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About Those Wren Rump Spots

Thursday, February 26, 2009

In my last post, I drew attention to the white spangles on the lower back feathers of a Carolina wren, and said I had a Science Chimp theory about them. Any time I see ornamentation on a bird that is hidden from sight when the bird is doing its normal daily routine, I wonder what's going on there. Is there a function to those spangles, one that isn't immediately apparent?

During the ice storm of 2009, the sun broke through only intermittently. This photo was taken on a sub-freezing day, when a wren who had come for some Zick Dough suddenly realized how glorious it felt to have sun on his (or her) back. The bird keeled over in a classic sunning pose, its rump feathers lifted and ruffled, as if trying to soak up maximum rays.

Its mate seems to wonder what's come over it. Honey? You OK?

The wren held this pose for almost a minute, giving me a chance to zoom in on that lovely rump.

The lower back feathers need to be raised and fluffed to reveal the white spangles lying just beneath the brown outer feathers. It really is a lovely effect, but one we all too seldom see. I have seen it, though, on my own porch. At night.

If you saw this on your porch by the light of a flashlight, and you weren't reading a post about Carolina wren rump spangles, would you know what it was?

Neither did the person who sent the picture to my friend Sharon from Maine. Sharon is always getting asked questions about birds. She always knows the answer but likes to check in with the Science Chimp just for fun.

These are roosting Carolina wrens. Awwww. They almost always roost together; they stay as a mated pair year round, and are almost never out of earshot of each other.

My S.C. theory on the rump spangles is that they are meant for camouflage. I'm not sure what they make these sleeping wrens look like, but they don't look much like birds, do they? When I've seen wrens sleeping in the bucket up under my front porch eave, or tucked into a corner in the garage, my first thought is that I'm looking at some kind of small furry mammal. Pretty much the last thing they look like is a defenseless, sleeping bird.

It's not a fully-formed theory, obviously, and I'm open to alternate hypotheses. I just think it's cool to see a small bird utterly transform its shape and appearance while sleeping. And maybe someone out there will look up someday, see a spangly blackish blob up under the porch eave and smile, knowing what it is.

A Petulant TItmouse

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


A telephoto lens can give you tunnel vision. You focus down on the bird you're after, and you may completely miss whatever's going on around it. This was a classic case of photographer's tunnel vision. I had the titmouse in my sights and was shooting away when suddenly the bird's bill opened and it began to emit a high, shrill Seeee Seeee Seeeee! What in the world??

I swiftly twisted the telephoto zoom, widening the field of view, to find that a Carolina wren had landed on the Zick dough bowl rim.

It was obvious that the titmouse didn't want to share the dough, felt threatened by the wren, or both. It stayed in its mondo-aggro pose and shrieked and shrieked.

In a comical moment, the wren turned to look at me, as if to say, "Are you getting this ? Because this bird definitely has a problem, and nobody would believe it if you don't get a shot."

Yes, dear, and that titmouse is being a total baby if you ask me. I'm getting it.

I agree. I think I'll show him how unimpressed I am by this over-the-top display. (Scratches cheek).

Photonote: An ISO of 1600 will freeze the blurred motion of a bird's foot!
Science Chimp note: The Carolina wren is an over-wing scratcher, and please note the white spangles on its lower back feathers. I have a theory about those, to be aired in a later post.

Eventually, the wren picked up a few nuggets of Zick dough and departed, leaving the titmouse the reigning dog in the manger.

Hm. That went pretty well. You weren't taking pictures, were you?

Still Life with Terrier

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


From time to time, I run into people with opinions about Boston terriers. They don't necessarily realize that I really only want to hear positive, informed opinions about Boston terriers, preferably from someone who lives with one or is a huuuuge Chet Baker fan. Those I'll listen to all day.

I had a man once volunteer his chagrin that Chet Baker's face is so ugly, which is too bad because he'd be such a nice-looking dog otherwise.

Ohhhh-kay. Any more comments from you? Or are you content to wake up some night to the sound of my heavy breathing, my silhouette against the moonlight, arm raised?

Chet and I were sitting in the Exploder, waiting for the bus on our country road when an aquaintance who was also waiting got out of her car and asked, "Is that one of them Boston bulls?"

Yes, I replied, he's a Boston terrier.

"Them things is HYPER!"

Well, actually he's only...

"No, them things is HYPER! My cousin has two of 'em and them things is HYPER!"

I smiled, nodded, and raised the electric window, like that scene in the limousine in This is Spinal Tap when the cabdriver is blabbing to the band about how nobody understands Frank Sinatra.

Of course, she gave me a little gift that keeps on giving, because

"Them things is HYPER!"

has become a catch phrase in our house now, whenever we catch Chet Baker doing this:

Still life with titmouse.

Still life with European starling.

Still life with Carolina wren.

Still life with eastern bluebird.

Still life with downy woodpecker.
Down, you ugly, hyper dog! Down!

Sumac-A Wildlife Survival Food

Monday, February 23, 2009

I love to capture images of birds at the feeder, but a hundred times more satisfying are images of birds eating what they're supposed to eat--the native seeds and fruits that abound in our yard, fields and forest. It's hard to get close enough with a 300 mm. lens without scaring the bird, so my pictures are often taken through the window of my big, heated, supremely comfortable blind: my house.
American goldfinches and pine siskins are always working on the seeds of the gray birches we've planted all over the yard. What they knock to the snow, the juncos, tree sparrows and field sparrows clean up.

Sumac rings all our meadows--five species in all. Here, a red-bellied woodpecker works on the fruits.
Turning about, he shows the origin of his seeming misnomer. I love this shot.

To me, the northern flicker is so impossibly beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists. I love, love, love to paint flickers. There's so much to do! This is a male, with a black moustache mark.

Sumac is a good food for wildlife because there's nothing in it that spoils or ferments, and it stays fresh from when it first ripens in October until at least May. It's always available, kind of the way All-Bran is always around. It may not be your first choice, but it's food.

As I shot the flicker, I was wishing hard that I was closer, that it wasn't so gray out...and yet the images have a simple beauty that I love.

Who thought up all those markings? They are perfect. The bird is cryptic from above, spectacular from below--good for a ground-feeder. Flickers huddle on the ground, digging for ants in the summer, and they're all but invisible to predators with those brown-barred backs.

Yet when they wish to make a splash they've got all the badges and bling they need.

Ahh. That's the one. I must paint it someday.

Busting Out

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Restlessness settled on me like a hawk; I'd been completely housebound since Tuesday night, and it was Saturday.

A sharp-shinned hawk hopes for a cardinal on ice.

After three full days of it, I was ready to get out. Being bundled up had lost its allure.

Mether, are you going somewhere without me?

Yes, Chet Baker. Cutelips or no, I have to get out of here, and it is too cold for you to come along and wait in the car.

It had been fun overall, an experience we will never forget, and one I'm glad we've documented in photos.

This is an actual photo of me, having ridden the toboggan at breakneck speed down the huge hayfield hill, and having wound up going partway under a barbed wire fence at the very bottom. I was going too fast to bail out, so I grabbed the wire as I shot under it, bringing myself to a halt just as it touched my chin. It was like something from a Schwarzeneggar movie.

I lay there for a few minutes, considering my fate, and trying to figure out how I was going to get up from this position on slippery ice. I was also laughing, which didn't help. I was happy that my brain had worked well enough to tell me to grab the wire in between barbs. Eventually the sled slipped out from under me and went careening on down the hill, and I rolled over and wriggled out of my predicament.

Yes, it was time for me to fly, icy roads or no...I just had to head for town.

I took my camera with its new little 18-55 mm wide-angle lens, and was glad I did.

Have you ever seen a hayroll look more delicious? Like a Frosted Maxi-Wheat?

Sheep move suspiciously away from the lady with the camera, backed by a tinkling ice wonderland.

I did my shop, replaced some things we'd lost in the big meltdown, and was happy to come back home, a few images richer. I hope you've enjoyed these ice storm pictures as much as I enjoyed capturing them.
Zick-Thompson Manor viewed from the west, Chet Baker striking a Vanna White pose in the foreground. Yes, he knows exactly what he's doing, and he doesn't even need to be asked to pose any more. Basically, he inserts himself in almost every photo I take.

The odd looking plastic shiny thing is my Garden Pod, full of flowers!

Life is good.

More Sexy Snow

Thursday, February 19, 2009


The feeders were HOPPIN' all through the storm. I kept them topped off, with fresh offerings scattered under the bower, the spruces and pines.

When Bill and I planted the blue spruces in 1992, I didn't even think about the fact that they'd grow up to be marvelous bird feeders. The snow never gets all the way under them. I throw a big scoopful of seed right into the tree, and the birds clamber all through the needles to get it, and cluster beneath its sheltering boughs to hide and feed. The leaning evergreen to the left is our Fraser fir from Christmas, bungeed to a post. We'll burn it come spring.

When the sun finally broke out, I went into a frenzy of photography. Dawn colors snow with the most delicate peaches and blues.

This is one of my favorite photos from the storm's aftermath. Bill and I thought it looked like our penguin had skiied into the yard. Actually, the tracks were made by ice, falling off our telephone line just overhead.

We had so much trouble with our telephone line that about five years ago the phone company came and buried it. I saw the phone guy about to take down the homely cable that runs into the house and stopped him. Where would the bluebirds, tree and barn swallows sit? Where would the Carolina wren stop to sing? Where would the yellow-breasted chat land after his flight display? The phone guy liked that idea, probably mostly because he didn't have to take it down.

Our shitepoke weathervane had never looked so true-to-life. Go ahead, click the link if you don't know what a shitepoke is, or why this photo makes those who know chuckle. I'll tell you.

Sun on the meadow was surreal. Chet and I lit out for the farthest reaches, sure we'd find a wonderland.Our ordinary path was filled with mystery.

The little bluestem bent in supplication, making a mounded fantasy landscape, a maze of wonder.

Spiky lines of young sumac pushed up, refusing a snow coat. We're not cold.

Colorado or Ohio? I couldn't tell. The transformation was complete.

The older sumac, its fruit long dehisced, was a flock of dancing cranes.

Smooth sumac still offered sustenance to the hermit thrushes, woodpeckers and bluebirds, if they could get around the snowcap.

When we finally came in, spent from thrashing through the powder and underlying crust, Chet Baker thawed himself and dried his damp brisket by the gas fire that had kept us warm the whole time. Little CatDog. He baked until he was hot to the touch. That's why he's The Baker.

I look out the window today and it is snowing again, temperatures in the twenties, ferocious windchill. A lone redwing at the feeder, too cold to konkaree. Tomorrow I begin another journey--to Honduras. While on planes and in airports, I'll try to finish up with writing about Guyana so the Honduras images and memories sure to crowd in don't wind up replacing those precious things in my addled brain. There's only so much room in there, after all.

Don't worry. I've been cooking and cooking; the pantry is full and you will have plenty of Bacon while I'm gone. But man, I won't miss this wind and these loaded gray clouds; the parka and hat.
Tonight I'll offer a sacrifice to the airline gods, cruel and capricious though they be, to get me there in a reasonable way. Cross your fingers for me? JZ

Crazy Sexy Snow

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I've got two camera bodies now, my old Canon Digital Rebel XTi and my new Canon Digital Rebel XSi. When I'm on a serious photo safari, I carry both bodies, one with a long lens and one with the new 18-55 mm. landscape lens. It gives a little extra weight and cumbersomeness, but it beats switching lenses in mid-stride by a long shot.

Dawn broke, and I knew I was in for a serious snow photo safari. Ohboyohboyohboy I was jumping around like a cartoon hound.Finally, light. Finally, sun on this glittering palace of diamonds that would not last long. My chance of chances.

There were no tracks on the new-fallen snow. Time to track it up, but I snapped a record of its pristine state first.

My little spready Japanese maple was once a potted bonsai. It wasn't very happy in training, so I set it free, and now it's big enough to sit under, big enough to shade the Pig of Good Fortune, and it's where Baker goes on a hot summer day. And this day, it was encased in glass.

Th' Bacon went first, tracking up the path in his doggeh way.

He was verra happeh to be out at last, snow or no snow. He had his football letter jacket on; he was cookin'.

There were things under the snow that only he knew about, and he dug several deep holes down to the lairs of voles and shrews.

I don't know many people who would stick their whole face in the snow and enjoy it, but Th' Bacon does.

I turned around and looked back at our home, our refuge from this long storm.

The birding tower peeks up above the roof, my little writer's chamber beckoning. With the sun, it would be reasonably warm up there, even without heat, but I had pictures to take.

Farther out the meadow, a bluebird house bore evidence of the storm. We humans take a somewhat more elaborate form of shelter, but both work for our respective species.

Egad, I've been waiting for this wide-angle lens for three years. I don't know what I did without it. Now I want to go back to Guyana and shoot landscapes. Ah well. Other times, other trips.

The welljack that gives us our heat and cooking gas; that makes my Garden Pod warm and keeps us cozy all year round. I love that old thing, pumping away out there with no one to talk to.
Like many in our oil-rich area, we have free gas from this well on our land. So, uh, we don't pay heating bills.

I know. I hear you New Englanders sputtering. It's not for everybody, but there are distinct percs to living in Appalachian Ohio. You couldn't get me out of here with a crowbar and a bomb. Even when the power goes off for days at a time. Maybe especially then.

Tomorrow: More wonderland, mo' Bacon.
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