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All Halloweeny

Sunday, October 29, 2017

There are those days when staying home and trying to write isn't working. The house has been far too quiet lately. Liam's a senior in high school. 'Nuff said. 
  I didn't realize how much it meant to have another warm living body in the house, whether it was a person or just a sweetly weary dog, his face all silver, his eyes clouded. Now he's gone, too, and sometimes I just have to put some miles on and head down Dean's Fork, because there's nowhere else to put this feeling but in the measured rhythm of my boot steps. I pick my way down the uneven slopes until I hit the packed dirt of the road and can settle into a steadier gait. His ghost trots along with me, I expect, but I've only heard him snort once, and I've never yet seen him. It's taking him awhile to come through the veil.

There are others out there watching, and they're a comfort; they'll pass for company.

She lifts a strong slender leg and stamps, telling me I've been seen. Her next move--to whirl in a flash of white and rise on those slender legs, and kerthump away. Aw c'mon. What's so scary about a woman with a camera?

I'm delighted to find this field sparrow perched in perfect camouflage against stringy bark. As if it knows it. Well, it does. 

I imitate its thin whistle, sweet as maple syrup, and the sparrow perches up high for a better look at me.
Is there any blue like that of a late October sky? The perfect compliment to the field sparrow's soft, cinnamon-dusted feathers.

I follow the squidgy grinding sound of a gray squirrel cutting a black walnut, the work of an hour or more. I try to imagine opening a black walnut with my teeth and cannot. I can't even open them with a dang hammer.
Those are some razor sharp teeth there, Mr. Squirrel. I'm making him nervous by watching him, but he's not about to drop this partially-opened walnut. He can almost taste the purply sweetness of that precious kernel, the one that's never going to become a tree.

There's Alice. I just found out her name. She's an Allis Chalmers, and she still runs, I'm told. I've always called her the Right Reverend Allis Chalmers, and I know she doesn't care what anybody calls her. The phoebes nest up under the ceiling of her cab every year, and I love to see them sitting out on on ironweed in the meadow, bobbing their tails, like nobody would have figured out they'd hidden a nest up in Alice's cab. 

I keep walking until I get to the black barn, the green meadow, with the dead stalks of ironweed still standing; the warm brown Limousins grazing between the bitter plants. Since the gristmill fell down, the barn and this field-- Main Grounds for the Ironweed Festival-- is my endpoint, my destination. I need something to walk to. I have peeked through its boards, but have never been inside it, because it's always been padlocked. But today I'm amazed to see a board has rotted and fallen off, and the portal is suddenly open to me. Of course, I go in. This is where it gets all Halloweeny.

There is nothing like the slatted light inside an old barn, and nothing like the way the iPhone captures it. Oh, it gives me shivers. 
I always see watercolors in the limited palette, the lines and shapes of a barn interior.

The absolute first thing I see is guano. Oh. My. God. So much guano.

It's a pile of bat guano, that of big brown bats beyond doubt, with stripes of light raking across it, like a big claw trying to gather it in.

I am so flabbergasted that I'm cussing and babbling to myself. I'm briefly glad Chet isn't here to walk through it, maybe taste it as dogs will. His spirit is surely snuffling around here. He always wanted to go in this barn, would ask me to open the door, but I couldn't help him. 
Now Rot and Time, those gracious hosts, have let us in.

This must be a maternity roost, active in summer, and empty now. The barn is far too cold and drafty a place for any big brown bat to winter. I squint up into the rafters, knowing I'll find no bats. I look for the bodies of baby bats to confirm my guess that big browns breed here, but find none. There are scavengers aplenty to take care of any that fall. 
I pace off the sides of the heap to get some measure of it. It's seven feet long by five wide. I think it's at least a foot deep. That's a lot of bats, pooping for a very long time. 

I'm filled with joy that there is a place so near me where big brown bats may raise their young in peace, without someone freaking out and calling an exterminator to get rid of them. It's hard to be a bat in the world of people. There is a house on the same road where they'd been breeding, but they'll find it closed to them come spring. I can't blame the homeowners, but it made me sad just the same. It's what bats meet, everywhere they go. Exclusion. I'm glad to know there is this fallback. 
I'm just so glad to find a huge pile of bat frass. Better than roses, better than dinner out.
 I'm the ultimate low-maintenance woman. I'm the maintenance.

Processed flying insects, that's what this is, extruded in pellet form. This massive pile tells you something about the biomass of insects out there, and the tremendous potential of a bat colony to reduce it to finely-crunched fertilizer, to turn it into warm milk for wee warm short-furred pups. What a beautiful thought.

Batfrass duly admired and thought about, I turned to other sights.

Well. About 20 canisters of propellant explosives for cannons. Wednesday Thursday Friday. Holy crap. Wut? They seem pretty innocuous, lying on their sides, but I can't divine why anyone would have this, or store it here. I hope they're empty, but don't want to nudge them to see. It's a weird world. And about time to get out of this barn. But there's still so much to see.

On the canisters on an old seed or maybe fertilizer spreader, there's Rech Farm Equipment, from back in the days when Marietta, Ohio, didn't need to tell you the first two digits of a phone number. Everybody knew they were 3-7.
I wonder who I'd get if I dialed 373-9339 right now? A creaky, ghostly voice, answering "Rech 'Quipment, may I help you?" OoooOoooo.

 Ghostly things. There are always dead things in old barns. It doesn't take me long to find one.
A late squirrel rests in peace. I can see that nothing killed it; from its position and the intact bones, it came in here to die many years ago. I wonder why. Maybe it got into rat poison. I could see that happening, in a barn where unexpected explosives are stored.
The hair has long since gone with the flesh, melted into goo and decayed.

Despite its naked tail, I know it's a squirrel and not a rat because of its enormous tree-climbing claws. 

After the monochrome palette inside the barn, the autumn fire almost burns my eyes as I emerge back into Oz.

Smilax hearts, hanging suspended.

And there are ghosts on the walk home, too. I stop a long way away to watch mourning doves spiraling, winnowing down to feed on beechnuts in the road. I know what they're eating, because I've found and eaten them here this time of year, too, and I'll see them in the road when I walk up to investigate. Beechnuts are divine, sweet, triangular things, surprisingly nutty and juicy. I'm looking at mourning doves, but all my mind's eye can see is passenger pigeons, and I think of this dirt road and the entire forest floor moving with a great herd of slate blue and rose birds, twice the size of these, moving like a living carpet, vacuuming up the nuts of great beeches three times the size of the ones now growing here. I think of the roar of their wings should I move and startle them, the furious clatter of so many souls rising. 

It's been a cold day. It's after four, and the chicory never opened, never wilted; its face never went pale. That kind of chicory persistence only happens when it's cold, in October.

And this is October--deep, deep cold shadow and brilliant blue sky, blazing leaves at long last. October, in turn, makes me sweat, then makes me want to jump up high enough to catch that hilltop light and be warm again. Tonight as I write, it's raining, the kind of cold, steady rain that makes the leaves give up and fall off the trees. Oh please don't go. We'll eat you up, we love you so.

It's impossible to take a photo of October woods that shows the depth and the glow-from-within, but I try, again and again. 

I absolutely love the screaming neon chartreuse that catalpas take on in October. You can pick it out to the right of the cabin, catching the last sun. I'd never realized that was a catalpa until now. Each tree has its color, its week of utter individuality, when you can pick it out from the rest. And that happens in October, too.

Now I try to catch the last puddles of light, soaking up the color as it drains from the landscape. 

Time was when there would have been an inkblot crossing those puddles. It wasn't so long ago, but in my heart it feels like forever. 
I can hear you yelling, "SO GET A DOG, SADSACK!!" Unfortunately, another dog is not in the cards right now. My far-flung speaking engagements are only increasing; Liam's very busy in his senior year and rarely home, and when he heads to college in just a few months, I'll have no reliable dog-care backup at all. It's different out here in the sticks, 18 miles from town. You can't just call a next-door neighbor and ask them to stop in, because they aren't around, either. Liam and I managed as Chet got older and needed more care, but making sure someone was there for him a couple of times a day was an everyday struggle, one I know better than to invite right now. There's a peace in not having to worry about one's dog, after almost 13 years of worrying about one's dog. It's an aching peace, but peace nonetheless. No wonder I try so hard to make friends with wild things, who don't need to be fed or let out. They're already out.

I was too warm at the beginning of the walk, so stripped down to a T-shirt and rolled my jackets up in the weeds where I could find them again. I'm glad to get back to them and put them on now. In only two hours it's gone from sunny to shivering. Oh, October, you're a moody month.

I'm so glad to get my clothes back I stop to take a rare selfie. Not my favorite subject, but I want to show my beautiful Toronto Blue Jays Underarmor fleece that Hodge sent to me. I love keeping Jemima close to my heart, love flashing her colors. I love having such a creative and thoughtful friend.  Now that it's gotten cold, I can't take it off. I have to wash it today, though, because it smells of beef from the stew I made last night. Phew! 

 I don't notice until I upload the photo to my laptop that I've got bat poop in my  hair. Par for the Zick course. Truth in advertising. There she is, folks, batsh-t in her hair, don't know, don't care, ain't skeert. As my kids love to say, SPOOPY!!

I stop to look back down the road. Yep, beautiful, and still empty.

And up ahead, a tunnel of beauty. I head home, trying to beat the shadows, trying to stay in the light.

And the deer scatter before me.

Angry Chipmunks

Friday, October 27, 2017


His day started out iffy. 

A mourning dove came in way too low. A bit unnerving, but he held his ground.

I'm shooting from the studio window, laughing already.

He'd barely gotten his pouches half filled with sunflower hearts and corn when a challenger with a ratty tail arrived and pounced on him. Aaack!!

And the Chipmunk Rumble began.

The two animals became a roiling ball of fur and fury

with brief pauses for breath.  Our hero is the redder, smaller animal on the right. Rattytail is the grayer one on the left. Note open-mouth breathing. This is hard work.

I noticed a disconcerting pattern to their combat, and that was that they seemed to be going for each other's underbelly, particularly the groin. What that's about, I don't want to know, but I would emphatically not want an angry chipmunk going at my groin. Even though it would take 600 chipmunks in a burlap sack to equal the weight of one Zick. Could still do a lot of damage down there.

 And I was already terrified to handle a chipmunk. My childhood friend, when we were both maybe 8, ignored my warning and picked up an injured chipmunk with her bare hands. I was glad it was her bare hands and not mine. I remember an impressive amount of blood and a quick attempt to drop it as it hung on like a pitbull. I never could tell her anything; she had to do it her way. I bet she's never picked up another chipmunk though.

Redman's got Rattytail down and is biting a particularly tender place. Yoww!! Chipmunks play dirty.
My friend Harma, who knows a lot about animals and anatomy, being a physical therapist and dog trainer, commented,   Groin=Femoral artery=death. You know a dog is a true fighter vs. making a lot of noise when it goes for the inside of the thigh. Them chiptymunks are fierce!

No kidding, Harma! Ever wonder what an angry chipmunk looks like? Look at the ear position, the narrowed eyes. Another micro-breather.

And they're at it again. Biting...what?? Each other's spines? Ow!! Good Lord!

Now it's mano a mano, nose to nose. It's gotten personal.

And amazingly, Rattytail has had enough, and heads for the hills. Our hero has vanquished the challenger!

He follows up with another drubbing, just to make sure Rattytail gets the message.

Yep, you're gittin' gone, son. Redman drives his point home.

Winded, looking decidedly worse for wear, with rough fur and nicks in his neat stripes, Redman goes back to foraging.

It's a good thing chipmunks aren't the size of coyotes. As my friend Al Batt says of chickadees...It's a good thing they aren't the size of hawks. We'd never go outside. 

Release the Goldfinch!

Monday, October 16, 2017


In the two weeks I had the young goldfinch in my studio, she was rarely quiet. She twittered through the day. One of her frequent vocalizations I couldn't recall having heard in the wild. It's the lower-pitched zraayzee call, given a number of times in this video. It's much louder and more emphatic than most of her twitters and twerps.

After hearing it from her, I heard a juvenile give it once, in the yard near the feeders. My guess is that it's a high-intensity contact call. If the bee bee bee twitters are "Hi. Hello. I'm here," zraayzee might be "HEY. HEEEEYYY. WHERE IS EVERYBODY?"

You can see in the video how she's holding her right wing. This pose must give some relief to the healing coracoid and the bruised muscles around it. When I'd see her sit like this, I'd think, "Oh no. I hope I'm not stuck with a goldfinch for the next twelve years." Having had an orchard oriole and a Savannah sparrow each make it to 17 1/2, and a house finch to 9 1/2 years, I know well what a commitment that is.

But we were both on a leap of faith here, and I told myself she'd be OK. There was nothing wrong with her wing--it was just the coracoid strut that needed to knit. (If you need explanation, go back three posts). She'd be able to fly. Well, I hoped so.

When a bird in rehab starts zooming around the cage, making it from the floor to the topmost perch without even trying, it's time for a flight test. I thought about setting up the nylon tent in the garage, but I was afraid I wouldn't be able to catch her if the wing had healed well. I'll never forget setting it up for the eastern wood-pewee I had on two week's rest for the same injury. And then that pewee zoomed around the tent so blindingly fast I had to catch him in flight with well-timed swing of a koi net!! Not. Good. This is the dilemma I face, not having proper facilities. Heck, even at Ohio Wildlife Center, they've been known to flight-test birds  in a long windowless corridor with a rehabber or two at either end. Whatever works. Had I known what was about to happen, I'd have used the back hall.

It can be awkward getting a bird to leave its cage. In this case, since the exit holes were at the bottom, I had to turn the cage over on its side, then coax the bird to leave this unnatural fortress. Goldfinches, as previously noted, are not wrens. They are not the sharpest tools in the shed where spatial relationships are concerned.

When she finally burst from the cage, I was in for a surprise!!

Circling the ceiling 20x = RELEASABLE. I couldn't believe her good luck, my good luck. It was too good to be true!

I'd learned something about a broken coracoid.

1. Given time and cage rest, it will probably heal.
2. If you can't get a wrap to stay on the bird, you might not need it anyway.
3. Flight test it somewhere it can't hurt itself (small windowless room or long narrow hallway)
4. Plan for the best, i.e., not being able to catch the dang bird when you flight test it.

I could not catch that bird, no matter how I tried. It was stressful for both of us. Finally, I had to remove the screen, crank the window wide, and shoo her out.

She didn't go far. She landed in the branches of a small American hornbeam bonsai that lives on a bench just outside the window.  There, she decided to eat salad. While I watched helplessly, she removed all the buds from two of its few branches. I was torn between laughing and crying. When that part of my tree fails to leaf out next spring, I'll remember this moment.

Mmm. Salad. 

Next year's hornbeam leaves, gone to goldfinch fodder.  Watching her denude my poor bonsai did make me realize that there is food everywhere for a vegetarian goldfinch. Maybe that's why they don't need to be all that sharp. No prey to outwit. 

Go on. Find your big world. The dome feeder's hanging out there, full of sunflower hearts. All your friends are in the yard, your parents, too!

Finally she flew into the golden arbor vitae and stayed there in the comforting shade for awhile.

A couple of hours later I saw a young goldfinch with a slight droop to the right wing land on the Bird Spa. After two weeks of living with her, there was something distinctly familiar about this bird.

Two days later I came out the front door and one young female goldfinch barely looked up from foraging. She flew to the arbor vitae, but no farther. Bright eyed, not sick. Just unafraid of her studio companion.  

Rehab doesn't always work out, that's for sure. But when it does, it is very sweet. 

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