Sunday, April 30, 2006

For a Cloud Holding Back the Sun

Sun rays piercing white
Gray bodies, their shapes shifting
kiss, touch, drift apart.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Deep in the Woods, Watching

I spent most of the morning deep in the woods, waiting for the sun to get high enough to warm the little valley where I was waiting in hopes of reconnecting with some old, familiar friends. Each spring and through the summer until late July, this east valley on the farm we call Indigo Hill is home to a handful of very special warblers. And on this chilly spring morning many of my old friends were singing, already setting up their territories. Many of the female warblers have not yet arrived, so the males are especially het-up.

One of the things I love about these woods is that the trees come with cupholders.

Into the woods I went hauling spotting scope, digital camera, and my cup of morning coffee. Halfway down the spring trail a male hooded warbler chipped loudly as he flew past me. And a male yellow-throated warbler zipped past, also chipping. Far down in the bottom, where the spring feeds the small creek, the worm-eating warbler (a new arrival today) sent out his insectlike buzz. Also joining the chorus were black-and-white and blue-winged warblers, wood thrushes, and our resident birds, including five woodpecker species.

From east of the trail a Kentucky warbler sang his rolling, bright trill. I spent the next hour navigating the thick underbrush, looking for him. Kentuckies are loud, persistent singers, but they can be devilishly hard to see. Sometimes it seems as though they are throwing their voices like a ventriloquist. Finally I found him and got him in the scope. Great looks, but no chance to digiscope him.

I'm not sure why I love the Kentucky warbler so much. Perhaps because they stick to the deepest, brambly woods. Or maybe it's their Fu Manchu facial markings. Now that I know where one of his morning song perches is, I'll be back to spend more quality time with this particular old friend.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Woodcock Returns!

Tonight's featured performer appearing in the Stardust Lounge for your listening pleasure!

After a 12-day hiatus, the male American woodcock who performs nightly in our upper meadow has resumed his show. I am certain he's back by popular demand (the ladies dig him--we hear them purring when they fly past him as he peents).

Phoebe and I were heading out to toss the softball just at dusk when we heard our meadow man start his nasal, spring sonata. I immediately realized that I might get a shot of him with the digiscoping rig, and so, ignoring Phoebe's whining exasperation, I tip-toed into the meadow where I scanned for our guy. It took us a while to find him in the ankle-high green meadow grass, but soon we did, and I got him in the scope. Like any good, conscientious Dad, I stiff-armed Phoebe out of the way until I could get a snap off a few frames with the digital camera.

When Phoebe was little and we'd take her out to look and listen for the woodcock, she'd always ask us to hold her off the ground. Finally one night Julie asked her why she needed to be held.
"Because I'm afraid the woodchuck that's making that noise will run up my leg and bite my face." To this day we're still not sure how Phoebe came to be such a strange, sweet little bird. We told her that the woodcock (a bird, not the furry mammal) would only do this if she had earthworms on her face (the woodcock's favorite food). And as long as she washed her face everyday, she'd probably stay earthworm free.

As we walked out into the meadow tonight, still scanning for the woodcock (not woodchuck), I noticed that Phoebe was looking in precisely the right direction for the calling male, but she was looking up into the trees, not down on the ground where our guy was bound to be. She's still confused about this mysterious nocturnal bird. At least I did not have to hold her off the ground, but then, she's really good about washing her face.
Phoebe finally gets a look at one of nature's great mystery creatures.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Good News at Chase Lake

April 22, 2006. The white pelicans are back at Chase Lake. Photo by Rick Bohn.

Our North Dakota buddy, Rick Bohn, sends along the news that more than 5,500 white pelicans are already back on the traditional nesting islands at Chase Lake NWR, near Carrington, ND. Chase Lake was established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the then-tiny nesting colony of white pelicans.

In recent years this site--once the world's largest white pelican nesting colony, with 30,000 birds--has experienced massive failure, with eggs and nestlings being abandoned by parents for no apparent reason. Researchers have many hypotheses about the nesting failure in 2004 and 2005, including disturbance by predators, disease, and a crash in the food base. No definitive answers have been found for these mysterious failures of the colony.

We're headed out to North Dakota in June for the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival, one of our favorite events each year. The birding in ND is fabulous, the people are so nice it's scary, and then there's the knefla soup (which was described by the waitress at the Pingree Cafe as "a nice soup with kneflas in it").

White pelican over Chase Lake. Photo by Rick Bohn.

Monday, April 24, 2006

More Spring Birding Adventures

Got out early again this morning to take advantage of the perfect light and to steal the souls of some songbirds with my digiscoping rig. Did not get much in the way of images, but did soak my shoes and socks in the morning dew, which makes me feel as though I've started the day off right.

Here are a few to share with you....

The day's first victim: a white-throated sparrow in perfect light but imperfect shadows. I love the look in his eye.

Not a great house finch photo, but this was the most purple-finch-colored house finch I've ever seen.

Slightly better version of my male blue-winged warbler. I'm hoping he'll let me get closer to him over the spring and summer.

This male prairie warbler is back on his old patch on the hill behind our fire circle. He sings the chromatic scale better than any opera singer, but he does not like to be photographed.

This evening I met a pack of Cub Scouts and their parents at our local wetland park for a bird walk. We got a grand total of 6 species in the spotting scope: American robin, great blue heron, Canada goose, tree swallow, red-winged blackbird, and a save-the-bird-walk osprey soaring overhead. The scouts oohed and ahhed at the large raptor as he circled 100 feet overhead, occasionally hovering over a possible target fish in the wetland's shallow pools. The osprey did not dive, but he obligingly flew in tight, lazy circles in perfect light as I told the slack-jawed scouts about the osprey's recovery from the effects of DDT in the ecosystem.

We were operating under the 3-seconds-at-the-scope rule. You may hog the scope until the count of three, then you must step aside.
Millions of questions, such as: "Why do they call them tree swallows?" Me: "Because they swallow trees. Next question!"

The Amazing Mr. Osprey.

We had a good time. And I hope this experience will help heal my scars from getting kicked out of Cub Scouts in 1974 for pointing a museum cannon at Mrs. Reynolds, my Den Mother. She did not believe me when I told her I was practicing for my artillery badge.

Everybody got good looks at the birds today.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Many Arrivals, Few Photos

I stepped out onto the deck this morning and into spring migration, finally. Up until today, we'd had a handful of spring arrivals--one or two a day. This morning eleven species arrived, including: scarlet tanager, Nashville, prairie, Tennessee warbler, common yellowthroat, cliff swallow, Savannah sparrow, blue-headed vireo, rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore oriole, and great crested flycatcher.

Though there were tons of birds and the light was perfect, few of the birds were very cooperative. I was only able to digiscope one of the new arrivals (actually a species that just passing through), the Savannah sparrow.
Savannah sparrow, eating dandelion seeds.

Some of our regulars were more cooperative for me this morning.

It's pretty tough to get a digiscope photo of a warbler, but this guy (a yellow-rumped warbler) was singing his heart out to impress the ladies, so he was sitting tight.

On our farm this translates to: "Uh, You got any more of that suet dough inside the house?"

Note how my digiscoping technique ensures that the branch and the cardinal's feet are in perfect focus.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Song in My Head

On this rainy Saturday, while marooned in a hotel room in Canton, Ohio, the song in my head is:
by Jose Gonzalez
on his "Veneer" album.

I first heard this lovely song in a commercial for Sony, a link to which was sent to me by my music-obsessed pal Zane. The commercial is worth seeing.

Heartbeats was not written by Gonzalez. He covers it. The original performer was a Swedish band called The Knife. Have not heard their version--not sure I want to.

This song enters my head because it is so artfully, hauntingly beautiful, even without the incredible visual of the colorful bouncing balls in the ad. This winter and spring my "headsongs" have mostly been melodic, soft, acoustic. Am feeling that may soon change, but one never knows, now, does one?

I took this image of the waxing moon from our meadow. It seemed to fit the mood of the song, and the music currently in my head.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Giant Things of Guatemala

Check out the totally Chia-pet hairdo!

If you think that the U.S., or our fine, hockey-obsessed Canadian friends to the north have a hammerlock on weird giant things, you, amigo, are sadly mistaken.

And I have the images to prove it.

I believe I have documented, in digital photos, the existence of a giant race of Chia pets, living in Guatemala. These creatures (well, we assume there is more than one, though we only saw and documented a single individual) live near chlorinated swimming pools, deriving their sustenance from these bodies of chemically enhanced water by some undetermined method.

We never did determine the purpose of this statue. Was it a slide into the pool.

We did find out that these creatures, though very shy, do like to have their noses picked. This is very similar to making a dog's leg flail by scratching the dog in a certain spot.

Fortunately there were no giant Chia boogers.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Brain Bowl

This afternoon Phoebe and I are driving north to the Akron/Canton area where, tomorrow, Phoebe and a team from her school, will compete in the state Future Problem Solving Bowl in Alliance. It's too complicated to explain, so we just call it The Brain Bowl. Or sometimes "The Bowl of Brains.
I've loved walking Phoebe out to the bus each morning this week. Chet loves it, too.

I'm so proud of Phoebe and her smarts (inherited from her mom). Spending a few days with her at this event is going to be really fun (I've promised a mini shopping spree). She does not seem to be at all nervous about the weekend's competition, which impresses her Nervous Nellie dad.
Phoebe and Liam, dressed for the school carnival, themed "Hollywood."

Not forgetting the purpose of this blog.....
Several new birds arrived yesterday and today at Indigo Hill: white-eyed vireo, black-throated green warbler, ovenbird, black-and-white warbler, and double-crested cormorants (a V of about 30 flew over yesterday morning).

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

For a New Tulip Poplar Leaf

Tiny, tender leaf
of perfect shape, lime green
each vein, its own tree

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hummingbird Hallelujah!

Late in the day on Easter Sunday, while Phoebe and I were tossing the softball, our sharp-eyed red-headed girl spotted the first returning male ruby-throated hummingbird.

"Mama! There's a hummingbird at the feeder. I think it's an adult male!" That's my girl!
Redhead and redbud.

I was unable to get an image of First Guy until this morning. Can I hear a "hallelujah?" The hummers are back.

Now the question in our minds is: Will any of the three males that Julie raised from orphaned nestlings to releasable youngsters two summers ago return to spend the summer with us again?

We'll know if they come peeping around us as we eat our dinner outside in the front yard. Last year all three returned. You can listen to Julie's NPR commentary, "My Hummingbird Summer" here.

Incidentally, if you live in the Washington DC area, Julie is presenting a program and signing books at The National Zoo this Thursday evening, April 20, at 7:00 pm.

Monday, April 17, 2006

My Sunday Shadow

After our fabulous Easter dinner in town at the home of the BT2's, our little family foursome retreated to our farm and went in four directions, all of us needing some alone time.

Following a failed nap attempt, I followed my shadow on a walkabout.

First, he pointed me west, toward the setting sun. It was 6:45 pm. As I entered our old, barely hanging on orchard, I naturally took the northernmost path, past our old sweat-lodge frame, past the middle-orchard bluebird box (five warm eggs), and onto my favorite path, Secree. Secree (our slang for Secret) is the section of the north orchard path that is totally closed-in in summer with grape vines, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy, creating a dark, green cave. It's a place I love to visit on summer evenings. For some reason, the wood thrush songs sound so much sweeter from this, my secret spot.

I found the Secree path blocked by a blown-down yellow poplar tree. This is a common occurrence on our farm--these poplars dislike strong wind, so they just give up the ghost and topple over. I made a mental note to get the chain saw out here soon. Must keep Secree passable.

I love the filmy yellow-green effect created by millions of tree buds in earliest spring. After a long, gray winter, it's so nice to begin our journey across nature's color palette once again.

My shadow showed me where the spring's first Blackburnian warbler will be making his appearance in a few weeks, maybe less.

There are incredible, soft mats of moss all over our farm. My shadow stretched out for a nap on this lush clump. And after taking a macro shot of the moss, I decided to do the same. No need for a blanket, the sun covered us both in its warmth.

Our oil well was the next place I caught up to my shadow. He was wondering about something--it appeared to be troubling him. This realization caused me to give an involuntary shiver. If shadows have problems, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I brushed this turn of mind off as a side-effect of too much rich food in the middle of the day. Little did I know, "a ghost was about to step across my grave," as my grandma Thompson used to say.

While checking this vernal pool for tadpoles (there were many) I had the distinct feeling that someone was watching me. Then I heard footsteps in the nearby copse of pines. And for a moment, I swore I saw a dear old friend, walking toward me, smiling. But I know that she's long gone. It's a dream, only a dream, and it's fading now.

I walked back through the meadow, sun on my bare shoulders, heading home. The house was coming back to life, and I needed very much to do the same.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Blooming Love

Love is in the air, my friends. As I staggered around the farm this afternoon, drunk from the yellow sunshine and the heady smell of plum blossoms on the evening breeze, I managed to grab a few macro shots of the flowers' best advertising efforts.

The blossoms on our plum hedge smell heavenly.

Around our plum hedge, bees, weighed down by saddlebags of orange pollen, droned about their business, mostly oblivious to the rest of the world. How I envy them. To know your purpose in life and to follow it, no matter what. How completely liberating that must be! Or bee.


Daffodils of every description are found around our farm yard. Some we inherited from the owners immediately previous to us. Others are very old daffodils that have been blooming here, around the old farm house site, for half a century. Some are ancestral daffodils that we dig up from our old family farm site, near where I-77 crosses the Ohio River.
Bleeding heart, nodding under the weight of its blossoms.

The bleeding heart is already advertising itself to our yet-to-arrive hummingbirds. They should be here tomorrow, according to our 14 years of spring nature notes.

Yesterday evening I heard the dee-deeeee! of a newly arrived broad-winged hawk over our orchard. After I was done appreciating him, I looked down and took this image of one of the thousands of dandelions in our yard.
I love the sunny yellow of the dandelions on the deep-lime-green spring lawn.

Back at the plum a sphinx moth (sometimes called a hummingbird moth) nectared on the plum blossoms.
Redbud blooms throughout our woods, looking like dark twigs wrapped in magenta crepe paper.

The humble violet winks at me coyly amid the grass and clover leaves.

Spring beauties. Such a perfect name for a sweet, tiny spring flower.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Ten Signs That It's Easter

Our first bluebird brood hatched yesterday.
  1. A wood thrush sang from our north woods just after dawn this morning.
  2. There were no kids' dress shoes at the shoe store.
  3. I found a song sparrow nest with four eggs. It was cleverly located in the tall grass around our septic tank. No predator is going to find THAT nest by smell.
  4. Entire creaking cartloads of Easter candy were being wheeled through the Wal-Mart parking lot.
  5. Our neighbors across the valley are shooting skeet. This is an Easter tradition since we moved here 14 years ago. Later on, when I grow weary of the gunshots, I will play them some guitar with my amp set on 11.
  6. Every patch of lawn is flush with dandelions, spring beauties, and a lush carpet of green.
  7. The sound of lawnmowers fills the air. I find it's best to mow before the Easter egg hunt, rather than during or after. Last night I had a nightmare about weed-whacking.
  8. Our first clutch of bluebird eggs has hatched. Little pink squirmies--very unlike the yellow marshmallow chicks that kids everywhere will be gagging down tomorrow morning.
  9. I spied the first monarch of spring this morning.
  10. Our kids are already buzzed out of their gourds on sugar. It's only gonna get worse.
Wishing you a joyous and peaceful holiday weekend. BOTB.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Song in My Head

Today and tonight (and for the past several days) the song in my head has been

Gotta Have You
The Weepies
from their new album "Say I Am You"

Ever since I heard this song on my fave local radio show, I've been aswim in it. It's sweet but not treacly sweet. It's melodic, but unexpectedly so. And I love the arrangement.

If you go to The Weepies site, you can hear a lot of their songs for free. My guess is, if you're like me, you'll hear it, then buy it.

The fave local radio show is called "Crossing Boundaries" and it's hosted nightly from 7 to 10 pm by Athens, Ohio musician Mark Hellenberg on WOUB-FM. This is the same studio where Zick records her NPR commentaries.

Three Voices of Spring

Lord of the noisy bramble, our alpha-male brown thrasher.

These early spring mornings the birds are singing, but the singers are not always in peak form. For example, our brown thrashers (two more arrived on Tuesday) are only just now playing their way into shape after several days of half-hearted effort. The bramble patches now ring with that special thrasher sound. Amazing what a little competition, a bit brighter daylight, and a shot of testosterone will do. Game ON!

We have a lot of eastern (rufous-sided) towhees here on the farm this spring, including one with a decidedly unmusical drink-your-tea call. This particular male towhee looks for all the world like a full-adult, so I'm not sure it's his youth that makes him sing this way. His song has more of a buzzy, metallic quality than our other, bright and musical towhee calls. Mr. Metallica's territory seems to be in the edge of the woods along our north boundary, behind the garage.
Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Metallica the eastern towhee!

Our final notable performer this spring is a young red-winged blackbird who has the perfect song, conk-a-reeee! of an adult male, but still wears the streaky-brown plumage of a young bird. It's as if his suit is still at the dry cleaners, but he's showing up for work anyway.
Song? Check. Good singing perch? Check. Breeding plumage? Oh *%@#!

Cannot imagine what it would be like to wake up without a symphony bird song to greet the dawn. Let's not let that happen, OK?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dreams in the Water

Finger writes a dream
into placid water pool
Wake! It's coming true!

Dogs, Logs, Blogs

Arriving at Indigo Hill late yesterday were Sharon and Bill Stiteler of fame, among other things. They came for a visit in the country and to shoot some video for the Eagle Optics website. The weather stayed in our favor and we spent most of the evening outside watching birds, tossing things for Chet Baker to retrieve (both Sharon and especially Bill are big fans of our dog Chet Baker), and enjoying the sunset. Oh and we talked quite a bit, too.

Spring evenings out in the yard, ahhh! Julie, Sharon, and Bill concur.

Liam and Non-birding Bill show their evil squints.

It was interesting for Julie and me to meet Sharon's husband, known to all in the birding blog realm as Non-Birding Bill. I can vouch that this is an appropriate moniker. As avid as Sharon is about birds, Bill is decidedly (and happily it seems) a non-birder. This afternoon I was trying to get him on a soaring osprey high over our meadow. He looked at me and smiled, saying "Really, Bill, don't waste your effort on me!" It's actually a bit refreshing to have a non-birder around--it allows us to talk about other things, like theatre, literature, technology--all things without feathers.
Liam never met a woman he wouldn't talk to for hours. This is how I know he's my son.

This morning we went for a long walk in the woods. Last night's rain made the footing a bit more slippery than normal. We all muddied our backsides, slipping down slopes and scrambling over fallen logs, but we did see some neat things (do we ever NOT see neat things when we take the time to walk?) First Louisiana waterthrush of the year, first wood thrush of the year, and the aforementioned osprey.

Now we're back at the house, bellies full of lunch, and getting that "siesta kind of feeling." But before we nap, we must BLOG! To see things from the other participants' perspectives, visit Julie's blog and Sharon's blog.
Bill loves him his Macs. He's got one for each knee.

There are at least three of us online at any given moment (am so happy I put in that wireless network). And last night, there were six Macs all being used at once (NBB was double-dipping using two Powerbooks at a time). What did we do with ourselves before our lives became ruled by technology? I think I remember churning some butter once back in the 70s....
Though the walk was strenuous, Sharon and Bill still managed to shoot some scenes and scenery.

I LOVE blogging about nature and our nature adventures and experiences. But that's no where near as enjoyable as the actual experiences.
The expedition rested briefly below Beechy Crash before tackling the Whipple Matterhorn.

Glory rays and another Indigo HIll sunset.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Whip-poor-will Moon

Unbelievable! Julie just walked past me, headed out to shut her greenhouse door. She left my sliding door open and the next thing we heard sent us into leaping into an impromptu dance across the lawn. A whip-poor-will called about 10 times from our orchard! This seems very early to me, but I'll have to check our nature notes (yep, normal arrival date according to Zick is 4/21. That's 10 days early.). He JUST got in tonight, like five minutes ago.

Whips nest here on our farm, but their spring appearance is usually timed to coincide with the emergence of the larger moths--the whips' main food. Here's hoping we don't have any late snow or freezing rain in the next few weeks. Nothing but happy goatsucker weather from here onward.

Wow! Sleeping with the windows open tonight....

Meadow, Morning After

Here is our meadow, looking south-southeast, the morning after I bush-hogged it. In a few weeks there will be knee-high grass with patches of orange butterfly weed interspersed, shining like pennies in a wishing well.

I heard a meadowlark calling from the trees along the west border this morning. They like our meadow wide open and unbrushy. The bluebirds and tree swallows seem to be pleased, too.

Next tractor task: plowing and disking Julie's wildflower meadow. The hardest part will be getting the old three-point plow hitched onto the tractor. That's hernia work.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Zen and the Art of Tractor Repair

"Dang! It thought it was the battery!"

I turned the key again--dead silence.
Not even a click.

I was afraid of this. My "new" used Massey-Ferguson 135 tractor had died the day before in our meadow. I thought it needed a new battery. So I bought one in town on Tuesday and bro-in-law Dave Rudie, Zick, and I walked it out to the stranded hunk of metal.
Tinkering, fiddling, and getting my hands extra oily.

But after putting the new battery in, the tractor's condition did not improve.
I said bad words.
Julie said: "It's too old to have a bunch of Naderisms isn't it?"
I said: "It's got to be a bad starter."
Dave said: "On an old car that won't start, sometimes, if you tap the starter, it starts!"
Me: "Dude, get tapping!"
"It's that there carburetor that's messin' ya up!"

Cross your fingers and hope for a start.

Dave tapped. Nothing. He tapped more and I jiggled the high-low speed shift.
The tractor turned over and roared to life, clouds of blue, stinky smoke billowed out the back.

Smiles and high fives all around.
"I tapped it right here, next to the whatchamacallit."

Now I'm not exactly sure if it was Dave's brilliant mechanical technique or my shifting of the high-low gear into LOW, but I'm just glad the dang tractor is alive once more.
Happy Farmer Bill (of the Birds)

I spent the evening mowing, racing the sun around the brushy meadow. I got the tractor (which still needs a name) back to the garage just as the last cardinal was departing the feeders for his nighttime thicket.
There is a calm that settles over me, sitting on my tractor, as it kills and maims innocent plantlife.
I stand up and watch for box turtles, dog toys, and frisbees as I mow.

The meadow looked so nice this morning. Will post a photo of it here later tonight.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Lunch with a Gorgeous Redhead

About 1:30 this afternoon I had to get outside. So I took my lunch to the Kroger Wetland, down the street from BWD. There I met this stunningly gorgeous redhead. She was hanging around with some friends. Man, she was so beautiful!

Can't think of the last time I saw such a lovely redhead up close--and, to be honest, I normally find brunettes more attractive. But I found I could not resist taking her photo. To play-off my real intention of photographing her, I acted as though I wanted to take photographs of her entire group of friends. I think my ploy worked.

Just don't tell Julie I had lunch today with a gorgeous redhead.
My gorgeous lunch companion--she's so fine!

OK, I have to admit he's pretty handsome, too.

And yes, they make a fine couple. What a lucky guy!

Dead Batteries

This male bluebird was watching a sharp-shinned hawk soaring way up high over our meadow.

Today was Dead Battery Day at Indigo Hill, but this is something I did not know until the end of the day. The afternoon was sunny, and sunny weekend afternoons in early April are always devoted to mowing the meadow. This little bit of agricultural activity is traditionally preceded by hours of trying to get the tractor started after its long winter nap. This year's tractor (a used Massey Ferguson 135) is supposed to be an upgrade from last year's tractor (a MF TO 35) that gasped its last breath in August leaving me with lots of uncut meadow, growing more brushy every week.

Liam helped me in the garage as I gassed up the tractor, checked the oil, topped off the radiator. He asked all kinds of questions, like "Dad, before I was born, before I was a little boy, were there dinosaurs on our farm?" It was great having him with me. I gave him jobs to do, like holding the wrench and handing me the oil can. It also helped me keep my language clean when I climbed into the tractor seat, turned the key, and heard....nothing. Not even a click. The battery was totally dead.

No problem I have a charger. Two hours later, and a garage full of blue smoke, the 135 roared to life. I raised the mowing deck pulled out into the side yard and gave Liam a ride around the garden. Then I headed down into the meadow to, at long last, mow back the brush. I got exactly 3/4 of the way out the meadow on my first pass and the tractor died. The battery charge did not hold. And unless I could put together a quarter-mile of extension cords, my mowing was done for the day.

Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean, I repeated to myself as I walked back to the house. No time to get to town and back for a new battery before dark. The tractor will be sleeping in the meadow tonight.

The light was still sufficient for photography, so I grabbed the digiscoping gear and walked back out to the tractor. The brown thrasher was singing out there and I really wanted to digiscope him. He had other ideas, so I decided to shoot a few frames of my marooned tractor.
The camera beeped twice. Dead batteries.
Our male brown thrasher is still pretty shy, singing from deep cover and not letting me get close to him.

Here's where the tractor died.

Is it just me, or is this tractor smiling?
Liam called my old tractor Gorgeous Red. He's still thinking up the name of this new-old tractor.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Songs from the Monkey's Head

We have a resident song sparrow whose territory includes the small pond just outside the upstairs master bedroom. Next to the pond is an old fencepost I sunk as a support for a now-long-gone trumpetvine. The post is a perfect singing perch for our songster, the brushy meadow spreading out below him, our house protecting him from the north wind, and a wide-open view to the east and west. Around the front of the house, a smorgasbord of suet dough is spread out each morning. Life is good for this bird.

Years ago someone gave The Swinging Orangutangs a ceramic monkey head. It was really creepy looking, so we took it to every gig we played and placed it on a mic stand in the center of the stage. Then, during one particularly rowdy show, one of the whirling dervishes among the crowd grabbed the monkey to dance with it. We could see what was going to happen, and sure enough it did--SMASH! The monkey lost his shoulders, base, and most of the back of his head. As I was unloading our equipment from the van at 4 am the next morning, I came upon the broken monkey head, and ceremoniously placed it atop the fencepost next to the pond. And there it has stayed for at least six years.

Now with all the paint weathered away, it looks more like a bleached-out monkey skull than a decorative , mantle-worthy objet d'art. The song sparrow does not mind. It's his favorite song perch.

I'm just glad that the monkey still gets to listen to music all day long.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Floating Around the Yard in Sunshine

I spent the afternoon drifting aimlessly around the yard ogling birds. Grabbed the digiscoping rig because the light seemed favorable and cranked off a few dozen frames. Still figuring out how differently one must think when photographing birds than when simply watching birds. The strategies are completely different.

This beautiful female eastern bluebird is incubating five eggs in this new nest box.

It was a fine way to while the afternoon away while the rest of the family was cavorting at the elementary school festival, and I was alone on the farm waiting for a friend to show up. In the meantime, the birds kept me company and the sun reminded me about the promise of spring.

The fluffy fibers of this piece of rope will be lining this Carolina chickadee's nest.

The chipping sparrows are back and singing all around the yard. We'll save clippings from our haircuts, toss them out in the yard, and find the hair-lined chippy nests next winter when the leaves (and chippies) are long gone.

Song in My Head for Saturday

The song in my head this rainy, cold Saturday morning (not pictured) is a sad one....

I'll Slow You Down by Warren Zevon

This song just really resonates with me right now for some reason. It's from his album "Life'll Kill Ya." I've always liked Warren Zevon's songs, and have played many of them over the years. I heard it on Pandora, remembered it fondly, and had to have it. Hello ITunes Store. Guess Steve Jobs will be able to make his yacht payment this month....

If you are not familiar with Mr. Zevon's music, you surely must know his big hit, Werewolves of London. If you do not know this song, or you have never heard it, please seek immediate professional help.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Ghost in the Meadow

At dawn, before the sun crawled up over the eastern horizon, the end of the meadow was haunted by a ghostly mist. In half a minute it was gone, sliding through the pines and poplars, down into the east valley.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Well-equipped Birder

As the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, I am responsible for the magazine's content and editorial direction. A few years ago, we decided to add a short column to BWD, called "The Well-equipped Birder." "The Well-equipped Birder" usually profiles a product or object that somehow enhances your bird-watching experience. This could be a birding hat, some new digital gadget, a useful reference book--really anything that better equips a birder for the hobby.

About 12 years ago we added a short feature in our Backyard section, called "My Way." In this short feature, BWD readers send in their tips, tricks, and ideas for improving your backyard bird watching experience. This could include plans to build a feeder or bird house, ways to keep flour moths out of your bird seed (whole bay leaves), or how to revive an old, faded hummingbird feeder (bright pink nail polish).

During our recent Florida trip, I stumbled upon an innovation that many birders may find useful, but it did not clearly fit into either the "Well-equipped Birder" or "My Way" so I decided to share it with you here, in Bill of the Birds.

Julie and I walked from our hotel on Sanibel Island, Florida, to the lovely white-sand beach to watch the sunset. In addition to all of our birding gear, Julie had a plastic cup of merlot and I had an unopened bottle of pale ale. We got to the beach, saw that the sunset was not yet starting, so we decided to have a toast.

J: "Here's to leaving the cold, gray skies of southeastern Ohio behind for a few days!"
B: "Wait this isn't a twist-off cap!"
J: "And to our sweet babies. We miss them, but they are being well cared for!"
B: "I...can'!"
J: "And to having our toes in the Gulf of Mexico once again!"
B: "I'm going to run back to the room..."
J: "You'll miss the sunset!"
B: "You're right. I need to think like MacGyver!"

Normally, I'd use my belt buckle--opps no belt on these swimming trunks. Couldn't use my binocs. But the scope tripod! Nope, no likely spots on this new, carbon-fiber and incredibly light Bogen Manfrotto tripod. But wait?

To fit our scope onto the new tripod we had to add a scope plate! Eureka! Out came the scope, I turned it over, popped the bottle cap off nice as you please. And we got back to our toasting.

B: "To MacGyver, wherever he may be!"
J: "To Desperation: the mother of all invention!"

Plastic hotel room keychains cannot open beer bottles.

But the angled foot of a scope plate is perfect!

Me happy. Birds, Bare feet. Beer. Sun go down. Ragnar go back to cave.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Cousin to the Ivorybill

Head of pale-billed woodpecker. Tikal, Guatemala.

When Jules and I were in Guatemala last month, we spent the final two days of our trip in Tikal, the famous Maya site where the pyramids are impressive and the birding is justifiably world famous. Among my quest birds on our trip was the pale-billed woodpecker, cousin to the ivory-billed woodpecker in the genus Campephilus. I figured that this might be as close as I would ever get to an ivory-billed woodpecker, though I hoped (and still do hope) to see a one someday.

In 2004 in Guatemala I had heard the distinctive double rap of the pale-billed, but no birds showed themselves. This year we were spending a lot more time in likely habitat, and several times our Guatemalan birding guides would point out the double-rap. My hopes were rising with each aural encounter.

Late on the afternoon of March 4, our first day at Tikal, we were looking across a large ravine toward Temple 5, scanning its shape for signs of an orange-breasted falcon nest, when three large birds flew across a clearing and into some gangly, tall trees. "Pale-billed woodpeckers!" Julie shouted and we all scrambled to gain better viewing angles. The light was low due to an oncoming thunderstorm, but occasional rays of sun forced their way through the darkening sky, illuminating the scene for us. I'll never forget the gleaming white bill and blindingly bright red crest on the first bird I located with my scope.

The three birds seemed to be associated with each other (perhaps a family group?) as they foraged and loafed. For the next 15 minutes we enjoyed leisurely looks at one or more of them and I did my best to capture their souls with my digiscoping set up.

Most of my pale-billed woodpecker shots came out like this: blurry images of busy birds.

To be standing there, in Tikal, with an ancient temple, old growth forest, and one of the most impressive and evocative birds in all of the Americas in one binocular field was nothing short of incredible. Julie and I kept saying "They look so much like ivorybills!"
This one is my favorite because of the crest. I've never seen a crest like this on a bird!

I shot and shot, getting mostly blurry images of moving birds, with perfectly in-focus branches and vegetation. The shooting conditions were tough. Even so, I could not help but think how great it would be to encounter an ivorybill (or three) in the same fashion, under similar conditions. Perhaps one day....

Here, for your viewing pleasure are the least objectionable of my pale-billed woodpecker shots. I took them through a Swarovski 65 AT spotting scope with a 20x to 60x zoom lens. My camera was (and still is a Canon Powershot A520 (4 megapixels) attached with a Canon LA-DC52F extender and a Swarovski DCA (digital camera adapter).

Check out the belly stripes and the bird's regal eye.

Not very sharp, but I love the lines in this photo. And that beautiful bill.

I must tip my cap to Clay Taylor of Swarovski Optik, North America for his helpful and sage guidance as I re-entered the digiscoping realm. My experience in Guatemala would have been so much less enjoyable if I had not been geared-up for digiscoping. Thanks Clay! You can check out some of Clay's own digiscoped images here.

And we also owe a debt of gratitude to Marco Centeno and Hector Castaneda for traveling to Tikal with us, and sharing their vast birding and nature knowledge. Gracias por los aves y las bromas, amigos!

This shot shows how massive the feet are on these woodpeckers.
Look how it's grasping the tree, and the spread of those toes!
You know what they say about big feet!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

My Life as a Dog

If I could be a dog, I would be Chet Baker, our Boston terrier. Why? Well let me tell you why...

  • Because he is at the top of the affection totem pole at our house. It goes Chet, kids, Charles the macaw, orchids, other plants, any rehab birds we have, baby turtles, fish in tank, favorite garden clippers, and that tall guy that's here sometimes.
  • Everything he does elicits peals of laughter from my fellow residents of Indigo Hill. The last time I puked on the kitchen floor, I don't remember anyone even cracking a smile.
  • He can roll in droppings, and still get hugs. If I have a 5-o'clock shadow at the end of the day (and I always do) my kids run screaming. Wifeypoo, too.
  • Sleeping all day is, somehow and incredibly, considered his job.
  • He gets to lick dishes clean, then walk away leaving them on the floor.
  • He can jump at least 4x his height. If he could hold a basketball, he'd be a millionaire!
  • He walks around our yard and pees on stuff....oh wait, nevermind that one...
As far as I can tell, the only reason NOT to be Chet Baker is that he no longer possesses his complete "wedding tackle." Though this does not seem to dampen his enthusiasm in the least.

Don't get me wrong. Me Love Chet! Me also ENVY Chet!
I am just saying, in the words of Will Smith: "Day-am!"

For the real inside poop on Chet Baker, the luckiest dog in the world, visit the blog of Julie, president-for-life of the Chet Baker, Boston Terrier Fan Club.

Making the Rounds

Julie and Phoebe check a nearly complete nest at the end of our meadow.

Here at Indigo Hill this evening, while enjoying the benefit of an extra hour of daylight, Julie, Phoebe and I walked our bluebird trails to see what nest-building has started in our boxes. This is one of our many spring rituals (woodcock watching, spotting the first daffodil, burning the Christmas tree and dancing and howling around it, you know, the usual spring stuff).

We first headed out the driveway to re-hang the PVC baffle on a box with a full nest (but no eggs). Of course having walked the quarter-mile out our driveway, we did not have all the necessary tools with us. So while Julie and Chet went back for the equipment, I stood under the giant oak tree at the end of our drive, and pondered my day. The late-afternoon sun shining on this old tree cast an incredible shadow into the neighboring pasture. And though the air was cold and the wind was a bully, it was a nice 15 minutes alone, just breathing and watching the clouds float on their invisible paths.

Oak shadow on pasture as clouds float on to the eastward.

Baffle fixed, we headed back up the drive to check out other boxes. Passing back through the yard, we took note of the many buds that Sunday's warm sun had coaxed forth. Our forsythia, perhaps the only large plant left over from the previous owners, is in its full yellow glory. Looking at it just makes me happy. I hope the cardinals nest in there again this summer.

We have not forsaken this old forsythia.

Our volunteer peach tree, growing too near the fire circle, is also showing nicely. If I were a bee this is the first blooming tree I'd visit. It's just so lovely and alluring.
A peach pit tossed into our fire circle grew into a tree that gives us these flowers each spring.

Heading out the lower meadow path, we were shocked to find that bluebird nest building has been started or even completed in several boxes--including a couple that had gone unclaimed in years past. Could it be that our efforts to help bluebirds are paying durable dividends? If all of these boxes get nesting pairs we'll have an early spring record--9 pairs--on our hands.
Phoebe loves seeing the nest contents. These eggs were still cold because the female bluebird does not start incubating until the clutch is complete.

Julie dutifully recorded the data for each nest box and we repaired baffled, tightened screws on door latches, and clipped encroaching vines and saplings from the pole bases. We don't want a snake or raccoon to get a head start in trying to get past our predator baffles. There's nothing more upsetting for a nestbox landlord than to find one of your boxes emptied out by a predator. These early spring broods are risky weatherwise, but they can fledge young well before the raccoons and black rat snakes are awake and tuned in to the tasty contents of our nesting boxes.

Our mid-orchard box, the one next to our sweat lodge site, was not fully checked. As we approached it a downy woodpecker stuck his head out of the entry hole. He's been roosting in that box all winter, so we're sure there's no bluebird nest in it yet. We left him in peace. And we stood for a spell watching through the poplar grove as the western horizon burned with the sunset's final throes.
Sleeping inside this nest box, the downy woodpecker missed the beautiful sunset this evening. You snooze, you lose!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Gloomy Weather and Happy Music

The big front rolled in all morning. When it arrived, day looked like night over our meadow.

After our glorious weather yesterday (during which We celebrated numerous family birthdays here at Indigo Hill) I was hoping for more of the same today. But the skies were unsettled from dawn onward as a major cold front inched its way toward us. This same cold front had already caused havoc in the Midwest, generating storms that resulted in thee deaths of several dozen people. So when my dad called from town to tell us we were under a tornado watch, we took it seriously.

Living, as we do, on a ridgetop, wind is our almost-constant companion. The sound of the wind whispering through our pines, or sighing through our window screens, is usually quite comforting. Then there are days like today, when we make tentative plans to seek shelter in our basement should really severe weather fall upon us. Julie and I were both working at home today, and we decided that the kids (both at school) would be safer in that well-built brick structure than here in our "house of sticks." So we waited, eyes on the sky, and listened to the howling wind and approaching thunder.

This time the actual weather did not live up to the threat it posed. We got a lot of heavy rain, impressive wind gusts, and thunder and lightning, but no hail, and no funnel clouds.

As a youngster in Pella, Iowa, I remember my folks driving us over to our friends' house, the Butlers, to shelter from a tornado (or cyclone as they were sometimes called) because our ranch house did not have a basement! We sat crouched in the Butlers' basement boiler room, listening and wondering when the roof would blow off. From their son, Chuck's, bedroom the stereo played The Beatles' Abbey Road album. Chuck told us about Paul McCartney's rumored death, and all the symbols associated with it. It was a scary night for little Billy Thompson.

The storm today split and went around us in two pieces. The rain had the creeks and runs up a bit, but not enough to go over the road in the most floody spots.

After the worst of the storm had passed, Julie and I went in to the kids' school to play music for Liam's class. We had a few songs picked out that we thought kindergarteners would like--mostly Def Lepard and Metallica (kidding). But Liam kept insisting that we play the song we wrote for him when he was a baby. We knew better. But Liam kept insisting until Mr. Stillings, the music teacher, finally asked if we'd play it.

Here's the conversation that followed...

Julie: "Well, Mr. Stillings, Liam loves that song because we sang it a lot for him when he was a baby. It's about him wearing diapers."
Me: "And putting those diapers through some pretty rigorous testing!"
Mr. Stillings: "Oh! So this song probably never made it to Number 1 on the charts?"
Us: "It was Number 2 with a bullet!"

The songs we actually played were:
One After 909
by The Beatles (because Liam loves trains)
Winter's Come and Gone by Gillian Welch
The Butterfly a traditional Irish song
Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes as sung by Bonnie Raitt

The kids seemed to like it. Here's hoping we sparked an interest in a few future musicians.

Tonight at home, the wind is still howling and the temperature has dropped 30 degrees from this morning. Somewhere in the multiflora rose tangles along our meadow's edge, a brown thrasher is cursing his luck.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Song in My Head

The Song in My Head late tonight is
When the Stars Go Blue
by Ryan Adams

This singer/songwriter has been incredibly prolific in the past year, releasing three albums. This song, from his much-earlier Gold album, is my favorite.

Where do you go when you're lonely?
Where do you go when you're blue?
I'll follow you....

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Return of the Brown Thrasher

Brown thrasher, by Julie Zickefoose.

Our brown thrasher got back today, or rather last night. Today was a cloudy, dull-gray day with a rumor of rain in the sky that never really materialized. Both Julie and I heard the thrasher sing, separately, but he's not in full voice yet. He sang infrequently, and not from his normal, very obvious perches, but from within the woodland's fringe. I took off out the door this afternoon, intending to digiscope the spring's newest arrival, but he would sing a bit, then clam up and move to another vantage point. I never did get a fix on his location.

Maybe tomorrow.

It was hard to hear our thrasher clearly. The robins have really upped their singing these past few days, and the goldfinches are twittering like school girls, at times at an almost deafening level. There have been April and May mornings here when we could not hear anything other than goldfinches.

Other indisputable signs of spring: five warm, light-blue eggs in our front yard bluebird box; lots more screaming from the resident red-shouldered hawks, major spring peeper action, the American toads tuning up in our patio pond, and Julie asking me to start the tiller for her. Each spring, when the brown thrasher arrives, Julie MUST plant the garden. I could set daylight savings time by it. Sure enough, she not only tilled the garden and re-mulched it, she got the Bird Spa going again, and removed the crusty winter brush pile.

Me? I worked on my taxes, another sign of spring's continual unfurling.