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Looking at a Mole

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I was blessed with a couple of days with dear friends this past weekend. Murr Brewster, author of the incredible blog Murrmurrs, and Sara (aka littleorangeguy) and Kelly from Tronto, and mahbesfren Shila too, all descended on Indigo Hill to see what they could see. I tried to keep them strapped in and behaving but it was no use. They busted out like four bad little monkeys and we laughed and laughed. 

On the last morning we took a walk that wound up being a lot longer than we'd planned. All the best walks do. Murr, who is a brisk, almost military walker, having been a letter carrier for most of her life, just takes off and six miles go by and you never even know it because the conversation is so effervescent and interesting. 

Murr found a mole. We could tell right away it was a dead mole, because there was dried mud on its fur, and no self-respecting mole lets that happen. 
Something had grabbed it, crunched it, and dropped it. This happens a lot to moles and shrews, who are mistaken for something better to eat, say a vole or a mouse, then discarded when their true identity is discovered. They must not taste very good.

What a waste of a good mole. Bad coyote. Eat what you kill.

Since it had been a long time since I'd held a mole (the star-nosed that I found in our yard being the last one), I thought I'd go over it with my iPhone camera, just because. But wait. I have to tell you this thing I found out. Star-nosed moles are the only aquatic North American mole. And the star-like processes on the nose are used to hold a bubble of air so it can forage and smell underwater. Agh! and OMG. If true. One never knows with teh Intertubes.

This photo from National Geographic.  which goes on to say that moles are the fastest foragers known amongst the Earth's mammals, able to snatch prey in a quarter of a second. Yeah, they look slow...Interestingly, they don't mention the air-bubble hypothesis. 

Its teeth are amazing. The side teeth are pretty much what I expected for an insectivore. But the two front incisors slayed me. They reminded me of 'Mater from Cars. 

Not sure what that's about, though they would seem to be admirably suited to slicing earthworms, a major prey for moles. 

Eastern moles are members of the family Talpidae in the order Soricomorpha (which I think means "shaped like a shrew" in Latin.) It's the lone member of the genus Scalopus

Moles are all about digging, fitting into narrow spaces and moving easily back and forth in tunnels. It helps to be shaped like a sausage. I'd love to see a mole skeleton. They're very front-end loaded, with a powerful pectoral girdle and great heavy bones in their forelimbs. The pelvis, not so much--narrow and fine and not fused at the pubis which, I read, allows them to turn about on themselves, fold double and somersault within the narrow tunnel they've dug. Cool. 


Probably the first things one notices about moles is their incredible silky steel-gray fur. You can brush it forward or back. It grows without direction, which is helpful if you're moving forward and backward in  narrow spaces. Each hair has a superfine whiplike tip. Not sure what that's about, except perhaps shedding dirt and water.

I was amused to learn that mole pelts are too small to be of commercial value, and furthermore they don't take dye well. So somebody has tried skinning moles and dyeing their fur. I'd like to meet that person. 
Homo sapiens is a strange and wonderful beast.

My friend Clarence has skinned salmon. He says the skin is turquoise, and remarkably fine and incredibly strong when tanned. I keep hoping he'll make me a salmon purse. Murr would probably like one, too. 

The tail. Disarmingly cute, fat. The hairs on it, said to be sensory organs to help the mole tell what's behind it. The hind feet, a bit of an afterthought when you consider what he's got up front. We'll get to those.

Sorry I don't have a better picture of mole junk. I'm pretty sure this is a female; it looked a bit catlike in the junk department. Male moles carry their testes internally and, one account asserted, have no scrotum, so looking for that wouldn't have been much help. Since moles give birth in April, I felt kind of bad about the possibility that there might have been a couple of moles-to-be in her. And briefly considered a post mortem scalopian Caesarian, but there was quiche to warm up and we were all famished, as you get when morning walks go past 1 pm and your hostess is still in the woods poking about at a mole.

The front feet. Hands. Shovels. Bulldozer blades. Fu-Manchu nails, ever growing, ever worn down by grit and soil and the making of the mole's way.

The moles arms, permanently fixed in a sideways breast-stroke position, palms out. An extra bone in the wrist, the os falciforme, to help with excavation. I was disarmed by its pale skin, the lines on its palm. Your lifeline was too short, my little friend. 

The mole moves through its dark world, a swimmer in soil, always having to make its own way through solid earth. If it's going to go anywhere it's going to have to dig its way there. I know the feeling sometimes. Imagine you do too. 

Of course I wonder what the mole sees. I dug around and found its tiny eye. A sensory organ, but much reduced, and covered with skin, the way a fetus' eye might be. Surely it can see light and dark, but not much else. Back underground with you.

From there, I wondered what it's like to be a mole, to have your senses reduced to smell and touch and hearing and vague perceptions of light (I've broken out on top! Whoops!) and dark (where I belong.) I'm sure there is great richness in all that, in following the scent of worm and beetle grub, in hearing yourself excavate and listening for the furtive rustle of a possible mate. Do moles seek each other out, call in their muffled burrows, or simply wind up bumping into each other, the way box turtles do?

So I dug for the ear and was bemused to find an open hole under a great pile of soft fur. I could see a little of the inner ear structure, too. The fur must keep dirt out of that delicate orifice. At least I hope it does. How would you dig dirt out of your ear with hands like that?

Murr, who is as unsqueamishly curious as I, carried the mole home for me as we talked our way back up the hill to home. It's in the freezer now with a dated label, bound eventually for Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Right on top of the Mandarin Orange Chicken. 

This trip around the Eastern Mole brought to you by the erratic and not entirely scientific wonderings of Science Chimp, Inc. Look at his Mater teef!

photo and smile by Murr Brewster

I Sing the Sabrewing Electric

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I've seen violet sabrewings in the highlands of Honduras and in a heliconia plantation in Guatemala. They've been a quest bird for me, this nearly sparrow-sized giant hummingbird, and I've been rewarded with brief glimpses and blurry photographs. 

I am delighted to say that I almost got my fill of violet sabrewings on our trip to Costa Rica in Feb/Mar 2014. 

How could I ever get my fill of a cobalt violet hummingbird?

This is a little photo salon of sabrewings, taken at a roadside restaurant in the Central Highlands. A simple cafe that features local cuisine in an open-air setting, where you have to dodge the quarreling hummingbirds buzzing all around you. My kind of diner.

This is a truly majestic hummingbird, well-named. 
He's gorgeous enough in the shade, but when the light hits him right, you just have to gasp.

He's a knight in violet mail. 

And those spanking white tailtips. 

It's one thing to photograph a bird plunked on a plastic feeder perch. Much more satisfying to follow them to their natural resting perches.

This wing structure flips me out. I'm counting ten primaries, and five, maybe six secondaries. But the structure is unlike anything I've drawn before. And how to capture that color? I'd love to try someday soon. Permanent rose, cobalt violet, ultramarine violet would surely be in the palette.

If females, which are gray below with a small violet gorget, ever visit feeders, I've never seen one. This puzzles and amazes me. Because now I've seen a lot of violet sabrewings, and I've yet to see a female. She'll be a quest bird for me now.

Ye gods! look at that tail pattern!

Ostentatiously beautiful from any angle, the violet sabrewing is another gift from above. I can only shake my head in wonder that such creatures exist. 

I remember watching the movie "Avatar," and being left puzzled that the animation team would take the time and trouble to create an alternate ecology, all these dreamt-up plants and organisms. It was beautiful, wonderful and awesome, but I kept thinking, "Isn't what's here wonderful enough? Do these people laboring away in a studio know that there are violet sabrewings out there? Have they seen them? How could people presume to create anything half as wonderful as this?

I would be satisfied just to try to do it justice in a painting, glad to know such a bird lives and flies where I can go see it, at a roadside cafe in Costa Rica. 

Chet Baker's Trick Show

Thursday, April 24, 2014


At age nine, Chet Baker is out to disprove the adage about old dogs and new tricks. Phoebe has just taught him how to sit up, a neat trick for a long-bodied dog like him. 
Liam taught him how to high-five.

Phoebe convinced him he could sit up without having his hand held.

It didn't take him long to figure out what we wanted. He's a highly trainable little gemmun. 

Being a natural ham, he embellishes the show with piglike grunts and a captivating smile. 
Enjoy this little glimpse of the Cutest Doggeh Of Any Age, Ever.

And please excuse my own piglike grunts and snorts, done directly into the iPhone mic.

Congratulations to Phoebe, Bowdoin Class of 2018!! Maine, here she come. Says she loves winter.

OK then. We'll come pick you up in June.

Whoa. This is Post # 1802, since December 2005.

Wanna follow Chet Baker on Facebook? Go here for a daily dose of silly.

xo jz

Great Birds, and the Perfect Flan

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


So many and varied were the birds at Bosque de Paz that it's hard to believe we were there for only half a day. Everyone wanted to stay in the lodge, enjoying the gardens and the cloud forest all around.

Not to mention the flan, best of the trip. I do love a good flan, swimming in caramel sauce. Mmm. Eggily delicious.

The purple-throated mountaingem female, with a male green-crowned brilliant. 

There was a lot of sparring. A green-crowned brilliant strafes a violet saberwing. These are not small, shy, retiring hummingbirds. They're F-16's.

The saberwing retires to a shrub, glowing like a candle, incandescent violet.

We found the orange-bellied trogon hen deep in the forest by following her soft whoop. Can you see her long eyelashes?

The gallery forest along the trail was beautiful and quite birdy, wreaths of mist swinging in and out of the leaves.

I got a smile out of Mario.

Back at the lodge we gathered and did a little more birding before departing. I was drawn to a black phoebe who was perched in front of a satellite dish. In the US, we try to make them blend in, so they're generally a dull gray color. In Costa Rica, they must be a status symbol, because they're fire-engine red, sprouting from every roof. Hey! We have satellite TV!

I loved this shot, this staunch little bird taking in the world from a jungle of wires and steel.

So enthralled was I with the phoebe and his scarlet backdrop that I nearly missed a male scintillant hummingbird. Mario yelled to me to come right now!!

I hustled over and grabbed a shot.

I believe in dragons and winsome little fairies too, and I know where to find them. Bosque de Paz, in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica.

Strangler Fig and Solitaire

Sunday, April 20, 2014


It's so thrilling to me to walk in a forest with which I'm completely unfamiliar. To know not what birds, animals, insects and plants I'll encounter. To look for the familiar things in an exotic place. In Costa Rica, many of the plants I saw were old friends from horticulture. This dainty little begonia growing in a chink in a strangler fig looks a lot like some of the beefsteak begonias I used to grow. 

Certainly an arum of some kind. Wouldn't want to chew that leaf! Oh, the gorgeous interplay of yellow and green in its veins!

A little phalanx of women fell behind the rest of the group and into the patterns and textures of leaves. We oohed and aahed and shot photos and forgot all about birds and hiking. This is one thing I loved about our group. We were mostly generalists, able to appreciate anything and everything. Well-matched.

A passionflower tendril. Oh, the tensile strength in that coil.

Kim got us all looking up into the rainy sky through a tree fern. That is a fern the size of a tree, growing unchanged since the days of the dinosaur. A wondrous thing. 

But it got better. For Bosque de Paz has a stunning collection of miniature orchids under cultivation in a small grove near the lodge. This photo is life-size. I think its a Masdevallia. 

I thought that, were I the size of a cricket, I could much better appreciate their minuscule yet perfect blossoms. I was enchanted to see familiar orchid bloom shapes, shrunk down beyond belief. Had to turn my binoculars around to see the structure and hazard a guess at the genus. I wondered what pollinates such tiny wonders. Ants? Gnats? 

We came upon a strangler fig, a vine which sprouts from a bird-dropped seed on a limb of the host tree. It sends down aerial roots, and sends out vines in every direction, which meet and fuse and eventually envelop the host tree entirely. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was an honest tree. But it got there by supporting itself on another tree, which has now long died, shaded out, and rotted out from under the strangler fig. Yeesh.

Jim sends his camera in to have a look. I followed, and actually crawled inside the cavity to see if anything was left of the host tree.

Nada. Clean as a whistle it was, not a speck of sawdust or punky wood to say what the host tree had even been. Kind of eerie, looking up the hollow trunk of the strangler, to a point of daylight high high above. It was like being inside the digestive tract of a large plant monster, Jonah in the strangler fig.

We stopped to listen to the haunting song of the black-faced solitaire, a thrush that sings like a rusty gate swinging and squeaking, pure notes sliding up and down the scale, the perfect adagio when punctuated by the patter of rain.

I kept my lens on the bird and was delighted to see it land on a palm inflorescence, gone to fruit. The aril perfectly matched its bill and legs. I don't think that's an accident, somehow.

Here I am, it said, and here is my larder, and here is my song. Listen and see. Stay with me.

Listen to the spine-tingling "rusty swingset" song of the solitaire here. 

Birdy Joy at Bosque de Paz

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It was a cool and overcast day when we arrived at the cloud forest called Bosque de Paz (Peace Forest).  The rustic lodge nestled quietly against a mountainside

 Hummingbird feeders buzzed with activity.
I don't like photographing hummingbirds on plastic feeders, vastly preferring natural perches, but I made an exception for this huge violet saberwing, who took my breath away. This is a hummingbird the size of a junco, a hefty mountain beast who rules the air. Its wings make a low thrum. You know a bird of substance is in the area when you hear that. And when you catch the violet, well, just try to remember to breathe. Many, many more violet saberwings to come. I celebrate the violet saberwing.

A little tip for eco-lodges, Bosque de Paz in particular: Putting up a few low dead snags against a green forest background, or planting shrubs up near the feeders where hummingbirds can perch and stage as they battle for eating rights goes miles toward making photographers happier. Just one shrub or snag can make the difference between a documentary photo like this one, and an aesthetically pleasing composition. Many more of those to follow.

I was dumbstruck by the beauty of the green-crowned brilliant (male shown here). Yes, it is tiny, but is it not a flying, jewel-armored dragon? A myth come to life, sipping sugar water at a faded feeder.

I watched the feeders, and watched the hummingbirds as they dispersed into the vegetation just off the pavilion where the feeders hung. Moved quietly there and sat down for awhile to look. And found this little female green-crowned brilliant at rest.

The male repaired there, too. 

I loved seeing them perching on twigs, in proper, plastic-free context.

This would be why it's called a green-crowned BRILLIANT. These little creatures turn their heads to face you and bang! you're smacked with a psychedelic neon vision. Who knew he sported an acid-green gladiator's helmet? An electric blue bow tie?

Don't miss the little female he's displaying for just below...

Speaking of myths, I was thrilled to see my first 88 butterfly. For decades, I've looked at photos of this bug, wondering if I'd ever be blessed to see it in real life. Glad it happened before I turned 88.

There were some pretty spiffy songbirds in a fruiting tree a little ways off. We set up the scope and my iPhone to capture a distant but still breathtaking golden-browed chlorophonia (a sort of tanagery/finchy affair), who looks like he was assembled by committee. How about a sky-blue collar? Yes, that would be nice!

At the feeders nearby, a white-tipped dove stepped daintily up to some scattered grain.

The brilliant David Sibley describes white-tipped doves as having a "bemused expression." I love finding lyrical gems like that in a field guide. The more, the better, I say.

Hope he kept it in the stunning revision just published. 

A yellow-thighed finch took my breath away with his snazzy pantalones.

And chestnut-capped brush finches were everywhere. What a gorgeous variation on the towhee theme.

My favorite non-hummingbird photo of the day, though, was of a dipper who zipped downstream and paused just long enough to dazzle us before flying on. The composition with that delta of skylit water behind the bird was perfect. Though this is the same species (Cinclus mexicanus) as inhabits the western U.S., it was quite distinct in appearance, being much paler and seemingly more slender. This, however, could have something to do with the fact that it's diving in warm tropical watercourses rather than the freezing cold tumbling trout streams of  Wyoming. No need to keep yourself puffed out to the max here!

and oh, did I love that delicious warmth.
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