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Tracks That Talk

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


This snow tracking is taking on a life of its own. The tapestry of events is so incredibly rich that I'm having trouble thinking about much else than getting out to read it. And I'm not the only one who's excited that we finally got a little snow. My neighbor, Rusty Fleeman, found a very interesting set of tracks when he was riding his ATV near his house, about four miles from here. They were interesting enough for him to slam on the brakes. Through the wonders of e-mail, he and Missy asked me if I could confirm their suspicion that they belonged to a black bear. Those of you who live in Minnesota and Alaska may find this no big deal, but black bear sightings in Washington County, Ohio, are usually limited to about three per year, and most of those are young animals seen in the fall dispersal time. Rusty could see fine claw prints, over an inch long, protruding from each paw, five in a neat, forward-pointing row, slicing into the snow. This, and the 6"long, plantigrade heel, as well as the long span between prints, point only to black bear. It's a poignant set of tracks for me, though, because this little bear should be hibernating now, not wandering through the snow. It's been a funny winter, and I think the bear isn't the only one who has been caught out in the cold. As each day dawns in the teens, I think often about the little woodcock that has been twittering up whenever we walk in the meadow at dusk. He's got to be hurting badly by now. There are eastern meadowlarks hunched miserably in the fields, birds that normally pretty much clear out in winter, but that took the risk of hanging around this unusually mild winter.

Today, I had Skip Trask from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources here all day filming a segment for "Wild Ohio," a nature show on cable TV in Ohio. It was a full day, and I hauled out paintings and drawings and answered questions and tried to make a cogent artist's statement while managing Chet Baker, who has a knack for gnawing noisily on a Nylabone or leaping suddenly into my lap just as the camera or mic starts rolling. Finally I asked him to stay in one of the bedrooms, and he understood, but he didn't like it. It was about like trying to film with a two-year-old around. Which, in fact, he is.The hind feet are ahead of the front feet, typical of a bounding mammal. Think of the rabbit's exclamation point !! tracks and you can envision what's happening.
Skip and I went out to do some outside shots, and I looked down as we walked out the sidewalk and noticed a set of tracks that didn't compute. They were too big for a white-footed mouse and too small for a gray squirrel. The thing that really attracted my attention was the span between each set of four bunched pawprints: twenty inches. I knew a chipmunk can't leap like that; about the most you'll see between their tracks is 8". Besides, they're all hibernating now. I hoped it wasn't a Norway rat. We've had them, maybe two in 14 years, coming from who knows where to the bird feeders. But there were no drag marks from a tail, and rats tend to walk rather than bound. The tracks led up to the porch, evenly spaced in 20" bounds, to where peanut feeders hang. Hmmm. The only thing I could arrive at was flying squirrel. I grabbed my Murie track guide, and sure enough! The span of 20" between imprints is just right for flying squirrel! I surmised that it landed on the garage roof, leapt out from there, hit the sidewalk, and bounded up to the porch. Unfortunately, the sun had melted the part of the sidewalk that might have shown the imprint where it landed. Another snowy day, please!

From the porch, it's an easy climb up the rain chain to leap onto the peanut feeders. I'm delighted, over the moon, and you can be sure the Science Chimp and family will be aiming a flashlight on the peanut feeders at random times throughout the ensuing nights, trying to confirm this nocturnal feeder visitor. We had one at a sunflower heart feeder two summers ago, and have never seen another since. When we found that one, we ran out and put two squirrel boxes up just inside the woods. Maybe that effort paid off.
Our front yard is a mishmash of Baker, junco, cardinal, jay, towhee, sparrow, dove, mouse, rabbit and deer prints. I was lucky to notice these in all the background noise.

And now, a set of tracks I love. This mourning dove landed on the patio, the two deep imprints on the right side of the frame. It walked, that little mincing, head-bobbing walk, to the left. Stopped, had a sudden thought, took a right, a little run, and was airborne. The tracks appear and then vanish, with only the mark of the right wing to say how. Beautiful.

White Safari

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I love Mary from NC's name for the last post: White Safari. Indigo Hill continues to enjoy snow cover that the rest of Washington and Athens Counties lacks. I love it, though I haven't been able to get out today, and it's driving me nuts. I'll just have to go out in photos. As promised, I'm going to post some more tracks from my last foray. My guide in this has always been the late Olaus Murie's Field Guide to Animal Tracks, published by my own Houghton Mifflin, source of all good things in natural history. I love this book because it's written by a real, suspenders and plaid-wearing woodsman, who could read what he saw in the snow and mud. He's got different patterns for different gaits, and he drew them all himself. What more could you want?
Here's the thing about tracking: The closer and longer you look, and the more you think about what you see, the more is revealed to you. It may seem like magic, but if you just wait for it to come to you, the animal's motivations and actions reveal themselves in its footprints. Little smears and blurs can mean something. You can tell how fast the animal was going, and sometimes what was chasing it.
Cottontail prints are hard to misidentify; that oblong, heavily-furred rear foot is unique. Bunnies do a lot of squatting and shuffling on their butts, so their tracks are often clustered. They also sit in one place for a long time, so you can find melt marks and body prints.Where there are bunnies, there will be other animals, particularly those that enjoy dining on them. Right by the bunny prints were some beautiful fresh mink tracks. I was delighted to find them, and to know we've still got mink. I'll never forget the summer morning soon after we moved here in 1992 when we saw a very bedraggled rabbit come loping out of the meadow into the yard. Bill and I were watching it, and I remember commenting, "That rabbit ain't right." It was listing from one side to another, the fur around its throat matted and wet. And not long after it emerged came a gorgeous ebony-brown mink, humpety humping along on the rabbit's trail. Neither of them looked to be in a particular hurry, but they'd probably been running in circles for a long time. They wove in and out of the tall grass. Eventually we heard the squeal that told how it ended. Mink tracks are typically in pairs, with forefeet landing in or near the hind foot tracks. The span between pairs is about 8-10". The hind foot is longer; the forefoot is rounder. In this photo, you can see drag marks from its tail, appearing as straight swipes parallel to the tracks. Love it!

It takes snow or mud to see the dew claws on a deer track. Big, heavy buck tracks show dew claws more often than do those of the lighter does. This animal was sliding down a little incline. I'm always amused at how much slipping and sliding deer do. Where I tend to fall on my ass, I see that the deer have, too. We use the same trails and cut-throughs. And this is a slippery old ridge.
I've started putting corn out now that the weather's finally gotten cold, and glory be! a couple of does and this gorgeous buck came out to sniff around. I've seen a lot of bucks, some more impressive or magnificent than this one, but I think he's the prettiest ever. His rack is so tall and proud, it looks like he's wearing a crown. The brow tine on his right antler is just a nubbin, so he's probably a seven-point buck. Good of him to hang onto those antlers this late into January, so I could admire him. This, taken through double-pane glass in a snow squall at dusk, is the best I could do without frightening him off. After what seemed like the longest damned hunting season in the history of Ohio, even the bloody muzzle-loaders are silenced now, and I'm happy to know that he (and I) can relax and wander in peace on our land. I'll be watching for him come velvet time, in June. And saying a little prayer that he knows when to lay low.Beauty comes quietly, when no one is particularly watching for it.

TrackSafari 1

Monday, January 29, 2007

To those of you who wonder: I know well how blessed I am to live where I can just walk out the door and discover something, whenever I wish. Life gets in the way, and it has lately, but just knowing the woods are waiting for me is such a comfort. Snow is a dual blessing, because all my neighbors leave tracks, and I get to find out who's come around in the last day or so. It staggers me how many animals are out there. So come with me on a little track hike, just an hour of puttering around in the field and woods. I found so much in that hour I'll have to split it into three posts. The trick, now that Chet's along, is to keep him from overlaying the good stuff with his messy litttle dogprints. Luckily he ranges in ever-widening orbits out to the side, while I stick to the trail, where most of the tracks go. Everyone likes my cut paths; everyone uses them. Makes it nice for them; they don't get poked in the eye with twigs and briars. Makes it nice for me: I get to see the signs of their coming and going. I really, really want a remote wildlife camera. Imagine the pictures we'd get! Here's just a sampling:
A gray squirrel goes unerringly to the spot where it buried an acorn last fall, digs it up and has a meal. Could you find it, under snow? Would you remember where you buried each of hundreds of acorns, under two inches of fresh snow? They're even smarter than they look.
A white-footed mouse or meadow vole hops quickly across the crusty snow. Boing boing boing boing. Mice are always in a hurry, because they are so tasty.
An eastern towhee hops across the white-footed mouse's trail. I'm guessing it's a towhee because it's taking such long leaps, and has long hind toenails.A junco checks out some grass tops for any seeds that remain. It twiddles and shakes the seedheads to free them, then pecks the seeds out of the snow. I don't realize how much food is out there until it snows, and I can see the evidence of its consumption.
A big male coyote stops to pee on a hapless beechlet, leaving his skunky scent behind. The front pawprints are smeared, because he has most of his weight on them as he hikes his hind leg high.
Farther down the meadow, a gray fox looks for mice. These prints are catlike at first glance. I did find housecat prints, but deigned to photograph them. I'd rather forget that housecats hunt these woods. The way I can tell they're gray fox prints is by the way the front toes are stacked in an elongate way--not in a perfectly round circle like a cat's print. The "heel" is hard to see, because it's furry. I painted a gray fox that I watched hunting grasshoppers in this exact spot, for Letters from Eden. It's nice to see there's still one around, with all the coyote sign. Coyotes kill both red and gray foxes, raiding their dens. I have to say that as additive as the songdogs are on autumn nights, I miss my foxes. When we first moved here we frequently saw both red and gray foxes hunting our meadow, carrying mouthfuls of meadow voles to hidden dens. The coyotes took care of that. They do the same thing to foxes that great horned owls do to screech and barred owls: eat them. But it's best to worry about the things that you can change. Which turns out to be not very many things at all.

A Day Well Spent

Howdy! Just home from a day at WOUB, our local NPR affiliate. I drove through four inches of fresh powder on our driveway and township road--innocent of sand, cinders or salt. Slid around on ice on the county road, in the tracks of other intrepid souls. They let us deal with it ourselves out here.
I was on air for part of two hours, exhorting listeners to call in and get their donated copy of Letters from Eden when they gave at the $90 level. We raised $500 for the station. What a good feeling, and what fun to chat with Jeannie Jeffers and Chris Riddle on air. I dig radio.

In that vein, this is just a quick post to tell you that one of my commentaries--on the OK 1902 beech tree I blogged about not long ago--will air on All Things Considered at about 4:55 and 6:55 today. If you miss the first airing, try for the second. It will air right after the sad story of Barbaro, the gallant race horse who, unable to heal from complications of a shattered leg, was finally euthanized today.
If you miss the commentary, you'll find it archived here.
My boyfriend's coming back! winging over Georgia as I write, no doubt. Gotta scramble around and straighten up. Why, who knows. Just feels right.
Bill first found the writing on the beech's trunk about 14 years ago, and it's been a special tree for him all along. He goes down into the woods to check on it. Our checks are more like a wake these days, since it came down.

A Dog Doing Man's Work

Sunday, January 28, 2007

photo by Chuck and Nora Kegley
As you may have gathered, it's been a long January. First, Bill was in Florida for five days. He was home for three days. I left for Florida for four days. I came home for two days. He left for Florida again, for seven days. Not that I'm counting, or anything, but my gosh. A girl has her limits. OK, we've been together 15 years. But I MISS MY MAN. He killed 'em, by all reports, at his keynote at the Space Coast Festival in Titusville, Florida. Humor and music are right in his wheelhouse and he serves them up with aplomb. It ain't easy to get up in front of 150 people with only a guitar and your imagination, but he did it, and I am very proud of him. And more than ready to hear his voice rumbling out of his chest, rather than over the tinny speaker of the damn telephone.
Chet Baker does his best to help. He pesters me to play and go for walks.Photo by P. L. Thompson
Mether, I am ready to play. Try to get this rope. Just try.

He nudges me and moans and pinches me with his toenails until I finally get up and lace on my hikers. We took our first walk on Friday, the first since he was diagnosed with some kind of ligament problem in his left hind leg. I had high hopes that a month of total rest would set things right. And he held that leg up more than he had a month ago. Rats, rats, rats. I don't know what to do now, except to haul him back to Dr. Lutz and let her feel his knee again. Maybe he's got an X-ray in his future. Maybe surgery. Maybe he's just stiff from not using it. I dunno. But I'm pretty bummed about it. We both lay around for five weeks, only for this. I'm trying not to think of all the things we missed out there on the trail.

We were well down the trail, though, and I decided to just do the Loop, bum knee or no knee. Part of Chet's job description is Walk Companion, and we were both itching for the exercise. There were lots of vole tunnels to explore.
And there might have been a squirrel up in the pines.

The overlook was a perfect Grandma Moses scene, all stark and cross-stitched in black and white. Color flees in winter, but it makes its return in spring all the sweeter.
I was bummed to find one of our fine shagbark hickories, a line tree no less, had blown down in a storm the other night. RATS! You can see the sign where Bill posted against hunting. I hate to lose a good tree to wind or anything else. Baker inspected and declared it past hope.
It's a matter of hours now until sweet BOTB darkens this door again. I've knocked myself out cleaning the house, to make it nice to come home to. I've made a wonderful beef stew; I have just the right bottle of Pinot Noir to complement it. Hurry home, darlin'. Until then, I'll have to get my kisses where I by P.L. Thompson. Look at those overgrown toenails! Gotta get out the Dremel.

Ah kin love you like that, Mether.

For Daddy

Friday, January 26, 2007


A couple of snow days this week turned into a golden opportunity for me and Phoebe to do some girl bonding. We studied a single-spaced, front and back list of spelling words for the elementary school spelling bee, held Thursday night. We had a blast, especially with the foreign words.

There was a run of words in the bee that felled kids like sheaves of wheat: Burrito. Chimichanga. And Phoebe got up and spelled Mariachi correctly. She may have been the only kid in that room who's actually heard a live mariachi band. She's heard several, in fact, most recently in a little bar in New Mexico.

Naturally, I burst with pride when the Marietta Times came today with a picture of Miss Coco Chanel spelling Mariachi to take the fifth grade trophy. Her friend McKenzie won for the fourth grade, and her friend Allie won for the sixth. We think the bee on the trophy bears more resemblance to a cockroach, but we'll take it.

Who designs these things??

The Star of Marco Island

Thursday, January 25, 2007


From a life sketch of a burrowing owl in Fort Meyers, Florida. To me, these little birds look perpetually annoyed. They have good reason.

My last morning in Florida. I am agog at Marco Island. It seems there are houses on top of houses here. Each one has a little mown lawn and a palm tree. Lots of them have manatee mailbox holders. Now there's a niche market for you. Wonder what Gene the mailman would have to say about a manatee mailbox holder on Whipple Run? That's a thought.
The whole idea of going on a field trip to Marco Island to look at raptors, more specifically burrowing owls, seemed a bit odd. But it was one of the many enticing offerings at the SW Florida Birding Festival. I've seen burrowing owls on the North Dakota coteau region, and sitting on fenceposts in Montana. I've tracked them down in a sprawling Fort Myers subdivision. But Marco Island is so...manicured to the cuticle. So built up. So commercial. So sanitized. I just couldn't imagine any wildlife making a living here. Nancy Richie was about to prove me wrong.
I'd met Nancy at the booksigning the night before. I wish I'd known when I was inscribing her book what I know now. Trained as a marine biologist, she works for the City of Marco Island as an Environmental Specialist. She checks surface water quality and monitors all protected species populations. That includes burrowing owls, bald eagles, osprey, nesting shorebirds, sea turtles, manatees, and gopher tortoises, those hulking heartbreakers that somehow hang on in South Florida. She enforces Federal, State and local rules that protect them. She deals with permits. And she spends much of her time monitoring and protecting burrowing owl nest sites. That's the least of it. Since 1999, she has worked to educate residents and seasonal visitors to Marco Island about these incredible little birds, and why they deserve respect and protection. And she talks to developers, many of whom would rather not hear what she has to say.
The first thing Nancy did when we met at 8 AM at City Hall was to give us a brief natural history of these diurnal/crepuscular birds, who hand-dig their own burrows in Marco Island's sandy soil. (Elsewhere in the country, they use gopher or prairie dog burrows). Feeding largely on insects, herps, small rodents and some birds, burrowing owls can be seen during the day at the mouth of their burrows, which extend from inches to several feet under the sod, and in which they lay up to a dozen eggs.Lesson finished, Nancy handed us each a map, with highlighted X's marking some of the 100 or so burrowing owl nest sites on Marco Island. I stared at the map. 100 burrows! Perhaps 65% of those produce young in a given year, but still! How could this be? Where was the habitat? We carpooled to the nearest site, where two pairs of owls have dug burrows on what constitutes a double house lot. I was stunned. Here they were, carrying on their lives on a perfectly rectangular piece of closely-mown lawn, hemmed in by asphalt and concrete sidewalks on every side. The actual burrows were marked with yellow tape and small wooden posts, and a T-perch had been erected just at the mouth of the burrow. In a subsequent drive around the island, I saw marked burrows on nearly every vacant patch of land I passed.
Though she'd much rather leave them natural, Nancy puts these markers up to prevent lawn-care workers from driving over or collapsing the burrows, and to try to keep people from trampling them or otherwise disturbing the birds. The city stipulates that all vacant lots be mowed; any vegetation over 15" high must go. This manicuring has a negative impact on wildflowers, insects, quail, ground doves, shrikes, kestrels,nighthawks and kildeer. And burrowing owls.
I couldn't believe it when Nancy led us right up to the tape, and we were allowed to peer into the burrow at the beautiful, bright-eyed owls just inside. They glared back at us, as unperturbed as it seems possible for wild owls to be by the sight of twenty humans surrounding their nest site. Like many raptors, it's possible to tell the difference between the sexes just by their faces and build. The male, in the foreground, seems smaller-headed and slighter, even longer-legged , than the bulkier female, behind him. Males are also paler, because they get bleached by the sun as they stand guard outside the burrow while the darker female incubates in its cool recesses.Although it seemed the owls were unafraid, I could feel their tension and read it in their glowing golden eyes. This male crouched when he felt pressed by the crowd, and I suffered with him as each person leaned in over the yellow tape to examine him more closely. When the tension got too great, he'd spring into flight, only to land a couple of yards away. Then, torn by the desire to flee and the need to stay and protect his mate, he'd return. This seemed to me to be a marvel of acclimatization for any bird, much less an owl.
Ironically, the two birders with the longest, most expensive lenses seemed to want to get closest to the little owl. Again and again they crept up on him, and his nervous glares went unnoticed. With the optics they were packing, it seemed to me they must have been trying to photograph the mites on his eyelashes. So tiny he was, so vulnerable, so very brave.The closer everyone else pressed, the farther away I moved. I looked up at the wires overhead, to find a pair of loggerhead shrikes, witnessing this bizarre scene. An American kestrel joined them. No one else seemed to notice the shrikes, but they're hanging on by a thread, too. They call these little vacant house lots habitat, and they eke a living in grasshoppers and rodents, Cuban tree frogs and lizards from what little remains. Nancy tells me there are even gopher tortoises persisting on Marco Island. Such riches on these barren little postage stamps of land, all that is left of what must have been magnificent habitat before we overran it.Photo by Susan Merchant
This is Nancy Richie. Listening to her, looking at the handouts she'd prepared, I flashed back to my three years heading up the Least Tern/Piping Plover Recovery Program in Connecticut. This is a woman who has taken it upon herself to protect a vulnerable species. She will stop at nothing to do it. She speaks to developers, who confide in her that the way to deal with burrowing owls is to put a hose on your truck's exhaust pipe and run it down the burrow. She speaks to homeowners who call her hotline to complain about "this awful bird that stares in my bathroom window," asking her to remove it. She works with city maintenance people and lawn care companies, educating employees about proper maintenance around the fragile burrows. And she despairs at the limp regulations the state of Florida has in place, that actually allow developers to collapse nesting burrows as long as the nesting pair is not in residence. As in: During the winter. So the owls come back to nest in February, and their burrow has been destroyed, and there's another McMansion going up where they once raised their young. I was so flabbergasted at this that I asked Nancy to repeat the statement. Yes. You can destroy their burrows as long as the owls aren't actively nesting there at the moment. The wonder is that there are any burrowing owls, gopher tortoises, shrikes and kestrels left here at all.

"Build out," an ominous phrase, is predicted within 10 years. That means that every vacant lot on Marco Island will have a house on it. How do these birds persist on some of the most expensive real estate in the country, in the face of such relentless pressure? Two words: Nancy Richie. Stop and think for a moment how it would feel to take on such a responsibility. To make each owl's fate your problem. To watch new houses being built atop the vanishing vacant lots on this hotly contested bit of sand and beach. To see known nesting burrows legally destroyed that only the spring before put forth wide-eyed mocha-brown owlets. To make cold calls to homeowners, asking them to dig starter burrows, to invite displaced birds to their own yards. To try to counter the inevitable takeover of every bit of free habitat on this jam-packed island. To care that much.

If the owls could hand-pick an ambassador, they couldn't do much better than Nancy Richie. She's the bomb. She likes people, and even the ones she'd privately like to strangle, she befriends. She's got 25 volunteers she calls, collectively, Owl Watch. When an announcement was made that a beach on Marco Island was being considered for designation as a critical habitat for wintering piping plovers, there was a predictable outcry. Almost nobody in a community like this wants to hear that a threatened species might be using their beach (or their lawn, for that matter). A local jeweler began making pendants depicting dead piping plovers, feet in the air, with X's for eyes. Nancy paid him a visit, and from then on the jeweler began making his piping plover pendants right-side-up instead. And he made Nancy a burrowing owl with emerald eyes. That's the kind of effect, the effectiveness, she has. She is the owls' guardian angel. Thank God for people like Nancy, and for these tiny owls that find a way to live cheek to jowl with people, people who, but for her efforts, might put an exhaust pipe down their nesting burrows. You can make people care, but as often as not you have to take the long way around, and gently show them why they should care. Give Nancy a place to stand, and she will move the world.

Down to Naples

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Friday, January 19 was a big day. After my bittersweet morning taking the ecological temperature at Sanibel with my new friends Dan and Judy Davis, I met my old friend Jerry Jackson at noon at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he teaches biology. We hadn't laid eyes on each other since the late 80's. My God. I told him I liked him in gray. He told me I hadn't changed a bit. Men. I laughed and told him he was a liar.As well as teaching ornithology and now herpetology, Jerry does a daily radio spot about nature in the Fort Myers area on WGCU, the NPR affiliate on the campus where he teaches. I met several local birders who told me they get up early just to hear it. Imagine coming up with a script and recording a spot to air each day. Kind of like blogging! (You can hear his segments on WGCU's website, Jerry's a much-admired teacher and naturalist. He knows there's no end to inspiration in nature, and he loves sharing it with others. Ben and Judy are taking his ornithology course, which they describe as like a big ice cream sundae with chocolate on top. I'd call that high praise. He thought that while I was in the area, we might as well do a little interview and record a commentary to help plug the Southwest Florida Birding and Nature Festival to be held at the Rookery Bay Environmental Education Center January 19 and 20. And so. with the help of producer Valerie Valker, we did. Photo by Jerome Jackson
I read a chapter from Letters from Eden called "Twice Bitten," about my adventure with a copperhead. Really fun. I love radio, love getting all the way through a three-minute piece without choking, stumbling or gagging on my words. It's a challenge! The piece aired at 5:30 that afternoon.

Then I had to take my reluctant leave. Jerry's been so kind to me, asking me to illustrate ivory-billed woodpeckers for various publications, buying my paintings, occasionally bouncing ideas off me, and ready to help whenever I have a question about log-gods. I treasure our connection. I walked out into the parking lot of the campus radio station where Jerry was recording his pieces, and a pileated woodpecker came yakking out of the palmetto scrub and landed on a palm tree near my car, brilliant crimson crest blazing. Well, hello to you, too! Had to be a sign, of what I don't know, but a good one. I wished I had had time to hang with Jerry, but he runs like a long-tailed cat in a room full of fiddlers, and so do I. I raced over to Naples to check into my hotel, and to get an early dinner with Rookery Bay director Randy McCormick and staff biologist Renee. Lobster ravioli, yummmm. Wonderful company. I hurriedly grabbed a shower and dumped my gear in my luxury room at Olde Marco Island Inn. Thanks, Houghton Mifflin! I feel pretty, oh so pretty! Zow. Being here without BOTB: what a waste of a sexy suite. I especially liked the hot coral walls and giant plastic palms and orchids, and the balcony surrounded by waving palm fronds. There was a cage full of peach-faced lovebirds squeaking right underneath my balcony all night. Better that than idling diesel trucks, which BOTB reports he's enjoying in his Florida hotel tonight.

At 6 pm, it was time to sign books. Guess who showed up? Susan Merchant, of Lake Life! She and Sherm had come to my talk at Ding Darling the afternoon before. I can't imagine wanting to hear the same reading twice, but they did. And we both chose lime green. Susan is terrific, and so is Sherm. We felt like old pals. She reminds me so much of my sister Nancy!Randy had helped me set up the laptop before the book signing, so it was ready to rock. We made a lot of comments to each other about our blood pressure going down 100 points once we got the equipment working. I got a sweet, soulful introduction from Randy, stood up, went to hit the Play button...Wait! There was no Play button. Something was wrong. There was my Keynote program on the computer screen, but I couldn't find any way to make it play. The friendly toolbar had vanished for reasons unknown. Anybody have a Mac in the audience? Murmurs, blank looks. May I call a lifeline? Dialed Bill on my cell phone, and stood for 10 agonizing minutes at the podium, 60 people staring at me and shifting in their seats, trying this and that and that and this and sweating bullets and freaking quietly out and whimpering into my cellphone. Bill launched Keynote on his laptop, held my hand with his smooth voice, and finally figured out what must have gone wrong. "Go up to View and pull down to Play Slideshow! "Bam! My program started. "That's got it!" I hung up unceremoniously on my sweet husband and got on with it. The show must go on. It was alarming, after the silken-smooth program I'd given at Ding Darling, to find out just how close to the edge I have been dancing with my relatively green Keynote skills. We've all been in the audience when the speaker is futzing with his or her laptop, unable to get the show on the road. It's painful, but know that it's way worse for the speaker. Technology is terrific when it works! and terrifying when it doesn't. The talk went fine thereafter.

That ended my responsibilities for the trip, and I was greatly looking forward to tasting some of the natural wonders of Marco Island before dashing to the Fort Meyers airport for a 2 pm. flight home Saturday. I was determined to squeeze the last drop of orange juice out of my too-short trip to Florida. I decided to join a morning field trip to observe burrowing owls. There, I would meet the Star of Marco Island. More anon!

Sanibel is Hurting

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How I missed my mate. I thought of him as I watched these two white ibis pick their way slowly down the messy beach. Truth be told, I thought of him the whole time. Tonight, he's the one in Florida, calling to say he's renting a car, driving with the windows down, looking at a wood stork. Sigh. What is this work we do, that separates us time and time again?

Everything had changed this year at Sanibel. For one thing, the famous Australian pines that once graced and shaded the island are all gone, every one of them blown down by the hurricanes. The native canopy trees in the flatwoods are virtually all gone, and the palmettos and ferns bake in the unrelenting sun.The runes on these trees were in bas relief. Still unreadable to me.

But even more had changed this time than it had in March 2006, when we were last there. The first and most obvious change was in Sanibel's justly famous white-sand beaches. I couldn't see any sand, except high up near the dune grass. The beach was covered, as much as a foot deep, in red drift algae. It took awhile, and some questions to residents, for it to sink in on me what the things I was noticing really signified. I'm glad I didn't know what it meant while I was photographing birds. I was just thrilled to be on a beach, near the ocean, weedy or not.A willet makes its way along. I'll bet it misses the sand, too. How do you forage in this stuff?

Red drift algae is a plant that flourishes in the presence of nitrates and pollutants. At Ding Darling NWR, there were mats of green filamentous algae on the bottom of the impoundments, and floating near the top of every body of water. This crud has the same dietary preferences as red drift algae. Nitrates. And where do those come from? Read on. You can see the green mat algae on the mangrove roots in this otherwise pleasing picture of a tri-colored heron.

As I picked my way through the red drift algae out on the beach, I found something I'd never seen before--dying calico scallops. We're all used to seeing their shell halves cast up. That's normal. These were alive and clapping their shells, dying by the thousands. I picked up the first dozen or so that I saw, and winged them back into the water. And then I realized that if I were going to try to help every scallop on the beach, I would be there a very, very long time. I was there quite awhile as it was, until I realized that these scallops were all going to die whatever I did.It was a massive die-off, and it wasn't normal, because healthy scallops don't permit themselves to get washed up. For as long as I watched the gulls and shorebirds, not a single one attempted to eat these large exposed morsels of protein. That seemed really strange. Why would a ring-billed gull walk right past an open scallop? But birds know much that I can't fathom, and they know what is fit to eat and what is not. I saw them as fellow animals, and felt them suffering, these humble mollusks who receive little empathy from anyone. We put them in sauces and serve them with pasta, but we don't think about them as fellow beings. The way they'd close when they sensed me near, then slowly re-open, broke my heart. You can tell the girl from Ohio, because she's the one flinging scallops back into the sea.

So there was a very strong visual element to my distress, but what bothered me most was what wasn't there. Namely, fish-eating birds. No wood storks. Almost no pelicans. Few cormorants. Only a sprinkling of shorebirds, even at low tide. Very few ospreys. And few herons and egrets. I think I saw one great egret fly over Ding Darling, only a handful of other egrets fishing. It was eerie, and wrong, and scary as hell.

What few fish were there were hotly contested by brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and a small flock of red-breasted mergansers. You can see the white collar of the drake merganser right under the airborne pelican's right foot. He's periscoping, looking for fish with his head underwater. The drab duck is a hen red-breasted merganser.
So what happened? What is happening?

Well, when the multiple whammy of hurricanes hit Florida, Lake Okeechobee way up north of Miami got really full. Since the lake is surrounded by land owned by an entity referred to by Floridians as "Big Sugar," and stands in heavily sprayed and fertilized sugar cane, Okeechobee gets the worst agricultural runoff imaginable. It's full of nitrates (which act as fertilizer for algae), herbicides, pesticides and other toxins. If nature were allowed to take its course, the cane fields would have flooded. But the Army Corps of Engineers, protecting Big Sugar's interests, decided that that would be unacceptable, and released huge pulses of toxic water into the Caloosa River, whose mouth opens out onto that precious bit of sand and mangrove flat and habitat called Sanibel Island. Flood an ecosystem with toxins and fertilizers, and you get mats of algae, massive fish kills, shellfish kills, bird die-offs, and repercussions untold for years to come.

Ding Darling NWR was quiet, too quiet. I cursed my inquisitiveness, and wished I could just shrug and shake my head like the woman from Michigan who I stopped and asked about the dying scallops. " Never seen anything like it! They're just a clappin' away!" she chuckled, and slogged on through the red algae. Yeah.

The coastal beaches on Sanibel were all but unwalkable, their famous shells buried inextricably in mats of fibrous algae. The mullet whose splashing leaps were such a signature sound and sight of the refuge were completely gone. I saw one lone mullet, cavorting in a mangrove channel, where there were thousands before. (I saw more human mullets fishing than actual fish.) There were no fish, so there were almost no birds. I saw not a single wood stork on the refuge. And I fear for the upcoming nesting season for all fish-eating birds.

But the cane fields didn't get flooded. Ay, oh... way to go, ACOE.

I could tell on approaching this yearling yellow-crowned night heron that he wasn't right. Even a tame night heron shouldn't have his eyes closed when a human's only eight feet away. He swayed on unsteady legs, eyes shutting. His soft part coloration and his eyes were dull. And then I saw his feet, covered with suppurating sores. This heron is not long for this world. Wading in poisons has opened these sores, poisoned his blood.For someone who has seen this refuge in its glory, so many birds crammed into the pools that they have to take a number, it was hard to witness the quiet. I wept inwardly as I wandered from empty pool to empty pool.

So it's up to the mangroves now to slowly filter and heal these waters, to shelter what baby fish are able to hatch in poisoned water.Hurricanes happen. They're nobody's fault, though we have to wonder whether global warming is making more and bigger hurricanes than ever before. As for water releases from Lake Okeechobee, we've let Big Sugar call all the shots; the Army Corps has done what it can to satisfy that entity's economic interests and make sure the cane fields don't flood, and the Sanibel mangroves have a big job, and strangely quiet waters, in front of them.It was good to see a raccoon acting like a raccoon--rummaging through mudflats instead of trash cans. I remembered the book, "Ring of Bright Water." What a lovely title.And yet the red mangroves seem hopeful. Their seeds, among the only ones in the plant world that germinate before leaving the mother plant, send a fine green root down before falling into the mud below. May they do their work well.

A cormorant stares into the water beneath its perch, looking for fish.
When it leaves, the branch springs up: a perfect fish, complete with eye, gill cover, pectoral fin and tail-- but one no bird can eat.

Heartfelt thanks to Dan and Judy Davis, refuge volunteers who took me out to the quiet pools and explained so much to me. Sorry to have a bummer post, but it isn't all beautiful, this place we called Paradise.
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