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A Song for No One

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

 I've been running daily, and it feels so right. It helps to have Phoebe in the house; she's my inspiration and personal fitness advocate. We don't run together, because we'd be running together a half mile apart, ha! But we do bike together, and there is not much that's more fun than zooming down these hills and toiling up them with my kids. Proud to be a beast, schooled by the endless Appalachian foothills.

I usually run on my road, but I need a change of scenery now and then. Because I make lists of all the birds I hear and see on each run, it's fun to change it up and see what's singing elsewhere. I can get 50 species on my two-mile stretch of road in a single run in mid-June. The number I can hear drops steadily throughout June and July, not because there are fewer birds, but because they're too busy making more of them to sing. Boy, do I know the feeling. Busy launching my fledglings and painting pictures. It kind of rules out spending a lot of time behind the keyboard.

So I took a different road, and I found some beautiful things. If I didn't already love chicory for its inimitable blue, it's even more ravishing when punctuated by goldfinches.

 You can't crop off the guardrail or the road. They're part of the story, and beautiful too, for the way they curl through the composition.

A decrepit fenceline only adds to the charm.

It was on this road that I heard a song that stopped me in my tracks. It was coming from deep in the woods, that sloped steeply away from the road.
It was a hermit thrush.
Hermit thrushes are usually denizens of cool boreal forest. In Ohio, they seek out pockets of hemlock, with the refrigerated microclimates that go along with deep rock chasms.  The closest hermit thrushes nest in the Hocking Hills, a two-hour drive west of here.

Hermit thrushes aren't supposed to be here. My county, Washington, is the big one, five up from the bottom, on the right, the one with the notch in it. Where hermits are concerned, it's blank, for Not Reported. And as you can see, there are precious few hermit thrush breeding records statewide. That's because there's precious little hemlock habitat in Ohio, and what we have is suffering badly from the hemlock wooly adelgid, a nasty gummy white sap-sucking insect from Asia. I watched in horror as it wiped out Connecticut's hemlocks in the late 1980's, and now it's happening here. I can think of only two places in Washington Co. that have any hemlock, and I'm afraid to go look at them, afraid of what I'll find.

I borrowed this map from the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Ohio, the one with the Zick cover. I still get a big grin on my face every time I pull this book out for reference.  It came out in April 2016, the same spring that Baby Birds did. I was so durn proud to paint the cover for my beloved state's atlas, I can't even tell you. I sure hope they ask me to paint the Third Atlas of Breeding Birds cover, whenever that comes out! I hope I can still see to paint then!

Here's what it says inside. Author Paul Rodewald goes on to prognosticate that the hermit thrush may decline even more in Ohio, with the death of our hemlocks. The state has designated hermit thrush as a Species of Special Interest. 

No kidding. I was taking a special interest in this songster, hearing him on June 23, 2018, when he "should" have been far, far to the north or west, in our special pocket of HETH habitat in the Hocking Hills. 

And yet he was here. And he was lighting up the forest with his song. I'd never heard a hermit sing in Ohio in June. I made some recordings, which increased in quality over the next few days. I'll subject you only to the good ones. I could listen to them all day.


It is instantly addicting to spend a sunrise in this forest with that bird sending out silver spirals of notes, to no one. Or to someone. I have been there three times now, and I want to go there every morning.

I've never been in a woodland precisely like this one. The reason it is unique is, I'm afraid, anthropogenic. Which is to say the hand of man is heavy on this land.

There is no understory vegetation in this forest. And this is the chewed-upon pelvis bone of the reason why. 

People in this part of Ohio will fence and run cattle in the damnedest places. Well, they do it out West, too, put cattle in our national forests, our "multi-use" land. I won't pontificate on the propriety of that, but it isn't right ecologically to put cattle in a forest, either for the cattle or the forest. Cattle are descended from African ancestors. They belong on savannah; they belong on grasslands. Cattle eat grass. But, when forced by necessity, they will also eat anything that might try to come up in the understory of a forest. Which does not include grass.

So what you get when you've had cattle on a piece of land for decades, maybe hundreds of years, is topography like this. Deeply cut and eroded and trampled. And you can see for hundreds of yards. Now, that makes it pleasant to walk through, to be sure, but it is practically devoid of birds and wildflowers. I found some striped wintergreen, but most everything else trying to grow there was nonnative. Like the cattle.

Tromp and graze and cut it for enough decades, and the land becomes deeply eroded, with rivulets, most of them seasonal, running between artificial pillowed ridges. This landform was made by overgrazing. By people, and the cattle they put here. It happened when the forest was cut, grew back, was cut, grew back...and they never gave it a rest from grazing.

The Virginia pines, I'm thinking, dominate here because the cattle wouldn't eat them. Yes, it's a wholly artificial situation, atypical of the mixed deciduous forest in our area. There are a few beeches and red maples, but most of the cover is pine.

And pine, it seems, is close enough to hemlock for this hermit thrush. The missing understory, oddly, mimics that of hemlock forests. (Hemlocks poison plants that try to grow beneath them, and the ones that don't die get shaded out). This forest is cool and very dark, and there's lots of water. It must have felt like home to this wintering hermit thrush, enough so that he decided to stay.

 The forest is practically devoid of birds. Except This Bird. 

I kept visiting, hoping to see him singing. It was funny, being a pretty good lifelong birder, to keep coming home empty-handed. But he was singing high in the canopy first thing in the morning, and I just couldn't pick him up. 

So I lay down and made videos, imagining which treetop he might be in, while the silvery streamers of his song floated down and landed gently around me. I let hearing him be enough for me, and it was more than enough. 

 On June 26, I lay there so long--over an hour--that I zeroed in on the exact pine where I thought he might be. And then I got up and circled around, staring hard at the pine top, hoping. 

And I saw him. He was lit by the warm morning sun, a little white angel topping my best Christmas tree ever.


And he saw me. Hrrnh? A human?

But he didn't stop singing. He noted me and took me in and paused a few moments and then went right on with his homily.

And for that I was grateful. To see that song come out of his little yellow maw, well, it was a sweet reward for days of patient waiting. But it got better. I was positioning myself for a better shot, using a dead limb as a stabilizer, and he suddenly disappeared. After singing for at least an hour in one spot, he was gone. 

I saw something falling down through the canopy like a big brown leaf. It was him. He came down to have a closer look at me. 

It was so, so dark down where I was, but he paused just long enough for me to get a blurry shot that showed his rusty tail--the best mark for a hermit. 

He kept singing. And I saw another big brown leaf come up from the forest floor and land near him. It looked to me like another hermit thrush.

I left then, so as not to disturb them any further. I climbed out of the ravine, exalted by my brush with this finest of singers, thrilled that I hadn't frightened him; that instead of flying away, he'd chosen to come down to have a look at me. 

The light came through the windshield of an old junked truck, and I thought about all the crap humans leave behind on the land. Not just our junk, but our misuse and abuse of the land. We turn a bunch of animals that weigh a ton apiece loose in a forest and expect them to thrive. We never even give a thought to what our huge animals destroy; to the trails and ruts they carve in the land. We throw old cars and cans and bottles full of God knows what there, because it's a place to put junk where we won't have to look at it.

And the earth thanks us in a song like this, in a hymn for undeserving ears.

I work to deserve a song like this. I figure if I share it with you, and it brings you peace and wonder, the hermit thrush will like that. There's no way he could sing a song so beautiful without caring who hears it.

Baby Season

Friday, June 22, 2018

Carolina chickadees, thinking I'm Mom. 

 Can it really be more than two weeks since I've posted? That's June for you, when both kids are home for the whole summer (I'm still dazed at this) and I'm conscious of treasuring every minute in their presence, because what else is there to do that is as important as that? Well, I had a big drive to Chicago in there, too, and a bunch of talks to give, but now I finally, finally get to stay home for a little while. Well, there's a wedding coming up on the East coast...but I still have a week here!!

There's also been the little side job of getting Liam ready for college, going through all the forms and financial aid and work study job applications and promissory notes and rooming assignments and buying extra long twin bedding and field trips and orientation...gaaaack it's like a part-time job. I don't remember anything like this with Phoebe. At all. Maybe because she just handled it herself. Or in part because Bowdoin didn't have an orientation, at least not one we could attend. Anyway. It's hectic as all get out. And he leaves for good on AUGUST 11. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE OR HUMANE?? So if you don't hear much from me in the next couple of months, it's because I'm too busy loving him up. And if you don't hear much after that, well, assume the worst. Ha ha. Ugh. Not looking forward to rattling around in this too-big house by myself. Good thing Phoebe will be home another couple of weeks after that. Lord. From feast to famine, it'll be. I have a good project, at least, and I'll be deep deep into it then.

I've finally broken through the barrier and switched gears from finishing the writing to doing the illustrations for Saving Jemima. I think, no, I know it gets harder to do that with every book. I grind my gears for weeks, putting off the inevitable. I love to write. I could write hanging upside down by one toe from a forklift, if I could get the pen to work. But I have a really hard time getting started with painting.  Every time I sit down in front of a blank sheet, I'm afraid I've lost it. Which, of course, I haven't, but try telling my psyche that when I'm frozen up and looking for anything to do but paint.

 I literally got to the point where I couldn't write any more. The story was finished. I had cobbled a fairly satisfying ending out of a story that didn't have a satisfying end. She was here for eight months, and then she wasn't. Rats. OK then, let's recap. What did we learn here? That's the solution I came up with. And I learned a lot from that experience, from that bird. The ending works, I think.

 So I selected a ton of photos for each of 20 chapters, and decided what I should illustrate,  mostly things that can't be photographed. Every morning when I open my laptop it's like "Get Smart," where The Chief tells Maxwell Smart: "Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is..." except that I don't have a phone in my shoe (it's in my pocket!) and I certainly don't have an Agent 99 to help. All I have is me and my watercolors. And that's fine. I love getting the assignment each day. I've got this.

One thing that really helped was teaching a two-day sketching and painting workshop at the Morton Arboretum in Chicago. 

I'd love to post some illustrations but that would ruin the surprises for the book. I'm painting on scraps of very old Fabriano cold press watercolor paper, which I'm sure is a lot better than new Fabriano paper, and loving it so much. Soon I'll run out of that and have to rummage around in the flat file for more scraps. It's not a very big book, so I can paint these things fairly small. It'll be OK.

I have some photos from the last couple of weeks that I like, so I'll share them here, in this disjointed halooo from the Land of Book and Kids and Flowers and Rabbits and Chipmunks.

An extremely rare photograph of a Carolina chickadee sheltering its nestlings. Even got a little catchlight in its eye, practically impossible to do with chickadees. They're skittish, and inclined to come out of the nest box hole like an arrow aimed right at your eye. Staying put is not something they are good at. I had my iPhone camera on and ready when I took the box down to peek inside.

On my run a couple weeks ago, the same one where I saved the snapping turtle, there was a little thank-you present waiting in a little shed not far from the Three Graces--an active phoebe nest on a light fixture, and the light coming through the machine shed siding.  Oh, I like this picture. I could tell by the way the phoebe mom was acting that she had new babies in there. I got my photo and got gone. Looks like years of phoebes in that mud and moss tower.

The chicory was just coming out, and you know how I love chicory. 

One of my continuing frustrations is being unable to shoot The Three Graces in the morning. They're backlit and it just doesn't work. But here they are in full summer dress, in the morning.

Daisies do a lot better backlit. 

A moment when the sun came out for maybe six minutes and I ran around like Daffy Duck taking shots. 

I appreciate cattle. This heifer is absolutely lovely. She's got that deep deep mahogany red coloration I like.

Never mind the dirty bum and the poop bindhi on her forehead. She's still a looker, and she made me laugh too.

The Shadow Barn, from another angle. I'm worried about it. Pieces of siding keep falling off. Dang it.  But there's an orchard oriole nest in that beautiful oak, just like there was the last two years running.

Here's a little video of my first fawn of June with its mama.  You might need to full-screen it to see the fawn, which is barely more than a wake ripple behind the big doe.

And some of the sweetest music I know--begging eastern bluebirds. Yes, I'm speaking bluebird to them. One of my parlor tricks, learned of necessity as a rehabilitator. It's so much easier to whisper to them, and ask them to open up, than to force-feed them. Everybody's happier, and everybody eats.


 And in the perfect metaphor for how time and birds fly in June, here is the same brood recently, at Day 14. This photo taken with my "magic eye," held up to the box hole. I wrote the book, and the change in these birds in two weeks never ceases to amaze me. Time and bluebirds wait for no one.

Epic Turtle Save

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

          This morning's run was so jam-packed full of June, I had to come right back in and share it. I so enjoy seeing what's coming into bloom.

Moth mullein, Verbascum blattaria, is an import, but it's so lovely, and doesn't seem to overreach its welcome.
 I like how both the flower stalk and the water tower seem to have the same lean in this shot.
That's the tower that brings us our "town water." So lovely not to have to order and pay for loads of water, 1500 gallons at a time, to be hauled to the house twice a month, as I did for the first 13 years of life on the ridge. The well water was unpotable and unreliable, and I had to go buy five-gallon jugs of drinking water, too. The former owners of the house glossed over the water situation pretty thoroughly. Only after we moved in did we find their stash of dozens of plastic milk jugs, with which they hauled drinking water from town! I remember thinking that if I couldn't lift a five-gallon jug of water, I probably couldn't live out here. Still lifting them, too. Check out my arms sometime.

Hedge bindweed (Convolvulous sepium) has the most bewitching pink and white blossoms. You'd almost think they were petunias, for their size and happy particoloring. Nestled there amidst the yellow clover, at the base of the teasel, it has a rare beauty. I never let any bindweed grow, much less bloom, in my gardens, but I enjoy it when I'm out on the road.

New leaves of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) bend and wave under their own weight. I always wonder why juvenile trees have such enormous leaves. Maybe it's because they're in shade, and trying to get maximum surface area for photosynthesis.  But they seem to have a life force that can't be stopped.

Not everything I saw was sublime. Took me a bit to figure this one out. That's a Copenhagen tobaccy can. But what's with the stain? Well, when you've dipped your last chaw, then you unload your lip juice in the empty can, and you toss that out the window (because you don't want it in the truck). And then it leaks down across the road. Ain't that nice? The pleasure of figuring out this little phenomenon is followed by disgust. Who could trash a road like this? Almost everybody, apparently. 

 Along the way, I met up with my kind of folks: a cooperative meadow fritillary--the smallest fritillary, barely larger than a pearl crescent. I like taking photos of butterflies with my iPhone, because it's a challenge. You have to get verrry close. Like 6" away close.

It occurred to me that a photo showing its setting--in the middle of the county road on a Sunday morning--would be more meaningful.

So I hunkered down even lower and shot him in situ. 

Lord, I love this camera. I swung around, checking for oncoming traffic, which was very light before 8 AM on a Sunday. And I saw a little dark ellipse way up ahead in the road. And I thought, "Well, that wasn't there when I came by. So that means it's alive. That means it's a turtle. And the low profile means it's a snapper."

Compare the horizon trees in the fritillary shot and the turtle shot and you can see I had a good ways to go to get to that turtle. And as luck would have it, a truck was coming up behind me. I jumped up into the hayfield, off the road, so he wouldn't be tempted to swing into the turtle's lane to miss me.

And another pickup came from the east, and he was headed right for that little turtle. I sprinted up the last few hundred feet and swooped the turtle up just before the truck was able either to hit or straddle it. One never knows with pickups in southeast Ohio. Depends if there's a jackass behind the wheel, the kind that spits in a can and tosses it out the window. The same kind aims for turtles.

Oh I was so happy to have her in hand. Until she emitted an odor that brought me back to the years when I used to grow broccoli. If you've ever grown broccoli, you probably know the smell the plants get when you've harvested the big central head, and there's a hollow stem left. That collects rainwater, and it puts up a stench that's so ungodly you can't believe it's just a plant rotting. It has methane and sulfur compounds, I'm sure, as well as mustard gas. Well, this little turtle perfumed the atmosphere around us with rotting broccoli that seemed to come in waves. Lee-ord. I had to admit it was a nifty  deterrent to my ever making a meal of her!

Happy to be corrected, but I thought it was a female as the base of the tail was rather thin. Maybe there's a way to tell by the plastron. I'll wait for Boneman or Floridacracker to chime in. Fat little thing!

 And then she did the sweetest thing. It was all too much for her, to be suddenly airborne and closely scrutinized. So she closed her eyes. Do with me what you will, primate. You've got me. But I don't want to look at you. Checking out.

Her face with her eyes squeezed closed made my heart go flippy flop. And I decided at that moment that simply picking her up and carrying her across was not going to be sufficient. I would take her all the way down to the pond. Fergus' pond. 

This was not a trivial decision. There were many hundred yards of wet, waist-high June hay to navigate. And that was the other thing that made me want to help. It would take her days, maybe weeks, to get through all that, if she even could. 

I was careful to keep myself out of her sight as I pushed through the hay, and it worked. Her eyes opened and she took interest in her assisted journey, her low, jolting flight to freedom.

 If a snapping turtle can be dear, this stinky little pot of joy was dear. At least to me. And utterly docile, thank goodness. She didn't even push against my fingers. Good thing, because snappers are ungodly strong, and she'd have been a double handful.


I made a bad one-handed shot of a European skipper, my first of the year, as we trudged and swished along.

Her first sight of the water. I saw it flash across her eyes: Yes. This is where I want to go. Her front legs came out. She thought about air-paddling, but decided playing dead would be more prudent.


As we neared pondside, the ground got soggier and soggier.  But I wanted to get her in the water. I'd come this far, I needed to complete the job. 

Such a fine home for a small turtle. Here, she could grow into a leviathan.

Finally, with the water squishing up between my toes, I put her in a little rivulet that led right to the pond. I had no doubt she'd motor on down and disappear in the cool depths as soon as I left.

And I had several hundred yards of high wet hay to navigate back to the road, and another mile to run with sopping wet shoes and socks. And nothing was ever more worth that.

It had been a most excellent save, a most excellent morning. After all the turmoil and excitement of this spring, with two kids graduating the same weekend, and 1800 miles driven in the doing, I finally feel like I'm back in my body, like my mind, body and heart are hooked up again. And that feels wonderful.

Wishing you peace, and all the heady joy that June has to offer. Get out there. Just go!! Waller in it!

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