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Schneakin' Up On Bucks

Sunday, December 9, 2018


 Every morning I get up in the dark. I raise the blinds and go back to bed to write in my journal. I write down my dreams, and then segue into whatever's on my mind. Maybe I plan something, start writing a talk, chew over something that's been bugging me, or just write about what I'd most like to do next. It's a hopeful journal.

Also hopeful is waiting for first light, to see if there's anyone out in the meadow. My heart pounds as the light comes up, especially if I see shapes out there.  On this morning, I saw two shapes in the path not far from the house. One was a pretty buck, and the other I couldn't quite tell. But from the way they were behaving, I knew it was time to suit up and get out there.

I schnuck out the front door, closing it soundlessly, and slunk over behind the Rose of Sharon. The clotheslines made a green cut across the scene, but at least I could sort of see what was going on from here.

 OMG! sparring bucks!

 It didn't look like a very even match to me!

 When they broke up I could see it was an 8 versus a spike. The big boy thought he saw something. I held perfectly still. And amazingly, they went back at it. With those damn green clotheslines still screwing up my shots.

This was not a pitched battle. It almost seemed gentle. Their motions were slow and smooth, without any of the furious pushes or shiftings of position you'd expect if they were really fighting.

The older buck had a beautiful high rack with long tines. I wouldn't call it massive, but it's my favorite kind of rack from an aesthetic viewpoint. I'd about had it with the clotheslines. I decided to go for it. So I waited until they went into another mini-match and then I took a deep breath and schlooped like Napoleon Dynamite across the open lawn. I raced over to the edge of the prairie meadow and buried myself behind the dead stalks of a big gray sunflower, holding my breath and staying down.

Oh so much better! And they never knew I'd done it. All hail testosterone and distracted bucks. From here, I could hear their antlers clicking together. It was so cool, with the sumac on fire behind them and the frost on the grass.

The older buck kept looking around like he sensed the presence of other deer. Maybe there were does around, and he could smell them. He wasn't 100% into the match.

 He could have annihilated the younger buck if he'd wanted to, but instead he just kept politely answering the repeated requests to engage.

You can see from the ear position that the small buck is feeling ornery.

He just kept buggin' the big buck.

I don't fully understand how antler fights work. How they keep from getting their eyes poked out. Especially when you have a tiny set of spikes and you're up against a long tined tree. I liked this next shot. Click on that one. You can see the whites of their eyes. As you can see I was shooting through the sunflowers, and they had no idea I was right there.

It occurred to me that the white throat and belly of a deer must have some powerful social signaling function, beyond the countershading camouflage value.  It's the white flag of surrender, perhaps.

And still that little cuss kept pushing it. Maybe he was practicing, knowing his battles would be for real next fall. It seemed to me quite charitable of the big buck to keep answering his challenges.

It isn't often you get to be present for a sparring match. I took a lot of photos. I'm going to save some for  the next post, because my gosh. A lot of stuff happened next. I felt so lucky to be there. It was as if I'd been given a Cloak of Invisibility.

Postscript: This morning, Dec. 9, I was schneakin' up on bucks from first light until 9 AM. What I was privileged to witness makes this look like child's play, literally. Gonna be a Deery December. Hope you like whitetails! :D xo jz

A Prayer to the Nature Gods, Granted

Monday, December 3, 2018

 Written in the middle of Ohio's whitetail gun season last week, when I always feel anxious for my friends in the woods:

Cruel Nature Gods, while you're sparing my friends, pass over this spike buck who wandered in to the feeders.

He's too young to be Ellen's son, Pinky, who's probably sporting six or eight points by now. I don't know who he is. He's just small and sweet.

He bears more than a passing resemblance to Buffy, who I am still waiting for. She should have shown up by now. I'm having another Half-ear Smalley moment with Buffy. As Ellen's companion for many years, Buffy's got to be at least 12 now, and I suppose one fine winter she simply won't appear.  I already miss her stocky, short-legged form.

If you can't be with the ones you love, love the ones you're with...Please deem this red-breasted nuthatch and his adorable female companion too small for the hawk to bother with.

Male red-breasted nuthatch-black cap.
They amuse me no end when they chitter at me first thing in the morning. They get so excited when I go rattle the feed bins. Then they flit all around me tittering as I fill the feeders. I adore them. Chatty little companionable things!

Female--gray cap.

And, Nature Gods, please keep this sweetly inquisitive young female yellow-bellied sapsucker from braining herself on one of my unprotected windows. At least around here, the favorite pastime of sapsuckers is flying pell-mell into plate glass. She's bounced off my studio window netting several times since she showed up. I always laugh when they do it--trying so hard to kill themselves, only to be foiled again.

She knows there must be food around because all the birds seem to be eating something. But she has yet to figure out the peanut feeder. She did find some peanut scraps in the cracks of the post she's sitting on. The nuthatches and redbellies process their peanuts there. She liked those. I hope she'll key in before too long. Other sapsuckers have, but it's been 20 years.

I laughed out loud when this titmouse landed as I was shooting as if to show her his sunflower seed.

It's a sunflower seed. They're good. Instead of pecking morosely at the arbor vitaes all day, you should try them, you silly gherkin.

I keep sending this bird mind pictures of delicious roasted peanuts. She's staring right down at Jemima's special feeder, which is always stocked with peanuts and Zick Dough. But she Just. Can't. Make. The. Connection.  Hanging out in the yard, 20' away, is a lovely peanut feeder you can land on and eat to your heart's content.

Don't you know that everyone who comes to Indigo Hill gets fed?  Pfft! I give up.

I have been working so steadily to finish my book that I prepared this post and forgot I'd done it. And while it was simmering away, hunting season came and went. I was locked in the house for six days, and thank the Lord it rained and was absolutely miserable the whole time. On the last day (Sunday Dec. 2), the sun came out like an extravagant apology, and of course the shots were ringing out all around, because now in Ohio we hunt on Sundays, over bait no less. So I spent most of the day puttering happily around the yard and greenhouse. I did all the things you can't do if it's cold and raining. The light was beautiful and I washed and hung out three loads of bedding.

This morning I awoke to find the gray flannel had closed over us again. Another dreary day. But wait! there was something out in the meadow. This is not an accident. It's the first morning after hunting season and you can bet the deer know it!

 The light was so flat and dull I actually didn't even see two of them at first. If you click on this photo, you'll see the one farthest in back is really beautiful--big square throat bib, strong features, large eyes, dark smooth coat. I can't be absolutely sure, because it's too far to see her ear notch, but I think it's my lovely Jolene, and I think the medium-sized doe to the right is her two-year-old daughter. With any luck, they're both with fawn from one of the beautiful bucks I've seen on the place this fall (more on them later!)

Who's the small doe to the left? When she raised her head, I knew in an instant. This is not a young animal. This is someone I know.

BUFFY Buffybuffybuffy Hello my love!!
Click on the photos and you'll see her all-red tail and the buff cast to her brows and coat. But it's by her build I recognize her first.
 If ever there were a textbook Buffy photo this is it. She's a short-legged thick little gal
and a bit on the squinty side.
Her left eye looks fine. I was SO glad to see my Buffy.

Hadn't seen her since March 8, 2018, a day with light.  The light will return. Buffy did.

All hail the Nature Gods, and the resilience of a little doe who knows where to hide. 

Avian CSI and My Unique Theories

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


Yesterday was another crests-up day, all day long. The sharp-shinned hawk made an appearance in late morning, but I knew he'd been hangin' around, because there was nothing happening at the feeders, despite the steadily falling snow.

My photos of the sharpie are all terrible, but it's because he's old and wise and he knows to sit well out of camera range. He's no dummy, and he's a good hunter. I've heard a sudden bird squeal from his favorite part of the north border, and on the day I'm chronicling here (November 21), I saw him make a kill.

The jays were merrily feeding, crests straight up, when he came in from the southwest like a blue bullet, looping up just enough to clear the house, then diving on the feeders. He did a barrel roll which bottomed out right in the middle of the jay flock, and came out with something in his fist. My heart was in my throat but I instantly ascertained that his prey was much too small and brown to be a jay. Besides. He's not after jays. He'd have a terrible time subduing one. He doesn't want a fight. He wants food.

I watched him as he took it into the north border and made a mental note to wait a few hours, then go into the woods to try to find the kill site. I wanted to give him plenty of time to consume the bird. Photographers and birders take note: The last thing you want to do is chase and disturb a hawk that's just caught a bird. You could make him drop it, and that would be a very bad thing to do. It would be a waste of a good meal for a bird who needs it badly. Leave him alone. The only look you'll get is him leaving the bird behind.

Sharp-shins are declining precipitously in the U.S., even as Cooper's hawk populations are burgeoning. Why would that be? Aren't there enough feeder birds to go around? The simplest, most surprising explanation would be that Coops have taken to eating their smaller cousins. Terrible thought, but it appears to be true.  I hate it when nature works like that, but it is what it is. It's called habitat partitioning. And it will force the sharpie to live in places where Cooper's hawks aren't. Feeders, thanks to their unnatural concentration of songbirds, bring the two together. As I think about it, most precipitous declines can be traced to an anthropogenic cause. 

As I pontificate on why there are so few sharp-shinned hawks around, realizing that I'm sewing this mostly out of whole cloth, I'm seeing John Cleese as paleontologist Anne Elk, introducing her groundbreaking new theory about the brontosaurus, stridently stating, "This is my theory. It is mine, and I came up with it. It is an original theory, and it is my theory." 
Many thanks for giving delightful flesh to my hazy memory to

So I was not about to disturb this accomplished little sharpie at his meal. I waited about four hours, then I went out.

It didn't take long to find the shadow of his lunch. The curious will want to click on and embiggen all these photos.

Let's have a closer look at that. 

There were only two scraps of anything resembling bone.

Mandible, neatly cleaned. Scoop-shaped, conical. So it was a finch. 

Pinkish-red rump feathers. Dull brown flight feathers. It was a male finch. Purple or house? We have both, and their colors have evolved to be nearly indistinguishable here in the East. When they first arrived, house finches were an easily-separated tomato red, to the purple finch's raspberry wine. You could tell people to distinguish them that way, and I did. No more. They're almost the same color now. There might be some adaptive value to cooler reds in the East. Less need to radiate heat? This is my theory, and it is mine. No one else has come up with it, because the theory is unique, and it is mine. Channeling Anne Elk again. Brain on overdrive today.

The answer to the victim's identity is here, in this photo below. Anyone know why?

It was a male house finch, because those three buffy undertail coverts to the lower left have brown streaks on them. There are no brown streaks anywhere on a male purple finch. Case closed. Except for cool leftover bits of info.

 Here are the sharpie's droppings. There are almost always droppings at a kill site. 

 You can tell they're hawk droppings because they squirt out in a line. Owls drop a puddle, straight down.

 All this took place just inside the woods. That's our garage there, and the yard.
Sharpie knows where the good food is. 

I was a little rattled by the close call. What if he'd grabbed a jay? Telling myself he won't. And when I came out of the woods I found big clumps of rabbit fur.  Aww, no. Please no. I can't lose Half-ear Smalley! He's only five months old!

It didn't look good for Smalley. But I searched and found no blood. Just clumps of torn fur. So maybe he survived whatever had happened to him.

Nov. 21, 2018

I didn't see him for a few days. I figured a coyote had nabbed him.

And then on the morning of Nov. 24, he showed up again. 

Whewwwww. It is ever thus with rabbits, eminently edible, dear little creatures that they are. They're always looking over their shoulders, and I am too, on their behalf.

I've since found more such fur clumps, with no blood or bone or sign of major struggle, and I have to conclude that the rabbits are fighting these days. Over what, I don't know. Maybe corn.
Please, Nature Gods, don't take Half-ear Smalley. I need warm furry things around to watch, feed and love, even if I can't touch them.

What Makes a Blue Jay Raise Its Crest?

Monday, November 26, 2018

One thing I have noticed about blue jays, having watched them closely for a year and a half now, is that they almost never raise their crests unless they are agitated, angry or (as in this bird) simply fluffing all their feathers. It's rare enough that I was thrilled to get this photo.

So it amuses me to see artists' depictions of blue jays with their crests invariably, perkily, straight up. They have a crest, the thinking seems to go. So they must keep it up, right? Wrong. Blue jay crests are raised only very rarely, and for specific reasons.

 I bought this decorative plate at a consignment store in Hendersonville, NC this April. I'm sort of building a collection of blue jay stuff (in a very desultory way; my collecting gene is weak). Not on purpose, just picking things up as I find them, or as people give them to me. Knowing blue jays as I do, though, I look at it and wonder what those cute babies did to make their mama so mad. I worry that Baby 2 is about to peck the eyes out of drowsy Baby 1. Maybe that's why Baby 1's eyes are shut. Also if I saw a blue jay with underparts that white I'd flip out and name it Glacier and take a million photos of it. Sorry. I've been living among blue jays too long. I've gotten a bit testy.

Now, cardinal crest rules are completely different from jay crest rules. Cardinals raise their crests all the time, and it doesn't necessarily indicate anger or agitation. It can, but they also raise them when they're singing and eating and just looking around being chubbeh, like here. A very roundish cardinal.

I was thinking about how long it had been since I had been able to catch a jay with its crest up when something changed in our yard.  Suddenly everyone was going around with tall crests.

They were flighty and agitated.

Even the hairy woodpecker, usually a mellow bird, had some big hair going on.

This is how birds tell each other that something evil  this way goes.

And this is the cause. On Nov. 17, this adult male sharp-shinned hawk spent most of the day hanging out in the woods just beyond and to the north of the feeders.  If you click on this heavily obstructed photo, you can see the glint in his garnet-red eye.

He normally strafes the feeders several times a day, then disappears into the orchard. I always thrill to see him, even as I worry about my jays. But on this sunny warmish day, he was oddly relaxed, sitting with one foot pulled up into the floof of his belly feathers. Perhaps he had a full crop.

All the birds know that as long as he's puffed up and standing on one leg, he's not going to launch an immediate attack. But oh, that eye. You don't want that eye to fix on you, don't want the pupil to draw down to a pinpoint, because you might suddenly become lunch.

So after a period of utter panic and sitting frozen still, they gingerly resume their activity, but they all keep one eye on the hawk the entire time. Hairy Woodpecker is looking directly at him. She keeps her crest fluffed to tell all the other birds to beware.

The jays were almost nonchalant about the hawk. After all, they weigh nearly as much as he does (3 oz to the male sharpie's 3-4 oz). Hard to believe that hawk weighs only that much. A female sharpie can weigh up to 7.7 oz. I can't say I've seen jays virtually ignoring a big female sharpie!

They did, however, pay him the homage of keeping their crests up as long as he was around.

He returned for another camp-out on November  22, one of those dull gray days when not much seems to be happening. And up went the crests again.

It's the birds' nonverbal way of saying danger perches, preening and dozing, in a nearby tree.

When he mounted to the top of an elm, all the jays' alarm bells went off at once.

And when he finally took off to the northwest, a salvo of jeers followed him.

He'd be back, and next time, I'd witness his work.

Yes it is a cliffhanger, but a very small one. I'll be back, too. :)

Painting so hard on the LAST TWO illustrations for Saving Jemima. I made it through the Ecuador trip and Thanksgiving and Liam's coming home, and now I'm back at the drawing table, working with joy and verve again. Unstructured time for composition, thought and's a beautiful thing.

I have a list of stuff I have to get back to when those paintings are done. So if you have sent me an email asking about a possible speaking gig, and I haven't replied, please know that there's a stack of email not being ignored, but simply waiting to be answered. First things first. Gotta finish this book!

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