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Release the Kestrel!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A month went by, as months do when Christmas is coming and you're traveling with your kids in Spain (I'm not done with Spain! I just had to tell you about this bird!). A few days after admission on December 12,  the kestrel had X-rays and a thorough exam at the Ohio Wildlife Center hospital near Columbus. Coracoids were fine. However there was a left carpal issue--the hand part of his wing was hurt.

He received light oral inflammatory treatment, laser therapy to promote natural healing, and physical therapy. He was kept in the hospital for a few more days, then taken out to the pre-release facility with its big flight cages to test his wings. I got this precious information from my friend Connie Ray, a volunteer rehabilitator for Ohio Wildlife Center. I so appreciate a little glimpse into their workings, especially when one of my special birds is recuperating in their care.

I was hoping perhaps to pick the kestrel up when we got back from Spain on Dec. 30, but he wasn't quite ready. He was flying, though, and the veterinarian was hopeful. So was I. I just couldn't imagine this jewel anywhere but in the sky, hovering over the vast fields of Barlow.

photo by Lee Hermandorfer

Finally, I got the email from Ohio Wildlife Center that I'd been hoping for. The kestrel was ready for release!

I can't tell you how grateful I am that I don't have to get in the car and drive 2 1/2 hours to go pick these creatures up, or take them to care in Columbus. All I do is text Lee, and we coordinate. She budgets the time to go by OWC and get the bird; we meet up. But this time Lee would be in on the release, and I was so happy about that. It was only right.

I also have to tell you how amazing it is to have been able to release two raptors this winter. The percentage of raptors that meet up with barbed wire fences and cars, and come out of it releasable, is so vanishingly small. And it is so heartbreaking to field one after another, send them up, only to hear they've been euthanized for their injuries, too severe to be healed. It's very hard on the heart, especially when it's a big sweet old barred owl with those liquid eyes, or a beautiful Cooper's hawk, wild and crazy but oh so broken. I just don't feel that I can or should pronounce on these birds; I feel like I have to give them the benefit of a full veterinary exam. And yet most of the time I know what the answer will be. That's what makes it so hard.

But I had a good feeling about the barbed-wire redtail, which was richly borne out, and I had a good feeling about this little kestrel. His eyes seemed to say, "I've got this. I need time, but I'll be coming back to you."

And he did.

Also attending the release: the Yost family, with their Miracle Dog, Frank, who was lost this winter for a couple of months, but who was found again, much to their joy. 

Anastasia and her kids are the ones who caught the falcon when they realized he was hurt. 
These kids...the sweetest. 
They walked and scooted and strollered from home to attend the release!

The little falcon was scrabbling around in his carrier. He knew where he was. His head bobbed, his eyes bugged. He was home! Why wouldn't we let him out? Well, we eventually did. Being humans, we had to yak about it for awhile first. We don't make much sense to falcons.

It was an unnaturally warm, very blustery day, over 70 degrees, but it wasn't raining. The kestrel would just have to deal with the gusty wind, and the cold front roaring toward us. It was time for him to be free at last.

I was very nervous about capturing his release in slow motion, but I somehow managed to do it. He was out of there like greased lightning. A real-time video would have shown nothing but a blur. With this, we get to revel in his amazing colors one last time, and in motion!

please note--it's   --  I got it wrong in the video. Doesn't he fly so beautifully, so swiftly, so assuredly? Great work, Ohio Wildlife Center!

If that wasn't cool enough, the kestrel made a tremendous circle around Barlow town center, sat for awhile in the big sycamore on the fairgrounds, then came back to us! He fetched up in a tree and commenced to holler.

He was looking all around, hollering killykillykillykilly as if he were calling for his mate. 
See, now, that's such a parrot thing to do, to sit up on a high perch and yell like that. 

I wish I could say that a female flew right up in response, but that didn't happen while we were watching. He'll have to go look for her.
It was SO cool to see him fly so easily, so well, and to see him return from his perch in the sycamore, where he was little more than a speck to the naked eye. 

These aren't great shots, but he was so fast and the light was absolutely pitiful. 
See that row of round white windows along the rear margin of his wing? Great field mark for American kestrel. 

Barlow is full of fields and farms like these. That bird is in tall corn. 

Michael McCutcheon is a dentist whose office overlooks the field where our bird was found injured. He said he's been watching a kestrel there for a long time. He's also Lee's dentist and a birdwatcher, so we were delighted that he and his family could attend the release. He'll keep an eye out for the bird going forward. Curtis attended, but he stayed in the car for the release, because Frank got there first. He was kind of mad at me so I brought him out and took him for a nice hike in a hemlock ravine immediately afterward.

Curtis enjoyed meeting everyone. He is becoming expert at the impromptu meet and greet events that seem to follow us wherever we go. People recognize him, and then figure out who I must be. Ha ha!!

I enjoyed seeing this little band of people, united in joy at the kestrel's release.
That's Lee holding the carrier. She has incredibly sharp and practiced birder eyes and is pointing out where the kestrel is at the moment. 

Fare well, little death parrot. Thanks to everyone who made your recovery and release possible. Thanks to the kestrel who came zipping back to holler awhile, and let us know he was large, in charge and back home where he belonged!

Wildlife rehab isn't just for broken kestrels and orphaned opossums. It's for people, too.

 I think that we all need the occasional lift of a newly freed bird's wings.

Please donate here, to keep the Ohio Wildlife Center going strong. They helped more than 5,000 animals and birds last year! and I'd be utterly lost without them.

Kestrel Joy

Monday, January 13, 2020

17 comments's where so much happens. Everyone's got a cellphone, everyone has access to everyone else, and little waifs like this American kestrel can be the beneficiaries. 
My friend Anastasia and her kids saw this little kestrel standing by the roadside in Barlow, Ohio. 

When they stopped the car and got out, the kestrel ran and fluttered, but he (see the blue wings?) couldn't get altitude. Something was wrong, something was hurt. 

They had the sense and courage to pursue the bird and capture him, and they took him home in a box. I say this about courage because it is pretty rare. Most people are afraid to touch birds, especially ones with a lot of pointy bits. We have been so inculcated since early childhood by the dictum never to touch a bird that I think a lot of Americans get phobic about it. Not the Yost family!

When Anastasia got him home, the kestrel managed to get out of the box and crouched on their kitchen table for another photo. At this point I had a bunch of messages from Anastasia. I set about arranging for the bird's transport to the Ohio Wildlife Center in Columbus, and also telling her how best to contain and feed the little guy. 

Understandably, Anastasia was afraid of doing the wrong thing, so she and her husband and their kids all piled in the car and brought him to me that night of December 8, 2019. I was moved by their dedication to the best outcome for this bird. As soon as I laid eyes on him, I understood completely. I would have driven 45 minutes one way to save him, too. 

While I waited for him to arrive, I prepared a pet carrier, got out my supplies, and snipped a bit of raw lean pork chop (half my dinner) into little strips. It was what I had, fresh that evening, with no warning whatsoever, and it would have to do until I could get some proper food. 

First, to examine him, and see if I could figure out what was wrong. He took my breath away. He reminded me of a parrot--the intelligence in his eyes, the shape of his square head; the way he lay in my glove...and well he should. Falcons are taxonomically closer to parrots than they are to hawks! This news is a few years old, but if you don't travel in ornithological circles you may not have heard it.  It all makes sense--the way they hold their prey in their feet and bring it up to their beaks to eat; their playful nature; even their brilliant coloration makes sense if you think of a kestrel as a kind of death parrot.

I couldn't find any broken bones, which made me suspect a coracoid fracture deep in his chest. He was holding his left wing a little out and low, which was consistent with that diagnosis. Cage rest wouldn't hurt him. I had contacted my Angel, Lee Hermandorfer, who told me her next trip to Columbus, where she works as a Respiratory Therapist at Childrens Hospital, would be in three days.

Well, OK. We'd take it. Until then, he was mine to pamper. I tucked him into the carrier, his perch well-padded, and gave him a dish of pork strips. I put him in a quiet, lit part of the newly cleaned basement. Checking back about 15 minutes later, he had decimated the pork and drunk some water.

His crop was looking nice and bulgy. I was so glad this little gentleman was warm, dry, and stuffed with food. I hoped he was comfortable. I was already in love.

What a mess he was! He spent much of his day trying to figure out how to get out of the carrier. I didn't want him trying to fly with a possible fracture, so he had to stay in it. He quickly splashed all the water out of his dish and pooped absolutely everywhere. 

By the first afternoon, I had procured a bag of frozen snap trapped white-footed mice, generously offered by my friend Chad Goode. How considerate! I usually keep them in my freezer, but I'd fed them all to busted owls and hawks and was out. I drove into town to meet Chad and grab the goods. I've never been so happy to be gifted a bag of small dead animals. 
As a little aside, Chad's mom Mary delivered both my kids. Best labor and delivery nurse anybody could ever cling to. And man, I clung to her. We bonded something fierce.

Kestrels won't thrive on plain raw meat. They need organ meat, fur or feathers for roughage, and bones for calcium. Whole foods are the way to go for little predators like this one. Thank you, Chad.

\ It occurs to me that, without Facebook, nobody would have known 
a. I had a kestrel or b. I needed frozen mice.
And nobody would have known to contact me without it, either. 
This social media sword cuts on many edges. 

The kestrel heartily approved of the mice and swiftly tore them into bits.

I changed his towels, papers and water daily. 

His onyx eyes radiated intelligence and an almost eerie calm composure. No frantic fluttering for this one! I was transfixed by his beauty, but I didn't want to stress him by staring at him, so I left him alone until it was time to feed, water or clean his carrier.

Finally, the day arrived when he'd get his lift to the Ohio Wildlife Center. 
I opened his carrier, intending to transfer him to a roomy cardboard carrier for the trip (the same one the barbed wire redtail had arrived home in). 

To my surprise, he flew right out the carrier door and landed on the bed. Once again, he was calm and peaceful, and clearly glad to be out of that small confined space. 

He took my breath away, again. Somehow he'd managed to keep himself scrupulously clean. I suspect he bathed several times daily, as his water dish was perpetually emptied. 

Oh, the glory of it, to have a male kestrel on one's bed. I wished I could let him stay for awhile, but it was time to meet Lee. Could he be any more sleek or beautiful? I prayed hard that he'd be releasable. It just wouldn't be right for him to have to be caged for the rest of his life.

December 11 was his last morning with me. Now, it was up to the veterinarians and experienced rehabilitators at Ohio Wildlife Center.  I was headed for Spain soon, and I was glad he'd have  far better housing and expert veterinary care while I was away. I'm so thankful for OWC!!

An Open Letter to Apple, Inc.

Friday, January 10, 2020

I have a piece of white tape on my sleek six-month-old MacBook Pro. On it is the toll free number for Apple Care. I'm on a first-name basis with lots of technicians there: Magic Mike, Tiffani, and most recently Bobby from Tennessee. His soft southern accent sets me at ease. They're all great. No complaints. Apple Care isn't cheap, but it's truly fabulous. You get real people, real quick, and you're  probably calling Tennessee, not Bangladesh. Wait times are short; you get a choice of pop, jazz or classical music to listen to; and these people can really solve your problems, and they'll hang with you until they do.

Libby the mourning dove loved to sit on the screen top while I wrote about her. Note large external hard drive in the background. This is an example of foreshadowing. 

And I love the machines, and can't imagine life without them. So if you're hoping to see me send Apple through the cider press, bashing their products to juice, that's not going to happen. As always, I am trying to help here.

However. I  have an observation on Macintosh corporate culture that I was moved to air in a lousy sort of prose poem, composed in the wee hours after spending six months grappling with a problem that never should have happened to me. I believe it's due to a very simple, fixable oversight on Mac's part, and an assumption they're making about their customers that ain't necessarily so. Here we go:

The Cloud! How aptly named!
Solid construct, or phantasm?
I can tell you this.
When you go buy a new computer, and the Genius in attendance
Is 1/3 your age, and has never lived in back of beyond
Stop there! and look around
for an eminence grise
Who remembers what it was to dance without a Net.
Do not buy your goods from the young Genius!

With me watching, and not understanding what that meant,
The Genius clicked a box under Settings/Storage.
It said, "Optimize Storage." Sounded good to me!
I'm all for optimization!
Box clicked, I forgot about it, but it would bedevil me
and occasionally stop me cold
From July until January.

When hard drive space gets small
As it often does for someone who takes photos
Of every little thing I love or wonder about
This little checkbox does a thing.
It sends all my files up to the Cloud.
Which is fine in theory, for those with unlimited bandwidth
In Tokyo, Toronto, Columbus or New York.
It is Hell in practice, for those of us who live among the trees
And to use the Net, must catch and buy a satellite's beam.

Up and away went my photos, the Keynote slideshows I spent months on
Leaving nothing in their place.
Up and away went my bandwidth, too.
Click on a photo, just try it! Open a file if you can!
Not so fast, loser!
It must be downloaded from the Cloud before you can view it
Or attach it
Or put it in a slideshow.
Or do anything at all.
The spinning beachball of death appears on your screen.
You sit in despair. Nothing that was yours is yours any more.
The next morning, there might appear on your desktop
The photo you needed, last night at 7. Look! It opened! Hooray!
And it only took all night. Isn't that neat?

Show up to give your lecture. Try to open your Keynote presentation.
You built it lovingly, four months in the making. You built it on your laptop.
It's right here, in Keynote.  Click, and click again.
Nothing happens. But don't panic! Don't worry! Your program is saved, up there on The Cloud!
Shall we all grow wings and fly up to watch it there? Without fast WiFi, you can't get it back.
I live and work in lots of places without WiFi.
Sometimes I give talks in tents, with haybales for seating.
Imagine, if you can, young Genius, not having WiFi wherever you go.
I'm telling you, it happens. Maybe not in your world, but in mine.

I stare at the dialog box. You do not have permission to complete this operation.
Wait! Who took it from me? Help me understand, O Genius,
Why I'd want to save my work
To a place where I can never get it back?
With 200 people murmuring in an auditorium
Wondering what's going on with this evening's speaker.

Six months of hell and bewilderment, and now I must re-set, reclaim, and download
All that once was mine. All my files, snatched away
When Genius clicked a checkmark
In a little box that read, "Documents and Desktop"
to be saved to The Cloud. Let's Optimize Storage for you, too. Click!
I had no clue what that meant. Now I know.
That was July. This is January.

Train your Geniuses, for I have suffered. Tell them this simple thing:
Not everyone who buys a Mac lives in Tokyo or Toronto,
Columbus or New York.
Some of us eke out a living
On a rugged frontier
Where bandwidth is metered out by the meanest of Scrooges.
A hundred bucks gets you 15 gigs, and it has to last you all month.

Imagine! Or at least try! I know it's hard...
You could use that in a day bingeing Breaking Bad
And never stop to think what it means, or what it costs
To Optimize Storage way out here in the boondocks.
Or how it feels to have your work disappear
Locked in a misty cloud somewhere high above.
I'm not playing games on this laptop.
 This is my living you've messed with.

Hear this! The Cloud is not my friend. It is a cruel overlord
Who takes my work and won't give it back.
Give me hard drives by the armful! I shall label them with tape
Tiny writing telling all that's inside.
When I need to, I will plug them in
And my work will open before me.
I'll take my chances and back them up twice.
They're here with me, and real.

This is my only option, living where I do
With Hughes Net the only provider
Charging a king's ransom
For almost nothing.
We don't stream; we don't listen to podcasts
We have no favorite Internet shows
Netflix is unknown to us. Imagine!
We could be Amish!

I won't forget the young man in his black tee who,
with a cruel glint in his eye
Stood in Columbus' clean white Apple store
Watching me deliberate over which hard drive to buy.
"In four years, there won't be any such thing as an external hard drive.
It'll all be backed up on The Cloud."
He smirked at me, enjoying the look of panic and dismay on my face
Knowing not what he was saying
Or caring, to whom.

That was eight years ago, and I eschew his store
To buy my hard drives online. They're half the price now,
 with five times the storage
And, last I checked, they still exist.
The Genius was wrong, but worse, he was mean.

Know this: Those of us who live with bad Internet
Might not be backward or dumb.
We have chosen trees over people for neighbors.
They are never annoying
Until they fall on your roof.
You suck down bandwidth like a supersized latte.
Out here in the middle, we have a demitasse cup
And a tiny coffee stirrer through which we slowly sip
What little Net we get. We make do.
We like our external hard drives,
and yes, they still exist.
The Cloud is another matter.

Here's my message to Apple:
Before you set us up, I pray, please ask us:
Where we live, what we pay, and what we get for that.
15 gigs per month? 24 kilobytes per second?
Stop, Genius!!  Don't check that little box
That backs it all up to a Cloud
That won't give it back.

It's simple enough.
Come, Genius.
Let me explain this to you.
I have suffered for your ignorance.

Trujillo, Together

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Say it True-Hee-Oh and you've got it, the pronunciation of this utterly charming, quirky, marvelously ancient pueblo in Extremadura, in south central Spain. Much as we loved Mérida, Trujillo knocked us dead, and we were blessed to spend three nights there, making it our base for exploration in Monfragüe National Park, nicely nearby. 

If a town can be cozy, Trujillo is, with high beautiful stone walls everywhere, which cartwheel down to a beautiful square, such that you feel you're in a series of long gorgeous rooms and hallways in a giant house as you explore your way around. Our Air BnB host advised us to park on a comparatively wide city street rather than try to get our car up to our accomodations, and we figured out why that was on the last day, when I had the bright idea to take the car up to grab our luggage, and we very nearly got it stuck trying to turn around when we realized the B. C. era passageway ahead wasn't going to accomodate a subcompact car! 

Imagine yourself in a car, in this...along with Mystery Clink Stew, another nope moment

Aaaack!! Phoebe was at the wheel, and it was one of many times when she gladly ceded her seat to Mama, who has a bit more experience parallel parking and getting out of jams without panicking or despairing. It was the least I could do, as she drove 99% of the trip all by herself, with Liam and me simply enjoying the passing view.

The first afternoon in Trujillo, we stuck to shanks' mare, walking all over the place, and up toward the cathedral on the hill. There's always a cathedral, looking down on everything.

Up and up we climbed, to the top of the town, to the top of a tower.

Soon we could see the beautiful cypress trees tossing in the wind. 

And the red tile rooves of Trujillo were spread before us.
That's a 13th century Moorish fortress to the left, but we didn't make it inside. Next time.

When we finally reached the top, three lil' guys were there to lament our triumph. C'mon guys. Put on a happy face! I had to wonder about the significance of their expressions. What's the deal here? Martyrs? Clueless, once again. Then again, Trujillo is the birthplace of Pizarro, who famously visited the Conquistador thing on the Inca Empire. There's a huge equestrian monument to him in the town square.  Perhaps the stone carver was Inca? You can take my natural history info to the bank, usually, but beware my speculations on human history. They are antic and unreliable.

Liam was so energized by the brisk cold wind and the climb and the fabulousness of this little town that he dropped and gave us ten. I saw a side of our boy that doesn't come out when he's all cuddled up at his drawing table with a cup of hot tea and a scented candle. There's a beast inside, and I love it!

Giving scale to the columnar cypresses, which were just huge. I believe them to be Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens. They have biggish globular cones, and they provide the perfect vertical counterpoint to the stone walls and buildings. 

We just had to wonder about this building, which seems to have slumped a bit as it aged over the centuries. Or was it built with a rocky muffin top? Probably so, and probably for good reason. Sort of a Flintstones efffect. 

Ain't no movin' that boulder, so let's just work around it.

I think my favorite times were when we were on foot, just going wherever curiosity led us. 

The concrete beneath our feet had tile incorporated in it. I would have loved to bring that fragment home,  and bent down to pick it up, but it was set in mortar! Such beauty everywhere, such a melange of colors and textures and surfaces and materials! It was in everything we saw, and all of it so ancient. It was humbling to feel so very recent.

Everywhere, the beautiful net-veined leaves of milk thistle were waiting for spring. The flowers will be bright fuchsia pink. Milk thistle is said to aid liver function, and do all sorts of good things. A partial list, gleaned from the Web. Sounds like I better get me some! 

  • Fatty Liver 
  • Lowers Cholesterol
  • Reduces menopausal symptoms Improves digestion 
  • Decrease varicose veins
  • Inflammatory bowel disorders
  • Psoriasis
  • Weakened immune system
  • Adrenal disorders
  • Mushroom poisoning
  • Allergic and inflammatory reactions
  • You name it, this stuff fixes it. Git you some today! (JZ)

  • It's also called Our Lady's Thistle. When Mary was feeding Jesus, some milk dribbled onto the ground and this fabulous plant sprang up. Or so they say over in Extremadura. I can tell you that never happened to me once. My kids were vacuum cleaners.

    We came upon a fenced yard with a dog whose breed I thought I recognized as a Mastin de Extremadura. We were to see lots of these dogs on farms and in the countryside. I was fascinated by them, but they wanted nothing to do with me, being protective and stand-offish with those they don't know. They're big, strong, good looking dogs, bred for guarding sheep and homesteads.

    We found The Scream in an old wooden shutter. This is the kind of shot their dad would have taken. Somebody has to take up the banner! Here's to you, BT3! You live on in these goofballs. 

    On we walked, and the cobbled road came to the edge of town, and all Extremadura rolled out before us. How I wished for a spot of sun, but the brooding skies fit, too, and it was all so beautiful.

    I am given to buying outerwear for my kids in the Eddie Bauer warehouse, and I've only recently put it together that the stuff, especially the women's clothing, that winds up there is often a bit outre in color. I kept finding myself framing Phoebe out of my shots because my artist's eye found her purple shell jarring. My fault, but I got a great deal on it! Take off that damned raincoat, Phoebs, get up on the wall with your brother, and give me your best Irish colleen! Truly, they could be anywhere in Europe in this shot, but it looks like Wuthering Heights. And I am a rich mama. 

    We ended the day with a late lunch in a tiny restaurant with a real character as a proprietor. Iberian pork was the main course, pretty much all that was on the menu, and it was delicious. We tried to order beef but he told us we needed to order the pork because it was so much better. Spain is a very porky place. Also a potatoey place. It is not very lettucey. I'm glad to be back home, grazing on lettuce from the tower room ranch. But I kinda miss the Iberian pork now! We also got Migas, a regional dish that as far as I could tell is leftover bread crumbs tossed in chorizo grease.

    Spain is famous for its food, especially tapas, which are the original small plates. The restaurants serve lunch until about 4:30 in the afternoon. They then close, and re-open for dinner at 8:30 PM. As in, they open for biz at Normal Zick Bedtime. All I can say to that is Ack. And how is anyone supposed to sleep with a bellyful of rich porkiness consumed around 10 pm? Our hack, engineered by our Helpful Ginger Travel Elf, was to sleep in, eat a late breakfast/brunch around 10 am, and tough it out until "lunch" around 4:30-5 pm, which actually served as dinner. That made for some mighty short days, but it worked well with our jetlag, as peninsular Spain is 5 hours ahead of Ohio. There's a hack for everything. And we were hackin' our way through Extremadura, as Christmas bore down on us.

    Our First Vacation: To Mérida!

    Saturday, January 4, 2020


    My kids have pointed out to me that, while I've done a fair bit of travel, it's always been for work. There's always something I have to do, some duty to discharge, no matter where I go. There are talks to give, field trips to lead, shows to hang. If I go to an awesome destination, there are a dozen or more people with me, and I've got to make sure they have a great time. I'm always working.
    It's wonderful work, but it's still work. 

    Phoebe started leaning on me and Bill to come visit her in the Canary Islands pretty much right after she got there in 2018. She told us we'd love it there. Bill had made plans to go, in fact, to tack the trip onto a Reader Rendezvous to Spain in late winter 2018. He got sick in December, and he never made it. It was time for me to go, to take Liam with me and spend our first Christmas as a family without their dad OR their grandmother Elsa, traveling and enjoying each other's company in a completely different place, where the only memories that could haunt us were the ones in our heads. Many of our friends told us that was the only thing to do. They were right. 

    So Liam and I took off from Columbus at 7:30 in the evening on his first international flight. Phoebe took off from La Gomera, headed for Madrid, and there we met! Waiting for our rental car, after comparison shopping between counters. They were all outrageous, but Sixt came through as least outrageous. Liam and I haven't slept in awhile. It didn't matter. We were with Phoebs!!! We hadn't seen her since she took off in late August. Oh, how we had missed her!

    We headed from cold, gray, rainy Madrid to Mérida,  two hours south. It was also cold, gray and rainy.

    We grabbed a late lunch. Liam and I ordered Sopa de Mariscos, which I hoped would be a soothing bisque. It was anything but soothing, and anything but a bisque. It was chockity, clankity full of hard, inedible objects with eyeballs.

    Liam named it Mystery Clink Stew. Which still makes me giggle. I ate whatever wouldn't break my teeth, which was the broth and some tiny clams and mussels. I was completely mystified as to how one eats a tablespoon-sized crab. I busted it open to find green gloop and gills. Nope nope nope nopity nope. Rock-hard fish vertebrae; clam and mussel shells. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a pile of gravel at the bottom of my bowl. 

    We weren't going to waste any time, so we found our Air BnB and set about seeing the sights of Merida the next morning. First stop was the incredible Roman aqueduct that still graces the city's center.

    It's a complex structure, made of the most fascinating amalgam of cement, brick and stone. It's incredibly beautiful, from afar and up close.

    Atop it are the nests of European white storks, the storks of fairy tales. Gosh they are BEAUTIFUL birds. Here, I'm pointing to the nests. I can hardly believe what we're seeing. 

    Though I had spotted three greatly out-of-range white storks at Strandfontein, Cape Region in South Africa in October, seeing these enormous birds busily adding sticks to their nests and hearing them clap their bills at each other is whole 'nother thing.

    It was like being in a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Every time a new bird flew to its nest, it was accompanied by a salvo of beak clattering, which I found charming. It sounded like they were applauding its arrival. Clackityclackclackclackclackclack!

    Meanwhile, flitting around the massive aqueduct structure was a tiny black redstart

    who took the aqueduct for a rocky cliff, as its home. 

    On this trip, I was to become well acquainted with the sight and sound of chiffchaffs, which look and act almost exactly like our palm warblers back in the States. They even dip their tails the same way. Their name is a good rendition of their song, if you repeat it a few times.

    We walked the streets of beautiful Mérida, full of curiosity. The city was founded  in 25 BC by Emperor Augustus, as a place for discharged soldiers from the Cantabrian Wars to settle. I thought back to Marietta, Ohio, my hometown, which was established as a place for soldiers and officers from the Revolutionary War to settle. There is a slight difference in antiquity here, a major recalibration in one's definition of "old" warranted.

     People were preparing for Christmas everywhere we looked. We saw a little angel headed to a school play with his mama. 

    Everywhere, there were hams with hooves.  Oog. Never seen a ham with a hoof on it. They were from Spain's famous Iberian hogs, smallish, leggy, black, and packed with flavor, since they are free-ranging and feed on grass and the acorns of cork oaks. The ham is delicious when sliced thin and combined with cheeses and bread. I won't's gamy and oily to my American palate. I'm sure Spaniards would find the ham I like dopey, insipid and dry. To each his own.

    Already starved for produce from our plane trip, I longed to cook up some of this gorgeous Romanesco, a type of cole crop like cauliflower, but much more delicately geometric. And look at those grapes will ya??

    Such wonders, so beautifully arranged. Imagine going to your grocery store and seeing produce of this quality in an arch over your head, outside the entrance. Doesn't happen, ever. Whole Foods does some beautiful arranging, but I'd never seen anything like this. It was food art.


    Phoebe had worked out an itinerary for us, with must-see spots in each city, so we darted from one to the next, always looking for birds and plants and other points of interest as we went.

    Scattered throughout Merida are Roman ruins, of mansions and theaters and municipal buildings. It's so, so amazing to see them rise above the more modern structures in this city.

    Our destination was the Roman Amphitheatre. There, we'd have our minds properly blown. This huge structure, which seated 15,000, was inaugurated in the year 8 BC. EIGHT BC. And still it stands. And there we stood, and I still can't believe it.

    We wandered all through it, having the place completely to ourselves, as it was in the 50's and rainy and windy like to knock us down, but this was the day we were given, so we had a grand time anyway. It helped to be alone, to envision what went on here with gladiators, trained to fight to the death. IMAGINE.

    Oh, how he imagined. Here, Liam's in a chamber beneath the stands, where the gladiators waited until they were called out to battle. Imagine.

    He's feeling lucky right now, that he wasn't born to battle for the amusement of emperors. Phoebe and I watched his mind go on overload, his heart nearly burst from the delight of being in such a completely different space and time for the first time in his short life.

    And right in his pocket, the means to record and remember and revisit it all. How lucky can you get?

    The rockwork alone blew my mind. Built by slaves? Artists? Who could say? It stands to this day.

    To walk the passageways built so very long ago, to imagine ourselves cracked us open.

    In a courtyard, I found a dwarf pomegranate, just like the ones I grow at home. Always looking for the familiar, always delighted to find it. I was glad to see these looking a bit peaked, as they should in winter. Mine have dropped all their leaves and gone dormant, wisely...this winter is a shroud of drear.

    I don't know what these are, but they reminded me a wee bit of magnolia--tribe Ranales? Fide Betty Grindrod: Pittosporum Tobira (Japanese Cheesewood). Woot!

    and these smelled of vanilla, heavenly! Both were small trees. Again, I'm clueless. It's good to be clueless sometimes. It's humbling. To have to look up all the birds, to wonder at their vocalizations; to not know the plants or the language; to finally feel a world so much bigger, so much more august and antiquated, than it feels at home.

    Loquat flowers! Thanks, Betty!

    We moved on from the Coliseum to the adjacent Theatre, where we imagined ourselves performers, orators, dancers on its immense stage. If you click on the photo you can see Phoebe in her purple jacket in the left front of the stage.

    It was all so incredibly cool. Words fail me. I'm accustomed to describing living things, not structures that pre-date Jesus Christ. The variety and ingenuity of the rockwork; the beauty of their soaring  columns...well, I'd never seen anything like this in my life, and I'm grateful to have had the chance to experience all this with my kids. We were only getting started--there was more Extremadura to see.

    I'll leave you with some more storks, calmly perched atop the aqueduct.

    Preening on this gray windy day, on rockwork built before Christ, as if it ain't no big thing.

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