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Checking on the Bluebird

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A sleepy bee, planning to spend the night with its face buried in red clover. One could do worse. 

Phoebe and I placed the starved baby bluebird with its foster family the evening of July 17. I gave it a day and a half to settle in, then went out early in the afternoon of July 19 to check and see how things were going. I figured it would either be a lot better or dead, but either way I had to know.

It was a lot better! Note that it's in the right front corner of the nest, which is where we put it on the 17th.  You can tell it from the others because it has more pink skin showing. It held that position in the nest, because none of the other babies were going to give their positions up. Most people don't know that baby birds hold their places in the nest, but the ones I've worked with all have. When I was painting nestlings for Baby Birds, all I had to do was take the baby at a certain position in the nest each time, and I'd have the same baby to paint day after day. That was good, because I wanted to track the development of one individual. But it was also good because the baby I was working with quickly learned the drill, settled down, enjoyed the extra feedings, and didn't fidget as much as a newbie would have. When you're drawing something tiny from life, a subject that doesn't fidget is a very good thing.

I'm sure this place-holding behavior helps the parents know who's been fed and who's been skipped and who's doing well and who's not doing so well, if they all keep to their seats. Teachers understand.

I was amused to find the foster chick still begging voraciously, and the two nestlings nearest the foster child decided that was a good idea too.

Then they all got the memo that I was not a bluebird, and suddenly went quiet. Oh. Oops.

Yes, our little foster is smaller, but it's alive and seemingly doing well, and that was cause for celebration! Its siblings are Day 8, and it's Day 7, on July 19. I was very pleased to see the hyperactivity and trembling had ceased. The baby seemed as right as rain, and bound to catch up with its siblings soon.

I felt comfortable leaving them be for a few days. The next time I checked was July 22. Liam and I went out this time, because he hadn't had a chance to meet the foster baby.  Day 11 is traditionally the day a bluebird's feathers have emerged sufficiently to sex them. I carefully pulled the nest out, because the foster family was now Day 12, and that is traditionally the day fledglings can get jumpy, even though it's way too early to jump.

I didn't really expect the foster child's feathers to have burst the sheaths yet, with the bad start it had had in life, but I could sex the other chicks.

This is a female. Its blue is sparse and dull, not the bright cobalt of a male. There was one male and three females in this batch of four. The fifth, foster child remained a mystery. I'd just have to come back!

In the photo below, you can see the exposed pink skin of the foster chick, in contrast to the dusky, feather-covered skin of the others.

I came back on July 23, Baby's Day 12, to scrutinize those feathers. I could see juust enough to guess that Foster Baby is a female. She's still behind for Day 12, but making progress. In this photo, you can also surmise that the blackberries are in. :) Fare well, little bluebird. We'll be back to check on you in a couple of days.

A Bird in Need

Sunday, July 29, 2018


I was taking a run down Dean’s Fork, with the ulterior motive of checking a bluebird box at my friend Harvey’s man-cabin. In the spring of 2017, they’d put up a decorative box on a little post, never thinking anything might use it, when a bluebird pair decided it was just the thing and started hauling grass into it. That would have been OK, but the box was only about two feet off the ground, and the design of the box couldn't be worse.

Cute, yes, but there's nothing right about this box where bluebirds are concerned, except that the entry hole is 1 1/2". The A-frame roofline is nothing but wasted space; it's longer than it is tall; the hole's too close to the floor; there are no ventilation holes, and worst of all it can't be opened for checking or cleaning. I do love the hand-painted propane tank. But the box has got to go.

Last year, when Harvey told me he had bluebirds in the box, I scrambled to get him a pole and predator baffle setup so the decorative box wouldn’t become a coon and snake feeder. I mounted the box with nest on the baffled pole. The bluebirds weren’t happy about the change in height, and there were some worrisome hours while they scolded and refused to approach the box, but they eventually went back to finish incubating, and three healthy bluebirds fledged last summer.

I had meant to replace the decorative box with a real one over the winter, but time got away from me, as it loves to do. Here it was mid- July, a whole year later, and I knew I needed to check that box. And sure enough, I peeked in the box that July 17 morning and saw that it was occupied. Not only that, but there was a young bluebird chick visible through the entry hole, right up next to the entrance. How weird! I could hear the peeping of multiple chicks, but here was this one, right up by the hole. 
Using my iPhone, I shone a light in and gradually grasped what had happened. Way in the back of the box, which is barn shaped and longer than it is tall, was a grass bluebird nest with high walls. Three nestlings were snuggled in the cup. Somehow, this little one had gotten out of the nest cup, and was lying on excess nesting material, all by itself in the front of the box. I poked my finger in and touched the baby, which was begging weakly. It was cool to the touch. Uh-oh. Being out of the nest cup means the baby wasn't being brooded by the female. It could well have been out of the nest all night.  This baby was in trouble, and fading fast away from the warmth of its siblings.

I went and fetched a long stick, blunted the end of it, and tried to push the baby farther back into the box, and up over the high rim of the nest to join its siblings. No dice. I couldn’t push the little blob with one stick. It was like pushing soup with a fork. I fetched another and tried to use the two sticks as a sort of tongs, but that didn’t work either. It was like trying to do laparoscopic surgery with sticks. The more I struggled to move it, the more I realized that this baby couldn't have gotten out of the nest cup under its own steam. It was only five days old. It looked to me as though the female bluebird had thrown the baby out of the nest, but it was a little too big for her to get it out of the hole. 

Lest you be shocked, I have come to believe this culling behavior goes on in lots of bird nests. A bird decides that one of its offspring ain't right, and they just get rid of it, carry it out like so much garbage. People are always talking about mother birds "kicking a baby out of the nest." I never used to believe that would happen, but the baby birds that wind up on the ground are so often seriously compromised that I've revised my thinking.  I have come to believe that part of what makes avian rehab such a challenge is that in many cases we are dealing with birds that haven't fallen to the ground--they've been tossed. For a reason. And sometimes we find out what it is after we've taken them in. Or we never figure it out, because they up and die on us. We blame ourselves, but maybe the cards were stacked from the start. Geesh. Songbird rehab is hard enough without blaming ourselves for something that isn't our fault. Rehabbers take note.

In the end,  I couldn't get the baby back in its nest, and I had a strong feeling the female would just boot it out again if I did.

Nor could I leave the baby there, cold, not getting brooded and probably not getting fed, either. I decided to take it home with me, see what was going on with it, feed it and warm it, and try to foster it into another brood in one of my "real" bluebird boxes. One that can be opened by the well-meaning, meddlesome landlord. The one whose heart gets in the way of what Nature intends.

 Lord, it was skinny and starved and cold. I put it in my decolletage, such as it is, for the ride home, and amused myself by walking up to Phoebe, and letting her figure out where the incessant peeping was coming from. There is a video, but I'm not posting it. Ha!

While I was mixing up some Mazuri Nestling Formula, we got out our primary Baby Bird reference, to see how old it was. Yep. Five days. But so much skinnier than the bluebird I'd painted in 2002. Food. Warmth. Stat!

our foundling, on Page 27 of Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest.

We rigged up a little cooler with a bottle of hot water and a strawberry box lined with tissues. I fed that nestling until it stopped begging, and then it begged some more. Poor wee thing.  

Phoebe has inherited my keen sense for when a wild thing just ain't right. As glad as she was to have a wee thing to care for, she looked at me solemnly. This baby was jittery, restless, hyperactive; it begged even when it was full. I wondered if there was something more wrong with it than just starvation. But we knew we had to give it the best chance possible.

That best chance would be to slip it into one of our boxes with young nearly the same age. That's the beauty of having 25 boxes up and running, most of them occupied. If something goes awry, or you get an orphan, there's usually a host family you can press into service to care for it. 

First, though, we had to feed that child UP. We fed it every 20 minutes or so, all day long, until it was as strong and well-hydrated as it was going to get. By evening, we figured it was as ready as it was going to get. It was time to put it in the far more expert care of bluebirds.

As we walked out to the far meadow box, Phoebe, who'd been checking boxes with me, warned, "Those babies are going to be so much bigger than this one. They're way too old." 

I answered, "By the calendar, they're six days old. This one's five. That's an acceptable span. And besides, it's our only option, short of prying the roof off that decorative box and dropping the baby back in the same nest. Only to have the female kick it out again."

When I pulled out the nest, and Phoebe carefully placed the jittery little thing in with its new foster siblings, something magical happened. It stopped trembling, fidgeting, moving. It lay down as quiet as a mouse, basking in the warmth and scent and feel of other hot-skinned babies pressed up against it. It was a beautiful thing to see. 

"Imagine going through all that without being able to see a thing," Phoebs observed. For its eyes were still sealed shut, though its foster siblings were beginning to peek through slowly-opening slits.

                 It can't see, but it can hear and feel, and if it knows nothing else, it knows it's home now.

As we turned to head back to the house, I was struck by the beauty of my daughter, in the cobbled-together outfit she'd chosen for the expotition: sports bra, skirt, and Hunter boots. She looked to me like a fairy warrior from Narnia, and the sky played along.

A half-moon sailed serenely over the fiesta of colors.

We scurried up the tower stairs to watch a sky gone wild.
And to think about the perfect twist of fate that had sent me down Dean's Fork and peeking in a nestbox, just when a baby bluebird needed help most.

We'll leave it here, safe in a nestbox on Indigo Hill on the night of July 17. Of course, the story continues...


Summer Flowers and Shameless Commerce

Friday, July 20, 2018

I can't find a time of day when I want to sit down and write a blogpost. I'd rather be loping along, grabbing images of late July. I've fallen into my delicious stay-at-home routine which keeps me healthy, happy and wise, if not materially wealthy. I wake up with the first cardinal at 5 and am out on the road by 6:30, enjoying the sunrise and the opening chicory and the long beamed raking light and shadows. I'm proud to say I have an addictive personality--but only for beauty and exercise and being outside.

I get a huge dose of all this every morning, and it sets me up for a day of painting blue jays for Saving Jemima. If that isn't a good life, I don't know what is. I'd love to share my new paintings, but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt frowns on that. October for it!

I thought last year was beautiful. This year, though...

Sweet peas and chicory, a rare Three Graces view in the back, plus bonus bumblebee!

Across the road, the very first tall ironweed bursts into bloom on July 18! Very early. It's announcing the festival that'll be going on in August, whetting my appetite for great swatches of royal purple, for the round heads of Joe-pye weed and dancing swallowtails of three species.

 Had to get those Graces in the shot. Not a great angle for the tree dancers, but with ironweed, a rising sun, and The Three Graces, how can you lose?

I've been having the kids drop me off a few miles down our county road on their way to work in the morning. We get a wee bit of car time, a bit more time to yak and be together, and I get to be out where it's most beautiful way earlier than I could get there if I ran from the house. It's fabulous. And all the ground I cover is new, because I'm only running one direction. Yes, I run the same road most every day, but it changes overnight. 

Chicory and rust-red dock seeds and hayrolls and a barn. Winning!

Yep, that's me, crouching by the side of the road, in case you were wondering as you sped by. I should probably wear a shirt with my Instagram address in big block letters. I amuse myself by thinking what they must be thinking as they smile and wave every morning. Oh, there she is. Doesn't get all that much running done, does she? Usually hunkered down peering at the flars.

On this morning's outing, I discovered that these glorious roadsides had just been mowed down. Goodbye, evening primrose and chicory...

 until mid August. See you then. That's what perennial roots are for.

I ran down our dirt road yesterday, singing our Rain Crows song, "Dirt Road." I'll sing it TONIGHT, July 20, 2018, at The Blennerhassett Hotel with the full band! That's in Parkersburg, WV, and we're playing 7-10 pm, old people's hours. If you're within striking distance, come see us. We'll be in the delightful rose garden if it's not raining, and in the gorgeous leather lounge if it is. Win win. From left: Wendy Clark, keyboard/vocals; Craig Gibbs, bass/guitar; JZ, vocals, woodwinds, percussion; Mike Austin, drums; Bill Thompson III, guitar/vocals.

Wasn't that smooth, to talk about our dirt road, then segue into an ad, then go back out on the road again?

Real good chicory skies on a side path.

I found a couple things on our dirt road that got me all excited.

First was a perfect, still shiny-wet pile of bobcat poop. Adult bobcat poop. Big stuff, maybe 3/4" in diameter, but broken into the short, square Tootsie Roll segments that say CAT. I was happy about that! That's the kind of cat I like to have spooking around my house.

Second was a little smashed bottle. I knew it would be good, because it looked like something you'd get at the Impulse Buy counter at a gas station, so I picked it up.

Nobody there to hear me crowing, first over bobcat poo, then over

tempt me sweetly

Alas, no bouquet remained, as it had been squashed many times over, but I was delighted to learn that one could enter a new world of sensual fantasies with a little alcohol, denatured water, fragrance and propylene glycol. Humans are such suggestible creatures. I'll spray this on and he'll go wild!

Thanks, I'll take the bobcat poop.
( I realized at this moment, with a small sigh, that I lead a very dull life by ordinary human standards. I find it incredibly exciting, but I get excited by things most people don't even notice.)

When I got home, Phoebe had Blackberry Cloud Cake, a Martha Stewart recipe, waiting for me. Sugared wild blackberries and pistachios top an impossibly light concoction of meringue and blackberry whipped cream. She had whomped it up late the night before, rolled it, refrigerated it, and had it waiting for me when I got back from my run. It's the food of angels. The tart blackberries and crunchy salted pistachios make it.

We had to do something with all those wild blackberries that have sprung up around our totally neglected oil derrick on the back 40. The company that leases the well is happy to take our oil, but is definitely not keeping up its part of the bargain to maintain the well. The welljack is busted and covered in brambles, and we're heating and cooking only on the natural pressure of the gas as it comes out of the ground, unaided by the jammed welljack. It's been out of commission for more than a year!! Makes me very nervous. Will the pressure hold all winter, keep my greenhouse warm?

 The only good thing about this deplorable situation is blackberries.

It is SO GOOD to have my girl and boy home this summer, together.

Things people don't even notice:
The 3/4", impossibly blue blossoms of dayflower. 

The Lamborghini of beetles, the dogbane beetle. With my cellphone reflected in his chrome. Click on this one.

 An oddly bent petal, 

which turns out to be the silken shelter of the wee looper who's been eating
all the true flowers out of the black-eyed Susan's eye, and leaving lots of
frass, too.

And under the silk shelter of the flower in the back?  

A yellow crab spider who has doubtless eaten the wee looper that went with this flower. Gonna have to click on this one to see the spider.'s the thing to do.

So. I've found myself far more interested in loping around, playing with my kids, cooking, gardening, looking at bugs, checking bluebird boxes, taking photos, and painting for my book than blogging frequently this summer. Not apologizing, because everything is free here.  However. I have a situation that has smoked me out, that I'm hoping someone out there enjoying this post might remedy.

I'm taking a group of ten travelers to southern Ecuador for a birding/natural history/photography/ridiculously fun and indulgent trip, October 24-Nov. 2, 2018. And I had it all sewn up, had a beautiful group assembled, and life intervened,  as it often does, and three people had to drop out at essentially the last minute. So I have three spaces open on a Holbrook Travel-sponsored private Zicktrip that's coming up fast.  Guiding will be me, the fabulous Mario Cordoba, and Ecuadorean guide Manny Lopez. That's three guides for ten people, and that's deluxe. Here are a few critters we saw in 2017.

 Booted racket-tail.

 Lubber grasshopper nymph.

 Donna, Mario, and our local guide scoping the canopy.

 Violet-tailed sylph. Lord, lord, lord.

Moustached antpitta.

 Plate-billed mountain toucan in the rain.

 Ecuador is SO MUCH FUN. Southern Ecuador will be new territory for me and Mario!  Traveling with a small group of 13 total, 3 of them guides, is wonderful. If you have the means and the time, and would like to join us, click this link! And if it fills right up, I keep a waiting list, so leave your email with Holbook. Thank you for reading, for noticing, and for indulging me on this rare two-ad post. I hope there's enough bobcat poo and floral lore to balance the shameless self-promotion.

Phoebe is 22!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

It's still one of my favorite photos of her, holding up a wild turkey's wing feather that she'd found. Why do I love it so much? Because she isn't asking whose feather it is. She already knows what bird it came from; you can see it in her eyes. Phoebe pays attention. 

She brought me a tiny white bug what had hitched a ride on her white shirt while she and Liam were picking blackberries. First, who sees a bug that tiny on a white background?

Who decides it's cool and brings it all the way to the house for Mom to flip out over? Phoebe does.

It's a nymph of an ambush bug, and it grabs small bees and flies with those mantislike front pincers. And I'd never have known it was out there without that girl. We will find more ambush bugs when the goldenrod comes into bloom, and we'll photograph them then. Goals!

This is a blessed summer, having both kids home, and I'm conscious of treasuring every moment with them. Phoebe and Liam are my twin flowers, my well-tended, well-fed, nicely branched plants, my pride and joy.

It's been a little strange to wave goodbye to them most mornings as they go off to work, but it's been nice, too, seeing them launch gently into the waters of serious employment, leaving me without a car all week. That part, I like. If I can't go anywhere, I have to paint! And paint I do!

Nobody dresses up scrubs like the Divine Miss P! And when they decide to really dress up, look out! For most of his childhood, Liam despaired of ever being taller than his sister. She had to kick off her wedges for the uneven grassy lawn at the wedding we attended recently, and you can see he achieved his dream and then some.

The wedding gave me the chance to observe my kids interacting with their cousins, big and small.   

Maddy is camera-shy, but Phoebe talked her through it. Talking about it afterward, Phoebe said ruefully that she thought that, in her younger cousins' view, she may have made the mysterious crossover from kid to adult. Well, she is turning 22!  She noticed that she had to work a little harder to get their confidence this time, having not seen them since Thanksgiving. But she's ready for the challenge, and she's happy to do whatever it takes to enter their world. I love that about her, too.

Not many 22-year-olds will get down on the grass on their stomachs in a white dress. Honey badger don't care. She's got the stain-removal chops to deal with the aftermath.


Little things I love about having Phoebe home: Hearing her sing as she completes her obsessively meticulous laundry rituals, with bedding and dainty underwear, socks and tops in perfect sequence, organized by color and category. She won't let me do her laundry; I might hang it up wrong. It might dry crooked.

I love seeing all the flowers I planted, over and over, finally come into bloom so she can make her luscious arrangements. I fought the chipmunks and rabbits so hard for every single zinnia, salvia, Coleus and Achimenes, and it's finally paying off as the plants get too big for the rabbits to nip off at ground level.

She makes these bouquets and leaves them where I'll find them. There's little I love more than seeing her spook around the yard cutting flowers. I don't have photos of that because, like her mother, she's rarely dressed appropriately when at home in summer. The joy of living without neighbors!

May 2017, arranging peonies with her tiny assistant.

We collect roadside bouquets, too, without ever picking them. Here's a perfect setup of chicory, Queen Anne's lace, and dock seedheads. Add an old barn and we're in heaven.

It's knowing that Phoebe loves everything about living in the country so completely; that she makes the effort to get out and soak it all up, that makes her such a joyful human being, such a joy to be around.  Don't miss the sign. Sign broken, message inside...

We go out in the evenings to see the sunset. Much depends on what the clouds are doing, whether we climb the tower to look at the show from above, or head out to the hayfield to soak up the light from below.

Phoebe always leads the charge, urging everyone to look at the light of this hour.

In addition to serious aesthetic appreciation, there is fooling around, jazz hands flying...

Big Phoebe, takin' charge. Liam, flyin' apart. Strange stuff happens when you move with the camera on Pano Mode.  We about kill ourselves laughing. You might want to click on this one to enlarge it.

Phoebe inspires me, moves me to greater heights of physical endeavor. Without seeing the glow on her when she came in from running as a freshman in high school, I might never have started punctuated loping myself. And now, she emboldens me to tackle the enormous Appalachian foothills and gravel roads on our bicycles, and I enjoy almost every minute. I went most of my life thinking that nobody could ride bikes in these monster hills. 

This one's so steep, and the gravel's so loose, we have to push our bikes up it for almost a mile. I'd be tempted to hate that part, but with my girl at my side, it's a party and a workout, too.  

Phoebe helps me see that you have to push up some hills to get to the joyride on the downside.  

You have to work to get to the light.

 To the cool green spaces that make your heart say ahhhh.

We chase the golden light of evening, whenever we get the chance. If Phoebe knows anything, she knows that you have to show up for the good stuff. This ride ended with a red fox bursting out of the roadside grasses and floating at incredible speed right in front of our bicycles, right by the Three Graces. And on last night's ride, a bobcat crossed in front of her. They tend not to do that when you're sitting on the couch at home.

Because surround sound will bring you into our world, I've got a one-minute clip of Vespers on Campbell Run, July 7, 2018.


I have another favorite photo of Phoebe, one that embodies her spirit. She's on a dock in Panama, drinking in the experience of being in a place that she loves, so far away from home, yet at home. She'll deploy that indomitable spirit as she wings away to the Canary Islands on a Fulbright fellowship this September. She's never taught school before, but she'll figure it out as she goes, and she'll use the Spanish she's polished for years to make her way in a whole new world. I can only sigh and look on in awe and anticipation at what this girl will accomplish.  Happy birthday, dear Phoebe, happy birthday to you!

Photo by Cayla Carson. Note she is holding the only peanut butter she deigns to eat: All Natural Schmuckers.
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