trying to keep a dozen plates spinning in the air. That's how my life feels right now. I'm blogging when I should be comatose, preparing for the next 5:45 wakeup call.
Travel two days this week, practice every night I'm not on the road, lessons when there's no practice, and a gig with our band, the Swinging Orangutangs, this coming Friday. We're working up five hours' worth of songs. Stretched just a wee bit too thin, and the answer to "how do you do it all?" is "Not very well," or "All the time, thank you."

But I take this life and worry it like a favorite toy, extracting all the joy I can from its hectic warp and weave. Today, I baited a huge orb-weaving spider with a mealworm tossed into her web, and photographed her as she prepped it for lunch. It was pure natural heaven for the spider and me (I suspect the mealworm was less than thrilled), and I hold those moments of awe and discovery close to my heart, for they get me through.

When I'll have time to upload the photos and write the story, heaven only knows. And then there's the county fair...oh, it was so beautiful. I haven't even looked at my photos.

I've finally admitted to myself that the reams of images I took this summer in Utah, Colorado and Maine are probably not going to make it onto the blog. You do four states in a month, you have to let some fall by the wayside. The weeds grow over your good intentions. Other neat stuff happens and the blog-ant becomes a nutty grasshopper, frantically storing a kernel at a time, never filling the pantry.

Chet Baker is snuggled up against my thigh here in the dark living room. He rolled in some nameless but amazingly stanky poo not once, but twice today--on the way out to take a stack of paid bills to the box, and on the way back home. I found that out when I kissed his cheek and came away with a distinctive taste in my mouth. Thanks, Chet. Yet another bath for you, you little butthead. Your problem is you like baths.

No, that is YOUR problem, Mether. My life is just exactly like I want it. I think I should roll in something lovely every day, and then you should bathe me every day, then towel me off and chase me around the living room. It is all good.

Chet Baker, also biting off more than he can chew.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Raising Box Turtles

Wow. This Labor Day Weekend has been entirely too much fun. I did do a bunch of weeding and trimming and cleaning up, working out in the sun with the cicadas and crickets singing to me. Which I consider fun. We also went to the county fair and I whipped myself into a photographic frenzy, all those fancy chickens, baby pigs and midway lights. Wooo. The stuff of many posts. Just thinking about uploading all those photos makes me sleepy.

It's all I can do to put a post up. I feel like lying on a chaise lounge instead, falling asleep to cricket songs. But I'll show you the hatchling box turtles we're raising for release on our sanctuary. The idea is to raise them until they're big and strong and able to withstand chipmunk attacks and the like, thus giving them a better start in life and better chances of making it to reproductive age. You feed them like crazy, give them sun and exercise, hibernate them in the winters (well, at least I do) and then let them go. It can take three or four years, although some people who don't hibernate them and keep them under lights can get them to release size in a year and a half. Release size is 3/4 lb. Yow.

We've had Shoomie for three seasons now. He hatched in captivity from captive parents kept in a palatial turtle enclosure by my biology professor friend Dave McShaffrey of Marietta College. I believe Shoomie's almost ready for release; he has bulked up tremendously on Repto-Min Aquatic Turtle Food Stix. The tough part will be convincing Liam of that. Shoomie is Liam's turtle.

Every fiber of Shoomie wants to head for the woods when we take him outside. He's an adventurer. He's also kind of cranky and impatient, and is the only reptile I've ever seen throw a tantrum.

Before I learned about the Repto-Min regime, I used to try to get him to eat things like butternut squash and cantaloupe and strawberries. I'd put mealworms on top of them, or wiggle the bits with a straw until he was inspired to take a bite. Once Shoomie got a big mouthful of baked squash, realized it was probably good for him, and went on a stomping, head tossing rampage around the tank, plowing the remaining squash into the dirt. Twicked again.
Shoomie only wants live food. I got him to snap at the food sticks by putting them in his water dish, where Brownian motion made them swim around. He immediately snapped and was hooked.

Liam escorts him around the yard, always remembering to bring him back to his planted terrarium when the walk is over.This little hatchling came to us only this month. A woman had found it in her suburban yard, hardly turtle habitat, as a tiny hatchling, and raised it for almost a year on, of all things, hard-boiled egg. She brought it into the local pet store looking for advice on raising it for release, and the manager contacted my dear friend Leslie who called me. Apparently egg is a great hatchling food, because this little turtlet has the hardest shell and brightest eyes I've seen since Shoomie. She's strong and energetic , full of beans.I was a bit concerned that this turtle be exposed to live foods, too, so it would know what to do in nature. I think it expects hard-boiled egg wedges to drop out of the sky each morning. So yesterday I dug a couple of small earthworms and, after careful neck-craning and consideration, the turtlet grabbed them. Hooray! Big sigh of relief. Now I need to get her to take Repto-Min to keep that growth rate going.

No, I'm not sure of the sex of these turtles. Shoomie has a thicker, shorter tail, while Shelly's is long and thin. That may indicate that Shoomie's a male and Shelly's a female, but I don't know that for sure. Males don't get their red eyes for quite a few years, and I'd imagine that the hollowed-out plastron characteristic of males also takes some time to develop.

Phoebe renamed the new turtle Shelly. She's got her dad's gift for naming things (He's responsible for Chet Baker's name).
Phoebe adores Shelly, and takes her on outdoor adventures with Liam and Shoomie. But sometimes she just relaxes and exchanges thoughts with Shelly.

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