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Sunny Day Greenhouse

Thursday, February 28, 2013


This is fine, this is beautiful, but as a steady diet I prefer THIS. Pow! Wham! Bang!

this photo taken Feb. 22.

Welcome to my greenhouse! Figured you'd like an update, a peek in to see how things are growing and getting along. Sunny days in the Ohio Valley winter are rare as panda thumbs so when the orb sheds her veil even for a few minutes I race down to the greenhouse to document it. It's a place that transforms in sun. When we get sun, which is about one day in every ten. Seriously, we're hanging on by our toenails here this winter.

and yes I love it love it love it (the Rion Prestige 8 x 8 Greenhouse) just as much as I hated building it from a kit, which is a LOT. Eleventy million loves, eleventy million hates. It all balanced out in the end. Way more on the love side now. It's like forgetting the pain of labor and just bouncing the baby now.

Much as I loved my Garden Pod I like this so much better, because there's room to breathe and move around and even entertain! We can get three chairs inside comfortably. We often say goodbye to the day in its friendly, glowy space. It feels like a conservatory, as opposed to a phone booth. Come April when my plants got big I could barely get in the door of the Pod. I'm so glad the concrete pad we poured was big enough for this structure. The problem now is not to stuff it so full there's no room to sit and breathe.

A tangerine hibiscus at sunset. The first flower from my brutally cut back shrub. She has forgiven me.

I've never done to my gerania what I did to them this year, which was to knock them out of the pot in November and unceremoniously rip a section of stem and root off the huge mother plants. I  fumbled around until I found a small section that felt like it might break free with its own set of roots. Once I got the roots, I trimmed the top waaay back to just a few inches high. The roots were the important part, I reasoned. The plant could always put out more leaves and branches. Turns out I was right.

The gerania sat and sulked for several weeks, losing almost all their leaves, looking like sad short burnt sticks. I kept them moist and warm. And then they woke up. Oh boy, did they wake up.
This is Vesuvius.

and this is Grey Sprite, a true miniature. Tiny plant, tiny leaves edged in white and sometimes pink.

 Graffiti pink, a stellar (star-leaved) geranium.

It's starting to look like a party in here!

The primroses are so pretty, economical dashes of crazy jeweltone color.

Jasminum polyanthemum (Pink jasmine, though there's nothing pink about it) is still stinkin' up the great indoors and setting many more buds! The Trader Joe's plastic label said it shouldn't have direct sun. Well, it seems to be blissfully unaware of that. Other sources I consulted say it needs four hours a day. Lucky if it gets that! We're striking a balance somewhere in between the thick flannel clouds and the rare sunbursts.

Here's a closeup. Wish I had Smellovision. It's really quite ridiculously intense. Just how I like my fragrant flowers. Just how I like life.

Vesuvius again, and the giant rosemary tree which, breaking with tradition, has not contracted powdery mildew in the new greenhouse.  Better air circulation, lower humidity, cooler temps. Maybe no mildew spores in the new structure.

Those jazzy Graffiti stellars...the red is the BEST scarlet, just like a May tanager. Gimme those hot colors this time of year. I need them. I need all the heat and light I can get.

Laura H , is your Vancouver Centennial geranium still hanging in there? Mine are going nuts.
They almost never bloom but when they do it's a light, brilliant scarlet.

This is Happy Thought Pink, a so called butterfly pelargonium, which are named for the yellow butterfly-shaped splotch in their variegated leaves. I adore the combo of variegated leaves and that clear, bright pink blossom. A very free bloomer, unlike its sulky Vancouver cousin. Behind, an old old fishhook barrel cactus who is determined never to bloom. Even for me. The Zick. The temerity of the plant! It cheerfully sank a spine deep into my index finger just before we went to Belize in December, and I enjoyed that spine the whole dang trip until it finally squidged its way out of my finger after a long snorkeling expotition, the sea acting as a big poultice. Whew! I recall saying to Bill, "You know what you can do with an infected cactus spine in your index finger?"
"No, what can you do?"
"Practically nothing."

You may remember the giant kalanchoe or paddle plant that was a-bloomin' four feet tall last time. Well, it got to the point where it was no longer an asset so I beheaded it and cut off its flaccid leaves, knowing it would sprout a much nicer more compact plant from the root. This, if you had not already picked it up, is the theme of this post: Beheading plants for their own good. That's a cutting behind it of Occold Embers, nicely rooted. It has a tomato-soup-red double flower.

I learned something this year. I learned a lot, actually. I learned that your beloved Garden Pod can blow clean away (well, it wasn't really clean, it was in smithereens) and that you will not only live through that unimaginable event, but make room in your schedule to spend weeks building something better and more beautiful. Yes, you will. Whether you liked the process or not, it would be worth it.

This one may yet blow away. I stood inside it as a 45 mph gale tore through and shook it last week, and it made some unearthly bangs and whumps as its deli-tray plastic windows flexed, and some weatherstripping came out, and the roof vent blew all the way open (Bill finally wired it shut with clothesline) but it did NOT blow away. That does not mean I'm looking forward to the next !@@#$#@$#@ derecho event, which had better not come the last week of June 2013, on the anniversary of the last derecho, while we're teaching The Arts of Birding at Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine.

I am not going to think about that now. I am going to soak up a little more sun right here, right now.

We have had many salads off these seemingly everlasting, never-bolting Buttercrunch plants, planted last fall, outdoors. About to start a second guard of seedlings. What a feast only four plants can give! I just take the bottom tier of leaves each time and we have salad for four.

And the lyre-leafed fig bonsai is leafing out, having dropped all its leaves for much of the winter. I know how it feels. 

Sun. Soaking it up whenever I have the chance.

Peace on Tybee Island

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


It's never easy to leave home, especially when Bill's also called away, but I have to say it's getting easier for me. Phoebe, at 16, has it all under control. She keeps the house, feeds the animals, whips Liam into line on time, fixes the dinners that I leave for her, drives her  brother where he needs to be. And with her independence and tied-together usefulness goes a freedom I haven't felt in a decade and a half. I can leave. And she's got my back.

So I travel now in a pure way, an unruffled, unworried, joyous way, and it feels divine.

I get to go where camellias are in full mid-winter bloom (Tybee I and Savannah), bringing me back to my childhood in Richmond. Oh, to be able to grow this stunning member of the tea family in Ohio. Don't know if global warming's going to accomplish that for me in my lifetime, but I'm hopeful. ;) Hey, might as well roll with it.

I had loads of fun on this trip, just rolling with and in whatever it gave me. Sometimes the seeming calamities (rescheduling, snow in a usually snowless place) turned out to be huge blessings. I got to shoot pictures of gulls and kids and a dog on the beach. I got to watch snow falling on salt water.

I got personal with ring-billed gulls.

A young redtail (probably born in spring 2012) circled over our car at the Savannah Dredge Spoil, and, asking the driver to stop, I burst out of the car and started clicking. I have learned to take full advantage of close birds in good light.

You beautiful thing. I always talk to birds as I shoot, sounding, I'm sure, like a fashion photographer trying to get the best out of a model.

The young hawk cupped its wings and floated right over, making tight circles over this woman with her camera. Did it know what I wanted, which was to bask in its beauty? It seemed to.

I love this shot, the hawk peeking over the edge of its wing, every bar, every feather edging perfect, perfect. Newly minted.

Oh my goodness.


 Did a similar clamber-out-of-the-car maneuver with some turkey vultures. I'm always looking to improve my library of turkey vulture shots. It's my totem bird, after all...I need good pictures of it.

Look at that reflective underwing! Molten pewter.

 One of the best things I saw on this trip was an osprey, at a great distance, plunging into a quiet backwater on Tybee I., Georgia. It came up with something flashing silver in its talons. Got a fish!
To my puzzlement, it circled and circled, bearing the fish. Why wasn't it landing? As I watched, I became more and more curious, and I got the group to focus on it to try to figure out what it was up to. So we're all watching this bird circle heavily with its prey, and we're speculating that maybe it's having trouble carrying it or subduing it. Finally it heads for a large pine. It's going to land.

As we watch, it swings up its feet to make the landing, and a fish flies straight out of its grip and into the woods below! Oh no! It lost its meal!

But then it lands and I get the scope on it and darned if it doesn't still have a fish in its talons! It had made a lucky strike, grabbing a fish in each foot. No wonder it couldn't land!

These things happen. It's embarrassing, but you can't land with a fish in each fist. You have to drop one.

By the time I got these photos (by lucky coincidence, it was perched right over the exit road as we left), he had consumed most of the remaining fish. You can tell it's a male by its almost unmarked breast. I'd never seen an osprey get two fish at once, though I know it happens, and I was so happy we were all watching when this bird had to jettison one of them. You don't see that every day.

I'll leave you with some serenity, the kind you can only get with  sea and shore.

My view on Tybee. I ran on this beach each morning. Those were my favorite times.

Another Tybee sunrise. How divine, to open the blinds and see this.

 A GOS birder takes in the scene off a quiet dock.

And so do I.

Good morning, Marsh. You're smelling a little funky, but I love it. The air is soft and warm on my bare arms. There's Tybee Light in the background.

When you can't tell water from sky, that's a special kind of peace. I wish it for you.

Grateful, that's all, that I get to pull up stakes and go every now and then, and call it work. I don't take a second of it for granted. That trip recharged my batteries, cut a couple of particularly cruel weeks out of my winter. I could get used to Tybee in January. I know I'll go back.

My deepest gratitude to the Georgia Ornithological Society for bringing me down to this piece of heaven for being so warm and gracious; to Coastal Georgia Audubon for taking me up on my offer to speak to them, too, and showing me Jekyll Island; and to the Virginia Beach Winter Wildlife Festival for a fabulous time with birds and beaches in the snow. Y'all go check these places out now, y'hear?

Coot Ballet

Sunday, February 24, 2013

You never know when nature will present you with something amazing. Sometimes it's hidden in the seemingly mundane.  On Saturday, January 19, a group of us carpooled to Back Bay NWR near Norfolk, Virginia, for a field trip for The Virginia Beach Winter Wildlife Festival. 
Now, though I grew up in Richmond, I had never come back to Virginia on a real live birding field trip. Odd but true. I never realized people other than me went out looking for birds--together--until I went to college. I was thunderstruck that there was such a thing as social birdwatching. And I took to it like a coot to water.

gotta love this hat!

So we're tooling around the frozen impoundments at Back Bay with a freezing wind whipping through the open tram in which we're riding. I'm sitting next to my new friend Susan and her sister Annie and we're having a grand old time sharing an afghan. I'm shooting out the side of the tram.

Ring-necked duck and hen bufflehead take to the air.

A hen ruddy duck does, too. Her reflection is sharper than she is!

The famed tundra swans of Back Bay are consorting with a drift of snow geese, quite some ways away. The geese are in the foreground, but all the long straight necks you're seeing are swans.

Everywhere, we could hear the mellow hooting of the swans above the gabble of snow geese.
That beautiful sound took me right back to my first visit to Minneapolis when I was twelve years old, the first time I heard it. Skeins were going over downtown. I looked up when I heard their calls and there they were, the first wild swans I'd ever seen. I lit out down the crowded sidewalk, grabbing people's arms and pointing up. "Swans! Wild swans!! LOOK!!"

That was surely an epiphany for me. Not just seeing the swans, but finding myself absolutely compelled to get others to see and appreciate them, too.

Still at it, as you see. 

A rather forlorn sight: a flock of white ibis moping in snowy branches. I think they're rushing their push northward. There weren't any white ibis in coastal Virginia when I was a kid! You poor things should be in Florida or Georgia. Somewhere warmer than 20 degrees.

Find the forest fairy in this photo.
Might need to click on it to get a larger version.

but about that amazing thing I mentioned...

We're tooling along and there's a big flock of coots in a roadside ditch that somehow has remained open through the deep freeze. There were the usual disparaging remarks about the ordinariness of coots. But I was on fire. I like coots and I especially like coots in motion. These ungainly aquatic rails with their petal-lobed toes do a lot for me. Especially when they run.

As the coots pattered over the water and ice, I spotted a pied-billed grebe amongst them. "Grebe in flight! Grebe in flight!" I hissed to the group. Because you just do not get to see pied-billed grebes fly. Ever.
He's at the back, center. Look at that. Not to mention the fabulous thundering herd of coots.

My parting shot--grebe ballet. 

O beautiful.

My sincere thanks to the Virginia Beach Winter Wildlife Festival for having me down. I had a blast from start to finish. Check it out next January. Terrific people, great birding, all kinds of fun. Do it!

National Gannet Gallery

Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Sunday morning, January 20, I accompanied a group from the Virginia Beach Winter Wildlife Festival to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel for some spectacular winter birding. 
The festival organizers had obtained permission from the local police to temporarily inhabit the three concrete and riprap islands between sections of bridge and tunnel. I highly recommend attending the festival so you can enjoy this rare opportunity to access the best birding on the Bay.

It was a beautiful day, cold though. We bundled up. Spotting scopes are a must for coastal birding, and I was so glad I'd brought mine. 

There were great rafts of surf and black scoters, with a lone pair of white-winged scoters. Gorgeous long-tailed ducks in basic (winter) plumage floated just beyond the scoters. Unfortunately they were all a bit too far out for me to do much with my 300 mm. lens, and I didn't have my digiscoping rig along. Must get that iPhone adaptor!

surf scoters

But the stars of the show were the northern gannets, who come from the frigid north seas to spend their winters along the East Coast as far south as Florida. They cut a striking figure, a sort of flying cross or fleur de lis against the sky. When they dive, they plunge like javelins into the sea, folding up into a fish-killing spearhead. Daphne du Maurier's short story "The Birds" opens with gannets dropping out of the sky, plunging those bills into people's skulls. Yow. These things are bigger than a goose. You wouldn't want that.  I suspect that image was a bit beyond Alfred Hitchcock's ability to simulate, so he went with nasty ravens, gulls and house sparrows for that notorious film. 

Sometimes I think that film did for birds what "Jaws" did for sharks. Nothing good.

Here is one of the islands we got permission to "land on," adorned with gannet. Meaning, with a police escort, we could get out of our vehicles and bird to our heart's content. Security out here is tight since 9-11.

I loved capturing gannets against unlikely backgrounds. They haunt the backwash of large ships for the fish and other sea life stirred up by the propellers. 

My best shot of a curious harbor seal. Seeing them made me miss Chet something awful. They always remind me of dogs. Dogs that swim and live in freezing salt water. Brrr!

One gannet decided to give us all a thrill.

It passed by, showing us its dagger-like bill, its dusty yellow head and sharp black primaries, and was gone again.

My friend Paul Spitzer calls the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel "The National Gannet Gallery." I think that's a much nicer name.

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