Background Switcher (Hidden)

About Those Bluebirds

Thursday, June 30, 2016

I got back from Boston around 10 pm Monday night. Nine hours had elapsed since I left my sister's home in Harvard MA, until I finally rolled up my driveway in Ohio. And that was taking a commuter train, a subway, and an airplane, then driving two hours from the airport home. My gosh, I could almost have driven it in that time. It was a good exercise, not renting a car; fine if you have the time to blow two or three hours here and there catching trains and tubes to your destination, and you don't mind rolling your suitcase behind you. I just wanted to see if it could be done.

Chet was so happy to have me home again, he got up on a kitchen chair to be near me while I answered some correspondence and wrote a blogpost before sunrise Tuesday morning. His devotion never fails to melt my heart. Little CatDog, sleepin' in the sun, curled up on a chair.

I couldn't wait to grab Chet and trot out to the bluebird boxes to see what had happened with the runt bluebird and its host family. First I checked the host family in the box out by the garden. All four chicks are strapping and growing well after their blowfly purge. Here they are at Day 12. Wing feathers are bursting the sheaths, and feathers cover their upper bodies. They no longer need to be brooded at night, and they're getting so big their mom doesn't want to try. 


Peeking again the same afternoon (June 28), when their wing feathers are a bit farther out of the sheath, I find all four to be females! See how gray-brown they are, unrelieved by blue? Now I'm burning to know whether the runt is a girl, too. I've had a feeling it is.

I head out on our road toward the box, a half-mile distant, where Liam and I transplanted the runt from this brood, so it could have a chance of growing up amongst siblings three days younger.

On the way, I'm arrested by the sight of the first blossoms of pink chicory, which sprouts from hardy perennial roots every year along our road.

A mutation of the normal periwinkle blue chicory, it's been growing in this very spot for a very long time. 

July 10, 2007

A very long time indeed.

July 6, 2004

I don't have a little girl to pose with it any more, but I do have a little black dog who enjoys bombing my flower shots, giving me a laugh when he thinks I need one.

If the front view was not so good, this one is spectacular. There. Try that shot. I have the best rumpus.

Enough chicory and dogbutt photography. We have bluebirds to view! 

With growing excitement I pried the hayfield box off its mount. Peeked inside. And yes, I could tell the foster chick from the others right away, but the differences are still pleasingly subtle. 

It's the one on the right top, its bill pointing down. You can see its wing quills, still firmly in their sheaths, and feathers are sprouting along its spine and head. It's 11 days old, and its foster siblings are 8 days old, and things are going perfectly. Yes, it's a wee bit ahead of them, but plenty of food and a comfortable margin, a head start, is exactly what it needed to survive. 

I can't wait to learn its sex, but that will be at least two days from now. 

My beautiful experiment, eet ees workink!!

Wild Turkeys Take Cambridge!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I love love love going to Cambridge and Boston. It feels a bit like going home. I’m too deeply rooted in southeast Ohio to feel completely at home anywhere else. But it’s as close as a city is going to get. Cambridge has a part of my heart, because there’s so much beauty packed into its narrow streets; because it is stuffed with highly evolved, sentient people who appreciate its architecture and plant to enhance. Remarkable, really, to see the roses and daylilies spilling out onto the streets in an overabundance of beauty; to stumble on a moonlight garden, all white roses, hostas and hydrangeas, or a secret grove of river birches with a stone path winding through them. To see people bending over backward to save this fair city’s immense copper beeches, thankfully far outnumbering the ninnies who would cut them down. Oh, there are ninnies, and it doesn’t take many to ruin a place, but Cambridge somehow holds most of them at bay. As I watch the giant sentinel trees being cut down all along my county road, I think some of them have come to live in Ohio. Grumble.

Being an observer of changes both small and immense, I like pointing out the things that are different now than they were when I last lived in Cambridge in 1981.

photo by Kris Hodgkins Macomber

For one thing, there are a LOT more places to sit now. It’s a much kinder, homier place. Harvard Yard blossoms with multicolored chairs each May, and people actually use them, because they can move them around and form fluid groups for conversation and study. I find myself, with delight, arranging to meet friends "in the chairs in front of Weld," whereas before I'd have had to sit on the dorm steps. There's something so lovely about walking through the Yard and seeing healthy, thriving turf and groups of people visiting, studying, texting, snoozing and even reading analog books in these colorful Luxembourg chairs. Just beautiful. It's like a happening, every day.

Photo by Kris Hodgkins Macomber

Photo by Kris Hodgkins Macomber

Radcliffe Quad, where I lived, has white wooden Adirondack chairs sprinkled around in shady spots! And Adams House courtyard now has teak benches, chairs and a rope hammock, where I gladly melted of a lazy Sunday morning and gazed up at a flawless Massachusetts summer sky.

So humane, so welcoming, so homey. The man behind it? Michael R. Van Valkenburgh, Graduate School of Design professor. Read the wonderful story here.  Harvard, I salute you for opening your arms to students, visitors, and local folk alike. Probably the cheapest yet most profound change in use that could have been effected in this private space turned public.

And speaking of changes...

It was probably four years ago on a brink-of-spring night when I looked up into a tree next to the Harvard U. Science Center and saw what looked like a bag of laundry in a pin oak, backlit by the glowing urban sky. Is that a…turkey??? And it was a wild turkey, roosting alone in a concrete courtyard. I would see her walking alone on the sidewalks on that trip. I knew there were turkeys in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, but here in midtown Cambridge, she looked very much out of place.

Hodge, John and I saw the Harvard Turkey, or one of them, while enjoying a Saturday evening lime rickey and a burger at Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, a Harvard institution that neither takes credit cards nor has a bathroom, and doesn’t need either to be slammed all the time. Burgers are generous and delicious, onion rings and sweet potato fries are light, tasty and authentic, and I could drink their raspberry lime rickeys all day long. And it was while filling our empty ten-mile hike bellies that we spotted the Harvard Turkey. She came stepping across Mass Ave, allowing a sedan to come to a full stop for her before she finished her crossing. She walked like a queen, like she knew she was worth stopping for. And who would want to argue with a 16-pound turkey? A hard bump she would make in your grille.

Our Mr. Bartley's waitress was chagrined when we told her the Harvard Turkey had just graced us with a sighting. This gal was born here; she lives and works here and she’s never seen the famous Harvard turkey. Huh. I see turkeys every time I come to Cambridge. Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking for them ever since that wintry night when I saw the duffel bag sleeping in a pin oak.

Still, I wonder how they manage. I wonder what they eat. The answer is probably everything, from sweet potato fries to crickets to crabapples to flower buds to acorns. Ah, acorns—the staff of a turkey’s life. It seems like a meager existence, but apparently is not. I marvel that a creature of such majesty and presence, not to mention mass, can make its way in such an artificial environment. The formidable brain of a wild turkey, applied to the conundrum of living in gardens, cemeteries, sidewalks and streets, would be more than adequate to the challenge.

I have live, hot off my iPhone video evidence that this odd experiment in colonizing the city is a success. Not only are wild turkeys making their way; they’re reproducing. Leaving Hodge’s Den of Sleep at 7 AM, I walked barely two blocks and lucked into the ultimate Cambridge wild turkey encounter.

 I’m pretty proud of this bit of hand-held wildlife cinematography. Seeing the hen walking slowly down a bricked garden path, I guessed from her watchful demeanor and rapidly turning head that she might have poults trailing behind.  I led them a bit, following the trajectory of the hen, and hunkered down to make this video about where I figured the chicks would be crossing the sidewalk. Bingo!

Enjoy the June parade!  

Ellen in Springtime

Sunday, June 26, 2016


Lots of things happen in our meadow, all the time. The common milkweed comes into bloom and unless I'm walking up from its end, I may not appreciate that fact, or how much it has spread! I've been hand-pulling competing giant ragweed for years now, and it's nice to get a cheer, a great big beautiful THANKS! from the good guys. 

One morning early I looked out and saw a familiar form, well out in the meadow. I knew without getting my binoculars that I might be seeing Ellen in late spring for the first time. May 22, 2016. In the seven years I've known her, I'd never seen her, much less photographed her, after early April. If you don't know who Ellen is, you can start here.

In fact, the last photos I took of her were on April 4, 2016.  Her hair had fallen out in great swatches, and she was naked about the shoulders. Her bad right eye was still cloudy and useless. 

Sometimes coming to know an individual animal can be hard. 
Their lives are anything but easy. I don't know what's made her hair fall out like this. I can only hope it grows back quickly. 

 And now here she was, with new red summer hair coming in, May 22, 2016.

A cardinal flew in from stage left and began to sing on the vulture snag as Ellen considered my distant form, standing the meadow.

She lifted her left hoof, held it up for a few beats, then stomped it down had.

She snorted, a great windy WHEW!

I smiled. Come on Ellen. You know me. I'm the Corn Lady.

I'm leaving. Not fast, but I'm getting out of here. You have some nerve to try to creep up closer to me. 

And Ellen, who is at least 9, which is old for a whitetail,  took flight.  And when she did, I saw that she is with fawn.

Oh yes. There's probably another little buck in there. She's looking anything but slab-sided.

It can't be easy bounding when you're about to drop a fawn, but Ellen took off, showing me with her flashing tail that she'd seen me and that I had no hope of catching her. Ellen. We've known each other since 2009. Have I ever given chase?

I marvel that this little doe, compromised as she is with physical issues; blind in one eye and twisted up who knows why; could still be contributing to the deer population at her age.

Ah sweet Ellen. You know me. You don't have to leap and run.

I know. I'm pretty sure it's you, but my good eye isn't that good any more, and the wind's in your favor, so what's my choice? Thanks for the winter corn and seed treats. See you in January!

Good luck with your new baby, Ellen! You know I'll be watching.

How to Save a (Bluebird's) Life

Thursday, June 23, 2016

I'm a bit erratic of late, but trying hard to bring the blog back up to at least twice weekly. There's so much living to do. In nesting season interesting, time-consuming things get thrown in my lap on a daily basis, things I can't ignore, things that need to be done. And then there's the momentous fledging of Phoebe, and that's been an energetic investment of its own. I've little energy or time left over for telling stories, and I have so many stories to tell. They're stacked to the ceiling. And I can only tell them one at a time, when I'm not rushing to or from somewhere or buried deep into a project.

A Carolina wren who fledged 4.5 young out of our copper bucket under the front eave on June 4 is now incubating five more full-term eggs in a Gilbertson PVC box in the backyard! Cheepy's Mom has got it goin' on.

The peach, named Defiance, weeps gelatinous tears over its encounter with periodical cicadas, who have slit its bark and laid eggs in every branch. Damn. That peach had had it already with the freeze May 10. And yet cicadas bet that the tree they lay eggs in will still be alive in 17 years. That's why they go for young ones, in the middle of open spaces. Like fruit trees. Like me, trying to get from the house to the car. You've got all this open space, and you aim directly for my face. But they're dying now, and a part of me kind of misses the hubbub. Like 1% of me.

A dogbane beetle, my first of the year, chews the edge of a milk-sapped leaf, deadly poison to any but he. If his chrome Jacob's coat doesn't yell DO NOT EAT ME, nothing does. Admire me. Eat at your peril. I'm sad that goldenrod has choked almost all the dogbane out of our prairie patch. Nothing stays the same. I love dogbane and so do silver-spotted skippers, fritillaries, and hairstreaks, who sip its nectar. But serving as fodder for dogbane beetles is clearly its highest use.

A friend came to visit, to see the place and meet me and the family, and I saved my yard bluebird box check for when she was here. As soon as I opened the garden box I saw something that brought me up short. Do you see it?

When you've been tending bluebird boxes for 34 years, you know enough to say "Uh-oh" when you see a runt like the one at the top of the heap there. It's at least three days behind its siblings. They're six days old, and this little thing is barely three days old, developmentally. It may have hatched soon after they did, but it's not getting enough food and is only going to fall farther and farther behind.

I closed the box and thought about it. The instant I saw this chick, I could see its future rolling out. Experience has shown me this: Starting smaller than the res, it would be the most vigorous begger in the brood, and ironically enough it would get the least food. Come fledging time, about two weeks  from now, it would still be largely unfeathered, while its fully-feathered siblings would be crowding the entry hole, taking all the food. And when they fledged, flying strongly, if this bird was even still alive, it would be left sitting in the box, calling and calling in that lonely nasal Ne-nu! Ne-nu! of baby bluebirds. The parents would return occasionally to look at it, but they probably wouldn't waste time and resources feeding it. If it jumped out of the box from sheer desperation, it would be reduced to hopping across the yard, easy prey for anything walking or flying by. And then it would become my problem. If I know anything after all these years, I know my heart. It is strong, and weak, too.

Unless...That evening, a solution presented itself to me. I'd go out first thing in the morning, and I knew that when I'd open the box, that chick would be standing up with hunger. I'd be ready with my tweezers, and I'd pop some tender mealworm pupae in its little gob, and when it was full I'd drive it a half mile to a box of bluebirds that hatched only yesterday. I'd slip it into that brood and then, and only then, would it have a snowball's chance of becoming a bird.

Overnight a huge storm front came through, with 2.65" of blessed rain. The lawn, concrete-hard for weeks, now gives a little when I walk on it. It's not soggy by any means, but THAT was exactly what we needed. I felt every cell in my body rejoice for the hen box turtles who've been plodding around for a couple of weeks, holding their eggs in because they couldn't dig in the concrete-hard soil. 

And when Liam and I went out this morning to fetch the chick, it all rolled out just as I'd envisioned. 

That tiny runt was standing up with hunger. It didn't care that I wasn't a bluebird. I fed it the first pupa (you can see a white bulge in its craw) and it voided the tiniest of fecal sacs.  You can see that dropping right behind its head. Oh my. You are starving indeed, my love.

Three pupae later it was finally quiet. Its fat little siblings didn't need to beg; their parents had filled them with rain-fresh insects. Bluebirds don't waste food on those who aren't thriving. It's the wisdom of wild things. It can seem dispassionate, even cruel, but it makes sense for survival. Bluebirds are a lot smarter than I am. They don't let emotion rule. They look at that bird and say, "You're not going to catch up no matter what.  Here's the deal. I'll feed you if and only if I have a surplus."

So the runt overcompensates by begging at the slightest stimulus. It's trying so hard to overcome its lousy lotto number and survive.

I took the babe, now full and sleepy and wondering what the heck was happening, and installed it in a temporary nest.

My handsome son, driving Ms. Crazy and her dashing sidekick to our destination a half-mile away, a bluebird box on the edge of a huge hayfield.

Tender solicitude from a sweetly frosted gemmun.

I peeked in the box: four two-day old chicks. They could surely handle a fifth.

The foster child, slipped in to the left side. A far more harmonious sight than when viewed in its own nest. You'd hardly notice the anomaly. Yes, it's bigger than its new siblings, but given its slow start in life, I have a feeling you won't be able to tell it from them in a couple of days.  Now it has a chance to grow up, a flying chance to be a bluebird. 

I want to say, as a not-so-poetic but vital postscript, that none of this slick cross-fostering stuff would have been possible had I not been checking my 26 bluebird boxes once or twice weekly, and writing down what I found.  Had I not been looking closely, comparing each chick to the other, and informed enough by years of working with bluebirds to be able to see the anomaly at a glance, the chick would almost certainly have died. Again and again, I see people observing nature, watching nest boxes, say, and never bothering to make a simple written note when eggs are laid, when chicks hatch; when they fledge. It makes life ever so much more interesting when you keep notes. It's the very stuff of educating oneself. And it makes interventions like this possible when you know without a doubt what you've got in every box. See a robin starting to incubate? Write it down! Then you can look up incubation and nestling periods, and you'll know when to expect hatchlings; when to expect fledglings. You'll be acting like a naturalist, not just a passive observer. You'll be participating in it all. And actively participating, not just watching, is how we learn.

 I'll keep you in the loop. If you're already keeping nature notes, hooray! If you're not, consider this your kick in the pants toward your Science Chimp badge.

Gifts of a Dirt Road

Friday, June 17, 2016


 Dean's Fork is a touchstone for me. It calls to me, never louder than in June, when birds are breeding, and October, when leaves are coloring. I've found things down there, where I can get no cell reception; where my phone's just a camera and occasionally a bird call player and nothing more. I find things, and I find myself, too.

Here in southeast Ohio, rose-breasted grosbeaks have always been one of those inestimable gifts of migration time. You look out your kitchen window of a fine early May morning, and there's this whazzat!? in the birches.

Your heart pounds and you wait for that full frontal BAM of carmine-rose to hit you smack between the eyes. It's usually a male, maybe one in five is a female. That's fine. We'll take males.

 And they hang around the feeders for WEEKS and every year you ask them sweetly if they might be able to stay, maybe bring a girlfriend around, show her the place. What's so great about northeast Ohio that we haven't got for you down here in the rolly hilly part? I'll keep you in sunflower and peanuts. Please stay. You're so decorative, your song is so sweet, a rich wavering warble, like a robin who's had voice lessons and is practicing breath control.

Every year I take ugly pictures of them on our feeders, knowing they're pretty much useless, but helpless in the particolored birds' thrall.

So imagine my delight when I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak singing through the thick chorus on my beloved Dean's Fork early on the morning of June 10. It was a day when Chet was still feeling logy, and I went out alone, my heart heavy but also strangely light, knowing I needed to be selfish, to put some miles on my chassis after throttling it back for several weeks. That rich song, ringing out practically in my backyard, well after migration; knowing that means the birds are on territory: for the alert birdwatcher, it doesn't get any better than that. And traversing my favorite road's three-mile length that day, I located three more singing males, one following a female around as if prospecting for nest sites or nesting material.

This landscape, with this light, and a singing rose-breast in it. By its presence, the bird sonically and spiritually lighting the whole place up. Like looking out over the Lamar Valley at Yellowstone, and knowing there are wolves there. It changes the place. It changes you. 

Like looking in the widening crack in our back patio, and seeing Mr. and Mrs. Fak lying there, placid, waiting for another dratted chipmunk to scurry past. Take them. Take them all. Everywhere I plant, they dig. Everything I nurture, they upend.

We visit the Faks several times a day, wish them well. They're fat with cicadas this year. You don't need venom for cicadas. You just gulp them down.

Living with copperheads: it isn't so hard, when there aren't so many.

I bring friends to Dean's Fork. It's the best thing I can show them. This is Jim Coe, plein air oil painter, diggin' the scene. Rose-breasts are no big deal for this Hannacroix NY boy, but Acadian flycatchers, Kentucky and cerulean, yellow-throated and worm-eating warblers are, so we found him some of those.

Here it is. It's the best place I can show you. If you want to know what I've been up to since we last saw each other, well, this three-mile dirt road is pretty much it. Well, that and a book on baby birds.

Painted fish fly wings, scattered by a bird.

Red efts on the move, nearing adulthood, nearing their final homes, wherever they may be. When they find the right body of water, they'll dive in; their thick and rough skin will thin, and they'll become denizens of the water again. And then we'll call them red-spotted newts.

The neatly nested halves of a robin eggshell, carried from the nest by a parent. The chick may have pushed them together in hatching, or the parent may have nested them for carrying, but either way, a thing of joy. The neatly pinked edges and remnant blood vessels say this was a successful hatching. Often you can find the chick's first yellowish dropping in the eggshell, too!

Beauty and the beast: summer azure drinking ichor from a smashed American toad.

A wolf spider carries her seething young on her back, something I always love to see.

Go in peace, good mama.

I see a wood thrush fly across my path, carrying an enormous wad of nesting material: dead leaves and trailing blonde grass. How odd to see one building a nest on June 10; they should be incubating or even feeding chicks by now. And not 50' further on, I find the work of a jay: a wood thrush egg, pierced and emptied. And I realize that she is ripping apart the nest she'd made, to build it elsewhere, away from sharp dark eyes. She's starting over.

Yes, it's the same color as a robin's egg, but a third smaller. It's good to know these things.  If I didn't know the color and size of a wood thrush's egg, I wouldn't be able to piece together the story. If I didn't know the song of a rose-breasted grosbeak, I wouldn't know they're here. If I didn't know when red efts go from orange to army-green, I wouldn't know why they're walking.

The only way to know these things is to get yourself out, to wonder, and put together a million tiny pieces into a bigger picture. And then you realize that there's this great big show going on all around you. Then it calls to you and you have to answer. Then, and all along, come the gifts.

Because you may wonder: The strong, lusty, liquid warble in the foreground is a rose-breasted grosbeak. The insistent chip chip chip chip chip is a chipmunk. The sudden pit-SEEK! and higher squeaky notes are an Acadian flycatcher. The burry hurried warble is a scarlet tanager. A cardinal sings his purty purty purty, followed by a wood thrush in song, then giving his hard glassy wit wit wit! alarm call. Finally, an American redstart's sis-sis-swew!, and a scarlet tanager again, the rosebreast singing over it all. It's a book, it's a movie, it's a community, and paying attention to it is the thing to do when you're in the woods.
[Back to Top]