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If a Gnatcatcher Can...

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Grazin' in the grass is a gas
Baby can you dig it

These days, so long awaited. Four days in which I have allowed myself nothing to do but plow, till, plant and weed. Go out first thing in the morning after putting the kids on the bus, and try to get a few bird pictures. Sometimes I'm lucky. I watched this female blue-grey gnatcatcher foraging, or perhaps gathering nesting material. I couldn't see what she was picking up, but she was scraping the stems of staghorn sumac, perhaps for the ultra-fine fuzz she'd use to line her neat little lichen-decorated tennis ball of a nest. Like most nest-building gnatcatchers, she was loudly announcing her activities with sputtering squeaks and elfin whistles. I love how the sumac twigs form a little chuppah over her, adding a ceremonial touch to the proceedings.She was not in the least perturbed by my presence, going about her business like Miss Tittlemouse, cussing and twitching and fussing. See how she has the barest line of black above her eye? Along comes her mate, guarding and overseeing. He's bluer, and has a black superciliary line. Magnificent!
As I watched these equisite creatures, it seemed to me that the male's bill looked a bit odd. Too fine and sharp. It wasn't until I blew the pictures up that I could see that the male's upper bill (maxilla) is broken off halfway out its length. What a handicap that would be to a bird that makes its living capturing small insects! I don't know how he gets by, but he's able to hold a territory and a mate, sing her love songs
and do a deep bow, to show her his beautiful blue crown. See that oddly attenuated mandible? That's because the maxilla is missing. I don't know how he's surviving, but he's figured something out that works for him. If the bone isn't broken, the rhamphotheca (keratinaceous covering of the bill) should grow back in time. I'll be watching for him, and hoping for him. He may have trouble feeding his babies. I hope Miss Tittlemouse is up for the extra work.

If a gnatcatcher can carry on with a disability like that, and still sing, well, then there's no reason to drag my feet. Yesterday, I dug out all the bindweed and grass from the vegetable garden, mowed the lawn, and did four loads of laundry. Today, I'm still doing laundry, and I've rototilled the whole garden (except for the peas and mesclun!) twice over. I loooove my little Honda rototiller. It starts the first time even after a whole winter, it purrs and whirs and gives me nice even soil like cake crumbs. I'm soaking three rows each of Fordhook limas and my homemade tricolor bean mix (Tendergreen, Brittle Wax and Royal Burgundy) to plant this evening. I'll put in another row of mesclun for when the stuff we're just now harvesting is done, and mulch the rest of the garden so I won't have to till again. May even put out the early tomatoes I started. I think the cold is gone for good. I can tell you that this kind of activity takes care of winter flubber really fast. I'm a lean, mean rototillin' machine. On to the flower beds, which need to be recovered. There are perennials in there, behind all the grass and dandelions! Maybe I can even get the greenhouse emptied out today. World enough and time, that's all I need. I'm thankful to have a sound body and sun on my shoulders, and I'm fully aware of how lucky I am to have a bit of ground to till. I treasure every moment, and I see Phoebe and Liam grazing in the snap peas in my mind's eye as I work to make that happen.

My good hoe, as it bites the ground, revenges my wrongs, and I have less lust to bite my enemies. In smoothing the rough hillocks, I smooth my temper.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson


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