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Puffin Stuff

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Daddy hauls a comatose Liam up the gangplank from the boat.

When you've been birding since you were 7 years old, and seriously birding since 1976, life birds don't come along too often. You usually have to leave the country, or go on a quest for one special bird in a habitat that's hard to get to, to add anything to your life list. I've been skunked by the Atlantic puffin, even after six weeks in Newfoundland. Only a dedicated trip to a nesting colony on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, Maine, could fix the hole in my life list.
I was ridiculously excited on the morning of our field trip. But I was worried enough about rough seas--the wind was tossing the spruces on Hog Island--that I took two Benadryl as we pushed off from the dock. Gave one to each kid. Mistake. It turned out to be almost flat calm out on the bay, and the medication rendered me and the kids little more than zombies. Poor little Liam, right before he konked out:
Don't worry: he held on until he saw puffins. And then he retreated to the cabin and collapsed on a pile of windbreakers and fleeces.
No amount of sedatives could dull my delight in finally laying eyes on the sea clown. They're so much smaller and cuter than I even thought, and I was sure they'd be small and cute. Wow. Everything they're billed as, and more.
They patter over the waves, trying to get airborne, their wings buzzing furiously.
Feet that match their bills:Does this look like a man in a puffin suit? Small wings help reduce drag underwater, where they use them as oars. I think they dive with the wings only partly extended, the way guillemots do, so they're beating them half-closed. Companionable little things, they travel in pairs. Their call, which we couldn't hear over the boat engine, is a lowing moan, kind of sheeplike. Link
Puffins nest deep in burrows beneath rocks. There, they enjoy a measure of safety from gull predation. We wouldn't have puffins nesting in Maine but for the reintroduction program, and stringent gull control efforts of Project Puffin. What a gift to give the world. Speaking of gifts, my lovely and thoughtful friend Jen, who also saw her life puffins on this trip, adopted a puffin in my name. He's 26 years old. Puffins live into their 30's. Most seabirds do...low replacement potential means they have to have a long reproductive life.
This is my favorite puffin picture from the trip. Every once in awhile I get a shot that's worth all the others piled together.
And every once in awhile I get a life bird what AM a life bird. Thanks, Maine Audubon. Thanks, Project Puffin, for adding the sea clown back into Maine's avifauna.

Gnomes and Fairies

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ever get something as a gift that you never knew you wanted? Example: I never thought I was the kind of person who would wear socks with dogs on them. But I do, I do. I've gone through four pairs of Wheelhouse socks with Boston terriers on them. Yep. Just got a fifth pair for my birthday. Looking forward to wearing the heels out on them, too.
When a box appeared via UPS from my sister Barbara in Massachusetts, I was intrigued. It was big--two feet long. There was Styrofoam. Inside, there was a gnome. Definitely in the category of something I never realized I wanted until I got it.Lovely delphiniums...but what's that poking up through the vegetation?

I liked him immediately because Barb sent him, but also because he wasn't particularly cute. He's pushing a wheelbarrow that fits loosely into his permanently clenched hands, and he looks kind of ticked off. Like somebody filled his wheelbarrow with rocks and he's stuck moving them all the way across the bed to the delphiniums. I often look pretty cross when I'm gardening, but it's because I'm transferring my frustrations to the weeds I'm pulling or rooting out.

" My good hoe, as it bites the ground, revenges my wrongs, and I have less lust to bite my enemies. In smoothing the rough hillocks, I smooth my temper." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pull them out, shake the dirt off the roots, toss them in a pile. Would that it were so easy to do away with one's negative thoughts. No wonder I love gardening.Malva fastigiata and Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed). That's one Asclepias plant. When they're happy, they do well.

Gnomes, and fairies. My garden is buzzing with fairies. There are so many hummingbirds this summer, and I revel in the thrum and hum of their wings and the staccato arguments they seem to keep going all day long.

It's a delphinium and rose summer. I've salted all the shady beds with delphiniums and all the sunny ones with roses. I'm a freak for true blue flowers. There are a lot of lavender and purple flowers out there being called blue, but when I want blue, I want sky blue. And delphiniums are one of the few flowers that deliver. They like rich, moist soil, cooler temperatures, and they don't like to bake in the sun. I have one bed, on the north exposure, that gives them what they need. They come in white, too.So much for the old adage that you need red or orange flowers to attract hummingbirds.

This is the "Connecticut Yankee" series, an airy, wiry variety with deeply cut leaves and good winter survival skills. Love them, love them. And I love my gnome. Thanks, Barbie!

The Urban Woodchuck

Sunday, July 29, 2007


It was not a salubrious place for a woodchuck, this parched little courtyard just a half-block off North High Street in the middle of Columbus, Ohio. I was having a wonderful day, moseying and nosing around in the shops. Bill and I had taken breakfast at North Star Cafe, a fabulous all-natural organic eatery with good music and magazines and interesting people-watching. He’d gone off to an Ohio Ornithological Society board meeting, leaving me to poke around at places like The Urban Gardener and Loot and Pet People. Oh, yeah. I was having fun. Bought myself some Knockout landscape roses, a small pink mandevilla and a real jasmine vine. Breathe deeply...jasmine. Ahhhhh. And some nice mesclun and mache seeds for the fall greens crop I always mean to plant but never seem to. This year I WILL.
But the Science Chimp is ever watchful, even when shopping. In this apartment courtyard behind Pet People I spotted a young woodchuck, belly down on the sidewalk. What a lovely animal. I have a huge soft spot for woodchucks. No. I love woodchucks.

Urbane as he (she?) doubtless was, this was a suspicious woodchuck, and he raised his head and started for safety as soon as he noticed me looking at him. His home was a little crevice under a stoop, pretty bomb-proof, actually. He’d be fine in a tornado.
I saw a man pulling weeds just around the corner of the building. I sized him up and decided that he didn't look like someone who'd bother to kill a woodchuck. "I saw a little woodchuck just around the back of the building. Have you ever seen him?" I asked. No, he hadn't.
"Does he bother your flowers?"
"Never has. I guess he doesn't like flowers, or something."
Or maybe, I thought, he's too smart to chew down the flowers, knows he'd get kicked out for it. Sticks to clover. Could be. They're really smart animals.

Look at the view out onto the street. How did he get here? Would he be OK in such marginal habitat? Yes, he’d be fine. That’s why he’s there. The resilience of wildlife will always astound me.

Speaking of astounding...Sweet Mon@rch nominated this blog (and Bill of the Birds!) for Best Animal Blog, or Best Hobby Blog, or (this is a stretch) Best Education Blog on Blogger's Choice. Thanks, Mon@rch. Now I need to find out what that means.

So while I was away, Bill had my web wizard Katherine put a button up on the blog--you can see it to the right. I guess when you hit that button it takes you to a page where you can, uh, establish an account and vote for this blog so it might be in the running for a Blogger's Choice Award. Considering that Cute Overload is ALSO up for Best Animal Blog, maybe we'd better vote for it under Best Hobby Blog. Even Chet Baker can't compete with about nine thousand tiny baby kittehs, bunnehs and puppehs for cuteness and sheer vote-amassing popularity. At least not in the hearts of the general populace. True Baker fans know that his cuteness surpasses that of any other life form, juvenile or not.

Heck, I've even seen a knock-kneed baby moose on that blog. Nah, we have not a snowball's chance under Best Animal Blog. Let's go for Best Hobby blog. Much as I bridle at calling what I do a hobby, or collection thereof...There really isn't a category it fits into. It's neither gardening, nor animal husbandry, nor painting, nor wildlife rehabilitation, nor mommyblog, nor dark poetry, but some amalgam of all those things.

I hit the button, established an account (which isn't a big deal) and voted for myself. How pathetic is that? Help me.

This is a roundabout way, I guess, of soliciting votes. Pick me! Pick me! For what, I don't know. My Blog Resume? To add to my copious general mystique? To give you something else to do to waste time whilst at work? Yeah, that's it. You've got nothing better to do, right? Go vote! Vote for BOTB and Monarch, too!

Garden Tour

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Oh, the things that are blooming. We invited some friends over, including some very avid gardeners--one a professional landscaper, British no less. I decided to be loud and proud about my gardens, which look like they were planted by an insane monkey. What choice do I have? Tim was kind. He said it was really a classic cottage garden, informal, and quite charming. And that what matters is that it makes me happy. Thanks, Tim. But I know it still looks like it was planted by Bubbles the Chimp on speed. Hey. Anybody remember Bloop Bloop, Penny's spacechimp on Lost in Space? Me, too. Wonder if she outlived Dr. Smith? Hey, nice hat. Nice spacesuits too, Will and Penny. Looks like it's the Bloop's birthday. Aww. Somebody baked her a cake.

Just a few things, other than ridiculous late-night surfing for images from old TV series, that I love. Red daylilies from the Marietta Farmer's Market, backed by pink garden or musk mallow (Malva alcea fastigiata) from White Flower Farm. It behaved itself until this year. Now it is EVERYWHERE and I cannot dig it out. "Naturalizes well from seed." To say the least. Tap root to China. I guess I still like it, even as I hack it back. Those durn mallows will sneak up on you and try to overtake everything. They spread babies everywhere and you don't know it until it's too late. But it does a nice job of stitching together hot and cool colors with its shell-pink blossoms.There are some terrific daylily people selling their lilybabies at the Farmer's Market each Saturday. I cannot resist them. They fit easily just about anywhere, being so ectomorphic. The lilies, not the people. Good for a "cram and jam" gardener like me.

I like containers a lot, though I've planted fewer this year than any other year in memory. Just gone too much, I guess. But this is where I grow pelargoniums like the bright coral "Grey Sprite," a true miniature geranium. "Frank Headley" is another dwarf I adore, with its broad white edgings and salmon blossoms. The new "Renegade" series (pale pink, in the front container) has chocolate leaves and is very floriferous. I give it two trowels up. Laurentia is the blue star-shaped flower in the rear container. WHATTA PLANT! Brand new. I adore it. It has bloomed hard since May. Yeah!

Bill and I planted purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds along our driveway about twelve years ago, never really expecting them to establish. But oh, they did, in five different spots along the quarter-mile, and they are so much more beautiful, grown en masse and in partial shade, than the sun-drenched dwarves in my garden. No wonder I find excuses to take letters out and check the mail. There is always a great spangled fritillary or a tiger swallowtail enjoying the coneflowers when I go out to get the mail. The plants are as tall as I am. The flowers look me right in the eye.
Here's the hummingbird garden. They're all hummingbird gardens, but this one is dedicated. The cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinalis) , salvias and agastache are competing with lush plains coreopsis ( yellow with red center) for space here. Goldfinches adore plains coreopsis, and they help scatter its seeds. I haven't planted it but once, years ago. It pops up everywhere, and I adore it. Native, too!Just a look. More flowers come in every day. It's turning out to be a pretty darn good garden year. Little rains and a lot of hand-watering are keeping things going. And it hasn't really gotten beastly hot. I'm thankful for every little mercy, and especially glad to be home to enjoy it all. Dang it all, I'm off again. See you next week. Garden on, Garth! Garden on, Wayne!

Watching at the Window

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lately, I've been tethered to the drawing table, doing a journal cover. I don't know why my number keeps coming up for the Auk, but it does, and I'm not arguing. If they're not sick of me yet, I'll do another cover for them. I've had the ivory-billed woodpecker flying through the fall bayou, the long-tailed manakins dancing, and now I'm working on a subtly beautiful fringillid. Fun!

It's a terrific hummingbird summer, after a horrible one last year. Last year, my high count at the feeder all summer was four birds at once. This year, it's 14, and the humming and bickering and thrumming and chittering never stop. I LOVE it. I stand right next to the feeder and play with my camera and the willing subjects. I've got endless flight pictures of hummingbirds now. Like this one. I know it's no prizewinner, because I was too lazy to make sure there was a nice background, but I like seeing them frozen in mid hummm.

I like even more seeing them sitting on favored perches, and feeding from the flowers in my garden. This little dude sits in the birch right outside the studio window most all day, every day. He's guarding the cardinalflower bed directly below him. Oh, how I love to take pictures of him, trying to get his gorget flashing. Almost:

And better:I sneak glances out the window every time I go to dip a brush back into the paint. And I see the most wonderful things, so I keep the camera with its 300 mm. zoom lens on and ready at hand. I especially like watching the bath on these dry, late-summer days. It's almost never empty, especially when it's just been cleaned. The birds really appreciate my scrubbing it with Comet to get all the slime and droppings out of it, so I do that about every fourth day. Then, they literally line up to bathe there. Birds know from clean: they have to, to keep those flight feathers in top condition. They hate to be dirty, and they don't like dirty water or feeders, either.
This time of year, we've got oodles of young scarlet tanagers, as well as molting adults in every motley plumage. We've noticed that scarlet tanagers are very feisty birds. They love to chase and fight and defend what they believe to be theirs. Like the entire Bird Spa. Bad judgement on this young tufted titmouse's part to challenge Miss Bossy Boots. Titmice are feisty, too. This one gives a mewling call and threatens with open bill. But it still won't go in the water with that big toothed bill pointed at it. And finally: the shot I guess I was waiting for. I was waiting for all of them, really, but this is the kicker. The titmouse reminds me of Garuda.
The tanager won, as it has in every confrontation I've witnessed. Notice that she is sitting right on the bubbler, turning the spa into a tanager bidet. And feeling not one bit apologetic about it, either. Maybe she just had a birthday and is feeling like she's entitled. The titmouse had to wait to bathe until she went up to to the birch to scratch and preen. Note: tanagers are overwing scratchers--they bring the leg behind and over the wing to scratch the face. So are hummingbirds. Raptors, parrots and waterfowl, to name just a few, are underwing scratchers. Just another little thing to notice and watch for...Hmm. What are woodpeckers? Doves? I can't remember. Must watch and see.
The wingbars are a function of the bird's youth. I'm not even sure this is a female, though her bathing habits might suggest as much.
When we go away, one of the things I ask our housesitters to do is to keep the bath full. Running out of seed or suet dough is no big deal, but on this dry ridge, water is the most precious commodity we offer the birds, and we take the responsibility seriously. If you do nothing else in your backyard, get some clean moving water going. The rewards, like the water, continually recirculate.

Copperhead Catcher

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Good morning. We will now demonstrate Zick's favorite gadget, the Ronco Copperhead Nabber. I like this thing even better than I like Safer's pantry moth traps, which use pheromones to lure those annoying beige moths into some stickum inside the cardboard traps. I like nontoxic, effective methods of interacting with wildlife that I want out of my territory. I also like things that work really well.

As some of you will recall, my snake-catching skills have been honed over 26 years of country living. I have trapped and transported probably 15 copperheads in the 14 years we've lived at Indigo Hill. I used to use a stick or implement to pin the neck, then pick them up by the tail and lower them into a bucket. Copperheads tend to be docile animals, and this approach usually worked. Usually.

Four additional snakes were not with the program, and took violent exception to being pinned and picked up, however gingerly. The one I remember best was a huge, thick girthed beast in excess of 3' long. Ye gods. I got her pinned and picked up, only to find that my arm was not long enough to keep her far enough away from my tender parts. Here I was, in the middle of the concrete driveway, with little Phoebe looking on, twirling this enormous, heavy snake by her tail, absolutely frozen with terror that she'd bite me in the bicep or the stomach or thigh. She doubled back up her length and just about grazed my upper arm. Somehow I maneuvered her to a trash barrel and got her in it. Eek, eek, eek.

Three others were striking so madly and dangerously from the get-go that I couldn't get close enough to even pin them. Yeeks. Wasn't going to pick those bad boys up by the tail. They didn't get the courtesy of Zick's witness protection and relocation program. I like copperheads, but not enough to take another bite from one.

There had to be a better way.

I went online, found a good wildlife control gear site, and ordered myself a 3' long snake tongs. Such an elegant tool. The best $48 I've ever spent. Suddenly, no snake was big or vicious enough to rattle me. A squeeze handle like a bike brake tightens a steel tendon that brings the tongs together in a gentle but very firm grip. Now I look forward to encounters with copperheads like this little one that Phoebe found poking out of a crack in the concrete. I like that evil little orange head. I also like the way he's got a coil out that I can snag with my snake tongs.
My heart rate doesn't speed up one bit as I gently grasp the snake by its middle and lower it into a barrel.It can writhe and strike all it wants. It's not going anywhere but where I want it now.

Generally, I drive the snake two or three miles into an uninhabited, rocky area and release it. I don't take kids or dogs along in case the bucket somehow tips on these windy roads. I want to be the only one dealing with a snake in my car.

This particular snake--a nice, docile one-- accepted a fresh mouse that had accidentally drowned in a cooler, some nice fragrant straw and fresh water, and then went to be the resident exhibit copperhead at Salt Fork State Park. Our friends Jason and John made a mad midnight run to pick it up, so excited were they to get the call that I'd caught the copperhead they'd been lusting for. If it won't eat for them it'll come back to the Indigo Hill environs. All in all, a pretty good exchange. Yes, that is a Life is Good T-shirt , with a trout on it. I would like one with a copperhead on it.
All photos taken from a safe distance by a very brave Phoebe Linnea Thompson.

Smiles of a Summer Night

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A warm golden evening, four people and a small plastic disc. Who'd think that you could get so much fun out of those simple elements? We found a nice soft Frisbee at a Scheel's store in North Dakota. Soft Frisbees don't hurt little hands even when they're thrown hard.

In any athletic pursuit, Will has a nonchalant ease.Phoebe is enthusiastic and pretty darn good at it now.Liam is still getting the hang of throwing the disc on the level. Like his mother, he tends to cant it upward, making an embarrassingly steep arc that never gets much of anywhere. But even I can throw this little yellow one. I'll spare you any photos. Nobody's lining up to photograph me at an athletic pursuit, anyway. Not when there are little fauns like Liam to ogle. We've finally broken Chet Baker of grabbing errant discs. His teeth rip up the edges and the hard pointy bits hurt when you throw a dog-chewed disc. So most of our past Frisbee games were marked by loud shouts of BAKER NO! when he'd romp in and grab the disc. Now he retreats to a lawn chair to watch, a slightly crestfallen look on his face. Don't worry, he has plenty of toys we throw just for him. Supposedly durable dog Frisbees are chewed to smithereens in minutes.

This dog. We love him. Somehow we've all grown together over the two and a half short years we've enjoyed his company. Liam cannot walk past him without giving him a kiss and a hug. Neither can Phoebe, nor I. He smells good, he feels good, he's smart and pretty and he makes us laugh. What more could you ask for in a 23-pound package?
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