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Crawling Toward Mecca

Sunday, April 18, 2021


 It's a pilgrimage that I have to make a couple of times each spring, timed around the emergence of the Virginia bluebells and everything, everything else. I am not sure why this particular stretch of mesic deciduous forest near Nelsonville, Ohio, is so darn rich, but it is, and the show these wildflowers put on is not to be missed. I've never seen wildflowers like I've seen them grow in Ohio. I try to take a friend and a kid or two with me--Liam and I made it last year, but thanks to school schedules, this was Phoebe's year.

We were delighted to be outfitted with teeny weeny Swarovski Companion CL binoculars, 8 x 25. Just the thing for biking, hiking and running! Phoebe has my old pair, and I'm sporting a new loaner set from Swarovski Optik. Mmm mmm good!

The show of bluebells Mertensia virginica lasts only a few weeks, and then it's over. In a cold gray spring like this one, the flowers are in suspended animation, waiting for warmth and the pollinators it brings. You have a little more leeway, a grace period to get your body over there. The Hockhocking Adena bicycle trail is an old railroad bed that goes from Athens to Nelsonville, and you can ride the whole way on asphalt, with flowers as your companions for the deliriously delicious stretch between Chauncey and Nelsonville. 

I missed the bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis--only its leaves show in the foreground--but oh, look at the Trillium grandiflorum!

Each blue phlox plant seems to sport a different shade of rose-purple-lilac--anything but blue. Blue is a term botanists, who are so precise in everything else, seem to throw around wantonly. 

If you want blue, look to Collinsia verna--blue-eyed Mary. This free-seeding annual charms the dickens out of anyone beholding it in bloom. Now, THAT's blue. True blue. As a plant freak, I spend a lot of time and energy trying to get that blue in my garden and greenhouse. 

This magical thing happens when blue-eyed Mary is viewed en masse, at a distance. At middle distance you see this...

Step back, and it looks like mist is rolling down the hillsides.  Do click on this one, to see tiny Phoebe off to the left, and try to grasp just how many spindly little plants it takes to make smoke like this. 

It's not all blue-eyed Mary. The forest goes through phases as you ride along. At the beginning of the good stretch, Dutchman's breeches are the stars. Meet Dicentra cucullaria!

Everybody loves these cheery little pantaloons, hung up on their lines so neatly. 

And they are so very beautiful. I am fascinated by their diverse forms. Some are curved like bull's horns; some are straighter. 

And one was chubby, almost heart-shaped; even PINK.

Growing right in amongst them are their closely related congener, squirrel corn, Dicentra canadensis. I can't tell their leaves apart, but oh, the form. Look at that perfect closed heart. 

Pull back, and see how many there are. This stand seemed to be composed of about 80% Dutchman's breeches to 20% squirrel corn. (It's called that because it has a little yellow corm underground). 

It is staggering. I don't walk far up into the stands--too easy to crush the plants. But oh, I wonder what I'd find if I did. I fantasize about walking up the slope, peeking and peering. 

Every now and them, I'd find a Tennessee starwort. In my ignorance, I'd been calling this star chickweed, and it is a chickweed, but its sepals are equal in length or longer than the petals, and that means it's starwort, Stellaria coreyi. 
The Buckeye Botanist set me straight. :)
I love the firework explosion of stamens!

You can see the down on the leaves of the downy yellow violet. 

I love the name, cream violet, Viola striata. It's such a pretty little thing. 

As is the early saxifrage, Micranthes virginiensis, clinging to rock walls with little rosettes of winter-hardy leaves. 

Also on the rocks: early rue, Thalictrum dioicum. Here's rue for the Queen. 

Also clinging: Greek valerian,  Polemonium reptans. This one is fairly rare on these slopes, and we were thrilled to find such a splendid specimen. 

Patches of blue phlox Phlox divaricata light the forest floor. It's so exhilarating to see it in big clumps. I learned in writing this post that it's in the Polemoniaceae, along with Greek valerian. Huh? I thought it was in the Caryophyllaceae, or pink family. Always good to find the holes in one's knowledge.

Large-flowered bellwort Uvularia grandiflora was just coming in. Such a cool plant, with great architecture. 

 The lower slopes were punctuated with toadshade, or sessile trillium Trillium sessile. The flower is stalkless, or sessile. 

Everything is in threes with trillium. I adore the variegation on their leaves. This is one of my few shots taken from directly above. I generally get down on their level to shoot their portraits. 

Much showier is the diva, Trillium grandiflorum, large-flowered trillium. 

One of my favorite shots from this spring is this trio of trillium, blue-eyed Mary, and spring beauty, with the spangled stars of a zillion more large-flowered trillium behind. I must confess I am a little sore, two days later, from climbing on and off my bicycle many dozens of times, and crouching to take each of these shots. It's of little use to take wildflower shots from a standing position. You get no feel for where they live. 

Just a tiny part of the trillium slope. It's breath-stealing to behold. 

Phoebe found my very first patch of white trout lily, Erythronium albidum. 

And a flower I've yet to see in bloom--it's very early. But I recognized the paired leaflets and the distinctive seed-urn of twinleaf Jeffersonia diphylla. Get this: when the seeds are ready, the lid pops up and is hinged!

After lying prone, it's good to get up and look down again. Look at this toadshade and Virginia waterleaf Hydrophyllum virginianum!

A closer ook at the waterleaf's beautiful variegation, with spring beauties Claytonia virginica. As waterleaf ages, it loses that gorgeous pattern. It's a much later bloomer than the others, too, sending up weak stems of palest lavender bell-shaped flowers in May and June. It must be very shade-tolerant, because the canopy overhead is closed by then, and little sunlight reaches the forest floor. 

Perhaps my favorite shot from the 16th of April was this one--it speaks of the diversity, the jumble of native wildflowers, that stuns me every year.

And then there were the bluebells that didn't know whether to turn pink or blue. Sigh. I almost can't stand how beautiful it all is. I get overwhelmed.

There are a couple of places where I can get a little river plain behind the bluebells, and that is a fine thing.

To thank the woods for their incredible, abundant gifts, Phoebe and I pulled a buttload of invasive garlic mustard--diversity's worst enemy-- and laid it out to die in the middle of the path. This is ugly but necessary, as this plant will continue to grow and set seed if given even a ghost's snowball of a chance on the damp forest floor. I have faith that all Athens would turn out for a garlic mustard pull if called upon. It's that kind of town.

Thank you to the slopes, thank you to the humus, thank you to the God of diversity and all that is wild. 

Thank you to Geranium maculatum  for sending up just one flower in time for us to see it. Thank you to Phoebe and Liam and Shila, my safari companions, for loving the wildflowers as much as I do, content to crawl the slopes in search of such mid-April beauty. 

 Listen to the next video clip, and you'll hear the northern parula warbler we had just gotten in our tiny binocs! Oh! the yellow and red of his chest, his tiny white eye crescents, and the rising zzzzip! of his song!

and your blogger, speaking...with my thanks to Swarovski Optik for outfitting us with the fabulous CL Companion 8 x 25. 


Video by Phoebe Thompson 

My Bird Feeder Clients

Tuesday, April 13, 2021


 As I write, the wind is roaring again, and the newly flowering maples are tossing their heads and arms like they're at a rave. Practically every minute, something changes out there. A fox sparrow arrives and beats up a house sparrow.  My beautiful red-winged blackbird comes in for peanuts, as he has for several springs running. 

It's not every redwing that will climb on a peanut feeder. He's special!

Yeah baby! Get you some peanuts! And then he flies off to his territory at the nearest pond, about a half mile away as the redwing flies. Fergus the Frog's pond, if you must know.

On March 30, my darling male chipping sparrow returned from wherever he spent the winter. He immediately checked out every single feeder (all new to him). 

and fearlessly worked his way under the protective dome over this hanging platform. 

I just love birds' intelligence and adaptibility. He checked for Zick Dough where it used to be before it was mobbed with house finches, and finding none, decided to take advantage of what was there. I can't wait to see if his funny little mate with the spiky eyebrows comes back again this spring. 

You see, I have deeply personal feelings about the birds who come to my feeders. I follow them from year to year. They're my friends, and that's nothing to minimize in a pandemic.  So when I see them under threat as a result of something I am doing, it bothers me deeply. 

This old photo from March 8, of my beloved male hairy woodpecker mobbed by goldfinches at a tube feeder, is hard for me to look at now that I've made the connection between tube feeders and disease transmission. You can see the messed up eye on the lowest left goldfinch.

And his mate, with a sick goldfinch on the opposite port! You can see that scabby eye..the woodpecker perhaps saved from infection by her longer bill, which allows her to dip into the seed without contacting the port. However they have escaped it, I am so grateful. But this is what fuels my ferocious focus on taking the vectors out of the equation.

What fuels it is my love for all of them. 

This is a much safer way to feed. No ports to contact. Just bird and peanut and gone.

And what of the ones who brought this contagion? Why have I treated and (hope to) release now 18 American goldfinches, and no house finches? Well, this is something I've been thinking about a LOT. 
I see house finches with symptoms. And here's the thing: I can't even come close to catching them.

I'm trying to figure out what's going on. From what I have observed, house finches seem to be managing better with the disease than goldfinches. 
This is the first mass infection of goldfinches I've witnessed. I've never seen more than one or two American goldfinches with conjunctivitis, before this late winter/early spring of 2021. 

And suddenly they are overwhelmed. First one eye closes, and then the second. And when the second closes (which can take a couple of weeks), the bird is helpless, and it's then that I can capture it. IF it is a goldfinch.

But house finches seem to go on with the disease, seem to be able to continue to see well enough to get by. I suspect this is at least partly behavioral (as in, they have learned how to rub their eyes on perches to open them when they get stuck shut). But it may also be that house finches are building up some kind of partial resistance to the disease that the naive immune systems of American goldfinches as yet lack. They may be able to live with it, as goldfinches can't. I ache for their suffering. Their eyes look so sore, and the feathers around them are always matted and messy, as if they've been rubbing them, trying to get their eyes open. 

I'm not a scientist. My observations are all anecdotal. But I can't help but keep chewing on this problem. 

One thing that's not going to happen: these goldfinches I've worked so hard to get back to radiant health are not going to find tube feeders to share with house finches when they finally ply the sky again. They're going to have to go out and find the foods they're supposed to be eating. Or take the occasional treat from my hanging platform feeders. Watching like a hawk. So far, so good. Three birds twittering in the foyer cage, the last remaining. Two will be released tomorrow, April 14. That will leave one, #19. 

Captured April 7, Hey 19 was sitting on the platform feeder with two healthy goldfinches, his eyes completely shut. He was able to open them just enough to get there, but, once fed, he just ran out of steam. I crept up and nabbed him by hand. He'd spend almost two days in intensive care, with tiny dishes of food and medicated water, and droppers of medicated water given by hand, before he could see again.

He was completely blind until April 9, when both eyes opened blearily and he could make out his surroundings. These photos were taken that day, when he had graduated from his plastic Critter Keeper to the big cage. I always love to see their eyes open, see them see again. It keeps me going.

In this photo you can see I've lightly cut the tips of his right tail feathers, just enough to tell me who he is, in case I catch more that would be caged with him. Sincerely hoping he's the last of the last of the last. He'll be with me until April 28, and then maybe, just maybe, this epidemic will have run its course. 

So far, I've taken in 19 goldfinches. I lost one after a week to what I suspect was a secondary fungal infection that Tylan doesn't touch. Hey. 18 out of 19 ain't bad. I'll take it! I love these little chitterbugs.

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