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The Silver (Amalgam) Lining

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Six days without a post from me? Unheard of. Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don't.

Let's see. Do I have an excuse? Not that I need one; we bloggers blog or we don't, as life commands.

Nobody told us when we were chewing ice cubes and jawbreakers and grinding our teeth all night that those fillings we had done at age 13 were going to fail, fail, fail.  Well, actually I remember my mom begging me not to chew ice cubes. She did it herself and suffered the consequences, sitting for hours in a chair at the Dental School in downtown Richmond, and coming back traumatized and silent. God only knows what was done to her in the 1970's; the students learned on her.  I thought that was something that only happened to old people, that would never happen to me. Now I wish so hard that I could go back and give a long hug to my 50-year-old mom, put a cool cloth on her forehead, and pull the curtains, ask her what she needs. In the solipsism of youth, I never could have grasped that my beautiful big white teeth were going to fracture, too. That, like my mother, I'd learn to drink by sucking warm water delicately over my tongue like a pigeon; that if even tepid water contacted one of those fractured molars, I'd gasp and pirouette around the kitchen with my hands over my face. That my kids would stand, stricken, watching me, but not imagining that could ever happen to them. And maybe it won't. They don't chew ice.  Jawbreakers are unknown to them, as is soda of any kind. Their perfect young teeth were sealed as soon as they came in; they've never had a cavity--never had a cavity!!
Excuse me. May I have a do-over with my teeth?And while I'm at it...

Like my kids, I never divined that  someday I'd hurt so badly and for so long (since December) that when I finally realized that those teeth were cracked all the way to the root, and they weren't going to get better, and found an endodontist who would see me in a timely fashion (all the ones in my area were either on vacation or offering appointments in May) it didn't matter that he was 2 1/2 hours away. I would look forward with joy to climbing in that chair, lying back and trying to relax.

By chance and synchronicity and pure magic I found the most awesome endodontist, and I'm convinced my little voice (and his five-star rating) helped me pick him out of the online directory. I walked into his office to see Plein Air and Audubon on the glass table. There was no television in the waiting room. And that no television was not set on Faux. There was a bird feeder outside the window--in an office park--and he had the right seed mix for downy woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees and house finches! There was a field guide on the windowsill! The music on his system was just exactly right, stuff I knew, could hum along to in a muffled, throaty, forlorn way behind my bright blue rubber dental dam.  And when I met him, he was warm and empathetic and handsome and also--get this-- a badass plein aire oil painter. He's in the office two or three days a week and painting on the other days. It's refreshing to meet someone who has figured out how to do Life. To commit to his art and his work equally. And boy does it show.

You must see his work.  Do go. But come back for the rest of the story.

Here's a teaser: 
"Grandview," a Columbus neighborhood. I'm sure the title's a bit ironic. Holy smokes, he paints. Three days a week, he paints. He paints for keeps. From

Jim Murrin did what he could with my two cracked molars, which is to say he reamed 'em out and filled 'em and now I'm waiting to get them crowned, and I can eat again, and drink cold--Cold!!-- water without shrieking. Grateful doesn't begin to describe how I feel about that. 
The  Little Voice was speaking loudly when, in Whipple on the morning of my first appointment, knowing absolutely nothing about him other than that he was a good endodontist, I packed a copy of Baby Birds in my bag to give to him. I had a feeling he'd appreciate it. I had no idea then how much he'd like it. 

Look at the sky in "Point Cabrillo Light." Look at the light.

Long story short, I feel I've made a friend. And it's odd--I feel I have known him all my life. This is when the past-life stuff kicks in, at least for me. Maybe I've known him all my life, in some other life. There will be times when you feel that you've been guided by instinct to someone's door. But maybe something larger is guiding you. Some higher power is directing your attention in all the right directions. Getting older can suck, for sure. Cracked teeth and crap like that. But finally being inwardly quiet enough that you're able to hear and heed the Little Voice is a beautiful thing. And knowing when to be grateful (always) is everything.

All the while, both pre-and-post root canals, I have been filling orders for Baby Birds, because it is the kind of work one can do while in pain. Writing blogposts, running, taking joy-filled photos,  waxing poetic...not so much. But thanks to Jim I'm pain-free, and coming back.

I am heartened and delighted by your response to the new book. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Lord knows you could get it cheaper elsewhere, but you can't get it signed or Chetpawprinted elsewhere, and you get that; you make the choice to buy your book from me (see right sidebar for order button) and I'm forever in your debt. The orders keep coming in and I am working hard to scratch up the money to buy more books. Thank you! I had thought I would turn around and put the money you're sending me into buying more books, but my old molars had other plans.
I'm determined to make it work. 

I think it was John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." 

"Message from Home" by Jim Murrin
Go see Jim's art. He's got some new stuff coming from a trip to Cuba!!

"Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest" Has Landed!

Friday, March 25, 2016


I was playing bakketball with Phoebe and Liam and her friends from her college. It was sunny yesterday and I was barking because that's how you play bakketball. You stand over the ball and bark bark bark bark until the person is afraid to touch the ball. You bark like a slobbering wolf. Then you quickly try to pop the bakketball before they take it away from you.
You rasp your teef against it very hard and quickly while they scream and dither.

Then the big brown truck rolled up the driveway and everything fell to pieces. Mether got her overexcited smell and started running around in circles. 
When the brown man opened up the back of the truck it was full of boxes. All the ones with orange stickers were for her.

I was amazed. So many boxes. And not a bikkit anywhere. 

They are not thinking about me at all. 
Book book book book careful don't drop it ooh look how many bla bla bla bla bla

I did not hear "bikkit" even once.

I inspected the cabin. No bikkits. What is wrong with this brown man?

I sent Mether a subliminal message about bikkits. Here is what it said: 

"Get me a bikkit. Because the brown man forgot."

Mether said the orange sticker on the box says she can take orders now, but she cannot send the books out until about April 5 . Media Mail takes about a week, and the books aren't supposed to arrive until April 12. She says that is the "release date" for the book, everywhere.

Notice he does not have a treat in his hand.

This is the first shipment of Mether's new book. The tire went flat.
They couldn't pull the cart at all.

Mether got her favorite VolunTeens to help unload the books and carry them into the studio. That is Zach and Elizabeth and Phoebe. Liam was at school. She fed them some nice food for pay.

The VolunTeens carried the books through a little hallway.

I stood in the middle of the hall blocking the way and finally lay down so they would have to step over me.
It was the least I could do.

When they finally got all 180 books carried in I was exhausted.

Holding up progress is a lot of work.

You can order your copy of Baby Birds by clicking the new button in the right sidebar of the blog. 

The order form gets all your contact information in one place. It also gives you a box where you can ask Mether to sign the book special for someone. PayPal is the quickest and easiest payment option. Don't be put off by the word "donation." Your "donation" is 
 the price of your book(s) plus shipping. 

If you'd prefer to make out a check to Julie Zickefoose, the order form will give you her mailing address. When she gets your check she will sign and send your book. If you forget to send the check she won't send anything.

If you want more books than the order form allows, just write Mether a note in the comment box on the order form and she will answer you by email with a quote. Then she will scramble around for a bigger box.

Indigo buntings

One thing you should know about this book is it is an AMAZING deal. $28 for a full color, 3 1/2 pound book with gatefold plates and more than 400 paintings? I do not know how Houghton Mifflin Harcourt keeps the price that low. I truly don't. Mether is over the moon about this beautiful book.

Also, it is probably the ultimate Mother's Day gift. Because it's all about babies and how they grow and thrive. And what mother doesn't love to see that?

All carping about bikkits aside, thank you very much for your support. 

You're going to love this great big beautiful book of baby birds!

Love, Chet Baker

PS: Let Mether know in the Comments box if you'd like my pawdypadprint in your book. 

Howler Sunset

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


In birds, the hyoid bone is a flexible Y-fork anchoring the tongue. In humans, it's a forgettable little scrap at the back of the tongue. In howler monkeys, it's really something else. 

 I had an excellent conversation with this male howler near the dining room at La Ensenada, an eco-dude ranch in Guanacaste, Costa Rica's cowboy country up north. We ooked and grunted and talked.  I don't know what I was saying, but it sure was a thrill to make contact with him. I started the conversation with an ook or two, imitating him, and he plopped down right there and had a good chat with me. Ook. Ook. Owwww. Owwwwwwwwwww ook ook ook. OOK!

As I wrote in the previous post, howlers use their voices to mark and hold territory--yelling takes a lot less energy than, say, chasing and fighting off other monkey troops. Which is good if you eat nothing but leaves and a little fruit. Pardon the blur. I got excited when he opened up that big ol' chamber at close range.

Male howlers are charged with the job of holding feeding territory for their troop; females busy themselves raising young. So males have some special equipment, other than the swag you can see. The hyoid bone is enlarged into a bony bulla, or sac, which makes a resonating chamber for his voice. It's as if he has a megaphone right in his throat. He's got one of the loudest voices in the animal kingdom. And as far as we know, this is the only mammal with a hyoid bulla made of bone, rather than esophageal tissue. Lots of monkeys and apes have large fleshy elastic laryngeal pouches (think gibbons and orangs) but only howlers have bony bullae.
1.These are the skulls of red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus). Female is on the left, and the male on the right.  
Howler Monkey

2. is the rear view of the skulls. A female howler has a nice bulla, too, but the male's is almost three times its size. So it's the males who can really roar.

Check out the incredibly deep and massive jaw bone on both sexes (3). That tells me I do not want to get bitten by a howler monkey. With masseter muscle inserts like that, they must have some tremendous crushing power! Let's face it. Nobody wants to get bitten by a monkey. So I try to be polite when talking with them, and not escalate things with empty rhetoric.

I've borrowed these photos from the University of Edinburgh Natural History Collections. You can read more at their page.  There's also a highly detailed discussion (condensed to a couple of sentences here) by Darren Naish at the excellent science blog, Tetrapod Zoology. 
I thank both sources for publishing such cool stuff online, where pikers like me can share it. They're welcome to my photos of the live creatures!

Are you going to grow up to have a bony bulla in your throat? What does that feel like, little monklet?

How is it to trip so lightly over a palm frond? To have a tail that reaches out like a fifth hand to grab whatever's nearest? To know you're not going to fall?

It feels good to be a howler, hanging with my troop in the dry forest, waiting for sunset. We're going to sleep down the slope tonight, where the bougainvilleas are blooming. I'll wrap my tail around a limb and drift off, blinking at the moon.

I was blessed--blessed!! to have a lovely group of travelers on Costa Rica 2016. And my dear friend Ann Hoffert came along which pretty much made my year. We had a lot of catching up to do, many stories to tell. I've known Ann for 13 years; she hand-crafted the Potholes and Prairie festival that Bill and I worked for 11 years. With Ann, we crafted uniquely North Dakotan experiences for festival goers like Pipits and Pie and the Prairie Ramble. Bill and I gave talks, played live music, and joyfully soaked up and shared the richness of the Potholes region, where all the ducks are born.
Ann and Ernie have watched our babies grow up. This is my favorite photo of her. Yep, that's Liam, when he was under 4' tall. Two platinum blondes in the June prairie sunshine.

It was a beautiful thing, an impossibly rich mix of social events, bird appreciation, prairie rambling,  sumptuous gardens, home-made food, and music. I hold those memories close in my heart.

After all that, to get to travel with Ann, and share some of the things I love about the Neotropics,  which is  yin to North Dakota's yang, was a great and precious gift. 

On this trip, Ann and I got to tell each other some of the untold stories of our abundant lives. Something best done as the full moon rises over the Golfo de Nicoya. Hard to believe it was already a month ago: I look and the moon is full again, Jupiter and his moons cuddling up next to her at sundown.

In this little clip, Ann and I stand beneath a tree where a howler troup is bivouacking for the night. You'll hear their song, that storm in the treetops. Come--stand there with us. Listen to them sing the moon up at La Ensenada.

Wild About Howler Monkeys

Friday, March 18, 2016

The first time Bill and I went to Costa Rica together, he was fixated on monkeys. He wanted to see a monkey. In his mind, that's when he'd truly be in the Neotropics. "I wanna see a monkey," he'd repeat, on the plane on the way down. It became sort of a mantra. I liked it because he says "monkey" in this weird, cute way. Mawnkey. It took awhile, but we finally did see monkeys, and it was awesome. I always enjoy seeing monkeys.

Howler monkeys are a special favorite of mine, because they transform the forest with their songs. I'm thrilled to pieces to be able to give you video I made of them singing as they go to bed. But that's dessert. First, a bit about howlers.

The species native to the dry forest in the north Pacific coastal zone of Costa Rica is the  mantled howler, named for the fringe of golden fur hanging off its flanks. There's also a black howler, and in the lowland tropical forest farther south is the beautiful red howler. I've seen all three species!  but not all in Costa Rica. This is a particularly beautiful mantled howler, likely a female. Look at the individual vertebrae in the prehensile tail; many New World monkeys have those, while Old World monkeys don't. If I had a tail I'd want a prehensile one. It would be very handy when you had toddlers.

One thing I absolutely adore about the dry tropical forest is that it's not very tall. So, as they make their way through the trees, you're much closer to these wonderful creatures than you are in humid lowland rainforest. The leaves in dry forest are much smaller and sparser, too, and the light's a lot better as a result. What you get from dry tropical forest is much better photos of monkeys than you can get at, say, Carara,  down near the Osa Peninsula, where the trees are wicked tall and the forest is dark. 

But mantled and black howlers present a real challenge to the photographer, because your camera will expose on their black hair, letting in more light to compensate for what it perceives as darkness, and the well-lit background is almost invariably "blown out" or overexposed as a result. My trick to keep that from happening is to expose and focus on a medium-toned branch or leaf right next to the animal, hold the shutter button halfway down, compose the shot and press it. That way I get a better-exposed shot.  This adorable girl came out OK, but the background is blown out.  I still love the shot, for her expressive face. What a cutie!

This one's somewhat better-exposed, but still a tough shot--a black monkey against a bright sky. The other thing that I noticed about this photo, as an illustrator, is the peculiar anatomy of the far hind leg. Weird, or what? If I drew it from this photo nobody would believe a monkey's leg could even do that. 
Mine sure couldn't! 
This is a very long-legged monkey--deceptively so. 
They kind of flow along the branches, very smoothly. She's just letting go of the trunk with that trailing foot, and the tail has a hold on a branch--it's her safety rope. Five points of contact ensure she won't fall. 

As monkeys go, howlers are phlegmatic and slow-moving. This is because they live on leaves, a relatively low-quality diet that takes awhile to digest. The caecum and colon are extra-long, and colonized by special cellulose-digesting bacteria. Howlers do a lot of lying around digesting, and they eat nearly constantly, as you would if all you had was SALAD. Whew. I don't know how they do it. I'd probably be more of a egg, lizard and bug-eating monkey. 

I had fun shooting this baby eating some kind of green fruit.

It amazes me how young they are when they're set free to just go brachiating along by themselves. 

She liked the little green fruits and could move freely in the small branches to nab them. 

It was a great privilege to stand beneath the trees where the troop was feeding, and be a part of their evening.

I got one shot that really captures the contemplative nature of the mantled howler, and it was nicely exposed, too. That's because I focused on the tree limb instead of the monkey. Please click on these to enlarge them. They really aren't as crappy as Blogger makes them look.

Male howlers use loud calls to advertise the presence and possibly the territory of a troop; to let other troops know a fruiting tree is occupied. They howl first thing in the morning (which can be 3:30 or 4 AM, ow!) and last thing at night. I will never, ever forget the first time I heard howlers. It was 1979, and I was trying to sleep in a crappy American hammock along the Rio Tapajos in Brazil's Amazon. We were deep in the forest. And at dusk came this sound like a storm in the treetops--haunting and powerful and actually scary. I had yet to see howlers, so my imagination ran wild. Never buy an American hammock. Brazilian ones are ever so much better.

Here's just a taste of the howler's song.  This male howler (ya think?) is making his way to a tree where he may spend the night with others of his troop. You don't often see them on the ground; they may feel safe around La Ensenada's camp; less likely to be attacked by a puma, jaguar or ocelot. 

You can get a feel for that deep voice. More on how it's produced and a real howler concert in the next post!

Critters a-Poppin': Carara Delivers!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Spiny-tailed iguana, begging at Villa Lapas' salad bar, diggin' those tomatoes he can see. Somebody gimme a 'mater.  I found it impossible to resist a begging reptile.

The only other reptile that's ever begged from me was Naraht, the box turtle with a broken shell who lived around our house for several years. This one reminded me of Naraht. The intelligence in his eyes: palpable. And, I'd add, quite birdlike. Do not assume that because he drags his belly on the ground, he is also dull and insensate.

This little fella was tampering with the sign at the entrance to one Carara trail. I think they're just as smart as they look. Yes. Do feed iguanas.

After getting to our lodge, Villa Lapas, we took a quick walk in Carara National Park, hoping for lowland humid forest birds manakins and antbirds. We were not disappointed. A white-winged dove did a very nice display while hooting, "Who cooks for you?"

I was transported to the day I heard one calling from our Ohio orchard, while cleaning the fishpond one hot spring morning. Dashed into the house, grabbed the big Canon. Tracked that sucker down, recording his call with my iPhone as I went, then, despite crappy backlighting, nabbed some identifiable photos for a right good yard bird! It's a good time to be a birdwatcher. We have all the tools for proper documentation right at hand. Since, you know, American rare records committees won't take field sketches from a professional bird artist as evidence.

White-winged dove, Indigo Hill, Whipple, OH, April 21, 2014

This guy was doin' it up right at Carara. Mine, perhaps not so motivated, being several thousand miles from the nearest potential mate in Texas.

A baby monstera philodendron makes its suction-leafed way up a tree. If you peel the leaves back, there seems to be no way they're hanging on other than by conforming exactly to the contours of the trunk. No stickum, no clingers, tendrils, or hold-ons. Just grabbing with those quilted leaves. It's remarkable. 

A spiny-tailed iguana peeks out of a tree crevice. It was one of those walks when the forest is just popping with inhabitants, all saying hello at once. Magic! And me, fresh out of tomatoes.

We were headed for Quebrada Bonita, a stream where, in the late afternoon, small birds like red-capped manakins come to bathe. We watched one do just that.  A little bird, a white-hot coal in the stream, unquenched.

Soon after we were thrilled by a male great curassow coming down to drink. Just in case you think I always get great photos, here's my photo of the grand event:

Luckily, I have a modest library of better images amassed over two prior trips to Costa Rica. A great curassow is a turkey-sized bird with a marcelled 'do and a fabulous yellow gumball on his nares.

Just for fun, his flashy James Brown-haired wife (these taken at Volcan Arenal last year).

 A really sweet sighting a bit later was a pair of great tinamous stepping softly through the leaf litter.

These small relatives of ostriches and rheas give voice to quavering whistles that are the signature sound of tropical forests. I adore tinamous. When they fly (rarely), it's as if someone hurled a bowling ball through the underbrush. That is to say, not particularly well or gracefully. They're a bit crashy.

Also crashing was this agouti, taking five in the heat of late afternoon, lying peacefully on the forest floor. Mario is absolutely otherworldly at spotting such treasures.

As sometimes happens to the truly lucky, we came across an army ant swarm moving through the forest, with avian attendants.  Many species of Neotropical birds make their living by following ants wherever they go. The voracious, carnivorous ants basically eat anything they can subdue, so their battalions stir everything, vertebrate and invertebrate, out of hiding. And the birds make hay with the collateral damage. It's an elegant system.

One herald of army ants is the gray-headed tanager. 

You'd think it's not a very tanagery thing to do, to hop around on the ground grabbing insects, but it works for this species.

This chestnut-backed antbird has been in a mist net, as evidenced by his yellow rings. There are lots of studies going on at Carara National Park.

The antbirds are a sought-after prize of Neotropical birding. Here's a bicolored antbird.

As far as I could tell, the bicolored antbird is a still hunter, who perches quietly looking over the leaf litter with enormous, light-gathering eyes, and hops down to nab prey when it stumbles into view.

Ant-following birds comprise a sort of guild, each one doing a slightly different thing--the tanagers running around grabbing things on the outskirts; the bi-colored antbird clinging quietly to vertical trunks, watching as the ants go by below.

 The barred woodcreeper normally searches tree trunks for insects and arthropods, but when the pickings are this good, it will come down to the ground. It gives a flickery aspect, doesn't it? But woodcreepers aren't related to woodpeckers--they're furnariids, of the tropical "ovenbird" family. They're not like our ovenbirds, which are warblers, but are named for the dome-shaped mud nests some furnariids, like the hornero, build. Some might remember these photos, which got passed around ad nauseum via the Net a few years back.

The only identification offered on the photos was "Master Builder."  It's so cool/cute/amazing/wonderful. Don't know what it is, but I'm amazed/charmed/thrilled by it, so I'll pass it on several million times.

 And it was up to those of us who know a little something about birds to identify them as rufous horneros, a common bird around cities and towns in Argentina, among other places.

It was also up to those of us who know a little something about birds to wonder how hard it would have been for someone along the way, perhaps the photographer? to have bothered to identify the "Master Builder" and append its ID to these photos, which got oohed and aaahed at several gazillion times without anyone being the wiser about what they were looking at. Pretty sweet work by the birds. All the sweeter when you know that the rufous hornero (baker bird) is a furnariid (which I'm going to guess means furnace-builder) and it's related to the northern barred-woodcreeper hopping around on the ground in front of you. All right. That's my rant on the cool/cute/amazing/wonderful Internet meme for today.

And to calm me back down, a prize: a streak-chested antpitta, rarely seen and skulky. My craptastic photos say a lot about its personality.

An antpitta is nearly tailless, like a little tennis ball on stilts. It would bounce a few hops, stop, freeze, fluff all its feathers out round, sleek back down and bounce a few more. Very fetching. We saw two antpittas on this trip, but this is the only one I came close to photographing. Ugh. But hey, it's an antpitta. Looking a bit hermitthrushy, Lucy, who spotted it, decided. Yep!

 Toward the end of the walk, Annette and I dropped back.  Though I'm guiding all the way, I'm always happy to take up the rear of the line, being a meanderer by nature, noticing small things on the forest floor, stopping to listen to a disembodied voice. It was thus the two of us found a troupe of white-faced capuchins going through the forest. When this little man saw me, he stopped, briefly rested his head on his elbow, thought about it, decided we were no threat, and then resumed his journey.
 It was a little gift from Carara to the slowpokes among us.

 I also stayed back to photograph probably the best thing on the whole trip. Mario showed us a ghost bat that's been roosting in a certain palm, delighting all who pass who know about it.

Shouting here because I couldn't there. I was squealing inwardly, you may be sure.

Swooning. Such a perfect little thing. So very difficult to photograph. It looked calmly back at me as I fussed and twisted and craned my neck and cussed the light, of which there was none. But finally, pushing the ISO past ridiculous, I got a photo I could take home. Thank you, Fortune. I was giddy for the rest of the night. I never thought I'd see such a lovely long-limbed ethereal creature in my whole life.  YOU CAN SEE HIS FINGERBONES

 Ghost bats are solitary members of the sac-winged bat family, named because they have little scent glands on their wing membranes (or in the case of the ghost bat, on their tail membranes). More on those sac-winged bats in another post. It was a good, good trip for a bat-lovin' Zick.

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