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September's Silent Parade

Sunday, September 23, 2018


 As I write, Sept. 21, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are still here, just a couple juveniles still hanging around and bickering. I love them so. And through the birches and flower gardens, fall warblers are sifting through in earnest. I must glance up from my drafting board 200 times a day, and I'm nearly always rewarded by the trembling leaves that mean a warbler is plucking aphids off their undersurfaces.

My birches are loaded with little green aphids, candy to migrant warblers and hummingbirds, too. Of course, I'm glued to the windows, my big lens slishing away.

The magnolia warbler has a pretty yellow rump in all plumages. 

We're firmly on the fall migration route for Cape May warblers, but they're rare as hen's teeth in spring. Go figure.  This is a nice adult male, still showing his golden side neck and strong tiger stripes.

Who's that?

One of my favorite fall migrants (and breeders) is the ovenbird, a warbler that looks like a thrush. That shoe-button eye, with the surprised ring around it; those heavy droozly stripes down the belly--I just love these neat little forest dwellers.

All that would be great, but the burnt orange crown stripe is too much.

And the ovenbird walks. One shell-pink foot is placed daintily in front of the other. They walk along long branches, mincing delicately. The head bobs slightly, like a chicken's. I love everything about ovenbirds, except their tendency to crash into glass windows in fall. For them, and for so many others, I put netting over my windows.

 The resident rubythroats, making the rounds of my flowers. They won't be here much longer.  I said when I put the oversized geranium "Happy Thought Red" out in May that it would never be so beautiful again. Boy, was that the truth. The gray squirrels have chewed the crap out of it; the sun has baked its beautiful chartreuse leaves, but it gamely throws out scarlet flowers for the hummingbirds to sip. No worries. I have two tiny babies to go in the greenhouse, and they'll be big and beautiful by next spring.

Salvia guaranitica "Black and Blue" is a favorite. As often as not, the dainty flowers will drop when they're probed.

Most of my out-the-studio window photos feature sweet birds on the colorful tomato cages I use to support my taller flowers.
This is a juvenile song sparrow, impersonating a Lincoln's sparrow, with its finely penciled breast streaking.

A young Tennessee warbler briefly got itself trapped behind the netting that keeps my huge studio windows safe for migrant birds. It was a thrill to see it so close.  Birds are never trapped for long, since the netting is stretched on a PVC frame that stands almost a foot out from the window, and they have only to go up, down or sideways to get out. To learn more about this miraculous life-saver, go read my article, "A Solution to Window Strikes,"  here.

I just never know what I'm going to see, so I keep looking. Who's that on the hanging basket hook? I knew right away, because there isn't another species that has yellow (instead of white) tail spots. It's a yellow warbler!

and a very, very beautiful one. An immature yellow warbler in September is such a lovely bird, the bright yellow washed with grass-green. Yellow suffuses everything: its eye ring, tail spots, legs, feet, even its bill. It's like it drank sunshine.

 Fuchsia "Trandshen Bonnstadt" is the flower that it's inspecting.  I really think the spelling is wrong, if it's German, but that's how it was spelled on the Glasshouse Works label when I bought my tiny plant years ago.  Probably ought to be spelled Trandschen Bonstedt, but I can't find any other source for it than Glasshouse Works, and that's how they spell it. Still available from Glasshouse works, too!

Needless to say, I take cuttings of this miraculous tropical plant and carry it over in the greenhouse all winter. I'm petrified of losing it; it's such a cheery, free blooming soul and it roots from cuttings in water! Hummingbirds love it and they look fabulous prospecting those clusters of pink.  I have four-foot tall plants blooming their heads off, planted right in the garden soil, right now. The rabbits leave it mostly alone. Miracle. Anything the nipping, chomping, chewing animals allow to live is a pure miracle to me.

As a bonus, you can see the bird screen with its gray PVC frame over my studio windows. It's nicely unobtrusive, but highly effective. Those windows are doing a great job of pretending to be limitless sky. They need a screen, and they have one.

The warbler was pretty sure there should be something edible in that pretty flower. So it diddled with it for awhile, trying to see if it would produce something nice.

What a breathtakingly beautiful little bird.  Every feather is unworn and new, immaculately fringed and bordered, since this bird, who was born this spring, has just molted into a fresh suit of feathers for the long trip south.

The yellow warbler is just a part of the silent parade going on outside, all through September. Get out there! The trees are dripping with warblers. Blackburnians running into bay-breasts; black-throated blues and Cape Mays; yellows and yellowthroats and Tennessees, blackpolls and hoodeds, all coming through now in southeast Ohio. It's the greatest show on earth, and it's perfectly silent.

Keep looking up.

Bokeh Bird

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


This female ruby-throated hummingbird is sitting on one of the little shish kebab skewers that I provide for my clients. My clients being the gazillion birds who frequent my yard, who I'm trying constantly to please in creative ways. I've stuck the bamboo skewers, which are exactly the right gauge for tiny hummingbird feet, into the links of the chain holding up one of my hanging baskets. The skewers are almost never without a perching client, because they're close to the feeders and just right for fussy hummer feet.

I haven't known the term "bokeh" for too long. It sounds a bit like a Chet Baker word, doesn't it? It's Japanese, and it refers to the gorgeous thing that happens when the background of a shot goes all blurry and nice. What's behind this bird is my barn-red house siding with a blooming Achimenes "Pink Nighty" in a hanging basket. Wooo. That is some off-the charts nice bokeh. Especially the little dark patch framing the bird.

As soon as I saw her there on the skewer, with the flowers behind her, I knew I had a killer photo op. She was scratching away at her neck and head.

 You'd think a hummingbird's scratching foot would be lightning fast, but it isn't at all. She's got to bring that tiny leg up and over her big long wing, and that's really awkward. So she scratches very slowly.

Then she looks at her foot as if wondering how it got there, up over her wing, and how she's going to get it back where it belongs.

At length, she does, and she rests for a few moments.

Then it's time to scratch the other side of her face. You really must click on this one to embiggen it. Then you can see them all larger.

Because she is a hummingbird, there is always an argument in the offing. She cusses at an incoming bird

and sizes up her opponent. A second later, she shot straight up into the air in pursuit, and my precious moments with her were over.

I'm ridiculously attached to the few remaining hummingbirds in my gardens. I want them to stay forever. They won't, of course, but until they go, they'll get their portraits made. September is the month when the hummingbirds leave. Seems everyone leaves in September. But that also means everyone is passing through in September, and I get to photograph the parade!

A Day in the Life

Friday, September 14, 2018


 I'll be honest: I'm coming down off the I have the whole house to myself! cloud and tiptoeing along the ditch of Is that all there is? I knew the shine would wear off it pretty quickly.

Make no mistake: there's plenty to keep me busy here, with a book deadline looming and me working at capacity. It feels really good to have my watercolor painting chops honed and oiled. But when you've been used to other living souls around to feed, clothe and care for, to share with and laugh with, it can feel weird to go all day without talking to anyone in person. So you keep yourself busy.

I decided I'd better get my sneakers back on the road. I ran down to check on the neighbors' place.
 On the way, there was the most beautiful mackerel sky. I wish I knew how the clouds form and line up like that. I'm just glad they do. I feel like a bug under a lace doily. It's all so huge and beautiful and incomprehensible.

I turned off the road and down a dirt path. I stopped and rested in the shade of a bulldozer. The smell of oil and diesel is comforting, because it reminds me of my dad. He was always messing around with things that used oil and diesel. I figure if he's going to accompany me, it'd pay me to hang around machinery that he's interested in inspecting. DOD was all about machinery.

I walked to the rise, where I could see the neighbors' castle taking its final form. I've been walking in and watching it, with their blessing, for about three years.  Phoebe and I even walked around inside it not long ago, and it's really, really cool. It's so amazing to see it turn from big skids and piles of block into a real castle. And it's interesting to live near people who have a dream, however unusual, and are willing to put all that money and work into it.

It occurred to me that there aren't all that many people in this part of Appalachia who could or would follow a dream like that.  So that's something special, to watch their dream take shape. I like people with dreams.

Also special to me: The morning glories are finally opening. I didn't have to wait quite as long this year as two years ago, when they were still in tight, tiny bud on October 12! Still, it feels like forever. I planted the durn things in the greenhouse in April! Fenced and barricaded them against rabbits and chipmunks. Only two of the six made it even so. The chipmunks climbed up and into the 2' cylinders of chicken wire to bite them off. The rabbits nipped off any stems that dared grow outside the cylinders. It's been a thing.

But being able to drown in that heavenly blue makes the battle worthwhile. Last year I grew "Flying Saucers," these ridiculous tie-dyed white and blue things that on the seed packet sound great. This was as good as it got. And it's pretty good, but they weren't all that nice by any means.

 The vast majority of their blossoms were this sickly bluish-white, and though they were nice against a pearly sky, I hopped off the Flying Saucer train.

 Nothing beats this plant. I'll be faithful from here on out, Clark's Heavenly Blue.

Let's face it. I'm a color junkie. Always have been, always will be. It's just getting moreso. Here are my impatiens stairs. You can't really walk up them any more. I don't care. I like the cascade of color flowing like spilled paint down the old sandstone blocks. From the time we were first laying the stones, I knew they would be no more than a backdrop for flowers. I used to grow sun-loving succulents like portulaca, purslane and ice plant here, but the Japanese maple that stands guard nearby had other ideas. Slowly its canopy overspread the steps, and I was emboldened to try shade-loving annual impatiens. It turned out to be just the thing. And the rabbits didn't touch them, go figure! I'll do it again! And they've seeded themselves nicely. Doubt the seeds will make it through the winter, so I'll start fresh in spring.

 As I work away in the studio, painting top-secret blue jays and wishing I could share them with you, my phone chirps and bloops, telling me when a message from the kids is coming through. I am still in a state of suspended disbelief that I can SEE them. Get photos from them. Sometimes talk to them, and SEE them talking. It's a Jetson's world. I'll never get blase about that. I think of my weekly telephone call to my parents when I was in college and just shake my head.

It's one thing to see Liam in his dorm room three hours away in Morgantown, but quite another to see Phoebe, sweatin' to the oldies on La Gomera in the Canary Islands! How can this be?

She's on a Fulbright fellowship, and she'll be a teaching assistant in an elementary school, where her Spanish is going to reach full fluency. I can hardly believe it, and I can't wait to see pictures of her school, her co-workers and students.

La pinche calima is a Saharan dust storm! Ack!
Meanwhile, Liam shares his wry observations from WVU, where he's taking four art courses at once. He's drawing from life! I just keep shaking my head. They were both here all summer, and now they're off and doing amazing things, and I get to watch.

Both my fledglings have a good command of the language. Liam in particular has a really interesting vocabulary, and an always unexpected choice of words. I love to read their writing. 

As part of the Fulbright fellowship, awardees are encouraged to keep a blog. As a result, Phoebe is blogging, and I can't imagine anything that could delight this old Blogosaurus Rex any more than to see my girl spread her writing and photography wings for all to take in. Maybe it's seeing Liam's art on Instagram ( @lht_artwork). That delights me, too.

Phoebe's already got several posts up at 

 and preliminary results indicate that the child can tell a story. I knew that already, but it ought to be a pleasant surprise to those of you who have been reading this blog for years. Check her out. I'd recommend reading from the first post!

I find it all pretty incredible. And it's happened so fast. One minute I'm asking them what they'd like for breakfast, and the next he's in a dorm three hours away and she's halfway around the world. And I'm reading her blog. 

Today I got buried in my work, preparing for a talk tomorrow. I ripped my talk apart and hammered it back together again with a bunch of new parts. I loaded the car with all my merchandise. And only when that was all done did I turn back to composing painting number 11 of 19 for Saving Jemima. 

And when I couldn't work any longer I got up to look out the south window of the studio. I could see just a bit of the sky, and I could see there was something serious going on out there.

Maximilian sunflower in the prairie patch

Better, I think, with goldenrod. It lets the clouds be their magnificent selves.

While I'd been working and thinking and absorbed, this incredible cloud parade had been filing silently past, unannounced and unbidden.

I walked out to the meadow and literally fell to my knees, looking for the right angle from which to record it. They were so huge and beautiful and growing, growing, growing, ever upward, their cauliflowery heads expanding, reaching higher and higher into the stratosphere.

It all reminded me of what has happened with my kids. While I was busy, they blew up into these magnificent proto-adults. And then they marched off to the south, like these clouds are doing. I can't stop them; I wouldn't even try. I just have to watch them go. 

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