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The Ferocious Warbler

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Black-throated green warblers are common fall migrants here. Sometimes they'll even treat us to a snippet of their buzzy, drawly zee-zee-zee-zu-zee song. But mostly they fight, with each other and with any other bird that crosses their path.
Two males square off, their golden-olive backs an exotic glow against leaf-green.

They whirl and chase through the branches.
Face to face, they spar.
Their fight takes them looping over to the shining sumac and out of my reach. That would have been such a gorgeous picture, given the right exposure and framing. Ah well. Warblers move fast, and I do my best. Sometimes the blurry ones are more evocative of their nature than the sharp ones.

A feisty male challenges a titmouse who outweighs him twice. Whatchoo lookin' at?
Nothing, sir, nothing. Just minding my own bidness.

And what about you, Camera Girl? Come on. Take your best shot.
Sorry, Mr. BT Green. A blurry one will have to do. You're too fast and mean for me.

As I write, the migration is winding down; the first yellow-rumped warblers have shown up, and they're among the most cold-hardy of warblers. Indigo buntings are sweeping in. Ruby-crowned kinglets are fluttering at the branch tips; field sparrows are flocking. But today we did have Nashville, Tennessee, Cape May, bay-breasted and black-throated green warblers in addition to the butterbutts. I'm considering making a teeny little batch of Zick dough for the FOURTEEN bluebirds who sit on the tower every sunny morning, calling my name. It's hard to deny them... After the late summer and early fall hiatus that all bluebirds seem to take, the gouty female bluebird is back with her mate, and she looks good, with no swelling or redness in her feet, but she still sits low on the perch, and one of her toes is stiff. Truly, I'm just glad to see her at all, glad she and her mate have survived the summer and come back with babies in tow.

Gosh, I'll miss the warblers, though. It has been one heck of a beautiful fall, graced with their company every morning.


Monday, September 29, 2008

We've been starting every day with birdwatching off the deck and tower. Such joy, to spend an hour or two just watching birds. What a way to start the day. It's torture to come inside, but around 10 AM it slows down enough to let me go back into the studio. Soon enough, these little migrants, gaudy and flashy and delicate and exotic, will be gone, well on their way to their Central and South American wintering grounds. So we revel in them while we can, soaking them up and taking digital souvenirs of their stay with us.

It's a thrill to get enough pictures of a single species to make a little photoessay, perhaps get a tiny glimpse into their complex behavior, their lives. I gather what bits I may in the privileged moments I spend in their presence.

I glance at the bird Spa, which I do hundreds of times each day as I "work," and see something tiny, colorful, out of place. A warbler. Which one? Perhaps the titmouse wonders, too.
It jumps to the dry rock, revealing a cheek patch and the hint of a burning orange throat. Nice wingbars! A Blackburnian warbler. What a fine sight to greet the morning.
I study my books, but can't decide whether this is an adult female or a first fall male. No matter. It's beautiful.

Turning toward me, it shows its glowing throat. It takes a long, soaky bath.It repairs to the nearby birch to preen and fluff its damp feathers.Lots of work to do under the wings.I am flabbergasted at the length and flexibility of its neck. Blackburnians are such compact little warblers, but this neck would do credit to an ibis. And I'm stunned again to see it twist its tiny body into the most impossible position as it surveys the yard. If I drew a bird with its leg like this, any ornithologist worth her salt would shoot me down. Including me. Yep, that's the hind toe on the outside edge of the branch.
Soon, it's time to think about leaving. The warbler surveys the birch leaves for a morsel of food to speed it on its way, checks the sky.It hops up to an exposed branch, giving me a fleeting moment's more pleasure.It mounts to the top of the sycamore we planted close to our deck

and is gone.

That Crazy Psychopsis

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Speaking of growth, rebirth and change, the Psychopsis mendenhall "Hildos" orchid that started blooming on my bedroom windowsill in June is STILL blooming, throwing flower after flower off its meter-high spike. I LOVE THIS PLANT. SOOOO MUCH.

It's as if all it wants to do is delight me.

I was dying to see how it opened, so I took a series of photos of Blossoms #3 and 4 as they went from closed bud to crane head to flamenco-dancing lobster dude.

At this point the bud looks like the skull of a crazy bird, maybe an ibis or flamingo.

It doesn't take more than overnight for it to go to this folded miracle:
You can see the next bud cued up. How considerate of the orchid, to have another bud forming in the wings when this flower finally withers and falls with a plop in the middle of the night.Ta-DAA! I am OUT!And I am the kabuki lobster dude, mixing genres, phyla and metaphors, doing my manly flamenco for your viewing pleasure for the next week and a half.

Psychopsis mendenhall is native to Trinidad, where its brilliant blossoms dance singly on long stems in the forest gloom. Imagine such a thing, encountered in the wild.

And now, given sun, rainwater and orchid food, it opens five-inch wide blossoms on my windowsill. Life is good.

Chrysalis Magic, Captured in Glass

Thursday, September 25, 2008

It's utterly captivating to live with caterpillars and chrysalides, to feel somehow a part of the transformation. Monarchs are so beautiful in every life stage, so extravagantly gorgeous, and so accessible. What a gift from nature.

It is a very powerful thing to "give" a chrysalis to a child, for the young one to watch and ponder. Phoebe and Liam name each one and rush to follow its progress. Phoebe hasn't even finished her pancakes here, interrupted by the slow undulation of her J-hung caterpillar and the excitement that surrounded photographing its emergence as a chrysalis. She's the one who noticed it undulating, and without her I'd have missed the whole thing as I stood at the stove flipping pancakes.

I lined the kids up to take their picture and Liam said, "Hold on!" and scurried off to make a sign. "Combo, My little guy."

They're pointing at "their" respective chrysalides. Phoebe named the caterpillar in her chrysalis O'Connor. Her current caterpillar is named Juliana. Juliana is in J as I write. Combo hatched out yesterday, and it's Combo I'll feature in the hatching series.

I'm not sure many of us naturalists, as Kathi pointed out, have the opportunity to really understand what happens between the caterpillar and chrysalis stages--we have this hazy idea that the caterpillar "turns into" a chrysalis or somehow spins a cocoon. Moth caterpillars that chrysalize (if that be a word) inside a cocoon spin the silk cocoon first and then shed their caterpillar skin inside the protective cocoon. We don't think of caterpillars having the ability to spin silk, but they do, and the giant silkworm moths take it to extremes.

Butterfly caterpillars tend to shed their skin and hang as a chrysalis, no cocoon involved. But they still produce silk, if only just to use as a sturdy, nearly unbreakable hanging system. The chrysalides tend to be cryptic, often brown or green. The monarch's chrysalis, I think, is the most beautiful of all.

Perhaps it is the bewitching seafoam color or the shining gold buttons that made me think a monarch chrysalis would make the most lovely pendant, but of course the means to do that evaded me. A gifted glass artist in Wisconsin thought the same thing, and set about making that thought a reality.

I first saw Jude Rose's work hanging around the prescient neck of my dear friend, naturalist Liz DeLuna Gordon. You may remember her wedding to naturalist Jeff Gordon, in which my fairytale girl Phoebe dressed up as a luna moth and Liam bore the (toy) train. Because Liz isn't the type to have a train dragging through the pine straw.We certainly remember it.

So Jeff and Liz turn up at my Letters from Eden art show opening at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania last October, and Liz is wearing this jade-green glass chrysalis necklace, and I zooped over to her and touched the pendant, murmuring, "Where did you get this? Must have this! Must have this!" It was one of those moments when you realize that someone has had the same thought as you, but they've taken it and run with it and made something of it instead of idly musing about it.

Bill noticed, and with Liz and Jeff's help, he got me one in time for Christmas. He's good that way.

I wore it once, and put it in my pocket prior to taking a shower. Threw the pants in the washer, then the dryer. The pendant, so longed for, so beautiful, emerged chipped and bashed, basically toasted. It is made of glass, after all.

Ashamed and abashed, I emailed its creator, Jude Rose. I explained what I'd done, how crushed I was at my own stupidity. I sent her some jpegs of paintings I'd done of the monarch's chrysalis transformation, so she could see I wasn't just a careless lummox. I was a creative careless lummox.
I asked if she might repair the damaged pendant. And, bless her generous heart, she suggested a barter --of a signed copy of Letters from Eden and one of my limited-edition prints for a brand new chrysalis pendant.

Jude went into the studio and fired up her blowtorch to make a chrysalis especially for me. She emailed me to tell me the piece was done. "You must have really good nature karma, because this chrysalis is one of the best I've ever done. It just made itself."

I've taken good care of it, never again putting it in my pocket, and here it is, hanging with two real chrysalides. I love this pendant so much, and everywhere I go, people ask me where I got it, who made it. It's delightful to find how many people recognize it as a monarch chrysalis, and they all ask, "Is that REAL?" Well, I guess it's a fair question, because the Science Chimp has been known to use cast-off cicada skins as earrings and brooches...

Go see Jude Rose at Ancient Child Studios, drop a heavy hint to your significant other, or just up and get one for yourself. I find wearing it empowering--it is such a symbol of rebirth and change. Rebirth and change--essential skills for women everywhere. Men, too. And it's imbued with the beautiful spirit of its creator, who looked at a chrysalis and somehow figured out how to replicate its shimmering color and delicate beauty in glass and gold.

Should you fall for this pendant as I did, tell Jude I sent you. She's the mother of twin toddlers, and can't do the kind of production she once did, but she tells me she's up to the challenge of making a chrysalis just for you. Let's hear it for artists who are also moms**. They do the neatest things, despite it, and, I've discovered, because of it.

**This links to the plot summary of a brand new film I'm dying to see, because Margaret says it's wonderful.
Waiting waiting waiting for it to come out on DVD, 'cuz it ain't coming to the Pioneer Cinema.

Shape-Shifting Chrysalis

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Perhaps unaware that its skin has popped off, the chrysalis continues its wild loops. Perhaps it's just exulting in the last motion it will be able to execute before it hangs, motionless but transforming, for the next 14 days.
You can see its beaded antennae, running from the eye (at the bottom of the chrysalis) along the leading edge of the wing. You can see the veins in the wing, and the segments in its fat abdomen.

Here's a sequence of pictures that shows how the chrysalis changes its shape in the course of only an hour. It starts out still vaguely cylindrical, reminiscent of a caterpillar.
It writhes and pumps and changes as it hangs.The whitish line on its midsection moves up as most of the bulk moves higher into what will be the butterfly's abdomen. It's starting to assume the tapered shape of a mature chrysalis. (see the right-hand one for comparison).

But for the ravishing seafoam-green color, the fresh chrysalis on the right is almost there:
Over the next day, the whitish buttons on the midline and around the tip will brighten to burnished, 24 K gold finish. I don't understand or know how an insect creates the hue and sheen of iridescent gold, but it does, and I am in awe.

We let this caterpillar choose a place close to another chrysalis to hang and make its transformation. However, at this point it's possible to detach the silk anchoring the chrysalis with a sharp X-acto knife, and with a dot of Elmer's glue, attach it wherever you wish. The important thing is that the chrysalis hang absolutely clear of any obstruction such as a twig or terrarium side. The emerging butterfly is weak and must hang clear of obstacles, or its wings could dry crumpled, rendering it flightless. So a thin twig is ideal for anchoring the chrysalis.
Here, the glue is drying. When it hardens, I'll hang the chrysalis up where it can get light and air, to remain undisturbed for a couple of weeks. I'll spray it with a mister from time to time, but that's about it. The chrysalis has work and much magic to do.

If you like these photos, just wait 'til you see what I captured this morning. We have a butterfly to look forward to!

A Caterpillar Sheds Its Skin

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Down at the Monarch Ranch, the caterpiggles were gettin' fat, poopin' and eatin', poopin' and eatin'. When they get this big and fat, they'll soon go on walkabout, looking for a place away from the milkweed patch where they can hang themselves up, shed their caterpiggle skin, and burst forth as a chrysalis. You have to pounce on them when they get big and fat if you want to be part of the process. This'n's ready to harvest.
We bring them inside and install them in a small terrarium, where we put a fresh milkweed top in a narrow-necked vase of water to provide food. They eat like crazy for a couple of days and then wander around, finally pasting themselves to the top of the terrarium with silk. Here, the caterpillar is creating the liquid silk pad that will harden and suspend it for the next couple of weeks. The head end is to the left. It can be hard to tell with monarchs which end is which. I think the silk comes out of spinnerets in the rear end.

Once secure, the caterpillar hangs upside down in a J shape, waiting for the transformation to chrysalis. Slowly, the caterpillar's brilliant yellow, black and white skin becomes dull and translucent. The first sign that something's going down is when the antennae, normally mobile and responsive, get all limp and crinkled. See how the antennae on the head are just hanging here, no longer turgid?

Here, I must stop and give credit to Phoebe, who watched this caterpillar like a hawk, and kept it with her so she wouldn't miss the moment when it split its skin to emerge as a chrysalis. She noticed an undulating motion as the caterpillar hung there, and the skin started to stretch and pile up at the fastening point at the rear. Suddenly it split down the back like a pair of my old skinny pants.
From there, things progressed quickly, and the undulating wave of the chrysalis' still pliable body sent the skin rumpling up into a pile at the rear end of the creature.
Seeing this glorious, fantasmagorical thing emerge from the dulled skin of the caterpillar was awe-inspiring.
More and more stripes and abdominal segments are visible with each wriggle.I especially love the next shot, because Phoebe's sweet red lips are blurred in the background. At this point we're all whooping and hollering, and I'm frantically shooting around both kids' heads as they crowd in to see the miracle. Look at the blue, gold, and white stripes!! Who knew?

Now the chrysalis changes its dance, with the undulating wriggle becoming a wild spiral hula as it moves the skin up and off its body.In the picture above, you can see the proto-wings of the butterfly-to-be, folded like shields over its body.

A few more wild loops, and the skin pops off-ptoo! to land on the vinyl tablecloth, creepy legs, antennae, and jaw parts intact. The chrysalis won't be needing those jaws any more. Transformed to a sucking straw, they'll be. It's all too much, really, to try to describe or assimilate, too miraculous and bizarre. More anon.

The Monarch Ranch

Monday, September 22, 2008


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core

From John Keats' "To Autumn," written September 19, 1819

Fruiting and ripening is Autumn's theme. I've been bursting with the desire to tell you about our monarch ranch. But it takes time to gather the images and thoughts that I need to tell a satisfying story.

It starts with the Monarch Ranch, a coffee-table-sized area next to our pond. At first, it was just a plant or two of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) coming up and quickly spreading. Uh-oh. Milkweed is an aggressive invader of garden space, and my first instinct was to pull it and keep pulling it. Which I did, and what I got for my efforts was sticky white sap on my hands and more milkweed.

It was here, it was queer, and it was time to get used to it. I decided that I liked the buttery scent of its flower heads, which look like balls of pink cake decorations. I liked the masses of fritillaries, silver-spotted skippers, admirals, ladies, swallowtails and duskywings they attracted.
These are great spangled fritillaries.

But there was a problem. Along about July, after the gorgeous honey-scented blooms had dropped, the milkweed stand (for it was by now a hearty stand, a battery of plants) completely obscured my water garden. What's the point of having a water garden if you can't see it from the deck?

So one fine day I went down with a clippers and lopped the whole lot of them off. Pulling them was futile; they'd just resprout.
Smiling for Phoebe, who's behind the camera. Also smiling because I can see my pondlet again.

Before cutting each plant, I checked it carefully for monarch eggs and caterpillars. Nothing yet. July's a bit early for egg laying here.

When I was done, I had a huge heavy pile of plants to haul to the compost. That's that. Well, sort of. Within a couple of weeks, the roots had sent up healthy, tender new shoots. They were going to reconquer the water garden.
Ahh, but this time they didn't get so tall, nor did they bloom. They just kept putting out leaf after tender leaf. And the monarchs noticed. Monarchs like tender new leaves, unlike milkweed tussock moth caterpillars, which can eat the tough old holey ones. There was a monarch oviposition frenzy that summer--26 caterpillars at one time in this tiny area--and the idea for the Indigo Hill Monarch Ranch was born. These pictures were all taken this year, but the ritual has been the same since its inception. Wait for the milkweed flowers to fade and fall in late July, lop the plants down to ground level, stand back and wait for the new shoots to emerge. Enjoy your caterpillar ranch.
What could have been an aggressive pest has been tamed by the cutback. It's not spreading much anymore (we'll disregard the shoots that come up in the cracks of the patio...)
But the greater shift has been in my perception of the plant. It's gone from pest status to exalted, as a source of fragrant flowers, fritillaries, and intense joy. Next: the ongoing chrysalis party in our kitchen.

News flash!

Just a quick message, inserted sideways into the chrysalis talk, to tell you that one of my commentaries, about rescuing a common yellowthroat on a Chicago street, is due to air this afternoon (September 22, 2008) on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. The show starts at 4 pm Eastern, and the commentary could air any time in the succeeding two hours. If you miss it, you can listen to the soundfile here.
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