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From Bird to Borb

Wednesday, January 25, 2023


I like to look at the individual birds who come to my feeders, to tell them apart from each other. This is my oldest female red-bellied woodpecker. See how she has a brilliant red forecrown (nares) and a rather narrow gray forehead? 

She also has a red V poking down into the gray forehead over on the right. I wonder if she got old enough, if the bright red would spread up from her forecrown and meet the red coming from her hindcrown?
Older females have more testosterone which makes for brighter coloration. Think of red feathering as warpaint. Brighter birds do better in conflicts. Older females can hold their own against rivals better than younger females. 

Right after she left, another female redbelly came. This one is younger, with a limited amount of golden orange, not red, in the nares and a very wide gray crown band. Almost like she's got a really receding hairline, right? 

A starling plumped down on the hook over her head and she underwent a startling transformation.
The bird became...

a borb.

I am not one to use cute names for birds, but THIS is a BORB.

Only when the starling turned its pointy end away did she relax a bit into a birdier shape.

Maybe I can eat a little more, he's busy...

Better keep the blimp going in case he tries to come over here.

Just another gray morning, gazing out at the feeders. I eat my Cheerios first thing, take Curtis on a good hike, fill the feeders, and race into the studio to watch the first flurry of activity as everybody descends and the titmice and jays bear off the peanuts in the shell first.

Fourteen cardinals in a steady count; here are half of them.

The next day there were 26. Exponential cardinal proliferation.
I wonder how they all get the idea at the same time to come to my feeders. Snow smokes out the flame.

This is the time of year I can't do without my bird feeders. I buy six pounds 
of raw suet at a time, slice it up to the right thickness to fit in the Lifelong Suet Feeder, and store it in baggies in the freezer.


The Six Hundred Dollar Stinkbug

Saturday, January 21, 2023


 The brown marmorated stinkbug, Halyomorpha halys, has been in America since it was accidentally introduced from China or elsewhere in Asia to Allentown, PA in 1998. That is not very far from me as the stinkbug flies. The blasted things have spread like wildfire. I saw my first one while visiting a friend in Loudon Co. Virginia maybe 10 years ago. I took a hand towel out of the linen closet and this big gross stinkbug fell out of it. There were more. They were everywhere. He said the side of his house had seethed with them that fall. It wasn't long before they started coming to spend the winter in my house in Ohio. 

I had to laugh the other day when someone asked me on Facebook what I do with stinkbugs in my house. Do I rescue them, take them outside? Should she?  I was like, man, I kill those things any way I can. I can't even count the ways I hate them. I was bemused that she seemed to want someone's permission to kill them. 

I have a favorite orchid that I've been propagating since 2005. Encyclia cordigera has not looked this good in my windows for many a year. This orchid can perfume the entire back of the house when it's in bloom.

These photos are from 2018. I haven't seen blossoms like this for at least five years. 

All because of stinkbugs.

You see, when brown marmorated stinkbugs invade your house in winter, they need to eat, so they look for tender young plant sprouts to sink their needle-sharp snoots into. After a couple years of utter mystery as to why the bloom spikes of my precious orchids always turned black and withered away, I finally caught a brown marmorated stinkbug red-footed, sucking the life out of a new bloom spike. 

So that's all I need now, with deer suddenly eating everything outside, is to have stinkbugs IN MY HOUSE ruining my houseplants, sucking the life from new unfolding leaves as well as flower stalks. 

The little spikes Encyclia cordigera sends out start out tiny and lengthen daily. It takes them weeks to mature, weeks in which the stinkbugs are free to plunder them and ensure that I get no beautiful purple blossoms to perfume my rooms.

I've tried so many times to cover them in netting but the stinkbugs almost always get in and kill them. 
I can't even describe how depressing it is to nurture plants for a year, waiting for that ONE SPIKE, and have it end up like this. No, the plant won't make a replacement spike. It's done until this time next year.

Last year I managed to save one spike, but I had to look at this for about eight weeks.

Only when the flowers unfurl and harden off completely is it safe to unwrap them.

This year I have wrapped the growing points in several layers of Saran and taped them up as securely as I can, given that they're still growing. We'll see how that works. When the spikes get too long to wrap like this, I'm planning to use nylon mesh paint strainers (the same ones I use on milkweed plants to protect monarch caterpillars from predatory, uh, STINKBUGS in late summer.

Like this one, genus Podisus, which I found last summer with a last-instar monarch caterpillar hanging dead from its piercing strawlike mouthpart. It looks strikingly similar to a brown marmorated stinkbug. It met the same fate. Growl.

My plastic-wrapped Encyclias. The fun never stops. Seems like everything I love to grow has its own wrecking crew, even inside my home.

It gets worse. Last summer my not-spectacularly-trusty John Deere x300 lawn tractor started having a new problem. It would run OK for a little while, then start to surge, and suddenly die, just like it was running out of gas. I'd have to leave it until it cooled down, and most of the time I could get it started and running long enough to get it back to the garage, but whatever I needed it for was off the day's To Do list.
 It was Not Convenient. 

My dear neighbor Bill W. helped me. He put a new fuel filter on it, and then a new fuel pump. Each time we put a new part on it, we thought we had it covered. But then it did it again a couple weeks ago while I was happily hauling winter brush. Just up and quit way out the meadow. 

I let it sit, used starting fluid on it the next morning in a light snowfall, and when it roared back to life, I just barely limped back to the garage before it surged, weakened and quit for good, dead as a donut.

It was time to call Bridgeport Equipment, bite the bullet, and pay through the nose to have them come out and pick up the tractor and finally diagnose what was wrong with it.

Days went by. Almost a week. I knew they didn't have many tractors in for repair. I started to lose hope.
And finally I got a call. 
They'd set my tractor up with what they called a "donor tank."

I loved that. Like dialysis for a tractor. 
And it ran fine. Then they knew there was something wrong in the fuel tank or line.
And guess what that something was. 
Being a Science Chimp, I appreciated the little baggie stapled to the invoice.

There was a stinkbug IN MY FUEL TANK.
Blocking the fuel line to a trickle. 
Making my life even more beautiful.

For those who wonder, "Misc" is what they charged me to come out and get my tractor, and drop it off, because I don't have a truck to haul it myself. 

Now you've seen a 632 dollar stinkbug. Isn't that special?

They make it mighty hard to have nice things.

Can We Talk about Woodpeckers?

Monday, January 16, 2023


This is a very good time of year to talk about woodpeckers. It's the best time of year to watch them, with no leaves to hide them, and with feeders luring them in, right to our yards.

I had a red-bellied woodpecker years ago who I called Ruby, for the little red feathers on her forehead. She became incredibly tame, almost like a pet. It was Ruby, hitting my studio window in 2009, who inspired my crop netting window screen, placed about 10" out from the windows on a PVC frame, that has saved countless lives in the years since. It's normally all but invisible. Only occasionally does a wet snow give me this view from the studio!

To find out how to screen your windows with crop netting (trust me, I can photograph right through it!), go here:

 I thought I was seeing Ruby's ghost when this bejeweled female (see her tiny red bindi?) showed up just outside the studio window. Lovely! 


This is one of the reddest red-bellies I've ever beheld. He's absolutely suffused with red! And really has a red belly. Generally when you see extra color, you can guess that a bird is older, or has more testosterone than the rest, or both. I've been looking for this gentleman and haven't seen him since I took this photo.

But that's OK. I've got plenty of glam woodpeckers to admire this winter. I'd love to think that this peanut and suet loving adult female yellow-bellied sapsucker is the same little gal I've had since she showed up in her brown weeds as a juvenile in November 2018. She'd be in her fifth winter now, and I think this brilliant plumage she's sporting lines up with that pretty well. She acts the same, uses the same perches; perches very close to my studio window and is totally unperturbed by me moving and photographing her just inside. 

She is a lot less aggressive than some sapsuckers I've observed, sharing the Lifelong Suet Feeder with a Carolina chickadee

and taking her own sweet time when a male hairy woodpecker (who is just about exactly her size) shows up. 

She even shares it peacefully with a downy woodpecker. The Lifelong Suet Feeder is made right here in Ohio by my friend Link Llewellyn. It's not cheap, but no raccoon is ever going to get suet out of it, and you can take it apart, wipe it off, and chuck the whole thing in the dishwasher. Definitely the cleanest way to feed suet, keeping the fat off the feathers, and that and the coon proof features is the whole point for me.

I'm so happy to have these gorgeous woodpeckers here. Even had a yellow-shafted flicker drilling for ants in the yard today, January 15!  Woodpeckers are so animated, such fun to watch, and so easy to attract with suet and peanut halves. (Except for flickers, who resist my efforts to charm them). 

And they hate starlings, too!

While Oscar was here, the queen of woodpeckers made an appearance just off the feeding area. It was so wonderful to show this majestic to him from the warmth of the studio, to watch him watching her through binoculars. 
It's a pileated, and that golden-brown forehead says it's a female. 

In all the years I've fed woodpeckers, I've never had a pileated come in to eat. I keep a regular suet cage as well as the fancy Lifetime suet feeders, and I keep hoping that one day I'll look out to see a monstrous crow-sized woodpecker clinging to the suet feeder or hitching up the post. I can dream!

From left: Downy, red-bellied, hairy.

Until then, I'm happy with what I have. I keep trying to snag the perfect woodpecker combo. I love comparing sizes between hairy and red-bellied, hairy and downy. 

When you see them together (hairy on the left, below; downy on the right) it's such fun to wonder how these not-very-closely related woodpeckers evolved nearly identical plumage. Get this: they aren't even in the same genus any more; hairy has been put in genus Leuconotopicus, while the downy stays in Picoides. The going theory is that downies are hairy mimics. One study by Cornell University's Elliot Miller postulates that the downy is trying to look like the more aggressive hairy for some dominance advantage that is not clear to me. Why would a downy woodpecker need to mimic a hairy? Are hairies poisonous to eat? (I'm only half kidding here. Birds are weird, and so is science, and that's why I love them both).

It's just another of the mysteries that common birds have all locked up. I like wondering about them.

If you do, too, subscribe to BWD Magazine here.  I write a column and few other things for every issue, and help edit it, too. The March/April 2023 issue is in final production! and psst...I know the cover artist...

Pumpkin Consequences

Thursday, January 12, 2023



I'm pretty sure the troubles all started with a volunteer pumpkin that came up in the spring of 2022 in the Heritage Garden out by the compost pile. I had set a nice white one out there, knowing it would rot and shed seeds.  I let a couple volunteer plants grow and they made 28 beautiful medium-sized white pumpkins. Liam and I decorated around the yard, setting them in a neat row down the sidewalk. We'd never grown pumpkins like that.

Oh, it all looks so lush, with the green grass and the bonsais still in color.

One put out a blossom from its severed stem. Pumpkins never stop trying to make more pumpkins. 

I had great plans to eat them all but alas, they never materialized. We ate one, for four meals, and that pretty much quelled our desire to eat them all. So I broke up the chorus line and scattered them on the low terraces and walls and porches around the house.

Someone noticed. The pumpkins began to disappear, a couple each night. It was very strange. There would be not a trace of the pumpkin, except sometimes a discarded stem. It was as if someone was walking up and carrying them off. 

The losses accelerated as frosts finally came and softened the pumpkins. I had an idea who might be doing it, but I set out the trailcam to be sure.

From this, I learned that deer eat everything of a pumpkin, leaving no trace behind. 
Always learning.

Having delicious snacks right up close to the house did something to the minds of the deer, who for 
almost THIRTY YEARS have left my flower gardens completely alone. In 2023, there was a complete paradigm shift in how whitetails regarded my plantings. Even before the pumpkin bait I inadvertently set out, I had eight flower stalks from tuberoses clipped off in July, when nothing had ever bothered them before. That blew my hair back. I would no longer be able to plant tuberoses around the yard, to perfume it all evening. Such a simple pleasure, denied.

Once they found the pumpkins, all hell broke loose. My hostas were mowed to the roots. Big deer prints laced the raised beds. They've chewed my heirloom iris tubers away. They're very neat, leaving hardly a trace of the plants I once loved. Just like this fawn cleaned up this pumpkin. Not a trace remained the next morning.

Readers of my blog will remember the days of Ellen and Buffy, Pinky and Flag. Those animals would come up in the yard to clean up birdseed, and never bother a thing in the garden bed. I didn't know how good I had it. But I haven't had deer to photograph here for years. Hunting picked up on surrounding properties for several years and there were a lot of animals killed. I stopped seeing anyone I recognized, or many deer at all. With Ellen's crowd gone, an ethos to leave gardens untouched died with them.

Then, for the last two seasons, hunting slowed way down. I did find a big bare spot last week where two people had butchered a deer on my land, but they didn't get the Wrecking Crew, as I call the big doe and three fawns who have moved into my gardens. 

This is the big mama. She's really beautiful. 

There are three smaller animals usually seen with her. The Wrecking Crew.

I have lost a lot of sleep over these deer. Those of you who've been living among whitetails for years know that they demolish everything, once they take a notion. It was very strange for me to live in peace with them for 30 years, then suddenly have four come in and clean everything out.

I lay awake many nights, thinking about what I might do about it. I thought about fencing and repellants. My mind ran in circles. I was pretty upset about it, because everything I could come up with had drawbacks. I didn't want tall fencing around my flowerbeds. I didn't want to have to spray everything with stinky repellent several times a week. I just wanted things the way they always had been. 
Isn't that the root of so much misery? Wanting things to be the way they used to be? Not being able to move forward?

Still in a quandary and upset, I decided to completely dig out the main front shade bed. It had hostas, daylilies and evening primrose, but thanks to a takeover by the evening primrose, it had gotten pretty weedy and nasty in recent years. Let's just start over. So I got rid of most everything except the daylilies, which the deer will probably devour this coming summer. Hoping they'll leave the bleeding heart and daffodils alone when they emerge, since those are poisonous. 

There it lay, bare earth. Somehow that was better than seeing the chewed-off stalks. 

The other night I got to thinking. What if I replanted only with things deer don't like? I don't know why it took me so long to come to that. I guess I was stubbornly hanging onto keeping the things I liked. I found an article online about it: 

The more I read, the more I realized that these deer-resistant plants are to be commonly found in many of the garden centers I frequent. And why? Probably just because they're deer-resistant. Many people in Marietta, Ohio, where these garden centers operate, have herds of deer tromping through their yards year round, dropping fawns in fenced backyards where they know they'll be safe. And eating everything in sight. 

Here's what settled out of that wonderful article. And here's what I'll be planting in the spring of 2023. 
Add to that zinnias, because I noticed that the deer didn't bother them much. Most of them aren't natives. At this point, I can't afford to be a native plant snob, or I'll have no flowers at all.

Making this list was the first time I've felt a little empowered since the Wrecking Crew moved into my yard. 
I realized that I've been in a fetal position, mentally, whenever I try to think about my flower gardens in the coming season. I still am, but I'm uncurling a little since I made this list. 

They're here, and they're not going anywhere. 

I can't expect them to respect my boundaries.  I'm just the new neighbor who doesn't know the rules.

They were here first.

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