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Happy Halloween (2008)!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

With each holiday comes a set of things parents must do, things expected, things greatly anticipated. Christmas, of course, is the big one, the one that, if you buy into it the way merchants want you to, can devour a month or more of your busy life. Everywhere you turn, there are Christmas--excuse me--"holiday" decorations. I saw them in a Wegman's grocery store in Jamestown, New York in the third week of October. And there was this strangely ambiguous placard right next to the huge pyramid of Christmas trees. It said something like, "Some shoppers shop ahead and others prefer to wait until closer to the holidays to do their shopping. By placing these decorations out, we are allowing you to make your own choice."

Oh. Gee. Thanks for allowing me to make my own choice. And by the way, your dopey Thankoweenmas decorations bum me out.

Mama. Take a picture of me like this (poses).

I like Halloween. It comes with its own set of expectations, sure, and there's some parental stress, but it's vastly less of an exercise than Christmas. I like it especially because it's Liam's self-professed "favorite day of the year." That's enough for me, even if I didn't already like ghouls and witches, haints and jack-o-lanterns.

Because I was in Jamestown for trick-or-treat, Bill promised the kids we'd carve pumpkins the night before I had to leave. My part was getting the kids' costumes squared away. I am not a tinfoil robot-making kind of mother. I can paint faces like nobody's bidness, but I am not hand-sewing the Medusa costume, if you get my drift. I happily, nay, gleefully, spend my $20-40 rocks on store-bought costumes, dress 'em up with crazy wigs or fabulous face paint, and relax about it. Store-bought costumes are good, store-bought costumes are great; they are enough.

And so BOTB dug into the punkins, with the kids designing the faces and hanging over him and
me behind the camera.My sweet little artists.
not yet perfectionists, but darn close.
Can you carve this, Daddy?
I'll try. To make a jack-o-lantern, you have to stick a knife in the pumpkin. It's the way of the world, kid.
Having strong arms, he did the guts removal in record time.
The obligatory vomiting-pumpkin-guts photo.
My son as a dog: Mmmm. The lid smells good.
Ah, but does it fit back on the jack-o-lantern?
Liam's creation, made flesh by the Father.
The glorious end result. They're flickering outside on the patio each night.
Yes, that is supposed to be Chet Baker, and yes, we know it turned out more like a pig. Too bad there are no decent artists in this family. Happy Thankoweenmas!

In Which Baker Goes to the Vet

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It is time for a Baker fix, don't you think? Chet Baker went to see Dr. Lutz not long ago for his vaccinations, in arrears since (gasp!) May. I had kind of a busy May. So along about early October I loaded Chet in the car for the drive to town. Chet Baker loves to go to the vet's office. He loves the vet techs and most of all he loves Dr. Lutz.

Chet whiles away the waiting time in the exam room by watching out the window, where dogs being boarded are taken for walks.
Mether. I see an animal. I am not sure if it is a cat or a skunk. It cannot be a dog.
Despite the flowing hair, Chet Baker, that is a dog. Maybe it is a Shih Tzu. I'm sure my readers will tell me if it isn't. Mether is German. So she is a short-haired dog sort of person, not up on the dustmoppy breeds.

That is a dog?? Get out of town. It looks like it needs to be chased, chased very fast until it runs up a tree or threatens to spray me.

Let's not do that again, Chet Baker.

Mether. I hear someone just outside the door. Maybe it is Dr. Lutz.
It is. It is! It is Dr. Lutz! Oh, boy!
I always forget how much I hate this table she puts me up on. But I will stay perfectly still for her, because she is my favorite.

She also has very good taste in dog posters. My forehead blaze is a little wider, but this handsome doggeh could almost be me.

Even though this exam table gives me doggeh shrinkage, I still love my Dr. Lutz.

As long as we're talking Bostons, take a look at this logo for The Ohio Tuition Trust Authority.
Bill of the Birds spotted this first and drew the blue arrow. I saw the logo before I saw his note, which read, "Is it just me, or does this logo look like a Boston terrier?" I grabbed the letter eagerly before realizing that it wasn't from the Dog Poster Talent Scouts, looking for my puppeh.

Do Tanagers Eat Corn?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another installment in the Tanager Toddler series. Here we have another immature male scarlet tanager (evidenced by the black feathers coming in on the green immature plumage of his wings) finding his way in the world. Birds learn, in large part, by watching other birds. When an individual sees other birds eating, it will investigate to see if that fare suits it, too, even if the other birds are of another species. This tanager was attracted to a little group of goldfinches eating mixed seed beneath our feeders. It landed on the ground--already a bit aberrant for a bird that normally gleans insects in the treetops--and hopped amongst the lookalike goldfinches in fresh winter plumage.

One of these things is not like the others. One of these things is not the same.Tanagers live on insects and fruit, and are not adapted to eating seed or grain. Nevertheless...

Watching the other birds carefully, it picked up some cracked corn, masticated it, and swallowed. Hmm. Not good, but not horrible, either.

It ate four pieces, occasionally bullying the goldfinches, who were more interested in black oil sunflower seed. And then it flew off.

So the answer to the question: Do tanagers eat corn? has to be: Yes, if it seems like a good idea at the time. I doubt this bird will make a habit of eating corn at feeders, but the knowledge he gained today might come in handy should there be a cold snap next spring. It's all grist for his little mill, grist for ours, too. Here ends, for now, the Birds Eating Weird Things series.

Anting in Birds

Monday, October 27, 2008

Watching our backyard scene for 16 years now, we've been privileged to see recurring themes in bird behavior. Did you know that gray birches host a lot of ants, and that black-throated green warblers like to pick the ants off the trunks and run them through their plumage? Me, neither, and had I seen it once, I'd have thought it was a nice thing to see, but now we see it every autumn.A female black-throated green warbler picks herself an ant off a birch trunk.

I first saw a black-throated green warbler anting in Salmonier, Newfoundland in 1981 or so, when many of you whippersnappers were watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. Anting birds crush ants and pass the bodies through their plumage, presumably anointing themselves with that pungent sweet smelling formic acid that mashed ants (and mad ants) secrete. Phew. Maybe it routs feather mites that would otherwise chew their barbules to powder. Maybe it discourages lice. Maybe it's a warbler's version of Origins' "Perfect World" Green Tea Skin Protector, something I am hopelessly hooked on. My nictitating membranes flip up over my eyeballs when I use that stuff.

Maybe birches attract a certain species of ant that's good for anting, or maybe it's simpler than that: the ants that trickle up and down its trunk in stuttering lines show up well against white bark. Whatever the reason, warblers like to ant on birches.First, you get yourself an ant or two.Then you pass it through your wing and tail feathers, just as if you were preening, but with an ant in your bill.Belly feathers get some, too. Ooh, it smells so good.Bring your leg over your wing and scratch that face. Ahhhh.Feeling ever so dapper now. Smooth, silky.

Oh, look. A lady black-throated green.She likes to ant, too.

Back to our little gent.Beautiful beyond description, and freshly dressed with formic acid, he's ready to migrate. Ah, warblers, how I will miss them when they leave. We're down to yellow-rumps now, the latest migrants, maybe a Tennessee or a stray Nashville.See you next April, dearie.

Random Monday

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Never been much into Skywatch Friday or Wordless Wednesday. I usually have my eyes on the ground, and way too many words to get down on Wednesdays. But every now and then I see something in the sky that makes me stop the car dead and say, "Hey! Look at the guy being dragged by his pet elephant!" My kids scratch their heads, realize that I must be talking about clouds again, and patiently look while I gesticulate and explain until they see the elephant guy too. I think it's good for their brains, keeping a watch for sky elephants and their hapless mahouts. Knowing that at any moment their mom could slam on the brakes and start speaking gibberish. Keeps them on their toes.

I don't know what made me lie down on the road to take this photo; I didn't intend to make an image of a giant Percheron eating the head off an innocent paw paw festival goer.
But there you have it. When draft horses attack. They nip off the talking end first and deal with the legs later.


Friday, October 24, 2008


I'm home for one day before whirling off again to help open a show of the paintings and drawings from Letters from Eden at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York. It's a big'un, 63 works, and we'll have an opening reception and talk by moi at 5 PM Saturday, October 25. If you're in the area, please consider joining us. I'd love to meet you. Thank you, RTPI, for this wonderful opportunity to show my watercolors and drawings in your beautiful building. I wish the King Penguin himself could be there to talk courtesy RTPI

Don't miss the tanager/wasp post below, if you haven't seen it.

How to Eat a Wasp

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The young tanager from the previous post made a short flight to the birch next to my studio window, where he captured an insect. Ooh, what's he got?
Could it be? Is it a paper wasp? Eeek!
Durn tootin'. It's a wasp. Yikes. Notice how he's holding it? By the bidness end. And he's biting it for all he's worth.
The crushing power of a tanager bill is considerable. I'm sure he disabled the stinger the moment he grabbed it. That's one of the benefits of having hard lips. Sometimes I think how cool it would be to have a beak. You could open bottles and cans, pre-drill holes, remove tags, henpeck your husband when he needed it.

Even more mastication of the abdomen.
Only when the abdomen was thoroughly crushed did the bird move on to processing the thorax and head.
This is the last shot before he swallowed his catch. Look how he's got the wasp's abdomen all mooshed out.

Tanagers as a genus are well-adapted to feeding on bees and wasps. In fact, most Augusts see a young male summer tanager or two, perched on one of our high backyard snags, leaping up and catching yellowjackets and wasps as they sail by. They'll repair back to the snag to bite and hammer the bug into stingless submission before swallowing it down. I have a friend in Connecticut who had a summer tanager spend most of the winter in his Old Lyme backyard, nailing honeybees as they emerged from the hive for a look around. Those bees kept the tanager going through quite a bit of cold and snow. Hank was glad to donate to the redbird's cause.

And that is what I know about tanagers and Hymenopterae.

Tanager Toddler

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

One of the reasons I love fall birding more than any other season is the preponderance of young birds passing through. Not only are they in confusing plumages, made to order for a Science Chimp to puzzle over, but they do the neatest things. Having raised so many young birds, I understand that a big part of learning what to eat is trying everything at least once.
So when an immature scarlet tanager landed on the spent cardinal flower stalks and began prying at the round seed capsules, I watched with great interest. Knowing that lobelia is poisonous, at least to mammals, I was intrigued. Birds generally "know" that stuff. How, I have no clue.He (his black wings gave away his sex, even at this tender age) twisted and pried, but the tanager failed to dislodge a capsule. Wonder what he'd have done had he succeeded? Swallowed it down? Knowing tanagers, he probably would have masticated it with that stout bill to see how it tasted first.Hmm. Not very fruity.Bleh, in fact. Not food. Next?I love his little blue feet in this shot. Cute undertoe.Cuter yet. He's lookin' for bugs now, about 5' from my lens, under the studio window. Wonder what he'll come up with?

Next: Eek! What's he got?
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