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Beautiful Bayfield

Thursday, May 31, 2007

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My Internet service has been down for a day. It took me almost three hours this morning to establish that it's because the kids are home from school. Well, not exactly because of that, but let's just say there's a bit (pronounced gigabyte) more Internet activity (think downloads of movies and graphics, Internet radio, PDF files, fancy wallpaper and signatures, RAM-eating games, and most importantly, endless instant messaging) than there ever was before school let out. So what happened is that we exceeded our daily download limit of 200 MB, and it's taking the system 24 hours to "recover." Like it's writhing on the ground, unable to send or receive, gagging on downloads, and it's all our fault. What I gathered from the carefully worded advice I received from the tech support person at Hughes.net is that my system would "recover" a whole lot faster if I just got out my Visa card and bought more bandwidth. In fact, I could cure it altogether! We're download hogs, and it's going to cost them ever so much more to accommodate us. It's clever of them, really, to make you sit and stew in your own Net-free juices for 24 hours, then make about five calls, wading waist-deep in automated menu choices that have nothing to do with your problem, trying to track down the branch you should be talking to, sit on megahold for 15 minutes, before finally get a human being (albeit somewhere in Mumbai) who seems to have the answer to your problem. At that point, you're on your knees, waving your credit card, pathetically grateful to hear a living human voice, and ready to do anything to get back online. I didn't cave, this time, but it was unnerving. I need to go back to Wisconsin now.
Brigadoon...er, Bayfield, Wisconsin is just lovely. It has given no ground to chain eateries and very little to condominiums (there's only one modest set that I saw). It perches on a high bluff over Superior, chock full of Victorian manses, drowning in lilac hedges, a serene and regal lady gazing out her parlor window at the ever-changing inland sea of Superior. I stayed at Gray Oak Bed and Breakfast, and slept like a baby in my room on half of the top floor. I felt like Queen for a weekend, eating my raspberries and cream and scones in my room. The Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival sure knows how to treat a country mouse, and I thank Neil and Susan for extending their considerable hospitality to me for the weekend.

There was a special magic in looking out my window to see the biggest American Chestnut tree I'd ever seen-maybe the biggest in all Wisconsin. Growing far north of the chestnut's usual range, it somehow escaped the killing blight that to this day beats back sprouts from chestnut stumps all over the country. Long may you run, noble tree.
I ate every meal but two at Maggie's Restaurant, on the recommendation of the incomparable Jess Riley. Yes. The food was rich, well-prepared, satisfying, fast, and fresh. I got the whitefish twice. Might as well eat what's coming right from the lake. I did draw a line at whitefish livers. Nah. I'll pass. Liver, bleeeagh, but fish liver?

Beyond my lovely inn, Maggie's fabulous food, the lake, and the nice folks who struck up conversations with me wherever I went, my favorite thing in Bayfield was a little red fox kit who was born under the toolshed of one of the houses there. Her bigger brother had left, presumably to hunt with his mother, and this little girl was waiting out the evening until Mom returned. The homeowners told me that one night they'd seen the vixen bring in a grilled chicken breast. I told them I admired their restraint, not feeding the foxes (I'd have a really hard time not accidentally dropping a chicken neck or a few giblets here and there). They were every bit as thrilled to have foxes under their toolshed as I would have been, but they had a lot more sense than I do. May they be blessed with foxes every spring.

Gifts of Bark Point

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

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After a brief Chet Baker interlude, we're still riding on the incredible birding Wisconsin offered. Hope you don't mind a little time-space de-continuum. I just have to show you Wisconsin, even if I break the real time barrier--boom!

You never know what you'll find. Especially when you're alone, on a pilgrimage just to see what you can see. I was in an utterly Zen state of mind, once I figured out that the absolute best birding in rotten cold weather, with a gale coming off the lake from the northeast, would doubtless be on the peninsulas that project out into Lake Superior. I looked at the map and targeted two peninsulae for my afternoon's birding.

The anticipation is even more delicious when you're birding in an unfamiliar biome. I had asked around a little about a few birds I really wanted to see, but a number of them still took me by surprise. A small, finely striped sparrow spooked around in a boggy patch near the northern end of Bark Point. I recognized it from the numerous fall records at our place: a classic northern nesting sparrow, the Lincoln's sparrow. It's like a delicate song sparrow, finely penciled, beautifully shaded. If I had to guess, I'd say this bird had just bathed, which would account for the ragged look.

Serendipity was with me this evening. Four big birds, thrasher sized but heavier, flopped across the road right in front of my car. The general impression was of silt-gray birds with big white heads. I lowered the electric window and threw a handful of roasted corn snacks out onto the road even before rolling to a stop. GRAY JAYS!! Hello babies!! Every birder I'd spoken to had warned me that gray jays, the tame, confiding "whiskey jacks" who haunt campsites, stealing everything that isn't tied down, were hard to come by in this part of the state. I'd have to drive 30 minutes south to the thick stands of spruce to find them. And I had driven down to the Clam Lake area, but not knowing where to go, had found none. I did have a really, really bad cheeseburger at a diner, where I got a dose of local color (including a loud, scary woman wearing a sweatshirt saying, "Save a Tree. Eat a Beaver. PETA Trapper's Association). Being a writer, I considered it a break-even proposition...bad cheeseburger, fabulous material.

Ryan Brady, state biologist and birder/photographer extraordinaire, said, "Don't get your hopes up. It'd be really unusual to see them around here." And so I didn't, but I was ready for them, hurling GladCorn (my favorite birding snack) when grace sent them my way.


Ryan thought that perhaps these jays were the remnant of a mini-gray jay invasion of northern Wisconsin that happened last year. Making their way back to Canada, perhaps, and stalled on Bark Point just like all the warblers and sparrows.

Gray jays have lived around people for so long that they have learned to look for them, going to investigate each curl of smoke or report of a gun, hoping it'll mean a meal. Perhaps these birds sought me out. I was mighty glad to see them, too. They swooped in without hesitation, five of them, grabbing corn off the blacktop, so close I couldn't focus. One stored his corn bits in some Usnea moss, then sat for his portrait. Oh, I love gray jays, and I love birding, and Wisconsin.

Dogie Stogie

Sunday, May 27, 2007

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,I've been corresponding with a bunch of friends lately, both new and old, and as it happens all of them need a great big old Chet fix right now, for very different reasons. Jane, Lisa, Wendi, Fiona, Jen, Mary, Shila and especially Chris, this one's for you.A good cigar, a sunny evening. Dog gone it, I think I left my matches in my other tux. I'll check.

Not there. A nice stogie, and I have nothing to light it with. Wait. Here comes a gentleman. Perhaps he will help me. I hope he will not notice that I am beginning to drool. I am not ordinarily a drooly person, but this is a meaty cigar.Excuse me! I hate to bother you, but...would you be able to give a light to an American gentleman?I just so happen to have my lighter with me. Happy to oblige.Ahhhh. At last. Puparillo Supreme. Finest Cuban. Puff, puff, puff.A little bit harsh, I must say. My humidor must be malfunctioning. Ack! Gack! Don't worry, Mether. It is only kennel cough.The afterglow lasts. Anyone for tennis?
It is a good life I lead.

Thanks to Bill of the Birds for the light (for Chet's stogie and the inspiration for this post)

Warbler Pileup

Thursday, May 24, 2007

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After giving a Friday night keynote at the Chequemegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival, I had a field trip Saturday morning, and then a free afternoon. Thank you, Ryan Brady, for inviting me, for letting me do my thing and experience the beauty of lakeshore Wisconsin. I owe you several! The keynote went really well; the field trip was fabulous. There's almost nothing trip leaders Matt and Betsy don't know about boreal wildlife and flora, from fungi right on up to bears. We noticed that there were waves of warblers going along the Sea Caves trail just west of Bayfield, and none of them seemed to want to fly out over the lake. Who could blame them? It was 32 degrees and snowing! This got my wheels turning about where to go Sunday afternoon. Using geography and bad weather to my advantage, I headed out to the two most prominent peninsulae on Wisconsin's north shore. I figured that migrants would not want to cross Superior with a headwind (it was coming out of the east, very strongly, whipping up whitecaps) and with the double handicap of severe cold and scarce food. They'd want to camp awhile, wait out the headwind, and fly when they'd had a chance to refuel and warm up a bit. And most importantly, I knew they would be stacking up on the north-pointing peninsulae, just as they stack up at Crane Creek on Ohio's north shore, and on Point Pelee after crossing Lake Erie. On Sunday, the temperature never got above 42, but it felt like a gift after Saturday, which stayed in the low 30's. Brrrr! I was swaddled in five layers, one of which was prime goosedown, and my best winter hat. I hadn't packed gloves (it just seemed like overkill for late May!), and by midday Saturday I was walking with my hands down my pants--first the front side, then the back--trying to thaw them. Note to self: Buns don't warm hands as well as belly does. Too well-insulated. Every time I lifted my binoculars it was like holding a big ice cube, and it would take my painstakingly warmed hands back to freezing again.
Roman's Point was just the ticket. Densely wooded in spruce, birch, sugar maple and balsam fir, it provided safe haven and caterpillars for more warblers than I've ever seen in one place at one time. When waves appeared, they'd swarm through the trees at all levels. Everywhere I looked was a bird, sometimes several. It was stunning, and I was completely alone to enjoy it. Maybe nobody else thought to go out the peninsulae, amazing as that seemed. It certainly would have been a good time to lead a field trip!
I rolled slowly along in my little rented Impala, snapping pictures out the window. When a good wave came along, I'd decar, and walk silently on the dirt road, moving as little as possible.

Wilson's warbler is quite common in the West, but a bit of a prize back East. We get them every few years on our farm, always in spring. The Wilson's male wears a yarmulke of black, and sings a staccato song that's somewhere in between a Nashville's and a magnolia's. It's one of the ones I have to chase down each time I hear it.

Finally-a Blackburnian low enough in a tree that I could get something recognizable. As cold as it was-42 degrees-these birds were pulling caterpillars out from under leaves with good frequency, and I felt happy to see them fill their stomachs with good food. I would hate to be a caterpillar on Roman's point, in an east wind at 42 degrees. There was a corps of gleaners looking to lay on fat, and they were gong to stay on the point until the wind shifted.
He stretched to grab a luckless caterpillar, giving me a pure shot of flame.

This little female magnolia warbler gave me pause for a moment; I'm always thinking about Kirtland's warblers and hoping for lightning to strike. But she was cute and she didn't have to be federally endangered to captivate me.
Black-throated green warblers were singing their distinctive whistling buzz--zee zee zee zu zee! everywhere I went. Black-bearded warbler would be a good name. It's rare to get one down low like this. Just another benefit of birding in rotten weather.


Asked why he never painted warblers, the great landscape and wildlife painter Francis Lee Jacques said, "The difference between warblers and no warblers in a landscape is very slight." As much as I love Jacques' work (he most famously painted the backdrops for the American Museum of Natural History's dioramas), I beg to differ.. To me, this spruce tree finds its spirit in the yellow-rumped warbler. His jingling song sifts through the spruce needles, hangs on the boughs like tinsel.
Wisconsin for spring warbler migration. Put it on your calendar for next year. Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival. Terrific people, ambitious field trips, migrants dripping off the trees. You might need to pack a parka and hat. And gloves. But remember: There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. Oh, and you pronounce it Sha-WAH-mah-gun. It only took me three days to get it right. Definitely beats stuttering, "Check-kwa-MEE-gone" and having the locals look at you with real pity. Do yourself a favor. Pencil it in on your calendar right NOW.

Merganser Surprise

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

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On my solo birding day on Sunday, I checked out two peninsulae that project out into Lake Superior. One is called Bark Point, and it's long and narrow, with sloughs along the east edge. The sun was hitting beautifully off the rounded lake rocks and pewter water. You can see how far behind the trees are in this frigid lakeshore place--they're just coming out. Ours in southern Ohio are almost at full Juneness, even with the April cold spell that froze their first set of leaves right off.

A pair of common mergansers, which breed in large cavities in sycamores, usually, were paddling close into shore. This is the only duck in which the female sports a crest and the male doesn't. He does have a puffy pompadour on his hind neck (kind of like BOTB's).



I moved slowly closer to the mergansers as they paddled away. Got one more shot of the drake, lovely bird that he is.
I stepped out onto a little wooden dock and two different ducks burst right out from under it. From the intricate pattern of their wings, I knew I had red-breasted mergansers this time! I fired away as they pattered off into the lake. I felt so at one with my camera, so happy to be recording them to look at later. The moment was so fleeting, and I knew I was capturing something gorgeous. Beautiful, beautiful, and just about as much fun as I know how to have. Thank you, mergansers; thank you, Canon image-stabilizing lens!These two mergansers--common and red-breasted-- are among the largest ducks in North America. All the more amazing that they're cavity nesters. Red-breasted mergansers nest in Wisconsin, too, though I'm so used to seeing them on salt water in winter that it was strange to see them in summer on fresh water. They're almost tanklike--look at the proportion of head to body. The other thing I think is cool is their indeterminate number of tail feathers. Most birds have a determinate, even number--ten or twelve, and that doesn't vary. If I count right, these birds have something like seventeen tail feathers. You'll find this trait in grouse and turkeys too. Some have a dozen, some have 16, some have 19...I don't understand why that should be, but it is, and it's one of the things that bird painters need to know. Ah, birds.

Flash Horses of Wisconsin

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

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A sweet pair of resting paints. I couldn't help but think about Boston terriers, on a slightly larger scale.

If any generalization can be made, here's one: I talk about things I love a lot in this blog. Like many young girls, I went through a heavy duty horse phase. Whatever the Freudian implications, I just had to be around them. I still adore them, though I know a little too much about vet bills and shoeing and housing and tangling up in barbed wire to want to actually own one. But man, do I love to feast my eyes on horses, the flashier the better. North Dakota drives me wild in that regard. Seems like every string of horses is made up mostly of paints and skewbalds. But Wisconsin came through for me, on my drive back to the airport.

This was a very nice strawberry roan paint.
This one had a bowler hat of black. I always like to imagine the owners, watching a foal being born. He's got a hat!! And a beard!
Not to be outdone was this half strawberry, half vanilla pony. He had glass eyes to top off the ensemble. This one would be fun to name. A Neopolitan pony.I'm a sucker for a nice buckskin. Look at the dapples in his coat. He shines with health, and that long mane is so appealing. Mmmm. I'd pay his vet bills.This is one of the more amazing pintos I've ever beheld, a crazy carousel horse, a work of art, a canvas in flesh and blood. Yes, the other half of his head was white, and so were his eyes--a pale ice blue.

But this filly just killed me. A leopard Appaloosa, blue roan to boot. Please. Could she be any flashier? I could have stayed and watched these horses all day. Given world enough and time, I'd paint horse portraits. I've done one on commission and loved every minute of it-a dapple gray Thoroughbred. That was years ago. Sometimes I think how much simpler life might be if I just painted pet portraits. I'd start with this little filly, whether the owners wanted a painting of her or not. Heck, I'd paint the whole lot of them.

Droooool. Horse fix.

Nest Check

On May 17, I hurried out in the afternoon and evening to get my bluebird boxes checked before leaving for Wisconsin. I thought you'd like to see the life springing and burgeoning from these little wooden containers on our farm. In a rare photoglitch, brought about by an overburdened laptop, I lost all my photos of feathered young--I was going to show you how to sex baby bluebirds. I had a bunch of pictures of Lang Elliott holding Chet that vanished into the ether, as well. And some great pictures of Buck the Bull, with Chet staring at him. Rats, rats, rats. There goes your Chetfix. And your Buckfix.
Well, then, a Phoebefix. The kids help me do nest checks every week. I pick them up at the bus stop and we head down the country road where I have five boxes strung along. Phoebe's holding the nest in our sideyard here.

Can you spot the runt? Runts in bluebirds are fairly common. This one is delayed--the center bird at the bottom of the picture, who has fewer pinfeathers--but I think it will make it. There are earthworms stuck in the hair of two of the chicks--a sign that there's not a whole lot of food around. Bluebirds don't generally feed a lot of earthworms to their young unless there's nothing else around. I find it interesting that baby robins can subsist on earthworms, and that bluebirds tend to avoid them.

There were feathered babies in most of the boxes on Buck's road, and I had gorgeous pictures of their blue wings...ah well. There will be more.

The box at the end of our orchard had two five-day-old babies and three unhatched eggs. Generally, if the babies are two or more days old, and there's an unhatched egg along with them, it's safe to say that egg is not going to hatch. I took the eggs and opened them to see what might be going on. All three, infertile--as evidenced by the yellow, not red, contents. No blood vessels ever formed because the embryos never developed. Two of the eggs (top and right) were disturbingly thin-shelled, cracking like cellophane, while the bottom egg had a shell of normal thickness. I see this occasionally, and it seems to run in certain females. Perhaps she has a pesticide load; perhaps she's just young. Ensuing years may tell. This is why I write everything down.
Jayne begged me to photograph the chickadees...here's a Carolina chickadee, Day 9. Pretty cute, but nothing to when he gets feathers! Their nest is so fragile I can't take it out to photograph them all. It's a little tower of soft moss and hair, and it threatens to fall apart completely if I handle it. So I'll drag a baby out now and then for its portrait.
I wrote this post in Ashland, Wisconsin, killing a little time before going out on a kayak trip. It was 62 degrees and still when I awoke at 5 AM. A wind came in off Lake Superior, and it's dropping precipitously through the 50's and into the 40's. Yeah, I knew I'd need that parka. And looking at the whitecaps, I decided to leave the big camera in the car. Just the point-and-shoot, and that one is in some peril, I think. Bring on my PFD.

The kayak trip was great, I'm home, doing laundry (Something Different!) and preparing to melt my computer with RAMloads of bird pictures from Wisconsin. The weather here is NOT 32 and snowing, and blowing a bitter blue gale. It is 80 and sunny, just right for drying softball uniforms and socks. Bill announced tonight that he has softball practice, so he can't come to Phoebe's game in McConnellsville, a mere hour away. So now there are three people in this house with practices and games, all at different times. Maybe I'd better join a league of my own. In my ideal sport, I would meet other women to lie in chaise lounges and drink wine and eat Gouda on AkMak crackers, while watching birds at selected hotspots. While I was engaged in my team sport, I would not be able to feed anyone, pick up after them, do their laundry, or drive them to practice, nor would I be able to sit on aluminum bleachers and cheer them on, because after all I would be engaged in my very own, highly important team sport. Nightly practices, and then competitions to see who could spot the most birds. Glug, glug, yak yak, munch munch. lookit that! Anyone?

I'm in Wisconsin; My Blog's Still in Pennsylvania

Monday, May 21, 2007

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Yes, I'm peregrinating, and there's a bit of a lag from one trip to the other as I scurry around planting and watering and weeding and downloading photos and shuttling the kids to and from sports events. Agggghhh. I never even unpacked my Pennsylvania suitcase before I had to pack for Wisconsin (I'm headlining the first annual Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival May 18-20). There was so much happening in Pennsylvania on the weekend of May 10-13 that it's flopping all over my trip to Wisconsin, and even I'm confused. Sitting in the rockin' Duluth airport, on my way home again from WI, with FREE wireless Internet (hear that, stingy ol' Columbus?), sending a canned post your way. I've got to download the Wisconsin photos on my home desk computer or risk melting my laptop...you'll be hearing about boreal birding in Wisconsin later in the week. In two words, Wisconsin ROCKED.

I'll be hitting you with some real boreal stuff, wildflower and bird, but for now, here are some more northwest Pennsylvania wildflowers...here's dwarf ginseng, Panax trifolium.Do you know who this is?

Breeding Blackburnian warblers sing a song so high-pitched that it spirals up out of the range of my hearing at the end, and that's the single best way to identify it. I couldn't get anything but this tiny burning coal, straight overhead. Ah, well, you can tell what it is. Oh, to live where Blackburnians breed, that would be a very fine thing. Not complaining, mind you; Kentucky and cerulean warblers are fine, too.
We've got these, the wandering juvenile phase of the red-spotted newt, known as the red eft. Earlier this spring, I posted about our nearby newt pond. I was delighted to find this little creature moving through a mud puddle, on his way who knows where. Efts can travel for miles, spreading newt genes far and wide. They're gene-dispersal machines.
Blue cohosh, with its interestingly-hued flowers and leaves of glaucous blue
I wasn't in the hellebore swamp for long before I heard the annoyed squeal of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a bird I should have expected, but which took my by surprise. Of course they'd breed here, tapping sugar maples! About a mile farther down the trail, I found a glorious male, drumming his unique broken-staccato song. Oh, what delight to hear it ringing through the quiet woods!
The woodland was nearly flat, and the trails looped around on themselves. I wasn't at all sure where I was going, but I kept walking, hoping that they formed a loop, fighting the thought that they'd lead me away from my car to parts unknown. It was drizzling and I couldn't even tell where the sun was to orient myself. Needless to say, I got back to my car in a couple of hours, and was mighty glad to see it. That little flutter at the breastbone was part of the magic of being alone.
A young sugar maple surges upward, in the shade of its parent's corpse. I had to stand and look at this for a long time. The mature tree had broken off in the wind a couple of years earlier, and its child was wasting no time going on with life.

I'll be flying and hanging out in airports for the rest of today. Bill of the Birds is home from his weekend at Mohican State Forest in central Ohio, and he sounds really tired. I don't have the stay-up-late gene, and there was nobody to talk to but the birds, so I tucked myself in by 9:30 each night, and surprised myself by sleeping soundly for eight or nine hours at a stretch. This tells me that there's something going on with my life at home that keeps me up. Well, it's not something, it's probably about ten million things. But it's nice to know I CAN sleep like a normal person when I'm out of context. That the systems all work; I've just got to pare away some of the worry and work that keep me running like a hyperkinetic shrew from dark of dawn to midnight. Hmmm. Travel, if you do it right, is good for creating perspective.
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