Background Switcher (Hidden)

Are You Seeing Amanitas?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

 I am. I'm seeing them everywhere I see pines.  The classic "toadstool," this is the Fly Amanita, Amanita muscaria var. guessowii. (The varietal name refers to the fact that these are yellow, not red, as is the classic Fly Amanita.)

The name Fly Amanita refers to the fact that in Eastern Europe it was used as an insecticide, supposedly lethal to flies, when powdered and mixed with milk.
Why anybody would want to spray milk mixed with poisonous mushrooms around is anyone's guess. I think I'd rather have flies. Here, let's spray some milk with poisonous mushrooms on the kitchen window, where the flies gather.

Each September, I enjoy watching them push up through the pine needles under white pines. This year, for the first year, they're coming up under our Virginia pines, too. I mow around them.

Such a beautiful huge mushroom! Can you imagine eating something like this? Apparently, having psychoactive compounds, it was (is) used as a hallucinogen in Siberia. They must be hard up for a rush in Siberia. I wouldn't eat them on a dare. But then I don't go around swilling vodka, either.

These are growing on an abandoned homestead only a couple of miles from my home. I used to buy brown eggs from the lady who lived there, and I used to talk to her husband as he mowed the fields nearby. Both are gone now. She told my neighbor after her husband died that he came in from working in the fields, sat down in his chair, and "his heart blew up." She was another ten years or so behind him, struggling to keep the cattle and always out working in the garden, buff Orpingtons clucking around the fenced area under the pines.  Their farm went to auction, but I don't know who bought it.

 We'll see if they're the kind to mow around mushrooms.

Thank you, everyone, for all the kind and lovely comments on "Requiem for a Black Snake." For the beautiful Mary Oliver poem, for your stories and your electronic hugs. I felt them. Now I'm going to give you one back. Over at PureFlorida, that crazy FloridaCracker has gotten hisself a captive-bred Florida kingsnake and named her Zick. And here she is having dinner. Kind of helps balance out the bad snake juju going around, to have him out there, naming a beautiful little jewel after me. Although I admit it is a bit unnerving to see my namesake massaging the nether regions of a pinky mouse.

Requiem for a Black Snake

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A follow-up to "Looking Into an Owl." Amazingly, I had two wrenching roadkill experiences in the same day. Tough stuff. Here's what happened that afternoon. At least I was out of my pajamas for this one:

 I spent too much of today trying to understand the un-understandable. Like why someone in a white van would deliberately run over a beautiful black rat snake on my road, my chapel, my place of communion, when I would have been thrilled just to see one crossing. I knew the minute I saw the snake it was mortally injured.

But I stopped, to see if I could help.

 The poor creature was writhing away, slowly choking up its last meal, which turned out to be probably five meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). It brought up three, an adult and two babies, but I could see there was at least another vole or two still in there.

It wasn't easy to identify the prey, slimed as it was, but I could see the incisors were yellow, not red, and rodenty in form, so that ruled out the only other like-sized short-tailed mammal it could have been, Blarina brevicaudata, the short-tailed shrew. Nope, it's a meadow vole.

And two babies, which probably wasn't an accident--it had probably surprised a whole family, grabbed the babies and then taken down the mother. The mother came out first, so she was taken last.

Now, any thinking farmer with a hayfield would be more than happy to have a black rat snake cleaning out the voles, but people who run over snakes on purpose don't think that way. Or at all. They don't know or care how the snake fits in the ecosystem; they don't know or care that it is a thing of great grace and beauty; all they know is they hate snakes because they know nothing about them; they fancy the snake is a danger to them, and they kill what they hate.

All without thinking or caring.

On my road. On my watch. And there was nothing I could do but stay with this poor beautiful suffering creature until it was finally still.

Chet Baker would not come closer than five feet. He was concerned for me, but he couldn't make himself draw any nearer. So he investigated the crime scene very thoroughly. Good boy.

 Then he turned for the car, but when he saw that I wasn't moving he came back to offer what solace he could. This is his Deeply Concerned face.

Within minutes the greenbottle flies were there, looking to lay their eggs, perhaps. I can't be sure, but this might be Lucilia sericata.  A beautiful name for a stunning fly.

I am sorry, Snake, but there are so many more thoughtless people than kind ones in this mean old world. I stroked its soft skin but it was already gone, gone to a meadow far away, to bask on a road without meanness or cruelty.

Which should be my road, this road that I love so well, but isn't.

Looking Into an Owl

Sunday, September 25, 2011


 It was, if not an exactly typical morning in our household, not a terribly unusual one. Bill had just left for work when the phone rang. I know this means there's something to report, whether a turtle saved or a rare bird spotted or a fox crossing, or a roadkill that mustn't be missed. It turned out to be the last one.

 A barred owl had gotten hit while flying across the road not far from our house. Bummer, big bummer. Bill knew I'd want to examine it, and I did. I threw my camera over my pajamas and grabbed Liam, who was home from school for parent-teacher conference day, also in his PJ's, and jumped in the car. Time is of the essence with roadkills, because you don't want them to get any squasheder than they already are.

We were pretty late, by which I mean that owl was flat, and so was the pickerel frog he'd been carrying when he was hit. 
He had to have gotten the frog earlier, because it had been a dry night and there was no way a pickerel frog would have been moving out on the road. So I guessed that he'd just swooped too low as he crossed the road (owls do that) and gotten hit.

As soon as I started moving the owl around, looking at it, louseflies swarmed up out of its plumage, looking for a new, preferably live, host.

These bloodsucking flies found on raptors are flat and hard and quick, and they have excellent eyesight, being attracted to motion. The quick, rather than the dead. One landed on my arm and I couldn't blow it off--I had to grab it and throw it, and it circled and came back. Ecccch. It can't live on human protein, but it was hungry. Lousefly don't care. He's hungry.

Now, here's where it gets kind of gross, but fascinating. So if you're easily grossed out, and don't want to find out what the owl had been eating, just quit with this poignant feather photo and email a friend who also reads this blog to ask what the owl had been eating. But I know you're gonna look, because if you're that easily grossed out, you've either just started reading this blog and don't know what to expect, or you've left me a long time ago. Because the nature I know and love isn't all soft and pretty. And the stuff that isn't so pretty is usually more interesting, and it's what makes my canary chirp.


I turned the owl over and found a bunch of what looked like plant material. My first thought was that the poor late owl might have been starving, because louse flies are usually more numerous on a bird that's otherwise compromised. Owls don't eat grass. What is all this green stuff? Huh?

I leaned closer, gagging a little, and yep, it looked like grass. I couldn't make heads or tails of it. But I knew I had to move the carcass off the road. And as I picked the owl up and slapped at the darn louseflies, a bolus fell out of what had been the stomach.

 Weird. More grass. More plant parts. What could be going on with this bird?

Being a Science Chimp, I had to know. So I picked at the stuff and what do you know? A praying mantis foreleg (far right) appeared in the mess.

 And then it all made sense. This owl had been eating praying mantises, and probably a lot of katydids, both of which are at peak abundance right now. And the green I was seeing was their wing covers, and the amber stuff was their membranous wings. Wow. That is a LOT of praying mantises. I'd guess 30 or 40 based on all the wing covers and legs I found.

 With delight, I imagined this beautiful little owl (it was very small, probably a male) swooping low over the goldenrod tops, picking off mantids and katydids with its yellow feet. And I wished hard that he was still doing that. But this owl had made his last big mistake, so I dropped him off into the weeds well off the road to return to the meadow and turned for home, with one thoroughly agog eleven-year-old who decided he would not be having sausage and eggs for breakfast after all.

Instead of getting soft and pretty, my day got weirder, but that's another roadkill post, isn't it?

An Arabesque Orb Weaver, hanging in the guardrail, made me feel a little better about it all. If life gives you roadkill, look at the stomach contents. You might learn something.

Looking at Audubon

Friday, September 23, 2011

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled nothingness (in which you wait until Sunday morning for the next post while I eat bonbons on the couch) for a full-on Zick Alert. Perhaps you'll recall last September when I went to visit the New-York Historical Society to view some original watercolors by John James Audubon. I did a bunch of posts (here's one on the wood ducks, and a cool one on the red-tailed hawks) on the marvels revealed there, and expounded on what Audubon's art has meant to me.

 Dale Zickefoose, 58, and a 12-year-old Zick looking at a sheaf of Audubon prints he got for me, ca. 1970. 
Photo by Dan Kemp.

This post's to let you know that there's a 6-minute video expertly produced by Richard Hendrick for WNET-13, which shows curator Roberta Olson hauling out Audubon's watercolor paintings for an astonished and delighted Zick. I'm beside myself to see our segment used as the lead for this wonderful series, in which important and iconic American paintings are explored in depth by experts in the field. Click here for the video.

Audubon's amazing immature red-shouldered hawk, hitting a covey of bobwhite. Yikes! Hope you enjoy the video!

The Tadpole Project: The Eggs Hatch

Thursday, September 22, 2011


 O beautiful gray tree frog eggs! There were a LOT of them. Imagine if every one became a tree frog! What a wonderful thought!
 I had my doubts whether the tadpoles would survive in the fish pond, since some of those wild-type black shubunkins I unwittingly allow to breed in the pond are pretty ravenous. So to hedge my bets, I took roughly half of the eggs in a Tupperware to a newly constructed tadpole paradise near the front stoop.

It's a great big terra-cotta bowl that holds about four gallons of water. I put some clean aquarium gravel in the bottom and added a water lettuce, a water hyacinth and an umbrella sedge plant from the fish pond. I figured there was enough algae on their roots to sustain the tadpoles once they'd hatched, and we'd go from there.

Only one day later, on July 10, I could see the embryos forming and becoming a little fishlike in shape. Man, that was fast.

 By that next afternoon, Phoebe's birthday, they were hatching! What came out of the eggs wasn't really very tadpoley, but more planarian in shape. The newly hatched tadpoles sank to the bottom of the bowl and sort of lay around in the gravel for a couple of days.

 Meanwhile, another rescue was in progress. For while these eggs were hatching, some big puddles in the driveway were perilously close to drying up. And those would give us one of the best gifts of the summer.

Time to make another tadpole habitat! This one was a little water garden dish made of plastic, about 18" across and 4" deep.

And its lucky denizens were some almost-grown tadpoles saved from certain death in the quickly drying driveway ditch. What fun we'd have with them! I hope you're all planning to make taddy gardens next year. It's such a great way to understand a little more about one of the underrated miracles of biology.

Midwest Birding Symposium: Some Favorite Shots

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Billed as "The world's friendliest birding event," the Midwest Birding Symposium is exactly that. What a gas! So many incredibly nice people all gathered together to watch birds and learn from speakers, to laugh and eat and hang out together in the salubrious winy-rich fall days at beautiful Lakeside.

I have a grab-bag of photos from the event. Most of them have dog in them, because sitting at my booth was the only time I had a camera with me. I thought you'd enjoy seeing them, spontaneous and uncategorized as they are.

Here's my friend Jeff Reiter from Words on Birds makin' petties on Chet Baker. It was Chet's idea to take a running leap and land on the display table when Jeff appeared. After the second such display, with books and papers scattering everywhere, I suggested to The Bacon that he was to stay on the floor or in his super-pimped director's chair. Which he was happy to do. But a Boston does like to make the occasional splash.

We charged extra for Rain Crows tee's and hoodies that had been sat upon by such a famous cybercelebrity.

I was thrilled to see Kay and James Novak sporting the color-remarqued name badges I made for them at the 1999 symposium in Lakeside. I remember it well...Phoebe was three, and trundling around under my easel, and Liam was still being baked but rising fast, to be born less than two months later, and I was for some insane and probably hormonal  reason painting everyone's favorite bird on their nametag for $15 a pop. I will say it improved booth traffic; it was like having a hugely pregnant painting monkey at your booth, and what could be better than that?

But it sure made people happy!

You can see in the background that I have a mix of framed paintings and brand-new pieces from The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds. The new art is mounted very simply on matboard. I couldn't afford to frame it all, and there wasn't time anyway--I only just got it back from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But it looked really pretty mixed in with the framed art.

We went to a reception for speakers and vendors on Thursday night at Rock of Ages, a gorgeous hold home in Marblehead. It was breezy and chilly, but everyone loved being out on the lawn
because the view looked like this 
and we were all together, hugging and laughing and having a little wine and great food, thanks to my sister-in-law Laura Fulton, who knows about such things. There's Publisher Elsa Thompson in front, taking in Bill's every word

as he gives credit where credit is due and welcomes everyone to the Symposium. I was blown away yet again, all weekend, by Bill's grace under fire and ability to attend to a thousand tiny details, put out hundreds of the usual event-related brush fires, then leap up the stairs to the podium and take an audience in the palm of his hand, making them feel appreciated and welcome and thoroughly entertained. He has every right to be comatose for the next week.
I really had the time of my life, hangin' with friends like master birder George Armistead of Field Guides Inc. and master digiscoper Bill Schmoker.
And I watched in amazement as my beautiful friend and bandmate Wendy Eller did everything from wrassle Internet providers to haul ice buckets to sing like a dang nightingale to keep everyone fed, entertained and satisfied.
Liz Gordon of ABA and The Cosmos, and Jan Pierson, also of Field Guides, Inc. So great to see my buds! Oh look! There's a lil' angel on Jan's shoulder!
 Back at the booth, Chet Baker was very busy giving sweet dog fixes to anyone who needed them. And there were a whole lot of people needing that special quiet connection with a good dog. John Moore came back several times, and Chet walked over, smiling, then planted himself next to John for a little nonverbal communication, a little communion.
Terry probably visited Chet the most. He's been the delighted owner of two Bostons, but that was awhile ago. I could feel him remembering all the love they'd given him, and Chet could, too. It was very sweet, and Chet Baker knew Terry needed some special attention. Plus, that man knew all the right places to scratch. Chet's wearing his special Official MBS Bandanna made by the amazing Jen Sauter.
Chet Baker never quite got the hang of riding in a golf cart. If he'd see a fox squirtle, he'd leap out and hit the pavement pretty hard, so you had to keep your arm around him tightly.
 Lakeside is like a giant fox squirtle-filled candy box for Baker. They're big and slow and kinda dumb compared to chipmunks, and oh, he wanted one so bad. But they aren't that dumb.

Shirley Stary was like a beneficent angel, bestowing multiplugs, adaptors, extension cords, beverages and great goodwill upon all the speakers, vendors, organizers and participants. And who was taking care of Shirley?

Chet Baker.

Shirley introduced him to a lot of her staff by saying, "I am not a dog person, and I've never been much for dogs. But this is Chet Baker and I am crazy about him."

We see a Boston in Shirley's future, oh yes, we do. Because that exact thing has happened before to someone who never thought she much wanted a dog in her life, and had to think about it for 13 years.
[Back to Top]