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Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Once at the corral, we explored it, and climbed the weathered boards to see the land that rolled off behind it. Both times we've visited this spot before, mountain bluebirds have mysteriously appeared, as if to greet us. This time they were nowhere in sight. Bill immediately set off on a mission to find some for me, because mountain bluebirds go with the magic gate, and that's that. He is a most chivalrous birding companion. Marilyn and Mary--just a couple of cowgirls, looking for the blues.

The juniper-studded hillsides seemed to go on forever--huge in scale, their size only apparent when you went to hike them. Distant specks resolved into celestial blue, like little bits of sky fallen toward earth. A flock of perhaps 40 mountain bluebirds sifted across the junipers, pausing to hover and pluck the fleshy juniper cones. One bush had twenty or more birds in it, fluttering and hovering. They were too busy to come find us, so we found them. Is there a more beautiful bird than a male mountain bluebird?Perhaps a female?How perfectly they fit into the landscape of indigo mountains and weathered wood.

Wayne Peterson surveys the flock. He's dwarfed by the scale of this country. There's nowhere in Ohio that I can think of where I could get a picture of a person looking so tiny in the vastness.Where have all the cowboys gone? I know where there's one. Having found mountain bluebirds for me, Bill of the Birds turned to Wayne, who was trying to figure out how to silence the annoying sound effects that are inexplicably produced by his Olympus C-730. This was my first digital camera, and I hated the loud Zhrooom! it emitted on being turned on, and the Kschlopp! it makes when it takes a picture. There's no reason for a camera to announce itself that loudly. So, in the middle of all this natural beauty, and over Wayne's protests, Bill took the time to wrestle the camera's menu to the ground, the ludicrousness (and perfection) of the moment completely lost on him.I just laughed, because it was such a classic Bill Thompson thing to do. I think I've mentioned that this long, tall helpful cowboy is a mighty good papa, too.
On our way back to the house, we passed this billboard along NM 107.It sent my cowgirl dreams spinnning off into the ether. Just another thing you'd never see in Ohio. I don't know if I've been granted enough years on the planet to earn enough money to buy a piece of New Mexico, but I can still dream. A little boy should know in his bones what open spaces are.

At the Old Corral

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We traveled NM 107, a plume of dust behind us like a pheasant's tail. We were looking for The Gate, where Bill and I put our Polaroid on a tripod and took our picture in November, 1992, before we were married, before Phoebe and Liam, before almost anything had happened in our young lives. If anything, the pull of that old corral and gate and the mountains all around it is even stronger today, and I started crying quietly as soon as we left Evett's Cafe, in anticipation and joy and sheer rapture of being in this sacred spot once again.
Soon the primitive fenceposts we were looking for hove into view.
We made our way to The Gate, and Wayne kindly took our picture. Liam is trying to make me stop crying. He has a little trouble with happy tears. I guess most men do.
We also posed for a recreation of the original Polaroid, complete with bad color (my camera was set two stops too light).
And another with the family. Liam has wrapped himself all around us, bald baby-suddenly-turned-supermodel Phoebe is squeezing me, Bill's strong arms enfolding us all, the new Navajo bling he just got me is hanging from my neck... At this point I'm really losing it. Life is so good.
Bill found the bottlecap he put in the old post last year to mark the spot.
Phoebe and Liam against the light. Now this is their sacred spot, too. We've only been here once more than they have. I hope that when they're pushing 50, they'll come here and stick a bottlecap in the post, too.
Tomorrow early, we head for Pennsylvania for my Big Weekend. I'll probably be out of touch until Monday, but you can be sure I'll have pictures of the gala event. I'm so looking forward to it, and trying not to dither too much. I'm so happy to have my little nuclear family, and even my brother and sister-in-law coming to the show! Life is good!

The Road to Magdalena

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I can't think of another place on the planet that has the pull on my heart that Magdalena, New Mexico does. It's the perfect storm of landform, wildlife, vastness, beauty and memory, and it takes me apart. Saturday afternoon was to be the only time we'd have to sneak off from the Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR to visit our sacred spot. This time, we took not only the kids but a few friends: Paul Baicich, Wayne Peterson, and Marilyn and Mary, who we met at the festival. It was different, but lots of fun to take other people along and share this magical place with them. Please note that I am showing a modicum of style, including full-length trousers.Since we'd been fieldtripping all morning, we'd need something to eat other than Clementines and Corn-nuts, a snack which I'm quite sure will cost me thousands in dental repair someday. We made our way straight to Magdalena, passing a sentinel cow along the way.
I wouldn't say that Evett's is going to make a Zagat rating any time soon, but we weren't picky, and, it being Saturday, we missed the Magdalena Cafe by 20 minutes. I hear it has a killer pecan pie. I love Evett's for the old bank it's in, its atmosphere and funky signage, as well as the clientele. Here's ornithologist and conservationist Wayne Peterson with a Baxter Black lookalike. These cowboys had some serious cookie dusters, the Yosemite Sam look. Check out the patina on that hat!
Paul Baicich is probably the nation's greatest proponent of the Federal Migratory Bird Conservation Stamp, more popularly known as the Duck Stamp. If every nature lover and bird watcher would just buy a $15 Duck Stamp every year, what wonders in habitat acquisition could be accomplished! Here, Paul tries to get a sanitary stamp for his collection. I love those relics from the 40's and 50's, when everything was touted as "sanitary" or "hygeinic." Bill and I did a bit of prosyletizing on the Duck Stamp's behalf, displaying ours prominently on our binoculars, and talking it up to other birdwatchers. An alarming number of them were completely unaware that people other than duck hunters could (or should) buy Duck Stamps, and what the $16 cost goes to (habitat acquisition). A Duck Stamp will get you in free to any national wildlife refuge in the country, and ours paid for themselves in one weekend. Paste one on your binoculars for the ultimate in cool birdwatcher bling. Then, all you have to do is wear your binocs to get into any national wildlife refuge, free of charge. You'd be wearing them anyway, right?

While we fooled around and waited for our tacos, Bill, Mary, the kids and I walked up the street to this shop. I had a fever for some turquoise, and we thought it would be fitting and cool if we could find some in Magdalena. The little Trading Post called to me, and I answered.
We found a necklace that will be just the thing to top off my Coldwater Creek outfit for my show opening in Pennsylvania the weekend of Nov. 29, and it was about half what it would have cost in Taos (but then, what isn't?) Sweet William bought it for me, and he got some hand-beaded earrings for Phoebe, too. Liam was satisfied with a stretchy snake from the gum machine. Little boys rock, and they're cheap to maintain, too.
A curious kitty watched us from a nearby porch. She'd have to wait to see my turquoise necklace, and you will, too. There are just too many images for one post. More Magdalena tomorrow!

Chet Baker Had a Baby

Monday, November 26, 2007


Chet Baker had a baby, a little stuffed Boston terrier I bought as a puppy placebo for the kids before Chet was weaned and ready to move to Ohio. He had it for several months, which is much, much longer, by months, days and minutes, than he usually keeps a toy. Give Baker a stuffed dog toy and you can count down the seconds before it is reduced to strewn Hollofil, extracted squeaker, and a limp gutless skin on the Berber rug.

But Chet's babeh was different, and it was a testament to his visual nature that he seemed to believe it was somehow real. He treated it like a puppy, sniffing its ears and endlessly licking its face and checking under its tail for any hint of scent that might confirm his belief in its realtude. Of course, the more he loved it the more real it smelled to him. It was his Velveteen Rabbit.

I didn't like to leave Baker alone with his babeh, because he would lick and lick and then nibble and then kind of chew...and I'd take it away and put it on a high shelf, where he'd stare at it for minutes on end, a worried expression on his sweet face. He managed to get one of its eyes out, and then about a week later he done blinded that babeh altogether. I still kept it away from him, even after that, because once the eyes are gone the stuffin' ain't far behind.

But we got distracted by packing for New Mexico, and Baker got ahold of his babeh, and in a few blinding seconds, an orgy of excess, he kilt it. An Otherness crept into his eyes. He done got crazy and kilt it, and he didn't seem to feel in the least bad about it, either. A switch got flipped in my sweet little doggeh and he turned into a babykiller.
You were the one who called it my babeh. It was just a toy, and it was delicious.
Hollofil ball. Gaaak!
Chet's baby, Chet's schmabeh. You cannot make me feel guilty. Boston terriers were born to kill stuffed toys.Having said that, it would be nice to have a real real babeh again...Sometimes I hate myself for the things I do. I am helpless to resist a torn seam. I did not tear that seam. It happened when I kissed his eyeball out. It is not my fault.Ohh, Mether. What have I done?
This is all your fault, for giving me a babeh in the first place. Now I am lonely and I bet you will not buy me another babeh, ever ever ever. You are so mean, and you chuckle at my pain, which is real.I will go to sleep now, my head pillowed on the corpse of what used to be my real real babeh, and dream about a new babeh with eyes and stuffing, waiting for me under the Christmas tree.

Phoebe points out that there is another babeh in the Land of Misfit Toys in our basement. Little Chet's sugarplum dreams may just come true.

Chet Baker will be accompanying us to my show opening at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg, PA, this coming weekend, Nov. 29-Dec. 1. We'll be at the Center all day Friday and Saturday, and Baker will, too. The 70 works of art will continue to hang at the center through mid-February, 2008.It's a full-blown Zick retrospective. Hope to see you there!

Smiles of Water Canyon

Sunday, November 25, 2007

One of the magic birds of the West is the bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus. It's in its own family, the Aegithalidae, and is sort of allied with verdins and kinglets. I think all those micro-birdies were just kind of thrown together; bushtits aren't much like anything else. They travel in big flocks, zipping from tree to shrub to bush to tree, and they do everything together. They're incredibly difficult to get a good look at, much less a decent picture, but some kind of scale insect held their attention long enough for me to fire off a couple of hazy shots.
The southwestern form has kind of a masked look, and the females have pale yellow eyes, like this one. This is a 4 1/2" bird, a minibird. When they're all done feeding, they give lisping calls and explode from the tree in unison, flitting and dipping in lightning-fast flight, only to disappear into the foliage and twigs of the next. I would hate to do a study of social relationships in bushtits. Just getting a look at one is an event, much less reading color bands!

Water Canyon wasn't just about birds. I scored a life mammal in this cliff chipmunk, Tamias dorsalis. It's more modestly colored than our gaudy eastern chipmunk, but a charmer nonetheless. Western chipmunks are many, and maddeningly hard to separate, but this animal showed no dorsal striping, ruling out Colorado chipmunk as a contender. I'd love to hear from anyone who disagrees with my ID. The range maps in my Kaufman mammal guide show neither species occurring in Water Canyon, but it was a chipmunk and it was there, and those are the two species whose range is closest to SW New Mexico in my book. Don't miss his shadow!

The cliff chipmunk was scurrying around in the company of a juvenile rock squirrel, Spermophilus variegatus.
These husky squirrels look like bulked up tree-squirrels, and they flow over rocks and logs like water, being most comfortable near the ground. We'd seen them on the boulders along Monterey Bay, and in the tumbled rocks of the Chiricahuas in Arizona. They live in colonies, in burrows in the ground. Odd animals, ones for which I have no mental template: my favorite kinds!
Phoebe and Liam loved Water Canyon, and happily escorted our field trips on Saturday and Sunday. Liam made his own fun, fooling around with rocks and sticks and slidy slopes, hanging out with Phoebe and talking her ear off. They are such good traveling companions, turning to each other for fun and solace, hanging together like twin fawns behind their wandering mother and father.We made sure both kids got good scope looks at the birds and animals, including an Abert's squirrel--a fabulous huge tree squirrel with a silver tail, dark charcoal body and heavily tufted ears that make it look like a bunny with a fashion tail extension. I'll give you a pirated picture from New Hampshire Public Television's NatureWorks site, since ours was so distant:Looks like a boy. Got some squirrel junk. Ours was, too, I think, judging from the giant ear tufts. What a cutie!

Once we'd seen the Abert's squirrel, it was farther up the canyon to look for Williamson's sapsucker. This beautiful bird has such marked sexual dimorphism that for a long time the two sexes were thought to be distinct species! The female is coal-gray and yellowish, while the male is simply splendid. I wish I had a simply splendid picture for you, but the quiet little bird hunkered down in the armpit of a ponderosa pine and sat there for an hour or so--both days we sought him out! He had a sap well there and thought he was well-hidden, but the scope gave everyone breathtaking looks, shadows or not. I had to pump this one all the way up in brightness to get any markings on it at all; it was a silhouette in the original. Dig those crazy face stripes. He's got a ruby chin, too, and a bright yellow belly. Sigh. What a bird. I've not done him justice, but at least you can get the idea.
I was so proud of Bill of the Birds, patiently seeking this elusive bird, then sitting for at least an hour, waiting for it to come back around the side of the tree where he could line eager birders up on it. He shines in those situations--he's persistent and patient and most of all just wants others to see the bird. It was a lifer for many of our group, and he orchestrated a Life Bird Wiggle for the camera.
BOTB's hands stick up farther than anyone else's here. I'm snuggled into his side with a hat and tons of dorky gear hanging off me. Phoebe and Liam are on the ground, lower right. They thoroughly enjoy going on field trips with us, since birders are so kind to them (and pleasantly surprised when they prove to be troopers who hike willingly and stay quiet when they need to). Liam keeps hearts light with his antics and hilarious commentary. He can get dirtier than any little boy I know, faster. He seems to sit down in everything. I deserve him, since my mother despaired of keeping the seat of my pants clean. The difference is that it doesn't bother me in the least. That's what playclothes are for.

Before long, we turned back down the road out of Water Canyon. The road to Magdalena beckoned. Time to go to our favorite place on the planet. Ahhh, the magical vastness of the true American West. It's every bit as romantic and mysterious as the paperbacks and films make it out to be. Cloudshadows race across the land, chiaroscuro moods right behind them. Just back, and I miss it already.

November Butterflies

Friday, November 23, 2007

In 1992, when Bill and I first explored Bosque del Apache, we met a woman named Cathie Sandell. She "got" us and knew where to send us to watch birds, take in the New Mexico scenery, and get our heads cleared out. "Go up NM 107 to Magdalena," she said. "If you have time, check out Water Canyon." We did, and it was one of the most magical days of our lives. We've run into Cathie since while speaking in New York for the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs, when Liam was an infant, and it was a pleasure to see her again at Bosque. What a gift she gave us with that one suggestion.

So it was with great pleasure that we agreed to lead two field trips to Water Canyon, which we remembered as one of the quietest places we'd ever been. The weather this trip was magnificent, warm and sunny, and Water Canyon where the sun warmed its lower reaches was birdy, birdy, birdy. We joined renowned local naturalist Mary Alice Root and 30 eager birdwatchers to explore its natural history. It's usually difficult to bird with such a huge group, unless you're on a paved road, and then it's a blast. We were brought up short by an acorn woodpecker perched on an exposed snag, pulled our car caravan over, and pretty much stayed there at the base of the canyon, watching bird TV, for the rest of the morning. It was a showcase of NM winter residents: scrub jays, mountain chickadees, western bluebirds, bushtits, acorn woodpeckers, red-naped sapsuckers, common ravens, canyon towhees, chipping and white-crowned sparrows, gray-headed juncos, Cassin's and house finches and the like. They were all coming in to drink at a watering trough in a rustic corral, so we parked ourselves and enjoyed the show. First rule of birding with a big group: When you find birds, stay with them!
This is a mountain chickadee. I'm proud of this shot, since they're a bit tough to catch at rest. Love those head stripes! They're cute and confiding little birds, and they tend to forage quite low, making them ideal subjects for amateurs. It is such fun to see the Western variations on the chickadee theme.

Because Bill and I were as busy as a couple of long-tailed cats in a roomful of rocking chairs, we spent most of our time pointing out birds and didn't get to shoot too many bird pictures. Butterflies are easier to approach, so I contented myself documenting the amazing array still flying in late November. Our local guides were incredulous to see so many butterflies at this late date, and we speculated about the realities of global warming even as we enjoyed them.
Here's a red admiral, one of my favorite feisty butterflies. I've had red admirals hit me in the chest or forehead, defending a favorite sunspot.
We often get buckeyes, a hardy migrant, in October in Ohio, but here they were in November in New Mexico! Go buckeyes! (That was for Kathi, who knows what a hopelessly lame sportsfan I really am).
Clouded sulfurs were common even on frosty mornings, and I was delighted to add a new butterfly to my life list, the dainty sulfur, Nathalis iole. This multiple-brooded cutie, our smallest sulfur, flies almost year-round in the Southwest. I had to hang on to this picture of it and key it out in my Kaufman guide when I got home. Just another reason to love digital cameras!
For sexy, though, it's hard to beat the California (Arizona) sister, Adelpha bredowii. It loves oak canyons, and acts a bit like the related red-spotted purple of the east, feeding on fermenting fruit and droppins, and basking in the sun. I was clinging to a slidy rocky slope, trying to get a better angle on its beauty, but had to be satisfied with this shot.We're home, after leaving Arroyo Seco at 6 AM Thanksgiving day. We got in at about 9 PM after wrestling with a taxi and a dead van battery (booring) to a verra happy, kennelstinky Chet Baker. He immediately gremlined under Phoebe's bed and roo-rooed at us. He's had his morning bath just now and is lying like a puddle of India ink on the sunny living room carpet, smelling of shea butter baby shampoo. The washing machine is churning away in the basement and clothes are flapping in the cold November sun. It's good to be home.

So much happened on our Water Canyon field trips that I'm going to save the rest for a second post. Stay tuned for bushtits!
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