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A Song Sparrow Named AlphaBits

Thursday, March 29, 2018

 Longtime readers of this blog will remember Luke, the leucistic song sparrow first photographed in this Appalachian Ohio yard on October 7, 2012. He was spectacular, and beloved, as all my special woodland friends are.

He'd show up for the Big Sit in mid-October, thrill our friends, hang around for a little while, then disappear until around Easter, when he'd set up territory in the side and back yard. Oh how I loved that little sparrow.

I'd photograph him through the bedroom window, singing in the crape myrtle by the fishpond. This is Easter, 2013. 

With his snow-white cap, throat, primaries and tail feathers, and his pale pink bill and legs, he was a showstopper. Leucistic birds are sometimes called "partial albinos." They have a patchy expression of albinism. Sometimes they're dilute and pale overall, but more often they have scattered white patches like Luke did.

 I felt so blessed to call him my friend and neighbor. How lucky can you get, to have a bird like this singing in your yard for three years?

This is my last photo of him, taken January 7, 2015. Luke didn't reappear in the spring of 2016. I was, of course, bereft. Again. I find myself bereft all too often. This is the lot of women who fall for wild things. However, if I have faith and wait, some other marvelous creature comes along to fill my critter-loving heart back up. Or, more properly, I fixate on another victim. ;)

What a cutie Luke was. I think he knew how special he was. Toward the end of his stay on Indigo Hill, I could call, Luuuuke!! and he'd pop up in the prairie meadow, as if he knew I needed to see him.

Last summer I noticed that one of my resident song sparrow's songs was very distinctive. Now, a song sparrow has a whole collection of songs that he mixes and matches throughout his day. They are all similar in pattern but not in pitch or notes. This song type was a doozy!

I loved hearing this bird all throughout the spring and summer of 2017. He left in the fall and I heard him no more. I was trying very hard to sleep in earlier this month when my subconscious took note that Alpha Bits had returned and was singing his distinctive little song outside my bedroom window--at 5:45 AM! I awoke and sat straight up with a big smile on my face. AlphaBits!! You're back!

Here's how he sounds. This video was taken at dawn, March 24, 2018. You can't see him, but you can sure hear him!


This bird sings the first six notes of The Alphabet Song. A B C D E F ... It's so melodic, it's uncanny. No wonder we call them song sparrows!

I have a bunch of audio recordings of AlphaBits from 2017 and already from this spring. It took a little while longer to get a halfway decent photo of Alpha Bits. I never managed to in 2017--he's very shy and he doesn't tend to sit high up and exposed while singing. But I got lucky later that same morning that I made the beautiful dawn video. These shots were taken through my bedroom window screen on March 24, 2018. So they're lousy. I've since taken the screen out and washed the windows. I've been trying to catch him ever since. He's singing, but not where I can photograph him. Soon enough, my pretty. I'll get you, and your little song, too!

He's not Luke, but he's beautiful all the same.

I love more than anything connecting with the special birds and animals who share my habitat. I love knowing that I have the same song sparrow as was here the year before. I am constantly looking and listening for the distinguishing features of each creature I meet.

Sometimes, the distinguishing feature is only in the song.

But that is enough. All of this is more than enough.

ZICK ALERT: TODAY, Thursday, March 29: I'll be telling the story of the WV snowy owl who dominated my blog just before last Christmas. I've distilled more than 1500 words and 160 photos into a gripping narrative. There's a lot of who'd'a thunk it stuff about snowy owls, too, courtesy Project SNOWstorm and a special guest photographer. 7 pm, Campus Martius Museum, 2nd and Washington Streets, Marietta, Ohio, March 28, 2018. I rarely get to speak locally so I'm very excited to see who shows up! Thank you!!

Labrador Morning

Saturday, March 24, 2018


It was such a beautiful morning. Cold, but every morning has been cold.
I’m used to cold. 23 degrees meant four layers, gloves, headband. Everything able to be zipped down or shed should the sun and the heat of running require it. I was really happy because my tiny Swarovski binoculars were finally back from repair. I’m so tough on binoculars. The bridge hinge was broken again, and they were badly out of alignment, too. That's what hundreds of miles of shaking will do. But this morning they were back and good as new. I saw a little head poking out of the grass on a high bank and with the binocs it resolved to an Eastern meadowlark. I reveled in the view, after so many runs without binoculars. Next up was a singing field sparrow, then three more meadowlarks and a displaying red-winged blackbird. I was so happy to see my friends up close again.

I saw some pineapple tops in the cow pasture and knew that the Harrises were tossing them out as treats for their Herefords. I smiled. I've seen pumpkins and apples in the same spot. I've fed pears to them here, too. 

I went to see one of my shadow barns, and I thought as I walked up how nice it would be to see Chet Baker’s little shadow on that warm red wood. All right, I couldn’t see him any more, but what if his shadow were to appear?

I could feel him near. Oh, how I miss seeing him, touching him. I’d have to settle for knowing his spirit was near. That’s something, but today it wasn’t enough. I heaved a big sigh. It was OK to miss him, but yearning wasn't something I could afford to indulge.

 I was going to stay happy this morning. I had my binoculars and somewhere to go. And nothing hurts when I run.  When you're my age, that's cause for celebration!

I was looking as I trotted along at the tufts of cow hair on the barbed wire to my right, thinking that if I could find one backlit, it’d be worth a shot. I caught a large dark shape out of the corner of my eye. It was a dog, a young Lab, and when I caught its eye it put its ears back and smiled. When I spoke to it, it tucked its tail and ran a little ways away.  "If you don't want me near you, I'll leave." Not afraid, just polite. So I averted my eyes, turned away and sat down on the side of the road, presenting the smallest profile I could. Soon enough it crept up and gingerly but neatly slipped under the barbed wire to come closer to me. As I watched, I thought, “This dog knows its way around barbed wire. This is a country dog. It's done this before."

Once it decided I was no threat, the dog held its tail high and moved with confidence. Soon I was stroking it and rubbing its sides. I had thought it was a male from its high- carried tail and commanding presence, but a quick check showed it to be a female. Hmm. What an interesting dog. She seemed very happy to see me, a bit hungry, but by no means frantic or questing. Still, I was concerned. She wore a faded pink collar that had probably started out red. Her rabies tag was broken in half—no help in identifying her. I shook my head. You have a dog that can run for miles, and you don't put a viable ID tag on her collar? That’s what collars and tags are FOR. Then I laughed at myself. I'm one to talk. Until he lost his hearing, Chet never even wore a collar. But then he never went anywhere without me, either.

 The only other clue on the collar was a transponder, probably for an invisible fence. Data into the Situational Awareness processor.  It suggested to me that her escape was a jailbreak, that she was well-enough cared for to be kept inside a pricey electronic fence. Her glossy coat and shining eyes spoke of good food and good care. Her kindness and manners said that she'd been treated with love. She was not a dropoff, I decided, though Lord knows this is the kind of place people drop off unwanted animals. I’d just live-trapped a tomcat last week, clearly deposited in my turnaround to help reduce the avian population at that hippie lady’s bird sanctuary.

I was still gathering data. I sniffed her ruff. It smelled of stale winter house interior. This wasn’t a hunting dog; she was a house pet who had been let out just this morning. She wasn’t far from home. Her home-smell still clung to her.  For her part, she was gathering information on me. She knew I hadn’t had breakfast yet, either. I smelled of fresh air. She knew I was a ways from my home.

 I looked at her and decided I’d do whatever it took to reunite her with her owners.  It didn't matter how long it took. But first, she’d have to come along on my run. I knew without even asking that she would take me up on the offer. She'd already decided, too. At this point there was a great deal of nonverbal communication flying between us. It was electrifying. I hadn’t had a chance to speak dog for ever so long. To look, to sniff, to deduce, to exchange thought pictures. Dogs can get us in touch with that which is essential within us: Our senses, quite apart from our thoughts.
 As I'd guessed, she was only too happy to come along. Her tail waved like a flag as she rocketed along dozens to hundreds of yards in front. We had forged an instant human/canine contract, an agreement to stay loosely together this beautiful morning. I'd keep her safe, and she'd keep me company.

I aimed to get off the county road as soon as possible, to turn down the dirt road.


It was truly extraordinary to see a black inkblot on the landscape in front of me again.
To aim my camera at it and fire away.


I needed to call her something. "Roma" popped into my head, because she was roaming, for sure.  Roma she'd be, for the duration of our run.

Just like Chet used to, she'd stop periodically to look back and check on me, and then she'd double back. Three times she snuck up on me from behind, having made a huge circle around me. Each time she surprised me, I laughed. What a fun, interesting companion.

I called her, to see what would happen. Heah, Roma!!

She came back for all the world as if Roma were her name.

There was such a connection between us, it was as if I'd known her before. I had to wonder who had sent this wonderful dog to me this fine, fine morning. 

I wanted one thing, and that was to sit on a sunny hillside, where I used to sit with Chet, and gaze down into the valley below.

Roma thought that was an excellent plan. She was so excited to be out and about that she made about twenty circles around me as I sat and emptied my mind.

She had a prey drive that would do a cheetah proud. She dug, rooted, sniffed, watched. This dog was going to go away knowing something. It was awe-inspiring, and a bit unsettling. I'd become used to Chet, who in his later years kept mostly to the road or trail, and was happy to let most animals pass on by with just a word of caution from me. At one point on our run she spotted two distant deer I'd been praying she wouldn't see, and she bounded down the road to give chase. Ye gods, the eyesight and hearing on this animal! A sharp shout from me, and she stopped and stood to watch them run. Good dog. That told me she'd had some training. She was listening, even as she orbited. What a good girl.

And then, glory be, she flopped down to join me, rolled in the grass, and relaxed for a moment. That was all I'd ever wanted: just to be in the company of a dog again. To look at the landscape over the head of a good dog.

 She was the most interesting color. Not black, but deep seal-brown, like someone I loved so dearly. A seal-brown angel.

I'm so happy to meet you, Roma. Wherever you're from, whatever it takes, we'll get you home. Until then you and I are friends. Friends for a glorious hour or two.  


There was a perfection about her I couldn't take my eyes off. A lot of dog, with a lot of potential, and brains, too. Not camera-shy, as so many dogs are. Willing to be looked at and photographed.

Not dopey in the least. Not overbearing or obnoxious. Noble. Nobility is hard to find in dogs these days. So few people seem to be willing to work with their dogs to bring it out. This dog clearly came equipped with it, and had had some training. She had dignity.

Her light lemon eyes look a little crazy, but they're not. They reminded me of a lion's eyes.


Also a good dry-kisser. She planted a couple on my cheek. Yep, Roma had it all.

On our way back, she checked out the Toothless Lady. Oh, the memories. Chet used to walk a little gangplank into that collapsing barn. He drove me nuts. I'd writhe until he re-emerged from the rubble, so afraid he'd drop through what was left of the floor. Once he even went up into the haymow!! Arrrgh!! I watched helplessly as he climbed the stairs, could hear his footsteps up there, with me down below, afraid he'd run into a nest of coons or squirrels and lose his head. Terrible. Finally he came back down the rickety stairs with a look that said, "You worry too much."

Roma promised not to scare me like that. This dog has sense. Chet did too. He was just overconfident. A highwire walker.

Roma's Lab came out full bore when she found a ditch full of ice-coated water. It couldn't have been 25 degrees, but that dog broke the ice with playful slaps of her paws and LAY DOWN in the water!!

Oh how I laughed!

She was so cute I had to make some videos.


 See what I mean about her carriage? She's got presence.

Imagine loving to be in water so much that you lie down in it on a subfreezing morning.  I love the redwings singing in the background of this next video.


I knew our two-hour idyll had to end soon. As we neared home my mind was working through lots of scenarios. I'd stop at the most likely place and ask. If Roma wasn't theirs, I'd take her on home and call the dog warden. I'd offer to keep her until someone came forward. I knew someone was missing this wonderful dog already.

I stopped at the driveway to the house where I thought she lived and watched her carefully. She trotted up the driveway, betraying little anticipation. My neighbor came out on her porch saying, "You found my buddy!" A flood of relief washed over me. Thank goodness!

Roma turned to me and smiled and wagged. Their other dog, Dozer, who I knew from years of running past him, put his paws in my hands and looked up at me. I was so happy to have guessed right about where she belonged. Their owner explained to me that Roma had recently taken to roaming, willing to take the shock from her collar for the adventure that followed beyond.

I'd be that dog.

A new collar "for stubborn dogs" was on order. It would have a 9-volt battery. I winced inwardly, but kept my reaction in check. Not mine to judge. Everyone has a different way with their dog. I'd been lucky to live 2/3 mile off the dangerous county road. And Chet was nobody's wanderer. He wanted to go wherever I went, period. If Mether was home, so was Chet, and that was that. He wouldn't even go out the driveway to get the mail with someone else if I wasn't along. Roma, on the other hand, is built to run all day. She lives right on a dip in the main county road, and people regularly hit 65 mph going down that hill. Her owners don't want her wandering at quitting time when everybody's rocketing back from town to their home in the hills, too many with a Bud Light already in hand. I get it.

Now came the moment I'd been waiting for. "What is her name?"


I gasped. Could I have come much closer, with my made-up name? No wonder she came when I called her! There's something going on here. My little voice had been listening hard, knowing things.

Ah, Remy. What joy you brought me, just being your loose, wild, untamed, jail-busting self. A dog with no use for obedience training, for leashes or collars. A dog who is no annex of any human, a dog who is nothing but herself. This dog runs and hunts and digs and splashes and savors every inch of the landscape, 100% alive, 100% animal, 100% grateful to be outside on her own.

But on this morning, she chose to be with me.

Remy, whoever sent you to me, whatever spirit moved you to follow me down and give me a hit of your grace and humor and beauty, I thank most humbly.

Perhaps we'll run again someday.

Senior Picture Shoot: Heeere's Liam!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


 Senior pictures. Lots of people spend a lot of money on senior pictures. Which is nice, because photographers have to make a living, too. The best photos of humans, in my opinion, are not the ones that are produced in a ten-minute session in front of a rolldown screen, when the subject is bathed in the glare of  hot klieg lights.

Formal photos have one thing going for them. They produce predictable results. You're going to get a kid in a borrowed tux with his head slightly canted and most of his teeth showing. He's enduring the experience, doing what he's told, holding a grin until its freshness date has passed.

As for formal school photography, I side with Dwight. 
"I never smile if I can help it. Showing one's teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life."  -Dwight Schrute, The Office

But what are you going to do? You're batch-processing high school seniors. You can't follow each one around grabbing candid shots. But psst!  Mom can...

 I've never been much on studio shots. Yes, each year, for both kids, I dutifully bought the smallest possible package of school photos, feeling I'd be somehow remiss if I didn't. For the big stuff, though (senior photos, prom, homecoming), I've always taken photography of my kids into my own hands. What I lack in technique and fabulous portrait lenses, I make up in sensitivity to who they are and in which settings they look their best. Which would not be against a mottled gray screen under floodlights. It would be in what nature gives us at the moment: low late winter light, weathered barn wood and the landscape in which they have grown up. I shoot them with my old Canon 7D, fitted with 70-300 mm telephoto, the same rig I use on Buffy and Flag, Jolene and the birds. This lets me get the photos I want without sticking a camera right in their faces. I'm standing 30' away; he's just doing his thing, and we get along fine.

 I give him a coat (Mine, a men's Kuhl) that I think will work with the hues of the timeworn wood.  We try a bunch of different settings. That's not the best, but it's already a lot better than the frightened chimpanzee.

We're both hugely enjoying ourselves, expending nothing but photons in a quest for a good shot.
 I'm being horrible, and he cracks up.

 I've seen something interesting in his direct stare. "Look at me like you're p-ssed off at me."
"But I'm not! I can't!"
I forget what I said to get this look out of my loving boy.  Probably something awful.

 Ooh. Now we're getting somewhere. Gravitas suits you, Liam!

I've always talked to my subjects. I talked constantly to Chet Baker, often mentioning animals with which he was acquainted. The ears would come up, the light would come into his eyes, and click!

We keep moving. The light keeps changing. I love his straw-colored hair against the hills, covered in fading little bluestem.

"Hey! You! Turn around!" Sometimes he takes my breath away. From whence came this creature?

Turn your collar up! Work it!


We keep walking to the old barn that used to shelter cattle.  I have the windows in mind.

I love the glimpse of pines and sun through its dark interior, as warm as his smile. 
In this setting, I feel I'm finally getting through to his Liamness. He's relaxed, enjoying the shoot
and all the different places we're exploring. 

And being Liam, he throws me a curve or two. Eeeek!! It's Pennywise the creepy clown!

And then he goes all Broadway on me, throwing those amazing hands wide. Hellooo world!

I ask him to pause in the doorway. "I have cow poop on my shoes."
"Nobody's gonna see that."
I struggle with the exposure. The camera's freaking out, and I'm not able to conquer its desire to expose on the velvet black interior. So they're all overexposed. I take a bunch of shots and finally give up. This is the best I could do. Gotta give that another go. There has to be a way to compensate, because I love this off-kilter shot.

The light is fading fast. We have to work our way back to the hillside where there's still a little sun. I can't resist working the Toothless Lady into a couple of shots. It's cooled down a lot, and we're fighting the natural tendency of one's nose to turn red in the cold. I'm sure it even happens to models. I forgot to bring face powder. Oh well.
I love the juxtaposition of my favorite barn, deliquescing rapidly, and this vital young sapling of a man. It would be hard to find a nicer setting. This is not the first time I've thanked the Providence that led me here, that opened my eyes to the landscapes all around me, that made me take the dirt roads and start a heart collection of such things and places.

I need a little bit of the road ahead of him in this shot, to give him somewhere to walk. The sun catches his eye, colorless but for the light refracting in it, scattering to blue.

"Stand up against that particle board there."
"But it's ugly!"
"It won't be in the photo."

If I haven't made my point yet about taking the time to let a person relax, so you can coax out his true beauty...

This one settled out as my favorite, but I love them all for different reasons. I can't pick just one. Do click on it and you can quickly scroll through them all at a larger size. So much is lost in the blog version.

 When we were all done, Liam jumped for joy! And so did my heart. Laughing my head off, feeling like the luckiest mom in Whipple, or the world.

What a guy, what a day, what a sunset, what a shoot!  This Do It Yourself Moment brought to you by Low Spring Light, Weathered Wood, Beautiful Youth, and Poverty.

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