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Big Skink News!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

 One thing I really get off on is being able to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even better is a story that continues. Stories need to go somewhere.

This is why I label and date my photos. When you label and date your photos you can retrieve them. When you can retrieve your photos, you can pile them all together and tell a story with them.

It's kind of like curating scientific specimens. If someone brings a dead bird to a museum, one they've had in their freezer for an unspecified time, and they didn't bother to put a slip of paper into the Ziploc bag with it, one with two simple bits of information written on it: date and location where it was found, well, that bird is of vastly diminished use as a specimen. If it gets into the collection at all, it'll be made into a skeleton.

Put a date and location on a slip of paper in with that bird, and it magically becomes a scientific specimen. Simple as that. You have to date stuff. You have to put a location on it. Then it can be used for study.

The same goes for photographs. I date mine. It makes all the difference.  On May 15, 2018, I noticed a bunch of tailings coming out of the rotty corner of our garage. I caught a glimpse of something long and dark skittering smoothly up into the rotted wood.  What would dig like that? And what would disappear up into the rottiness? It could only have been a lizard. Squee!!!

That same morning, I went into the rotty garage to retrieve my cargo carrier, that I call my Poor Man's Pickup Truck. I attach it to the trailer hitch on the old Subaru and poof! I can carry stinky garbage cans, leaky gas cans, bales of straw, what have you...all the stuff you have to haul when you live a long way out in the sticks.

And in the same corner of the garage was the author of that pile of tailings. A beautiful and totally unexpected adult female five-lined skink.
May 15, 2018, Indigo Hill, Whipple, Ohio

She's looking out of that rotty corner at her beautiful pile of gravel. She lives in my garage. Now, she's not the first adult five-lined skink I've found there. Soon after we moved to the place in the mid 1990's, I found an adult male the size of a kielbasa in that garage. Sorry, data lacking, dammit! And no photo, because I wasn't equipped then. He had a bright orange head and he was thicc.  I was flabbergasted. I'd never known adult male skinks got that big (he was about 9" long!) or that big around! Or that they had this huge orange head!

Then, in the summer of 2017, I saw an adult female nosing around the birdseed bins. I saw her a few times, and got the impression she lived in the garage. Still an  impressive beast, but lacking the bright orange head. So: female.
But this summer was about to be different. 

On August 3, 2018, I got out of my car, which I'd driven up to the front door, and noticed a little swirl of motion on the low terrace wall of the front garden bed. It disappeared into the hostas.

"Well, that moved like a lizard," I thought. I hadn't even set foot on the lawn when Phoebe, who'd come out to help me unload groceries, squealed, "Mama, there's a skink under your car!"

So that made two!

The one on the terrace came back out to have a look at us.

You cannot possibly imagine the squealing that went on between Phoebe, Liam and me about this event.

 It would be grand enough to have a skink around. But this was the first time we'd ever had a brand new juvenile, much less two. There are not enough exclamation marks in my keyboard.

On August 4, Phoebe sounded the skink alert from the back patio, where she'd been visiting the two copperheads who live peacefully in the ever-widening cracks along the edge.

There was a skinklet on the wall, right above the copperheads' home!

It retreated under a decorative block that happened to be lying there. We waited, and it eventually peeked out at us. SQUEE!!

 This would be exciting enough without their having that ravishing blue-indigo-violet tail, that end-of-the-rainbow ombre shaded tail.

Who knows why they have that? To delight entire families of Science Chimps?

My new high-efficiency washing machine is efficient at one thing, and it's not getting clothes clean. It does a supremely lousy job at that. What it's great at is ripping clothing to shreds. It managed to rip a hole in the seat of Liam's work jeans that he could stick his head through. I had left them on the front porch in a heap for disposal. And when I picked them up, guess who was hiding under them?

A smol little skink, who had already lost the end of its rainbow. Be careful out there, little skink. We love you too, too much.

Needless to say, little skink shelters have appeared all over the porch and stone walls, myriad flat stones and bits of crockery under which they may hide. We strive to please our tenants here.

I'm thinking that the young skinks may be fattening up on a strange exotic insect that has overrun the stone walls, patio and steps here in the last five years or so. They're minute, the size of a leafhopper nymph or a tiny ant, and they travel in herds of hundreds, running over the rock and cement, such that the whole surface seems to move.

I first photographed them on cemetery headstones on August 30, 2011, down the road from here. I had a hell of a time figuring out what they were, but my Google-fu eventually prevailed.

Meet Stimulopalpus japonicus. As its species name suggests, imported who knows how from Japan. Lives on rocks. Eats who knows what. I'm burning to learn more. Wikipedia is no help at all. 

Stimulopalpus japonicus is a species of tropical barklouse in the family Amphientomidae.[1][2][3][4] It is found in North America and Southern Asia.[1]

How is something found in North America and southern Asia? What's a tropical barklouse doing on rocks in Whipple? What does it eat? How does it live? is similarly blank-faced about it.
If I had world enough and time, I'd try to figure out at least what the things are eating. What they're doing. How so many of them can live together on a concrete block. I mean, what the heck. 

I may not know what these things eat, but I have a feeling they're what's making my dear little skinks so roundish. 

Being able to wade through your food is a good thing when you're tiny and just learning how to be a skink. Look how fett!! I hope you grow up to be a kielbasa, just like your daddy. That our female garage skink managed to lay eggs somewhere in moist soil and get them past the damned chipmunks and raccoons, to hatch into these tiny jewels, is a huge flippin' miracle to me. 
So that's our Big Skink News from Indigo Hill. 

Oh. And today Phoebe and I take Liam to Morgantown, to move him into his dorm room.
There's so much to say about that that I can't say it. One down, one to go. Ohhh we miss him already.

On my birthday. Photo by Donna Quinn. I'm not crying, you're crying.

How to Grow Sunflower Sprouts: Easy, Fun, Delicious, Free

Wednesday, August 8, 2018


 Some years ago, I went to Casa Nueva in Athens, Ohio, with my friend Mimi. Mimi knows all the best things in Athens. "I always order this salad, just for the sunflower sprouts," she enthused. I love sunflower sprouts."
Of course, I ordered the same salad, and plowed into a big pile of delicate sprouts. I adore them, too. I could eat them every day.

"Why don't I sprout sunflowers?" I mused aloud.

"I used to do it, all the time," Mimi replied. "When we were all living in a group house, you know." I smiled. I could see the scene. Buncha longhair musicians, growin' their own sprouts, eatin' government tofu.

That was all the encouragement I needed. I went home and started experimenting. First, I went to the store and bought organic sunflower hearts for snacking, thinking that would get me the cleanest sprout. I put them on damp paper towels to see if they'd grow. And they sat there, grew mold and rotted. Rats!!

I'm not sure, but they may have been heat-treated. They may have been labeled organic, but those seeds were dead. Come to think of it, hulled sunflower seeds taste dead to me. Back to the drawing board.

I went out to the garage and got a couple handfuls of black oil sunflower seeds from the wild bird seed bin. I put about an inch of vermiculite in a shallow plant saucer, pressed the seeds into it, watered and voila! A day later they were starting to sprout. Sunflowers sprout and grow at a dizzying pace. You can have edible sprouts within a week.

Nowadays, I use clean Pro-Mix potting soil. I press the seeds into about an inch of soil, cover them lightly with more soil,  and keep the soil moist but not inundated, as the big plant saucer has no drainage holes. Within a week, I'm harvesting delicious sunflower sprouts.

However,  I have to grow them indoors. The chipmunks get them immediately, even on the top shelf of a baker's rack.
Who, me? 

With the last batch, I thought I'd outsmart the chipmunks, so I put my saucers on 3' high pedestals outside, in the open, with nothing a chipmunk could jump from nearby. The next morning, every single sunflower seed had been dug out. No chipmunk can get on a 3' pedestal, and a bird won't dig. Chipmunks climb very well, but they can't jump for crap. I could only conclude that a flying squirrel had found them in the night, because they were fine at sundown and gone in the morning. I got a good laugh out of that. It's always somethin' around this place!

The perp. Taken on my back deck railing. Gawww I love flying squirrels.

Ain't no stopping a flying squirrel. It's an honor to have them clean me out. I pray they never get a taste for the Achimenes rhizomes the chipmunks love so much, because I'm really screwed then. My chipmunk-proof growing table will do me no good at all. Please, little hanky squirrels, no.

 I gave up entirely trying to grow them outdoors, and I'm producing them in the living room now, next to the deck door, where they'll get some light. Hey. That's why they call it a living room. Mine is anything but formal.

To harvest, I use a scissors to cut them off at soil level.

 I like to harvest them just after they cast off their seed shells, and before the first true leaves appear. 
Phoebe and I love to sit and twiddle off the seed shells, but if you wait a few days, they'll cast them off naturally.

Once you've harvested them, there might be a modest second wave of sprouts, but I'll compost these sad little stumps today and start over with fresh soil. I do hate cutting off seedlings; it feels wrong to me.  But I get over it because I love eating them! YUM!

Being alive, sunflower sprouts keep beautifully in a Ziploc in the fridge, and are fabulous on salads and BLT's. And live sprouts are the best, most satisfying, healthy snack ever!  

I've held onto this post long enough to show you the second wave. Here's the second cohort, photo taken August 4--only three days after planting. They were ready to harvest by Aug. 6.  I used even less soil than last time--barely an inch. And I put more seeds in, almost covering the soil with them.

 I can tell you that you can't re-use the soil, because when you upend it to dump it, you find it's a solid living mass of white roots from all those beheaded seedlings. So dump it, wash the saucer and start with fresh soil. 

Like container-grown lettuce, (my other obsession) sunflower sprouts are a fabulous free food you can grow year-round. You don't need to live in the country or even need to have a garden to grow them.  You don't even have to have a sunny window. Any window will do. Heck, they'd sprout in total darkness. Do it! Homegrown is always way better than anything you could buy. 

Tower room lettuce, Earth Day 2018. Alive, clean, salmonella free. And so much better than storebought. Now this, you do need sun to grow. But sunflower sprouts, anyone can grow, anywhere.

 This has been a PSA from Indigo Hill, where we know that all the best things in life are free.

The Bird is All Right

Sunday, August 5, 2018

I've left this post to simmer a little while because it takes time to make a whole bluebird. You shouldn't get it all in the same week! Bluebirds stay in the nest for around 18-21 days after hatching. So we're back, checking on the "not quite right" foster bluebird baby, and things have changed.

The next time I came out to check the bluebirds, it was going to be tricky. You shouldn't open a box after the babies are about 13 days old, because you risk their jumping out of the nest prematurely. But Phoebe and I were burning to know how Baby was doing on Day 16. I looked at the box, and noted that the ventilation slot just under the roof was juuust big enough to admit a curious iPhone!

Gingerly, I inserted my phone into the slot under the box roof and fired off a shot. July 26, 2018, Day 16. Look who's STILL begging!! The one in the back right corner...why, it has to be FosterBaby! What a hoot!

She's not dumb. She's opportunistic. And durn cute! Feathers and Everything!

She quickly realized her mistake and settled down, and I got this fabulous shot of the whole brood of five. As always, she's crowded into the right back corner of the box. After studying it for awhile, I could ascertain that FosterBaby is indeed a female. Not only are her secondary coverts a very dull blue, but even though there's a piece of grass over it, you can just make out a white edge to her outer tail feather--another nice and little-known early trait of female bluebird nestlings. One of those bluebird landlord secrets, ta-daaa!

The other thing you can see in this shot is the development of her tertial feathers, the ones that run in a little brown-edged stack of three atop her wing. Compare it to the development of the tertials you can see on the other babies. Hers are just coming out, while theirs are more fully developed.

Let's try a shot through the hole. You can really see the difference in her tertial development here. They're out, but not as far as those of her siblings. She's looking sleek and well-fed. I'm delighted!

Of course, I had to know if they were still in the box on July 27, her Day 17. Yep. You can just see her peeking in the back right corner in this shot taken through the entry hole. Man, I love my iPhone for applications like this! 

This would be my last shot of FosterBaby on Day 17. She's squished into the back corner, head down this time, and all three tertials are out, hooray! 

On the morning of July 29, FosterBaby's Day 19, I went down to Dean's Fork to visit the decorative box where this adventure had started. With some difficulty, I got a shot through the hole of her three biological siblings, looking fledge-ready in the back of the little blue barn house. I thought about the last time I'd pointed my phone camera in this hole, to find such a pathetic, shivering, cold, starved little thing, discarded by her mother but still hoping for help.

July 29: Three fat siblings, 19 days old, ready to fly. Nobody in the breach.

I left a slot box at the base of the pole with a note inside for Harvey, to wait about a week, then replace the decorative box with one the Science Chimp could get into and clean! 

The next time I walked out to the Fosters' box in our meadow was the evening of July 29. It would be Day 19 for Baby, Day 20 for her siblings. Her spot was empty. So was the box.

All that was left were the regurgitated seeds of wild cherries. I can see resorting to wild cherries when trying to fill the stomachs of five voracious youngun's. There is also the hard, scary-looking skull, complete with jaws, of a Nebraska conehead (a kind of grasshopper) in the nest cup, which had probably been regurgitated as well. But hardly a fecal sac to be seen. What efficient, good parents the Fosters were!

We'd had a most excellent adventure. There was one more bluebird out there who wouldn't have made it if we hadn't meddled. It's hard to say what it was that made the chick's biological mother toss her out. Even we dull-witted humans could tell she wasn't right at the outset. It seemed as if her issues resolved with time and good care, though one can never know for sure. She had flown with the rest when fledging day came. At best, she was good to go and would live a normal life. At worst, we'd given her a fighting chance to become a bluebird, and that seems like a good thing. As always, we'd learned a lot, and stored it all away for another day.

I have to say it feels good to be blogging again. There are so many stories out there,  begging for help, begging to be told.

Rosepink Birthday

Friday, August 3, 2018


Longtime readers of this blog know that my favorite wildflower is Sabatia angularis, Rosepink or Rose Gentian. Not only is it spectacular, but it smells like honeysuckle in heaven, with a distant forest fire smoking away somewhere down beneath the sweetness. Sabatia is a biennial, meaning it perks along as a small plant for a year before bursting into bloom, going to seed, dying, and starting the whole glorious cycle over with dust-fine seeds again. 

July 18, 2018. Just coming out.

The same plant on July 27, 2018. You see why I revisit things...

I check my nearest Sabatia spot, one I can walk to, obsessively as my late July birthday approaches, the goal being to find a plant in bloom on my birthday, to drop to my knees and inhale that fragrance, to give thanks for another year on the planet, and for this marvelous plant that somehow survives all our insults and smiles back at us from dry roadside meadows and banks. This year, I found one, count it, ONE plant that had escaped both the township's roadside mowing in early July and the landowner's vigorous and unaccustomed mowing of the area, just off the road banks, that formerly harbored this fabulous plant. I plunged into despair. ONE PLANT??  The Lord giveth, and the mower taketh away.

And what doesn't get mowed gets smothered around here. My two other nearby Sabatia patches--my little July chapels-- have been taken over by the enormous, razor-edged "ornamental" Asian Miscanthus grass that I despise, that has robbed so much great habitat in Washington County and many other places in southern Ohio.

Ooh, isn't that pretty? Well, the towhee is. Each puffy seedhead is poised to scatter several thousand fluff-topped seeds to the winds. And each of those thousands of seeds, ready to spawn ecological havoc on native plants and wildlife wherever it lands. This photo taken on Dean's Fork, my church, my sanctuary, also rapidly being taken over.

People and their mowers, people and their ornamental plants. People. They're still planting that horrid grass, coming to my road to dig it up and take it to their yards so it can continue spread like wildfire everywhere else. They think it's pretty. They don't notice, as they dig up plants for their yards, that everywhere it occurs, it forms solid, razor-sharp, 6' tall monocultures that not even a deer can walk through. Nothing eats it. Nothing can live in it. There are people right on my road that are still planting it in their yards and along their driveways. They cannot perceive what's happening right under their noses. Or maybe they think monocultures of impenetrable grass are pretty, to be preferred over trillium and rosepink.

 I hate this grass, and the ignorance that keeps people planting it, with the fire of a thousand suns. Trace such ecological devastation down to the root, and you'll always find people. Scratch a naturalist, especially an older one like me, and you'll find despair at the heedless damage people do to the natural world.

I work, in this blog and in my Facebook and Twitter posts, to emphasize that which is beautiful, and what is still here. I try not to bemoan stuff like invasive exotics too much, and I stay completely out of politics, though Lord knows there's plenty to bemoan in this world gone barking mad. If you want to sum up my blog and social media philosophy, it might be: Nobody needs more angst and negativity.

Celebrating what's here; rooting out the beautiful and good in this agrarian landscape; spreading beauty: I see that as my job. It's not entirely altruistic. It helps me appreciate the abundant gifts that shower down on me, every day. Focusing on what's good and true and beautiful keeps me moving forward and deepens my quality of life. If it brings you happiness, that makes me happy. When you tell me you like it, it just makes me want to give more.

I'm always looking for things to celebrate, and it isn't hard. I love this place so fiercely that I find myself photographing it as I photograph my children (and as I depicted my beloved Bacon)--in every mood, light and setting. So, but for a short rant about Miscanthus, this is a celebratory post. Because I kept visiting the one Sabatia plant I'd found in my favorite spot. And each time I did, I'd range a little farther to try to find more. There had to be more. Maybe it just wasn't in bloom yet.

On July 27, I forged down an overgrown powerline cut near the lone plant. Stepping over fallen logs and snaky tangles, I came upon a scene that heretofore had occupied only my dreams. I found Sabatia Valhalla. 65 blooming plants! My subsequent count on July 31: 79!! There, tucked away where nobody could get to them to ruin them, in a powerline cut that had only been cleared about three years ago, was the finest population I'd ever found. People again at the root, this time for the good; it wouldn't be here if the cut hadn't been cleared. All along, those plants had been setting their super-fine seed and broadcasting it around--how I'm not sure, since it's fine as dust. Maybe the wind carries it. Maybe ants carry it. I don't know. I'm just grateful and so, so thrilled that it's found a place where it can grow, away from humans, and under the adoring eyes of those who appreciate it enough to seek it out. Phoebe and I wandered around in the stand, oohing and aahing and stooping to smell and admire, until it was almost dark.

This is just one section. So fine, so fine. There's even a nearly white one there.

What could be better than my woodland sprite, thigh-deep in rosepink?


It smells as good as it looks. 
 That little lime-yellow star in the middle kills me. 


Phoebe baked me a cake for my birthday.

 I insisted on making the icing beforehand, because I wanted a buttercream-cream cheese-almond flavored icing and it was my birthday so I could be as fussy as I wanted. I also had a specific color in mind that I wanted to mix, one we'd never made.  She took the icing and the cake away to frost it and decorate it. She brought it back and Oh!! OH!! I had no idea she was going to use Sabatia to decorate my cake!

When I saw how perfectly the Sabatia stars coordinated with my lime-yellow icing, my jaw dropped. Meant to be!

My kids and my friends made this birthday extra special. It kinda needed to be. And it exceeded all expectations by miles. I'm still glowing from the love they poured over me.

 Sabatia? That was the icing on the cake. 

Look for it now. Gobs of it in Athens and Hocking Counties, OH, right along Rt. 33!

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