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Sources of Joy

Sunday, May 31, 2020


I came back from a morning run...yes, I'm at it again, tired of quarantine flubber. I have lost 6 lb and Curtis, 4.5. I decided to do a loop through the woods on our east 40. What did I find but a box turtle out and about?! Glad I had the notion!

Because I was looking through the phone and concentrating on the light, I totally missed the odd profile of his shell.

It's low and flat, indented. Concave.

I was so captivated by the runes on his side that I missed the scars on the top.

But look at this turtle. He's been mowed, many years ago. The pigmentation is missing; the scutes along the right top are irregular, and there's an indentation down the right side of the spine and a great dip on the left. Oh my God! what this animal has suffered and survived. With no help whatsoever, he crawled into the woods and set about healing from an injury that should have killed him.

His plastron is still cracked. But he's healed. 

Oh you fine old soldier, you walking survivor, may you avoid the blade and the wheels of man. 

I had plenty to think about in that scarred but surviving box turtle. Oh how cruel is man with his implements, his weapons for conquering nature. 

I got a little breakfast and jumped on my best weapon for fighting multiflora rose and honeysuckle: my John Deere. The irony did not escape me as I rolled out the orchard, planning to mow down the resprouting rose that I'd cut early this spring. See, I think I'm on the good side! Since about February I've cut so many rose canes--probably many thousands--that I've given myself a trigger finger on my right hand which makes it hard to write. Ah, what does a writer need with a functional right hand? I will say that it's changed morning journaling for me. Massages and stretches have helped, and I'm hoping it goes away, as one hopes about all things that might need surgery one day. 

I did get a nice set of hard muskles out of it, though. Just wish my right hand hadn't suffered so. You can be sure I'm trying to figure out how to use a boltcutter style pruner without clenching my right hand, but so far it isn't going too well. Also, how do you weed a garden or turn soil without clenching your right hand? There is still so much multiflora that needs to be cut and killed, so many weeds to be felled. Finding out you aren't bionic is a bummer, especially when you feel that way.

I was rolling out the orchard, looking with satisfaction and trepidation on the prairie we planted, seeing so damn much Japanese stiltgrass coming up amidst the expensive seed I bought...

and there was a feather, nay, a barred owl feather! lying on the prairie. I call these apports, gifts from the world beyond. Who lays them out for me to find? The owl, to be sure. But who sent the owl? It's fun to wonder.

You can see the noise-canceling fringe along the left edge. The whole thing is downy, overlain by fine noise-absorbing filaments.

 That's the prairie patch coming up behind it. Pray with me that flowers and native grasses rise over the Japanese stiltgrass, which has been on our land for only about five years. It was brought in on the tires of the four-wheeler that's used to visit our long-broken welljack. The oil company that owns the lease does virtually nothing to maintain its equipment; I think we're going into our fourth year with a jammed shaft on the welljack. And for this kind of service, we get stiltgrass, too. If the stiltgrass smothers my beautiful prairie plants, I will weep and rage. I don't understand why invasive exotics have to win every time, but it seems they do. I might be whistling into the wind with my dream of a native shortgrass prairie out here, but I've worked too hard to make it happen to give up now. It's a pitched battle between the stiltgrass and the bluestem, deertongue, black-eyed Susan, New England aster, and partridge pea. Who will win?

The Zabulon skippers are hatching out wherever I walk.
Each one I see in the orchard seems like a little victory to me. Skippers are so very rare any more. Butterflies in general are where one can most easily see the insect apocalypse at work. Diversity and numers, corkscrewing down. 

This is a male. That chocolate band on the inner hindwing, and the fairly smooth checkered outside border, are his marks. 

The female Zabulon skipper is chocolate brown, and she has a neat white line along the top of the hindwing.

Speaking of butterflies, I found a chrysalis in the meadow on May 28. It was clinging to the underside of a little pine stick I was about to toss off the path.

It was the most beautiful thing. I thought it might be a skipper of some kind. A duskywing? A Zabulon? Even a small wood satyr?

I had to bring it into the house so we could find out what it is to be.
I gave it to my Willowtree figurine, "Joy," to hold for awhile. 

The chrysalis keeps changing. These later close up photos were taken May 31. 

It has darkened a lot, and you can see the tiny segmented antennae running along the top of the chrysalis; the white hindwing border, and the eyes, which weren't as evident before.

Of course, I can't wait to see what it's going to be. I have a feeling it's going to eclose very soon, as dark as it's gotten. All these mysteries go  on around us. We can walk on by, or we can notice them and get involved. I now have the chrysalis' anchor stick in a lump of plasticine, on the softly padded floor of a small critter keeper, so we can see it should it eclose when we're not watching. But oh, we are watching. 


The end of May is a grand finale of joy fireworks for the naturalist. After the cruel clamp of rain and cold, everything is springing forth. Birds are starting over, many having lost their first nesting attempts. Here's a little overcompensation from a pair of bluebirds in a country churchyard that I watch over. Six eggs is a highly unusual second clutch, but this is a highly unusual year.

It's a bit more usual for tree swallows to haul off and lay a sixpack.This is their second attempt as well. The first clutch was thrown out by bluebirds, who lost their fledglings to cold then turned around and kicked the swallows out. The swallows reluctantly moved to the bluebirds' old box, and peace has settled over the meadow once again.

I find myself stopping at the Three Graces every time I go by. They are in their late spring glory at last. The black tupelo, far right, held off the longest, but even she is in full raiment.

And Iris Cora from the Adirondacks is holding forth with the scent of grape Kool-Aid, some Granny's  bonnet columbines sneaking up through their spires. Before the storm blew through...

and after, all bespangled.

This is just a little piece of late May. There is alwasy so much more than I can take in or tell about, but I feel I must try.

Don't forget to sign up for my live Zoom interview with Living on Earth. It's happening Monday, June 1, 2020, at 6:30 pm. Here's the link. 

Zick on Living on Earth! Yes, That Show on NPR!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The meadow last evening. That's real. Surreal, even, but I was there seeing that light slamming across the grasstops.

Virtual. Virtual is a hard word for someone so grounded in the real, so connected to the minuscule and the larger happenings in nature. I am not a huge fan of virtual anything. However, I'm warming to the concept, mostly because I have to. If Zoom is the only way I'm going to get to see my family, I'll take it. We're all so far-flung that we're actually talking more now than before quarantine. Still, not getting to see my sisters and nieces and nephews when I was to have my May booktour in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut hurts. I miss them. I wanna see some of these sweet grand-nieces and nephews, too!!

I've left the left sidebar of my blog, where all the speaking engagements live, untouched. I know I should remove them, because none of them are happening now, but I'm superstitious about it. So there they sit, links and all, and I'm assuming everybody knows they won't and can't happen. That's bad practice, but there you go. I had a lot invested in that book tour. It was where I could introduce Jemima to everyone in person. I could sign books for people. I could shake their hands or give them a hug, as warranted. All that seems like a distant dream now. And, as has happened to so many others the world around, the spring income I'd counted on vanished like snow in May. We're all having to do some fancy footwork to compensate.

One event in my canceled book tour is still happening though, at 6:30 pm on June 1, 2020, and I'm over the moon about it! It's here: Living on Earth: Good Reads on Earth with Mass Audubon. Yes, that "Living on Earth," that you hear on National Public Radio! Woot! I feel very lucky!

Clicking that link will allow you to register in advance to get in on the Zoom videoconference between the wonderful radio host Bobby Bascomb and me. (You won't be on the screen, but Bobby and I will).  We'll talk about blue jays and Saving Jemima, and I know it's going to be a ton of fun. If you haven't Zoomed, it's easy; you just click a link and are admitted to the meeting. Zooming's just one of those skills we all have to pick up in the Age of Rapid Accomodation to Everything Being Upside Down. You'll have an opportunity to ask me questions, live, at the end of the interview, which should be fun for everyone.

Remember Jemima?? 

I did a Facebook post about the event last week, and the 100 spaces available for the webinar filled almost immediately! In response, Living on Earth increased the capacity to 5,000! Isn't that cool? It reminds me of one of my favorite things to hear when I travel to give a talk: the scrape and clang of more folding chairs coming out of the closet. It's virtual, but it's real in its own way.

It's a great honor to be part of this series. I've always loved listening to "Living on Earth," and now I get to be a part of the show. Won't you join us?  Click here!  Living on Earth: Good Reads on Earth with Mass Audubon

All the Pretty Birds

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

It has been one heck of a spring. April was pretty bad. May was hideous. The weather just will not warm up, and the rain keeps sluicing down.

What did she leave for us on the roof?

Hand-feeding bug omelet to one of many hungry bluebird nestlings. Repeat 3x daily for each box until you drop.

I was tired from a seemingly endless day, another in a succession of rainy mid-May days in the 30’s and 40’s. They have run into a blur in my mind. I usually wake up thinking about what I need to do around 3:30 AM, and get up around 5. Cut oranges for the orioles and make more Zick Dough. Scramble eggs mixed with dried insects and powdered eggshell for bug omelet. Go out, stock the feeders, festooning the yard with orange and grapefruit halves, stocking small hanging feeders with nutritious Zick Dough. Refill the seed feeders, throw seed on the ground. Back inside to pick mealworms out of my fast-dwindling supply. Transfer mealworms, Zick Dough and bug omelet to small carrying cups. Grab a few shots of the multicolored party of birds crawling all over the feeders, then jump in the car to go feed baby bluebirds in seven far-flung boxes on my bluebird trail. At each of the seven boxes, leave food in small crocks on the roof. At three of those boxes, hand-feed bug omelet to the babies, making sure each is stuffed full when I leave.  Head home. 
(This was written May 11, and as I write now I'm back at it on May 20, a carbon copy of that day, pouring and 40's, still feeding bluebirds, but different broods. When will it end?)

Getting divebombed by bluebirds as I approach with bug omelet. Photo by Phoebe Thompson, who helps me on the trail in the afternoons.

On a bad day like today, I get to do this three times. Got to keep those birds alive in the cruelest spring in memory, because I’ve come too far with them to let them die now. It’s not that their parents aren’t working full-time to try to feed them. It’s that there are no insects to be found in this weather. They can’t do it alone. And I feel a great responsibility to help them along. 

Female bluebird taking mealworms from her crock, to feed her young. 

So when I got an enthusiastic Facebook message from my friend Andi in Indiana, my reaction to her good news was not what she might have expected.

 "I currently have a whopping FIFTEEN Baltimore Orioles eating grapes and oranges in my yard.  I have never seen so many in my life! Tonight at closing time there might have been 20. Almost all Baltimore orioles and 3-4 orchards in the mix… Lots of people in this region reporting huge flocks. One lady 20 miles north of here had 30+ at one time—she posted a video or I would not have believed her. Last year I had two and felt lucky to see them!”

My response to Andi’s observation about the whopping crowds of orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks at those Indiana feeders (and everywhere across the Upper Midwest and Northeast, if the photos on social media are any indication) was uncharacteristically terse. I was far from being happy or excited about a flock of 30 orioles at one feeder. I was heartbroken.

                              Blueberries and banana pieces, with a strip of skin peeled, are a hit with orioles.

Morosely, I responded. “They stop and eat or die. This is ominous.” 

Andi was taken aback. Of course she was! Who says something like that? 

 “Can you explain what you mean?”

“They’re starving from the cold. That’s why you have so many at the feeders.” 

“Oh my gosh.”

An easy way to offer citrus: back to back halves in a big suet cage. 

Wait. Andi, who loves birds and is scrambling to keep her orioles in food, doesn’t realize what’s going on here? If Andi hasn’t grasped the big picture, what about everyone else merrily posting photos of the amazing birds at their feeders? Time to drive the point home.

“It’s got to be an unprecedented mortality event for all insectivores. Tanagers. Orioles. Grosbeaks. Warblers. Vireos. Swallows. Martins. You name it."

“Yeah there’s no bugs available,” Andi replied.

“You’re just seeing the ones that found your feeder. What about all the ones who have nothing? It just makes me so sad. I am comforted that while I see a lot of new birds, I also see the first ones who showed up, and I hope that they will move on when they can.” 

Andi summed it up perfectly. “So, it’s not that there are so many more this year. They are stopping and staying because they’ve found a good food source and the group just keeps getting larger. Oh my gosh I had no idea.”

“Yeah. Most people haven’t connected the dots between the great birds at their feeders and the cold weather.”

“No, I haven’t heard anyone say that.”

“It’s totally weather related. Maybe I’ll have to do another blogpost to explain. I can’t find the time. I will have to feed bluebirds again tomorrow.”

And with that, I literally fell asleep at my keyboard, my finger pressing one keyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.

 Andi’s observation really rang my bell. I truly am not here to steal the delight of anyone who’s exulting at the throngs of beautiful new birds at their feeders. But I realize that, while I am keenly attuned to the effects of weather on birds, not everyone is. And I think it’s important for everyone to understand why this is happening. 

My first-ever summer tanagers at my feeders weren't here by choice. When you see an insectivorous summer tanager eating peanuts and sunflower hearts, for God's sake, something is really seriously out of whack in nature. 

He moved on to Zick Dough (what he could get in between gorgings by desperate downy woodpecker parents)

 April and May of 2020 have not seen a sudden, delightful population explosion of scarlet and summer tanagers, Baltimore and orchard orioles and grosbeaks. No, exactly the opposite is happening. The unending cold wet weather is pulling migrating birds down out of the trees and to our feeders. 

My first summer tanager at the feeders.

This is an unprecedented, grindingly cold, wet and insect-poor April and May. Insectivorous birds who normally tweetle away in the treetops, eating caterpillars along their way to their northerly breeding grounds, are being stopped in their tracks by starvation. Driven down to our feeders. They’re beautiful and entertaining, but make no mistake: they are also desperate. And those who scramble to provide food for them are doing hero’s work, keeping them alive so they can continue on their way when the weather finally does what it’s supposed to do in late April...mid May...late May...When will this ever end??  

I have another friend who takes the role of gadfly in many social media discussions. He’s very well-informed, always there with a good point. David commented: “Raises lots of good questions like "why feed birds at all?" Do they need our handouts? For most species, if we just leave them the right habitat, they will be fine. Are we doing it for our entertainment? If so, alternatives like bird baths are much better.”

In theory, I’d agree that bird feeding, on the whole, is something we humans do for our own entertainment. In the crushingly cruel Spring of 2020, however, people who are willing to scramble to buy oranges, mealworms and suet, make Zick Dough and fill feeders several times daily (and feed baby bluebirds in their boxes, if anybody else even does that...) are saving many precious lives. It’s tiring and darned expensive to cater to starving migrants, (think 15 pound bags of navel oranges, cartons of fresh blueberries, mealworms by the 5,000 batch) but the rewards are abundant. Knowing that we’re saving lives and sending them on, after this weeks-long, exhausting halt to their northward journey, keeps us going. That, and the sudden flame of an oriole at eye-level; the whirling pinwheel of black, white and carmine-pink that's a grosbeak.

A blueberry clutched in his left foot.

 And as we gasp at their beauty, I maintain that we should think beyond the intake of breath and connect the dots about why they are there. It's not because we're lucky--though we are lucky to have them in our yards. It's not because we're all suddenly bird feeding geniuses and have the best feeding stations out there. It's because they have to eat.  And there's not much out there to keep them alive when it's raining and cold and insects are hidden, dormant. Even woodpeckers, who rely on gleaning insects this time of year, are hitting bottom of the barrel; I'm throwing corn, peanuts and mixed seed along the roadsides for a small colony of red-headed woodpeckers near my home, and they are gladly taking advantage of it. Yes, I drive around with bug omelet, Zick Dough, mealworms, and mixed seed in my car, and I feed those who need it. Mealworms on Wheels. I'm sure all these red-headed woodpeckers wondered how corn and seed magically appeared on their fenceposts...

Well, when you see red-headed woodpeckers sitting motionless close to the ground, they're probably in trouble. 

After a day of abundant food, much of which they probably cached, they were back up in the trees where they belonged. 

 From there, we should also think of all the insect-dependent species who won't come to our feeders—the warblers and vireos, flycatchers, swallows and martins. The spring of 2020, while it has afforded us never-before-seen feeder birds, fabulous photo-ops of eye-level scarlet tanagers, and feeder bragging rights, is anything but good for hard-hit bird populations. Call me a killjoy if you must. I feel the need to ring the bell for all these beleaguered birds, to shake myself and my readers out of our comfy, self-serving ways (Look at all the pretty birds! Aren't I cool for hosting them, and isn't this just great?)  and take a longer view at how weather and climate change affect the birds we love so much. You're seeing it, right before your eyes. No bugs, no birds. Quit with the pesticides and the Chem-lawn, the lollipop Bradford pears and plant some fruit-bearing natives like shadbush, some happy seed/fruit and caterpillar bearing birches and dogwoods, tupelo, sassafras...

But for now, stay on the mission! Keep those feeders stoked, my friends. You're fighting the good fight for the birds we love. They've never needed you more than they do now. Thank you! 

Orioles and Rosebreasts, In Detail

Friday, May 8, 2020


This frigid spring weather really smokes out the birds. I've been very thankful that I overbought on peanuts and seed a few months back. I remember thinking, "Now how am I going to use 50 pounds of  peanut halves?" Well.

But when orioles come in, I have to get creative. Turns out a grapefruit half will serve just as well as a navel orange or Clementine.

This is an interesting plumage. It's an adult female Baltimore oriole, and she's fairly old, as evidenced by the increasing black coming in on her face and back. Some might think this is a young male, but the secret to sexing Baltimore orioles is in the tail. No matter how much black an old female Baltimore has on her head and back; no matter how bright her orange breast, she will always show an olive-brown, not black tail. So don't be fooled by male-like coloration. If the tail is olive-brown and dull orange, it's a female.

Male Baltimores have black deck feathers on their tail. The deck feathers are the two that sit atop all the rest, forming the center stripe of the tail.

I got this smart fellow to try Zick Dough by loading an exhausted Clementine half with it. He took a shine to it right away.

When a bird does something novel, other birds watch it. This female rose-breasted grosbeak wondered about the Clementine the young male oriole was feeding from.

I've had good luck with peanuts and rose-breasts. Everybody seems to like peanuts. Though this is the only rose-breast this year who's gone for them.

He liked them so much he got into some good spats with the resident redbellies over access. Red is a battle flag for birds. He's intimidating her with that fancy shirtfront.

She is, however, better armed in the poking department, having a vicious stabber rather than a pincer.  

Rebelly: I WIN.
Rosebreast: I wait.

They love my Bird Spa, with its bubbling water. Rose-breasts are avid bathers. Seeing one on it always stops my heart, in a good way. 

This little female grosbeak was watching the oriole eating fruit. So. Is that good to eat? Should I bump you off and try it?

Look at the oriole's response! Ha ha!! He is evil!

His evil eye sufficed to drive the grosbeak away. Look at her beautiful yellow wingpits! If this were a young male, they'd be pink. And carmine-rose on an older male.

Here's a young male rosebreast, taking off from our sycamore,  from early autumn. Isn't that underwing gorgeous? So that's how you sex a bird in all-brown plumage. In rosebreasts, yellow= girl, pink= boy!

 I raised a baby grosbeak one summer years ago--Jeffy. He was one of my favorite clients EVER. So gentle and sweet and easy to be with. When I released him, he hung around eating from little cups of mixed vegetables and mealworms around my yard. At the time he left, he still had yellow wing linings. Though there was no way to be sure, I had a strong feeling he was a male. 
I didn't see Jeffy for several weeks. Then one September day, he came out of nowhere and circled over me, calling, as I worked in the garden. I was SO excited to see him. And I saw his pink wingpits, and knew I'd been right about his sex all along. That was such a great moment, one of the gifts of sticking with rehab and being there for the magic moment when a bird returns to say hi and show me his wingpits. This is my watercolor of that moment (as described in The Bluebird Effect). 

The older a male rosebreast gets, the more immaculate his coloration. Young males will show an admixture of brown in their black parts, especially on wings and head, and lots of speckling on the breast and flanks. Look at this amazing male, probably in his second spring (though as always I'm happy to be corrected!He's got fully black feathers in his wings, so maybe he's in his third spring?)  Wing linings are pale pink, and he has a very small pink cravat. Lots of streaking on the underparts, as well, and brown mottling on head and back. Taken May 2, 2016 here. Click on the photo to embiggen it and see the details I'm talking about.

This is interesting. I've been digging around trying to find out how long it takes a male rose-breast to attain full adult plumage. Found this in Birds of North America (now known as Birds of the World!): 

"Some males may not acquire complete Definitive Alternate (what we plebes know as breeding) plumage until their third year or later. Smith () cites a single male that was banded as a yearling in 1961 and did not acquire a completely bright-pink bib until 1965. "

Whoa! Like a bald eagle, taking four years to get that cravat? WHO KNEW? Probably not the case for all individuals, but still. Who knew?

This is the best shot I've ever gotten showing molt in a second spring male rose-breasted grosbeak. Look at the retained juvenile plumage in wings and tail! It shows as dull brown. He's got the remnants of the broad white crown stripes he wore as a juvenile.  All his ebony finery is still on its way in. And the deck feathers on his tail are newly grown, and black. Taken May 3, 2016, in Whipple, OH.

 This one has just a few black specks on his breast. But look at the extent of the carmine on this boy! Runs all the way down his midline, goes almost from shoulder to shoulder across his breast. From what I've observed, I suspect the rose cravat gets more extensive as he ages, as well. I'm fascinated by the progression of molt in birds, especially as it is used to age them. 

It has been such a delight having grosbeaks around this spring. They are one of the great gifts of early May. I know they're helping keep me content on the gray rainy cold days when I'm not grubbing in the garden or ranging through the forest. 

Another reminder, my last. Tomorrow, May 9, I will be participating in the Virtual World Series of Birding, with an all-star team of 22. Proceeds from our pledges will go to monarch butterfly research. The money is needed more than ever, with the recent slaying of two of Michoacan's most ardent monarch conservationists by drug cartel fiends on the butterflies' mass wintering grounds. My esteemed friend Mark Garland has put together the team. I'm included for geographic diversity, since most of us are from the East Coast. I got 61 species on my place alone on my dry run May 7, so you can do the math if you wish to pledge. At 10 cents per bird, that would be $6.10. :) Who knows how many species we can rack up, with people like Louise Zemaitis and Michael O'Brien birding their yard in Cape May? Scott Weidensaul will be checking in, with highs in the 30's and blowing snow in northern New Hampshire. Seth Benz's forecast on the Maine coast isn't much balmier. Nowhere but Texas, where Angel and Mariel Abreu will clock in,  is the weather going to be salubrious, but we're all going out and seeing all the birds we can. I'm hoping for peeks of sun, but it won't even reach 50 degrees here tomorrow. 

 I'll be birding around my admittedly largeish "yard" and along my bluebird trail, as I feed hungry babies in the box and leave little crocks full of live mealworms on the box roofs. Just got back from my second run today. All are warm and well-fed. One more run before nightfall. 

 If so moved, you can pledge for monarch conservation here: 

Thank you so much!

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