Thursday, February 26, 2009

About Those Wren Rump Spots

In my last post, I drew attention to the white spangles on the lower back feathers of a Carolina wren, and said I had a Science Chimp theory about them. Any time I see ornamentation on a bird that is hidden from sight when the bird is doing its normal daily routine, I wonder what's going on there. Is there a function to those spangles, one that isn't immediately apparent?

During the ice storm of 2009, the sun broke through only intermittently. This photo was taken on a sub-freezing day, when a wren who had come for some Zick Dough suddenly realized how glorious it felt to have sun on his (or her) back. The bird keeled over in a classic sunning pose, its rump feathers lifted and ruffled, as if trying to soak up maximum rays.

Its mate seems to wonder what's come over it. Honey? You OK?

The wren held this pose for almost a minute, giving me a chance to zoom in on that lovely rump.

The lower back feathers need to be raised and fluffed to reveal the white spangles lying just beneath the brown outer feathers. It really is a lovely effect, but one we all too seldom see. I have seen it, though, on my own porch. At night.

If you saw this on your porch by the light of a flashlight, and you weren't reading a post about Carolina wren rump spangles, would you know what it was?

Neither did the person who sent the picture to my friend Sharon from Maine. Sharon is always getting asked questions about birds. She always knows the answer but likes to check in with the Science Chimp just for fun.

These are roosting Carolina wrens. Awwww. They almost always roost together; they stay as a mated pair year round, and are almost never out of earshot of each other.

My S.C. theory on the rump spangles is that they are meant for camouflage. I'm not sure what they make these sleeping wrens look like, but they don't look much like birds, do they? When I've seen wrens sleeping in the bucket up under my front porch eave, or tucked into a corner in the garage, my first thought is that I'm looking at some kind of small furry mammal. Pretty much the last thing they look like is a defenseless, sleeping bird.

It's not a fully-formed theory, obviously, and I'm open to alternate hypotheses. I just think it's cool to see a small bird utterly transform its shape and appearance while sleeping. And maybe someone out there will look up someday, see a spangly blackish blob up under the porch eave and smile, knowing what it is.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Petulant TItmouse

A telephoto lens can give you tunnel vision. You focus down on the bird you're after, and you may completely miss whatever's going on around it. This was a classic case of photographer's tunnel vision. I had the titmouse in my sights and was shooting away when suddenly the bird's bill opened and it began to emit a high, shrill Seeee Seeee Seeeee! What in the world??

I swiftly twisted the telephoto zoom, widening the field of view, to find that a Carolina wren had landed on the Zick dough bowl rim.

It was obvious that the titmouse didn't want to share the dough, felt threatened by the wren, or both. It stayed in its mondo-aggro pose and shrieked and shrieked.

In a comical moment, the wren turned to look at me, as if to say, "Are you getting this ? Because this bird definitely has a problem, and nobody would believe it if you don't get a shot."

Yes, dear, and that titmouse is being a total baby if you ask me. I'm getting it.

I agree. I think I'll show him how unimpressed I am by this over-the-top display. (Scratches cheek).

Photonote: An ISO of 1600 will freeze the blurred motion of a bird's foot!
Science Chimp note: The Carolina wren is an over-wing scratcher, and please note the white spangles on its lower back feathers. I have a theory about those, to be aired in a later post.

Eventually, the wren picked up a few nuggets of Zick dough and departed, leaving the titmouse the reigning dog in the manger.

Hm. That went pretty well. You weren't taking pictures, were you?

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Still Life with Terrier

From time to time, I run into people with opinions about Boston terriers. They don't necessarily realize that I really only want to hear positive, informed opinions about Boston terriers, preferably from someone who lives with one or is a huuuuge Chet Baker fan. Those I'll listen to all day.

I had a man once volunteer his chagrin that Chet Baker's face is so ugly, which is too bad because he'd be such a nice-looking dog otherwise.

Ohhhh-kay. Any more comments from you? Or are you content to wake up some night to the sound of my heavy breathing, my silhouette against the moonlight, arm raised?

Chet and I were sitting in the Exploder, waiting for the bus on our country road when an aquaintance who was also waiting got out of her car and asked, "Is that one of them Boston bulls?"

Yes, I replied, he's a Boston terrier.

"Them things is HYPER!"

Well, actually he's only...

"No, them things is HYPER! My cousin has two of 'em and them things is HYPER!"

I smiled, nodded, and raised the electric window, like that scene in the limousine in This is Spinal Tap when the cabdriver is blabbing to the band about how nobody understands Frank Sinatra.

Of course, she gave me a little gift that keeps on giving, because

"Them things is HYPER!"

has become a catch phrase in our house now, whenever we catch Chet Baker doing this:

Still life with titmouse.

Still life with European starling.

Still life with Carolina wren.

Still life with eastern bluebird.

Still life with downy woodpecker.
Down, you ugly, hyper dog! Down!

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Sumac-A Wildlife Survival Food

I love to capture images of birds at the feeder, but a hundred times more satisfying are images of birds eating what they're supposed to eat--the native seeds and fruits that abound in our yard, fields and forest. It's hard to get close enough with a 300 mm. lens without scaring the bird, so my pictures are often taken through the window of my big, heated, supremely comfortable blind: my house.
American goldfinches and pine siskins are always working on the seeds of the gray birches we've planted all over the yard. What they knock to the snow, the juncos, tree sparrows and field sparrows clean up.

Sumac rings all our meadows--five species in all. Here, a red-bellied woodpecker works on the fruits.
Turning about, he shows the origin of his seeming misnomer. I love this shot.

To me, the northern flicker is so impossibly beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists. I love, love, love to paint flickers. There's so much to do! This is a male, with a black moustache mark.

Sumac is a good food for wildlife because there's nothing in it that spoils or ferments, and it stays fresh from when it first ripens in October until at least May. It's always available, kind of the way All-Bran is always around. It may not be your first choice, but it's food.

As I shot the flicker, I was wishing hard that I was closer, that it wasn't so gray out...and yet the images have a simple beauty that I love.

Who thought up all those markings? They are perfect. The bird is cryptic from above, spectacular from below--good for a ground-feeder. Flickers huddle on the ground, digging for ants in the summer, and they're all but invisible to predators with those brown-barred backs.

Yet when they wish to make a splash they've got all the badges and bling they need.

Ahh. That's the one. I must paint it someday.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Busting Out

Restlessness settled on me like a hawk; I'd been completely housebound since Tuesday night, and it was Saturday.

A sharp-shinned hawk hopes for a cardinal on ice.

After three full days of it, I was ready to get out. Being bundled up had lost its allure.

Mether, are you going somewhere without me?

Yes, Chet Baker. Cutelips or no, I have to get out of here, and it is too cold for you to come along and wait in the car.

It had been fun overall, an experience we will never forget, and one I'm glad we've documented in photos.

This is an actual photo of me, having ridden the toboggan at breakneck speed down the huge hayfield hill, and having wound up going partway under a barbed wire fence at the very bottom. I was going too fast to bail out, so I grabbed the wire as I shot under it, bringing myself to a halt just as it touched my chin. It was like something from a Schwarzeneggar movie.

I lay there for a few minutes, considering my fate, and trying to figure out how I was going to get up from this position on slippery ice. I was also laughing, which didn't help. I was happy that my brain had worked well enough to tell me to grab the wire in between barbs. Eventually the sled slipped out from under me and went careening on down the hill, and I rolled over and wriggled out of my predicament.

Yes, it was time for me to fly, icy roads or no...I just had to head for town.

I took my camera with its new little 18-55 mm wide-angle lens, and was glad I did.

Have you ever seen a hayroll look more delicious? Like a Frosted Maxi-Wheat?

Sheep move suspiciously away from the lady with the camera, backed by a tinkling ice wonderland.

I did my shop, replaced some things we'd lost in the big meltdown, and was happy to come back home, a few images richer. I hope you've enjoyed these ice storm pictures as much as I enjoyed capturing them.
Zick-Thompson Manor viewed from the west, Chet Baker striking a Vanna White pose in the foreground. Yes, he knows exactly what he's doing, and he doesn't even need to be asked to pose any more. Basically, he inserts himself in almost every photo I take.

The odd looking plastic shiny thing is my Garden Pod, full of flowers!

Life is good.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

More Sexy Snow

The feeders were HOPPIN' all through the storm. I kept them topped off, with fresh offerings scattered under the bower, the spruces and pines.

When Bill and I planted the blue spruces in 1992, I didn't even think about the fact that they'd grow up to be marvelous bird feeders. The snow never gets all the way under them. I throw a big scoopful of seed right into the tree, and the birds clamber all through the needles to get it, and cluster beneath its sheltering boughs to hide and feed. The leaning evergreen to the left is our Fraser fir from Christmas, bungeed to a post. We'll burn it come spring.

When the sun finally broke out, I went into a frenzy of photography. Dawn colors snow with the most delicate peaches and blues.

This is one of my favorite photos from the storm's aftermath. Bill and I thought it looked like our penguin had skiied into the yard. Actually, the tracks were made by ice, falling off our telephone line just overhead.

We had so much trouble with our telephone line that about five years ago the phone company came and buried it. I saw the phone guy about to take down the homely cable that runs into the house and stopped him. Where would the bluebirds, tree and barn swallows sit? Where would the Carolina wren stop to sing? Where would the yellow-breasted chat land after his flight display? The phone guy liked that idea, probably mostly because he didn't have to take it down.

Our shitepoke weathervane had never looked so true-to-life. Go ahead, click the link if you don't know what a shitepoke is, or why this photo makes those who know chuckle. I'll tell you.

Sun on the meadow was surreal. Chet and I lit out for the farthest reaches, sure we'd find a wonderland.Our ordinary path was filled with mystery.

The little bluestem bent in supplication, making a mounded fantasy landscape, a maze of wonder.

Spiky lines of young sumac pushed up, refusing a snow coat. We're not cold.

Colorado or Ohio? I couldn't tell. The transformation was complete.

The older sumac, its fruit long dehisced, was a flock of dancing cranes.

Smooth sumac still offered sustenance to the hermit thrushes, woodpeckers and bluebirds, if they could get around the snowcap.

When we finally came in, spent from thrashing through the powder and underlying crust, Chet Baker thawed himself and dried his damp brisket by the gas fire that had kept us warm the whole time. Little CatDog. He baked until he was hot to the touch. That's why he's The Baker.

I look out the window today and it is snowing again, temperatures in the twenties, ferocious windchill. A lone redwing at the feeder, too cold to konkaree. Tomorrow I begin another journey--to Honduras. While on planes and in airports, I'll try to finish up with writing about Guyana so the Honduras images and memories sure to crowd in don't wind up replacing those precious things in my addled brain. There's only so much room in there, after all.

Don't worry. I've been cooking and cooking; the pantry is full and you will have plenty of Bacon while I'm gone. But man, I won't miss this wind and these loaded gray clouds; the parka and hat.
Tonight I'll offer a sacrifice to the airline gods, cruel and capricious though they be, to get me there in a reasonable way. Cross your fingers for me? JZ

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Crazy Sexy Snow

I've got two camera bodies now, my old Canon Digital Rebel XTi and my new Canon Digital Rebel XSi. When I'm on a serious photo safari, I carry both bodies, one with a long lens and one with the new 18-55 mm. landscape lens. It gives a little extra weight and cumbersomeness, but it beats switching lenses in mid-stride by a long shot.

Dawn broke, and I knew I was in for a serious snow photo safari. Ohboyohboyohboy I was jumping around like a cartoon hound.Finally, light. Finally, sun on this glittering palace of diamonds that would not last long. My chance of chances.

There were no tracks on the new-fallen snow. Time to track it up, but I snapped a record of its pristine state first.

My little spready Japanese maple was once a potted bonsai. It wasn't very happy in training, so I set it free, and now it's big enough to sit under, big enough to shade the Pig of Good Fortune, and it's where Baker goes on a hot summer day. And this day, it was encased in glass.

Th' Bacon went first, tracking up the path in his doggeh way.

He was verra happeh to be out at last, snow or no snow. He had his football letter jacket on; he was cookin'.

There were things under the snow that only he knew about, and he dug several deep holes down to the lairs of voles and shrews.

I don't know many people who would stick their whole face in the snow and enjoy it, but Th' Bacon does.

I turned around and looked back at our home, our refuge from this long storm.

The birding tower peeks up above the roof, my little writer's chamber beckoning. With the sun, it would be reasonably warm up there, even without heat, but I had pictures to take.

Farther out the meadow, a bluebird house bore evidence of the storm. We humans take a somewhat more elaborate form of shelter, but both work for our respective species.

Egad, I've been waiting for this wide-angle lens for three years. I don't know what I did without it. Now I want to go back to Guyana and shoot landscapes. Ah well. Other times, other trips.

The welljack that gives us our heat and cooking gas; that makes my Garden Pod warm and keeps us cozy all year round. I love that old thing, pumping away out there with no one to talk to.
Like many in our oil-rich area, we have free gas from this well on our land. So, uh, we don't pay heating bills.

I know. I hear you New Englanders sputtering. It's not for everybody, but there are distinct percs to living in Appalachian Ohio. You couldn't get me out of here with a crowbar and a bomb. Even when the power goes off for days at a time. Maybe especially then.

Tomorrow: More wonderland, mo' Bacon.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Sun Came Out

The pines and birches, bent almost double here by the weight of ice, are standing straight and unscathed as I write this. Nature springs back.

Chet, on his way out the oil road to check our well.

Waiting, waiting for the sun to come out, knowing that it was going to be spectacular. I hung up on someone who had kindly called to see how we were faring once when the sun peeked through and the weeping willow, caked in ice, burst into diamond flame. I hope she understood. I had to go see that.

There was no power as yet, but the gas well was sending us some love, about 23 psi of love. You want to see upwards of 40 psi at the wellhead, but we'll take it. Hey, nice hat.

The orchard was just ridiculous with the sun coming through the ice and snow in the afternoon.

I made about a yard of progress every five minutes, with the sun and the snow and the intricate beauty hollering and whooping all around me.

Bill skiied cross country while I tried to save the snow and ice, lock it up in electrons and digital folders before it melted.

A twin arch for rabbits to pass beneath.

Multiflora rose, its hips locked up where even the birds couldn't get them. It was a beautiful but hungry sight.

Liriodendron flowers, each a goblet of snow.

In concert, they were a ballet corps, little hands offering divinity. Here, here, here, take this.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Chet Baker, Snow Bunneh

Sitting inside looking at birds crowding the feeders was fine for awhile, because the footing outside was so treacherous and exhausting--crunch, flomp, crunch, flomp, whoops! that going out wasn't a wise option. I suited up and went out twice a day to re-provision the feeders, making sure to throw seed and cracked corn under the brushpile/bower Bill made. Here, a few goldfinches enjoy the largesse. Last count of goldfinches at the feeders Feb. 16: 79! And people, they are getting some yellow feathers on their heads...and I heard a flock of robins singing yesterday...and a friend reports from  northern Virginia that a flock of konk-a-reeing red-winged blackbirds stopped by to brighten his yard. It's coming. It is.

But here on this blog, we're still snowbound. And  a guy has to get out and mark his territory, eventually. I wish I knew how many pictures I have taken of Chet peeing on things. Let's just say: Many. I am so besotted with this dog that I think his micturation rituals are worth photographing. I don't even mind when he goes and pees on my giant culinary sage plant every morning and night. I just use leaves from the top. Here, he shows some downtrodden Virginia pines who the #1 Boss is.

Since Chet has the furry protection of a naked mole rat on his underbelly, it really isn't fair to bring him out in snow without a little protection. He winds up shivering on the stoop within two minutes.

So we got out The Coat, a Woolrich creation sold by Target, far and away the best coat he's ever had. And things began looking up for Snowpuppeh.
I could do without the football helmet applique, but hey. It's got good velcro closures on the ventral surface, it doesn't restrict his movement, and it keeps his bare brisket from getting all wet and freezy. The fact that he's really cute in it (a matter of opinion, I know, KatDoc!) doesn't hurt, either. Come on. Cuteness like that is an unarguable absolute.

Chet's wondering what that bright golden orb in the sky might be. We hadn't seen it for so long we forgot it was there.

Like I was saying, cute is an absolute when you're talking Chet Baker and letter jackets. All he needs is a helmet; a little stuffed football velcroed under his arm...Anybody seen any good dog costume web sites?

I am joking, of course. Function. It's all about function, style a distant second. And cuteness trumps only by coinkydink.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Starlings and Bluebirds

Bluebirds wait for the tenth welfare handout of the day.

I'm not done with Guyana, not by a long shot, but this has been such a ravishingly beautiful winter--the most beautiful I can remember, with a fresh new layer of snow nearly every day to cover the old, not to mention four days of solid ice, and all the brittle beauty that goes along with that. I've decided to post my ice pictures before the woodcocks arrive on February 19 and hurry us all toward spring.

The mundane, transformed by a gleaming coat.
A sassafras bud, waiting for spring, coated in a protective glass layer.

Of course, the transformation of their habitat and food sources into a wilderness of brittle ice was less than delightful for the birds. Ice storms are one of the single greatest population drains on the eastern bluebird. A bad winter can kill them by the millions.

And so the ice transformed our bluebirds into beggars--eight of them at once.

Here, a field sparrow crouches, heel-deep in suet dough, while bluebirds feed all around him.

I had to sit by the patio window whenever I put suet dough out, or a huge and ravenous flock of starlings would come in and clean it all up within seconds. Starlings are only a problem for us when the ground is covered with snow and/or frozen. They clear out as soon as it thaws, bless their dark little hearts. I gradually moved my rocking chair up until my toe touched the window, so bold were the starlings. Any bird that wanted the good stuff had to look me right in the eye.

We're not sure we want to do that. You don't seem to like us much.

You have to admit they're beautiful birds, if a bit on the gluttonous, pot-bellied, poopy side. Never fear, I put out tons of old fridge and freezer food for them; they were cleaning chicken carcasses and eating sausage and buns and dog chow and fancy ravioli like there was no tomorrow. I just was not into giving them the Zick dough, the costly, hard labor of mine own biceps.

One of my favorite ice storm revelations: When I'd rise, arms waving, and holler BOOGA BOOGA at the starlings, which would rise up and fly off in a panic, the bluebirds would just sit there in the willow, watching, never ruffling a feather. They knew what I was doing and why, and they knew that as soon as I got rid of the starlings, they could come in, say a polite hello, and eat in peace.
You got that right, Captain Cobalt. Zick loves you.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

An Ice World

I cannot begin to express how enchanting the ice storm was, from a purely aesthetic viewpoint. It was as if I had been suddenly dropped down into the middle of the Louvre. I did not know which way to turn. And as the light changed, the whole aspect changed. When the sun came out, it was simply stunning.Every window held a new vista.
The familiar willow, Liam's willow, planted the summer before his birth, was transformed.

Our weathervane, a perch for hummingbirds in April, now dripped ice.

The house stood, silent and powerless, sheltering us as best it could. And it did a wonderful job. Although this post is a remembrance of the ice storm, we've been without power for the past 22 hours thanks to the vicious winds that ripped through the nation on February 11. As I write, it's still gusting past 50, and the big band rehearsal we had planned for last night turned into a sort of glum candelit spaghetti dinner, since everyone but me and Andy the drummer plays something that plugs in. For now, the power's on, I've spent another day juggling food and fire and fishtank, and we're going into the gig at The Whipple Tavern without rehearsal, and that's that. It keeps me from taking electricity for granted, I'll say that. And there are Kentuckians who've been out of power since January 27, not just inconvenienced, but in disaster. Here's to them, wishing them light and warmth soon, soon, soon.

If this ice storm did nothing else, it made me appreciate the true meaning of shelter and comfort, the home as refuge and protector. But it gave us so much more--beauty and images I'll remember all my life. Even now, this close to it, it's the beauty I remember best.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Big Weekend Coming

I'm all ate up today because we have the hugest week and weekend coming up. Tonight, a monster rehearsal for a long-awaited re-engagement of The Swinging Orangutangs at the Whipple Tavern on Friday, February 13. Oh my goodness. Our small band of hangers-on is primed to storm the Whipple (as everyone calls it), have a ball, dance, and not smoke. Two rehearsals today: the gig rehearsal, and also one for Phoebe's and my maiden recital on Sunday--she for piano, me for voice. Eek.

Phoebe and our teacher Jessica Baldwin will play the duet, "Old Abe Lincoln," while I'll sing a pop song, because that's what I do. No German opera just yet.

When I'm practicing my song (I'll sing "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Mike Reid/Allen Shamblin, made popular by Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby) I have to push away this image of Simon Cowell saying, "That was in-DUL-gent, it was cabaRET, it was an AB-so-lute dis-AHS-tah." He's always there, up in my head, although I have been able to get through the song twice recently without hearing that voice. I think I am watching too many American Idol auditions.It's funny how I can sing in front of a lot of people in a bar without breaking a sweat, but call it a recital, put me alone by a piano with a bunch of well-dressed people sitting politely with their hands folded in their laps, and it's a whole 'nother beast. A recital is like golf---all mental, instead of a gig, which is like basketball, where either you're able to pound the ball down the court and into the basket or you aren't, but either way you don't have much time to think about it. You just get down and deal with it.

So Friday we'll be going nuts with the Orangs, and Sunday I'll be in recital mode. I don't know if that's a good thing or not; I just hope I don't shred my voice at The Whipple. That's mainly why I'm taking voice lessons--I want to save what I've got; I want to be singing when I'm 88. Whatever Simon says.

So, in addition to the gig and the recital, we have friends coming down from Columbus to catch the gig and visit us. They are the city mice to our country mice. Although they spend most of the summer in the country in Vermont, and absolutely love to hike and be outdoors, they are accustomed to, shall we say, somewhat finer provisions than we are able to get 'round these parts. Luckily, they bring them to us, always offering to make a Trader Joe's stop for us before embarking. If you are a fan of Trader Joe's, you MUST watch this video.

If I have succeeded in embedding a video, the recital should go just fine. Thanks to my fine friend Matthew for alerting me to this homemade masterpiece.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a few pictures of Yo, Kate, Anna and Kellie from their last visit.Yo and I went to high school together in Richmond, Virginia, and for a couple of years we even waited at the same bus stop. We had the same amazing English and World Lit teacher, my guiding light who I love and still talk to after 30 years. I was a year or two ahead of him, and we didn't really know each other, and it kills me now to think that we were a couple of blocks away and didn't hang out. We're making up for lost time now. Yo heard me talking about a dying beech tree on NPR one afternoon, emailed, and now we're yakking all the time. The best part is that our kids get along like a house afire. The worst part is that our kids now pester us constantly to go to Columbus and Whipple.
We took the Yo's, as we call the family, down to Beechy Crash, a place where, 17 years ago, a huge beech smashed down in a ravine. That beech is nothing but a mossy log now, but the name stuck. There are always good icicles in the weepy seepy cliffs of Beechy Crash.
Luckily no one was impaled. I had to tell Liam to get out from under the icicles; he was catching drips with his tongue...Kids don't think that the icicle's ever going to come crashing down, but I've seen them crash, and no kid of mine is going to be under something like that when it lets go. Shila and I learned that the hard way in Beechy Crash a few years ago.

We came up to the old car that used to run a wildcat oil well deep in the woods. It's slowly deliquescing, and I commented on its beauty. The kids wanted to know what was beautiful about a rotting car. Well, I said, take a look at this:
and this:
and then there's this bit:Abstract paintings, all, reminiscent of lichens and shells, landscapes and skies...

and let's not forget this:
and I believe they looked at the car a bit differently then, with more sympathy and reverence for all it had once been.
We visited the beech tree, OK 1902, which brought us together in 2007, and which is now thoroughly and sadly dead. If bringing us together was its highest purpose on earth, I hope it is content.
We were hiking along when suddenly Bill hurried forward and disappeared up the trail. It wasn't long before the smell of smoke came on the air, uncomfortably, alarmingly close. I never want to smell that unless I know exactly where it's coming from. It took me a minute to figure out what was going on. I was pleased but not surprised to find my caveman hunkered down near the carcass of OK 1902.
In no time at all he had a fire big enough to warm Liam's feet, which were very wet after a slide down a steep bank into the stream.
It was time to put out the fire (Bill, Liam and Yo took care of that in the most manly of ways while the females went on ahead) and turn for home. This gave Yo, a frighteningly well-versed oenophile, a chance to razz us about our "wine cellar," which is a climate and humidity-controlled cardboard box nestled against a roll of extra insulation and some mops in our messy basement.
He went through our collection, which is heavy on Ohio wines because those are the ones that are left. This one is from Trader Joe's, and it was a special buyout, and it wasn't very good. It has a train on the label, so we took to calling it Night Train.

Yo likes burgundies and vouvets and all kinds of types of wines I haven't even heard of, and he brings bottles for us to experience and completely ruins us for the grocery-store rotgut we usually drink. It is no favor he does us, though it's really nice at the time.

If he weren't so cute, and didn't arrive bearing burgundies, I'd probably clobber him with a bottle of Terra Cotta Sweet Red Table Wine.

Plus, Chet Baker likes him.
And anyone who will let Chet Baker fall asleep in the crook of his arm and stay still until he wakes up is a friend of mine.
We were all kind of cold from the walk so we started a fire and put our feet to it, but in a nice way.
These photos are by Bill Thompson III. The first, ugly flash photo is to show the lineup. But this is what it really looked and felt like.
Friends are the best.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Resolute Bunny

Snow and ice are tough on mammals as well as birds. We laid in and served about 50 pounds of corn during the weeks of snow-in. I'm sure the coyotes, great horned owls and redtails appreciate our corn-fed rabbits.

I was amused, as dusk came on, to see the Bower Bunneh cleaning up corn in a most picturesque way.

A doe came out of the trees, hoping to share.
First she sniffed around the back entrance. Bower Bunneh didn't budge.

So the doe gave Bunneh a wide berth and tried another approach. I love the ear positions on the animals in this shot. The bunny is alert and resolute; the deer undecided.

Bunneh moved off a bit, but didn't give way.

All right. I'm coming in. You are a rabbit and I am an ungulate, many times your size.

I may be a rabbit, but I am no pushover. Go find corn somewhere else, Pointy Toes.

Can't you do something about this, Corn Lady?

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Bunny Goes A-Birding

Before the first big snow, Bill built a bower for the birds. How many B's do you count in that sentence?

He built it of birch. There I go again.

And boughs of balsam from our Christmas tree. This is getting ridiculous. I guess I've got B. on my mind. Thanks to the miracle of sleepovers, the house is empty except for us. So why am I here blogging? Well might you ask.

Later...A couple of cardinals share her space.

This bunny thinks the bower is just fine, especially when I throw cracked corn, black oil sunflower and sunflower hearts under there. She is a birding bunny. I like to take pictures of her under there, hoping to get a good combination of pretty birds in the picture.Oh, sweet. A white-throated sparrow, a tree sparrow, and a female cardinal. She looks pleased. I love mammals that are kind to birds.

The tree sparrow shows off its wingbars, and the bunny shows her front paws.

My personal best: Birding Bunneh, eastern towhee, cardinal, and tree sparrow. We're honored to host three towhees, one a female! and five tree sparrows this winter. These shots were taken at dusk, through a window. It's been such a gorgeous winter for birdfeeding. The snow makes it all look so sanitary. As I write this, the snow is finally melting off and phew! the layers upon layers of sunflower hulls on the ground are not nearly so photogenic. Although the snow and ice inconvenienced us a bit, I adored it when a fresh inch or two would fall during the night and scrub everything clean again.

I'm going to do a series of snow posts now before winter is but a distant memory. I took brazilians of images which I will share with you while it is still winter.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Surviving a Country Power Outage: Part Two

Dusk comes so quickly in the winter. We don't realize it as we flip lights on at 4 pm, but it rushes up on you. There's nothing to do but try to read a little, talk, tell stories, mess around with the kids. I'm actually nostalgic for it, only a week later, because being without power and its attendant distractions narrows our focus; makes us appreciate each other and the simple things in life.We read the kids their favorite books from early childhood, making them laugh 'til they lost their breath. Bill is really good at reading Nuts to You. He does it in a most politically incorrect way, writing new verse on the fly. Here, I'm reading Big Lil and Little Bill with a similarly ridiculous attack. We also told them stories about their babyhood, always a hit.

We brought Charlie the macaw into the living room as there was no heat in the studio where he lives, and his happy clucks and chortles cheered us all. Chet and Charlie thought it was all grand--everyone together in the kitchen and living room with nothing better to do than play with them.People need more kisses in a power outage. This is something that dogs just know.

Every three hours, I would dip a spaghetti pot full of water out of the planted Amazon fish tank, bring it near boiling on the stove, and pour it back in the tank. Which, of course, was dark as night, everyone in suspended animation for the time being. I've read warnings that changing a tank's temperature by two or three degrees in a short period of time (is five minutes a short period of time?) can kill the fish.

Someone should have told my tetras and gouramis that they were about to die, because they frolicked and swam right into the stream of hot water like kids at a fire hydrant on a summer day, and all 50 plus denizens of the 40-gallon tank made it through three days of having their lil' hambones boiled just fine. Swimmingly. Oh boy, here she comes with the steaming spaghetti pot. Whee! My fish are so cute, up for anything. They beg shamelessly for treats, nibble my arms when I stick them in to weed the plants. And why not? Almost all of them were born and raised right here, so they've known only kindness. They've never been shipped in Styrofoam coolers from a massive farm in the Philippines, dumped into questionable water with sick and dying tankmates, chased and whacked against the side of the tank by a teen-aged boy with a net, put in a Baggie and twirled with a twist tie, and taken home shivering in a brown paper bag like most hapless pet store fish.

We went sledding. This is our driveway. Impassable to all but pedestrians, but surpassingly beautiful.There were things about this power outage that were rare and lovely, as many as there were inconveniences. However...

By the third full day of this, I was tired of boiling aquarium water, tired of worrying that my fish and plants would die, tired of cooking from dawn to dusk, tired of washing the dishes and Tupperware, tired of cleaning out the refrigerator and deciding what to do with everything perishable, tired of the niggly business of surviving, and so was Bill. We both needed to do something else for awhile. He took a saw to the pine branches that were down across the driveway, gathered up the kids and fled to town (and a crushing workload at the office) in my 4WD Explorer. Here's our house (the tiny square tower on the left) in a Zhivagoan forest of icicles, as viewed from the road.
I couldn't leave the house, heated as it was by open flame, but that was OK with me. I went out and plugged my laptop into Bill's car charger so I could work. I had to run the car for an hour and a half to get the laptop charged to 90%. Let me know if that sounds green to you. It seemed pretty ridiculous to me, but by Wednesday I had to do something other than cook and wash dishes. I sat on the couch, running the battery back down, writing a chapter on ospreys for my book, shooting pictures of birds gobbling down Zick dough every time I looked up. Four male bluebirds at one time. Sa-weet!

Chet was curled up next to me, Charles on my shoulder, the fire gibbering and guttering away. It was pretty darned nice. And then the laptop battery died, and I opened the freezer.

Everything had thawed. Not cold, not even cool, but warm to the touch. Oh, feh! I don't know what I expected, with the kitchen at a steamy 70 degrees, the oven cranking away with its door open only a couple of feet away. I guess I hadn't wanted to know, and hoped for the best. I sighed, coming back out of my writerly reverie, realizing that the messy business of life will always and ever intrude upon art. I began throwing things out, dumping them into bowls and pots and pans and stacking the containers in the foyer. I looked at the line of pots full of lima beans and corn and sausage and frozen pizzas, sighed, got a muck bucket, and dumped everything into that. It was spectacular in a sad, wasteful, nauseating kind of way. The thing that bothered me the most was that we probably wouldn't have eaten most of the stuff, anyway. The freezer is where good food goes to die in my house. It lies in state with occasional brief viewings until the next power outage, when it is given last rites by possum, crow and coyote.

I should have a freezer the size of a bar fridge to keep me honest.

I was halfway through the freezer purge when the refrigerator gave a loud harrummph and the aquarium filter began to clatter. It was 6 pm, and I'd already lit the oil lamps for the long evening, already steeled myself to getting in bed at 8 PM and waking up at 2 AM, not knowing where I was or why my nose was so cold. I turned on the lights in the kitchen and continued with the grim task I'd started, knowing that I didn't want any of this stuff to refreeze and lie in state until next winter. Bill came in the door with a couple of nice bottles of wine and we poured a glass and drank it with all the lights burning.

In the morning, he hauled the muck bucket of food out to the meadow for the crows and coyotes, and set up the game camera to record the orgy.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Surviving a Country Power Outage

I must have known it was coming, a monster ice storm with a three-day power outage. On a trip to town on Monday January 26, I laid in food for us and for the wildlife that could have kept a whole regiment and all their pets fed for a week. Good thing, too. On Tuesday, I drove to Akron to pick Bill up, fresh from an exhausting trip to Florida. We got home just as the ice storm hit that evening, the roads rapidly becoming impassable sheets of ice. Tuesday afternoon, it started to rain on top of snow, with the air temperature standing at 26 degrees. We know what that means.
These are the kids' tracks on Wednesday morning, January 27, as they investigated the crunchy-glazed skating rink that had once been our yard. Photographed from the birding tower. It's been pouring all night and the air temperature is standing at 26.

One of those sneaky upper-level warm air masses was squatting over frigid southeast Ohio, dumping rain down onto earth and trees that had been frozen solid for ten days or more. Ice had been forming all night, a half-inch layer on every twig and wire, and I awoke at 5:15 Wednesday morning to the ominous sound of branches snapping in the woods, trees falling with a swish and tinkle of ice; rain pattering on a thick glazed crust of snow. Here it comes. I lay in the dark, marveling at the red glow of the clock radio, wondering what I should do to prepare for the outage, thinking ahead and behind to the outages before, knowing that when it came, this would be a big'un. I lay there a little too long.
At 5:58, the red glow winked off, and I hadn't so much as turned up the thermostat from its night setting of 62 degrees to at least start us off with a warm house. The dishwasher was full of dirty dishes. Blast! I'd have to do them by hand. And so much else.

We've got heat when the power's off, in the form of some gas logs in the living room, and our gas stove in the kitchen, which becomes an oversized space heater with the oven door open. That's it, but with curtains drawn across the kitchen entry, it's enough to keep our living space at 70 degrees, a huge blessing. (It did get down to 44 degrees in the basement, a bit too close to freezing for comfort...) Perhaps even better, we've got water, too, since we got gravity-feed town water about five years ago. And best of all, we've got an old gas water heater with an old-fashioned pilot, not one of those silly clickclickclickity electronic ignited things that needs electricity--duh!--to start. Having hot water in a power outage ROCKS. So Hard. If you can do dishes, get a hot shower now and then, you're really golden, because there are a lot of dishes generated by a snowed-in family of four with nothing better to do than cook rapidly spoiling food and eat it. We've survived a five-day power outage without water, before we got hooked into gravity-fed town water, and I found myself melting snow to heat on the stove to wash the dishes and endless Tupperware from all the food quickly spoiling in the powerless fridges and freezers. Yeah, two fridge/freezers and one chest freezer.

I can tell you that, however you feel about reading this blog, you do not want to be around me in an extended power outage without running water. In this one, with my running hot water, I was June Cleaver by comparison. Keeping my apron starched and cinched around my tiny girdled waist, my high heels clicking as I bustled about humming a happy tune. I will confess to hitting the wine about dark each evening. "Highball, darling?"A tree sparrow basks in a moment of sun.

The greenhouse is heated with gas, so life goes on there, too. Light comes in the form of some old oil lamps (the only way to go, much safer than candles) and our indispensible Petzl headlamps, one for each of us. Liam and Phoebe look really cute in headlamps, reading Captain Underpants or Calvin and Hobbes. Entertainment for the kids is drawing, reading, and playing together in the snow, and playing with Chet and Charlie, who goes from shoulder to shoulder cackling with glee.Don't be alarmed at his beak. It's not deformed--he's actually chewing the black drawstring cord of my sweatshirt here. He's ruined all our sweatshirts that way.
photo by Phoebe Thompson

All told, we're in fine shape, if somewhat cranky and out-0f-sorts as we shrug off our various electronic addictions. My major focus becomes cooking, as I don't want to lose all the fresh food I've laid in. So I got up Wednesday morning to a silent, dark house, started the gas fire, got down on my knees and lit the oven, washed the dishwasher contents by hand, and began cooking. I made a huge batch of spaghetti sauce and boned a bunch of chicken thighs. Started a soup with the bones and prepped a meal of chicken korma and stir-fried vegetables for that evening. Made the rest of the hamburger (we always buy family packs of everything) into burgers for the next night's cookout. Sorted through the fridge, making sure I had all the fresh food taken care of, and set a bunch of perishables out on the stoop to stay cold. Didn't want to deal with the freezer just yet. Which turned out to be a mistake.

Next: What do you do when it gets dark at 5 pm?

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Two of My Favorite Things

This is what our backyard looks like. It has looked like this for much of the winter. I love this picture; it's like some magical winterscape, certainly not like our southern Ohio backyard usually looks.

Yesterday, Bill asked me which present I thought was the best ever. I had to think long and hard about that one; he's given me some very cool things. I had to say that the greenhouse has given me more concentrated and long-lasting joy than anything else he's given me (outside Phoebe and Liam, of course). We were limiting it to storebought things, after all. And Th' Bacon don't count. I bought that puppeh myself.

But the little wide-angle 18-55mm image-stabilized Canon lens he got me for Christmas, along with my new Canon Digital Rebel XSi camera body, is a close second. It takes pictures like the landscape above. If my photography of late seems to have improved, well, that lens is why. The body helps, too, but the lens is the key. I love this lens. It reminds me of the cool landscapes I could get with my little point-and-shoot Olympus 750 back in the early years of this blog ('05-'07).

Look at that picture again. Do you see the junco in flight? Did you see it right off the bat? Well, here's a cropped-in view.Yes, I love this camera and this lens.

And I love my greenhouse, my little Garden Pod. Bill bought it at a garden show where he was hawking Bird Watcher's Digest's wares. It's a prototype, and as far as I know it never went into production. Too bad. It's the most wonderful thing.
On a subfreezing February day, it is my tropical island, steamy and sweet with the scent of heliotrope and jasmine
bouncing with the color of hibiscus (this is Mary Alice, my peach-colored hibiscus standard)
and bright with the promise of buds (here's Grey Sprite, a miniature geranium with coral flowers).
Geranium "Bolton" was developed in and named for a town near where my sister lives in Massachusetts. Her friend Ann gave her a cutting of "Bolton" some years ago. When Chet Baker was a puppeh he accidentally broke a piece off the plant, and I promised to root it and grow it, and when I got home, I did.
Ann is gone now and sorely missed, but "Bolton" lives on. Barbie, if you ever want "Bolton" back, I've got it. It's a great geranium, big and robust and beautiful.
The "Renegade" series of geraniums are lovely, chocolate leaved. They come in this delicate pink as well as fuchsia and red. I keep over the ones that do well for me.

I've had this Mammillaria cactus for over twenty years. Last year, it finally budded some offshoots around the base. Who knows why it suddenly decided to do that? If I can, I'll propagate it from them. It's a wonderful plant.
Once I got a greenhouse, it began blooming nearly year-round. I put it outside in a dry spot over the summer, and bring it in the greenhouse in winter, where it lives atop the gas heater. Hot and dry, just like a cactus likes it. And it repays me in tiny magenta blossoms.
I thought you'd like a trip into the steamy little Garden Pod on an icy February day. I sure did.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Peanuts, Salmonella, People and Birds

Bluebirds clean up the last of the morning's offering of Zick dough.

This post started with a note from Nina of Nature Remains, wondering if I'd thought about peanuts, salmonella, and birds. People can get salmonella from contaminated peanut products, and so can birds. Birdchick had posed the question on her blog, and even called up some peanut butter suet manufacturers to see if they could assert the safety of their products. Good question, Birdchick! Eek! Are my Zick Dough eating birds safe?
A dark-eyed junco shares with a field sparrow.

The peanut has moved squarely into my forebrain. At our Superbowl party on Sunday, two toddlers attended, both of whom have severe peanut allergies. What are the chances of that? I looked at those precious little people and it was as if everything in my kitchen was suddenly radioactive; glowing peanuts flying around, infiltrating every foodstuff that went in their rosebud mouths. Yikes. I felt a surge of apprehension, protectiveness, and a huge immediate empathy for their parents, forced to examine every label, think about everything that they offered their children, and pack Tupperwares of safe snacks wherever they went. Peanuts and peanut-based products are absolutely everywhere. If you don't think so, look at the FDA's peanut product recall list. It grows every day.

Now, thanks to the peanut product recall, we all have to think like the mother of a toddler with peanut allergies.

I have been checking online about the peanut-based products I've been consuming of late, namely Luna bars (Peanut Butter Cookie and Nutz Over Chocolate) and my new favorites, Clif Mojo Mountain Mix bars. I love these things for their convenience, especially when I'm traveling in foreign countries. Save yourself some time and money--skip the Luna bars and go directly to Clif Mojo bars. Mojo bars are delicious. By comparison, Luna bars taste like wet straw.

If my choice at breakfast on the road is some kind of sickening sweet roll, a doughnut, bagel or nothing, I'm delighted to pull a reasonably nutritious snack bar out of my pack and take a pass on the carb-laden junk food before me. So I stuff about twenty little bars in my suitcase while I'm packing for each journey, along with raw almonds and macadamias. I'm thereby assured of a nutritious start to my day, or a boost when I'm flagging. Needless to say, I buy the snack bars in bulk, 15-bar boxes. I was going to take a substantial hit if I just threw them out, and the Clif company had made a voluntary recall of its peanut-containing products just to be safe. So I spent part of an afternoon on the phone with the Clif people.

They were terrific, and they believed me when I said I was a travel writer (and unrepentant pack rat) and had, uh, 89 uneaten possibly contaminated Clif Luna bars in my pantry. Cool. The Clif company is now sending me coupons to replace those with new, delicious and safe Clif Mojo bars. Mmmm. Good deal all around.

But back to the birds. In the recent ice storm, I kept my birds going with peanuts. Not only do I feed cocktail peanuts in a cylindrical feeder,A Carolina wren vies with a female yellow-bellied sapsucker for peanuts.

but I make huge batches of Zick dough, which of course is peanut-butter based. Eight bluebirds magically appeared in last week's ice storm and began begging for Zick dough as if their lives depended on it. Which, in the four solid days of ice we experienced, they doubtless did.
Glug, glug, glug. A male eastern bluebird stuffs himself with high-energy homemade dough.

A field sparrow, most delicate and beautiful of sparrows, fills up on Zick dough.

It is clear that, at least on Indigo Hill, the peanut should have its own food group. So far, major brands of jarred retail peanut butter have been declared safe from salmonella contamination, and have not been recalled by the FDA. Big institutional tubs of peanut butter, however, are suspect. And commercial peanut-based suet doughs must necessarily be viewed with suspicion, since they may have peanut paste, peanut bits, bulk peanut butter, and other ingredients sourced from the Peanut Corporation of America, which has a history of unsafe conditions. A blue jay helps himself to dough

Here's the peanut/salmonella rub: If you're feeding peanut based suet concoctions, it's best to play it safe and make them yourself, from human-grade jarred peanut butter, because birds can get salmonella just like people can. So here's the recipe for Zick Dough, once again.

Peanut Butter Suet Dough from Julie Zickefoose

1 cup peanut butter
1 cup lard

Combine and melt these two in the microwave, in the oven, or over very low heat on the stovetop. Remove from heat and stir in:

2 cups plain yellow cornmeal
2 cups quick oats
1 cup flour

Allow to cool and harden, then chop into chunks and store at room temperature in jars. Serve crumbled in a shallow dish. Attracts bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, jays, wrens, thrashers, orioles, cardinals, and towhees. This is an excellent supplement for nesting birds, especially in cold, rainy weather, as they will feed it to their young. However, it is not recommended for warm-weather feeding, as it is too rich and may cause gout. Feed only in the depth of winter or as an emergency supplement in spring.
A northern cardinal likes what she tastes.

Here's Garth the red-bellied woodpecker, Ruby's mate, homing in on some Zick dough. Yes, he's still around and going strong.
My thanks to Nina for sparking this post, and to Birdchick for raising the question about peanut safety and birds in the first place. Until your peanuts get contaminated, you don't realize how ubiquitous and valuable they are. Be safe, everyone--and make sure your beautiful birds are safe, too.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

I Love The Boss

I've never been a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. Like many who came of age in the late 70's, I was overexposed to Born to Run and Clarence Clemons' nattering saxophone solos. But I always liked the line, "Wrap your legs 'round these velvet ribs/And strap your hands 'cross my engines." There was something good in those words, something more than Jersey strut. I found myself alone a lot in the mid 80's, and wound up buying Nebraska, an album whose spare, bleak imagery suited me just then. That was the only Springsteen I ever sought out. The rest just oozed in over the airwaves.

Superbowl Sunday found me in and out of the kitchen, with a bunch of friends on our couch. I was in it for the chili, the laughter; for the hoot and holler of men watching the game. The screen got my attention only at the halftime show. And there he was in all his Bruceness, stomping up and down the catwalk, all in black, like a late-period Johnny Cash or Elvis. Black is slimming, but he looked bigger than I remembered, as if, to quote a line from Gross Point Blank, he had swelled. Maybe a little stiff, too, as if his back were acting up. Well, heck, he's been at it for thirty years. I'm wearing more black these days, too, and if I drop something on the floor, I have to work out a little plan for how I'm going to get down to pick it up, figure out what I'm going to grab to get back up.

And then he did it, made a little run, dropped to his knees and started a power slide down the slick catwalk. And, this being the Superbowl, there was a camera positioned at the foot of the runway, trained on Bruce's rapidly approaching pelvis. The slide ended with a clunk as The Boss' goods connected with the lens; he'd attained quite a bit more momentum in nearly four decades of power sliding than perhaps anyone had counted on. After a brief moment of clobbered confusion, the camera pulled back to see Bruce, his arms windmilling as he worked to get up from his Z-bent position. His face split in a goofy, I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this grin as he struggled back to his feet. And at that moment, now and forever, he won me over. I gotta say, I love The Boss.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Amish Wii

Living in the country has its drawbacks. When the power goes out in an ice storm, you're in for three days, minimum, which is what we dealt with this past week. I'm watching it all melt off now, enjoying reading by incandescent light and the resumption of my electronic addictions.

When it's snowy and cold and the power's off and all your favorite toys need to be plugged in, it's time for the Amish Wii, Bill of the Birds' new term for amusing oneself in a power outage. (Is it any wonder I leave the pet naming to him? He's a genius.)

We chose Sledding on our Amish Wii and off we went.

While walking with the kids this month in a dusting of snow, we took a route across the hayfield/cow pasture near our mailbox. And it hit us that for 16 years we have been living on top of the best darn sledding hill on the planet, and didn't even realize it. We'd always taken the slope in our yard, which ends abruptly and painfully in a tangle of multiflora rose and sumac. Yow! Nothing like a face full of Ninja stars at the end of a thrilling run. The kids and I looked at this smoothly mown hayfield and resolved to make it ours in the next decent snowstorm.

I made them pull me out to the end of the driveway. It's good for them.
Then we hoofed it across the flat until we reached the Bowl. You can see the dropoff at the left side of the picture. We followed their track from that morning, when I was busy doing something else.
It's a heck of a hill. The huge oak tree is on the very southeast corner of our land, which is doubtless why nobody has cut it down. It's a line tree, and it's our line tree. It will stand until it decides to fall down. I smile every time I see that tree. Although we have only a pie-slice of land that it stands on, I also put a bluebird box up near the oak, further marking our territory in a gentle way.
Bye, kids. Be careful. Just remember Mommy loved you.We loved you, too, Mommy. Farewell.

Talk about a long go and go and go.

There's a wonderful steep berm that gets you really moving. Here, Liam's trudging back up.
It's the long trudge up that limits the number of runs you do. I'm usually good for about six before I start thinking about popcorn and hot cocoa.
And roses and freckles.
We always draw a cowd.In this particular episode, we hit a frozen cowpie that stood up about six inches--a deadly mogul, taken at speed. I took it right on the tailbone and wasn't right for two weeks. It's finally better today and we're going for one last run before the snow melts off. I am going to stuff an Ugly Doll down my pants just in case.

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