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When Hummingbird Meets Butterfly

Sunday, October 11, 2020


Staying home a lot is not a bad thing when you love your home. Magical things can happen when you stay home. 

 Making your home a lovable place is work, but if that work is done with joy, you don't feel it, except in your muscles when you get up the next morning. It is a gift you give yourself. 

This past summer I learned how to make and use outdoor rooms. It's pretty simple. You run some extension cords from the basement, get some comfortable furniture and a Yeti thermos full of something nice like lemon mint water, and set up with your laptop, camera and binoculars in the shade of a handy tree, say Jemima's Japanese maple. This is now your office, and you get to work out amongst the salvias, with orthopteran music as your soundtrack.

On this particular late September day, some late rubythroats were working the salvias and zinnias in my terraced bed. My bedsheets flapped gently in the warm breeze behind. I couldn't stop snapping photos. The cream-colored sheets add a dreamy touch, don't you think? 

Salvia greggii "Cherry Chief" is a favorite, as it always has a few fresh scarlet blossoms full of nectar to offer each day, floating high on wiry stems where it's easy for hummingbirds to access them. 

Salvia guaranitica "Black and Blue" is a favorite of mine. Last fall, I cut them off and saved the roots to these plants in long planters set on the cold floor of my greenhouse, so I wouldn't have to go looking to buy them again this spring. When it warmed up, they sent out new growth and we were off! Saved a ton of money and made another successful experiment. I love this shot, with the hummingbird glugging down nectar or perhaps a tiny flying insect.

I heard a persistent buzzing, as of a hummingbird investigating something, off to my right, and that was how I found out that the chrysalis I had hung on a tomato cage, thinking it might be a bit off, had hatched successfully!  I watch the chrysalides I bring into the house for safekeeping over the two weeks it takes them to metamorphose. If one looks a bit off-color or anything other than perfect, I take it back outside just to be safe. I don't want anything infecting my precious jewels.

Well, this one was a bit off color but turned out to be perfect anyway, and a beautiful female monarch had emerged without my knowing it only an hour earlier!

And wouldn't you know, there was a hummingbird pestering the poor creature!

Who knows what the hummingbird had in mind? Just deviltry. This is a juvenile male, as evidenced by its darkish streaky throat. Figures.

The monarch wasn't having any of it, and she snapped her wings open and closed to try to startle the hummingbird into leaving her alone while she finished drying her new wings. 

In the end, I had to holler at the durn hummingbird. I think it's the first time I've yelled at a, no, I have done that before. I used to yell at Bela, one of the four hummingbirds I raised in the summer of 2003, because he was soo bad, first to fly and constantly pestering the other three before they were ready for release. 

Bela was just as unpleasant as he looks here. He was much better once he got out in the yard. 
Aren't we all? (I loved him just as he was). 

Oh man. I just realized that the bonsai behind him is the one that got so big I couldn't keep it in a pot any more, and I planted it out on Bill's grave last spring. Wow. It's coloring up out there; it made it through the summer OK, even though May froze its leaves off twice. Pfffft. 2020. 

The four orphaned hummingbirds' story is told in my book, The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds, in a huge chapter that threatened to take over the whole book. At one point I was considering calling the book My Hummingbird Summer and Other Stories.

Where was I? Yelling at a hummingbird, right. Well, the whole point of this post is to say that something very special has happened with me and monarch butterflies this fall. Starting in early September, I began work on a photography project that I am still working on now. Yes, my last caterpillar just writhed around and became a chrysalis. It's 9:40 pm on October 11...late for me, and wicked late in the year, but I was determined to stay up until it happened, to record the event with my iPhone on timelapse setting. 

Guess when I started making timelapse videos of this caterpillar? Around 8:45 this morning. With monarchs, you have to BE THERE or you'll miss it. I've probably got 50 timelapse videos to delete now, ones where nothing much is happening, but I got it, and I got it good. The timelapse is still running.

All this makes me nostalgic for the old days. My love affair with monarchs started in the summer of 2010. I had sketched and painted the various stages of metamorphosis, but I knew there had to be a better way to capture it--get the whole thing, not just snapshots. So I put my tiny Olympus point and shoot camera on a little bitty tripod, and I sat next to the metamorphosing caterpillar, pushing the shutter button every few seconds, through the entire caterpillar to chrysalis transformation. Then I waited two weeks and was somehow miraculously THERE for its emergence as a butterfly. I did the same thing, click click click click, for the emergence and wing drying.

In the end, I had 1250 photos. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with them, but at least I had the data.

So, as I often do when I'm trying to figure something out, I wrote about it, and one of my pieces ended up as a commentary for All Things Considered, back in the good old days a decade ago when I contributed natural history commentaries. Imagine! We had something else to talk about but spreading disease and beastly human behavior.  Oh, for those days...In the end, I wound up giving the 1250 photos to NPR, where a brilliant producer named Mito Habe-Evans stitched them together into the animation you see below. It's still one of my favorite things I've ever done. And all without iPhones or timelapse or anything but persistence and a little Olympus camera. Oh, and being there. Enjoy it! 

The "new Blogger" is giving me fits; won't let me into html to load the video. I've tried twice to embed it here. If you're reading from your phone and you see nothing in the space below, scroll down and tap View Web Version at the bottom of the post. If that doesn't work, here's the link to the video on YouTube.  Monarch Metamorphosis

Curtis Sees Dead People

Saturday, October 3, 2020


I strive, and have striven, to keep this blog running since 2005, and, in a twin effort, to keep it from becoming All About the Dog. Having weathered a near total takeover of content by one Napoleonic little Boston terrier, I struggle not to let Curtis barge in the same door. I'm fighting not him, but myself; my belief that he is the Most Special Dog Ever. I fight my own besotment.  Well, who could not be taken over by a dog so smart, so sweet, so alive, so tiger-striped?
Plus, get this. He loves to be hugged. Presses in for more. Most dogs don't like it; Curtis craves it. In addition, he smells like fallen sycamore leaves, not a hint of ook. The perfect companion for a lonely anthropoid craving ventral-ventral contact in a pandemic, saith the Science Chimp. 

So I figure it's time for an All Curtis photo post. 

On a recent Thursday, we saddled up for a ride to the sweet little town of Nelsonville, Ohio. Our destination? Stuart's Opera House, its crown jewel. I had to do a tech run-through of my first virtual presentation of Saving Jemima, the book talk that COVID-19 canceled. (Yes! you can watch it! And yes! details below!)

I figured the 2 PM run-through would take about a half-hour, and we'd be on our way, maybe hiking one of the state parks along the Appalachian highway for the afternoon. Well, things didn't quite work out that way.

Curtis always starts our car rides in the front seat, looking forward, as if he's got co-pilot status and has to make sure I pull all the right levers. Traffic stops get boring, though. 

I have anticipated this, so I've brought a pillow for this cur who needs a pillow, at all times. 

Still, it's not very comfortable. 

He could go to the back seat, but that would mean giving up co-pilot status. 

So he opts for the tired airplane passenger sleeping sitting up move. I particularly love his badonkadonk in this shot. Chet had a badinkadink. This dog has baDONK.

Eventually we got to the Opera House, and it became clear that I was in the hands of artists, who are intent on making a show of this event, which is not only my first streamed lecture, but Stuart's Opera House's first streamed event! It will be available on Zoom, but it won't be a simple screen share--you'll be able to see an inset of me speaking, as well as a wide shot of the stage. It will feel a lot more like attending a live lecture. I am excited about this--it counteracts the dreary thought I had of having to give a slide lecture from my studio, all by myself. 

But back to Curtis. He entered the Opera House with pricked ears and waving tail, surging ahead to investigate each room we entered. We had no sooner got on stage and I had taken my place, though, when Curtis began to agitate. He was off his lead with people to kibbitz with, so it wasn't that he was bored at being confined. 

No, he was Zombie Whining me. A Zombie Whine is a very high-pitched screech that starts with a long, soundless exhalation and ends with a sound like a car pulling away on a wet street. He gives it when he very much wants me to be doing Something Other than What I am Doing. 

He kept gazing off into the darkened theater, ears pricked, wagging his tail, then turning back to me. 
"Honestly," I said to my hosts, "it's like he's seeing a ghost, and he wants me out of here, pronto!" This statement unleashed a highly enjoyable barrage of ghost stories from my hosts,  Stuart's Opera House's Executive Director, Melissa Wales, and T-Bone, the house sound artist who is coordinating the show.

It seems there are two ghosts, seen by multiple people, who haunt the Opera House. One is George, thought to be the builder of the place. He walks up and down the empty halls, whistling. Whistling. Melissa has heard him--and she'll know that the door she just heard open is locked up tight, and the lights are off, and there cannot be anyone there, but...footsteps and whistling. Yeeeesh!

Also present and much more mischievious is a ghost the living denizens of Stuart's call Victoria. She's seen more often than George, who is usually heard. She messes with electricity. T-Bone told of one night when, in the  middle of a performance, the house lights started rapidly strobing. Everyone looked at one another, asking what could be going on. T-Bone rushed to cut power to the house lights, flipped the breaker...and the lights stayed lit. Dimly, but they stayed lit. Ohhh-kay. 

At this point I was getting chills, my mouth hanging open. And then they told me about the child visitor who kept asking about "the lady in the balcony."
Victoria is usually spotted in the balcony.

I seen her. I seen Victoria out there.

You can't see her, but I can. Dogs can. Well, I can. We need to go.

We need to get out of here, Mama (blep) I'm begging you.

Sadly, Curtis did not get his urgent wish. In the end, I was there for more than two hours, working out all the kinks and folds of streaming a live lecture to an unseen audience. I enjoyed every minute, even if Curtis didn't. I'm so excited about this! It's happening Thursday, October 8, at 7 pm.

Here's the event on Stuart's Opera House's website:

If you've always wanted to attend a Zickefoose talk, but haven't had a chance, well, here you go. Much as I miss touring, I'm truly excited about the chance to open this out to a wider and more far-flung audience, and to give people a chance to hear the Saving Jemima book talk, no matter where they might reside.

Are you done yet? I'm keeping an eye on you. See that hole in the wall behind me? Ghosts come through that. 

Come ON Mama let's GO! I have to get you out of here!

All right, Mr. Supernatural, we can go home now. 

See you Thursday October 8 at 7 pm! And since you're gonna ask, Curtis done blown his chance to be there. I'll have enough to do without placating an antsy beggartick cur-dog who has to report loudly on what he's seeing up in the balcony. I'll just have to take my chances with George and Victoria sans bodyguard. 

Thanks to Stuart's Opera House, Athens Area Birders, Scioto Valley Bird and Nature Club, my favorite ever general store White's Mill, the Ohio Ornithological Society, and Bob Scott Placier for sponsoring my appearance. I don't know who's sponsoring George and Victoria's appearances. 


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