Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bluebird Boxes and Black Raspberries

Chet Baker loves to check bluebird boxes with me. He knows which locations are safe for him to get out of the car and which ones aren’t, and he waits patiently until we get to a place where he can make his rounds.

I know, Mether. I know I have to wait, because this road is too busy for me to get out and make my rounds. You can leave the door open even. I will not get out. Unless I see a cat or a squirtle. Then I might. But I would look both ways first.

Along the way, we see lots of nice things, and I always take my cameras along to record them. Here’s a common wood nymph, a big robust butterfly that comes out in June and flies through July.

Speaking of percs, here are some black raspberries. Mmm. The kids love picking them and feeding them to me as we walk.

You are not the only person who likes black raspberries, Mether. I am ready for you to drop that berry right into my smile.

If you look up Happy Dog in the dictionary, you would find this picture. He's home, he had a Marvelous Time at Camp Baker (thanks, David and Mary Jane!!), and he's on bunneh patrol again. Life is good for Chet Baker. Although sometimes I wish he'd divide down the middle like a hydra... David and Mary Jane have proposed an equal timeshare with us, kind of a way to spread his Bakerness around. Umm...can I think about that one? If that doesn't work out, they are already looking forward to having him back in September, when life gets crazy again. See and click on my new Midwest Birding Symposium ad on the right bar. We'll all be there (except Chet)--wanna come say hi?

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Checking the Bluebird Boxes

Two weeks is a long time to leave one’s boxes in bluebird nesting season. Lots of things can happen while you’re gone. One of the last things I did before leaving for Trinidad was check the boxes, and checking them will be one of the first things I’ll do on getting home. Right now, I'm putting away food from our apres-vacation trip to Columbus' twin emporiums of foodie pleasure: Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. I'm also spraying scale-infested orchids, burning trash, taking stock of the (well-watered) gardens, emptying the dishwasher, sorting mail, hugging Chet Baker and kissing Charlie, smooching the kids, reading 305 emails, cleaning Charlie's room, trying to figure out what's for dinner, tracking the rotten smells in the know the drill.

The kids usually come along when we check boxes. Here, Liam gently touches some nestling bluebirds before Daddy hangs the Gilbertson PVC box back up on its post.

Sometimes one or more eggs don’t hatch, and when I’m sure there’s no hope that they will (after the other nestlings are three days old) I open them up to see what’s what. Almost always, they turn out to be infertile, and the embryo has never developed. Phoebe holds a couple of infertile eggs about to have theirselfs analyzed. She's working on her naturalist Vanna White chops.

And then there are the eggs that do hatch. I love opening the box at just the moment of hatching.

A bluebird hatchling, having pipped and cut all around the big end of his egg prison, wears his shelltop like a helmet. Enh! Enh! I closed up the box and tiptoed away.

When they’re very young, nestlings think I’m Mom, and they beg for food at the slightest stimulus.

It’s good to be back, and see things like this again.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Headed Home

Here's just a little bit of what I miss right now. Ohhhh, I miss my babies.

I'm writing from Port of Spain, Trinidad, where we've been at the airport for two hours, waiting for our delayed flight to Houston, and then to Columbus. It's green season here, and there are intermittent showers and rainbows. The airport is air conditioned. Having been mostly without climate and humidity control for two weeks, that in itself is a marvelous thing.

We had the most wonderful time. If you didn't see Bill of the Birds' blog post on July 24, go check it out. I got to touch leatherback turtles and all. There's so much more. But I'm just sayin'.

Two solid weeks of tropical birding and trekking around in monsoon season is something, my friends, and I feel like I've been on the vacation of a lifetime with my big sweetie, the first trip we've taken together for fun in four years. Mmm. But I'm ready to be home, ready to see how much it rained and how my plant babies fared, ready to hold and love our kids, who have been besporting themselves in Vermont with dear friends, ready to smooch Charlie and Chet Baker, ready to sleep in my own bed and cook my own food.

I have nearly full memory cards, and if you recall that's where my fun started a couple of months ago, with an overloaded computer and a constipated camera. We shall see...I'm braced.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Release Day

The hummingbird had been sitting in a glass tank for nine days, and flying in the screen tent for two weeks. In all that time she'd never begun to calm down, never accepted me as a helper or friend; she just wanted out, out, out. She was wild, crazy. Still, even after release, I hoped she’d stay around, hoped I’d be able to pick her out of the throngs of hummingbirds around the front porch feeders. We rolled back the tent walls and tied them up.

I sat in the farthest corner with a camera in my hand and tears already starting in my eye. She perched, considering the void, then launched herself through the birch branches and up, up, up into the clear air. You can just see her disappearing in the top left corner. This is the last picture I took of her. She leveled off at about 70 feet and lined out for the northeast, and that was the last we ever saw of her. That was fine with me. Seeing her go was its own reward.

She'd never been the type to hang around to say thank you, anyway.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hummingbird Hospital Part 3

The weather was kind in the two weeks the hummingbird was confined to the tent, no nasty wind or lightning storms, and I was able to leave her out around the clock to heal and feed and catch gnats in the air. Each day I sprayed her enclosure down with a fine mist from the hose, and she bathed on wet leaves and drank water from the netting. I’ve found hummingbirds in captivity to be most appreciative of opportunities to bathe.

Everyone was curious about the little captive, including the hummingbirds around the yard, who'd hover, eye to eye with her. This little male kept an eye on her from the porch.

She defended her feeders with swoops and chitters, even though nobody could get inside.

One afternoon as I was changing her feeder, a curious cardinal stopped to peek inside. I took this from inside the tent.

Chet Baker was fascinated by the tent, and always wanted to accompany me in when I’d come to photograph her. He remembered it from when we’d had phoebes in it, and he remembered how to get in if Mether forgot to leave the flap open for him. The little dog will not be denied.

I must lay my ears back to prepare my entrance.

Hello Mether. It is me, Chet Baker. Do not get up to unzip the tent. I know how to do it by myself.

It must be nice for you to have such an intelligent companion, who seeks you out wherever you go, and is so smart, sleek and agile. The hummingbird does not like me, but then she does not like you, either. So here I am.

There's your Chet Baker fix, and one for me too. I have now been without him for nine days, but who's counting? I am about desperate enough to run down a red-rumped agouti here in Trinidad and kiss it right on the lips. Still, there are tremendous benefits to being at the Asa Wright Nature Center. Hawk eagle, manakin, oilbird, cake.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hummingbird Hospital Part 2

The injured hummingbird was feeding herself a much more wholesome preparation of Nektar-Plus by Tuesday afternoon, and when I saw her hobble over to the feeder and insert her bill for the first time, I smiled and said, “You can stay as long as you need to, as long as you can do that.”

She tried to fly, little buzzing sorties against the tank walls, and as she fussed it became clear that she had problems beyond simple starvation and exhaustion. Her head tilted to the right, and when she tired, she wound up in a heap again, tail spread, wings out, lying on her belly. It would be awhile before I’d know if she’d be releasable.

She was to spend nine days fretting in her tank, so excitable that I had to keep her in the back bedroom during the day lest she buzz and buzz herself to exhaustion. Her
injury was a concussion with brain swelling, probably from banging her head on a ceiling while trying to find a way out of the chemical plant. She had trouble using her right foot, and her head canted well over to the right.

But the tilt lessened day by day, and when she was able to hold it straight most of the time, she graduated to the soft nylon flight tent that I’ve used for several other hummingbirds and most notably for six chimney swifts and a pair of orphaned phoebes. Available from Campmor, 17 x 19 x 7’, and intended to keep mosquitoes and flies off the picnic site, It’s the best $100 I’ve ever spent.

She was very happy to have more space, and happiest of all to see the pots of flowers I had moved into the tent before releasing her.
You can see her hovering right over my head just after release. I haven't even hung up her feeder yet.

She took right to the Million Bells petunias, the blue Laurentia, my peach hibiscus named Mary Alice, and the upright fuchsia called Gartenmeister. When she’d drained them of nectar, she came back for her Nektar-Plus.

Here, Phoebe and Liam wait excitedly for the moment of release. First we must zip the sides closed!

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hummingbird Hospital

She came to me as they all do, over the phone, with a worried, uncertain voice describing her predicament. She’d blundered into a chemical plant and was found, disabled, around 11 at night. Who knows how long she’d been there, circling the ceiling, bumping her tiny head until she fell senseless at someone’s feet? Repeated efforts to get her to drink nectar had failed, and she was fading fast. I met the caller in town, he on his lunch break, and he opened a makeshift containment system that consisted of two Chinet bowls, lined with tissues and taped together. She was lying on her side, curled in a C, as I would be were I a hummingbird who had been without food for 18 hours. I took the syringe of bright red nectar and inserted her bill into it, as he had repeatedly tried. I held her until she began to struggle, and in struggling her bill opened slightly. Some nectar flowed in and her tongue at last began to flicker, then lash, and red nectar poured out of the corners of her mouth as she took sustenance for the first time. Poor little thing. I smiled at the man. “The key is to piss them off enough so they cuss at you, and their bill opens, and then they get what you’re trying to do.”

He told me that she’d been able to fly when they first found her, as high as 12 feet in the air, but only in a tight spiral. That’s OK, as long as she can fly and get altitude, I thought. As long as her wings work, she has a chance at being a hummingbird again, instead of a sad little scrap of feathers like she is now.

I took her home and made a place for her in a ten-gallon tank, lined with paper towels and fitted with low perches and a feeder.

I filled it with Nektar-Plus, a hummingbird maintenance diet that includes proteins and vital nutrients—a far cry from the dyed commercial “hummingbird food” she’d been offered. I don’t fault people for buying it; the labeling makes it seem so much better than simple table sugar and water, but it’s not. It’s horrid. If you didn’t have doubts about feeding commercial preparations, check this out. She’d last had commercial nectar around 2 pm on Tuesday. At 2 pm on Wednesday, her droppings still were dyed vivid red.

Red dye that is used to color commercial “hummingbird food” is derived from coal tar, and that dye is banned in Europe, a place where people think harder about such things than we do here in the Land of Plenty. Why would anyone in their right mind give something made from poisonous coal tar to a hummingbird? Because they’ve been misled by the manufacturers to believe it’s better than homemade nectar made with white sugar, that’s why. Bad manufacturers. All commercial nectars are is sugar with coal tar dye. It’s up to you whether you want to give that to the hummingbirds in your yard. From there, think about whether you want to give your children “foods” that dye their lips and tongues bright red and blue. Bit of a pet peeve, I guess.

Posting with a high quotient of difficulty (might be the rum, dunno) from the Veranda at Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, I remain your faithful blogservant


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Monday, July 20, 2009

A Bunny Named Blaze

We have a lot of rabbits. I like rabbits. I like to watch them. I have to say I hate what rabbits do to my gardens, especially in early spring and summer—mowing down tender transplants almost the moment I plant them. I have to put everything in baskets, on benches, or on pedestals, and even so they still thwart me, climbing up to mow things down. It’s been years since I have been able to plant a geranium in the ground. For someone who loves geraniums as much as I do, that’s a significant sacrifice.

Rabbits are amazingly catlike, the way they groom themselves and lay around, the way they spar and tussle and fight. They’re cool animals. I wish they didn’t kill geraniums and salvias, portulaca and lobelia and BASIL—they ate all my kitchen garden basil this year! That's why I grow most of it in the fenced garden. No wascally wabbit gets my summer pesto.

However. Every once in awhile a rabbit comes along and steals my heart despite it all. One such is Blaze. I first saw him as a newly-fledged baby, and I did a triple-take. What the heck is that on his face? A blaze. Oh, how adorable. Eastern cottontails usually have a dash of white between their ears; Blaze just took it farther.

A few days later I saw Blaze in the company of a large old rabbit, who I guessed might be his mom. I don’t know—they might not have been related at all, but Blaze was hanging around this animal as if he knew it. Rabbits fledge very small, and they’re on their own and eating clover while they’ll still fit in the palm of your hand.

The big rabbit took off, and Blaze followed.

But rabbits grow very fast. I didn’t see Blaze for a couple of weeks when wow! There he was, still hanging out beneath the studio birches. All grown up, with a clover flower hanging out the side of his mouth, being typewritered in, chchchchchch.

What a fine bunny Blaze has grown up to be. And so far he has stayed out of my flower beds.

I love this picture, even though I took it through my studio panes.

FYI I don’t let Chet Baker out when Blaze is in the backyard.

I'm posting (sort of, well, trying to post) from the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, which is a magical island twelve miles off Venezuela's coast. We are in Bird Heaven, learning how to digiscope with fabulous Leica equipment. Thank you, Leica, for bringing us here, together, just me and Bill and some wonderful company. Today: bearded bellbirds, white-bearded manakins, and beardless tyrannulets. Happy sigh. But putting up a picture heavy blog post here is like squeezing a cow through a transom. It ain't easy, and it takes a lot of time, and time is what I don't have. Too many cool birds to ogle. So there may be interruptions in the flow. At least this time I'm having fun.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer Evening

Chet takes the evening air while Charlie preens on a chair, the rubble of dinner all around.

This is a love letter to July, with a p.s. to June, the most beautiful Ohio June and July I can ever remember, with warm days and clean blue skies and evenings whose slanting light and cool air bring me to my knees. Star-sprinkled nights and dewy grass and mornings cool enough for sleeves. I know that New England has been drowning in rain; I know that the deep South has been broiling, but somehow the weather gods have grinned on Ohio. I know it will all end in a hot, humid flop but until then every single day is a gift.

The days are heartbreakingly beautiful, but it's the evenings I live for, when Bill comes home and we flop exhausted into our lawn chairs and breathe and breath, deep gulps, rinsing our lungs of the dross of our days.

We haul everything outside for dinner, and last night when I had the screen door propped open we let a hummingbird in by accident and Phoebe caught it a little shakily but expertly as it buzzed against a window, my bird-saving understudy. Even with all the carrying out and the hummingbirds flying in it's always worth it to eat our garden lettuce, peas, beans and tomatoes against a backdrop of golden sun and indigo bunting song. We listen for the yellowthroat and the scarlet tanager, the wood thrush and as evening creeps on, the whip-poor-will.

We watch Phoebe and Liam run and ride their bikes, roll and chortle and scream, and one of us always gets up to play with them, and it's not me.

The lightning bugs come out and when there are as many as there are stars in the sky we know it's time to go in.

And we feel blessed.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Watching Her Go

There is an old house on a back road I take occasionally. I love it unreservedly. There's something about the way it sits against the sky, up higher than the road, that moves me.

As I think about it, things set against the sky--horses, hayrolls, houses, sheep---are peculiarly satisfying to me as an artist. I guess it's because most of us live in such clutter that we don't often get to see clouds float behind a house, a horse or a hayroll. Seeing the sky behind things is part of why I love North Dakota and other places out west so very much.

She's lost her windows, which means she won't stand for long, but it's all about the roof in the end. As the roof goes, the house goes.

Two maples, planted as tiny whips, planted too close, planted not that long ago--twenty years? hint at a time when she was lived in and loved. Now, they let the squirrels into her empty windows, bring the carpenter ants to finish the job.

Even without windows, she looks cared for, as if whoever is mowing the lawn will be sorry to see her fall.

The clothesline, still strung with pins, the old pump, the thin wires running to her...they all make me ache for the time when children ran through.

Pulling back, the rest of the story: an old trailer, rolled in when the upkeep got to be too much, maybe when the furnace broke down for the last time, or the roof got one too many holes in it. They're living in a narrow box now, leaving the gracious old lady to stand alone. It takes money to keep an old house standing, and people who live on the dirt roads don't have much of that.

I'd love to swoop in and save her, love to keep her standing against that summer sky, with a new coat of white paint and windows to keep the coons out. But the windows in our own house need replacing, and we have to feed our kids first.

I can only drive by slowly, watching her go.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More Wrens!

Scrounging the last photos that I grabbed on a flash drive Before the Breakdown, I have a final Carolina wren post for you. The photo transfer went well, until I threw what I thought was an empty library in the trash and had to re-import it all. What's that they say about learning by your mistakes? I forget.

Phoebe had a great time documenting the departure of the five wren babies from our hanging basket nest, while I was otherwise occupied on WOSU's "Front Line" daytime talk show.

After withholding food for most of the morning, one parent came in with an enormous food item. I'm still not sure what it is--perhaps a moth pupa, perhaps the abdomen of a dog day cicada. It's huge.

I've seen this behavior in bluebirds, too...on fledging day, the parents stop feeding their young, and then sit just outside the nest with something really big and juicy-looking. My interpretation is that they're pushing the nestlings to the limit of hunger, then offering something huge...but telling them they'll have to pop out of the nest in order to get it.

This almost-fledgling isn't buying it.

I'd rather not eat something the size of my head, thanks, Mom. Maybe Mikey who eats stinkbugs will take it from you. Ix-nay on the upa-pay.

Told you Mikey would eat it.

It wasn't long before this nestling became a fledgling, buzzing unsteadily to the shelter of a juniper beside the house.

From there, it clambered to the trellis, where it teetered and panted in the unaccustomed sunshine.

The wren nest was exploding. I know that birds must be able to count, because they have to keep track of five babies in all different places at once. They use their location calls to home in on them, for sure, but they must also be able to count.

Because there was one in the birches

and another clambering up the trunk of another birch

showing its unfeathered flanks and underwings, and two more already behind the compost pile, all of them yeeking and squirking and fluttering and falling. These things are only 12 days old. That they fly at all is a minor miracle.

Over the next couple of hours, all five babies made their slow, stuttery way to the thick sumacs and brambles behind our compost pile. I'm always tempted to help, and sometimes I do, when babies get separated from their parents. Last year I used an iPod to call Carolina wren parents back to get a chick, apparently forgotten in the nest. It worked like a charm. You can read about and listen to the story here.

No need for such intervention this year. The fledging went off smoothly. There was one person who was very relieved to see the babies go, and that was Chet Baker. He got his front porch back. Sunpuppies need their sunning spots.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Oh Justin? Where are You?

Well. I'm choosing to look at this period as an intensive course in Computer Self-Sufficiency. In Keeping a Level Head when the Worst Happens. In The Value of External Hard Drives.

I've decided, as of tonight, that I need to view my laptop not as the sole repository for the entire contents of my life and work, but merely as a convenience by which I may be allowed to view and work with said contents. It's nice to carry my life and work around with me, but I have learned that, through a mysterious incompatability with an aged email program, the whim of a computer repair technician, a hard drive crash, or a spilled glass of Shiraz (never done that, but I expect to one day), or any number of other slight mishaps, it all can be taken away. "Wiped," in computer parlance. Thus my newfound and fervent faith in external hard drives.

As I write, my faithful Phantom hard drive is grinding away, feeding little spoonfuls of saved photos to the newly re-installed iPhoto '08 program on my laptop. You couldn't have gotten me to delete 18,000 photos off my laptop if you'd held an AK-47 to my head. I needed to, mind you, but you couldn't have made me do it. It was just too wonderful to have them all there, my babies all gathered around me, to be summoned up whenever I wanted to see them. Apple did it for me when they erased my hard drive. Oh, gee, thanks, I guess. Thank you for cleaning my closet, and my clock.

Now I'm importing just the photos I've taken since January 1, 2009, a mere 7,500 of them. They'll finish loading around 2 AM. And when I get up in the morning I'll delete about half of 'em, because HEY they're still on the external hard drive and I've already done showed 'em to you, haven't I? I don't really need to carry them around with me. And now, finally and forever, I realize that it's the external hard drive that matters, not that sleek, fancy little titanium-clad laptop that I love so much. MacBookPro is my mercurial fair-weather lover; the external hard drive is my dependable husband.

I am a hard-headed woman and it took a little computer catastrophe to force me to see how I should be managing and conserving my data. I've really lost nothing but time and several billion brain cells, the ones that spontaneously exploded in frustration as I, reluctant computer jock, tried to understand how to work my way out of this mess, how to rebuild from scratch what I had taken for granted. Thanks to Bill, my unemotional, analytical rock, for his patience. Mad cows are hard to reason with, but he hung in there. At one point, when I had the feeling he thought I was overreacting to it all, I asked him what he'd do if Apple erased his hard drive while fixing his computer. "I'd tell them they needed to send me a new laptop to make it good." Oh. Maybe I wasn't overreacting.

I didn't ask for anything. I choked back tears, thanked them for their help, and accepted their offer of a new Leopard operating system as consolation for having lost three weeks of sanity and work time. I'm still waiting for the disc to arrive, still convinced that, upon installation, it will probably erase my hard drive. Call me leery. I've come by leery honestly.

I did cut and paste my last blog post into the Apple Customer Satisfaction Survey comments section, barely making it under the 2,000 character limit for their comments box. Just to let them know that they erased the Wrong Hard Drive. Just to let them know they messed with the Wrong Blogger. I am sure the corporate HQ is already all abuzz about it. Uh-oh. We messed with Julie Zickefoose's data, man. Heads will surely roll.

What would really help, if anyone at Apple is out there reading, would be for Justin Long to show up at my door, having used The Googles to find me at Indigo Hill. He'd have a brown box under his skinny little arm. He'd be wearing a black hoodie and pencil-thin jeans, and he'd say, "You look like you've had a rough day. I mean, you still look terrific--beautiful, in fact-- but a little tired. Here. Let me put down your new MacBook Pro so I can rub your shoulders. Do you have any sweet almond oil?"

Now THAT would help.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Black Curtain of Doom

Greetings, Earthlings.

I am writing you from Planet Laptop Failure. I have been living here for three weeks now and I'm getting used to it. The food is pretty good, but I can't access my photo library or have email. One fine morning in late June I woke up, turned on my 15" Mac PowerBook Pro, launched my email program, Eudora, and watched as an inky black Curtain of Doom fell down over my desktop. Frantic clicking and cursor dragging revealed small, polka-dotted windows of desktop which then closed again. The computer was running but the display was shot.

On July 6, I sent the computer off to Apple to be repaired under my Apple Care extended warranty. This, after probably five hours on the phone with three different technicians, troubleshooting, holding down keys and taking out batteries and finally reinstalling the operating system from the discs that had come with the laptop. Just so you know, I hate, hate, hate being walked through scary things like that with someone on the other end of the phone telling me what to do. It is the ninth ring of Hell. The last technician I spoke to reassured me, when we had done every dumb combination of restarting and holding down multiple keys, and finally agreed that it had to be sent in to be repaired. "If they have to wipe your hard drive to repair it, they'll keep a backup copy."

Ohhh-kaayyy. This didn't sound good, this "wipe your hard drive" talk.

I did a final backup before sending the laptop off. I grabbed a few files, put them on a flash drive, just the essential stuff. Good thing.

The computer was back in two days. A bunch of bad keys had been replaced and the hinges had been replaced and the screen was no longer dark down the left side and it was silky smooth and running cool, not hot as a durn firecracker, hot as asphalt at the beach...And when I fired it up I got some jiggy electronic music and a screen saying WELCOME! in about ten languages. Enjoy your new Mac! Wha??? Where's my desktop? Where are my files? Where are my 25,000 photos? WHERE'S MY DATA??!!!

It was gone. Everything was gone. They'd wiped my hard drive out without so much as a howdedoo. The first technician I spoke with (make that croaked to), when I asked him where my data was, responded,

"They probably had to wipe your hard drive to fix it. "

"OK, well, did they keep a backup? I was told that if they have to "wipe my hard drive" they'd keep a backup."

"Who told you THAT?"


"Hold on, please." Ten minutes of megahold later, he said, "That's not the case."

Apple had my phone number. They had my email. They had my cell number. Heck, I'd bonded with three different technicians in the course of the week. And they still erased my hard drive without telling me. Niiiice. Wait. Is this the same company that has cute lil' Justin Long as its ultrahip pitchman? It's acting more like the company behind the nerd with too-tight Dockers. What kind of thing is that to do, to erase a loyal customer's hard drive? Someone who's been staring at your apple with a bite out of it since 1992? Who panics when forced to use a PC at the library?

Another frantic, lengthy call to a fourth technician at Apple. Lengthy walking through of attempting to locate a backup program so I could try to recover my data off my external hard drive. Whoops! They'd erased my backup application. "You'll have to take your computer in to your nearest Apple store." At that point I was swallowing tears. I barely managed to squeak, "Okay."

"Goodbye, Julie," he responded. We hung up. He seemed remorseful, but the words "I'm sorry" never passed his lips.

My "nearest Apple store" is 2 1/2 hours away. Do I have a day, maybe two, to kill? No. I don't. I put in three calls to my Apple store, where one Genius had assured me, "If you EVER have a problem, call me!" Well, I did, and I have a very big problem, and he didn't call me back. I think, this kind person excepted, Geniuses probably get very used to fending off weepy people who've lost everything through no fault of their own. Who leave long, tragic messages about lost data and halted careers. And besides, they're busy. They've got truckloads of new iPhones to sell. So I turned to My Own Personal Genius, Bill of the Birds, who said, "Let's install a backup program ourselves, and try to get that data."

Correction: I just got a message on my cell phone this evening, a very sweet, cheery message, saying that my weepy message had been posted somewhere he didn't see me then we'd already waded through the problem ourselves.

And we did. It took eight hours, but we did it. The Phantom external hard drive ground away and the computer hummed away and they talked to each other and did data trophallaxis and by God it worked! It is good to have a Genius in one's home. As each month's files popped up on my desktop, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. At last I had my July work back, and I was almost in business again. I BELIEVE IN BACKUP.

And then the time came to download Eudora again, to try to reactivate my email. We did that, went online and got the latest version. Installed it. And the moment we launched it, the Black Curtain of Doom fell back across the screen of my computer, with its brand new logic board and its brand new video card and its brand new thermal core and its brand new hinges. We were right back to Square One. Unless...

Genius Bill frantically started de-installing Eudora. "ZICK! It's EUDORA that's doing it!" he shouted. Through what bits of the desktop he could still see, he threw out bits and pieces of Eudora until he got it the h-ll off my hard drive. And we shut down, and when we restarted, it was OK again.

Just FYI, Eudora is an outdated email program that is no longer supported by its parent, Quaalcom. So if you have a problem, you're on your own. Like, if your screen goes completely black when you launch the program, and then gets jazzy polka dots and snow and diagonal lines...and then goes black... And my computer-savvy friends tell me that this sounds like a compatability problem. Whatever it is, dread Asian virus or compatability issue, I can tell you you do not want to see a Black Curtain of Doom on your desktop, ever, ever, ever. It is not nice. I'm getting out of Eudora. And wondering if .mac is where I need to be. My head hurts.

My laptop seems fine, now that Eudora's off it. Except that I have no email, and I can't access my photo library. I've updated iPhoto just this evening and it still tells me to get the latest update before I can see my photos. !@#$#$#!! I'm working on both of those issues. Now I have to call my Genius back. I'm about out of tricks.

Having no photo library, my friends, is a major buzzkill for a blogger. I mean, doing this five days a week for almost four years is hard enough when you CAN access your photo library.

Mercury has been in retrograde for awhile. Murphy's Law seems to be the only one in force here. Late June was an a-skicker: First the kitchen sink, then both lawnmowers, then the air conditioner/furnace broke down. Then my laptop. Then the email (Eudora again!) on my Old Slow Computer froze up. I'm reduced to reading my messages off SquirrelMail online. No address book, nuthin'. I can only react to incoming emails; I have no correspondence to refer to, no way to reach out. I'm tired, but I'm clawing my way through it. I've learned a lot about computers and hard drives and I've learned a lot about Apple. I appreciate my resourceful husband even more than ever. And I've learned about backup. If you're not backing up weekly, you stand to lose everything. And trust me, you don't want to lose everything. Buy that external hard drive, get a backup program and learn how to use it.

So. I'm taking a break. Not because I want to, although when I think about it, I really need to. Maybe this is just Mercury's way of slowing me down. Trying to be grateful for that.

From Planet Laptop Failure, I remain

Your faithful but hog-tied


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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chet Baker to Phoebe: Happeh Birthday!

Hello everyone. It is me, Chet Baker.

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

My sister Phoebe turns 13 today, at 11:49 AM. That was the exact moment that she came into the world. When they dried her off she had a little twist of bright red hair on top of her head. Everyone was amazed. Mether had been in labor for about a day and a half at that point but she forgot it all when she saw that baby. She says that baby looked right back at her and said hello with her eyes. If I had been there I would have sniffed her all over and then washed her face for her. I would have liked to sniff her ears and toes. But I was not there. I was not even born yet.

Phoebe likes it when I put my paws like this. We call it Steamboat Round. Cats think they are the only people who can do Steamboat Round, but they are wrong. Certain dogs can do it too. Certain handsome, flexible, sleek dogs like me, Chet Baker.

Phoebe said that the thing she wanted to wake up to on her birthday morning was a kiss from me, Chet Baker. I can understand why that would be so. I give the best kisses. Mether and Daddeh took me into her room this morning and I gave her a whole bunch of kisses.

I kiss Phoebe all the time, because she is the sweetest girl I know. She is very smart and funny and she picks ticks off me and makes me do my tricks and takes me for walks where we look for bunnehs and chiptymunks. I am learning how to run alongside her when she rides her new bicycle. It is fun. I am not supposed to cut in front of her, no matter what I see. Unless it is turkehs. They are the best things to chase. We spend a lot of time together.

However she is getting very big, and last week Mether was talking to her and all of a sudden Mether walked right up and touched her nose to Phoebe's, which is something I do all the time, and then Mether gasped and said something about Phoebe being taller than she is, which she is, I had noticed it awhile ago. Mether who is five feet five inches and who wishes she were taller so her Body Mass Index would look better says it happened overnight, while everyone was sleeping. Since Phoebe has always been taller than me I did not see what the big deal was. She is thirteen now, she should be big. If she was a dog she would be in the Old Folks Home.

It seems to me that Phoebe is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger. She is probably going to keep getting more beautiful, too. I am not sure she can get any smarter but she can probably learn a lot of new tricks. I do not know what is going to become of that girl, but it is something good I am sure.

Dictating my thoughts to Mether always makes me sleepy. My eyes start closing and my head droops and I fall asleep right where I am, which is right where I want to be.

I hope that Phoebe will always let me sleep on her lap, because she is the sweetest girl I know.

Happeh Birthday, Phoebe.


Chet Baker

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fledging Day for the Wrens

When you start seeing pale feathery necks and throats, you know those babies are getting big.

Carolina wrens do not stay in the nest very long. They develop at an incredible rate, being capable of flying at only 12 days after hatching! Please pause to think about that. On Day 1, it's a squirming pink blob of protoplasm the size of your thumbnail. On Day 12, it's almost fully feathered and capable of flight. FLIGHT! What were you capable of on Day 12? Sucking, sleeping, crying and pooping, that's what.

Even I could walk on Day 12, Mether.

When you've been around baby birds a lot, you just KNOW when they're going to fledge, almost as well as their parents do. Carolina wrens give a special squirking call when they get to fledging age. These birds got real jiggy around 10:30 AM on June 23, then settled down for the rest of the day. I knew, knew, knew that 10:30 AM June 24 would be the witching hour, the day they left. And wouldn't you know it, I had an interview scheduled on WOSU Columbus for 10-11 AM on June 24. I had to be up in the tower room, blabbing on the phone about me and my book, Letters from Eden. Can I get an ARRRGH? I mean, these birds were fledging as I was speaking and there was nothing I could do about it. Well, there was something I could do about it. I could give my camera to Phoebe, and SHE could capture the moment I'd been waiting a month to see...

First baby on the rim. Mom below. Photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson.

Not only that, but my camera battery crapped out on Phoebe as this was happening. She couldn't find my spare, so without bothering me (because my kids know when Mom's doing an interview, nobody can interrupt), she grabbed Bill's camera, put my telephoto lens on it, and resumed shooting. Fledging was not going to wait for me, she knew that. Now that, my friends, is a useful twelve-year-old girl.

She is very useful as a pillow, I know that, Mether.

If you'd like to listen to the interview with WOSU's wonderful Charlene Brown (and hear how jiggy I was, knowing the wrens were fledging right downstairs!!), listen here.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Life Around the Wren Nest

Dead Laptop Update: Apple has it as of this morning, and has ordered the part(s). Zick Update: Coping fine with Old Slow iMac and her ancient browsers. Keeps me off Facebook, and that's a good thing. I'm painting up a storm. Amazing what else you can get done when pages take minutes to load.

You may have gathered by now that I was rather single-minded about documenting wren family life. I loved it. It was exactly what my Science Chimpy brain loves to do, especially after two weeks of frenetic travel. Just to settle down and watch some birds--the same birds--doing what they do is my idea of heaven.

Watching any nest is really interesting, but there was so much else going on around this one that, while the parents were away foraging and the babies were sleeping, I took a few snapshots of other creatures on my front porch.

A silver-spotted skipper probes Geranium "Maverick Pink." I keep wanting to call it "Renegade Pink." I have a distinct aversion to the word "maverick."

A great spangled fritillary works on the Lobelia "Laguna Blue" in the wren basket.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird takes the morning sun on the wren basket bail.

And another feeds from a Little Beginner in the foreground. They like to catch the drips all around the cap.

Just so you can see where the nest was in relation to the front door, and to give you another mini-Chet Baker fix, here it is. It's the topmost, leftmost basket, the one with all the blue lobelia and pink gerania.

In case you're wondering, I don't pose Chet. He walks into whatever picture I'm trying to frame, and that's the truth. He walks in and looks right at the camera and tells me when he's ready for his closeup. How is this, Mether? I will stand by this pedestal and smile. I, Chet Baker, will transform your picture of plants from boring to charming.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Stinkbugs for Breakfast

I've mentioned some of the prey items taken by Carolina wrens. One thing I noticed in the time I spent observing the family: The wrens seemed to bring the same species of insect all day long, then switch to another species the next day. It was really interesting. For instance, there were two Daddy Longlegs Days in a row, and then they switched to camel crickets, and brought those almost exclusively for an entire day. And then...they switched to green stinkbugs. I couldn't believe my eyes. They knocked all the legs off them, just as they did the daddy longlegs (but didn't bother to do with the camel crickets). Even legless, there was no mistaking the peculiar oblong, beveled, emerald green bodies of the stinkbugs. Imagine!!

I run into a stinkbug on a raspberry or mulberry and even tasting where it was sitting makes me gag. Imagine having your mom ram one down your throat. OK, now imagine having her and Dad offer them to you all day long.

This baby wouldn't swallow another stinkbug. He was fed up with them. So Mom had to remove the bug and offer it to someone else.

He just kept his mouth open and refused to swallow it, so she plucked it back out and gave it to the baby to his left.

Now you would think, as bad as they smell and taste, that stinkbugs would be much too noxious and maybe even poisonous to Carolina wrens. Apparently not, but there is always the picky baby to contend with. These birds taught me so much!

I've spent part of today soaking the Bird Spa dish in a strong bleach solution, then scrubbing it a million times with Comet, trying to remove the oxidation and algae stains that permeate its rough surface. The stains look better, but aren't gone. And as soon as I put away the hose, giving it the last rinse and fill, the birds started coming: families of seven tufted titmice at a time, pairs of cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves. It's a party out there, and well worth the considerable effort to keep it as clean as possible. Speaking of effort: It's a horrible feather mite year; most of my cardinals are bald, and I get a load of mites on my arms every time I visit my bluebird boxes. I've been changing nests and scrubbing boxes, trying to stem the infestations. Today I power-washed the feeders for good measure. I figure the least I can do is keep their bath and feeders clean. Every now and then an errant mite, left over from my constant dealings with birds and their trappings, runs along my eyebrow or my neck, and it sends me into a frenzy of itching. It's not the first time I've been glad I'm not a bird. Imagine carrying thousands of 'em in your feathers all the time.

And having your mom serve stinkbugs for breakfast AGAIN.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Wren Daily LIfe

Sick Computer Update: The nice Fed-ex man came and picked up my computer with its Black Curtain of Doom and its melted cord to ship them off to Apple, and let them become Apple's problem. The Apple Care Protection Plan should be mandatory. Three years of free service. Well, not exactly free, because the plan is expensive, but not as expensive as a new logic board and video card. Get the Plan. If you put your laptop through what I do, you're going to need it. The nice man gave Bacon four bikkits. Dog etiquette has not progressed as far as child etiquette. He didn't ask if it was OK to load Baker up with carbs; he just did it. Four big Milk Bones is pretty much a day's ration for a 24-lb. doggeh. I was so happy to see that laptop drive away I didn't chide him.

Input: daddy longlegs. Output: copious fecal sacs. I love the awkward leg position Mr. Wren assumes in order to dive in and get a fecal sac as it's being produced.

Away with it!

Songbirds remove the neat, membrane enclosed fecal sacs and fly a good distance from the nest before dropping them. Grackles like to drop them over water, and since grackles generally nest near water, that usually means a pond or stream. When there's no pond or stream, grackles will cheerfully fill up your bird bath with them. Instinct is a funny thing.

My bluebirds like to put their babies' fecal sacs on our phone wire, or on our heron weathervane, or to line them up neatly on the railing at the top of our tower. Oh, thank you.

As the wren nestlings got bigger, so did the food items the parents brought. There are very few insects that can evoke a physical shudder from me, but they are: daddy longlegs, cockroaches, and camel crickets. I think that's because all three of those tend to be in basements, and when I was a kid I have memories of cold, clammy camel crickets leaping everywhere and occasionally bouncing off my bare legs as I walked through our basement in Virginia. Ecch.

I don't know where they were getting them, but the wrens brought in camel crickets by the dozen.

There were a couple of reliable perches each wren would fetch up on while pausing to see that the coast was clear near the nest. Usually, it was the bail of a hanging basket.

Which offered nice color opportunities. This is a little variegated ivy geranium that might be called Sugar Baby Red. Teeny tiny leaves edged in cream, dark salmon flowers, and I've had it for years and years, ever since I pinched a cutting off a huge hanging basket at a garden center because I didn't want to spend $30 for one somebody else had had the fun of growing. Plant propagation and cutting theft: It's one of my only vices.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Wren Eggs Hatch

I've mentioned before how nervous this (perhaps first-time) mama Carolina wren was. She was off her eggs as much as she was on them in the days we were home. Luckily for her, she got to do the bulk of her incubation and early brooding of the young while we were safely away in North Dakota and Montana. She had two full weeks to finish incubating and hatch out the five young. I was so excited when we came home, to peek in the nest and see what had happened to those five speckled eggs while we were gone.

Oh, sweetness!

There followed many hundreds of photos of the humdrum daily activity of a family of Carolina wrens. None of them are fantastic, being taken with a hand-held 300 mm. telephoto from the dim inside of my kitchen, with hard, contrasting light and the nest in deep shadow.

There are other extenuating factors, the main one being that I'm STILL waiting for Apple to deliver the shipping box for my sick laptop. It's supposed to arrive July 6, and I'll pack it up and give it right back to my friendly Fed-ex deliveryman, who usually has not one but three bikkits in his pocky for Chet Baker. Last time he came here he had run out so I had to slip him a few to give to Chet, because Chet Baker don't take no for an answer where deliveryman bikkits are concerned.

What does all this have to do with wren photo quality? Well, it's taken me all day to transfer my photos from the external hard drive to the Old Slow Desk iMac. That's because each photo icon in the bunch takes around 30 seconds to appear on the screen, and I had 600 of them. Once the icon finally appears, I click it, and opening it in Preview on this computer takes oh, another 20 seconds, and then there's editing, which I completely lost patience with, because you don't want to know how long it takes to edit a photo on Old Faithful. So most of these images have been spared the kind of post-production caressing that I'm so used to doing for this blog. Life is too short.

All of which is to say, !@#!#@$#@$%#$^!! I hate it when my laptop dies. Preliminary word from the technicians I've spoken with is that it needs a new video card and probably a logic board, too. If you buy a Mac: Buy the Apple Care Protection Plan. I did. It runs out in mid-September, 2009. And I am real, real glad I'm not buying a new video card and logic board for my laptop. It's bad enough to be without it for a couple of weeks. That makes two Apple Care logic boards I've gotten--one for Old Slow iMac, and now one for the laptop. You don't want to be paying for those.

I thoroughly enjoyed cranking open the window and shooting wrens, though, and they didn't mind one bit having every aspect of their family life documented. I could get a decent enough shot of the incoming parent to identify the food items they brought. This was the only de-haired forest tent caterpillar I saw them bring, so I was really happy to document that.

By far the most frequently brought prey item (and you're going to have to steel yourself here) were daddy longlegs, with the longlegs taken off.
All together now: BLEEEECCCCHHH!

So much for the urban legend about the baby who popped one in his mouth and died. These babies were practically raised on the little brown oblong protein packets that are daddy longleg bodies.

I would love to have dropped everything and quantified the prey these birds were bringing, done nothing but watched them all day dawn to dusk and figured out exactly what they were eating, but that wasn't in the cards. I had my own kids to provision and care for.

The Bacon helped greatly with my project by lying for hours at a time on the front stoop, baking his liver and lights.
This was a help to me because the wrens would pause just long enough to chew him out--pip! pip! --before going to the nest. It gave me time to grab a snapshot of the insect in their bill before they gave it to their young.

Baker was happy to be of service.

He's the hardworking doggeh.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Scarlet Tanager--He's Baaack!

This is a post about a scarlet tanager settin' on a post.

The post stands outside my studio window, and I can't remember why we put it up. Maybe to hang things off'n. I recollect a hanging basket on that nail there.

On this fine day there is something sitting on the post that's hard to miss. He seems to be comparing his reds to those of the geraniums.

In truth, he's considering a bath.

I have just cleaned the Spa and since he keeps an eye on it and on me, I know he'll be around soon after I put away the Comet and the scrub brush.

If I had silken plumage the color of a ripe jalapeno, I'd be fussy about where I bathed, too.

Inside, I am hyperventilating, hoping to catch a few more exposures of him with the red gerania.

I am not disappointed. He shuttles between the post and the Spa, perching, preening, ruffling, then diving back in.

He is a rocket, a smooth scarlet packet of beauty. And this bubbly Bird Spa has lured him out of his forest fastnesses.

Well, that, and a scrub brush and some Comet. Never think that the birds don't appreciate the many things, big and small, we do to make them happy.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The First Egg

Little teakettles, that's what they are, little avian teakettles, with their decurved spout bills and their cocked handle tails. Carolina wrens bring a garden alive.

It took the wren pair only four days to finish their nest. Granted, it wasn't a very impressive nest as Carolina wren nests go. It was barely there. Sometimes that happens when the female bird is ready to lay her eggs NOW. I suspect that might have been the case here. The nest was no sooner constructed than the first egg appeared, small and speckled and very dear.

I rolled it out a bit farther to see, then rolled it back into the nest cup.

Because the nest was so well tucked under my gerania, I never got a shot of the whole thing. This is it. Once the babies fledged I realized it was really barely there, not much to photograph at all.

This pair was unusual in my experience--extremely quiet, very spooky. Previous pairs that have nested at our door have been bold and noisy, especially as the nestlings got older and near fledging time. The adults gave voice to a constant Purrrll! Purrrll! note at the slightest hint of a threat.

This pair, by contrast, was nearly silent: no cheery duets, no scolding. Not only were they silent, they were spooky as all getout, and the female bolted off the nest whenever we mounted the front porch stairs or touched the door handle to come in or out. She'd leave in the middle of the night if I so much as let Chet Baker out for a widdle. She was so spooky I began to wonder if her eggs would ever hatch; she'd leave them cold for much of the day even after incubation had started.

But the wren was in luck: We left for North Dakota and Montana soon after incubation of her five eggs began. She had two weeks of nearly undisturbed peace to sit and warm her eggs, then brood her hatchlings. When we returned, her babies were four days old. By then, the pair's bond to them was so strong that the disturbance we caused barely interrupted the flow of their nest visits.

I couldn't wait to get home on June 3 to see what had happened in the little nest over the last two weeks. Five pairs of yellow beak flanges greeted me; a tentative finger in the nest contacted warm downy flesh. Hooray! They'd made it through without Mama Bird's watchful eye. Let the photography begin!

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