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Avian CSI and My Unique Theories

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


Yesterday was another crests-up day, all day long. The sharp-shinned hawk made an appearance in late morning, but I knew he'd been hangin' around, because there was nothing happening at the feeders, despite the steadily falling snow.

My photos of the sharpie are all terrible, but it's because he's old and wise and he knows to sit well out of camera range. He's no dummy, and he's a good hunter. I've heard a sudden bird squeal from his favorite part of the north border, and on the day I'm chronicling here (November 21), I saw him make a kill.

The jays were merrily feeding, crests straight up, when he came in from the southwest like a blue bullet, looping up just enough to clear the house, then diving on the feeders. He did a barrel roll which bottomed out right in the middle of the jay flock, and came out with something in his fist. My heart was in my throat but I instantly ascertained that his prey was much too small and brown to be a jay. Besides. He's not after jays. He'd have a terrible time subduing one. He doesn't want a fight. He wants food.

I watched him as he took it into the north border and made a mental note to wait a few hours, then go into the woods to try to find the kill site. I wanted to give him plenty of time to consume the bird. Photographers and birders take note: The last thing you want to do is chase and disturb a hawk that's just caught a bird. You could make him drop it, and that would be a very bad thing to do. It would be a waste of a good meal for a bird who needs it badly. Leave him alone. The only look you'll get is him leaving the bird behind.

Sharp-shins are declining precipitously in the U.S., even as Cooper's hawk populations are burgeoning. Why would that be? Aren't there enough feeder birds to go around? The simplest, most surprising explanation would be that Coops have taken to eating their smaller cousins. Terrible thought, but it appears to be true.  I hate it when nature works like that, but it is what it is. It's called habitat partitioning. And it will force the sharpie to live in places where Cooper's hawks aren't. Feeders, thanks to their unnatural concentration of songbirds, bring the two together. As I think about it, most precipitous declines can be traced to an anthropogenic cause. 

As I pontificate on why there are so few sharp-shinned hawks around, realizing that I'm sewing this mostly out of whole cloth, I'm seeing John Cleese as paleontologist Anne Elk, introducing her groundbreaking new theory about the brontosaurus, stridently stating, "This is my theory. It is mine, and I came up with it. It is an original theory, and it is my theory." 
Many thanks for giving delightful flesh to my hazy memory to

So I was not about to disturb this accomplished little sharpie at his meal. I waited about four hours, then I went out.

It didn't take long to find the shadow of his lunch. The curious will want to click on and embiggen all these photos.

Let's have a closer look at that. 

There were only two scraps of anything resembling bone.

Mandible, neatly cleaned. Scoop-shaped, conical. So it was a finch. 

Pinkish-red rump feathers. Dull brown flight feathers. It was a male finch. Purple or house? We have both, and their colors have evolved to be nearly indistinguishable here in the East. When they first arrived, house finches were an easily-separated tomato red, to the purple finch's raspberry wine. You could tell people to distinguish them that way, and I did. No more. They're almost the same color now. There might be some adaptive value to cooler reds in the East. Less need to radiate heat? This is my theory, and it is mine. No one else has come up with it, because the theory is unique, and it is mine. Channeling Anne Elk again. Brain on overdrive today.

The answer to the victim's identity is here, in this photo below. Anyone know why?

It was a male house finch, because those three buffy undertail coverts to the lower left have brown streaks on them. There are no brown streaks anywhere on a male purple finch. Case closed. Except for cool leftover bits of info.

 Here are the sharpie's droppings. There are almost always droppings at a kill site. 

 You can tell they're hawk droppings because they squirt out in a line. Owls drop a puddle, straight down.

 All this took place just inside the woods. That's our garage there, and the yard.
Sharpie knows where the good food is. 

I was a little rattled by the close call. What if he'd grabbed a jay? Telling myself he won't. And when I came out of the woods I found big clumps of rabbit fur.  Aww, no. Please no. I can't lose Half-ear Smalley! He's only five months old!

It didn't look good for Smalley. But I searched and found no blood. Just clumps of torn fur. So maybe he survived whatever had happened to him.

Nov. 21, 2018

I didn't see him for a few days. I figured a coyote had nabbed him.

And then on the morning of Nov. 24, he showed up again. 

Whewwwww. It is ever thus with rabbits, eminently edible, dear little creatures that they are. They're always looking over their shoulders, and I am too, on their behalf.

I've since found more such fur clumps, with no blood or bone or sign of major struggle, and I have to conclude that the rabbits are fighting these days. Over what, I don't know. Maybe corn.
Please, Nature Gods, don't take Half-ear Smalley. I need warm furry things around to watch, feed and love, even if I can't touch them.

What Makes a Blue Jay Raise Its Crest?

Monday, November 26, 2018

One thing I have noticed about blue jays, having watched them closely for a year and a half now, is that they almost never raise their crests unless they are agitated, angry or (as in this bird) simply fluffing all their feathers. It's rare enough that I was thrilled to get this photo.

So it amuses me to see artists' depictions of blue jays with their crests invariably, perkily, straight up. They have a crest, the thinking seems to go. So they must keep it up, right? Wrong. Blue jay crests are raised only very rarely, and for specific reasons.

 I bought this decorative plate at a consignment store in Hendersonville, NC this April. I'm sort of building a collection of blue jay stuff (in a very desultory way; my collecting gene is weak). Not on purpose, just picking things up as I find them, or as people give them to me. Knowing blue jays as I do, though, I look at it and wonder what those cute babies did to make their mama so mad. I worry that Baby 2 is about to peck the eyes out of drowsy Baby 1. Maybe that's why Baby 1's eyes are shut. Also if I saw a blue jay with underparts that white I'd flip out and name it Glacier and take a million photos of it. Sorry. I've been living among blue jays too long. I've gotten a bit testy.

Now, cardinal crest rules are completely different from jay crest rules. Cardinals raise their crests all the time, and it doesn't necessarily indicate anger or agitation. It can, but they also raise them when they're singing and eating and just looking around being chubbeh, like here. A very roundish cardinal.

I was thinking about how long it had been since I had been able to catch a jay with its crest up when something changed in our yard.  Suddenly everyone was going around with tall crests.

They were flighty and agitated.

Even the hairy woodpecker, usually a mellow bird, had some big hair going on.

This is how birds tell each other that something evil  this way goes.

And this is the cause. On Nov. 17, this adult male sharp-shinned hawk spent most of the day hanging out in the woods just beyond and to the north of the feeders.  If you click on this heavily obstructed photo, you can see the glint in his garnet-red eye.

He normally strafes the feeders several times a day, then disappears into the orchard. I always thrill to see him, even as I worry about my jays. But on this sunny warmish day, he was oddly relaxed, sitting with one foot pulled up into the floof of his belly feathers. Perhaps he had a full crop.

All the birds know that as long as he's puffed up and standing on one leg, he's not going to launch an immediate attack. But oh, that eye. You don't want that eye to fix on you, don't want the pupil to draw down to a pinpoint, because you might suddenly become lunch.

So after a period of utter panic and sitting frozen still, they gingerly resume their activity, but they all keep one eye on the hawk the entire time. Hairy Woodpecker is looking directly at him. She keeps her crest fluffed to tell all the other birds to beware.

The jays were almost nonchalant about the hawk. After all, they weigh nearly as much as he does (3 oz to the male sharpie's 3-4 oz). Hard to believe that hawk weighs only that much. A female sharpie can weigh up to 7.7 oz. I can't say I've seen jays virtually ignoring a big female sharpie!

They did, however, pay him the homage of keeping their crests up as long as he was around.

He returned for another camp-out on November  22, one of those dull gray days when not much seems to be happening. And up went the crests again.

It's the birds' nonverbal way of saying danger perches, preening and dozing, in a nearby tree.

When he mounted to the top of an elm, all the jays' alarm bells went off at once.

And when he finally took off to the northwest, a salvo of jeers followed him.

He'd be back, and next time, I'd witness his work.

Yes it is a cliffhanger, but a very small one. I'll be back, too. :)

Painting so hard on the LAST TWO illustrations for Saving Jemima. I made it through the Ecuador trip and Thanksgiving and Liam's coming home, and now I'm back at the drawing table, working with joy and verve again. Unstructured time for composition, thought and's a beautiful thing.

I have a list of stuff I have to get back to when those paintings are done. So if you have sent me an email asking about a possible speaking gig, and I haven't replied, please know that there's a stack of email not being ignored, but simply waiting to be answered. First things first. Gotta finish this book!

Happy Thanksgiving Critter Update

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


I'm not sure what this post is going to be about, except that it's about gratitude. It's about being amazed and grateful every single day at the things I'm able to witness. The house is like a blind and I watch from every window, unseen. And when I see something good I either shoot through the windows (usually) or I ease a door open and slip quietly outside and schneak up on whatever it is I've spotted. 

The meadow is like a great big canvas, and the frost and the plants and the deer are always painting something on it.  

A mother and fawn come walking slowly up the meadow around dawn on a frosty morning. I scurry like a scalded ape into the studio where my big camera lives. Then I ease the sliding glass door open and step outside onto the raised deck, into the breathtaking cold. 

If I do it right, they never know I've come outside. I have to do it slowly and keep a low profile, moving only when they're not looking up.  I love deer photos when they're not looking right at me. Candids are ever the best, whether you're at a wedding or just a walking.

One local I keep tabs on is a rabbit, born in early summer 2018, that Phoebe named Half-ear Smalley. Out of the oodles of rabbits born here this year, this brave little one has survived and now comes to the feeder. I don't know what happened to its ear. Mowed off as a kit? Who could say?

I put corn and seed on this flowerpot, which is now a Smalley feeder.

 These pictures are for Phoebe who named the rabbit and will be happy to know it is still pigging out at its flowerpot feeder. It never took the carrots she kept putting out for it. I think that thing about rabbits liking carrots is maybe a fable. Smalley likes corn!

Speaking of candid shots, this is one I've been after for months. I kept hearing a woodpecker doing something at the corner of my south studio window. I didn't know what it was doing, and I'd never been able to catch it red-handed...or naped...

until one day when I heard it and scuttled into the kitchen with my big rig and captured a male redbelly in the process of gagging up a peanut

which he then wedged into the window sash for easier processing. He didn't seem to be cacheing it (otherwise I'd have a cascade of peanuts when I open the window). He was just using the window frame to hold it for pecking apart.

 Mystery solved, and no damage being done. Thank you, little redbelly. I will now smile when I hear your claws scritching on the window frame, and the ratt-a-tat of your pecking, and try to get more photos of you, instead of wondering whether you're pecking holes in my bank account.

And only a few days later, I found him poking sunflower hearts into Liam's bedroom window. He was perched on the crappy weatherstrip that comes with newer Pella windows, and that invariably peels off and sticks out, no matter how many letters you send to HQ in Iowa.

The "technician" who came here twice told me it was my house's fault that the weatherstrip peeled off the windows. Oh. Really. I see. No, I don't. Seriously???

  One thing good I can say about the weatherstripping on these windows: When it peels off, and it will, it makes a handy redbelly perch. Even if it makes your house look tacky.

 I spend a great deal of time photographing blue jays. It is probably an understatement to say I'm obsessed with them.

I'm obsessed with capturing blue jays in flight. It's more fun than any video game you could dream up, and all you have to do is put corn and sunflower and peanuts out, then wait for them to fly down or up to it.

I get a lot of terrible photos. I get some images that are almost great. Oops!

 And every once in a great while I get something that takes my breath away, and the reward is rare and intermittent enough that I keep pressing that lever, hoping, hoping, hoping. Please click on this one. And if that's not a bird of Paradise then I don't want to go to Paradise. I want to stay right here.

 This is Frost, the silver-browed bird who first showed up December 27, 2017, right after I last saw Jemima. 

Against all expectations, Frost stayed to breed here this past spring, and then disappeared in August when his two kids were on their own. And then he came back in October. He has a pattern of being gone for two to three months at a time. I have no idea where he goes. I'm just ecstatic when he returns. He checks in at the feeder every four or five days lately. I'll take it. I take whatever I can get when it comes to blue jays.

 Jays, a couple of doves, and my beautiful little Japanese Stewartia, showing fabulous fall color, even though it didn't bloom this past summer. That's OK. I can tell it's winding up for a great show in 2019.

On Liam's birthday, November 8, Frost came into the feeder area. He stopped my heart by flying right up to the window, the way Jemima used to do. He bounced lightly off the netting and landed on the tomato cages just outside, the way Jem used to. Oh my gosh. It was like seeing a beautiful ghost.

He gave me a real close look at his silver brows before he went back to gathering corn again.  What Frost displays is not leucism. It's called progressive graying, and it's analogous to mine (and maybe yours). I don't know how old Frost is, but he's pretty silver. That said, there's a hatch year jay in my gang this winter who shows about half that much silver, so I don't think it's necessarily age-related in birds.

To be only a few feet from a jay--it still takes my breath away. I love them so very much. I love them more for understanding them so well. Please look at his sweet little feet, all wrapped around the wire like they're made of modeling clay!! I just want to smooch him right on the frost.

I call Frost "he" now because I watched him coming in alone to the feeder and ferrying loads of peanuts to what I assume was an incubating mate in mid-June. I don't think a female would have done that.

That's it for the animal update from Indigo Hill. More will be coming. There's so much going on here! and I'm so grateful to be able to witness it.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody. Good luck with your turkeys. I'm going to have to haul out my Bittman to make sure I do the stuffing right. I haven't gotten to cook many turkeys in my life, but by gum I'm cooking one tomorrow!

A Flower for November

Saturday, November 17, 2018


 I woke to another dull, dark, gray November morning today. Well, they're all dark, because I wake up so blinkin' early, but then I wait, knowing better than to even look out the window hoping for stars here in the mid-Ohio valley in November.

I got suited up to take a hike and somewhere in between thinking about persimmons and cottage cheese for breakfast and filling the feeders with raw trembling hands, I lost heart. I looked at the weather forecast and decided to write a blogpost instead, and hope that the sun might show its Garboey face sometime later on this afternoon. Hope's fading, it's noon, but you never know.

November forces me to wait for better weather. And when I don't feel like waiting, it makes me go anyway, and appreciate what I'm given. I decided to write up my last hike on November 14, down my beloved Dean's Fork. It's the best example of a November hike you could come up with. It had lessons on flexibility, going with the flow, and watching for miracles.

First lesson of November hikes: Go anyway. You might be surprised. The light was awful, but this witch hazel in full bloom glowed through the darkness. As frustrating as it was to try to get a photo that conveyed its beauty, I tried, and failed.

OK. So we'll go for the close-up. Its lobed leaves still clung the the twigs. Its gentle, fresh mimeo-ink scent tickled my nostalgia centers, sending me back to test day in elementary school, when we all huffed the still-wet sheets of purple-blue ink that our teachers had just run off on the enormous crank-powered machine in the lounge. 
  This contemplation of witch hazel gave me to wonder why on earth a plant would flower at a time of year when its petals can be frozen solid, as these were. What pollinators could it be trying to attract? Clearly, with its strong, sweet, strange scent, it's after something.

It was Vermont naturalist/writer Bernd Heinrich, who as usual is walking well ahead of me down the wooded trail, who wondered the same thing. Heinrich figured out that the pollinators of witch hazel are doing their work under cover of night. They're owlet or winter moths, of the family Noctuidae, who are able to generate heat by shivering, and doing so, they get the job done. And being Bernd, he wrote it up for a scientific journal, for those of us who wonder later to find and cite.
Heinrich, Bernd. 1987a. “Thermoregulation by Winter-Flying Endothermic Moths.” Journal of Experimental Biology 127 (1): 313–32. 
My thanks to Venerable Trees blog for answering a question that popped into my head on the hike. Blogging isn't dead. It's just screaming, deep under all the Facebook water. Thanks to those of you who can still hear bloggers.

From there, I went on to visit a sycamore I've been admiring for many years. The tree, to me, is an eloquent standing metaphor.

The left side was clearly once a huge hollow tree, most of which rotted out and died. But a living sheath of bark remained. For years, the trunk it sent up put out leaves and appeared to be prospering.

It's the trunk to the right in this shot. It died last year, and has dropped its twigs. But never fear. The trunk to the left, which takes off from the right-hand base of the hollow part, is going for broke, even as the hollow old sheath breaks and rots.

 This keyhole window in the original trunk reminds me of the terrified little character in The Scream by Edvard Munch. 

And the old hollow trunk isn't dead yet. It's sending sprouts out from the base of the "dead" trunk. Which clearly isn't dead just yet. I know, it gets confusing. There are so many little deaths and rebirths in this one tree.

I love the whole thing, the whole complex mess of it--hollow sheath of old tree; dead trunk; live trunk; shoots off the "dead" half. So I keep watching. That tree just won't throw up the white flag. It keeps going, keeps living the best life it can.
To me it speaks of re-invention and rebirth after trial and tribulation. If that sycamore can keep sending up fresh shoots, what's stopping me?

Well, there's quite a bit that can stop me. I forded two rather deep crossings after all the recent rain, laughing at myself the whole time,  and shivering as water splashed through the fine filigree of my shoes, but I finally met my Dean's Fork Waterloo here at Bobcat Crossing.

No way across it without going in over my shoe tops. Even if you do it really fast you get to enjoy wet freezing feet all the way back. This happens to me every year when I try to "run" with "running shoes" down this muddy, stream-crossed road. Dang it, Zick, give up. Just put on your waterproof hiking boots and walk fast.  You'll see just as much, and you can bring the big camera, too. Duh! Kick it into winter mode already.

Forced to turn around before reaching the Ironweed Festival Grounds, I was delighted by perhaps two minutes of weak lemony November sun. Please click on this to see the creek traveling along the right side. It's one of my favorite vistas.

The trot back home was beautiful, with the light coming up at last. It wasn't going to be a sunny day, but it was brighter, and that was enough. 

I was nearing my car when I saw what I thought (please forgive me) was an expanded tampon in the leaves. Chuckling as I write. I did. I thought it was a tampon, and I didn't want to touch it, but logic and curiosity conquered my initial 21st century response to this novelty. 

Internal Science Chimp conversation: It's a tampon. No it's not. Yes it is. It's just expanded. No, you idiot, it's snow-white. Well, it got rained on. Who drops a tampon on Dean's Fork in November? And if it's a tampon, why is it attached to a plant stalk? Touch it. Ugh. No. Oh! It's brittle! It's made of ICE! Wait. So what's going on here?

With the two little Science Chimps sitting on my shoulder, one adventuresome and one not, I went from Eeew to What the Heck is That Thing? in about 2.5 seconds.

And I realized that it was a flower. A frost flower. The little green leaves are part of a recently deceased aster top. The stem has been broken and shattered, but the plant's roots keep pushing out water to a top that's no longer there.

And that water comes out the broken stem and hits the freezing air, and makes a flower for November.

The more I looked at it the more delighted I became. Would there be other frost flowers waiting for me?

Yes. But only if I looked for them.

That's November for you. She's not the nicest teacher, and she can sometimes be dull, old and gray, but if you listen to her, she'll give you the best secrets.

Speaking of flowers of November, Liam is home, and still asleep, as far as I know, in his own bed. Having my boy back for a nice WVU Thanksgiving break is divine, even though I'm already chewing on him for strewing his things around and having altogether too much hair on top. It's all I can do not to go jump on him and wake him up so I can feed him Eggos and sausage.

And Phoebe is living her best life, maybe ever, on La Gomera. She cracks me up daily, and only WhatsApp and Facetime stand between all of us and death from terminal Phoeblessness. Catch up with her at her sparkly blog,  Canary Current
It is, my darling. On you, it is.

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