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Indigo Bunting Nest, Part 3

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Day Six, August 20, 2012. The baby indigo buntings have learned to hide from me, scrunching down into the nest cup when they hear me approach. I'm not thrilled with this shot so I try another. 

That's better. Look at those feather quills on wings and scapular (shoulder) tracts. They're so thin-skinned, so vulnerable, so warm. Eyes are slit open on this day 6, August 20, 2012.

Hey, lady. Got a grasshopper? I'd take a spider. Caterpillar, better yet. Oh little sweetheart. Wish I did. You know I'd give it to you.

I get a momentary lurch in my stomach when I look at this shot, wondering if perhaps we've all been duped...with its bald head, this isn't a brown-headed cowbird, is it? But no. Cowbirds have a bright red gape and white flanges, while indigo buntings have a dark orange gape with yellow flanges. And cowbirds tend to have more speckling on their eggs, while these had just a few freckles on a light blue ground. They're indigo buntings.  Whew. Still, in natural history, it always pays to question one's assumptions with each step you take.

I'm always glad to see Mrs. Piper take five at the Spa, in between her endless flights from meadow to nest, meadow to nest.

I've got to think that our yard is the premium nesting territory for miles around, with all the second growth, the old fields, jillions of orthopterans, and the clean bubbly water source. Sorry about the  paparazzo, though, catching the Duchess topless from time to time. Goes with the Riviera real estate. 

Obviously, a good place to raise kids. This is Day 7. Eyes wide open, feathers beginning to burst their sheathes.

Yes, I said eyes wide open. They alternate peeking at the lens.

These little imps, they have stolen my heart. Praying that they make it to fledging. It's a rough world out there, and they're only 2 1/2 feet off the ground. But I'm watching over them, listening from the nearby studio all day for the slightest disturbance, the smallest cheep of alarm. So far so good. Only about three days in the nest left to go!

Grow! Grow! Grow!

Indigo Bunting Nest, Part Two

Thursday, September 27, 2012


It's Day 3 at the indigo bunting nest along our garage. I manage one quick shot this day, and notice the blue pterylae (feather tracts) showing under the skin of the top baby's wing.

I was completely unprepared for the drastic change in the birds from Day 3 to Day 4, August 18. Check this out!

 It's like they more than doubled in size. How did that happen? Sudden influx of crickets and grasshoppers? Creatine? From little blobs with bluish wingnubs to quills?? Look how much more of the nest cup they fill now!

And they're all angles! 

If I came to peek at the nest and Mrs. Piper was there I let her be. I only photographed the babies when I'd casually walk by and find her absent, off gathering food. You can see here the canopy that indigo buntings favor when they select a nest site. It's a rain shield, a sun shield, and I had to poke my camera lens right through the near leaves to get my shots. It was a little tricky, and I relied on the G-12's autofocus entirely.

Day 5. It's a hot one and they are not begging now, but panting.
Their sunshade is working pretty well, but heat reflects off the garage wall. Whew, what a summer it was.

 And where was Piper? Very occasionally seen at his favorite pastime (primping) but never attending the nest. Not even singing. Piper's work, apparently, is done. It may not do to have a brilliant blue ball of feathers flying back and forth to a hidden nest. Mine is not to judge. But I have to say, male indigo buntings have it pretty good. You have to get up at the crack of dawn, but after that it's all singing, mating and primping. Little rock star, what a life you lead. 

Indigo Bunting Nest!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I was going in the garage via the small side door and saw a tall white lettuce plant (a weed) sticking up out of my pink hibiscus patch that lines the garage. I reached over to pull it and a small brown bird fluttered up out of the hibiscus!  Now, having done this a number of times I know the way a female bird flies when she's coming off the nest--in a quick, fluttery way designed to draw attention to her and not her nest.

And there in the nest were three lovely greenish-blue eggs. Which I did not photograph, because I didn't want to scare Mrs. Piper.

who sat for a long time on them and stared me down when I'd peek at her from the yard. Go away, primate. Just go away.

And then on August 15 in the morning I peeked in when she came off the nest and there were two babes, just hatched.

The flash fired, whoops! but it didn't stop the new babies from begging from an unlikely mama: my Canon G-12.

Oh sweetness.

They've grown by Day 2...but still think the camera's Mom. I've learned to disable the flash, and to wait for late morning to get the most ambient light on the nest. Ohhh, I love this shot so much.

 By the looks of that last egg, it's not going to hatch. See the big gas space in it, the white zone at the big end? The contents are probably liquid, never having been fertilized. And gas is building up inside. 

I had an interesting discussion with a chicken-raising Facebook friend about whether or not to remove the bad egg. She recounted having to shampoo and blow-dry a buff Orpington hen who sat too long on a bad egg and had it explode on her.  I sympathized completely, and shared my experiences shampooing and blow-drying everything from cedar waxwings to hummingbirds. Yes, I have blown-dried a hummingbird or two. Find that exact sentence anywhere in the universe, I challenge you.

I heard her point, but my cost-benefit analysis of the situation came out in favor of leaving the infertile egg in the nest. I've had 30 years of experience with infertile eggs in bluebird nests, and I've never had one explode in the short time it takes to fledge a brood. I do routinely remove them after the nestlings are two days old, but the ones I don't find simply get pushed down into the nest cup and do no harm. This, however, isn't a bluebird nest in a safe, predator-proof box. It's an open-cup nest about 2 1/2 feet off the ground in a shrub. I didn't want to touch this nest with my hands. I stuck the camera lens in through the leaves but never handled the eggs or young. I was taking a pretty big risk as it was, just approaching the nest. I didn't want to leave my scent on it and possibly attract a black rat snake or raccoon.

 The nest is in a pink saucer hibiscus shrub right up alongside our detached garage. A cement sidewalk borders the flower bed. This is an old photo of the shrub--it's a the bright green one with heart-shaped leaves, just to the right of the pink hollyhocks and window. It's a bunch more grown over now, as you'll see.

I could stand on the sidewalk, poke my camera in through the leaves, and grab a couple of shots without touching anything. Since we walk up and down the sidewalk all day long, my scent being there would not alert a predator. The chance to document an indigo bunting family's life from Day One was just too good to pass up.  I knew I'd probably never have a chance like that again, and I took it. But I didn't want to touch that nest with my hands.

One of my favorite photos from the series, also on Day 2, August 16, 2012. I can't take that bad egg. 

It's in use, a sweet baby's pillow. Doin' his chickie Pilates.

The Buntings Bide Their Time

Sunday, September 23, 2012

It was all well and good to have indigo buntings around the yard. I did begin to wonder when they were planning to get down to the business of producing more indigo buntings!  The summer was wearing on.

Piper made sure he always looked his best. Puttin' on my top hat...

During the 8-day power outage the first week of July when the electric fountain wasn't operating, I made him an acoustic bath, which he gladly used. Well, Piper and about a hundred other birds. 

The storm zapped the Spa pump and I had to replace it. What didn't I have to replace after that storm?The day I hooked the new pump up and plugged it in, I literally felt my heart start beating again. I'd been bereft without the sound and sight of birds bathing in moving water.

You felt bereft? If I don't get four baths a day in sparkling clean water I feel absolutely worthless.

Just as avid in her appreciation of our backyard amenities was Mrs. Piper. Here she is!

She'd slip in when nobody was looking and have herself a good soak and flutter. I think Mrs. Piper is a young bunting, perhaps born in 2011. She shows only the barest hint of blue on her rump and shoulders. An older female would have a pretty good blue shoulder and rump.

She doesn't have to be blue. I'm blue enough for everybody. 

It seems other birds were waiting to breed, too. I heard a racket and fluttering in the birches above my head on July 31 and witnessed this:

A male American goldfinch coughs up some regurgitated seeds for...

No, not his baby, but his mate.

Courtship feeding often precedes copulation, so I knew the goldfinches were finally readying themselves for breeding. The weed seeds were coming ripe; the birch cones were starting to dehisce. It was time for seed-eating birds to nest.

And by an utter fluke, I caught Mrs. Piper carrying nesting material to an undisclosed location near our garage. This photo was taken on July 30, my Big Day of Bird Photography. Keep hitting "Newer Post" when you've seen that one. Because it was redonk, and gave me fodder for four posts!

I was beside myself to capture this moment, and only hoped I might find the Pipers' nest.

"Serendipity favors the prepared mind."--Louis Pasteur

Waiting for Piper

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Bird photography requires great patience and a quiet, still center. You must be willing to wait for the moment when the bird you're after finally shows up and does the thing you're trying so hard to photograph. You set yourself up and make sure you're in the right place at the right time and then you hope.

I do a ton of bird photography; I spend part of every day doing it. That's because my studio window is set up to look out on one bodacious planted bird paradise of a yard. I'm bragging because I done made it myself. Everything that's there we planted, and the birds thank us by coming in close.

But waiting for Piper isn't like tapping away at your keyboard and staring to your left, then grabbing your camera as I'm doing right now. (I've taken dozens of photos of hummingbirds and yellow-throated, prairie, pine and Blackburnian warblers while trying to get this post written). It was a much more purposeful thing, because I had to wake up at 4:45, clear the blear from my eyes and be ready to rock.

Sometimes Piper would show up when there was enough light to catch him, and sometimes he wouldn't.

But other birds showed up.

Male cardinal, born this summer. He's getting his all-red bill and breast. 

Another one, peering up at me from the bell post. I love these scruffily endearing babies.

I did not expect a female Baltimore oriole to drop in while I was fruitlessly waiting for Piper to come back. But I was very grateful that she chose to check out the landscape roses growing by the water garden. The light was very low, but luscious.

There were more--tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees; a scruffy-looking common yellowthroat. But my favorite of the bonus birds I saw while waiting for Piper was this one: a Baltimore oriole fledgling. Oh, thank you for choosing poke as your perch. Your colors are divine. Positively tropical!

Just look at your little blue feet, you cute thing. Ahh, I love freshly minted birds.

I realized that I could just hang out the bedroom window all morning, Piper or no Piper. But oh, when he did appear...

Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


I took that from Wind in the Willows, but those of you who love the book already knew that. Piper was a good name for this bird, this indigo bunting who, for a couple of weeks, sang me to waking on the farm bell right outside my window. He started singing before it got light and he'd come to the farm bell, which is about 20' from my bedroom window, just as shivering dawn was dragging herself out of her eastern bed.

I wanted a picture of that. The first couple of times I shot through the glass and it was terrible. It's hard to find a setting on your camera for oh-dark-thirty that doesn't involve flash, which was the last thing I wanted to do to a bird with the courage to sit and sing his heart out on a farm bell just outside my bedroom window.

This is about as good as it got. July 13, 2012. Shot through glass in dim light.

So I got smarter. I removed the screen and slept with the window wide open all night so I'd be awakened by Piper's first note. I put my Canon 7D on its monopod and kept it at bedside. The next morning, here's what I got.

These are the actual light conditions under which Piper sang. What jumps out at you?

Piper's mandible. 

Here, with a little post-processing, you can see the silvery reflective mandible that distinguishes the male indigo bunting. I always wondered about that feature. Now I know when it comes in handy. It looks wonderful on a dawn-singing male, a little visual punch to go with the ringing audio 
"Fire! Fire! Where? Where? Put it out! Put it out!

I was still dying to get a photo of Piper on the farm bell. It was just too perfect that this magical creature, the one for whom our sanctuary, Indigo Hill, is named, would come and sing on the farm bell. Bill's mom used it to call the kids in from playing at the old farmhouse where he was born in Pella, Iowa.  And before that, who knows how many farmhands over how many decades heard its BONGG and started salivating?

I had to get that photo. Love the bell, love the bunting.

And after a couple more mornings of banging away with my camera in the dark, I did.

Ahh, Piper. You magic bird, you. Thank you.

A Bunting Named Piper

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The thing I like most about being able to work from home (besides being able to open the fridge or flop down for a nap or be there for my kids when they're sick) is being there to know the birds in my yard, to be in on their lives.  Piper is our indigo bunting, and he arrived in April and fooled around for a couple of months doing who knows what. Then he got serious in late June and proclaimed his territory from the top of Dump Hill to the farm bell in back to the willow and sycamore on the side, to the ash in the driveway. Our yard was his and he wasn't going to let anyone forget it.

I had watched him all summer in the Bird Spa. Piper was nothing if not a clean little bird.

On hot days it seemed that every time I looked out, Piper was doin' his thing. I stopped everything each time I saw him there. He is so beautiful.

As the summer wore on and the juvenile birds began to disperse from their natal homes, Piper had to share his bath with American redstarts (like this one) and common yellowthroats

and once in awhile even a scarlet tanager!
who of course was in his drab winter plumage. More's the pity.

If it offended Piper to share his bath, he never showed it. Even with four American goldfinches!

It was late summer before Piper and his mate really got going. Other birds, like our yard bluebird, were on their third brood before the indigo buntings began to think about breeding. 
This male bluebird is thinking about taking a bath. See how worn and shabby his feathers look, with gray-brown showing through? 

He'll start his molt soon, as soon as the kids are out of the house and finding their own jobs. 

Not a minute too soon, huh, Raggedy Dad?

Next: Piper and Mrs. Piper get serious.

The Rain Crows Play Ohio Pawpaw Fest!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

It's here! The Ohio Pawpaw Fest is in full swing, and The Rain Crows play at 7 pm tonight, Saturday, September 15 for a jam-packed hour of original music. We're in the last phases of preparation before we take off. But I wanted to let you know just in case someone living in striking range of Lake Snowden Park in Albany Ohio (just outside Athens) might want to wander over for the Ohio festival that has stolen my heart.
Would love to see you. Remember to blurt BLOG. And look for Phoebe Liam and their buddy Quintin selling our bling! Go here for details and directions. Hope to see you there!

Jessie Munson, our fiddler, will be with us, too, flying up from Memphis as we speak!

People Whirling Through Space

Thursday, September 13, 2012


We're back on the midway at the Washington County Fair. I will tell you something. Carnies are harder to photograph than starlings or kingfishers. They don't miss anything. You point a lens at them and you are instantly busted. He's got me all figured out behind those wraparounds. Carnies are like accipiters. They don't miss a movement.

A crowd had gathered to watch a magician perform. The perfect setup. None of them paid any attention to me and Shila. There was something so medieval about it all, and beautiful, too.

Sinuously amazing. Where her center of gravity is, who knows.

So there's this ride, I don't know what it's called, maybe a Tilt-a-Whirl. But to me it looks like a salad spinner for humanity.

It spins and spins, faster and faster, and then goes up on end, centrifugal force keeping everyone perfectly in place.

No matter what they do with their hands.

I didn't realize until I edited these shots that I had captured a bit of human behavior that still astonishes me. 
Now. Watch the blonde lady in the denim capris and blue print blouse. Third from left.

Call coming in.

Digging for the phone.

Several revolutions later, still trying to extract it from her pocket. Can't be easy with those G's. And I'm not talkin' 4G. Gforce.

Finally gets it out.

And she spends the rest of the ride texting.

I don't know. I like my new iPhone, but if I were whirling around at 50 mph in a giant salad spinner, I might just let 'er ring on through. If there were ever a situation where you might want to pay attention to what's happening at the moment, I'd pick spinning around in a giant salad spinner 30 feet above the earth. 

This little vignette of human behavior actually scares me. Of course there is the possibility that the call coming in was really important. So I have to cut her some slack. I just think I'd be too terrified to let go long enough to answer, much less frame a reply. Ride it out.

 People were standing in line for a half hour at a time for the honor of being spun-dry.  Not me, boy. Blarrrgh. My inner ear got up and left me when I was still in my 20's.

Fascinated by relatedness--faces in duplicate.

More humans spinning through space. There's a dignity maintained, despite the crazy whirl.

Maybe not his idea of a great ride. Just tryin' to fit in. Pokey little midway. No Wild Mouse. 

Just a coupla guys spinning around in a cup. 

Dead heat for favorite image from the fair between so many, but I like this one. How is it that little boys grasp the power of centrifugal force so readily? I get the theory but still don't trust it, would be hanging on like death to those chains.

Patient ponies with precious cargo.

The proud look one astride casts upon commoners below. I remember casting that look, back in the day. Never mind the mamahand on her arm...

This hat stayed on in the Human Salad Spinner. A coup.

You're gazing out over the crowd, and suddenly there appears a phoenix before you.

People don't even know how beautiful they are. I hope you've enjoyed this walk through the midway.

 Such a humble little fair, but packed so fully with everything an artist loves--the bizarre and the beautiful. I return to it each September for that wistful yearly afternoon of bliss. I think this was my favorite ever. All the strange and wonderful collided at once.


 The clouds, threatening all day, finally organized themselves and formed a slowly spinning vortex. Shila and I looked at each other, laughed one last time, each of us independently framing the shot with the clouds lined up so they seemed to emanate from the funnel cake trailer, and packed it in. 

We did not eat funnel cakes. We were good. I had a corn dog, though, and let me tell you it was dee-lee-shus. Even though I peeled most of the corn off it. 

Sky stirrers.

The heavens opened just as we buckled our seat belts. Our camera gear, dry as a bone. It was the perfect outing.

Photo by Shila Wilson

 Bigger can be better. So can more. 
A girl can dream, right?

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