Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Carolina Wren Nest

Blessings abound in June. There could be no more delighted host to a family of Carolina wrens in a hanging basket than the Science Chimp. First, let me dispel the notion that, should birds take up nesting in a hanging basket full of flowers, you have to creep around and stop watering the basket. If you stop watering it, the plants will die, and nobody wants that to happen, especially the birds who built the nest in their shelter in the first place. The Lord doesn't stop watering the forest floor just because a towhee is nesting there. He depends on the towhee to build a nest that repels water and drains quickly. So you water a little more gently, with a watering can, but you water it. Durn straight I water it; those are some nice plants in there and I grew them meself.

Neither do you have to creep around or stop using your front door. The wrens chose to nest there precisely because they wanted to be around human activity, because noisy everpresent humans are likely to be intolerant of the snakes and raccoons that might otherwise eat their eggs and young. If that sounds like a stretch for a bird's thought processes, well, you'll just have to believe me that it isn't. Following the wren's lead, I moved everything away from their basket that could possibly give a leg up to a coon or a six-foot black rat snake-pots and pedestals and trellises and the like. You have to stand back and think like a five-foot snake. And when you think like a snake, you realize there are very few truly safe nesting places for birds.

I first noticed the wren's work when I was watering the basket of geraniums and lobelias, when I noticed some pieces of arbor vitae and grass laid in a kind of fairy driveway across the surface of the soil. I thought what I always do when I find a Carolina wren nest. Now who put those there?

And then I break into a huge grin, because there's only one person who would put those there and that's a Carolina wren. These wrens are sneaky little things, and they can make a whole nest before you even wake up that it's going on. They're fast, too. Once they've picked a place they like, they don't mess around.

They haul great billfulls of moss and cocoa fiber, grasses and rootlets and skeletonized leaves and before you know it they have a little domed affair which may or may not have a fabulous porch that spills out and over the container. This was a very restrained pair, and they omitted the portico and went with a modest walkway of arbor vitae. This pair also skimped on the dome. Most Carolina wren nests are thickly roofed, with a hole in the side, but this pair relied on the geranium leaves for shelter, and it worked very well.

I delighted in standing at the sink, catching them at their nest building. I'd crank the window wide open, no screen, and shoot away from the darkness of my kitchen blind. Only one hummingbird came into the kitchen the whole couple of weeks I was at it and I caught her in my hand and sent her right back outside. Not so fast, Buzzy Marie.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile you know that I have a lot of favorite birds and you can't really take me too seriously because I love birds so much that the way it works out is that the one I'm studying or caring for at the moment is my favorite. Carolina wrens just happen to be a Real Favorite bird right up there with chipping sparrows, eastern phoebes, ruby-throated hummingbirds and eastern bluebirds. So ignore for a moment my tendency to sing the praises of brown thrashers and yellow-breasted chats and blue-gray gnatcatchers and red-bellied woodpeckers and believe me when I say that Carolina wrens are one of my top Favorite Birds. Srsly.

For what is not to love about a bird who helps herself to the moss on your bonsai trees and stuffs great wads of it into your hanging basket to make the most picturesque little domed nest; who sings a cheery duet with its mate that sounds like it's yelling JULIE JULIE JULIE; who never lets so much as a drip from a fecal sac touch your front porch; who brings a steady stream of more or less noxious insects to feed its adorable young right in front of your nose?

So in these next few installments, I invite you to elevate the Carolina wren to one of your Capitalized Favorite Birds, or if you don't want to do that, already having Favorite Birds of your own, then please just indulge me. Be kind. Gush about the birdies. Because Lord knows I have suffered for my art. See previous post.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

This Is Not a Rant. It's Just an Update.

Those of you who keep in touch with me via email and Facebook know that I've been AWOL for awhile. First, the whole family was touring through North Dakota and Montana for two weeks. We returned to calf-high grass and two nonfunctional mowers. So there was grass management. The pond was half drained due to a malfunctioning pump filter. So there was fish and muck management. My aunt and cousin and family came for a couple of days. So there was beloved relative management. The Swinging Orangutangs had two gigs. So there was music and sleep management.

After the trip, which was fun but emphatically not a vacation (we were working at two different bird events), my two Canon cameras had about 2,000 exposures on them. Real nice ones. Birds, wild hosses, bison and the like. I was afraid to touch either one of them, because I knew I didn't have the memory on my laptop to handle it, and I wasn't ready to delete a few thousand photos, to make room, because I haven't even blogged about Honduras yet. Why can't they make a laptop with a 90 terabyte memory? They can send a man to the moon.

In the end, it took me a full 24 hours of cussing and deleting files and starting over and backing up and cussing some more and trying again to stuff those fabulous trip photos down an overloaded, smoking laptop's unwilling little throat.

And the grass was still growing outside while we figured out how to get a broken lawn tractor to the repairman without a pickup truck. That same day, June 18, my furnace peed all over the basement floor, and oh, I forgot...the kitchen sink was stopped up for three days upon our return, and the plumbers fixed it, but also spilled 21 years worth of drainglunk on our basement floor. That was really cool. They dumped the compacted stinky grease right next to our driveway and Chet rolled in it. I have pictures of that shamefaced doggeh, but I can't show them to you. I'll get to that in a minute.

I will tell you that laptops don't like having 25,000 photos in their library. They act plumb weird when you get that many in 'em. And a laptop hates talking to a camera with a full memory card of 1,863 photos; it doesn't want to talk to it at all. The laptop hides and pulls the covers over its head and waits for the constipated camera to go away and drop its damn photos somewhere else.

And somewhere in that 24 hours of pure blasphemous fun, during which my children would come into the studio, wordlessly hug me and then creep back out, my laptop's power cord flat out melted, which, upon research, appears to be a Known Problem for the MacBook Pro. A week and $49 later I had someone splice the durn thing and I was briefly back in business, albeit awkwardly swaddled with black electrician's tape. MacBooks and heat, they go together like Polish sausage and grainy brown mustard.

So this morning, June 29, I got up and fired up the Laptop Which Has My Entire Life On It, and it had no sooner booted up than an inky black Curtain of Doom dropped down over the desktop display. Hmm. Restart. Five minutes of tenuous joy. Curtain of Doom. I got on the phone with Apple, thanking the iGods my AppleCare Protection Plan has three more months of good in it, and spent the next four hours troubleshooting. Installing the operating system again. Resetting. Bla bla bla. But the Canadian technician on the phone sounded cute, so that helped. It's hard to flirt when you're freaking out, but I managed. Long, boring story short: it has to go to the doctor. Or the coroner. Or something. Maybe it just needs an autopsy. So before it died for the tenth and final time I transferred a few vital things onto my Old Slow iMac (which has some shutdown issues of its own) so I could function. That was just today.

Oh my. I seem to have let a rant slip out.


That's what's coming, if I can drag the photos off my external hard drive. Yes, Jesus saves, and so do I. I back up like a scalded ape. I'm just sayin' that there is so much busted stuff coming down I want to wear a hat.

Now. Something good did happen today, and that's that I found out that my commentary about the ferocity of a mother's love ("This Mama Will Protect Every Hair on her Cub!") will air this afternoon, Monday, June 29, on All Things Considered in the second hour. For those of you on Eastern Time, that'd be sometime after 5 pm. So tune in. And if you miss it, you can find it at the link above.

In the meantime, I am going to take the kids to pick some blueberries, because that I can do without paying a repairman.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Snakeskin Surprise

June's the time when we find snakeskins. Phoebe spotted the skin of a black rat snake deep within a crevice in our back patio. I came out and was glad to find it so fresh that it was still moist and pliable. I teased it out with a tweezers without displacing a single scale, a feat in itself, since it was hung up on the rough sandstone blocks. It was complete and perfect. The snake must undergo a hormonal surge or drop, to let loose of its skin in one go like that. They then find a snug rough-walled place, like a crack in a patio, to get it hitched and start peeling it away. It must feel wonderful to shed your skin. I'll never know. Well, I flake a bit in winter.

It was about as tall as Phoebe is: 5' 2" to her 5'4". Yikes.

We were fascinated by the way the skin had every single feature of the living snake except its mucous membranes and innards. It was inside out, the lenses of the eyes intact. Imagine shedding your eye lenses. Imagine shedding your skin. Whooo.

I turned it right side out to see the eyes and lower jaw as they would appear on the animal. I wondered how the skin shedding stopped at the lips, leaving the mucous membranes unaffected. The whole thing blows my mind. Blew the kids’ minds, too.

What my babies put up with…Despite his confident look, Liam had a harder time with donning the boa than Phoebs. He's just fakin' it here. Note stegosaur jammie pants.

But there was someone else who was wondering about this thing, too. Chet Baker don’t like snakes. He was dubious.

He thought the skins (we had found another just a few days earlier) were probably still dangerous.

Ever been bit by a dead bee? They can bitecha, just the same as the live ones.

It’s OK, Baker. Those skins won’t hurt you.

I am not so sure, Liam. I think they can still snap at me.

I am ready to jump aside or bite, whichever I need to do.

Phew, Mether, put those smelly things somewhere now. They give me the creepity creeps.

Is there a more expressive face in the Kingdom of Dog?

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Saving a Bluebird

There had been five bluebird babies in the front yard bluebird box when I last checked the nest. Three males and two females, I knew that. The bluebird pair made the unusual move of keeping them in and around the yard once they'd fledged; usually bluebirds take their babies deep into the woods for the vulnerable early post-Italicfledging stage, only returning two to three weeks later into the nesting territory. And it bothered me that each time I counted, I found only four babies in the yard. We were missing a male. A couple of weeks went by and he never showed up. Oh, well, c'est la vie, at least we have four. But I wondered if I'd ever know what happened to him.

One afternoon when the fledglings were pretty well grown, I pulled into the driveway, got out of my car and heard a baby bluebird calling insistently, distressed. Neener. Neener. Neener. I followed the sound, my hands still full from my errands, and pinned it down. It was coming from inside a stovepipe baffle. Oh good grief. There it was, a baby bluebird who had fallen down into the open top of the old baffle.

You can see a properly mounted stovepipe baffle on their nest box, top center, and the old topless baffle resting on the ground beneath our martin gourd pole, top right. That's the one he fell into. There was no getting out of it once he was in the 24" tube.

By this time, I'm holding the stranded baby in my hand for the kids to admire. Photos by Bill Thompson III.

He was fine, but he'd been in there a long time, so I gave him a dropper of water and four mealworms.

And it occurred to me where his brother might have gone, right after they fledged. I gave the baby to Phoebe to hold. She loooves to hold baby creatures. Liam, not so much. Too scritchy and scrabbly.

I walked over to the 2' length of stovepipe where our baby had been trapped and lifted it up.

And there was his brother, two weeks gone. The all-blue tail, telling his sex.

His skull, frail as an eggshell, unossified, so young. Rats, rats, rats.

I propped up the baffle with a rock, leaving an escape hole beneath for any future stumblers.

And gave the lucky live bluebird a final kiss on the head before releasing him to the care of his family. We've seen him in the yard many times since.

You can't anticipate all the ways a baby bird can run afoul of the careless trappings of man, but sometimes you're lucky enough to be there to help when they do.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June's Gifts

So very many gifts in June, among them hanging baskets filled with treasured things from my greenhouse

Geranium "Frank Headley" left, "Maverick Hot Pink," right

There's the sound of running water in the pond out back

my crazy tea rose, "Rio Samba," a color-changer that goes from yellow to red over the life of the flower

the impossible bounty of the flower beds, that spills over

into container after container, all of the elevated ones filled with the things rabbits like. We are big on pedestals here.

Come evening, there may be thunderheads and storm light

and scared little boys to cuddle and comfort.

And there is always a dribble of dog.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Garden Fantasy

Native Missouri primrose, Oenothera spectabilis, in bloom by our garage. Keeping good company with a European field daisy.

A wee garden tour for you.

Every year there is a garden tour in Marietta, Ohio, the town nearest us. Well, it's still about 20 miles away. And the Marietta garden tour is one of my favorite events of the year, because the kids and I get to walk through other people's backyards and see what they think is pretty. It's kind of like watching "Cops," where you get to go inside those houses that you might only drive by with a little shudder. Well, it's actually nothing like watching "Cops," but I think you know what I mean. You get to poke around, to snoop, to see what other people do and think and plant.

I have always wanted to be on the Marietta garden tour, to open my gardens to viewing. But since hundreds and hundreds of people visit the gardens, they would have to have a set of chartered buses or the world's most bodacious carpool to get them the twenty miles out here from town. So it's never going to happen, but I always go on the tour and wish. I could give a good garden tour.

I could show everyone such a good time. I'd open my tree swallow box and voila! there would be sweetly smiling rubber swallow babies cuddled down amidst the feathers.

We'd take in the view of the north shade bed along the front of the house

and admire the aptly-named Salvia superba, the culinary sage plant I grew from a seed many years ago. Put a few of those leaves in butter and throw some portobella ravioli in that butter and you have something, ma'am. And I use the leaves year-round, fresh from the plant.

I'd have my assistant, Phoebe, go in the house and fetch the blooming Psychopsis mendenhall "Hildos."

We'd set it up in front of the blooming sage plant, just for color overkill.

Everyone would gasp and want to photograph this chest-high wonder.

The eastern phoebe would tear some fibers from the cocoa mat planters, and pause on her way to the nest on our special shelf, put up just for her.

Then she'd fetch up on the Garden Forge ornament, while the Knockout rose bloomed and bloomed. Gasp!

And that's just the front bed. Mmmm. Such a sweet dream. I guess I'll have to share it with you all instead. Come to think of it, that's way better than having to weed my fingers to the nubs and clean the house and try to get the dirt out from under my nails in time for the first busload to roll up. Virtual garden tour!

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When June Comes!

Phoebe drowning in honeysuckle. Photo by her daddy, Bill Thompson III.

But when June comes
Rench my throat in wild honey and whoop out loud!
Spread them shadders anywhere
I'll get down and waller there

from "When June Comes" by James Whitcomb Riley, the "Hoosier Poet."

My father's favorite poem. Aw, I'm bawling again. That's no way to start a post.

Long shadders, leaf shadders.

When June comes, I get to go out in the meadow with my dog.

I get to open bluebird boxes and find one all full of little gray bluebird girls.

And one all stuffed full of chickadee.

I can look out the window and see a newly minted bluebird contemplating her world.

Or see an indigo bunting sharing a bath with a cardinal.

And not sharing it with a phoebe.

Dear Mrs. Passerina,

Your son does not always play well with others. Please speak to him about sharing.

June is overwhelming. I love it so much. I just wish I could take some of this bounty and spread it out through the rest of the year, that's all. I wish June lasted three or four months, so I could take it all in. But everyone's in a hurry, everyone's nesting, everyone's blooming, everyone's singing, and I can't keep up. I just grab little bouquets as I go.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chet Baker, Predator

Chet Baker nabbed a chiptymunk today, the first I'm aware of in oh, about 1,000 tries this spring. Just FYI he doesn't pet them and let them go. His inner Cape Hunting Dog comes out, he gives them a quick shake and a crunch and stretches them in the grass, then trots off without a backward glance. It's the rat terrier half of him. The smooshy-wooshy sweet wad of doggeh love is his bulldog half.

Chet Baker, Predator. Bunnehs beware!

Thank the Lord he doesn't swallow them whole, as our dachshund Volks once did with a very dead squirrel. Blecch. We caught him masticating it and as we watched in horror the entire thing disappeared down his throat, like as if he wuz a snake. You want some yaller mustard for that squirrel hummmmm?

Tuesday night, as his welcome home from two weeks at Camp Baker, Chet tangled with a raccoon that was trying to raid the bird feeders. He came slinking in with three puncture wounds on his face and throat, and the reek of coon on his neck. Thank goodness he had his rabies booster in May! Chet feels so very sorry for himself when he gets hurt, rolling his eyes and slicking back his ears. He rolls over and lets me wash him up and assess the damage. And it is the time of year when I need to sweep the yard with a flashlight before letting him out for the last time, because that rat terrier half will always go in for the tussle.

Let's face it--the animals we like to cuddle and kiss are predators. Cats happen to be much, much better at it, and better equipped for it, than dogs. But even Mr. Adorable gets a chiptymunk now and then, and a couple of rabbits a year, and that's OK with me. We've got plenty chipmunks and rabbits here. We even have rabbits that climb up on 18" high concrete benches and into my planters to demolish the rare geraniums I've been propagating, reducing a year's nurturing to nubbins in a single night. Guess what part of the geranium they eat? Just the crunchy leaf stems. Not the leaves, not the beautiful flowers nor the main stems. Just the leaf stems. Oh, that's worth killing a whole plant for.

Now those rabbits are out of line. These are the times I wish Chet were a better predator.

You can bet that if Chet were offing a bird or two a day, as some cats do, he'd be an indoor dog. This is why I have a dog, and not a cat. Dogs are evolutionarily much better equipped to take correction than are cats. As in: Dogs take correction, remember it, and apply it to their behavior. Cats, well...cats do what cats do, and if what they like to do happens to be compatible with being a good pet, that's lovely for everyone.

Chet has been taught not to chase birds. He wouldn't hurt one if it hopped up and perched on his nose. Same goes for turkles, officially Off Limits, ever since I caught him chewing on ol' Naraht when he was a puppeh. Yesterday Phoebe and I were playing with a dwarf hamster, and we wondered if we got one, whether Chet would try to give it a quick snap and a shake. Well, he might, if we neglected to tell him he couldn't. I feel confident that if we had a pet hamster, rabbit or chipmunk, we could very quickly teach Chet to leave it alone. That's the beauty of dogs. Can somebody breed trainability into cats, please?

Smart chipmunks go straight up when Chet makes the scene. Here, he's treed a chipmunk.

It's the dark little blob at the top center of the picture.

Zooming in...

You have to love the almost prehensile tail.

No, he didn't get this'n, like he doesn't get 99.9 percent of the chiptymunks around here.

But that doesn't keep him from running lightning-fast raids a couple of times an hour, all day long.

I love to chase small furry animals. It is my job, and I am very good at my job. Notice that I did not say "catch" small furry animals. I chase them, mostly.

The Chet Baker commentary that aired on NPR got tons of comments, both on the NPR website and on NPR's Facebook page. (You'll have to go to "Older Posts" to find it on the NPR Facebook page). Hundreds. The overwhelming majority that came in were supportive, from people with whom the piece struck a chord. After all, who likes to have someone come up and say something mean about their dog?

As there always are in online forums, there was a smattering of snarky comments, too, from people saying how "inbred" Chet is, how maladapted; what a jerk I am to buy a purebred dog; how I should have rescued a dog instead; how sick it is that humans have selected dogs for certain traits...including, I assume, intelligence, beauty, tractability, forward-facing googly eyes, prickety ears, slick coat, sense of humor, kissable purple lips...how awful of us! Perhaps we should all be keeping lean, lanky wolves and jackals as pets? Somehow I can't imagine a wolf sitting on the back of the couch, watching American Idol with us.

I'm sorry, cranky people, but you make me hoot out loud, because you're so predictable. There's something about a keyboard that can inspire a kind of road rage; maybe people aren't getting enough fiber, or getting up and walking around enough, but cranky commenters all sound alike after awhile. I'm with the Obamas--having a dog is a big decision, an enormous outlay of cash over the decade or more that we own it, and we have a right to select the kind of dog we really want. Maybe your urge to rescue a dog is stronger than your desire to get exactly what you want vis a vis size, coat length, personality, temperament, and that's fine. You can go rescue a dog, and someone else can go to a good breeder to buy a purebred. That's what selective breeding, and personal choice, are all about. And no matter what you do, there's always going to be a cranky person at a keyboard somewhere ready to take a shot from the sidelines at the stance you take.

I'd like to invite all the holier-than-thous over to see this lean, sleek, beautiful boy go about his doggly bidness.
But just for a few minutes, and I'm not going to bake you cookies. Those, and sloppy Chet Baker kisses, are for the nice people; i.e., the ones who agree with me.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Last Children in the Woods

I don't have anything pithy to say about getting your children into the woods: why it's the best thing you can do for them. Anyone who reads this blog knows how I feel about connecting with nature. If anything, I have a problem connecting with the constructs of man: organized sports, organized religion; the purported delights of urban living. I guess I'm a bit of an extremist, always leaning into nature and away from the trappings and constructs of humanity. But that doesn't mean our kids are. It's always a struggle, however gentle, to tease them away from the gadgets that blink and yawp and hum and get them out into the wild. Once that little struggle is over, the real living takes over.

To get their shoes off

To consider the mushroom.

To look for the larkspur

and greet the shy forget-me-not.

To dive into unstructured play, with nothing more than rocks and flowing water

and bluejeans wet to the thigh

while Daddy sleeps away a hard dawn's birding in the car.

To become Captain Underpants, if just for an hour

To watch the last light paint a ridgetop

to pee in the road, and find your jammies waiting in a bag in the back seat

To spend a day in nature, untroubled, unstructured, unconstructed. That's real living.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Big Day: Sights Along the Way

Liam carries Harry Potter along, just in case it gets dull while we're birding.

We aren't just looking for birds when we go on a Big Day. We look at everything. These handsome horses looked back.

Behind them stood the cutest donkey, whom we didn't even notice until I was done taking horse photos.

About time you took my picture. Notice my eyelashes, and fetching withers markings.

I thought she looked like she needed to pull up her stockings. You know, the kind with the rolled top that only come up to your knees, like my grandma used to wear.

We had a lucky encounter with some shorebirds that, until I got the photo on my screen, I thought were lesser and greater yellowlegs. Only problem: the smaller bird has greenish-gray legs and a prominent eyering, which points to solitary sandpiper. Both lesser yellowlegs and solitary sandpipers were feeding with the greaters that day. I really wanted the two yellowlegs to line up side by side and thought I had the shot, but it's a cool picture, anyway.

In Newport, we stopped to get ice cream at the Jug, home of Jugfest, whatever that is. Happy Mother's Day! Show us your jugs!

Back to the woods--the phoebe nest on a cliff, right across from the Church in the Wildwood.

A closer look showed that it was about to explode, so we backed off. You don't want to get too close to a phoebe nest where you can see faces. They're spooky little things when they get near fledging age, and might fledge prematurely.

My father, now gone since 1994, used to sing "The Little Brown Church in the Vale" when we'd go on car rides. He could sing, but he had no rhythm, and you never knew how many times he was going to sing the word "come" when he sang "Oh, come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wildwood, oh, come to the church in the vale." We'd get so tickled trying to sing along with him, especially my mom, who is a good singer and does have rhythm.

Down along County Road 12 not far from our home, we found The Church in the Wildwood. It has been cleaned up over the past year, and it was nice to see it looking cared for. We like to stop there because there are always yellow warblers and phoebes on the stream bend in front of it.

Dad would have been 97 on June 18. I was the last of five children, and the nurse thought Dad was my grandfather when she came out into the waiting room to tell him I'd been born. He was only 46, but that was considered pretty old at the time to be hanging out in a delivery room waiting area for your child to be born. He'd been out pheasant hunting and was still in his boots and mackinaw. We lived in South Dakota.

I like to stop there because when I look at the church, I can still hear my father singing. Happy birthday, DOD. Wish you could talk to these kids.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tiny Donkey

Our Big Day started out auspiciously on our own road. One of the watch donkeys in a neighbor's goat herd had given birth very recently, and Bill slammed on the brakes for the opportunity to see such a young creature. The kids were grabbing for the binoculars even as we came to a stop.

Mama was very protective of her baby, walking circles around it and nuzzling it gently.

It was curious, and kept swiveling those impossibly long ears our way. I love its little white nose, and wonder if its coat will lighten as it ages, like many gray horses' coats do.

We'll enjoy watching it grow up.

We're back from the land of bison, horses, pronghorns, eagles, coyotes and mountain bluebirds, having driven 400 miles from Bismarck, ND to Great Falls, Montana, floated down the Missouri for three days on the trail of Lewis and Clark, then having driven the 400 miles back, then flown on home yesterday. Oh, and working two festivals somewhere in there, kids along for everything, trooping through, completely unplugged. It's the true test of a child's mettle, and they passed with honors. We left June 2 and got home June 15. It was a two-week odyssey with thousands of images I can't even face downloading right now, each one a postcard of stunning beauty. Oh, wild horses....they canter through my dreams. Phoebe's smitten. Liam's fixated on bison the way he used to love trains.

I'm buried in weeds and laundry and long lawngrass, needing to clean the pond and aquarium while swimming in mail and work deadlines. But I felt like we got ourselves back on that trip, spending 24 hours a day together, the four of us, and realizing that we're pretty good company. It was an amazing journey, and I look forward to sharing it with you. Picked up The Bacon from his foster mom and dad this afternoon. He has some bunnehs to correct! and a lot of kisses to make up.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Big Days in May

American redstart

Bill and I love to do Big Days. For those of you who aren't habitual birders, Big Days involve trying to see as many birds as you can in 24 hours. Or 18 hours, or whatever suits you. Dawn to dark, you bird. We try to do them while covering as little ground as possible, so we spend the first half of the day here at home on Indigo Hill, then branching out to other parts of Washington County. We take our kids. They like it too, albeit with some initial complaining and frequent requests for snacks.

Shila and Steve, the other members of the Whipple Bird Club, came along on Day One, and Shila made the most excellent suggestion that we check out a little nature reserve called Boord State Nature Preserve. Named for the family which donated the land for conservation, it's a little jewel.

State nature preserves, as opposed to parks, have minimal development and minimal facilities. Only low-impact use is permitted.  The whole idea is to maintain the area in as natural a state as possible.  Thanks to Debbie Woischke of Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources for the information. You can find more about Boord SNP here. 

Hemlocks dominate the forest, which is very unusual in this oak/hickory dominated county. A little gorge is the reason--it makes a cool microclimate that hemlocks need. I thought I was back in Connecticut, before the wooly adelgids hit, or in a ravine in West Virginia.

Liam and Phoebe had to shed their shoes and wade

and I had to document it, and kneel amongst boreal wildflowers I never thought I'd see in my county. Here's nodding trillium, Trillium cernuum.

See how the flower looks down? I like the name whip-poor-will flower for it, though I don't know why it should be called that.

The most beautiful falls spilled into a deep pool

and my kids felt for things with their bare toes

and I was completely happy.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Chet Baker Plants Beans

You may recall last spring's post about Chet Baker helping me plant lima beans. I had soaked the beans overnight, and they got that beany smell, and Chet thought they needed to be buried, so he planted most of a row with his nose. That time, I was lucky enough to be there with my camera, and to persuade him to keep planting for me.

This year, I was planting string beans, similarly soaked, when I was called to the phone. I had dug the furrow, dropped the beans into it, and had just started covering them up when I had to run to catch the call. When I got back, the row had disappeared. The furrow was gone, and so were the beans.

Investigating further, I discerned the distinctive planting style of Chet Baker, Bean Planter. He considers loose straw to be just as good as soil for planting. Gardeners know that is not true.

Chet Baker.

Yes, Mether.

I see you have a dirty nose again.

What dirty nose? I do not have a dirty nose. I have not been burying anything.

I have been lying here the whole time you were on the phone, watching for bunnehs, like this. It is my job, and I am good at it.

So what happened to my row of beans, Chet Baker? They disappeared. They got planted, and not very well at that.

Oh, that. You found those beans I planted for you! I thought that was a very funny thing to do. I smoked you, didn't I?

There is nothing an American Gentleman enjoys more than a good laugh. It was a good joke, wasn't it?

Yes, Chet Baker, it was a good joke, as doggeh jokes go, and now I am going out to the garden to plant my beans properly.

Would you like some help?

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Boy and His Turtle

You may remember a post from some time ago about the two baby box turtles we are fostering for eventual release into the wild here on Indigo Hill. Shelly, the smaller of the two, was found as a newborn hatchling in a flower garden on Fifth Street, a heavily settled area, where she'd have faced an even more uncertain future than a hatchling born in appropriate woodland habitat.

Shelly looks ahead. She's about the size of a lemon now, at a year of age.

How Shelly's parents found each other in midtown Marietta I don't know, but they had doubtless been abducted from outlying woodlands and brought as pets into town. The woman who found her is a caterer, and she pampered Shelly with all manner of good foods, including thin slices of hard-boiled egg. Shelly came to me at a few months of age, hard-wired to eat only egg, and it's been a fun and interesting experiment to bring her around to live foods and earthworms and Repto-Min Aquatic Turtle Food Stix, her staple diet now.

Shelly is Phoebe's to love until release day. Shoomie, the bigger one, is Liam's. Shoomie was born in captivity of turtles kept by Dr. David McShaffrey of Marietta College. The idea is for me to raise them until they're big enough (3/4 lb.) and their shells are tough enough to withstand predators, chief among them eastern chipmunks. Shoomie now weighs 6 oz. Shelly, 2.5 oz.

The kids love to take "their" turtles outside for exercise.

And I love to watch them with the turtles. I can see Liam disappearing into his imagination, feeling what it must be like to live in a shell and trundle around only an inch off the ground.

Shoomie covers a lot of ground when he goes on walkabout. Shelly sits and looks.

A boy, his turtle, and Chip, the Pig of Good Fortune.

Liam never lets Shoomie out of his sight. The name was Liam's, one of his many baby nicknames that stuck. He passed it to his turtle.

I love my tender little boy.

Chet Baker keeps an eye on the turtles, too, and gets nervous when they head for cover.

But Shoomie's in the best of hands with Liam watching over him.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Tanager Comes to Call

I've written about the Bird Spa before. It attracts birds to my studio window that I really wouldn't see otherwise.

This lovely scarlet tanager visits most every day. He likes it when I scrub the Spa with Comet, clean the pump, and change the water. Then he comes more often, two or three times a day.

When he's had a drink and maybe a bath, he can't help but sing about it. Once he fetched up only a few feet from the window and I was ready with my camera.

His song sounds like a robin with a very bad sore throat--burry and harsh, not very melodic. That's OK. You don't need to be melodic when you flouresce. He could say BAP BAP BAP for all I care.

In this photo, you can see the retained feathers from winter plumage--greenish olive--in his lower wing.

You beautiful thing. Keep visiting, and I will keep scrubbing, because you deserve the best.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Country Dawn

It's really too bad that we don't have a reason to get up before it's light anymore, now that school's out. There's no reason to walk the quarter-mile out to the mailbox and gaze out over the field toward the rising sun.

There's such a short time when there's any light at all while we wait for the bus; for most of the school year we're shrouded in darkness, and we're looking at the moon and stars while we wait for it to roll up. We get up at 5:30, and Phoebe's on the bus by 6:15. Sheesh, getting up that early, I might as well have a cow to milk and chickens to feed.

But there are benefits, and most are intangible. Just being up and out walking then, you see the most amazing things.

Puddles gathering light, and a crossed X of contrails.

A vertical is nice, too.

The light grows by degrees, so quickly that it's lighter when we reach the mailbox than when we started from home.

The bus comes around the corner, out of the mist

and looms out of the darkness, red lights lit.

Back home, Bill walks out the meadow.

He wants to see what it's like inside all that mist.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Women in the Outdoors

A buckeye in full bloom.

Women in the Outdoors is a day-long camp for women in my part of Appalachia. There are workshops and field trips and shooting practice and mini-classes. I often give a talk and lead a bird walk. Camp Hervida in Waterford, Ohio, is nestled in a lovely piece of Appalachian hardwood forest, with nice wildflowers, good tall strong trees and lovely birds.

It's just wonderful when you can show people a scarlet tanager, and know it's the first look for many of them.

You just have to gasp at a bird like that.

But my favorite thing is to see birds doing things, to find their nests and share that. We were walking slowly along a trail and I was showing the women Mayapples, and telling them how delicious the fruits were when they were ripe, and that was news to everyone, because most people don't think to eat Mayapples, they let the box turtles eat them all. Because they're just right for box turtles, four inches off the ground, juicy, fragrant, soft, yellow...all the things a box turtle loves.

And a red-eyed vireo spooked from elbow height in a small tree right off the trail. She perched, wiped her bill, fluffed her feathers, and voided an enormous dropping. I knew right away by that evidence she'd come off a nest where she'd been sitting all morning, and told the women so. Having all been mothers, we knew the feeling of being released from duty.

Within seconds, I'd spotted the nest, right where she had fluttered out of the tree.

It was such a lovely cradle, but we didn't go any closer, for fear of bringing our scent to it.

I loved that moment, letting them in on the Science Chimp thought process, which puts seemingly insignificant things together, strongly seasoned with empathy, to find out more about how birds live.

But it got better. A female Acadian flycatcher was flitting up into the top of a tree near a bridge where we were standing, and it soon became apparent that the cluster of oak catkins she was messing with was becoming her nest.

With each addition of nesting material, she'd climb into the skeletal structure and shape it with her body, feet and bill.

But it got better. Because she kept flying to another cluster of catkins and ripping them out and taking them to the nest she was working on. And we realized that she was dismantling a nest that for some reason she was dissatisfied with, and rebuilding it in a site she liked better.

Here, she takes some catkins from the rapidly disappearing old nest. Look how she's used springy grape tendrils, like the springs in a box frame, to give the nest strength.

It didn't take long for us to figure out why.

She had built the old nest directly over the bridge, probably before any campers arrived, and when they did, she realized that it was a lousy place to try to incubate undisturbed.

The old nest is the little dark knot directly over the group.

She kept at it, tearing out the old one and rebuilding in the better spot, while we marveled at her intelligence and beauty.

You can see the catkin in her bill.

Science Chimps love a mystery, solved.

Fire pink glowed in the woods.

And a storm that had threatened all morning followed me home, but it didn't stop me from hitting two greenhouses on the way, and filling up my Exploder with flowers.

I feel so blessed to live where my routes look like this.

It was a good day. We were all happy.

This one is for Suzi, who makes Women in the Outdoors happen.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Someone Dribbled Dog

Someone dribbled dog on my lawn.

There are puddles everywhere that I look.

Inky greasy stains on my bluegrass

Wrecking all the mowing work it took.

Then someone poured dog on my carpet

someone spilled some dog on my deck

Someone emptied dog on on my chaise lounge

Someone spilled dog on my band.

Someone dripped dog on my new chair, the Martha Stewart one I got on sale.

Someone put dog on my taxes. I almost didn't ever get them done.

Someone droozled dog on my husband

Someone dribbled dog on my head.

I do not pretend that this is good poetry. It is inconsistent, ill-conceived, written by someone who is overtired, and meant only to make you laugh.

Chet Baker's fame grows. On Wednesday, as we were flying to North Dakota, my piece, titled,
"Look at that Puppy! But be Careful What You Say!" aired on All Things Considered. I just found out about it, being in a place with more meadowlarks than Internet hookups. Give it a listen. Scroll down and read the gobs and piles of comments, especially the cranky ones, which I'm afraid I find more amusing than insulting. At the very least, I got to say, "Them things is HYPER!" three times on National Public Radio.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Raccoons and Bird Feeders

It's raccoon season, that special time of year when any sunflower seed we put out goes mostly into the gullets of huge fat fearless procyonids. It's only gonna get worse from here on out, as the lactating females come in.

These photos were taken the day I took the cylinder feeder and globe feeder down, for obvious reasons. We knew this nice copper baffle would never stop a raccoon, but we bought it anyway, thinking it might slow down any squirrel that tried something.

Yes, I'm talking to you. What do you think you're doing out there in the bold daylight, hanging on like that and emptying my feeder?

He took a few more gullet fulls before mumbling something about being ready to leave anyway. I had to admire his flexibility and strength. It can't be easy to hold that bulk up with one's hind legs while maneuvering one's front half onto the feeder.

Yep, just leaving, left something burning on the stove, sorry to gobble and run...

Mether. Why do you always wait until the racketycoon is in the woods before you let me out? I could have beat him up for you. I'm up on my rabies shots.

Thank you, Chet Baker, but I prefer my dogs unshredded.

Note turd-tail antenna, straight out. Be- be- be- be- beep beep! Racketycoon!

I cope with 'coon season by putting out only as much food as the birds will eat in a day, just a half scoop on the screen-bottomed platform feeder. The peanut feeder is pretty much coon proof (so far this year), and it's double-wired onto the hook, so they don't get much joy from it. I don't want to be putting out pounds and pounds of seed in summer, anyway, so it's probably just as well we have these furry marauders to keep us honest and the birds healthier. And needless to say, Zick dough is but a distant memory.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Garden Center Birds

The people at Thomson's Garden Center know us, because we spell our name wrong, with a P, and because we're the bird people. So while we were prowling around the roses and begonias three staff members came up to make sure we'd seen their special birds.

First was a robin who'd built her nest on a stack of trellises. It was clear that nobody was going to be taking any trellises until she was done raising her babies.

Resolute is one word I'd use on her--trying to melt into a background that isn't there, staunchly sitting her eggs as the weekend garden center traffic swirls all around her.

But the best was yet to come. "Go look at the bee balm," one employee said, and I headed for its tall paired leaves.

Nobody was going to be buying any bee balm for awhile, either. Cats prowl all around the garden center, but somehow none of them had keyed into this ingenious nesting place. The staff didn't know what kind of bird had built the nest, only that it was little and brown.

A glance upward confirmed Mom's identity as a song sparrow, and we told the cashier and she wrote it down so she could remember it. What mattered was not that they could name the birds, but that they all cared enough to protect the nests.

It wouldn't be long before the song sparrows left; they're about 6 days old here, and would only stay in the nest another five or so.

Inside, another point of local pride: gazing balls made right here in Marietta by the Silver Globe Manufacturing Company. The tiny factory is a real trip--gazing balls all over the old cement block roof, and a huge pile of busted gazing balls out back. The workers climb up on top of it and eat their lunch, in between hand-blowing glass balls--a southern Ohio and West Virginia tradition, that somehow has not yet been outsourced to China. Well, you'll find lots of cheap foreign gazing balls, but the original and best ones are made by Silver Globe. They're always coming out with new colors. Here's Thomson's display. Makes your eyes roll back in your head.

I was proud of our hometown garden center, even if they spell their name wrong.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Titmouse Tufts

If there is a bird with a passion for fur, it is the tufted titmouse. Titmice are notorious in certain very small circles for their penchant for pulling fur or hair off animals. Bird Watcher's Digest once published a story from a man who was lying in a hammock trying to get a nap, and this titmouse kept flying down and yanking his hair out. They'll pull hair out of the tail of a sleeping dog. One of the best things I ever saw was a tufted titmouse on a country road in Connecticut, hopping between the legs of a turkey vulture that was feeding on a possum carcass. The titmouse was pulling hair out of the carcass right under the vulture's chin.

You can draw birds into your yard with food, sure, but it's really interesting to use other commodities they want, like eggshells (they eat them for calcium), water, nest sites, and nesting material. By providing the universal things birds need, you stand a chance of getting many more species, including ones which don't eat seed, like warblers, swallows, vireos and tanagers, to name a few.

Bill of the Birds got this groovy nesting material dispenser from a manufacturer (Loretta's Blue Star) who wanted us to test it. It's just a cylinder of wood with holes drilled through it. It came with a package of mohair and a sort of crochet hook with which you pull the mohair through the holes. Unfortunately we can't find any trace of the manufacturer to get more mohair, because this one titmouse just cleaned us out.
It went into a frenzy of hair gathering.

Durn stuff gets in your eyes. I love this shot.

We could never figure out where she was taking it, except deep into the woods. I yearn to have another titmouse nest in our bird boxes; we've had one in 17 years and I'm dying to paint the babies. Paint portraits of the babies as they grow. Not paint the babies.  But maybe if we keep putting the high-ticket stuff out, we'll luck out.

Pfft! Hair!

A low-tech version of this dispenser is a little wicker basket stuffed with animal hair--dog or horse coat trimmings, even beauty salon sweepings. I don't recommend dryer lint Hollofil since they are much too absorbent and will soak a nest if they get wet. Lord knows we have a lot of Hollofil around here that could be going to some use.

Patrick Star bites the schnitzel.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Photographing Kids

Liam on the Pig of Good Fortune.

When I take photos of other people’s kids they invariably stop what they’re doing, spin around to face me, and flash a camera smile, one that has nothing to do with anything, and isn’t a happy smile anyway. It’s just a face they’ve been conditioned to make when they see a camera. Who wants to see that? I want to see what they were doing before they noticed the camera.

He doesn’t know how beautiful he is to me. He doesn’t understand why I take so many pictures of him, but he usually doesn’t mind, either, and that’s why I get photos that mean something, not just grinny static snapshots, but little pieces of his soul.

When he does pose for me I wait until he's almost done posing to take the photo. When he's done making the face, the real Liam creeps back.

Phoebe is proving as elusive as a fawn where photography is concerned. I have a tough time catching her off-guard. It's all part of growing up, of half-hour showers and picking out just the right outfit for any situation, no matter how inconsequential; of the self-consciousness that comes from having your body change overnight into something entirely other than what it was.

So I stay back, behind, hoping to find her lost in thought or in something she's doing.

And marvel, because every image tells of the growing.

She waits for the bus, dawn finally painting the sky before she boards. It's been such a long, dark winter, and we'd just gotten a little daylight to enjoy when Daylight Savings Time plunged us back into darkness. It seemed counterintuitive, to call it that, to take it away on the blessed morning end. Finally, the birds are singing when we meet the bus. Just in time for school to end.

She stands under the sentinel pin oak that has weathered so many storms, so many fences, so many snowplows and graders, even had a chicken of the woods fungus poking out of its belly button two years ago. Still it stands, and each morning it watches this young sapling grow.

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