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Crystal Visions

Monday, February 26, 2018

February weather is all about whiplash. I know a lot of people hate it, but I really like February. When it comes to mind, I always think of woodcocks and spring peepers, swelling red maple buds and daffodils coming up. I'm not usually such an optimist, but knowing something about the massive changes nature effects in February definitely shortens the winter for a naturalist. 

It helps to live in southeast Ohio, say, and not the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. 

However. I want to get some ice up here before the weather turns warm for good. I know the cold and rotten weather will come back; the wood frogs and spring peepers know it too. I've gotten so caught up in the incredible typhoon of the last warm front, with frogs and woodcocks and killdeer and coy-wolves tuning up, that this February 8 ice storm seems like a distant memory. 

Ice storms are tough for birds. The broken tail of the middle dove attests to that. Worse, ice covers all their food. Birds have to get very creative to find enough food in ice storms. Many of them seem to think my yard is the best resort. They may be correct. 

The ice hung on the trees and grasses for three full days, the temperatures never rising above freezing. I watched the sun play peek-a-boo with thick clouds, and every time it peeked out I ran outside and took photos. 

Don't miss the starlings flying across the left hand path. Click on this one!

Even dead pokeweed looks awesome encased in ice.

I was in a kind of aesthetic panic. I knew that, once the sun came out, the ice would last a matter of an hour or two. 

As beautiful as the meadow was, I needed more sky, a bigger vista. I geared up and jumped in the car, driving about a mile. Speed was of the essence.  I had to get myself to a better place to appreciate all this splendor. 

The treetops were all a-glisten. 

When the sun finally peeked out, the big hayfield turned into a crystal expanse. (Click on this one).

Every blade was coated, but wouldn't be for long. 

I knew I wouldn't have much time to record the last gasp of all that ice. It had reigned for three days.

I ran over to the red barn and made its portrait with the broken beauty of the sky behind it. 

The sun was quickly melting the snow off its west-facing roof. The joyful sound of dripping water filled the air.

But I had another barn in mind. I trotted as fast as I could to a hilltop where I could see one of my favorite views. The light would be right. It would be amazing. I was so glad to be here, in this spot, for this light and ice event. These are the events that plan my days for me from time to time. I strive to live so as to be mindful of them, to be able to take advantage of them. They have nothing whatsoever to do with the world of people, politics, or finance. They have to do with light.

I had to get to the Toothless Lady. The light would be amazing.

The ice was still shining on the treetops. Good! I shot as I came up to the barn, but I knew I wanted to get up above it. I was hustling.

There. The trashy ailanthus tree that grew up beside her would never look more regal. I marveled, looking at this, at how much siding--how much wood! the barn has lost since I first started making portraits of her. 

Reduced and ragged as she is, I don't think she's ever been more beautiful.  I was gobsmacked by the blue sky showing through her bony back, by the collapse of her upper floor. She is deliquescing before my eyes. 

I left her and climbed higher. Oh my. I hadn't realized her roof was still covered with snow on the north side. 

This, this. This is what I came for. For the ragged clouds, the snow-covered roof, the black maw of the Toothless Lady, for the snowy road stretching off into the distance. That road that I walk, the distance I cover without even thinking about it. It's that distance, the miles I put on the chassis, that gives me peace of mind. And I get to look at this in the bargain. 

It's quite a deal. 

Higher and higher I climbed. 

Walking these Appalachian hills is a bit like flying. You can get so high above a scene, you're your own drone. 
I expect to always be my own drone. 

You might have to click on some of these to truly appreciate them. Go ahead and run through them all. I'll be here when you get back. 

Glistening sassafras tops. 

And looking into the sun? Dazzling, ravishing. I was a kid in a candy shop, with something beautiful at every turn.

As per usual, I took so durn many photos they wouldn't all fit in one post. This one, written on planes bearing me to the spectacular San Diego Birding Festival. And I've only just grabbed the time to edit and post it. Stay tuned. And thank you for seeing. 

Robins in February

Sunday, February 18, 2018


We're drowning in Ohio. The Ohio River is predicted to crest at 38.3' (down from 39.5' (ohhhh noooo) on Sunday afternoon. Watching the predictions, which mean the world to those affected, has been nervewracking. They keep revising them upward, and the latest jump (9 pm Saturday) was a durn foot!! Up here on the ridgetop, it's a minor inconvenience not to be able to get into town by our usual routes, but in Marietta, it's disastrous. Days of deluge have turned my yard into a pond and flooded our route into Marietta. I tried to talk Liam through a route to town on Friday so he could help evacuate the boathouse where he rows crew.  I sent him down some iffy muddy roads and inadvertently got him hemmed in by quickly rising water on either side of him, albeit a couple of miles apart. Couldn't go forward, couldn't go back. He, with one bar of 4G on which to communicate. Me, in intermittent text contact with him, back home, frrrreeeeakkking out.  Bill had to jump in his car in town and find a route so he could come down by a back road over a ridge and lead Liam out. That was my quick, lovely nooner panic attack--thinking of my kid surrounded by milk-chocolate creek water with nowhere to go. On the phone afterward, Bill said, "When things like this happen, you can't panic."

Oh. Except that I did, and I do. I guess I have to stop doing that when my kid when last heard from was in his car with floodwater on either side of him and 40 minutes have gone by in total silence. Anyway, rescue effected; Find my Friends on my iPhone pinpointed his location; cellphones and mama and daddy love saved the day. It's probably good for a kid to get in a sticky wicket now and then. It's just not much fun when it's your kid.

Poor Marietta is caught once again with its pants down by the rains and the swollen Ohio and the fast-running Muskingum, by Duck Creek dumping all that runoff into both of them. The last flood, just a month ago, carried off $30,000 worth of docks from the boathouse where Liam rows. So, big fundraisers to replace those, on top of all the fundraisers it takes just to keep these kids in rowing shells. Thank goodness the replacement docks have yet to be built, because those would be gone, gone, gone now. The boathouse itself is about 1/3 underwater; the rowers got all the shells out and carried them to safety, but oh, what a terrible mess. Front Street in Marietta is under, which means bad, bad things for the wonderful businesses there. It's a resilient town, but spring flooding gets old, and it results in empty storefronts in a town that struggles to remain as vibrant as it is.

 If only we could funnel this rain to places out West that need it so badly. This climate change, and the odd jet stream that has formed since the ocean water is so warm, is tough, bringing Arctic cold way farther south and east than usual, while it visits arid drought on the West. And it's not fake, and it's nobody's imagination. Nobody makes up a flood like this. It's here, the unfriendly neighbor, creeping up the front steps.

If I'm only going to see the sun first thing in the morning, by gum I'm going to get out and greet it.

And the unexpected gift this day: a peach glow to the northeast

and a big flock of American robins, bringing indescribable beauty and peace in their songs and their brick-red breasts. Robins, studding the haymeadow like cloves in a pale ham.

I watch them leaning over to pluck Smilax fruits and remember that I've left a mystery unresolved. 

I posted this photo of an epic pileated woodpecker poop on Facebook, saying that it was full of carpenter ants and sumac seeds, and a knowledgeable friend, the kind that's good to have, asked if that wasn't a Smilax seed instead. So I'd made a mental note to go flesh a Smilax fruit and determine if he was right.

I knew it was pileated woodpecker poop because there was this kind of working all around where I'd found it.

Also because I am in the habit of looking for, and finding, pileated woodpecker poop. You should try it. You can often find awesome turds where they've been working for awhile, close to the ground.  An undisturbed pileated woodpecker has tremendous sticktoitiveness. (I use that word in irony, as it's one of my least favorite words in the universe). I mean, that bird will work for hours on a stump or fallen log. So of course it's going to have to go, and if it's on or very near the ground, the poop is deposited gently. That way it doesn't disintegrate when it hits the ground, and you get these fabulous J-shaped cylinders. 

So when the robins were done eating and had flown, I got a Smilax fruit and chewed the flesh off it, finding it pleasingly sweet but very stainy, like hackberry fruit. And sure enough, there was the big round puffy warm-brown seed that my friend James Ferrari had spotted. Smilax. Perfectly good diet item for a winter pileated woodpecker. Sumac, too. Poison ivy, though that's all gone by now. They take a lot of fruit.

Right near the Smilax patch is a woods road that's had a lot of erosion of its bank. I am always finding little bulbs exposed here. I used to think they were spring beauties but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps they're snowdrops or crocuses, escaped from an old homestead. A bulb is an incredible thing. It may persist for many decades, and it should be buried pretty deeply. 

This little bulb was exposed through the terrible cold, the single digits that we had for weeks after Christmas. And it is sending out shoots. What kind of antifreeze does it keep in its cells?? I cannot imagine. The least I could do is replant it. After:

And its suffering companions, too.  Before:

and after.  

Another little Science Chimp errand--keep checking to see what these shoots become. Hoping for flowers.

I try to leave the world a better place, even if it's only in small ways, whenever I go anywhere. It won't be long before I can go check on the ones I saved and maybe see this.

April 3, 2017--not far from where I replanted the bulbs.

Small good deeds...
Even as replanting bulbs gives me a warm glow, picking up trash on my road invariably sends me into the foulest of moods. There's something about dumping out tobakky chaws and getting brown spitgoo on my hands that sends my mood corkscrewing into the ground. I had my arms absolutely loaded with trash after only about 200 feet, and I came upon this. Awww!!

Thoughtful of them to bag up their car trash for pickup. Beats having to pick up each item individually. Thanks so much!  I've learned that trying to carry everything I've found only makes me crankier, so when my arms are full I make trash stations along the road, then come back to get it all in my car. The sole plus of picking up my neighbors' trash is not having to look at it any more. Well, I have to admit there's also the anthropologist's thrill of discovering what constitutes "food" for litterbugs. Mountain Dew, Busch Lite, Little Debbie, McDonald's, RedMan. None of those things are getting in my cakehole, ever.

Back to more wholesome things...I have a constant aesthetic tug-o-war with the dratted plastic-wrapped haybales. While I like the way they catch skylight and define the landscape, I loathe the wrapping. I can't walk by without wondering where all that miles of plastic goes when they're unwrapped for cattle to feast on. As a photographer, I ask myself:  Do I frame them out of each shot, or shrug and include them? They lend a surreal, giant blancmange air to this shot. I saw a titmouse drop down and disappear entirely into the rotted top of a fencepost. When it emerged, it had a nut in its bill. Perhaps it or another bird had cached it earlier. Off it flew with its prize. I love seeing what birds eat when they aren't cadging peanuts and sunflower seeds.

 More robins on Smilax. You might call it greenbriar, or catbriar.

 Robins, with the dratted haybales again.

I jockey around, and finally decide that placing the robins above the distant bales works best.

 If I stand in just the right spot, I can see the porch light from the farmhouse through a barn window. It's a Stonehenge moment, but you'll have to click on the photo to see it.

 I'm not done walking. I need more miles. So I head on out our road and walk the perimeter of a large hayfield that narrowly escaped becoming a drill pad for an oil well. Had that happened, I probably would have had to leave my home. There's a vulnerability to living atop the Marcellus Shale. You're at your neighbors' utter mercy, if they have any. And living at their mercy is a far bigger deal than having to pick up their litter.

I love how the road looks, like a smooth gray bushmaster, snaking off through the hills.  I never tire of this vista. That's a heavy sky, after a faintly promising sunrise. There will be more rain today.  I walk the edges of the hayfield, and find all that's left of a small deer I saw poached and lying in the field a couple weeks ago. No vultures in yet to clean it up, but the coy-wolves took care of it.

Everywhere are the reminders that this beauty I imbibe so deeply is fragile. That none of it can be counted on to always be here. These giant firs were planted many years ago as a windbreak for a classic Ohio farmhouse that I loved. It's been long since razed and burned. A bunch of jonquils and a few naked ladies (pink amaryllis) still come up in the field where the house once stood. I may be one of only two people on our road now who even remembers that house, or the man who once lived in it.

People and buildings die; landscapes change.  Logging lays bare a view I'd never seen before. We are always chewing up the land here. Nothing stays the same.

I listen to the robin's song
Saying not to worry


My Funky Valentine

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I heard a little voice this morning. It said, "Get out and hike before it rains." 
I listened. Good things happen when I listen to the little voice.
Sure enough, when I looked at the radar, there was a sludge of green coming up out of the southwest that was going to make things, already saturated, even wetter. Hurry.

I threw on a raincoat, bitchin' waxed cowboy hat, ear warmers, and I grabbed my camera raincoat, too. No question I was going to take the big rig. There was something out there waiting for me. The little voice nudged and nudged. Get out there! It's waiting!

I didn't know where I was going. I had about four destinations in mind. I cleared my mind, let it go blank. I took a left at the county road and had driven only a half-mile when I saw this in the neighbor's cow pasture.  YAAASSSSS

The First Daylight Skunk of 2018!!

Exxxx-cellent. I drove another 1/4 mile to safely stash my car, and trotted back. She was still there, nosing for grubs.

I know skunks well enough to keep in mind the wind direction before I approached. Dang it! Wind out of the west. It was going to blow my scent right to the skunk. But there was only one place I could get a shot at her and that was the bar gate, which was directly west of the skunk. Oh well. Here goes. I crouched down to shoot, knowing it would be a limited-time offer.

Sure enough, her head snapped up. She'd caught my scent--the only thing that means much to a skunk. Sound and sight mean not much at all. But the whiff of face cream and soap...

Through the corral boards, I got a shot of her as she trundled away. Darn it!

But I didn't give up. I climbed the bar gate and followed her. And was humbled to find she had vanished utterly from sight. I couldn't even hear her footsteps. In that short time, she'd plunged down a steep hill and into the woods. Well, OK. It was still nice to see the First Daylight Skunk of 2018.

I decided to explore this gorgeous steep pasture, which had been woods not so long ago. Around here, anything is fair game for grazing. What choice do people have? So they fell the forest, seed grass in and put cows on the flanks of the steep hills. It doesn't work very well; they wind up feeding a lot of hay.

I was loping along the slope when I saw that little skunk making her way through a strip of woodland, headed for me. Hooray!! She popped out into the open and I quickly circled until I was downwind of her.  I was sashaying left as she came on.

I knew when I could smell her that she couldn't smell me. Using the wind would be my Cloak of Invisibility. Because skunks don't use their eyes much at all. 

I had decided this was a female skunk because it wasn't very big, and was rather fine-boned. I got a female vibe off her. Man, she kept coming at me. I was chuckling and crab-walking as fast as I could to stay downwind and just off her projected path. It was a little like quartering a very small tornado on the prairie. 

It was a thrill to be so close to her, and for her to be unafraid. She didn't know I was there. It was all about whether or not she could smell me. I got long, leisurely looks at her. She was a pretty fancy little animal. I liked her wide stripes, and big white tailtip. Her tail is a bit unusual, being grizzled white and black, so that it has a grayish appearance. I'll know her if I encounter her again.

She looked directly at me, and decided she didn't like the looks of me. 

And she hurried away.

I followed at a respectful distance, happy to wait for the innate forgetfulness of skunks to take over and help her relax. I could see she wasn't scared, just a bit suspicious. I smiled as I framed this shot, thinking about the little inkblot I'd framed so many thousands of times in the last 12 years. I miss him dearly. But a wary skunk will do. Even if I can't run up behind it and throw my arms around it and give it a kiss.

 If I'm learning anything, I'm learning to go with what I have. I try not to spend a whole lot of time yearning for what I don't. Sure, there are days when it's all I can do. We all have those.

And as if she got my thought, that skunk turned exactly as Chet Baker used to, to check behind to see if I was coming along. I was floored by the perfection of the scene, and framed it quickly, just as I would have had that inkblot been my sweet friend.

Zooming in quickly, I caught her paw lifted--Chet used to do that, too. 
Was this skunk a messenger? If the thought comes to me that a creature might be acting as a messenger, she likely was.
That's how it works, at least in my world. Thought becomes truth. Who can say Chet didn't send this animal to me, didn't nudge me out the door this morning? Or maybe the little voice was Ida, or DOD. There was a conjunction of little voice, irrepressible urge to hike and a beautiful encounter. Thank you, whoever kicked me out the door.

After nabbing this shot of my funky Valentine, I had plenty of time to catch up with her. She began digging, in the sweet forgetfulness of a busy little animal. 

There's no question she was onto me. But she was also absorbed in digging pits and finding food. 

She was thin from the long winter's sleep, and she had work to do.

She stopped to scratch an itch, doglike, with her hind leg.

The camera caught the moment those long hind claws raked through her fetid ivory locks. 

I imagine when you've been in a den asleep for weeks, the fleas have a field day with you.

She was so doglike and so catlike as she luxuriated in a good scratch. Little CatDog. 

She dug again, and this time she dug deep.

This wasn't just turning over old cowpies...

This was excavation! Skunks dig neat funnel-shaped pits as they go along. Some are small and some are big, but they tend to be conical.  And there's often a round nose impression or two at the bottom.

She unearthed a sizeable object and quickly backed up. She rolled it along with her front paws several feet backward, as if to get all the dirt off it before eating it.  See how her tail is bent under from the motion?

Got me sumpin'.

This is the best I could do for detail. You can see her pink jaw and white teeth, and back of that,  a sort of greenish-gray grub with clear segmentation. Not sure, but I'd guess it might be a longhorn beetle larva. It was big and very chewy, that much I could tell. I did not hear cracking as you would had it been a pupa in a shell.

Whatever it was, it was goood!!

I enjoy watching animals work, unbothered. I'm not sure there's much I would have enjoyed more than following this skunk for forty minutes on a rainy day in mid-February. 

Oddly, I just recorded the audio version of my True Nature column, "Crepuscular," for the March/April issue of Bird Watcher's Digest.  
The column, written a year ago, is all about night stalking of skunks. 
It's a little primer for anyone who wants a richer life. All you have to do is get outside. Promise.

BWD is having a Valentine's Day special--
One year for only $14! Why not subscribe? But come back here for mo skunk.

She raised her head again, sniffing for me. But I was still downwind. I assure you, I could smell her!

Hmm. Something is amiss here, but I can't smell it. What that big gray lump that clicks is, I do not know. But it hasn't hurt me yet, and the grubbing is good here.

In case you're wondering, it never occurred to her to raise her tail and threaten me, just as it never occurred to me that I might get sprayed. That wasn't going to happen. I go into skunk following with a positive attitude. I take care to stay downwind; I scramble quietly to get out of their way when they walk up to me, and everything takes care of itself. Perhaps the key is ascribing no malintent to the skunk.  I don't think of them as evil or out to get me. I am not afraid of them.  Quite the opposite. I know they are very afraid of me. 

As I followed her, I wrote an extended haiku, a sort of tribute to her innocence.

My scent makes skunks run.
I'm the scariest beast here.
Carrier of death

I hold the power
Archetype of ancestors
I know it's not true

I am no better 
No more ruler of these woods
Than squirrel or skunk.

Humans live to prove
Our superiority
Over beast, fish, fowl

I am outnumbered
By mindless majority
Who fear this sweet skunk

Who wishes only
to be left alone to dig
Crunch down her larvae;

Live her good skunk life.
No wonder she fears people.
She is without sin.

I had put this little animal on alert for long enough. I didn't want to pester her any more. 

So when she moved on, I hung back.

She stopped one more time to scratch herself.

Farewell, sweet skunk. Perhaps we'll meet again someday. 

She's the little inkblot in the left lower center below. I started following her up by the farmhouse you can see on the ridge. Several hills and valleys traversed. Skunks travel. They may look low-slung and not good for the distance, but they move it on out. 

I climbed the east bargate, big rig draped in plastic, for it had started to rain again. 
Climbing fences with a big camera, like skunk stalking, is a bit of an art in itself.

I headed out over the hill, even though the rain was picking up. I had the right gear, and I liked the way the rain made the muddy road shine. It drew me onward.

This is the brim of my waxed cowboy hat, which was streaming with rain. I kept dipping my head to let it run off. 

I found a fox squirrel's stash of hickory nut shells. A midden, more than a stash. All the goodie is gone.  This seems to be the time of year when hickory nuts are center stage. More on that in my next posts.

Caught this image of the Toothless Lady in the rain. I hadn't noticed the beauty of her shingles until they were wet. Like seashells with the rain's luster.

In a shed, I found a skunk turd. Not terribly old. How do I know it's a skunk turd? 

It has a green stinkbug carapace in it. There are not many people who will eat a stinkbug. 
Skunks are one of them. 

I identify skunk droppings by all the shiny beetle parts in them. Skunks are hell on beetles and their larvae. Go skunks!  
Beetles are among the most abundant animals on earth. When asked what the study of natural history had taught him about the Creator, evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane is supposed to have said, "God has an inordinate fondness for beetles." 

I walked on until I got to the farmstead. I wanted to see the couch in the rain. The last time I shot it, it was covered with snow. Either one works for me. I didn't expect to get fond of this couch when I first beheld it, but I love shooting it. I also love how the poison ivy vines make the chimney look like it's moving, like a person's head in an old daguerrotype.

 Chet Baker was always climbing up into its lap, sniffing around. He found a little toy in it once, and some kind of crumbs, which he ate. God knows how long they'd been in there. Sixty years?

I went around to the side of the house to see if I could find the daffodils coming up.
And just like magic, there they were. By gum.

And in my mind's eye, the sun was out and warm and the jonquils were wafting sweet, and suddenly into the frame came the best little photobomber anyone ever had, headed over to give me a kiss.

I have sweet memories. I'm going with what I have. Grief into gratitude.

 I made it back to the car, only about a mile beyond the Toothless Lady, as the rain picked up. 

When I got home, I went straight to the greenhouse, which has, mysteriously, been a source mostly of drear lately. Not sure what's wrong, but all the plants are languishing. Maybe the fact that it never gets any sun at all? Think that could have something to do with it?

 And I found that my Christmas cactus, which famously thrive on neglect, had pushed forth a single, utterly spectacular Valentine. BOOM. Well, thank you! Your timing: Fabulous. As is your form.

And Goliath the geranium, more than 5' across now, and getting its leaves scorched by the heater, was full of red-hot cheer.

 This extended skunk, grub, turd, flower and rain reverie has been brought to you by my inexplicable need to share what I have.

Especially for Erin and Kate, who love skunks and might just need these photos and words today.

                                                           Happy Valentine's Day!

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