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Not a Wren Falls...

Monday, June 30, 2008


Carolina wrens do not mess around when they fledge. The parents call them and lead them as fast as they can to the nearest deep cover, and they keep going deeper. I’ve watched the fledging process for years, and I’m amazed afresh each time by the parents’ intuitive grasp of their chicks’ individuality. For strong fliers, an adult will fly to the nearest tree, and encourage the chick to make the flight across the lawn in one leg. For later-fledging, weaker chicks, the adult will fly a few yards, land on the ground, and encourage the chick to make the trip in short fluttering hops, leading them from shrub to lawn chair to flower bed in a zigzag path. The whole process of vacating the nest area is usually complete within minutes.
So I was alarmed to find this lone baby still moping on the downspout, long after I’d last heard the family moving into the woods the equivalent of a half-block away. He fluttered down to the base of the downspout, not up to flying like his siblings. You can see the cardboard tube that is my snake baffle in this shot. It closes the gap between downspout and house and keeps the snake from wrapping around the downspout to get up to the bucket.So tiny, and so very vulnerable. I had to help somehow.

I listened for the other birds. Nothing. Though it had been alone for two hours, the fifth baby continued to squeak, making the contact call that all new fledglings use to say, “I’m here! I’m here! Care for me!” It was extremely vulnerable as it fluttered on the ground and clambered up the side of the house. One sharp-eyed jay, one clued-in rat snake, one lightning-fast chipmunk, and it would be doomed.I grabbed my iPod and dialed up Carolina wren songs and calls. Played it on the west side of the garage, into the woods where I’d last seen the family. No response. Ran to the east side, and played a Carolina wren alarm call at full volume. An adult appeared, zooming up from deep in the woods. I paused the recording and watched. It flew right to the hostas where it had last seen the baby, and they made contact.

I smiled and sighed with happy relief as the adult perched on the crusty ol’ Pig of Good Fortune and lured the baby out of the flowerbed with insistent calls. S(he) led it to the shelter of the Japanese maple, then the forsythia bush. Baby #5: last seen headed deep into the woods, in the company of an adult.

As you read this, we will be slogging back home after a day on a tiny jet coming out of Salt Lake City. In addition to the mountain of luggage it took to get us through a week of field trips, talks and banquets, we'll have two large suitcases that JetBlue lost on our Maine trip, then sent to Utah...Extra luggage charges, anyone?

Sometime Tuesday, after I run into town to fill the car with fresh groceries, I will meet David and Mary Jane who will hand over our doggeh. Then, we will be smothered in Chet Baker kisses. I'm ready for a good gnaw on the muzzlepuffs, and a handful of sugar snap peas from the garden.

Bucketful of Miracles

Sunday, June 29, 2008

I’ve written about the little copper bucket under our eave. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, it held a philodendron plant that trailed around the stone fireplace in our home in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Somehow it got passed on to me, and I’ve thrown it in with my stuff and moved it a dozen or more times. It reminds me of my mom.

One day, about five years ago, I saw a Carolina wren trying to make rootlets, leaves and grasses stay on the elbow bend of the downspout by our front door. He’d bring a bunch of stuff, only to see it slide off; I noticed it by seeing a trailer of skeletonized leaves and rootlets hanging down in front of the foyer window.

I caught the wren’s eye as it perched on the gutter. “Hang on. I’m going to help you. I’ll be back in just a minute.” I went to the garage and got my 8’ stepladder and the little copper bucket, a roll of utility wire, a hammer and roofing nail. Climbed up the ladder, drove the nail, wrapped wire around it and secured the bucket up under the eave, where no rain could get into it. Took the nesting material, laid it in the bucket, and climbed down the ladder. Before I had so much as folded the ladder, the wren, who had been watching the whole operation, was hauling moss and trash to that bucket. By nightfall, he had a nest nearly complete. There was no hesitation whatsoever—just immediate, presumably grateful acceptance of my gift.

Having watched a black rat snake climb partway up the gutter two years ago (and removed said snake to another part of the yard), I’d hit upon a way to secure the nest. I wedged a big, heavy cardboard mailing tube between the gutter and the house, which keeps any snake from wrapping itself around the gutter and gaining access to the nest. It’s perfect. So I’m always thrilled to find Carolina wrens setting up housekeeping for a first and often a second brood in the little bucket. Carolina wrens keep the cleanest nest I know; I’ve never found one infested with parasites.

The wrens were sneaky this year, but I knew by the increasing size of the food items they brought that their chicks were nearing fledging. Finally I heard the chicks' sibilant, soft piping change to a squeaky chdeek! –the fledging call, the rally to flight.The first baby got a peek at the world, and stayed out front for most of the day.

By the next morning, they were lined up on the downspout, sizing up the world. It wouldn’t be long now.

Fluttering and clambering, they scrambled up and onto the bucket top. One of them was going to have to try its wings by default.The first buzzed off, crash-landing in the hostas, and four others soon followed.
I call this the popcorn phase. Babies are hopping around as if they're on a hot griddle. A slight perturbation around the nest (say, too close an approach, a slamming door) can cause the nest contents to explode. I have been hit by flying baby shrapnel in such instances.
The fifth chick (still in the nest in this picture) stayed for awhile. Awhile being a couple of hours. This was a bad choice on its part.

Next: Science Chimp to the Rescue.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

I had been waiting for school to end to haul us all in to town to see Tina at her salon, "At Your Fingertips." Poor Liam; I’d been hacking away at his superfine white mop with a dull scissors whenever it got too far into his eyes. His look was institutional, to be kind. I’d been working on Phoebe to let me just trim the ends of her growing mane. Nothing doing. I can hardly blame her, though I can do that. She wanted a professional to handle it.
If I had hair like that, I'd be fussy, too.
As for me, my hair had become a winged helmet worthy of a Valkyrie. I get these wings and they must be cut off, lest I start looking like something from The Brady Bunch.Exhibit A. Seventies wings.

Tina gets a kick out of us. She’s a huge Swinging Orangutangs fan, having become intrigued when I walked into her salon with an overgrown head, sat down in the chair and sang, “Rescue Me” in full Aretha belt-mode. That’s an attention-getter.

Liam went first. I never tire of watching him get his hair cut; he’s so expressive and ticklish that he amuses me no end.

Phoebe has such gorgeous hair, but it gets a bit lanky when it’s too long. I was so relieved when she finally agreed to a “trim.”
No progress pictures of me, thanks.

The final result: A Neopolitan Hair Surprise, Choc Van Straw. The chipping sparrows will love it. We have a little nest we put in our Christmas tree every year that's woven of Phoebe's hair.
And now for the Afters. Liam looks ten years older!Phoebe was very pleased to have her load lightened.And I like drying my hair with a towel and not having to think about it.It makes Hat Head less of an issue when leading birding trips. I wrote this post on Hog Island, Maine, where we'd spent the morning in the company of harbor seals, harbor porpoises, black guillemots, common loons in breeding plumage, and bald eagles on the nest! It was misty but not too cold, and the kids were digging it!

And now we're enjoying our third full day at the American Birding Association convention in Snowbird, Utah, having spent the whole day doodling around the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Terrific birding, with clouds of Wilson's phalaropes and brine flies, heavy smelly air, bison, pronghorns and bighorns. The kids were with us and birding with the experts. Phoebe on the bus, adding birds to the triplist. BOTB is writing an acceptance speechlet for an award he's getting this evening. We are grateful and life is good.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I grew up watching “All in the Family” with my parents and older sister. We loved its edgy humor. In one episode, Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) comes home from shopping with an item she hadn’t intended to buy and never paid for, and becomes convinced that she’s a kleptomaniac. She turns to the camera, a look of abject horror crossing her face. “I don’ wanna be a kleppa!” she wails.

Well, I’ve been collecting incidences of kleptoparasitism here in my yard. Kleptoparasitism describes one animal stealing food from another. Cardinals, it seems, are good at it. This May, I was watching a juvenile eastern bluebird struggling with a large black beetle on the lawn beneath my studio window. An adult male cardinal flew down and displaced the bluebird, which dropped its catch. The cardinal masticated the beetle briefly, then dropped it. Perhaps it was distasteful. Perhaps the klepper cardinal was just being mean.
On August 11, 2005, in the midst of a severe drought, I was watching a robin foraging in the lawn for grasshoppers, there being no earthworms within a yard of the surface. I was feeling bad for the robin, which was processing a hard old crusty grasshopper, when an adult male cardinal came down, bumped the robin and grabbed the hopper. I commemorated that event in a watercolor. I couldn’t help but put a triumphant glint in the cardinal’s eye, and a kind of forlorn look in the robin’s, because that’s what I saw. They’re standing on crispy grass amidst birch leaves that turned brown and fell off the trees—in August.

But the third and most recent instance is my favorite. On May 28, 2008, I was sitting on the front porch, having just called my mom for her 88th birthday. I was idly watching an adult Carolina wren which was perched on the telephone wire. It had a big white moth in its bill, and it was hesitant to come to its nest, which was in a copper bucket just over my head, under the eave. As it perched there, trying to make up its mind whether to blow its cover and bring the food to its young (news flash, Mr. Wren. I put the bucket up there; I know perfectly well you have five babies in it), a large brown bird flew directly at the wren, bumped it chest to chest, and snatched the moth. The wren spiraled down to the ground, caught completely off guard. The brown bird flew right past my astonished face, and as it passed I caught bright rufous in its outer tail feathers and yellow on its belly—a great crested flycatcher! Wow!
How I wish I could have photographed the incident. I had to settle for a photo of one very pissed-off and mothless Carolina wren, who was doubtless wondering what the heck just happened. Nope, didn’t get a photo of the perp. Sorry. But maybe I'll do a painting of the chest-butting, moth-snatching flycatcher assaulting the wren. See? We'll never be able to completely replace artists.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I would point out that in all three instances, I was calmly watching a common bird going about its business when the kleptoparastism occurred. I was certainly not expecting such cool behavioral interactions; they were completely serendipitous. There is much to recommend watching common birds go about their business, and then making a written record of what you observe.

Because, in the words of R.T. Peterson, "If you don't write it down, it never happened."

Buck Bellers

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

There is a young Angus bull in a pasture that's catty-corner to Buck's, over on the next road to ours. His name is Satan.

Not long ago, Buck was put in a new field with his ladies, where he's closer to Satan's corner. He got himself all riled up, and sent out a challenge to Satan.

If you've never heard a bull challenge another, it's a series of short gasps, Uhhh! Uhh! Uhhh! Uhhh! After each series of calls, Buck would paw the ground, sending up great clouds of dust.
I'd never seen this side of him, but it was good to remember that he is a bull, and not some big overstuffed friendly sofa.

Horses and Dogs

Monday, June 23, 2008

While we watered the horses and their thirsty riders (Liam was waterboy), we passed the time just watching them interact with Chet and the kids. We're looking forward to their next visit, and hope we'll be here when they suddenly appear in the driveway. Jane and Kim don't mess with the paved roads, riding a defunct extension of our road right through the deep woods between our homes. I have yet to walk that road, but I mean to. I love the thought that there's a woods road connecting us, clear enough to accommodate horses and riders. I want to know what's breeding there, whether there are summer tanagers. I think there might be.Gilly is a very oral horse, nibbling everything like a foal. Walk up to pet him, and he starts in on your clothes, fingers, have to watch him. So we gave him Cuz, a rubber toy Chet has never liked. Chet don't like rubber. Gilly chewed it and then flung it into the weeds. Score zero for Cuz on both the dog and horse front. Notice that Gilly is not wearing a bit. He has never needed one. He'd be chewing on it nonstop, anyway.
Jane showed us how Gilly drinks from a cup. I love how he sticks his lower lip out to catch some of the dribbles. That's got to be hard to do, when you can't see the glass over your long nose. How much cuter could a horse be? Think he knows he's loved? While all this was going on, Phoebe got acquainted with Gonzo, a Chihuahua cross who Jane also got from a rescue outfit. He had multiple issues when he came to live with her, but he's a happy, loving little guy now. (See a pattern here?)
Baker was tolerant of Phoebe's attention to Gonzo, but he wanted Gonzo to understand who was the Boss of Number Two.Hello, little foxy dog. Allow me to dominate you.I am taller and stronger than you are, and have the potential to be much, much meaner if it were to come to a fight or something like that. Not that it would. I'm just sayin'.As a concession to you, I will allow you to sniff my tail. Mether tells me it came from Tennessee. She also tells me I smell like sunshine and fresh-planed wood. I am sure you will agree.

A penny for your thoughts, Gonzo.

Too soon, it was time for the girls to saddle up and go. We hauled out a couple of cinder blocks as makeshift mounting blocks. I had forgotten that dilemma from my days as a teenage bareback rider--if you dismount, you have to figure out how to remount, and when your horse stands 16 hands, that's no joke.
Both Gonzo and Gilly seem to know how lucky they are. Here's to people who rescue animals and give them a life they might never have dared to dream of. Gilly's whole story can be found on Jane's blog. Try her May 2008 archives.
By the time you read this, we'll be on our way to Utah for the American Birding Association convention. I'll be speaking, Bill will be an awardee (hooty hoot!) and we'll both be leading field trips, kids in tow. When we get home, I get to stay home for two whole weeks. I'm giddy at the thought.

The Horse Nipperer

Sunday, June 22, 2008

My neighbor, Jane Augenstein, has a glorious horse named Gilly. She got him from a rescue group, which had found him starving with a bunch of other horses in a muddy paddock. His hair stood straight out from his body; his bones showed through his skin, and he was desperately trying to grow (he was just a foal) without much at all to eat.

Jane has worked with him now for five years, and he's grown up to be a splendid, strong animal. Though she'd never owned a horse before, she trained him and gentled him with the help of her neighbor, Kim, another equestrienne friend, and a lot of reading and videos from horse whisperers. Now, she rides him without a bit, and he is the light of her life, standing 16 muscle-packed hands tall. He's a mix, with some quarter horse, some Tennessee walker, and probably some draft blood somewhere back in there, to judge from the heft of his bones and the size of his feet.

One afternoon, Jane and Kim (on Lacey, her lovely, gentle Appaloosa) came to visit. Baker found them first. This is not as I would have wanted it, since Baker's never been around a horse. But he raced out the driveway, barking, and circled around them.

At first, he just stood them off, barking. This is the biggest animal he'd ever been up close to.
Thank goodness, both Lacey and Gilley are well-used to dogs, and seemed bemused by Chet's excitement.
Chet sniffed and sniffed. He couldn't get enough of that good horsey smell, and the feel of that velvet muzzle. When horses meet, they touch nostrils, and exchange breath, breathing each other's exhalations. It's a nice way to greet a horse, to breathe the warm, grassy breath of their lungs, to touch that plushy skin with your nose.
Baker trembled with excitement, fear, playfulness, and not knowing what to do with it all. Gilly was patient. For whatever reason, Chet's entire focus was Gilly; he barely sniffed at Lacey, perhaps because Lacey ignored him; perhaps because Gilly returned his interest. Chet's always hoping someone will want to play with him. I think he and Gilly are brothers from another mother.
When Gilly would raise his head, Chet would leap up, trying to touch noses, and twice he nipped Gilly's nose. Bad idea, Chet Baker. At the first nip, Gilly jerked his head up and looked down on Chet with surprise. At the second, he laid down the law. He snorted loudly and planted one enormous hoof right next to Chet--STOMP! The message was clear. Try that again and I'll turn you into a spot of grease on your driveway, kid. I was glad for Chet to learn a little bit about horses, though I think he's a long way from wise about them. His devil-may-care terrier half comes through loud and clear. Note that his tail antenna is straight out. I think he got the transmission. I love this picture, even though I missed the actual stomp.

This post makes me miss Chet Baker something awful. I have been Bakerless for 9 days, and I have another 8 to go. We're home for less than 24 hours. Baker remains happily ensconced with our friends David and Mary Jane. This morning's report has him helping with gardening and on constant chipmunk patrol in the yard and woods. He is also eating well, getting enough kisses, enjoying two hikes a day and rides in the car. Sigh. I need a Chetfix, but it would only confuse him and make me want to smuggle him in my carryon to Utah. And I wouldn't do that to any dog, much less the Tennessee Turd-Tail. If I could just bury my nose between his shoulder blades and fall asleep holding him, I think everything would be right with the world.

Our homeward bound experience with JetBlue was not as bad as the outbound; we just idled on the dark runway, stacked up behind 15 other jets, breathing hot diesel, for an hour and 45 minutes at JFK, and then they misplaced my suitcases. We got to Pittsburgh around midnight last night, and were just too tired to drive the 2 1/2 hours home, so we sighed and quietly coughed up another $180 to stay at the airport hotel. Bill and I put the kids in a hot tub and went downstairs to have a drink and get some chicken wings to take back up to the room for our midnight dinner.

When we travel anymore I feel like Scrooge McDuck, watching his precious $100 bills flapping little wings as they fly up toward heaven. You'd think, as expensive as flying is, that you might expect to reach your destination feeling a little better than roadkill, but I now understand that expecting to reach your destination when promised, or to reach your destination at all, is really expecting a bit too much. I hope they get my suitcases here before we leave for Utah. That would be nice. They have 19 hours to do it. But again, probably expecting too much. Flying in the age of fuel shortages is all about having contingency plans, and waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop right onto your fold-out tray, spilling your plastic tumbler of warm tomato juice all over the only outfit you have.

Having said that, Hog Island was terrific, and we showed 29 people a fine time. The kids were a delight to be with, and seeing the two of them sitting together on a boulder, watching the solstice high tide come rushing in, was a beautiful sight. Time to rustle lunch and mow before it rains. More horses and dogs tomorrow!

Howdy from Hog Island

Friday, June 20, 2008

I've got posts pre-scheduled to get us through this week AND next, but I couldn't resist breaking in for a dispatch from Maine.
Taken yesterday on Harbor Island. I am holding Liam's head up because he had the wiggles, bad. That boy had holes to dig and porpoise bones to uncover, and he just couldn't stand for a picture. Obviously I did not get the Wear a Blue Shirt memo.

Gosh, it's good to be here, with a parula warbler singing just outside in the misty cool air. We've had the most amazingly fantastic time birding, and the sun, which had been predicted to hide all week, blessed us yesterday for our cruise to Eastern Egg Rock to see puffins, and for a butterfly-studded hike on Harbor Island. This is my favorite puffin shot of the day.

The kids are enjoying themselves; life is good. Here, Liam has discovered that it is possible to make a sand angel, just as one would make a snow angel. He is putting a special twist on it, though, making his sand angel enormously anatomically correct. BOTB's son, that one.

This morning, we take a walk originally plotted out by Roger Tory Peterson in the village of Medomac, when he led birding groups around Hog Island. The place hasn't changed much, and the walk is birdy as all get out--even though Roger would be 100 this year.

Yesterday seems like a dream--an all-day cruise around Muscongus Bay. The sun broke out and smiled on us all afternoon as we picnicked and hiked on Harbor Island. Butterflies danced in the hawkweed and we squeezed through a dark cave and found a fairy house on the other side. A perfect day was capped by the news that Bill would be on NPR that afternoon. He went birding with Melissa Block and her adorable almost-six-year-old daughter Chloe, and it was all captured on tape. We got to tune in and listen, with our whole Joy of Birding group attending.
Go listen here. It's like birding with Bill.
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