Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween (2008)!

With each holiday comes a set of things parents must do, things expected, things greatly anticipated. Christmas, of course, is the big one, the one that, if you buy into it the way merchants want you to, can devour a month or more of your busy life. Everywhere you turn, there are Christmas--excuse me--"holiday" decorations. I saw them in a Wegman's grocery store in Jamestown, New York in the third week of October. And there was this strangely ambiguous placard right next to the huge pyramid of Christmas trees. It said something like, "Some shoppers shop ahead and others prefer to wait until closer to the holidays to do their shopping. By placing these decorations out, we are allowing you to make your own choice."

Oh. Gee. Thanks for allowing me to make my own choice. And by the way, your dopey Thankoweenmas decorations bum me out.

Mama. Take a picture of me like this (poses).

I like Halloween. It comes with its own set of expectations, sure, and there's some parental stress, but it's vastly less of an exercise than Christmas. I like it especially because it's Liam's self-professed "favorite day of the year." That's enough for me, even if I didn't already like ghouls and witches, haints and jack-o-lanterns.

Because I was in Jamestown for trick-or-treat, Bill promised the kids we'd carve pumpkins the night before I had to leave. My part was getting the kids' costumes squared away. I am not a tinfoil robot-making kind of mother. I can paint faces like nobody's bidness, but I am not hand-sewing the Medusa costume, if you get my drift. I happily, nay, gleefully, spend my $20-40 rocks on store-bought costumes, dress 'em up with crazy wigs or fabulous face paint, and relax about it. Store-bought costumes are good, store-bought costumes are great; they are enough.

And so BOTB dug into the punkins, with the kids designing the faces and hanging over him and
me behind the camera.My sweet little artists.
not yet perfectionists, but darn close.
Can you carve this, Daddy?
I'll try. To make a jack-o-lantern, you have to stick a knife in the pumpkin. It's the way of the world, kid.
Having strong arms, he did the guts removal in record time.
The obligatory vomiting-pumpkin-guts photo.
My son as a dog: Mmmm. The lid smells good.
Ah, but does it fit back on the jack-o-lantern?
Liam's creation, made flesh by the Father.
The glorious end result. They're flickering outside on the patio each night.
Yes, that is supposed to be Chet Baker, and yes, we know it turned out more like a pig. Too bad there are no decent artists in this family. Happy Thankoweenmas!

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In Which Baker Goes to the Vet

It is time for a Baker fix, don't you think? Chet Baker went to see Dr. Lutz not long ago for his vaccinations, in arrears since (gasp!) May. I had kind of a busy May. So along about early October I loaded Chet in the car for the drive to town. Chet Baker loves to go to the vet's office. He loves the vet techs and most of all he loves Dr. Lutz.

Chet whiles away the waiting time in the exam room by watching out the window, where dogs being boarded are taken for walks.
Mether. I see an animal. I am not sure if it is a cat or a skunk. It cannot be a dog.
Despite the flowing hair, Chet Baker, that is a dog. Maybe it is a Shih Tzu. I'm sure my readers will tell me if it isn't. Mether is German. So she is a short-haired dog sort of person, not up on the dustmoppy breeds.

That is a dog?? Get out of town. It looks like it needs to be chased, chased very fast until it runs up a tree or threatens to spray me.

Let's not do that again, Chet Baker.

Mether. I hear someone just outside the door. Maybe it is Dr. Lutz.
It is. It is! It is Dr. Lutz! Oh, boy!
I always forget how much I hate this table she puts me up on. But I will stay perfectly still for her, because she is my favorite.

She also has very good taste in dog posters. My forehead blaze is a little wider, but this handsome doggeh could almost be me.

Even though this exam table gives me doggeh shrinkage, I still love my Dr. Lutz.

As long as we're talking Bostons, take a look at this logo for The Ohio Tuition Trust Authority.
Bill of the Birds spotted this first and drew the blue arrow. I saw the logo before I saw his note, which read, "Is it just me, or does this logo look like a Boston terrier?" I grabbed the letter eagerly before realizing that it wasn't from the Dog Poster Talent Scouts, looking for my puppeh.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Do Tanagers Eat Corn?

Another installment in the Tanager Toddler series. Here we have another immature male scarlet tanager (evidenced by the black feathers coming in on the green immature plumage of his wings) finding his way in the world. Birds learn, in large part, by watching other birds. When an individual sees other birds eating, it will investigate to see if that fare suits it, too, even if the other birds are of another species. This tanager was attracted to a little group of goldfinches eating mixed seed beneath our feeders. It landed on the ground--already a bit aberrant for a bird that normally gleans insects in the treetops--and hopped amongst the lookalike goldfinches in fresh winter plumage.

One of these things is not like the others. One of these things is not the same.Tanagers live on insects and fruit, and are not adapted to eating seed or grain. Nevertheless...

Watching the other birds carefully, it picked up some cracked corn, masticated it, and swallowed. Hmm. Not good, but not horrible, either.

It ate four pieces, occasionally bullying the goldfinches, who were more interested in black oil sunflower seed. And then it flew off.

So the answer to the question: Do tanagers eat corn? has to be: Yes, if it seems like a good idea at the time. I doubt this bird will make a habit of eating corn at feeders, but the knowledge he gained today might come in handy should there be a cold snap next spring. It's all grist for his little mill, grist for ours, too. Here ends, for now, the Birds Eating Weird Things series.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 27, 2008

Anting in Birds

Watching our backyard scene for 16 years now, we've been privileged to see recurring themes in bird behavior. Did you know that gray birches host a lot of ants, and that black-throated green warblers like to pick the ants off the trunks and run them through their plumage? Me, neither, and had I seen it once, I'd have thought it was a nice thing to see, but now we see it every autumn.A female black-throated green warbler picks herself an ant off a birch trunk.

I first saw a black-throated green warbler anting in Salmonier, Newfoundland in 1981 or so, when many of you whippersnappers were watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. Anting birds crush ants and pass the bodies through their plumage, presumably anointing themselves with that pungent sweet smelling formic acid that mashed ants (and mad ants) secrete. Phew. Maybe it routs feather mites that would otherwise chew their barbules to powder. Maybe it discourages lice. Maybe it's a warbler's version of Origins' "Perfect World" Green Tea Skin Protector, something I am hopelessly hooked on. My nictitating membranes flip up over my eyeballs when I use that stuff.

Maybe birches attract a certain species of ant that's good for anting, or maybe it's simpler than that: the ants that trickle up and down its trunk in stuttering lines show up well against white bark. Whatever the reason, warblers like to ant on birches.First, you get yourself an ant or two.Then you pass it through your wing and tail feathers, just as if you were preening, but with an ant in your bill.Belly feathers get some, too. Ooh, it smells so good.Bring your leg over your wing and scratch that face. Ahhhh.Feeling ever so dapper now. Smooth, silky.

Oh, look. A lady black-throated green.She likes to ant, too.

Back to our little gent.Beautiful beyond description, and freshly dressed with formic acid, he's ready to migrate. Ah, warblers, how I will miss them when they leave. We're down to yellow-rumps now, the latest migrants, maybe a Tennessee or a stray Nashville.See you next April, dearie.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Random Monday

Never been much into Skywatch Friday or Wordless Wednesday. I usually have my eyes on the ground, and way too many words to get down on Wednesdays. But every now and then I see something in the sky that makes me stop the car dead and say, "Hey! Look at the guy being dragged by his pet elephant!" My kids scratch their heads, realize that I must be talking about clouds again, and patiently look while I gesticulate and explain until they see the elephant guy too. I think it's good for their brains, keeping a watch for sky elephants and their hapless mahouts. Knowing that at any moment their mom could slam on the brakes and start speaking gibberish. Keeps them on their toes.

I don't know what made me lie down on the road to take this photo; I didn't intend to make an image of a giant Percheron eating the head off an innocent paw paw festival goer.
But there you have it. When draft horses attack. They nip off the talking end first and deal with the legs later.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 24, 2008


I'm home for one day before whirling off again to help open a show of the paintings and drawings from Letters from Eden at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York. It's a big'un, 63 works, and we'll have an opening reception and talk by moi at 5 PM Saturday, October 25. If you're in the area, please consider joining us. I'd love to meet you. Thank you, RTPI, for this wonderful opportunity to show my watercolors and drawings in your beautiful building. I wish the King Penguin himself could be there to talk courtesy RTPI

Don't miss the tanager/wasp post below, if you haven't seen it.

Labels: ,

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How to Eat a Wasp

The young tanager from the previous post made a short flight to the birch next to my studio window, where he captured an insect. Ooh, what's he got?
Could it be? Is it a paper wasp? Eeek!
Durn tootin'. It's a wasp. Yikes. Notice how he's holding it? By the bidness end. And he's biting it for all he's worth.
The crushing power of a tanager bill is considerable. I'm sure he disabled the stinger the moment he grabbed it. That's one of the benefits of having hard lips. Sometimes I think how cool it would be to have a beak. You could open bottles and cans, pre-drill holes, remove tags, henpeck your husband when he needed it.

Even more mastication of the abdomen.
Only when the abdomen was thoroughly crushed did the bird move on to processing the thorax and head.
This is the last shot before he swallowed his catch. Look how he's got the wasp's abdomen all mooshed out.

Tanagers as a genus are well-adapted to feeding on bees and wasps. In fact, most Augusts see a young male summer tanager or two, perched on one of our high backyard snags, leaping up and catching yellowjackets and wasps as they sail by. They'll repair back to the snag to bite and hammer the bug into stingless submission before swallowing it down. I have a friend in Connecticut who had a summer tanager spend most of the winter in his Old Lyme backyard, nailing honeybees as they emerged from the hive for a look around. Those bees kept the tanager going through quite a bit of cold and snow. Hank was glad to donate to the redbird's cause.

And that is what I know about tanagers and Hymenopterae.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tanager Toddler

One of the reasons I love fall birding more than any other season is the preponderance of young birds passing through. Not only are they in confusing plumages, made to order for a Science Chimp to puzzle over, but they do the neatest things. Having raised so many young birds, I understand that a big part of learning what to eat is trying everything at least once.
So when an immature scarlet tanager landed on the spent cardinal flower stalks and began prying at the round seed capsules, I watched with great interest. Knowing that lobelia is poisonous, at least to mammals, I was intrigued. Birds generally "know" that stuff. How, I have no clue.He (his black wings gave away his sex, even at this tender age) twisted and pried, but the tanager failed to dislodge a capsule. Wonder what he'd have done had he succeeded? Swallowed it down? Knowing tanagers, he probably would have masticated it with that stout bill to see how it tasted first.Hmm. Not very fruity.Bleh, in fact. Not food. Next?I love his little blue feet in this shot. Cute undertoe.Cuter yet. He's lookin' for bugs now, about 5' from my lens, under the studio window. Wonder what he'll come up with?

Next: Eek! What's he got?

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Babies, Bill, Baker

At the brand-new birding festival in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia at the end of September, Bill and I hosted a birding clinic for kids. It was a hoot! It was raining lightly, but there were gobs and gobs of bluebirds and cedar waxwings and woodpeckers, and we just put the spotting scope on them and handed out binoculars and had a ball hearing the gasps and exclamations of kids getting their first good look at a bluebird or a flicker. Great Swarovski optics help. Yes, that was a product placement, but one for which I receive no compensation. I'm just sayin'.

Look at the hands on this little guy. His mom is telling him not to touch the scope, and he's doing his best. hands, curled up, does that do as much for you as it does for me?

Barely more than a baby, he was so intrigued by what everyone else was seeing (bluebirds) through Bill of the Birds' scope that he insisted on having a look for himself. I'm not sure he got much satisfaction, but at least he got to be a big kid for awhile. Swarovski binocs, no less, dimpled knuckles. OK. I am a baby freak.
Sooo sweet. Agggh. He brought me to my knees. Gimme one of those. Of course, I was flashing back heavily to Liam's baby days when the only name he answered to was Po Po. I have a weakness for little blonde boys. I am the kind of person who chooses the grocery line that has a baby in it, so I can mess with the baby, talking to it, trying to get a smile; talking to the mom, just digging that baby. I was always a little afraid of them until I had my own. Now I can't get enough of them. I can feel Nature preparing me for the next life passage--watching my own "red-headed, limber elf" grow up. And someday have her own. Who I will walk off with for hours at a time, rocking side to side.

I was talking about Bill before I got onto babies. I miss him. Thanks to our mutual travel schedules, we'll see each other for parts of only five days in five weeks. Days which will be spent packing and unpacking. He returned from a week away in Panama on Monday, flying into Columbus, while I left for a week away on Monday, flying out of Akron. We did not meet in the middle. Not even a shared burger at Max and Erma's. Glamorous as all get out, traveling is.
So I'm feeling like looking at pictures of my absent mate. Holding a baby, so much the better. Sigh...

Bill is very generous in helping others see birds. He's famous for it at festivals nationwide.

He even helps little brindle people see birds.
Oh, yes, Daddeh. Now I see the vulture. Thank yew.

Chet Baker, that is a bluebird.

It looked bigger in the binoculars. Well. Do you have any new toys for me?

All right. That's enough sweetness and light. If you read the mountaintop removal posts here
and here, and they moved you, I implore you to read this editorial in the New York Times. It's short. One page. Read it.

In short, because both Barack Obama and John McCain have expressed opposition to mountaintop removal mining, the Bush Administration is rushing to remove the last environmental regulation remaining that slows permit applications for mountaintop removal mining, leaving more miles of Appalachian streams open to being buried in valley fill operations.

Somebody explain to me why coal companies should be exempt from environmental impact regulations. Because they completely destroy the environment, so there's nothing left to impact? Oh, I get it.

Isn't 1,200 miles of streams buried too much already? The huge coal companies, with the regulation re-writes by Bush administration lawyers, are tearing our mountains down around us, burying and poisoning our rivers and streams, burying and poisoning the people of Appalachia. Please, please read it, and then go here to take speedy action. You'll go to a page on that will help you both to find your Federal representative and virtually instantly email your opposition to this race to destroy Appalachia before a more enlightened administration is able to take hold. It is a nation of termites, getting that coal now, getting it fast, leaving a wasteland behind.

If you like this blog, you gotta pay for it somehow. Do it. Thanks, Patty, for the heads up on this fresh, sneaky and devastating assault on our mountains, our streams, our wildlife and our people.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, October 20, 2008

Chet Baker, Rail Hunter

Bill and I have been keeping a bird list for our property since we moved here in 1992. It's bulging with improbables. Now that we've both become fairly serious photographers, getting a new species is ever so much more exciting, because of course we want to document each one in the worst way! I was taking some clothes in off the line on Sunday afternoon, October 19, 2008, when Chet Baker went snuffling around and around a little spreading blue spruce by our tiny water garden just off the patio. I figured he had a bunneh or chiptymunk in there and would soon rout it. "Got a bunneh, Chet Baker?" Snuffle, snuffle. Suddenly there was a rush and a snort from Chet and a bird burst out and flew right up beside me, giving a sharp Keek!Keek!Keek! It landed and strutted around like a tiny chicken. A Virginia rail. Number 183 for our property list.

My eyes bugged out of my head. I was so proud of my doggeh, because the second he realized he had a bird and not a small brown mammal (who wouldn't think a rail was a mammal?) he stopped dead in his tracks and stayed right there by the spruce, several yards away. "That's Mether's bird, Chet," I intoned softly, but he already knew that. He was rooted to the spot. Now. I do not normally take my camera out to bring in the laundry, though I should during migration, for Pete's sake. This place is Eden.

What to do? Luckily, it was a warm afternoon, and the windows were thrown open. I sensed that if I eased off to get the camera, the rail would take that opportunity to bolt for cover. It was watching me, watching it.

"PHOEEEEEEBEEEEE?" I called, praying she wasn't in the farthest corner of the house.

And my sprites, both of 'em, came romping around the corner with the camera.

"Stop right there--see the Virginia rail by the hose cart?"

"Oooooh! He's so CUUUUUTE!" (They have seen both Virginia and sora rails in North Dakota).

"OK. Go wide and bring me the camera and we'll document this."
And she did, circled around behind me and handed me the camera.

The rail crept behind the hose cart and crouched down behind the wheel.
Oh, how sweet. He was lying on his stomach. No wonder you can't find them when you want to.

But soon his nerves got to him and he flutter-ran out into the open again, looking for better cover.
I clicked madly with the short lens, which happened to be the one on the camera at the time. I was shooting right into the contrasty afternoon sun and the rail was just a silhouette. With a lot of post-doctoring, I opened up this shot, to show you his lovely coloration.
This one's much nicer--he's lightfooting by the last black-eyed Susan of the season, right next to our little pond, the sun coming through his coral bill. Ahhh. A rail. In our yard. What are the chances? Zip to nil, that's what. This is a bird, a marsh bird, a wetland/shore bird, that we could never in a million years hope to see or add to our property list up here on this dry old ridgetop, but for The Bacon.
The rail streaked under the spruce again, and then lit out for the big rough meadow where we'd never find him again. As soon as he was in good cover, only the quivering grasses to show where he was running, we ran to the front yard, high-fiving and yelling with joy. Chet Baker romped and leapt, knowing he'd done well. He'd found his first new species for the place.
Chet Baker, Rail Hunter, Respecter of Birdlife, New Species Finder. He earns his keep around here. He is getting some rump roast and gravy tonight! But then, he'd get that anyway, just for being Chet Baker, Best Doggeh on the Planet. I'm tempted to add Most Beautiful but some saluki or Italian greyhound or lab or golden retriever owner might dispute that, and we'd be off again.

Just for fun, here are the last ten new species for the place, with dates they were recorded. Remember, we're about 13 miles in from any significant body of water, and that's just the muddy ol' Ohio River, so the water birds are the toughest to get. The wide spread in dates--it took us eight years to get those last ten species!!--shows you how dicey the going gets once you top 175 species for an inland site in Ohio.

Property list additions to date:

#173 Eurasian Collared-dove 3/25/00 (first record for State of Ohio, but not accepted. Someone turned in one that got shot in the mourning dove hunt that fall and the rare records committee accepted the dessicated corpse as evidence. My painting wouldn't do. Oh well. What do I know about bird ID?)
#174 Golden Eagle 3/29/00 (an immature circling over the tower, caught on video! and in watercolor on the frontispiece of Letters from Eden.
#175 Sedge Wren 5/08/00 (we've had another since then, singing its head off in the meadow)
#176 Black Ducks (25) 12/22/00
#177 WW Crossbill 4/15/02-(bathing in the bird bath! a female, ugly as sin.)
#178 Black-crowned Night-heron 10/13/02 (six flew over for Big Sit-that was COOOL!)
#179 Tundra Swans-40!!-12/5/02-(spotted by Phoebe headed straight east. Bill id’d them.)
#180 Common Raven 3/15/03 (flew over, honking. We've had 3 more records since, 2 in the spring of '08)
#181 Saw-whet Owl 11/09/04 (we've had another record since then, and expect more)
#182 Black-bellied Plover flock of eight, 5/18/06 (Bill saw them fly by our mailbox!)
#183 Virginia Rail 10/19/08 (Chet Baker gets credit for this one.)

What will be next?? Only the Fates know.

ZICK ALERT: Tuesday night, October 21, I will speak in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of Hartford Audubon's Wildlife Series. I'll be at McAuley Residence Auditorium, 275 Steele Road, West Hartford, Connecticut, at 7 p.m. Yep, I'm on the road again.

For more information, email

It feels amazing to be coming back to Connecticut in a professional way, after having lived there from 1981-1991. Oddly enough, I haven't spoken in the state, or worked a nature festival in Connecticut in the ensuing 17 years. Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, yes, but not the Ol' Rock. So happy to be invited back. I'm looking forward to seeing some old friends and family. If you're anywhere near, please come say hello after blurting, "BLOG!"

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Ohioana Awards

Rare, never-to-be repeated photo of an artist/naturalist speaking at the Ohio State House.

On October 18, 2008, I gratefully accepted a citation from the Ohioana Library Association for
"Distinguished Service to Ohio in the Fields of Art, Writing and Commentary." The OLA honors Ohio writers and creative artists for their contributions, and maintains a huge library of works executed by Ohioans. We are busy people out here in Ohio. The awards ceremony was in the State House, and our former governor, Bob Taft, and his wife were there, and there were lots of gifted artists and writers and poets there. Bit of advice: Try not to get up at a podium after a poet has said his artfully humble and mercifully brief thank-you. It makes you, Ms. Overkill, feel like popping a verbal Immodium. However. I wanted you, my faithful readers, to know that you, and this strange little forum we enjoy, were at the forefront of my thoughts as I wrote and re-wrote and then re-wrote and still fretted over my acceptance homily. They told me to keep it to 30 seconds, one or two minutes at the most, but I couldn't. It came in at 2:50. Here it is:

I don’t know about you, but I get most of my celebrity news in the grocery line, while waiting for the cashier to look up “Bok Choi” on the produce list. While doing this, I’ve found out that three celebrities share my birth year: Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince. As I stand here, I feel certain that, this generous Ohioana citation aside, Madonna and Michael Jackson** need have no concern that I will eclipse their celebrity. Prince is an interesting one, though. He looked at the deals the record companies were offering and walked away from the crossroads. He produces, publishes and distributes his music from his own recording studio in Minneapolis, and by all accounts he’s doing just fine.

These are exciting times to be a writer. Rumors of writing’s demise, I think, were premature. Writing is very much alive; I’d submit that it’s healthier than ever. Let’s face it: Most of us spend many waking hours reading off a computer screen. It’s easy now both to find and circulate good contemporary writing. The Internet has created brand new forums for it; instant exchange of pieces that touch something in us. It’s as though the blood of creativity has found new vessels, and a writer, or for that matter, a musician, painter, photographer—any creative artist-- can find a targeted audience with vastly greater speed and efficiency than has ever been possible before.

Although the word “blog” sounds like something you’d find stuck to the bottom of your shoe, after stumbling into blogging, I’m a true believer. I’ve kept one for three years, and more than 21,000 unique readers visit each month. The number grows by about 1,000 a month. Serving up good content five days a week is a big commitment—but it’s like having your own small magazine. You control the content, graphics, the creative direction. And it really gets interesting when you hear from 40 or 50 readers, exchange ideas, and allow them to expand your horizons.

Writers need to write, I think, and write every day, whether it’s an essay or a footnoted treatise; a haiku or a blog post. The writing muscles need to move, even if the back gets stiff and the tailbone gets sore. The odd thing about writing every day is that you don’t run out of ideas; you beget more, just by writing.

William Thackeray said, "There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write."

Thank you, Ohioana, for this honor. I thank my husband, Bill Thompson III, and his parents, Bill and Elsa Thompson, for first publishing my work in Bird Watcher’s Digest, begun in their Marietta living room and now celebrating its 30th year. I thank my agent, Russ Galen, and my editor, Lisa White, for making a book of Letters from Eden. I thank my editor Ellen Silva, Melissa Block and National Public Radio for believing that there’s something going on in Whipple, Ohio, that a national audience would like to hear. And I thank the online readers who are with me each day, who sometimes spit coffee on their computer screens when they open the blog. If they have to wipe their screens, I’ve done my job. Thank you.

End of remarks.

And thanks to Kerf for the pictures, for hanging out and making it all such fun.

**Madonna and Michael Jackson share my exact birthday and year. Shazaam. Could serial marriage, reclusive exhibitionism, a private amusement park, sexy personal trainers, a gaggle of nannies, surrogate parenthood, fabulous thighs, a creepy skin condition, repatriation to England, the cloud of pederasty, Kaballah, or a chimp named Bubbles be in my future, too?

I'll take the thighs.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Happy National Feral Cat Day!

a feral photo from the Web; if I could find attribution I'd gladly give it.

Across the United States, perhaps 90 million domestic cats are kept, the majority of them allowed to roam and hunt outdoors. An additional estimated 70 million feral cats--nonnative predators that live by their wits outside-- annually kill hundreds of millions of songbirds and more than a billion small animals such as mice, voles, chipmunks and rabbits. The problem grows exponentially; one breeding pair of feral cats can produce produce 420,000 offspring over a seven-year period.
New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons

Various solutions have been offered; among them are shooting (South Dakota and Minnesota permit shooting of feral cats) and the popular trap-neuter-release programs, in which volunteer veterinarians have spaying clinics for trapped feral cats. After that, the cats are released back into the habitats where they were trapped. Hmmm. And that's because these exotic predators belong in the wild, preying on native birds and animals? Ummm...Because nobody knows what else to do with a wild, unsocialized cat? Because it's a kind thing to do? Because it's OK with us that they're living on a diet of warblers, sparrows and thrushes, chipmunks and voles, frogs and lizards? Because it makes us feel better? What am I missing here? Is there something right and good about allowing cats to decimate native wildlife that I just don't get?

A California study showed that neutered feral cats live an average of seven years after being released; seven years in which they will continue to prey on native birds, reptiles and mammals.

A good summary of the issue can be found at National Geographic's web site.

In an effort to become more informed about the problem, I subscribed to Alley Cat Allies. I get their e-mailings, and I've learned some things I didn't know about feral cats and birds. Apparently, I'm mistaken in my conviction that feral cats kill a lot of birds. My 45 years of observations of cat predation on songbirds, including the countless cat-bitten songbirds I've dosed with antibiotics and tried to repair, are wrong: They eat mostly small mammals, insects, and reptiles, according to Alley Cat Allies. Oh, that's OK. Whew. Nobody much likes mice, bugs, and snakes anyway.

And did you know that, according to Alley Cat Allies, human activity in the form of unregulated hunting is actually the cause of the precipitous, non-cyclic decline of migratory birds, and the reason that migratory bird protection laws were passed? Well, that may have been true of shorebirds, gallinaceous birds and waterfowl in the market hunting days around the turn of the 20th century, but I haven't run into a human hunting party that's after tanagers, sparrows, thrushes, warblers, and vireos lately. I have seen an awful lot of those that were killed by cats, however. Hunting doesn't even enter into it: Habitat loss, window strikes, and cat predation are the Big Three songbird killers, and the studies exist to prove it.

Outside of the trap-neuter-release programs, which allow feral cats to go on doing their native wildlife predation work for an average of seven more years, the life span of a feral cat in the wild averages two years. It's a short, brutish existence, rife with disease and peril. Because they become pregnant as kittens when they're a few months old, before they've even attained full growth, two years is plenty of time for a female cat to crank out four or more litters. Which crank out more, and more, and more...70 million and growing. Millions and billions and trillions of cats.
From Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

Living outside is rotten for cats, and feral cat predation devastates native wildlife. Cat predations is an unnatural, and most importantly, preventable cause of songbird and small mammal deaths. But people have to recognize the problem to do something about it. Education!

So, in celebration of National Feral Cat Day, this morning I sent a donation to the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors campaign. You can donate online here, or send a check to:

American Bird Conservancy
Cats Indoors Campaign
PO Box 249
The Plains, VA 20198.

Please write: In Celebration of National Feral Cat Day in the "Memo" line of your check. Tell 'em I sent you.

Happy National Feral Cat Day! Party at my blog.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Paw Paw Processing

A naturalist's table: freshly picked paw paws, a blooming Cattleytonia orchid, a couple of monarch chrysalides waiting to hatch. Yes, I will get to the chrysalis posts. But there are overripe paw paws in my blog pantry right now.
Consumed by paw paw fever, Phoebe and I went looking in our own woods where we had seen some paw paw saplings coming up a couple of years ago. Imagine how wonderful it would be to find them old enough to fruit, on our own land! We had a big bowl of fruit from Athens; now we'd look for some on our place. Our excitement built as we got ready for the paw paw safari. We wanted to wait for Daddy, but he wouldn't be home until after dark, so we set off by ourselves.

There were the trees--a veritable paw paw grove! And there, hanging above us, was the fruit.
Can you hear the heavenly chorus? Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh! Perfectly, splendidly, softly, fragrantly ripe. Here is the haul from our little grove:
We thought them much superior in looks and flavor to the Athens ones. Perhaps it's because they weren't hauled for miles in a backpack.

We tried to teach Chet Baker to find them once they'd fallen from the trees as we shook them, but he was no help. He found lots of sticks and pillbugs, but never got the point of our giving him a paw paw to smell, then saying, "Go find it, boy!"It was not for lack of interest. Chet Baker likes paw paws, as you will see. We just couldn't get the concept through his little melon head that he might look for them and find them for us.

All right. Now I had a whole mess o' paw paws. Time to process them. I'd learned from my previous big haul that they are a bit time-consuming to prepare. In short, the pulp can be separated from the huge and abundant seeds in only one way: by squishing the fruit through a colander.

I separated out the ripest fruit to work on first. You definitely want the fruit to be soft to the touch before you process it. It tastes best when fully ripe, and it separates best from the seeds and skin when ripe.You lay the fruit in the colander and squish it flat with your palm and your knuckles. It separates readily from the skin. Then you grind it around, seeds, pulp, skin and all, until just the pulp squeezes through the colander holes into a bowl below. After awhile, you have something that looks like this in your colanderand this in the bowl below:That's the money shot, right there. Pure gold.

Chet Baker got to lick the colander when I was all done.I will say this about processing paw paws. It is messy. You want to do it outdoors, because the vigor required to squash the paw paws around means that a certain amount of pulp winds up elsewhere than in the catch bowl. The pulp is extremely sticky, and I found I had to whack the colander on the catch bowl to dislodge the pulp and make it go into the bowl. Little bits of pulp fly about when I do this. When these bits dry, they set up like cement on clothing and kitchen surfaces. By my third big batch of fruit, I was processing paw paws in my underwear, out on the deck. By this, I mean to say that I was wearing only underwear whilst smashing paw paws. Not that I was processing paw paws in my underwear.

There are blogs that titillate. This is not intended to be one of them, unless you are talking about the titillation of delicious food and the occasional bizarre play of words or a seductively misplaced modifier.The entree that night? Chicken korma, with fresh tomatoes from the garden, cilantro garnish, and a sweet paw paw yogurt sauce over jasmine rice. Swoon.

Here ends the paw paw series. I have loved coming to know the paw paw, abundant native fruit of the Ohio Valley. The pounds that we harvested are now reduced to two large zip-loc bags of pulp in the freezer. I'll saw off chunks for smoothies and sauces all winter long, into spring.For all you could want to know (and some things I'd rather not know) about the paw paw, check this page. Thanks to JW for the link!

I leave Friday morning for a jaunt to Columbus, where I will be accepting an Ohioana Library Association Citation for "outstanding contributions and accomplishments in a specific field or area of the arts and humanities." I think you can tell that I find it great fun to live in Ohio. I celebrate it every day, right here with you all. Well, now it's even more fun. Thank you, Ohioana Library Association, for digging my stuff.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Truth About Cats and Dogs

is that they're both wonderful in their own ways. Is that we need to manage them responsibly and treat them with abundant love and unfailing respect. Is that, once we allow them into our hearts, they become much more than animals occupying a space in our homes, leaving hairs on our sweaters.

"My little dog, the heartbeat at my feet." Edith Wharton

It seems a meet time, now that we have celebrated cats, to celebrate Chet Baker. We have celebrated Liam; now it's lissome Phoebe's turn.

When, in the early winter of 2004, I was thinking about what kind of dog we might get--a deliciously luxurious thing, that, to muse about just what kind of dog one might want--I remembered a fawn-colored pug I'd seen, being walked on a leash by three little girls at The Chautauqua Institution's Bestor Plaza. This pug was such an appealing little package of a dog, so clean and sweet and dear with his girls, that I thought, "I could have a dog like that. He'd be no trouble at all. I would like to see Phoebe and Liam with a dog like that."

I thought about it some more, looked at pictures both of pugs and of French bulldogs, drooled, looked up lists of their potential hereditary malformations and problems, finally made myself stop, and decided that, being active hikers and a bit rough-and-tumble, we needed something with a bit more muzzle, a bit more body and leg than a pug or a Frenchie. A dog who could breathe well enough to run with us, who was agile and sturdy and inclined to be sound. A dog who not only had brains and a sense of humor, but a dog who could wrestle, too. I remembered a vague and distant childhood memory of a neighbor's Boston terrier, Patsy, near our home in Kansas City, Kansas. I couldn't have been more than three, but I remember playing with Patsy Ebenstein. And so I Googled images of Boston terriers, found Chet's breeder, Jane Streett, and the rest is doggeh history. Flash forward almost four years...I think we got what we wanted.

Phoebe made a globe, a slightly oblong one, by pasting papier mache over a balloon and painting the continents on it. I'm glad kids still do stuff like that in 7th grade, odd as it seems. You never know when you might be called upon to make a papier mache globe in your post-elementary life.

Chet thought Phoebe's World looked like a lovely dog toy. Or at the very least, a superb opportunity for the Boston terrier's favorite game: Keep-Away.
All you have to do to pique Baker's interest in an item is to hold it over your head and make eye contact with him. It doesn't matter what it is--a bone, a ball, a Webkinz, an olive, an oak leaf. You just have to make him think you don't want him to have it.

It's ON.

They streak through the evening gloam, Phoebe screaming her special wiggly Chet scream.

The Good Fairy is in real danger of losing her homemade globe. The fate of the World hangs in the balance.

The dark forces of Evil are gaining.

Can the Good Fairy save the World? Run, Forrest! Run!

The Good Fairy stumbles, and the Evil One seizes his chance.

Ooooooh, Nooooooooooo!

Kiss your World good-bye, little Fairy! It is moments from destruction!
Mwooo Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!

The ripping part. The best part.

The Good Fairy stands by helplessly. Only The Voice of Darth Vader can save the World now. Darth is happy to report that, but for a gaping hole somewhere near Antarctica, the World is mostly intact.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Way With Animals

I like shooting photos of both animals and people with a telephoto lens. You get the good stuff when they're not aware of being photographed. Liam has had very little contact with cats, but I can see that his training as regards dogs, birds, frogs, turtles, tadpoles, crayfish and insects, to name just a few of the creatures he regularly encounters, has prepared him well for a life among animals.

From the time he was a toddler, I've put birds' eggs and tiny hatchlings, toads and insects in Liam's hands, assuring him that if he's gentle, everything will be OK. Liam's inclined toward cautiousness in everything, and handling animals, especially ones with claws, gives him the heebie-jeebies. Recognizing this tendency in him (in marked contrast to Phoebe, who will pick up a praying mantis or hold a lapful of squirming, pooping baby bluebirds while I change a nest), I've sought to acclimate him and soothe his fears by exposing him to as many small animals as I can. We've watched him learn dog language and the right ways of approaching dogs as he's grown up with Chet Baker, and he can't pass Chet without leaning down to kiss him on the cheek and get a little face-washing for his efforts. He's still cautious around animals, and that's a good thing, but he's no longer afraid; he has developed a remarkable empathy for them.

I was so struck by the beauty of little brown Bear that I shot dozens of frames of him. When my attention wandered to a buckeye butterfly, Bear walked off, and Liam followed at a respectful distance. When I turned around, they were interacting, and I watched with my heart swelling as Liam gently suggested that they play with his new toy dinosaur.
Everything in Liam's body language--the curled hands held close to his body, the quiet, compact pose, his stillness--tells Bear he's not going to force anything. He puts the dinosaur out for consideration.Bear sniffs the toy, then allows Liam to gently scratch his neck.
Bear flops down--a cat's invitation to play, or hang out for awhile.Liam offers the toy.

Bear bats it with his paws. Liam giggles.
Bear's owners were watching with me, and they remarked that Bear rarely tolerates kids, much less plays with them. Many cats and dogs feel that way about children, who are often inclined toward rambunctiousness. It was lovely to see that Bear was willing to give gentle Liam the benefit of the doubt, because every once in awhile, a cat meets a child he can hang out with.

Thanks for all your thoughtful comments on the last post. Although I wasn't exactly surprised that people feel strongly about cats--they are woven so thoroughly into many of our lives--I was bemused to find that the dog vs. cat camps are just as lively as the Beatles vs. Stones factions of my earlier years. I can't resist reprinting a bit of an email from my writer friend KM in Massachusetts. She doesn't want to join the public fray, but sends me priceless reactions to my posts. Because she makes me quack out loud, I've twisted her arm to let me quote her:
"Yes, that was one beautiful cat.

"And you are right to alert the masses to the damage done to the ecology of any rural area by already well-fed felines. My friend had a cat who daily brought home birds, voles, mice, you name it. SO not necessary, and shouldn't have been adding competition for food sources to those who have no bowls of kibble waiting at home.

"Every now and then, our two citified, indoor-only cats surprise me with a gift when I come downstairs in the morning --and trust me, having these creatures who every so often bag a mouse from within my house is a fine, fine thing. They definitely earn their keep, by keeping the indoor small mammal population down to two domesticated felines.

"Also, as someone whose life dictates nearly weekly trips to places where dogs would be difficult to have, it's quite lovely to be able to leave our cats happily behind. I used to horrify folks by explaining, when asked if my husband and I would ever have kids, that I'd surely opt in when they invented babies that could be left at home for the weekend with a bowl of food and a box of sand.

" I have teen-aged boys. I guess I got pretty much what I wanted! But it's boxes of Lucky Charms and gallons of milk, rather than litter and cat chow."

Thought you'd enjoy KM's take on the scene. Thanks for all your thoughts.

Labels: , , ,

A Singular Cat

Those of you who know me know that I am not often found singing the praises of cats. In almost three years of blogging, five days a week, this is my first post about cats. That's understandable. Because we run a serious bird sanctuary here on Indigo Hill, cats who show up are personae non gratae. Chet Baker is more than happy to give them the bum's rush, and he is very good at his job. Not many hang around after he has shown them the door. The very mention of the word "cat" puts Baker's pricked ears on full alert.

But every now and then I come across a cat that deeply impresses me with its beauty and personality, and I realize that, were I to give myself a chance to get to know them, I could become a cat fan. Cats remind me of the vampires in the slightly embarrassing escapist novels Phoebe has given me to read...perfectly lovely, but for that unfortunate bloodthirsty habit. They can't help it, but there it is, and the only workaround is to keep them indoors and well away from the things they like to annihilate.With all the selective breeding going on, don't you think someone could develop a strain, even a breed, of cats that don't care to kill birds and small animals? But then, would they still be cats? And then, what would you call them? Un-cats? Safe cats? Benign felines?

Near Berkeley Springs, WV, I met a cat that riveted my attention with its regal bearing and beauty. It strode out into the middle of our birding group and I forgot all about birds. "I've never seen a cat that color! It looks like a little brown bear!" I exclaimed, and its proud owners smiled and said, "That's what we call him: 'Bear.'"Bear set about cleaning his beautiful brown paws while I hunkered nearby, clicking away.He reminded me of nothing so much as a small Alaskan brown bear, or perhaps a jaguarundi, especially in this shot, with narrowed eyes. I marveled at his beauty and self-possessed personality.

If a cat knows anything, he knows when he's being beautiful.

Golden-eyed, gorgeous Bear has that down. Sigh. What a guy.

Labels: ,

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Picking Up Paw Paws

This is paw paw country, the river bottomlands of southeast Ohio. Tall ironweed and the autumnal haze on the meadows. It's hot, but in the shade it's shivery cool. That's how you know autumn is here.

I am not done with paw paws, my friends. After posting about them, and hoping to someday find some more, the kids and I took off on the Hock Hocking Adena Bicycle Trail, that runs from Athens to Nelsonville, Ohio. It turns out that last time, we had unknowingly turned around and headed home at just about the point on the trail where the paw paw hunting gets crazy. So on a fine Sunday we drove to the point where we'd left off last time, and as luck would have it we saw more and more paw paw trees the farther we rode.

This is prime Southern Ohio paw paw country.
The more we looked, the more we saw--beautiful big green paw paws hanging, big as a newborn kitten, in the long green leaves.
Phoebe and Liam's natural foraging skills kicked in, and they grew adept at spotting the trees and their luscious cargo as we tooled along. We had to give some of them up to unsure footing or patches of defensive poison ivy or stinging nettle, but there were more than enough that we could reach.
I forgot my hastily-shed backpack as I shook trees and clambered around in the bottomland forest just off the trail, so I pressed my Life is Good shirt into service as a paw paw smuggler. No one has ever accused me of being a melon by Phoebe Linnea Thompson.

So. Is this a good look for me? Should I maybe wear them a little higher? Or in rows down my sides, piggy style?

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson


Liam found a paw paw hanging all alone and got to shake it down.
Then he called Daddy to tell him all about it. My sweet little paw paw picker, my sweet little guy.With each paw paw he picked, he'd ask, "May I eat this one?" Oh, yes. They're free.In my next installment, I'll tell you what it's like to process paw paws. I'm posting from the biggest Apple store I've ever seen, on the Magnificent Mile along Lake Michigan in Chicago. Cute spiky-haired Genius (why are they all pale brunettes?) just walked up and gave me his blessing to post away. Giving a talk to the DuPage Birding Club tonight. Sun shining, breeze blowing. Life is great.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Good Bye, Miss Spider

ZICK ALERT: If you happen to be in the area this Wednesday evening, October 8, 2008, I will be giving a talk and book signing at 7:00 p.m. at the hip and beautiful Glenwood Retirement Community, 200 Timberline Drive, Marietta, Ohio.

Call (740) 376-0535 for more information.

ANUDDER ZICK ALERT: And, I'll be speaking to the DuPage Birding Club in Glen Ellyn, IL, outside Chicago, on Thursday evening, October 9, 2008, at 7:30 p.m. They meet at Faith Lutheran Church, 41 N. Park Blvd., Glen Ellyn.

Yass, it's crazy right now. Planes and trains and automobiles. And now to our regularly scheduled spider hit:

Perhaps I've been bitten on the neck by E.B. White, but I have a huge affection for spiders, especially those of the orb-weaving tribe that included Charlotte A. Cavatica, the radial hub of Charlotte's Web, who was a grey orb-weaver, Araneus cavaticus. There are several orb-weavers around the yard at the present, and the nice thing is that they are sedentary, so you can make the rounds and visit each lady spider as you perambulate the yard. Here is the slightly crooked, utterly perfect work of an arabesque orb weaver, Neoscona arabesca, who lives in the doorway of our garage, Charlotte-style.

Hello, dear, and how does this cool evening find you?She hangs head-down, perhaps wishing there were a charismatic talking piglet in the garage instead of two smelly cars. She's channeling Charlotte for me. How about you?

Here is another arabesque orb-weaver who lives in the top of a nearby ornamental grass. She is probably Charlotte's sister.I wonder why a bird doesn't just pick these girls out of the air as they hang there, so vulnerable.

I so enjoyed visiting my Halloween orb-weaver, A. marmoreus, the intrepid mealworm catcher of the previous post. So one day, when I noticed that her web had not been consumed and replaced during the previous two nights, I began to worry. She was slowing down, getting tired, her web looking ratty. A Carolina wren had torn a hole in it, and she hadn't bothered to fix it yet. Not a good sign.
I knelt down and peered upward toward the top of the web. There she was, hiding in her rolled birch leaf, and when I threw a mealworm into the web she ignored it. Finally, anxious to make contact, I gently squeezed the leaf shelter and out she dropped.She was so much bigger and fatter than she'd been only ten days earlier, her abdomen almost the size of a nickel.

I always marvel at the solidity and firmness of spiders, crablike in their tough exoskeletons and spiny, spiky strong legs. I don't get to squeeze many spiders, but it was nice to do it through a birch leaf.

If you think her ventral surface is lovely, how about the dorsum? To me, it looks like Hindu goddess, squatting with her hands clasped in front of her.
When I was done photographing her, this gorgeous creature retreated back into her leaf lair. The next day, she was gone, her leaf shelter deserted. Oh dear. I imagine I offended her and she went off to find another hide. At least I hope that is what happened. There is an awfully nosy pair of Carolina wrens haunting that area, and I know they slipped in and stole the last mealworm I'd hung in the web for the spider. I suppose it wouldn't be much of a stretch for a wren to peer up into the rolled leaf shelter, as I did, and find a huge protein package awaiting. Finding hidden spiders is their job, and they are much better at it than I.
I know she was full of eggs. I hope she got to lay them.

I suppose that not many people sit around and worry about spiders that they've come to admire and love. I'm glad I got to share her with you in all her marbled, obese glory.
I hope you are well and tending your egg mass, good spider, somewhere that no one can find you.

I wish to thank Larry Weber (yes, that's his name) for his wonderful book, Spiders of the North Woods, which he gave to me when I visited Chequamegon Bay Birding Festival in Wisconsin two springs ago. Get that book! In Ohio's Backyard: Spiders (Ohio Biological Survey) by my new Ohio friend Richard Bradley, has been a tremendous help in opening my eyes to the beauty and diversity of spiders. Now Richard is buggin' me to paint spiders. Given world enough and time and a serious magnifying glass, I could paint spiders. Photos will have to do for now. Thank you, Richard and Larry, for the illumination. Opening books like these opens a whole new room in your brain.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Halloween Orb-Weaver

I found a beautiful big orb web attached between one of our birches and my Gartenmeister fuchsia. I knew it had to belong to one of the spectacular orb weavers of fall, but I didn't know which one. There was a curled birch leaf above the web, where the spider seemed to be hiding. The thing to lure her out was a mealworm, I decided. So one fine sunny morning I flung a hapless mealworm into her web.
It took her awhile to decide to come out. She had been masticating a housefly, and she wanted to be thoroughly finished. When she spit the fly's empty carcass out--ptoo!!--I knew she'd be ready to address the mealworm that had been writhing in her web for a good ten minutes, with the Science Chimp hunkered down, prefocused, waiting impatiently. She dropped on a smooth strand, leg-over-legging to the unhappy mealworm. Oh! A Marbled Orb-Weaver, or Halloween orb-weaver, Verrucosa arenata. I had been expecting perhaps a golden argiope, or garden spider.
First, the paralyzing bite. Must stop the struggles.
And then the silk wrap. She turns the worm like a sausage on a spit, winding silk around and around it, damping down the sines of its struggles.You can see the silk coming out of her spinnerets. Wrap it. Wrap it good.
Now it's time to sever the last strands that connect the mealworm to the web proper.
One by one, she bites them free, until the prey is connected only by two strands.
Then she does the most amazing thing. She hooks thick silk strands to either end of the larva.
She orients herself so the mealworm is behind her, and somehow loops those strands over each of her longest hind legs.
Quickly, she bites the last strands connecting the mealworm to the web, and now it is suspended only from her two legs.

So fast that she's just a blur, she spins around and zips up the web to her leaf shelter, hauling the mealworm like a little trailer behind her.
She zoops up the web so fast, hauling the worm, that it makes me laugh out loud, reaching the curled leaf shelter in a matter of a second or two.
She whips around and somehow affixes the larva to her shelter, and prepares to settle in for a delicious mealworm brunch.
What a privilege to watch her prepare her meal. Worm. Mealworm.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 06, 2008

Spiders! No Eeking!

If there's any reason to love autumn, and there are millions, it's the prevalence of spiders. No, it's not much fun to get a faceful of web on your nice woods walk, but man, it's cool to spot the orb-weaver hanging there, to appreciate its work and the beauty of the little beast before you inadvertently destroy its web. I'm happy to dive off the trail if I can save the spider the trouble of weaving a new web, and save myself the creepy feeling of being draped in silk.

I've been collecting a few spider photos this fall, and thought I'd share them with you. This gorgeous little thing is Verrucosa arenata, found on a pawpaw leaf on the Athens bike trail. You'll see this species hanging in a big orb web across trails.This exquisite little thing, looking like no more than a thorn or a dropping until you peer closely, is Micrathena gracilis, another of the orb weavers, with mesmerizing parallell lines of black and grey on its oddly-shaped abdomen. The graceful little Athena. Clearly, whoever named this spider loved it.

I happened to be watching a funnel web spider (Agelenopsis pennsylvanica) by our front stoop when a big fly--perhaps a greenhead --simply dropped into its web. Swear I didn't do it--pure kismet. Agelenopsis dragged it without ceremony back into its silken lair behind the stoop. Yeah! Beats slapping it off your shoulder.

I reached into the pocket of my pants and felt something kind of hard and wiggly in there. It was Dysdera crocata, a female--the only common species in its family in Ohio. This nocturnal species preys primarily on pillbugs, and is fond of the same dark, moist underneathy spots pillbugs favor. Why it was in my jeans pocket only it knows.
I offered her a pillbug but I think she was too upset to partake, so I let them both go in a damp squashy place in the garden to sort it out.

Sometimes you find a spider what AM a spider. Raking the yard, piling up the seedy hay of autumn, I uncovered this big beauty, one of the biggest wolf spiders I've ever seen. And you have to love its name: Hogna helluo--again, a female. Where are all the male spiders? Seems like all I see is females. Isn't that a cracking name for a big fat spider?
Just to give you an idea how impressive this beastie was, here are my fingers next to her:
That's a big spider, my friends. Glorious huge vampire fangs in a pair on the bidness end, too. I finished my raking, leaving to Liam the task of watching her to safety on the lawn's edge. He escorted her all the way to the tall goldenrod so no one would step on her or swoop down and pick her up. That's my boy. Around here, we like spiders.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Box Turtles, Busted and Otherwise

Bill brought home a box turtle he found on a nearby country road, seeing that it had been injured, but quite some time ago.

When we find such a turtle, we bring it home to evaluate it and see if there is anything we can do for it. A car had run over its hind end, and cracked the plastron near both hind legs.
A rear view showed that, despite his injury, the turtle was fat.Fat is good where box turtles are concerned.

Overall, he looked pretty darn good. He didn't move much, but some turtles are intimidated by carpet and linoleum. He could move if he wanted to, but I suspected he just didn't want to. I sent pictures to an expert turtle rehabilitator in New York, and she confirmed my thoughts that this injury was healed probably as much as it was going to heal, and he was better off in the woods.

Meanwhile, Shelly, the year-old box turtle we’ve taken on for headstarting, is proving to be quite an eater. Here, she tucks into the first baked butternut squash she’s ever encountered.
It’s made with brown sugar, butter, and vanilla extract. Who wouldn’t love it?

Phoebe got the honor of taking the injured turtle back to the woods where he was found.He seemed a little shell-shocked to find himself back home. (Sorry, couldn't resist).As we often do when we're messing about near Buck's pasture, we ran into one of the Warren boys, this time Jay. Every time Jay sees Chet Baker, he sings a few bars of "My Funny Valentine." Chet Baker loves Jay, and Jay lets Chet wash his face all over.I love this picture.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Pit Bull at Four

Here's Chet at the pawpaw festival, thoroughly and incessantly dominating poor Phoenix, who is petrified of him. He kept it up for two hours, making sure huge but timid Phoenix knew who was Tiny Boss. I am not bragging here. It is the Other Side of Chet Baker. I have the feeling that people like him a whole lot more than most other dogs do.
Top Dog is where I like to be.

The paw paw festival at Lake Snowden in Albany, Ohio was ... rough sledding this year. Please refer to the link in the last sentence if you would like to know how nice it can be. I did see some absolutely lovely things, like this pair of Percherons pulling the hayride wagonand this paw paw madonna with her glorious lucky babies. Look. Even baby hair was blowing back flat. And her little girl is acting like mine were. Mooooom. I wanna go hooooooome. No, most of my rough time was no fault of the festival, but due to a SW wind gusting to 50 mph, the remnants of that rascal Ike, that basically blew most of the vendors and tents away. Here's the bouncy inflatable castle going down. Eeek! Liam? Are you in there? Can you breathe, honey? A southwest wind always puts me on edge, but this was a doozy, a hurricane, in fact. I was fighting with cranky kids and trying much too hard to have a good time despite being buffeted about the head by a hurricane when I sensed something going down inches from my back where Chet had been quietly sitting at the end of his lead. I slowly turned my head to find a huge white pit bull quietly straddling Chet Baker, staring down into his eyes. She looked exactly like this dog. (image lifted from, only she wasn't smiling.

Chet’s ears, characteristically, were up; he was answering stare for stare. No rolling over and peeing in submission for this American Gentleman. In interactions with other dogs, he’s likely to say something rude and have a quick snarlout, hoping to assert his Napoleonic streak right from the getgo. He’s great with people, but with dogs he’s a bit of a schmuck. And this would be a very bad time to act like a schmuck. Did he sense that? I wasn't going to wait to find out.

Ohhhhhhh…What to do? Avoiding eye contact with the pit bull, I very slowly and quietly threaded my arms under her barrel chest, grasped Chet and in one smooth nonconfrontational movement removed him from the deadlock, hoisting him up to my shoulder. It was a terrible risk to take, but I didn't feel I had much choice, and I needed to act quickly before it got ugly. With Chet Baker, dog-to-dog interactions can get ugly in an eyeblink.

The pit bull immediately and rudely leapt up on me to what? Play with him? Remove the obstructing human? Shake him like a chipmunk and leave me to pick up his pieces? I'll never know. I looked frantically around the festival grounds to see who might own this animal and get its paws off my chest, its huge gaping jaws away from my arms. I saw a twentyish male loping by, sporting a shaved head and one of those undershirts with the huge armholes. (What is it they call those shirts?)

I wondered, not idly, if that person could be this dog’s owner. Call it profiling, call it whatever you want, but he did in fact turn out to be associated with the dog. Cooly noting but ignoring my predicament, he whistled to the white bull and she went romping on ahead of him, stopping the hearts of every dog walker along the way, all of whom had leashes on their pets.

Precisely the point, I'd imagine. Power. Fun. A little dominance, a little mayhem on a Sunday afternoon. Just what a family festival needs, a little stir-up.

I managed to call, "Might consider leashing your dog..." before my knees buckled. Chet kissed me, then whined and strained to run after the pit bull. Sorry, Chet Baker. I'm running your social calendar, and I don't see a date with Destiny on it today.

Another woman over in the paw paw beer tent, where I repaired for a little medication, had a huge brindle pit bull on a stout leash. As it strained toward Chet and he toward it, she asked, "Is your dog nice?" I looked at the scarred muzzle and bulging shoulders of the pit bull, wondered whether it mattered, and answered, "Actually, he tends to pick fights, and this looks like one he'd lose." We went our separate ways, both of us leaning against the strength of our dogs, hoping that our leashes held. Leashes are good; leashes have a function.

I saw a woman walking a tiny Chihuahua on a pencil-thin leash when a big tan pit bull ran over, dragging its owner at the end of its stout lead, to meet and greet this little morsel. The Chi's owner knew the drill, and scooped the frail dog up under her chin before the dogs' noses touched. Oh. That’s how you do it. You don't even let them meet. It’s a bit more of a task to scoop your pet up when he weighs 24 pounds.

I saw the white bull for the next hour, sometimes on lead, more often off, racing from dog to dog. Nice. For all I know she was a lamb, and may have posed little real threat to other dogs. I know that pit bulls can be wonderful dogs when well-managed. They can also be deadlly. I recently read in USA Today (Tuesday, Sept. 30, "A Fight to Save Urban Youth" by Sharon L. Peters, that at least 100,000 young kids are fighting their dogs under the radar in America, according to Chicago-based anti-violence advocate Tio Hardiman, who has traveled to 35 states to assess the problem. Perhaps 40,000 more adults are engaged in organized dogfighting, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

I've got nothing against pit bulls, but whether they ever get to use their tremendous jaws or not, they are amply equipped to maim and destroy. We have created them thus. My problem is the people who own them for the wrong reasons, or fail to manage them responsibly. I won't waste a lot of verbiage on my thoughts on organized fighting; I think the Michael Vick hullaballoo--thank you, you soulless slimeball, for getting caught--admirably brought that under the public scrutiny it deserves. The average life expectancy of an urban pit bull is 18 months. Such an obscenity, this bloody tango, this twisting of a good dog's love and loyalty to its owner into death, destruction, moneylust.

This owner wasn't managing his dog; he was letting her do whatever she pleased, and I couldn’t get past the huge masseter muscles and crushing power of her jaws, and the knowledge that, had Chet chosen to snarl at her, she could have annihilated him with a single bite and shake. How was letting her run free worth that risk for all the other dog owners present? I was angry that this person apparently enjoyed asserting his freedom, perhaps what he feels to be his privilege, by letting her run free in a dog-heavy crowd, when the other two pitbulls, Chet, the cattle dog, the Belgian shepherd, the border collie mix, the redbone hound, the beagle, the three mongrels and even the delicate little Chihuahua were properly restrained. I like the pawpaw festival because it’s mellow and laid-back, but in this instance, a little uptightness would have been an asset. There are always those who think the rules are made for everyone else. Too bad they sometimes own pit bulls.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What the Pawpaw Wants

I’ll admit it. As a card-carrying denizen of Appalachia, the first pawpaw I ever picked and ate was this year. I can tell you it will not be the last.

The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is an ancient tree in the Annonaceae (Custard-Apple) family that I had known only as an understory shrub, a gangly, thin-trunked thing that holds its huge ovate leaves in fives and sixes and rarely fruits. On a recent trip along the bike trail from Athens to Nelsonville, I finally saw the Real Pawpaw. (Above, the Real PaPaw, hiding behind a pawpaw). Juvenile leaves, called shade leaves, are enormous; mature trees dial leaf size back to something more normal. Leaf size is influenced in large part by the amount of sunlight reaching the tree. Less sunlight stimulates the tree to put out huge, thin leaves in an attempt to gather as much light as possible.

These mature pawpaws were enormous trees stretching up into the canopy, their bark flaked with big ovoid defoliating patches; their tired autumnal leaves going burnt brown. Huge trees with green fruit the size of new potatoes hanging beneath the leaves. Real pawpaws.
I am happy to say that I had a handsome caveman with me, who was only too happy to hurl some branchtes at the trees to try to dislodge the still-green fruit.
Ragnar want pawpaw!
We’d been told by a friendly biker with his pockets full of pawpaws that we could shake the trees to dislodge the fruit, take them home, and wait for them to ripen like bananas on our windowsill. Clearly, he had been shaking the smaller trees all afternoon, so it was thin pickings for our little band of hungry gatherers. And over a certain DBH (diameter at breast height), you don't shake a pawpaw tree. We worked at it for awhile, though. It was hard to believe the rock-hard green ovoids would ever yield delicious flesh, but we shook a bunch of small trees and hurled sticks at big ones until we had about a dozen pawpaws in our backpack.
It’s been a week now, and the aroma of ripe pawpaws fills the kitchen. Peeling the fruit yields a hopeful orangey flesh.
I was shocked upon cutting into my first fruit to find it stuffed so full of seeds that it was barely a fruit. It was more of a soft capsule of seeds, cushioned by flesh. What in the world?? What could all the fuss be about, when it's more seeds than fruit? This'n had nine seeds the size of Fordhook limas inside. Phew!It was only four inches long. That's a lotta seeds. Edible slices to the left, peels to the right, seeds from a prior conquest above.

What little flesh was there, though, was so succulent, so richly redolent of mango, banana, and pineapple, that I found myself tearing off little bits of it and stuffing them into my mouth. With considerable difficulty, I convinced Liam and Phoebe to at least try it, and immediately found myself fighting them for the last scraps. Kids know good stuff when they taste it.

So I thought about pawpaws in a new way.

What does the pawpaw want?
It wants someone or something to disperse those enormous seeds.
How does it accomplish that goal?
It cushions the seeds in a fruity pericarp so delicious, so sticky, so irresistible, that medium to large-sized mammals wolf it down, and swallow the huge, slick seeds in the process.Exhibit A. Large mammal, or pawpaw dispersal agent.

I came close to swallowing two pawpaw seeds in my quest to separate them from the delicious flesh of the fruit. I’m sure they’d have passed along just fine, despite their size, for they’re as slick as Chinese chestnuts. However, I’m not sure that our septic tank is precisely where the pawpaw hopes they will end up. For that, it prefers to dupe raccoons, opossums, deer, coyotes and foxes, who will gorge on the sweet fruit and poop out its seeds somewhere else the next night. This photo, from January. I'm not at all sure where the coon found pawpaws in January; ours get ripe in late September. Someday I may solve that particular mystery.** But there are so many mysteries, I usually have to work on a bunch at once.
Large mammal gobbles fruit, ingests seeds, takes them elsewhere, plants them in a dollop of rich fertilizer. That is what the pawpaw wants.
And what I want is more pawpaws.

**Since writing the post above, I have made further observations on pawpaws. And I can say, with a sample size of three large mammals who have been repeatedly polled about what my mother would refer to as "regularity," that the pawpaw apparently wants said mammals to carry its seeds a long, long way before depositing them. One would think that stuffing oneself on a sweet, delicious, pulpy fruit would have a swift and possibly explosive impact. This appears not to be the case. Bananas are the only other fruit I can think of (with the possible exception of persimmons) that have a binding effect. Perhaps the folk name "Missouri banana" describes more than flavor.


Oh. My God. That poor, poor January raccoon.

Labels: , , , ,