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I Get Nothing Done Around Here!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


I'm going to try something here that I've never done before. I'm going to try to give you a minute-by-minute account of the kind of thing that goes on in and just outside my studio here in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio. Because so much happens in these posts, I'll have to break them up into several installments. But pay attention to the time signatures of the photos as you read, please.

 Today I had the whole day to myself at home, a huge luxury and rarity. I got to do just what I wanted to. So I cranked up the music, cleaned my drawing table, and started work on a few pieces on South Africa. Part of my writing process involves staring out the window. Staring out the window a lot. And staring out the window in late summer in my sideyard is dangerous. Very dangerous. It all started with 
a white-eyed vireo chattering and singing to himself in the birch just outside the studio window. 
It's 9:54 AM, Monday, July 30.

 I can't quite decide if this is an adult or a juvenile coming into adult plumage. I think a juvenile would probably still have dark eyes, so I decide it's an adult. 

I turn my attention next to an indigo bunting in the Magnificent Bird Spa at 9:59 AM. Pretty, very pretty. 
This is not just any indigo bunting. This is my Piper. He sings every morning right outside my bedroom window. More on him later.

At 10:47 a male eastern bluebird drops in for a bath.

At 11:55 the action starts heating up, with a brown thrasher keeling over in the hot sun to cook his feather mites.

He shuffles over to the edge of the trees, spreads his wings and tail, and lays down flat as a doormat.
What you see here is his elevated rump feathers, one tail feather, and both wings out to the side. His head is toward you.

This is the most extreme sunbathing pose I've ever seen, and it attracts the attention of this bird's sibling (they were both hatched in our black raspberry hedge on Dump Hill).

The thrasher's head briefly comes up. Do not adjust your dials. There is nothing wrong with this brown thrasher.

Dead birds don't preen.

it's Aliiiiive!!

Still panting, the young thrasher (note the light grey, not yellow-orange eyes) moves into the shade. It's going for noon and I've gotten very little done on my article.

Just a minute later, at high noon, an adult male hooded warbler (Nope, Zick--juvenile male--see correction below!) pops up in the arbor vitae about four feet from my face. Ahh. Look at you, peeking at me.

That's better. But you're almost too close for my telephoto!

 and now you're definitely too close. Whew! Knocking me out! My friend Bob Mulvihill, PA bird ager/sexer/bander/researcher extraordinaire, wrote August 2 to advise that juvenile male hooded warblers get a full black hood in the same summer they're born. See the dipped-in-ink look of his tail? That, according to Bob, is a "fault bar," an indication that the entire tail grew out all at once. He further advises that the unhooded bird you see just below this one is a juvenile female. Female hooded warblers may attain a full cowl over the back of the head as they age (after hatch year), but they almost never get a full bib of black. Saw one like that just yesterday.

Four minutes later, a juvenile female hooded warbler sweeps in after the adult. There are just a couple of dark feathers in her nascent hood. (Bob says that a full adult hooded warbler would never be in such perfect smooth feather as these two--it would have very worn brown feathers visible in wing and tail this time of year).  Thank you Bob!! So we've got two juveniles. No wonder they're so rowdy.

 What a lovely little bird. She's chasing all around with the juvenile male. Fall birds are always messing around and mock-fighting. They seem to enjoy migration.

Round and round they go and where they'll stop...My article is never getting done. There's that crazy band on his tail again--check it out. Almost looks like a magnolia warbler's tail.

The aesthetics of the background aren't the best, but the birds absolutely adore looping in and out of the rusty old tomato cages I use to support the cardinalflower spikes. I'm not going for fabulous photography here. What I'm trying to do is show you the action, fast and furious as it is. I've shot all the brown thrashers and hooded warblers in less than ten minutes!

At 12:04, a juvenile scarlet tanager drops down to the Spa.

and is quickly joined by the male indigo bunting. Bathing birds beget bathing birds.

At 12:06, a worm-eating warbler suddenly pops out of the wiggling birch leaves. Holy Cow! Somehow I refocus from the spa and manage a decent shot. I'm pretty excited at this point.

He gives me a lovely view of his marbled undertail coverts 

before a white-eyed vireo slams into him at 12:07:47 and displaces him from the perch.

The vireo mutters and sings, mutters and cusses as he works his way through my hummingbird garden.

I really like white-eyed vireos. They're sassy and mouthy, and if you listen closely, you'll hear all kinds of birdsong imitations in their litany.

The vireo briefly vanishes and its place is taken at 12:08 by a female indigo bunting only just now building her nest! By now I'm just laughing. The birds are arriving and switching places so fast I barely have time to get the lens on them before another one blows in. The bunting flies on a straight line east. I make a mental note to watch for her and try to figure out where her nest is.

Meanwhile her mate Piper is taking his umpteenth bath in the Spa at 12:08.

It's been just a bit over two hours and the birds just keep flooding in. I'm not done by a long shot. If you're not birding in late July and early August, you're missing an incredible show. More anon!


Friday, July 27, 2012


Timothy Sizemore, proprietor of Campshore Campgrounds, with one of many unwilling participants in the "games" at Snapperfest, a "festival" of 15 YEARS DURATION near Rising Sun, Indiana. Contestants vie to be the fastest to yank a snapping or soft-shelled turtle's head out of its shell without losing a finger. In the process, they run, carrying the turtles, usually drop each one several to dozens of times, break its shell and limbs, poke its eyes, and slam it down on a tarp. They also expose themselves to salmonella and a great variety of other waterborne bacteria which are carried naturally in the intestinal tracts of wild snapping turtles.

This just in:

Today Collette Adkins Giese, the Herptofauna lawyer for the Center for Biodiversity got a call from a
DNR enforcement official who said that they've been told the event is
cancelled and that they are closely monitoring the situation to ensure that
it is actually cancelled.

So a victory for snappers. And on their behalf a big thanks to all the people who created petitions, promoted them, went to the various meetings that resulted in this decision. You know who you are. As Collette said "I was late to the game, everyone else deserves the praise."

But as the DNR says"They are closely monitoring to ensure that it is actually canceled." 
Which to me shows they don't trust their word as much as many of(sic) we do. 
So keep up with your monitoring of advertising, planned visits, whatever. Just do it quietly.
Let's give them a chance to be true to their word.

Allen Salzberg
HerpDigest: The Only Free Internet-Only Weekly Newslettter that Reports on the Latest Reptile and Amphibian Scientific and Conservation News 
Go to to subscribe

Had a rough day here--20 hours without power, chasing all over creation to buy a used generator, and another severe thunderstorm bearing down on us as I write. Opened my email from yesterday to find this. I have to say, there is some seriously good turtle karma coming down right now. First the Return of Shelly, and now this!!

Thanks to all of you who responded to my appeal to write and call Indiana wildlife and county authorities. I'll likely never know if my letters to the Surgeon General and Indiana health department officials made a difference, but I'd like to think they did. Special thanks to my Snapperfest Advisory Board, made up of herpetologists, wildlife disease specialists, public health experts, government insiders and wise men and women, for making me sound smarter and better-informed than I am. Doesn't matter how it happened: it happened. And Snapperfest participants are going to have to find something else to do for fun. Tough toenail. Go play with toys, not native turtles.

Shelly the Turtle Likes Hard-boiled Eggs

Thursday, July 26, 2012


It is with extreme pleasure and excitement that I offer my latest bit of primitive but amusing natural history cinematography to you, gentle readers. 

Here is the definitive proof that the five-year-old beauty Sara stumbled upon in our sanctuary IS Shelly. Shelly, as you'll remember, spent her first year in captivity eating hard-boiled eggs. Which isn't a bad food for a young box turtle, apparently.

She is as overjoyed as a turtle can be to see another hard-boiled egg. It had been almost a year since she'd eaten one. This video was made July 20, 2012, and Shelly had been enrolled in our Outward Bound for Young Box Turtles program for nearly a year, wandering the sanctuary alone.

Chet Baker fans will find several extremely cute and characteristic cameos from their black-and-white darling in this film. That dog leads a very hard life.

Without further ado:

Shelly was re-released the next afternoon, right where we found her. Bon voyage, my dear turtlet. Come back and see us.

Shelly Comes Home

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Sara and Kelly visited us from Toronto during the week of July 19. On the 20th of July, 2012, we walked the meadows and checked the bluebird boxes, finding most of them full of THIRD BROODS. Yowza, what a crazy fun mixed up year! We walked down the woods road that leads to our oil well (the one that heats our house with natural gas, pumped off our own land). I gestured to a long puddle in the scarcely-used road. "This is where I let our turtles go when they're ready for release." I was referring to box turtles that, for one reason or another, need a home. Perhaps they've been found in a parking lot or crossing a city street or walking along a Jersey barrier on a parched highway, bound for nowhere, death on all sides. Perhaps they've been injured and needed years of care and nobody remembers where they were found in the first place. Or perhaps they were hatched and found right in the middle of town, where they'd have no future as wild animals. Like Shelly. Shelly was hatched in 2007 in the middle of Marietta, given to me to raise up in 2008, and released here August 16, 2011. 

We hadn't gone 50 feet from the turtle release puddle when Sara gave a little yelp as she almost stepped on a smallish box turtle in the grassy wheel track. 

photo by Sara Stratton

I got down on my knees and checked to see if everything was OK. And a small bell rang inside me.

I know this turtle. I'm not sure if it's Shoomie or Shelly, but it's someone I know. I know this face, these markings.

Who are you? I know you. Turtle: I know you, too. You were nice to me. Hi. 
 Photo by Sara Stratton

I made a snap decision to bring the turtle in for identification, photodocumenting, and a little culinary pampering. A reward for putting up with my curiosity, with the handling. The turtle didn't seem particularly perturbed to be picked up. 

We booked to the house, me carrying the turtle. When we got to the sidewalk, the turtle's head and legs came out of its shell. As I was opening the front door, her neck stretched way out and her legs started to paddle madly. Her head inclined strongly to the foyer behind the opening door. It was clear to me that she was indicating she wanted to go inside. 

I set her down on the living room carpet and she started off for the corner of the living room where the turtle tanks are kept. No hesitation.

Bum ba bum I know where I am. Dum de dum I'm going there now.

Not so fast, Missy. Let's take a look at the iPhoto archives and see just why you look so familiar to me.
So I picked her up and hit Apple i (my favorite function, the one that finds anything I want on my computer) and typed in Shoomie. Looked at a bunch of jpegs of his 2010 release. No deal. This turtle is not Shoomie. All right. Let's try Shelly. Up popped a double handful of jpegs of Shelly, from lemon-sized youngster to her release date nearly a year ago.

This photo is a little confusing, but it's also awesomely cool. Compare the markings on the live turtle in the foreground to the one in the photo that's up on my computer screen. It's SHELLY!!

The moment of discovery. Agggh ah ha ha ha!! That's my girl!! Photo by Sara Stratton.

And if there were any doubt, our little prodigal peered at the screen and indicated that she would like a  bite of that delicious-looking hard-boiled egg, please. She paddled and dug at the screen. Not exactly a dope, little Shelly. I put her back on the floor to wander the living room and set a pan of cold water and an egg on to boil. 

Was there ever a better present, than to know that three years' tender care of a city-born hatchling had paid off in a thriving wild box turtle, who'd made it on her own on our bountiful sanctuary for almost a whole year? Who'd blossomed into a brilliantly-marked five-year-old beauty? Who still remembered her foster mom and her home and her favorite food?

And all because Sara looked down and said Eep. Shelly was the first box turtle Sara's met personally.

While the egg cooked, we set a little plate of cantaloupe spiked with Repto-Min down in front of Shelly.

  Shelly knocked all the  melon off the plate in her eagerness.  Sara documents the moment.

 Ah, you beautiful little creature. Do you have any idea how much joy you have brought us?

What I know is I have cantaloupe. You are still a very good cook.

 And you, sweet turkle, are the apple of my eye. Oh, happy birthday to me!

 More crippling chelonian cuteness to follow.

Shelly the Box Turtle

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Shelly's favorite food EVER. 

My life's gotten ahead of me again. Something about the combination of ceaseless travel, an eight-day power outage, storm damage and Phoebe's Sweet 16 birthday celebration has left me tumbling in its wake. It's also summer, and the photogenic and bloggable moments are coming so thick and fast I'm like a starving person at a buffet...I look at all the stuff and can't pick a single one dish I want. I want them all.

But there's this turtle who's demanding that I tell her story. Right now.

She came to me in 2008 as a yearling, a feisty little thing who was found just hatched in 2007 in a backyard garden on Fifth Street in Marietta.

Box turtles continue to amaze me. People take them out of their homes, find them on roads, figure that their shady backyard in the middle of town is a much better place for the turtle to live than that old woods they were in. People don't understand that box turtles are homebodies, that a suburban backyard is probably the worst place they could choose to "let the turtle go." A few trees and a mown lawn does not a habitat make.

So the turtle wanders, looking for something, anything that it recognizes. And somehow, right in the middle of town, expatriate turtles must find each other, mate, and lay eggs. And somehow this little turtle hatched in a garden.

She was found by a woman who caters food for Marietta College, and the caterer offered her lots of things, but the thing the little hatchling liked best was hard-boiled egg.

Through an article I'd written for the Marietta Times' Natural View supplement, a yearly tabloid-style compendium of natural history pieces in our hometown paper, the caterer found me and offered the little yearling turtle to me to raise.

That's a minimum three-year commitment of care. I took her on, intending to release her when she was big enough not to be eaten by a chipmunk. She'd need to weigh about half a pound, and have a nice hard shell.

In the meantime, the turtlet became friends with Phoebe. Who named her Shelly.

who took her outside for exercise and play.

  September, 2008. Shelly 1, Phoebe 12.

She was fearless.

Her diet improved, to include butternut squash

and earthworms, as well as mealworms and strawberries and melon and Repto-min aquatic turtle sticks, the staple for growing baby turtles quickly and well. Serve them in water, and the Brownian motion makes them look alive.

Three years go by with Shelly eating and growing and sleeping all winter in a cold tank in the basement. There is more to her story. There always is.

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