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Red-headed Woodpeckers!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

I grew up with red-headed woodpeckers in Richmond, Virginia. There was a housing development where one of my friends lived that was lousy with them. Even though I could see them any time I wanted, I still thought they were special. One of my earliest rehab patients was a car-hit red-headed woodpecker. Such a spirited bird, so willing, so full of life. Too bad it ended badly. I learned the hard lesson at eight that you don't take a wild bird with a broken wing to a dog and large animal vet. It isn't fair to either of them. Still, I got to know a little something of the red-headed woodpecker's spirit. What a wonderful bird he was, even grounded and scuttling around in a cardboard box.

The high, hoarse Queerk! of the red-headed woodpecker electrifies me to this day. Bill and I thought we'd landed on Planet Paradise when it hit us that we were in the midst of a RHWO colony at North Bend State Park in western West Virginia. 

We found three nests, and had we headed to our left, we'd have probably found at least that many more. But we had our hands full discovering everything there was in one short traverse of the lake.

Bill of the Birds settled back, trying to get acceptable images of a shy pair tending their young. To combat drift, you have to hang yourself up in a snag to still the canoe. They like to faunch around when you're trying to get your shot.

Technically, a 300 mm. telephoto isn't quite enough glass for this situation. I'm thinking hard about upgrading my camera equipment, getting a lens I can put a doubler on. I just wanted to be closer to these birds, but they were skittish as could be, and I never got the photos I wanted. Still, some are evocative of the moments I experienced.

This lovely bird stopped to sunbathe, drooping his wing.

They looked so beautiful against the weathered trunks. Even as I enjoyed the afternoon, I was trying to figure out when and how I could get back before the babies (which were peeping weakly in the cavities) were out of the nest. 

It's been such a busy summer. The first part of June was given to North Dakota, and the minute we got back the kid-maintenance appointments started--teeth, eyes, hair. More teeth. More eyes. Physicals. Everyone needing maintenance. Is it any wonder Mom lets hers slide? I'm writing this from the waiting room of an oral surgeon who at this moment is taking six (yes, our kids are extraordinary in every way) wisdom teeth out of poor Phoebe's jaws. This is the second time I've seen one of my babies go under anaesthesia, and it runs counter to every fiber in my being to witness that. It's like sending them to the Underworld. She'll be fine, she's got a momma making Vicodin smoothies. Hangin' in there...dreaming of canoeing on this fine puffy white cloud summer day; just not able to do it right now. I'm sure that's a familiar feeling to many of you all. Send your good wishes to our poor lil' flame-haired Chipmunk. She needs them.

Mimi darling, it was such a tonic to see you. I needed those hugs!

On Quiet Waters

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One good outing in a boat can be absolute magic for the soul. Forget chicken soup. I need the sound of trickling water under a canoe hull, the gentle rock of a boat on calm water.

A couple weeks ago, we mounted an expotition to North Bend State Park, not far over the West Virginia International Boundary with Ohio. About nine years ago, a dam went in, making a long, meandering flooded lake with lots of fascinating elbows and appendices to explore.

David and Mary Jane, Chet Baker's West Virginia parents, alerted us to this place, and all the birds they'd found nesting there made us anxious to explore it. So they brought their huge aluminum canoe, and graciously took our kids in it, while Bill and I zooped around in our one-man canoes.

Get a load of these reflections.

It was immediately clear to us as birdwatchers that we were entering a gallery of cavity-nesting birds the likes of which we'd never experienced.

For the flooded trees all died at the same time, and this made for easy excavation by flickers, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers.

Flickers, in fact, were going nuts all around us, courting and fighting. These two males engaged in some terrific stunts and dances, vying for a single female. See their black malar marks, or "moustaches?" Those small black dashes on the side of their faces (not the breast crescent; both sexes sport that) mean they're boys.

The males kept engaging each other, approaching, posturing with bills erect. There was a whole lot of woika woika woika-ing going on.

The female flicker's the top bird in this photo. 

Very noisy and amusing, they were.  What a treat to see flickers breeding--outnumbering the starlings, which compete for the cavities the woodpeckers dig. This is one of North America's most ornate birds. All the spots and dashes of jet black on warm brown plumage--they wouldn't really need the golden underwings and tail, or the white rump, or the gray toupee, or the little vee of scarlet on the nape...but flickers have it all.

Sometimes when I see a flicker on the ground I'm reminded of Africa's beautiful hoopoe, which is why I sometimes call flickers the American hoopoe. But usually only to myself or to Bill, because most people have no idea why I'm calling a flicker a hoopoe.

Good grief, they were spectacular. I love this photo--it captures the crazy antics we witnessed as the three birds chased and swirled above the mirrored water. Yes, that's gold in the spread wing of the lower bird. Oh, for a bigger lens, better light, closer approach. But you get the idea.

But flickers weren't the only woodpeckers nesting in the flooded forest of North Bend State Park. There were red-bellied, hairy and downy, pileated too. And then there was the most beautiful woodpecker of all...Bill's totem bird. 

The place is absolutely lousy with red-headed woodpeckers. I hope you're swooning, because we sure were. Red-headed woodpeckers are durn rare any more. Why the loveliest woodpecker must be our rarest...sigh.

More of these red, white and jet beauties anon.

I Shot the Whip-poor-Will

Sunday, June 26, 2011


We are blessed here in southeast Ohio with the little moth-eating, night-flying caprimulgids known as whip-poor-wills. Blessed, or cursed. The man from whom we bought the house called them "fiends from Hell." He hated them. He also hated the yellow-breasted chats who flew over the yard giving raspberries, clacks and grunts because they made such "rude noises."

Well. One man's hell is another's heaven. I count chats and whip-poor-wills among the myriad blessings of living here. Some nights we can hear upwards of five at a time from our deck.

I've learned to sleep through the whips' nightly serenade, although I will confess that three in the yard at one time, as happened one night in early June at 2 AM, is a bit cacaphonic. All you can do when they gang up like that is lie there and laugh.

Every once in awhile we'll see whips sitting in the driveway, or on the road that leads to our house. All you usually see of a whip in the headlights is its eye, shining like a big orange garnet right down at gravel level. Those of us who've done lots of tropical birding know to look for caprimulgids sitting on forest roads, happy to have a clearing in which to hawk for moths. Well, they do that in Ohio, too.  I was lucky enough to have my telephoto lens with me the last time I spotted the pretty orange headlight of a whip-poor-will. I was also lucky to have Bill in the car right behind me. His headlights, shining on the little whip, were all I needed, as I didn't want to startle the bird with flash.

So the top picture is my best photo to date of a whip-poor-will. It's a crappy photo, but hey. You try getting a decent photo of a whip-poor-will. Stakes are a bit different than trying to photograph a robin.

Smokey Valley Truck Stop

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Warning: Amateur Restaurant Review to Follow

As I am wont to do at such establishments, I ordered the localest thing: smoked pork chop, pinto beans, real cornbread and turnip greens, with another side of cottage cheese. A lot of food, ridiculously inexpensive, and good, too. The chop was a bit dry, as is all 21st century pork loin, but very tasty. The turnip greens, kinda limp and canny. Pinto beans were great. Cottage cheese was 4% milkfat. I approve. I like a place that has four sides. I wish Zick's place offered four sides. I'll have to talk to the cook.

The cornbread was authentically salty and gritty; the margarine-oleo-yucch spread for it the only disappointment. That's vinegar for the turnip greens. It perked them up.

Because I am a coin-asser of coconut cream pie, and because I'd read glowing reviews, I ordered it. It was a mile high, for sure, just like my waitress' hair. I just want you to know it takes a lotta nerve to set your camera on the table and steal a soul like this. If she knew I was immortalizing her, she didn't mind. She probably sees a lot of geeky wanna-be restaurant reviewers come through her place. We're not hard to spot. The camera is a real tipoff.

Hate to say it, but Smokey Valley Truck Stop's CCP just isn't my kind of coconut cream pie. Though some may consider meringue a fit topping for CCP, I don't. It makes an impressive looking pie, photogenic and exciting on the approach, but there was nothing creamy about it. The whole thing, both filling and topping, had a wiggly, keratiny, Jelloey texture that turned me off. Next time I'll get the peanut butter pie. Oh yes. There will be a next time. How could you go wrong with peanut butter pie? Sadly, there are myriad ways to go wrong with coconut cream. So far my favorite has been at Moody's Diner in Waldoboro, Maine. It takes the "cream" part seriously. Cream pie should be creamy, not wiggly. Bleh.

Still--a feed like that for under $10? Unheard of in my land. And excellent people watching to boot.

I pushed onward. Truth be told, I needed a break from watching for box turtles. The whole weekend was cool and rainy, perfect weather for box turtles to be on the move, looking for mates. I saw probably 30 that didn't make it across the highway on my way from southeast Ohio to western Kentucky. I stopped for several that looked OK, only to find them beyond help. That's hard on the soul. 

This little female and another male were the only two I was able to save. Well, I picked them up and carried them across the way they were headed, if you call that "saving." 

And then had to run the gauntlet to get back to my car, which is hard for me, a primate who can sprint. Imagine being a reptile who can only crawl.

Putting them back in habitat makes it all worthwhile. Pick them up, carry them across.

I had to do something with the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that seeing so many turtles killed inspired in me, so I wrote a song called "Little Soldiers." I think you'd like it. When it's ready, I'll give you a listen. Until then, you can poke around on our Facebook page, where our recent recording of Bill's song "I Can't Believe" is rumbling around. Check it out.

The Rain Crows will be recording this summer, and I can't wait! CD to come!

More Kentucky Fun

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I like taking trips to give talks. It gets me out of the house and out from under all the things I do every day--off the hamster wheel. I get to meet people, and hang out with folks I'd like to know better.

Barbara Kingsolver's parents, longtime stalwarts of the Kentucky Ornithological Association, came to my talk, and (over my protests), bought a copy of Letters from Eden. I wanted to give them one. They said they'd seen it on Barbara's shelf. I thanked them for making my day, week, year. Having met them, nothing about her natural history literacy surprised me any more. I guess I'm always surprised when a Real Writer shows much n.h.l. It's usually in the natural history basics and details that many Real Writers stumble. I think her biological literacy what makes Barbara Kingsolver's work really shine. It was easy to see where it started. O happy day!

You never know who you'll run into at these things. 

On the field trip the next morning, I found a tiny bluet I'd never seen before--Houstonia pusilla.

Tiny and gracile and much more purple than common bluet, it sprawled along in the moist meadow by the roadside. Here's the whole plant.

A white forget-me not puzzled me a bit. It was growing in a not-very-forget-me-notty place; not wet at all, but it checked out in my mental catalogue as a Myosotis. But then again, maybe it was wild comfrey,
Cynoglossum virginianum, just not feeling like being blue today. I guess in a pinch you could call those leaves light blue. Both are in the Borage family.

Too soon, it was time to beat it for home. I had consulted , the premier road-eats website by my friends Jane and Michael Stern, for possibilities, and learned about Smokey Valley Truck Stop
in Olive Hill, Kentucky. It's near the intersection of I-64 and Route 2 in eastern Kentucky.
No sign graces the restaurant; a wooden sign at the entrance road points you in the right direction, and then you see the cars lined up. My dad taught me to judge a diner by the parking lot.

It being Sunday, there was a large after-church crowd, parents and grandparents and kids and babies. Huge long tables accommodated all. I took a booth, to watch.

There was a big ol' bass and a muskie, I think, mounted against weathered wood and a fish net. Good sign. I hear the catfish special is great, but it wasn't featured that Sunday.

To the right of the big fern, you can see one of the waitresses on her break. She's having a cigarette inside the restaurant, just keeping the place honest to its name, I guess. Definitely not in Cambridge MA any more.

Wanna-be restaurant review coming next! Nobody asked me for a review, but I was pretending to be a roadfood expert. You can do that on your own blog. You can be the Queen of the Road.

PawPaws and Waterthrushes-Hidden Jewels

Sunday, June 19, 2011


This spring I took a trip to Barren River State Park in western Kentucky.  I had been asked to give a talk to the Kentucky Ornithological Society. The trip was squozed in between a couple of others, and I knew it'd be tight, but I wanted to see something of Kentucky, as I'd only been to Louisville and back. It was a beautiful place, just as I knew it would be. 

 Lyre-leaved sage Salvia lyrata turned the meadows misty blue
 and I learned something about pawpaws I hadn't known.

A few were still in bloom, but most of them were fruiting, a couple of weeks ahead of ours in southern Ohio.

 I learned that each pawpaw flower can make a bunch of little fruits, which explains something I"d always wondered. I'd see a small pawpaw tree with maybe five flowers on it, and then in September I'd see clusters of fruit. Well, those clusters all come from one little flower.  And here they are, the baby fruits forming. I was so excited I squealed.

 In September, they'll look like this, each the size of a small mango. Five in this cluster! Pretty cool.

Overhead, summer tanagers sang their halting songs in leafy fastnesses

and I crept silently through the underbrush to catch a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker and yes, I was pretending it was his huge cousin Campephilus--the setting was so perfect for seeing black, white and scarlet streaking and hitching through the watery mystery

I was helping my new KOS friend Scott Marsh--the tall one; that's my other Kentucky friend Carol Besse, president of KOS, in fetching pink-- lead a walking birding trip through the park. 

We found a phoebe nest, and Scott was tall enough to hold my camera up to immortalize its contents, which are doubtless flying and catching their own moths by now. 

It was here at Barren River State Park that I had one of my favorite-ever moments as a naturalist. Our little band of birders was walking up this beautiful stream, and there was a Louisiana waterthrush singing lustily, his wild ringing song filling the green spaces. We came to a little stone bridge and the waterthrush flew up, chipped at me twice, then flew a short distance away, watching me and bobbing his tail. It was clear to me he had a nest nearby. He might as well have said it in English.

"This is a perfect spot for a waterthrush nest," I told the group. I stood on the bank and quietly studied the opposite side, which was hung with grasses and roots. 


Just the kind of spot a Louisiana waterthrush would choose to hide its leafy, rooty little nest. Within seconds I found what I was looking for...some muddy leaves, tucked way up inside a nook in the bank, where no muddy leaves ought to be. The Louisiana waterthrush builds a little porch of muddy wet leaves that, when they dry, make a sturdy landing platform for the parents as they come and go.  It's one of the best-hidden warbler nests I know of; in fact when Hal Harrison wrote his photographic field guide to bird nests (in the Houghton Mifflin Peterson series)  the only one he couldn't find himself was the nest of the Louisiana waterthrush!

And the female waterthrush was sitting on her nest. With some difficulty, I pointed her out to everyone. It was hard to make her out. Her two white eye stripes, converging at her bill, gave her away. In this photo she's head-on, and you can see her eyes and bill. 

Knowing the gig was up, she hunkered even lower until all we could make out was one bright eye with a white stripe over it. It's under a little triangle of white grasses.

And the best part of all was that, in discovering her, we never put her off her nest. That's the beauty of listening to what the birds tell you, knowing where to look, standing back quietly, and having the right optics to do it. Serendipity favors the prepared mind.

Kentucky's Crane Hunt

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


For those of you who've been following the drama unfolding in Kentucky regarding a sandhill crane hunt, there's bad news. An eight-member commission unanimously approved the hunt proposal in early June.  Which wasn't a surprise, since everyone on the commission is a hunter. Thousands of letters and emails of protest apparently fell on deaf ears. Not surprising, but certainly disappointing. Shooting could start as early as mid-December 2011.


Kentucky's wildlife offices have been flooded with protests, whether written, telephoned or emailed. It's probably of little use to further bombard Commissioner Jon Gassett with your good letters. Go ahead and check out his company, Southern Wildlife Resources LLC .  Now, I don't know much about conflict of interest or what taxpayer-paid state employees should or shouldn't be doing on their own time, but it looks to me as if he's offering the same services his Department of Fish and Wildlife does, only for personal profit. Brokering land to hunters, hooking them up with guide services...all for a fee. It isn't hard even for a simple bird painter to divine that Commissioner Gassett stands to gain financially from a crane hunt in Kentucky. No wonder his state office answering machine has a message on it expounding on the delicious meat of the sandhill crane. No, let's not write any more letters to Dr. Gassett. That dog don't hunt. Or rather, he does.

How about writing the Governor? And how about taking a few minutes to do it now? Here's an easy, quick link to a comment form on Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear's web site. He'll be deciding on the proposal TODAY, June 15. Let's give him a respectful little burst of opposition, huh?


Photo by Cyndi Routledge

 These birds belong to all of us, not just a few hundred gunmen. Why should they get to unilaterally decide that the sandhill crane will be a game bird in Kentucky? 

We must make our voices heard.
As always, thank you for caring. And especially for acting.

Species Orchids: True Love

Much as I love the hybrids, the man-made orchids, I am hugely attracted to the ones that look just like they do in the wild. A lot of orchid fanciers go over to what they call the "species" orchids, and never go back to hybrids. At this point, I'm happy somewhere in between.

At the New England Flower Show in Boston in 2006, I spied a terrific looking specimen of Dendrobium kingianum. This is a very common species in Australia, called the pink rock orchid.  But I'd never seen it, and you don't see it much in cultivation.

It was a huge plant, covered in tiny pink flowers that were intensely fragrant. Oh, I wanted a little bitty piece of it so badly. I couldn't bring the entire plant back home on the plane, even if I could have afforded it. I eyed the plant, and finally asked the exhibitor if she would consider selling me a little cutting of it.

She eyed me right back. She could see the lust. "I don't know," she said. "You feeling lucky today?"

I laughed. "Where orchids are concerned, I'm always feeling lucky," I answered. 
"Take one," she said. "No charge."  She knew what it was to really want a plant.

I was so delighted! I chose an inconspicuous bulblet on the enormous plant, twisted it off, and stuck it down my shirt.

And now, five years later, the Little King is on its gangbustin' way, stinkin' up the whole room with a few little flowers. It will only get better as the years go by. That's what I love about orchids. That, and propagating teeny pieces into wonderful plants.

Getting better as years go by...another cutting I took in 2006, of a magnificent Guatemalan specimen of Encyclia cordigera, is in full, glorious bloom right now, emanating a honeysuckle fragrance when the eastern sun shines on it. It's the purple one in this photo.

The thing I notice about both these species orchids is their incredible vigor and hardiness. 

Every spring it throws a couple more bulbules, and makes a few more flower spikes. It is a true delight.

Oh, for Smellovision.

It's getting really big. I honestly wonder what's going to happen when these things reach their full bushel-basket size. Probably time to repot...

If I had to pick a favorite in my small collection, it would come down to Encyclia cordigera and the insanely satisfying Psychopsis Mendenhall "Hildos." Well, come to think of it, that one's a species orchid too, waving its dancing red and yellow kabuki lobster men in the Trinidadian understory. What do you know.

 You talkin' to me? Yes, you, Hildos, you gorgeous  species orchid. I mean, how cool is this flower? No improving on that!

Who knows. Over time, I may just go over to the species side. One could do worse than be a lover of  orchids, pure and wild.

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