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Churches and Birds--So Much to Love

Sunday, January 19, 2020


As tourists, it's hard for us to go inside the buildings we so admire from the outside. We are outside people. 
But we ducked into a few cathedrals on our pilgrimage to Spain, and were richly rewarded. 

Cold, drafty, echoey and awe-inspiring,  Santa Maria Mayor, Trujillo's great cathedral, with original paintings stacked up as high as you could see. It was likely built atop a mosque around the 13th century, which in turn had been built atop a Visigoth temple (5th-8th century).  My head is spinning, how's yours? It's that antiquity thing...I have no way to comprehend it. 
The ribbed vault was added in the 16th century, so I'm guessing the paintings are from the 1500's, too.

The paintings are by Fernando Gallego, and they're set in incredibly ornate gilded wood frames. I can't even imagine how this stuff survives the centuries without burning down, but it does, and that's just one thing to be grateful for. The level and meticulousness of curation of these treasures is staggering. It was this cathedral whose tower we climbed in the previous post. Our Air BnB host, Carlos, works at the cathedral, and it was he who heard our voices in the empty street, stuck his head out its great wooden doors, and told us to come in and take a look at the cathedral, on the house! 

We climbed the tower, as chronicled in the previous post, and wandered little roads on the outskirts of the village.

Evening came too soon, and the Christmas lights illuminated the narrow streets, so beautifully cobbled and shining with rain. 

We peeked in the windows of a museum, where there were myriad old tools and vessels. Who even knows how old they are? Recalibrating...

Spain does nativities up right. We saw some really beautiful nativities, including depictions of the entire town of Bethlehem and its outskirts. Setting these dioramas up in churches seems to be a holiday thing, and people were bringing their kids to see them. 

This scene of Bethlehem covered probably the size of a couple pool tables. It was amazing. 

I'm cheating a bit--this one was in the walled city of Caceres.  But you get the idea. Fabulous. The figures were maybe 7" tall.

Having steeped ourselves in the true meaning of Christmas, we did a little frippery around the edges.

This Trujillo bakery, family owned since 1939 (antiquity I can get behind), was the bomb-diggity. We made a little box of goodies to take back to the apartment. Yum! It was so nice to have homemade stuff when we were so far from home. Cookies. That's the thing when you're traveling!

We found a bulk-food store with the most beautiful teas and beans. We bought some exotic rooibos which I am enjoying right now.

Oh these BEANS!! Grown in Asturias, a province (state?) Phoebe has recently visited. That hospital-green color!! I can't stand it. It's too beautiful. My bathroom is painted this shade, only darker. I may borrow this color for another room.

I suspect this "espagueti" (these espaguetis?) has (have)  been colored with squid ink. Can't imagine what else they'd use. I understand that squid ink can stain your teeth and turn your poop black. It's got a rich briny flavor. I'd like to try it! Always up for an experiment, especially one that requires Science Chimpy follow-up.

My kind of shop. Textures and colors and photo ops galore!

The next morning, we headed to Monfragüe National Park, about a half hour from Trujillo. On the outskirts of town, we spotted a colorful flock of Eurasian goldfinches, a bird I had been dying to get a look at. Well, this was all the look we got. They were in constant motion and spooky as hell. We chased them until we realized we were never going to see them sitting still. If you click on the photo you'll see one's red face mask in the lower right corner. I was so hoping for a good shot of one.  On to the park!

We hadn't gotten far when we spotted an enormous bird circling alone in the leaden sky. I am so thankful we jumped out of the car and gave it a really good look. 
Try as I might, I couldn't pick up any color on the head or body other than black. The wedge-shaped tail seemed like a good mark, as did the perfectly flat wing profile. 
Of course, my field guide was inaccessible. I was talking a mile a minute to myself, winging the ID.

"Kids, I do believe this is our first black vulture." (Not in the least the same thing as our New World black vulture Coragyps atratus, the Eurasian black vulture Aegypius monachus is Europe's largest raptorial bird. Its range in Europe is virtually limited to Extremadura in Spain, with a couple of Mediterranean sites. Then it occurs much farther east. It is rare, very rare, dwindled in Europe to perhaps 1,000 pairs, all of them in Extremadura. They don't nest until they're 6, if that tells you anything. Black vultures do life slowly. This would be the only one we would see. Bird every bird. 

What an honor, what a privilege to see a black vulture, especially on such a crummy day for soaring! We quickly learned to look hard at every single bird we saw, because birds were scarce and each one was going to be a lifer for all of us.

Here are those famous Iberian hogs, grazing and looking for acorns beneath cork oaks. And to the left are a couple of cranes. Europe got there first, so they named their crane Crane. No modifier. Just Crane. Grus grus. 
To our disappointment, the cranes were terribly wary and began walking off as soon as our car stopped. This was a theme throughout our Spanish visit. The birds of Extremadura operate on an entirely different approachability scale than do the birds of the New World.
I was glad I brought my scope, for what fleeting looks we got at the cranes. I suspected that these birds, from cranes down to the tiniest songbirds, have been hunted, hunted long and hunted hard, to behave the way they do. The Mediterranean flight corridor is the cruelest of all. People, especially in Malta and Gozo, are still shooting, netting and trapping wild birds to eat, and they should have stopped that horrible nonsense centuries ago. Yet their government supports it, with a "legal limit" of 16,000 rare and protected migratory birds to be killed every year. It's absolutely hideous. You can learn more and help stop it with BirdLife Malta here. 

Perhaps the most common raptor we observed was the gloriously beautiful red kite. Again, it was very difficult to get close enough to get a decent shot, but every once in awhile one would pop up over our car and I'd fire quickly out the window.

One of the famous black fighting bulls for which Extremadura is known. Such a classic outline. We saw some, but not as many as I'd been led to expect. Most of the cattle we saw were cream-colored or brown, and seemed to be raised for meat.

If you look closely, you'll see some griffon vultures sailing over the cork-oak dotted landscape. They are fed on cow carcasses at certain places, which certainly helps keep them healthy, and around.

It was griffon vultures who gave us our biggest birding thrill, after the lone black vulture. At last, a bird that didn't seem to mind being looked at. I don't know what immunity from persecution griffons enjoy, but they were tolerant of my camera and our admiring eyes, and for that I'm grateful. What cool birds. Huge birds. Fairy-tale birds. Vultures have taken an enormous hit, from habitat loss; from poisoning in India (eating cow carcasses contaminated with the arthritis painkiller Diclofenac); and poisoning and shooting in Africa (poachers kill them so they don't betray the location of carcasses). I'm so glad these beautiful, majestic vultures seem to be thriving in Monfragüe National Park. More on them next post!

Release the Kestrel!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A month went by, as months do when Christmas is coming and you're traveling with your kids in Spain (I'm not done with Spain! I just had to tell you about this bird!). A few days after admission on December 12,  the kestrel had X-rays and a thorough exam at the Ohio Wildlife Center hospital near Columbus. Coracoids were fine. However there was a left carpal issue--the hand part of his wing was hurt.

He received light oral inflammatory treatment, laser therapy to promote natural healing, and physical therapy. He was kept in the hospital for a few more days, then taken out to the pre-release facility with its big flight cages to test his wings. I got this precious information from my friend Connie Ray, a volunteer rehabilitator for Ohio Wildlife Center. I so appreciate a little glimpse into their workings, especially when one of my special birds is recuperating in their care.

I was hoping perhaps to pick the kestrel up when we got back from Spain on Dec. 30, but he wasn't quite ready. He was flying, though, and the veterinarian was hopeful. So was I. I just couldn't imagine this jewel anywhere but in the sky, hovering over the vast fields of Barlow.

photo by Lee Hermandorfer

Finally, I got the email from Ohio Wildlife Center that I'd been hoping for. The kestrel was ready for release!

I can't tell you how grateful I am that I don't have to get in the car and drive 2 1/2 hours to go pick these creatures up, or take them to care in Columbus. All I do is text Lee, and we coordinate. She budgets the time to go by OWC and get the bird; we meet up. But this time Lee would be in on the release, and I was so happy about that. It was only right.

I also have to tell you how amazing it is to have been able to release two raptors this winter. The percentage of raptors that meet up with barbed wire fences and cars, and come out of it releasable, is so vanishingly small. And it is so heartbreaking to field one after another, send them up, only to hear they've been euthanized for their injuries, too severe to be healed. It's very hard on the heart, especially when it's a big sweet old barred owl with those liquid eyes, or a beautiful Cooper's hawk, wild and crazy but oh so broken. I just don't feel that I can or should pronounce on these birds; I feel like I have to give them the benefit of a full veterinary exam. And yet most of the time I know what the answer will be. That's what makes it so hard.

But I had a good feeling about the barbed-wire redtail, which was richly borne out, and I had a good feeling about this little kestrel. His eyes seemed to say, "I've got this. I need time, but I'll be coming back to you."

And he did.

Also attending the release: the Yost family, with their Miracle Dog, Frank, who was lost this winter for a couple of months, but who was found again, much to their joy. 

Anastasia and her kids are the ones who caught the falcon when they realized he was hurt. 
These kids...the sweetest. 
They walked and scooted and strollered from home to attend the release!

The little falcon was scrabbling around in his carrier. He knew where he was. His head bobbed, his eyes bugged. He was home! Why wouldn't we let him out? Well, we eventually did. Being humans, we had to yak about it for awhile first. We don't make much sense to falcons.

It was an unnaturally warm, very blustery day, over 70 degrees, but it wasn't raining. The kestrel would just have to deal with the gusty wind, and the cold front roaring toward us. It was time for him to be free at last.

I was very nervous about capturing his release in slow motion, but I somehow managed to do it. He was out of there like greased lightning. A real-time video would have shown nothing but a blur. With this, we get to revel in his amazing colors one last time, and in motion!

please note--it's   --  I got it wrong in the video. Doesn't he fly so beautifully, so swiftly, so assuredly? Great work, Ohio Wildlife Center!

If that wasn't cool enough, the kestrel made a tremendous circle around Barlow town center, sat for awhile in the big sycamore on the fairgrounds, then came back to us! He fetched up in a tree and commenced to holler.

He was looking all around, hollering killykillykillykilly as if he were calling for his mate. 
See, now, that's such a parrot thing to do, to sit up on a high perch and yell like that. 

I wish I could say that a female flew right up in response, but that didn't happen while we were watching. He'll have to go look for her.
It was SO cool to see him fly so easily, so well, and to see him return from his perch in the sycamore, where he was little more than a speck to the naked eye. 

These aren't great shots, but he was so fast and the light was absolutely pitiful. 
See that row of round white windows along the rear margin of his wing? Great field mark for American kestrel. 

Barlow is full of fields and farms like these. That bird is in tall corn. 

Michael McCutcheon is a dentist whose office overlooks the field where our bird was found injured. He said he's been watching a kestrel there for a long time. He's also Lee's dentist and a birdwatcher, so we were delighted that he and his family could attend the release. He'll keep an eye out for the bird going forward. Curtis attended, but he stayed in the car for the release, because Frank got there first. He was kind of mad at me so I brought him out and took him for a nice hike in a hemlock ravine immediately afterward.

Curtis enjoyed meeting everyone. He is becoming expert at the impromptu meet and greet events that seem to follow us wherever we go. People recognize him, and then figure out who I must be. Ha ha!!

I enjoyed seeing this little band of people, united in joy at the kestrel's release.
That's Lee holding the carrier. She has incredibly sharp and practiced birder eyes and is pointing out where the kestrel is at the moment. 

Fare well, little death parrot. Thanks to everyone who made your recovery and release possible. Thanks to the kestrel who came zipping back to holler awhile, and let us know he was large, in charge and back home where he belonged!

Wildlife rehab isn't just for broken kestrels and orphaned opossums. It's for people, too.

 I think that we all need the occasional lift of a newly freed bird's wings.

Please donate here, to keep the Ohio Wildlife Center going strong. They helped more than 5,000 animals and birds last year! and I'd be utterly lost without them.

Kestrel Joy

Monday, January 13, 2020

17 comments's where so much happens. Everyone's got a cellphone, everyone has access to everyone else, and little waifs like this American kestrel can be the beneficiaries. 
My friend Anastasia and her kids saw this little kestrel standing by the roadside in Barlow, Ohio. 

When they stopped the car and got out, the kestrel ran and fluttered, but he (see the blue wings?) couldn't get altitude. Something was wrong, something was hurt. 

They had the sense and courage to pursue the bird and capture him, and they took him home in a box. I say this about courage because it is pretty rare. Most people are afraid to touch birds, especially ones with a lot of pointy bits. We have been so inculcated since early childhood by the dictum never to touch a bird that I think a lot of Americans get phobic about it. Not the Yost family!

When Anastasia got him home, the kestrel managed to get out of the box and crouched on their kitchen table for another photo. At this point I had a bunch of messages from Anastasia. I set about arranging for the bird's transport to the Ohio Wildlife Center in Columbus, and also telling her how best to contain and feed the little guy. 

Understandably, Anastasia was afraid of doing the wrong thing, so she and her husband and their kids all piled in the car and brought him to me that night of December 8, 2019. I was moved by their dedication to the best outcome for this bird. As soon as I laid eyes on him, I understood completely. I would have driven 45 minutes one way to save him, too. 

While I waited for him to arrive, I prepared a pet carrier, got out my supplies, and snipped a bit of raw lean pork chop (half my dinner) into little strips. It was what I had, fresh that evening, with no warning whatsoever, and it would have to do until I could get some proper food. 

First, to examine him, and see if I could figure out what was wrong. He took my breath away. He reminded me of a parrot--the intelligence in his eyes, the shape of his square head; the way he lay in my glove...and well he should. Falcons are taxonomically closer to parrots than they are to hawks! This news is a few years old, but if you don't travel in ornithological circles you may not have heard it.  It all makes sense--the way they hold their prey in their feet and bring it up to their beaks to eat; their playful nature; even their brilliant coloration makes sense if you think of a kestrel as a kind of death parrot.

I couldn't find any broken bones, which made me suspect a coracoid fracture deep in his chest. He was holding his left wing a little out and low, which was consistent with that diagnosis. Cage rest wouldn't hurt him. I had contacted my Angel, Lee Hermandorfer, who told me her next trip to Columbus, where she works as a Respiratory Therapist at Childrens Hospital, would be in three days.

Well, OK. We'd take it. Until then, he was mine to pamper. I tucked him into the carrier, his perch well-padded, and gave him a dish of pork strips. I put him in a quiet, lit part of the newly cleaned basement. Checking back about 15 minutes later, he had decimated the pork and drunk some water.

His crop was looking nice and bulgy. I was so glad this little gentleman was warm, dry, and stuffed with food. I hoped he was comfortable. I was already in love.

What a mess he was! He spent much of his day trying to figure out how to get out of the carrier. I didn't want him trying to fly with a possible fracture, so he had to stay in it. He quickly splashed all the water out of his dish and pooped absolutely everywhere. 

By the first afternoon, I had procured a bag of frozen snap trapped white-footed mice, generously offered by my friend Chad Goode. How considerate! I usually keep them in my freezer, but I'd fed them all to busted owls and hawks and was out. I drove into town to meet Chad and grab the goods. I've never been so happy to be gifted a bag of small dead animals. 
As a little aside, Chad's mom Mary delivered both my kids. Best labor and delivery nurse anybody could ever cling to. And man, I clung to her. We bonded something fierce.

Kestrels won't thrive on plain raw meat. They need organ meat, fur or feathers for roughage, and bones for calcium. Whole foods are the way to go for little predators like this one. Thank you, Chad.

\ It occurs to me that, without Facebook, nobody would have known 
a. I had a kestrel or b. I needed frozen mice.
And nobody would have known to contact me without it, either. 
This social media sword cuts on many edges. 

The kestrel heartily approved of the mice and swiftly tore them into bits.

I changed his towels, papers and water daily. 

His onyx eyes radiated intelligence and an almost eerie calm composure. No frantic fluttering for this one! I was transfixed by his beauty, but I didn't want to stress him by staring at him, so I left him alone until it was time to feed, water or clean his carrier.

Finally, the day arrived when he'd get his lift to the Ohio Wildlife Center. 
I opened his carrier, intending to transfer him to a roomy cardboard carrier for the trip (the same one the barbed wire redtail had arrived home in). 

To my surprise, he flew right out the carrier door and landed on the bed. Once again, he was calm and peaceful, and clearly glad to be out of that small confined space. 

He took my breath away, again. Somehow he'd managed to keep himself scrupulously clean. I suspect he bathed several times daily, as his water dish was perpetually emptied. 

Oh, the glory of it, to have a male kestrel on one's bed. I wished I could let him stay for awhile, but it was time to meet Lee. Could he be any more sleek or beautiful? I prayed hard that he'd be releasable. It just wouldn't be right for him to have to be caged for the rest of his life.

December 11 was his last morning with me. Now, it was up to the veterinarians and experienced rehabilitators at Ohio Wildlife Center.  I was headed for Spain soon, and I was glad he'd have  far better housing and expert veterinary care while I was away. I'm so thankful for OWC!!

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