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All On a Summer's Morning

Monday, June 28, 2021


Every morning, Curtis Loew and I tromp out the meadow to see what we can see. June 12 was his seventh day of nursing a deeply gashed hind pawpad, and I have been pleased to see him using the foot a little more each day. This morning, he'd even done a short, frisky run on all fours as we embarked. He was coming back. You can't suture a pawpad; you just have to let it heal from within, and I could tell the process was extremely painful, as he held that foot up for nearly two weeks as he three-legged around the place. He spent most of the week sleeping indoors, which I thought was great timing, given the presence of a wobbly new fawn on the place. I try to see the bright side in every misfortune. Maybe Curtis' loss would be that beautiful doe's gain. 

First stop was the right meadow box, where my favorite pair of bluebirds, the ones who had a clutch by April 1 (!!) are well on their way with a second brood. Listen to how they peep as they hear me scratching at the door, but shut up instantly when they realize it's Big Mama, and not their real mom. Consciousness is creeping into the heads of these five-day-old babies. 


Finding all well there on this foggy morning with an indigo bunting singing and Curtis finishing his morning ablutions, I move on. 

Next we check a box with unhatched eggs. Then it's on to the lower path, where ten-day-old house wrens, six of them! await a check. It's always a kick in the pants to have bright shiny eyes looking back at me. 
My heart races as I think about how soon they will be fledging. Yikes! They've got two, maybe three more days in the nest and then boom! out they'll go. Hence my little woooo at the end of the video.


Curtis trots ahead of me, and I spot a surprise just as he gets wind of it. What a beautiful little turtle, her beak all sludged up with slug. I love to see them feasting on escargot --this is probably Arion subfuscus--on a nice foggy good-for-slugs-and-turtles morning. Her markings look like Chinese characters to me. Shiny-smooth, black and beautiful she is. It's a bit early for laying eggs, but the females spend wet mornings prospecting for open soil, testing it with a tentative dig.

A great spangled fritillary struggles up out of the grass as I approach. It's hard for butterflies to fly when it's coolish and wet, but it manages.The cardinal, indigo bunting and peewee cheer it on. How beautiful it is, blundering in the wet grass. And how high and thick the meadow has grown in a short month and a half! Lush! with habitat and hiding places for all.
It's going to be absolutely amazing by August.

I note with great satisfaction that the ragged fringed orchid Platanthera lacera that I found as it emerged this spring and immediately caged against herbivores is finally in bloom. I saw a rolled lance-shaped fleshy leaf and thought, "That looks like it's gonna be an orchid!" My next move was to walk to the garage for three old rusty tomato cages to stack over it, to keep deer and rabbits from nipping it off. As they do.

Isn't that cool? It's a life orchid for me! I've seen the purple fringed and the yellow-fringed (which is actually the color of a Dreamsicle, no joke), but this is my first ragged-fringed. Whoot! And it's in my orchard!

Update: The count is now up to 16, all in the orchard's deep shade but one. And that one?

It came up on an unmown patch right at the head of Bill's grave. I was absolutely thunderstruck to see it. Hundreds of yards away from any other, baking out in the hot sun...what was it doing there, other than saying, Hey Zick! I love you!

Curtis turns off the trail and heads into the meadow, a move that always makes me nervous. The hair on his spine is standing up; that usually signifies that he smells coyotes, or that he's otherwise unpleasantly alarmed. The way he circles and circles a big patch of higher vegetation makes me think he has a largeish animal in there. Uh-oh. I'm thinking fox. Coon. Skunk. Sandworm. I don't know. 

He makes a little stomp-lunge and a little whitetail fawn stands up, unable to hold its stance any longer.
I immediately collar Curtis and pull him away. I also immediately pick up that there's something wrong.
If you click on the photo you can see that the poor sweet thing has been injured already. Such a short life, and already something has had it. There's a puncture wound on its forehead, and blood in front of its left ear. 
I know it can't be Curtis who did that, because he's been indoors for a week--this is his first real outing.

Trailcam photo from early this morning shows the coyote is still out and about, hunting this wee baby.

Honestly, how do any of them survive? And how did this one get to the point of being grabbed by its head, and SOMEHOW escape? Did Mama pummel the coyote away from her fawn? Or was it something smaller, maybe a bobcat? I can only imagine. But what a rough and merciless entry into its world this fawn has had.

Oh, the night holds such terror for deer. I comforted myself by studying the photo and noting that it appeared the fawn's wounds had been licked clean by the doe. She licked them until they stopped bleeding. Undoubtedly it was she who saved it, and she who cleaned it up, and she who calmed it  and laid it down in the meadow. Had she not, it would be in a coyote's belly by now. I can only shake my head in wonder.

I snapped the photo and immediately walked a reluctant Curtis to the house. As we walked away, I watched the fawn slowly sink, like a grebe, back into the vegetation. Only days old, and already showing such wisdom.  Like a child at a bus stop, it has to wait for its mother. If it leaves, she might not find it.

Later, Curtis and I went back outside. I did my morning routine, keeping a close eye on Curtis. Not once, but three times over the course of the next hour, that dog watched me out of the corner of his eye, and when I seemed sufficiently involved in a pursuit, he tiptoed out toward the meadow. Three times I stopped him dead as he set foot on the meadow path with an AH-AH-AH!! --his least favorite sound in the world besides running bathwater. So much for those who think dogs can't plan ahead, or remember past goals. This one is a plot- hound.

He is sneaky, and he is a hunter to the core. He would not hesistate to kill this fawn, I know. 

So I stepped my surveillance up a notch.

I set his Marco Polo tracking unit, which keeps a connection to an electronic tag on his collar, to CLOSE, and turned the alarm on for the first time ever. If Curtis went outside a boundary considered close to the house, an alarm would sound until he returned. There is no shocking involved whatsoever--just tracking. 
When he's lying in his chaise longue under the Japanese maple, there's a 55% signal in the kitchen, where the base unit stays. 

Let him leave that circle, let the signal fade to 25%, and the alarm shrills. It works!

My job was to keep him under surveillance all day, until the doe could feed and move her fawn tonight. She would doubtless stay with it all night. 

Curtis Loew, you are being watched. 

He spent the afternoon either at my side outdoors or inside as I wrote. 
I was once again grateful, in an odd way, for his hurt paw. He was less likely to strike out on his own with a sore paw.

For out in that meadow, a wee fawn lies,

 waiting for its mother to return.


And What Became of the Miracle Bluebird?

Monday, June 21, 2021

Man, I've been blogging a lot about bluebirds. But I want to have a record of this strange and at times wonderful spring, and all the things I learned as I messed about with bluebirds. Here are the chicks in the   house by my mailbox, on May 25, '21. 

Opening those boxes and seeing them grow has brought me so much joy.

There have been failures, too--one brood of four unexpectedly lost to cold in the orchard box on the ridiculous date of May 30. That was sad. I kicked myself for a long time over that. But I had a guest here, and I was distracted and not paying enough attention. Note to self--a day and a half of cold rain in late May can kill. OK. Got it.

I had two very large black rat snakes get over two of my baffles and clean out a nice brood of five and a clutch of three eggs, too. Fixed that the day I found it, June 6--that same morning I put up a new higher box with a new baffle, farther out in the field. These predators and the weather keep me on my toes. Then a neighbor pulled that brand new box, baffle and pole up and left it leaning it against the wire fence, saying it was in his way. I just found it like that--no explanation, twice in a row.  The first time, it had a fresh nest, the second, four eggs. And the female bluebird, valiantly building a nest and sitting her eggs through all that, finally had enough, she left her clutch cold. Her record: First clutch: lost to cold; one baby fostered by me. Second clutch: Lost to a snake that got over the baffle. Third clutch of 4 eggs: Lost to...a misunderstanding? It's been a rough year for bluebirds, and for someone who cares so deeply about them. 

Yes, there is sadness. Lots of it. But it's all so beautiful. Here's the nest, taken from the Church box for a quick photo on May 16. My old friend Jeff Warren, gone too soon, sleeps in the background.

 And here we are, at the end of the tale that rolled out when it snowed on April 21, 2021. Of course we all know the story never ends; it just goes on and on. I made a number of visits to Warren 1, the box where I deposited the Miracle Hatchling, the only one to live of a clutch of five left cold for four days in freezing temperatures. To recap, when it became clear the female was never going to come back, I took them in, asked a friend to put them in his incubator, and we were shocked to find that all five hatched, despite their incubation being interrupted late in the process.. Sadly, the chicks were so depleted by the ordeal that only one lived. But they all hatched! And one made it. Miracle.

I had only one box that had eggs that were near hatching--Warren 1. So I stuffed her full of egg food and put that sweet miracle baby in with their eggs, which didn't hatch for another three days! These fabulous parents fed Miracle, while the female continued to incubate her own eggs. 

Miracle was bigger by far--look at the difference in head size between one-day-old foster chicks and four-day-old Miracle (top). Still, I had faith this would all work out. 

I kept a pretty close eye on the box, considering it's several miles from my house. Here is the brood on Day 10. But it's Day 13 for Miracle! The bird to the right, whose head is feathered, and whose wings you can see are feathering out, is Miracle. And I can see by the small amount of blue in those wing feathers that Miracle is a female. She's a bit behind in development for a 13-day-old bluebird, but given the incredibly lousy start she had, we'll cut her a lot of slack. This is working out really well. Yes, she has a three day lead on her foster sibs, but I don't think that's going to be a problem. 

 I visited them on Day 15 of the host chicks' life, and Day 18 of Miracle's. In the back, you can see a 15-day-old male cowering from my looming iPhone. Miracle, I think, is the sweet little blurry face in the foreground, peeking up. I didn't open the box--too late in their development, might scare them into fledging too soon. That was the last thing Miracle needed! This shot was taken May 16. 

I crept back on May 19, 2021--Day 21 for Miracle, Day 18 for her foster sisters. At this point, they would all be good to go if they fledged right now, and I was elated to find them all still in place, as far as I could tell. SUCCESS!! It was so cool to know that Miracle stayed put, though at 21 days she was past a typical fledging age for bluebirds. Good birdie!! She was waiting for her foster siblings to be ready. 

Here's a meta moment--your blogger making these photos. The Warren 1 pair are enthusiastic divebombers, alone among the birds I work with. This has always been the case at this box. Yep, he's hitting me! It takes me back to my least tern work in Connecticut in the early 1980's. Never let them see you flinch.


Onward we go. There may be more bluebird posts, or the blog may just degenerate into summer wonder. You never know. Thanks for reading along.

Say...if you have enjoyed this bluebird story, I highly recommend a new little book by my friend and insanely cool nature writer Sy Montgomery. It's called The Hummingbirds' Gift: Wonder, Beauty, and Renewal on Wings. I fell in love with Sy with Spell of the Tiger and Journey of the Pink Dolphin. I loved The Good Good Pig. And then Soul of an Octopus hit the scene, and I flipped all the way out and have recommended it to so many people. Birdology was great fun--imagine getting up close and personal with cassowaries!! So please, check out The Hummingbirds' Gift.  It's a lovely, quick, breezy read that will ring familiar and true--it's a portrait of a rehabilitator who specializes in raising and releasing orphaned hummingbirds. I've done it for a couple summers, but making a specialty of it? Ummm...hrrrrmmm...I'm so thankful for people like Brenda LaBelle and especially for people who can write like Sy Montgomery. 

                        This is Sylvia, one of my orphans from way back when. Oh, I loved Sylvia. 

Placing the Miracle Chick- Part 5

Thursday, June 10, 2021


On the frigid, rainy morning of April 29, I went out to check my boxes, leave mealworms on the roofs for the adults and stuff any young hatchlings with egg food. Then I made a beeline to R's house, to give Miracle Baby its first feeding out of the incubator. Oh, it was hungry, but it was strong, and I had a good feeling about this bird. As an embryo it had already been through so much. It wanted to live!

I fed it four times before creeping up to Warren 1 and slipping it in alongside five near-term eggs. I also included a pipping egg from the cold clutch, hoping it might hatch successfully. It was the best I could do. 

Here's how the hatchling looked the next afternoon, April 30. I was delighted to see it plump and pink. 

Four of Warren 1's five eggs wound up hatching on May 2. The pipping egg from the cold clutch died in the shell, not surprisingly. So our Miracle Baby would be three days older than its foster siblings. I had to have faith it would all work out, because at this point I was out of options. What a sigh of relief, to have my last orphan in good bluebird care.

Here are the newborn Warren 1's, with a great big Miracle Baby asleep on the upper left on May 2.

Here's Miracle Baby on May 5, with a couple of its foster siblings. Bigger, even showing the beginnings of pinfeathers on its wings, but not hideously out of the ballpark. I'm hoping for the best.

The bluebirds occupying Warren 1 are great parents--they're the ones who divebomb me every time I approach the box. But Mrs. Warren 1, I will aver, is a lousy nest builder. So while I was there checking on Miracle Baby, I took her brood and her crappy little nest out, and you could see right through the bottom of it!

The whole thing was crawling with chicken mites, too! Ack! This box seems always to host them. They likely hide in the crevices over the winter.

I put the babies in a white tissue nest while I drenched the box interior with Glass Plus and swabbed it out with paper towels, and made a fresh nest from dried tufted hairgrass that I gather in my meadow. While I worked, the mites on the chicks crawled off onto the tissues--don't know why they do that, but it always works! 
Then I replaced them in a nice cushy fresh grass nest, in a virtually mite-free box. Sigh of relief.

Speaking of sighs of relief, here's Roquefort Eddy, the tiny skinny orphan that Curtis sniffed, on April
30, surrounded by the infertile eggs of their foster mother. I removed them after I took this photo. 

THIS is a FAT baby bluebird! Here's Roquefort Eddy on May 2, growing like a weed!

Little Roquefort Eddy grew and grew, and by May 5, I could tell it was a boy. 14 days old here, and he got a new nest, too, because his had mites. That was a little tricky--he squawked and shrilled and leapt out of the box, whoops! Zick! Remember your own damn rules! I laughed and caught him, stuffed some paper towels atop him, finished cleaning the box and making the nest, and installed him in it. Just to be safe I stuffed the box opening with paper towels until I was sure he had settled down. Crept up, removed them--all was still. Roquefort Eddy stayed put. A successful, if way too late in the game, nest change!

Meanwhile, Roquefort's mother, who had abandoned the brood of 6 newly hatched chicks farther down the same road on April 21, had started over.
She's incubating 5 eggs as of May 12. Hey, no judgement, Mrs. Eddy. You have more sense than I do.
(And as I revise this on June 10, those eggs all hatched and have all fledged and she's feeding them. I'm going to bet she goes for Round 3. Wish her luck.)

I stopped at the little Methodist church and had a chat with my old friend Jeff, who'd put up the bluebird boxes I was now messing around with. I know he'd be bemused and amused and befuddled by my overcommittment to these birds. But he'd also be intensely interested, and learning right alongside me. He wouldn't read my blog, much as I wished he would, but oh, we'd be yakking. I miss those chats. I'm grateful I get to see his fine brother Jay now and then while I'm cruising the bluebird trail. We're both too busy, but we find time to catch up.

That's a bluebird box, a turkey, a John Deere, and a boombox on his stone--some of the things he loved. I adore the concept and the art on these storytelling stones.

Back home, I was actively subsidizing two more broods of bluebirds, the first to hatch on my trail. Here's how the oldest brood looked April 30. It was pretty easy to help them--I just walked out a few times a day, leaving a crock of mealworms on the roof of the box. The adults took care of the actual feeding. Man, they were happy to see me first thing on a wet, freezing, rainy morning! 

They still appear out of nowhere whenever they see me, hoping for mealworms. Their babies fledged on May 4 at the age of 19 days, and the adults are keeping them nearby, and were still accepting handouts as of May 12. It brings me joy to help them along. I'd much prefer warm nights and sunny days, and not having to buy mealworms by the 3,000 lot, but they're well worth the effort. I get my mealworms from Tim at   Always highest quality and fast shipping, and far more affordable than pet store worms!

In the yard, another box is fledging as I write on May 12, even with 32 degree night temperatures. You can be sure the adults are eager to see me pop out the door each morning!

And the Ritchie baby, left for dead by its mother on April 21? It's the big male at the bottom of this photo. Isn't that beautiful? He fledged along with his broodmates from the Hendershot nest somewhere around May 8. I still remember him, stone cold, but beginning to squirm in my bra on April 21. I call the incubator chick the Miracle Chick, but they're all miracles to me, surviving in this cruel spring.

My batting average--three chicks fostered and saved out of seven chicks and five eggs taken in--isn't anything to brag about. But I'm sure the additional broods I fed and subsidized are in far better shape than they would have been without the feedings. They may not have made it at all without the subsidy. 

 As much work as it's been--and it has been all-consuming--it is good and sweet and right to know there are bluebirds out there who wouldn't be on the earth without my help. I'm not sure I'd want to do this all again. Nah, I definitely don't want to have to do this again. 

But then again, with the weather the way it has been these past two springs, and my heart in the shape it's in, I'm not sure I have a choice. Sometimes it snows in April. 

Five Cold Eggs and a Miracle: Part 4

Thursday, June 3, 2021


 Meanwhile, in a box out along my driveway, a female bluebird inexplicably abandonded her clutch of five eggs on Day 11 of incubation--only three days from hatching! It took awhile for it to sink in on me that she'd done it, but on the snowy morning of April 21, I'm pretty sure she quit sitting and let her eggs go cold. None of my other bluebirds abandoned eggs--they all sat them steadfastly through the cold snap.

When I finally checked the driveway box on April 24, assuming she was sitting straight through, I was shocked to find them ice-cold. I was inclined to leave them. I have had this happen, and had the female return and resume incubation, and some of the clutch has hatched! However, I saw the female and her mate prospecting at the next box down my driveway, and I knew that meant that she had no intention of returning. She was already starting over.

For those who wonder: Male bluebirds have no bare brood patch on the abdomen for warming eggs, and they lack the instinct to incubate or brood young, so it's all about the female's choices here. The male plays a supporting role, bringing food to female and young, but if his mate decides to abandon eggs or young, the male is unequipped to keep them warm and alive.

I brought the cold eggs into the house, wondering if I could do anything for them. I candled them: all fertile. I could see bright red blood vessels, and the dark mass of the chick inside. The clear space is a gas space, which helps the chick breathe, and takes waste gases to be passed out through the shell.

But were the eggs still alive, after going so very cold for three days, and sitting at room temperature for another day? I mulled and pondered. I wanted to know. And I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained. I looked at my notebook, and I figured out which boxes I might put them in if any of them actually hatched. 
If they all hatched, I was going to surprise Warren 2, the infertile mom, with a whole new brood, and take Roquefort Eddy (The Skinny Orphan) and put that fat little thing in another box with chicks its age, where it would continue to thrive. Crazy, I know, but I did have a plan, and I was pretty sure it could work. That infertile female was up for anything I threw her, after faithfully sitting clear eggs for 20 days. She was pumping food into little Roquefort Eddy until that chick was about to pop.

I called my friend R., who has a huge heart, owns an incubator and more importantly knows how to use it. I call in reinforcements when I'm over my head.  I decided to take the five eggs to him on the evening of April 25. I was bone tired from a full day of baby bluebird wrangling, and I didn't get them to him until almost 10 pm. R. had the incubator up to the desired temperature and humidity, and he started incubating them that same night.

Several days went by. With each passing day, I lost a little more hope that anything interesting would happen. But I'd seen red blood vessels when I candled the eggs, and I had a strong feeling they were still alive. 

I was hanging in my Air Chair on the evening of April 29 when I got a text from R. No words, just this picture. He had walked into the back room, peeked in and found a baby asking for food. Holy holy holy cosmic stardust. One bluebird had hatched. And the other three (one egg had cracked and died early on) were showing real signs of life, rocking back and forth. 

I told R. to make a mama out of something soft, and to cover the begging baby up for the night. I had faith that it could live on its yolk sac until I could get to town first thing in the morning. Its parents wouldn't have  been able to feed it in the middle of the night, either. So he quickly sewed up a scrap of fake fur and that baby went to sleep. 

It's a reflex, this gaping when you're uncovered as soon as you're hatched, but it is a very powerful releaser for the parent birds, and for me. 


In the end, four of the five eggs wound up hatching or at least pipping. Only one baby made it: the first one out, the one you see in the video.

The next two photos are sad. They're the babies that hatched but died within hours. Look and compare them with the baby that made it. 

There's nothing to him--he's skin and bones. 

I think that when an egg has to sit unincubated in the cold for four days, the chick has to live somehow, and it draws on the yolk, which is its power pack for what should be a 14-day odyssey. Thanks to the snowstorm, these chicks had an 18 day wait. They used up their power packs, and had no reserves 
to live on after the tremendous energy expenditure of hatching. I can only guess that the baby who survived started out with a very large yolk in its egg.

It's very sad to see these wasted little things. But what's marvelous about this is that they hatched at all, and that one made it. I didn't expect any of them to hatch, really. And the other thing that's cool is that incubation, which had progressed for 10 days, was arrested on the morning of Day 11, put on hold for days 11, 12, 13, and 14, and then resumed, was completed in four more days. R. started incubation around 10:30 pm April 25, and several chicks hatched the evening of April 29. So they had a total of 14 incubated days, which is the normal bluebird incubation period, and they hatched pretty much on time. 

Like I said, I do all this to learn. I'm compelled to do it because I care about the birds, but curiosity is a very strong driver. I wanted to see what would happen if we tried  this. 

And now my problem was: What do I do with this tiny hatchling, who needs bluebird parents to grow up strong and well?

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