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Traces of a Sharp-Shin

Thursday, April 29, 2010


He is the James Bond of hawks, beating the bushes for his breakfast, almost always getting his man.

He hunts our feeders. When he is hungry he perches right on them, peering around for any bird who might be frozen to their sides or under their tops.

He is not what most people would consider a welcome feeder bird, but he always makes me smile. I have spread this feast for him, and he gladly avails himself.

He is the king of the birds in our yard, a cruel despot in their eyes.

The traces of his presence are everywhere—in the dark flank of a cardinal, torn

In the odd posture of a nuthatch, injured

who I no longer see around

And there’s nothing I can do about it but stop feeding

But to do that would be to lose the flocks I love so well

and send him hungry into the cold woods.

Spring is here and I miss him. I haven't seen him for weeks. Bill saw him April 25, circling over the east half of our land. Perhaps he is mated to the beautiful female sharpshin I saw carry a small package into the valley over which he circled. I hope he stayed.

I hear sharpshins calling from where she disappeared, on my morel-hunting slope below the big pines. Perhaps I’ll see him again when we’re moving slowly through the leaves, searching for pale honeycombed heads. The first ones came up April 21. We're hoping the gentle rains and soft ground will bring many more.

Sharp-shinned Hawk on the Feeder!

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Oh, look. Who's that?
Oh, that's why there haven't been any birds around for the last hour. The sharp-shin is back!

The Indigo Hill sharp-shin as he appeared in November, 2007, the year of his hatch. He's in the spangled brown plumage of a juvenile. Now his back is blue as slate, with ruby eyes. My, how he’s grown, fueled by cardinals from our feeder.

All winter long and well into spring, we have played host to a sharp-shinned hawk. I’m almost certain, from his demeanor and habits, that he is the same little gentleman who was with us last year as a streaky, orange-eyed immature bird, and in 2007 as a rank juvenile (above). By that reckoning, and if it is indeed the same bird, he may be three years old now. He is smart, sleek and persistent, and he is an excellent hunter. Better than he was in 2007, and better than last year, to be sure.

Mostly, he presents himself as a blue bullet streaking about waist-high through the yard.

By the time the cardinal (almost invariably a male) is aware he’s being hunted he’s already being readied for processing into bite-sized bits. That’s a sharpie for you.

I love our sharpie. I choose to love him because I have attracted a small truckload of cardinals with my sunflower seed offerings; because I understand that a truckload (I’m talking 50-70) of cardinals in my yard is an unnatural concentration; and I accept the inevitability that somebody is going to take advantage of that. It is a perturbation in the natural scheme just begging for correction.

I also love him because he is beautiful.

He rockets through and alights in a tree like a piece of milkweed down, as if his talons snagged him suddenly there.

He looks about fiercely then settles into his bolt-upright comfort position, to stay for awhile and look for the unwary.

He extends a foot, knocks it on the branch a couple of times, and tucks it up into his downy belly feathers.

Doing so, he conjures Louis Fuertes and Lars Jonsson and the many sketches and paintings I’ve made of sharpies at rest, all tucked up and benign for a few moments.

He sees every small movement, in detail I can only imagine.

When he is hungry, he doesn’t sit so quietly.

He rages and frets, cartwheels, always on the attack, feathers sleeked to his hard little body.

This is when I am glad I’m not a junco.

Thanks to a persistent Pakistani spammer, I've had to disable comments on this post for the morning. Let's hope Mr. showpanmohsin, who lists his only hobby as Playing Video Games, will get discouraged and go stuff beans up his nose. And then let's hope they sprout.

Baker, Beeched

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Chet Baker likes beech trees, old hollow ones with high squirtle and racketycoon potential. The terrier part of him comes out of hiding when he fearlessly enters their depths to investigate. You might be surprised to find me a rather lassiez-faire dogmom. I let him do his doggly things, within limits. At five years old, Chet has a good understanding of those limits. Cattle herding is out; he knows that. Horses are to be approached gently. Squirrels, rabbits and deer are to be chased, but only for short distances, and never pursued into briars (gotta take care of those googly eyes). Hollow beech trees are to be investigated. Offisa Pupp jumps on the case.

Into the beech tree he goes.
Perps beware: you're about to be told to move along.

Little-known Chet trivia: He has a jaunty white chevron just above his johnson. Boy, that's a weird shot.

It matches his Michael Jackson paw. Wouldn’t be hard to pick him out of a lineup.

He peers up into the hollow tree and

sassified that there is nothing more to find, he exits, covered in beechdust

To make a Christopher Robin moment for a mother, watching her two boys

On a walk almost forgotten, but preserved in precious images she's saved in the ether.

His sweet sleepy head sags on my arm as I share them with you.

He’s not heavy, he’s my heartbeat.

Photo by Bill Thompson III.

Bat Update, Blog Outreach

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Photo by Tim Ryan, whose skill is undeniable, whether it's a real camera or one in a phone.

Writing from Woodward, Oklahoma, home of the second annual Lesser Prairie-chicken Festival, where my arrival with T. R. Ryan and Debby Kaspari coincided with curtains of nonstop frog-drowning rain and steadily falling temperatures. We repaired to the local Wal-mart, where you can git anything you want, from matching green rubber boots to ponchos to extra pullovers to Tickle Me Elmo flannel jammie pants to thick socks to thermal underwear to strange rubber turkeys that were in the hat section and had slits in the bottom but were probably not hats after all. We bought all of that and more because the roads are all washed out and we'll have to walk to try to see lesser prairie-chickens if we're going to see them at all. And yes, we're having a blast anyway.

Mini-update: The storm system sagged south of us, the skies cleared, we never got rained on, and I now have seen sparring lesser prairie-chickens on the lek. My Swarovski binoculars have one broken eyepiece so they're now monoculars. Must've been a fluke, because they only fell about two feet! No worries--I have my lovely Swarovski scope and all I have to do is send the binocs to the factory when I get home and they'll fix them for free.
I've gotten all my thank-you notes written, to all of you who helped me through the bat episode and helped fund my rabies pre-exposure inoculations. My mama taught me how to write 'em, and she also taught me how to hoard pretty little cards for the time when you'll need them. I've gone through quite a few pretty little notecards, the ones that bad bad Charlie didn't chew to smithereens. I've had the pleasure of corresponding with a bunch of readers who might otherwise have remained unknown to me. It's been really cool. You are an amazing bunch of people and I feel deeply blessed to share a connection with you.

As a Pretend Scientist, I'm incredibly flattered when Real Scientists read my blog and write to say so. I got an email today from one such person, a fabulous woman who sent me my first game camera, telling a story of coincidence that I thought you'd enjoy. I'm excerpting, but the gist is there:

(Our college) had spring break about when you started posting about your bats. We had a class (studying) in Belize (but) I didn't get to go along this year. When the class came back, one of the students told her dad the story about the bat that flew into their room one night. He subsequently called the Center for Disease Control who then called our county health department who then called the student health center...and the result was that 3 of 7 people who were under the roof where the bat had been (none of these people ever touched the bat) went to the emergency room and had post-exposure shots - about $2000 each. I became involved because I am our resident disease ecologist and I was asked to provide our administrators with information on rabies (hopefully in Belize).

Your posts and the link to the USGS publication were incredibly helpful. I also consulted a friend of mine who is an excellent bat biologist. What eventually happened was the health department kept calling the students and faculty who decided against the shots (even though they did not know that no one touched the bat) - these students held firm and decided not to get the shots. The whole thing was really scary...I didn't want to give them the wrong advice, but I also felt that the risk was nearly zero! So all of this rambling to say, thanks for your thoughtful posts on the bat adventures. They were extremely timely and helpful. The USGS document even included data from Belize!

The document she's referring to is "Bat Rabies and Other Lyssavirus Infections" by Denny Constantine. It's available for free, here. Thanks again to Timothy Winship for the link and the information. The ripples of outreach spread outward, ever outward. And nothing is for naught.

Nine-hundred and fifty Girl Scouts were put through post-exposure rabies vaccinations after bats were found roosting in their cabins at a retreat. Does having a bat in the same room really equate to a rabies exposure? You can't be too careful, or can you?

Makes you wonder how we all survived our childhoods. Bill of the Birds returned from Guyana, having slept in a cabin for two nights with the gentle patter of bat urine and turds raining on his mosquito netting, to the mini-drama unfolding in his own home. I slept in the same cabins two years ago. Well, I tossed and turned there. I wouldn't call it sleeping.

One person in the U.S. has died of the big brown bat rabies strain since 1958. There are indications that this strain may not be as infective or virulent to humans as others. Rabies is not transmitted by magic. You really need bat saliva containing the virus in a bite or scratch wound (which can be microscopic) or on a mucous membrane to constitute an exposure. The stories and studies alleging possible aerosol transmission of rabies in bat caves are questionable. Two spelunkers who contracted the disease in Frio Cave, Texas were wading in knee-deep guano while being collided with by clouds of bats--does that sound like aerosol transmission to you? Sounds like they got bitten or scratched to me. A horrid experiment in which opossums were caged in a teeming bat cave for several weeks resulted in several of the animals contracting rabies. Thanks to the cage wire, they couldn't make direct contact with the bats, but bat urine and effluent rained down on them, as well as live bat lice...well, hmmm. Could they have been bitten by lice that had just bitten a rabid bat? Well, yeah, you'd think so. Again--doesn't sound like aerosol transmission to me. Nor does it sound like magic. People should stay out of bat caves unless they're vaccinated and have a darn good non-recreational reason to be there, like to study and help the bats.

Research is ongoing, trying to focus down on the incubation period of rabies in bats. It appears to be rather short--generally a couple of weeks from infection to the appearance of symptoms-- and the course of the disease is quick, too. A rabid bat is dead within a week. How I wish rabies weren't in the picture where bats are concerned. Bats have more than enough bad press via folklore, and now face the most devastating epizootic perhaps in history--white nose disease--which is killing them by the hundreds of thousands in the Northeast. Bats are not out to get us. Bats are just trying to live their lives, and they desperately need friends. Now, I feel safe in being one of those friends, having finished my series of three prophylactic (pre-exposure) vaccinations. And I thank you for helping me do that.

On the evening of Sunday, April 4, Bill and I saw the first big brown bat of the season, flittering about our birding towertop. It was a fine sight. I immediately wished for a huge bat house all along the south face of the tower, wished for it to be filled with bats. I took that as a sign that my enthusiasm for bats has been tempered but not extinguished, not by a long shot. I am sadder but, thanks to my friends, much wiser.

Dee Dee is still at the Ohio Wildlife Center, where she is getting flight conditioning. She broke the straw-fine bones of her fingertips when she beat them against the glass of her super-deluxe tank. I didn't realize it had happened until I saw her swollen fingertips, and even then I didn't realize that she'd broken them.
I had hung two towels along the side for roosting, but didn't know that it's necessary to pad the glass with nonskid foam drawer liner as well, because Dee liked to crawl between the towel and the glass and that's where she did the damage to her wingtips. Now I know that. Here's how they looked soon after the injury:

You can see the bent fingertip in the lower left corner of the photo.

When I saw the swelling in her fingertips I searched online for "swollen finger bones captive bats" and got a web site that advised that Dee Dee might have a bacterial infection treatable with Clavimox. So I got some Clavimox from a friend who is a veterinarian, and gave that to her twice a day. After a week, they seemed a lot better.

When I brought her to Ohio Wildlife Center, Animal Care Director Lisa Fosco took one look at her and said, "That's not an infection. Those are fractures." She then explained how it must have happened, all for the want of some foam padding which I didn't even know Dee needed. My heart, which had already fallen through my chest when I surrendered Darryl to be tested for rabies, fell even farther. I felt I'd done everything wrong that it was possible to do wrong, all in trying to do something right.

Dee Dee's wingtips curl inward, and her wings look cupped when she flies. Lisa said Dee might still be able to fly well when the tiny bones healed and were no longer sore; she said she's seen a bat with its wingtips missing fly just fine. I got an email last week, and learned that Dee Dee (BigBrownBat #243) is making progress under the expert care of Lisa Fosco and other OWC staff and volunteers. She was flying markedly better than she did when I brought her in two weeks earlier. (They take them into a big room at night and let them fly to see how they're faring. Ooh, can I help?)

As we've seen, rehab stories don't always end well, so I am very cautiously optimistic. I have all my fingers crossed that she'll be able to fly well enough for release. I call upon you, my beloved flying blogmonkeys, to unleash the power of positive thinking and envision Dee Dee rising high and diving nimbly above the gracious old homes of Marietta, Ohio in mid-May, making her way to her maternity roost, Darryl's child safe inside her.

That's Dee in front, hiding under Darryl's leg membrane, in happier days.

The Pleasure Dome

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The garden pod is at its best right now. Everything is in full bloom and ready for transplanting outdoors. I've repotted them all so they won't have to slow down for having cramped roots. The poet's jasmine is in full bloom again; the huge gardenia standard with the braided trunk burst open two days ago. After a dreadful winter of aphids and spider mite and whitefly, the insect forces have finally succumbed to a manageable level. Pyrethrins don't work at all for me any more; the insects chortle and frolic as they bathe and breaststroke in insecticide. More effective is organic clove and thyme oil, and it makes the greenhouse smell delightful when the spices mingle with gardenia and jasmine. But better than that is cold water, sprayed on the undersides of the leaves where pests hide. So simple, so beneficial, so nonpoisonous. Once I got the hose hooked up things started looking up for all my plants.

I love going down to the greenhouse to clip and prune and tidy things up, to water and sniff and breathe and banish the bad guys. Bill bought the little thermopane dome at a garden show years ago; it was a prototype display model that never went into production. Pity that. I count the Garden Pod as the best (material) gift anyone's ever given me. If you've always wanted a little greenhouse, just....DO IT. You only live once.

Bill took some nighttime photos of me in the greenhouse, reveling in out-of-season blossoms and fragrance, that bring to mind Coleridge's Kubla Khan, which I excerpt here, minus its second stanza which is all about war:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!...

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves:

Where was heard the mingled measure

From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer

In a vision once I saw:

It was an Abyssinian maid,

And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.

Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

To such a deep delight 't would win me

That with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

that's the huge poet's jasmine bush at my feet. Now imagine that with hundreds of blossoms, all stinkin' up the night air...all dome photos by Bill Thompson III

The Award-Winner's Painter

Monday, April 12, 2010

As distinguished from "The Award-Winning Painter," a post title you will not see on this blog... I have a little niche as an ornithological award painter. I get commissions to paint presents for people who are getting awards in the ornithological field. Awards for lifetime achievement, extraordinary contributions; conservation awards. It’s a really nice niche, because I get to paint pictures for very special people, those who've been singled out by their peers as extraordinary. I also enjoy it because it’s all hush-hush and everybody’s excited to see what I come up with.

One such award was given just this past weekend by Bluebirds Across Nebraska, an amazing bluebird conservation organization, to Nebraska bluebirder Sandy Seibert, who initiated a program and came up with supporting materials for bluebirders to take a kid along on their routes as they check their bluebird houses. What a great idea. You never know what little switch might get thrown in a child’s mind, what spark kindled and lit. Here's the pledge for participants:

I pledge to take a child (son, daughter, grandchild, niece, nephew, neighbor’s or friend’s child, etc.) along with me to monitor my bluebird trail as often as possible during the nesting season. I promise to explain to this child the importance and value of monitoring a bluebird trail. I will plant a seed of love for bluebirds and nature in this child’s mind and nurture that seed in the hopes that this child will someday follow in my footsteps.

Among the supporting materials given to the child in the TAK-Along program is my husband's Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.

Obviously, I'm down with that. So I wanted to give Sandy, a warm, wonderful woman whom I happen to know, a painting that would highlight what’s best about kids combined with bluebirds. I decided on the moment of discovery when a box is opened and its contents revealed—that Christmas morning feeling of finding turquoise eggs or big ol’ healthy baby bluebirds looking back at you.

I needed a subject. Hmmm. I happen to know a beautiful boy who really digs that moment. I sought no farther than my own boy Liam.

Compared to a lot of paintings I’ve done recently, this’n was a breeze, nice and small, with subject matter I could really connect with. Might as well throw a few of my favorite things in the painting, hoping they’re a few of Sandy’s favorites, too.

An untroubled blue summer sky. Hayrolls. Slanting late afternoon light with gold touching the grass in streaks. Liam looking in a bluebird box. Well, I'd add that. This reference photo was taken along my bluebird route, a place I'll visit today, finding eggs in box after box.

Start the painting with a spray bottle and a nice wet field, and stroke the blue on it. Turn the painting upside down and tilt it so the color concentrates toward the top of it, just like it does in the sky. Let it dry tilted.

Lay in the sun gold, so it can shine through the grass and in some places stand alone.

Bring on the meadow green, leaving the sunlit parts pure bright gold.

Start on the trees, making sure the sunlit one has a gold underpainting.

Leave some skyholes in the trees, and tickle in the deep shadows. Only the deep shadows will tell you the sunlit parts are bright.

Oh, goody! Hayrolls! And their cast shadows. More detail in the trees, with branches and trunks now.

Liam’s for dessert.

Oh, but what color to make his T-shirt? I plan a few different colors, and paint them on a piece of tracing paper to see what looks nice.

I like them all, but Phoebe, Bill and Liam all think the red is a bit of a cliché. I decide to understate it and leave his shirt white.

A little more detail on the box and on his clothes and face. It’s perilously hard to paint a boy two inches tall and make him still look like your child. The less fussing about the face, the better it comes out, I find.

Being careful first to cover that perfect sky with craft paper, I spatter the grass in the foreground for a nice, unstudied effect and decide the painting is done.

Congratulations, Sandy, and thanks to you and your Take a Kid Along program for opening the world of bluebirds to some very fortunate kids.

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