Saturday, November 14, 2009

Forest in Miniature . .

If it's a common phenomenon, I've not noticed it before. On the day after our 5-inch rain, the entire surface of the back lawn was covered with standing pine needles, like porcupine spines poking vertically from the ground. It must be the result of the right combination of hard rain, already saturated ground, and pine needles ready to fall. The 6-inch triple needles of our longleaf pinetrees (southern yellow pines, I think) fell heavy-end-first and drove themselves far enough into the wet soft soil to stay standing upright. The effect was eye-catching and eerie in a beautiful sort of way, and the photos don't do it justice. dkm

Friday, November 13, 2009

Unidentified Half-Bird . . .

It lay there for two days, further molested only by time, yellow jackets, and my own voyeurism. I was drawn to it several times in those two days, mostly because, the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced it was not the bottom half of a body mockingbird, though I don't know yet what it was.

Something there is about an unknown ID that arouses my curiosity. Is it the universal human condition that we want always to name things? A topic for another day.

I first identified our half-bird as that of the mocking variety because it was gray and had a long tail with one white side feather. Later I realized the tail only looked long at close range, relative to distant sightings, and that it was forked. Also, the yellowish under-belly feathers, the white legs, and the smallish yellow open beak on what was left of the severed head were not those of a mockingbird. Except for the white legs, the poor thing was more similar to a tufted titmouse, which seemed plausible, as we have many in this yard. They circulate in small groups, often in low bushes, and would likely attract the attentions of neighborhood cats.

But nowhere in my ID books can I find a small gray backyard bird with white legs. The mystery will go unsolved, because now, after two days of heavy rain (5in. according to our guage) and a third day of bright sun, the specimen is only a dark spot on the lawn. dkm

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Half a Mockingbird . . .

Moe found the bottom half of a mockingbird's body in the grass today, with yellow jackets feeding on it in the sun. By the time I saw it, the sun was low in the west, and just one yellow jacket crawled in and out of the carcass. That it was a mockingbird was distinguishable only by its tail and gray fluffed back feathers. White stiff legs protruded akimbo from soft yellowish underbelly feathers. No head, shoulders, or wings. The beak part of the head lay a few inches away, with what looked like eyeballs and messy flesh still attached. I'm more squeamish than I like to admit and couldn't look long. We'll never know the whole story, but a black and white neighborhood cat was stalking the yard earlier today.

I've never thought of yellow jackets as scavengers. Remembering the one that tore the flesh of a dead worm several weeks ago, I looked up their habits. Workers, generally the infertile females, forage on decaying flesh of insects and fresh carrion to feed the larvae in the nest. The larvae, in turn, produce the sugars the workers need.

I'll be curious to see how long the mockingbird remains remain in the grass. A few yellow jackets can't do away with the carcass in total, but will get what they need. I'm guessing some nocturnal predator will finish the job before morning. I'll let you know what I find tomorrow. dkm

Friday, November 6, 2009

Slant Lines . . .

Now on every breeze, long brown pine needles and leaves of varied shapes and colors take the ride of their lives to the ground, falling at different angles, depending on the directions of the breezes that carry them. Some of them swing and float down alone, because they are ready. Are they stronger or weaker than the others? Some of them wait for a breeze. Some, the greener ones, cling on, resisting the drop. They, too, will let go, but on a later day. Are they stronger or weaker?

Life remains in the parent tree trunks. Sap recedes from twig and branch to rise again for the next generation of soft lime-green beginnings. The tiny new leaves will grow to look like their predecessors, then fall, decompose, and nourish the roots of their same species tree for future generations---unless somebody rakes them away to the compost heap, there to decay and become nourishment for some other species.

It's a complicated system of genius. Nothing goes to waste, no matter where or when the leaves drop. The brilliance of it boggles my mind, but I've strayed far from the original subject of this blog entry. Maybe it's precisely the point. Somehow it always boils down to composting. dkm

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Fall of One Leaf . . .

To be brushed by a leaf in its only fall to the earth on a November day in Georgia is to be touched by the comforting truth of life and death. Or is it the appalling truth? Either way it causes me to inbreathe the breath of the universe---the same breeze the leaf rode---and pause for the moment.

To ponder the life cycle of that single leaf among the millions that will fall in this yard in this month in 2009 is to perceive the relative insignificance of my 60th birthday this week. To the earth it is commonplace as a single leaf falling. To me and the oakleaf, our respective turning 60 and falling to the earth are momentous occasions. It is as it should be, this stepping or falling into the third third of one's life, and it signals the truth of what my mother said about many things. "Thus it has ever been."

My thirty-year-old daughter, Hannah, offered an equally comforting truth when I shared with her my angst about turning sixty in the face of unaccomplished goals. "Sixty-schmixty," she said. dkm

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Of Microwaves and African Violets . . .

Someone told me of a story circulating on the internet about the health hazards of heating water, coffee, infant formula, and baby food in the microwave oven. The proof offered for the theory was that a plant had died almost immediately after being watered with microwaved water. Easy enough to test.

I bought two nearly identical African violet plants, both in full bloom, one with purple flowers, the other with pink. They were in identical 4-inch green plastic pots from the same grower, presumably in the same soil, $3.99 each. The leaves were the same color, size, variety, and both plants looked robust and healthy.

I filled two pyrex measuring cups with filtered water from the same faucet, heated one for two minutes on full power in the microwave, let them both sit overnight while the heated water cooled to room temp. In the morning, I labeled one plant FILTERED ONLY, the other FILTERED, MICROWAVED, and watered them accordingly. After allowing them to drain in the sink, I put both plants in the same basket on the kitchen table, in identical conditions of light, temp, and air. As near as I can manage it, the conditions are controlled to be identical, except for the water.

I've been following this watering routine, all other conditions being equal, for three months, from July to October, and as near as I can tell, both plants are still hearty and thriving. Both lost their flowers within two months. The purple flowers of the "filtered only" plant withered first, but the pink of "microwaved" water followed soon after, and I can't be certain that wasn't due to a difference between the pink & purple floweres, or to how long they had been in bloom at time of purchase.

I will report again in a few months, but so far, the microwaved water has had no apparent negative effects on the African violet it waters. If anything, that plant has grown larger. dkm

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mystery in Three

All week we noticed orange colored butterflies moving past our 7th story balcony. Considering the altitude, far from any nectar-bearing flower, and this being October on the gulf coast of Florida, we guessed they were south-migrating monarchs, though we couldn't get a good enough look for a positive ID---perhaps on their way to that place in Mexico, there to hang on a tree with their family multitudes for the winter, awaiting the mysterious warm day among many when they know it is time to head north again. The bigger mystery looming---that of how 3rd or 4th generation monarchs, after a summer of life-cycling in places North American, know to fly back to the same trees in Mexico on which their great-great-great-grandparents spent the winter---we concentrated for the moment on the question of whether the ones we saw flying past our open windows were indeed monarchs. Aware mostly of only their silhouettes, darkened by the light behind them, we saw at least that they were orange.

Then, sadly, we found several of the same butterflies dead on the beach one day, looking out of place among the expected shells and jelly fish and seaweed, as if they had been washed up by the tide. The blue patches on their underwings determined they were not monarchs, but provoked the new questions of what they were and how they came to be pressed into the sand without having been eaten. Were they blown there by the wind, and caught by the water? dkm

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hang-Gliding Over Ft. Walton Beach . . .

The human sport of hang-gliding off a mountain side or out of an airplane, or behind a motorboat is a poor substitute for the fun those seagulls were having last week in the wind over Ft. Walton Beach. The balcony of the 7th and top story condo we rented was the perfect place to watch the gulls, close range. The wind off the ocean swept up and over the top of our building in such a way that the gulls came again and again to hang and play in it. From our gull-high vantage point on the balcony, not ten feet from where they played, we could see their black legs hanging vertically from relaxed white bellies, wings spread taught, eyes alert. They dipped and soared and often hung completely still, leaning into the wind, doubling back to catch it again, without ever flapping their wings.

I singled a bird out of the crowd to watch for as long as I could focus on just one. In the minutes of my watch I didn't see a single wingflap, and I forgot I was there. It was as if I had become a gull, thrilling in the wind. Looking back on the experience, I think it was what Annie Dillard calls "self-forgetfulness" or loss of "self-consciousness" that comes with slow, focused observation. And it was "tremendously invigorating" just as she promised. dkm

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jump Shot

Speaking of seed pods, falling glances, and the simple act of paying attention, today's ordinary walk past the basketball goal in the driveway enroute to the backyard for my hour of observation revealed a phenomenon so arresting, I never did make it to the swing.

Half-way up the pole of the basketball goal, sprouting from the place where the top extension of the pole telescopes out of the bottom, were the unmistakable seed-leaves of three tiny new impatiens plants. I have often marveled at the spring action of impatiens seed pods, powerful enough to turn themselves inside out, and in so doing project the interior seeds high into the air. I've introduced many children and adults alike to the fun of finding and popping the pods with a light pinch between two fingers, to watch them explode, but the noticing of today's seedlings growing from the pole, twelve inches above the highest parent plant, ratchets my awe up a significant notch.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the plant's determination to regenerate itself against accidental odds propelled a few seeds high enough and with enough force to cause them to lodge into the shallow crevice of the telescoping pole. As proof of the will of natural design, the tiny seedlings impressed me more than if Michael Jordan himself had shown up in my driveway to execute a spectacular jump shot. dkm

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Path Less Traveled

If I hadn't come to The Wayback to eat lunch I would have missed them. Not seen at a passing glance, but peering through the ivy or liriope or out from behind a fallen magnolia leaf, they are everywhere. Everywhere, that is, in the vicinity of the Wayback path. Just off the path. Not until I sat still and let my gaze fall where it would did I see them. Tiny white mushroom buttons at the ends of fine upright tan-colored stems growing in every instance from rotting magnolia seed pods. After the heavy rain of recent weeks and days, there lies a surfeit of fast decaying magnolia pods in The Wayback, thanks to the regal row of ten tall magnolia trees along the fence.

The stems first looked to be growing from pinecones and mulch chips, but closer inspection revealed the soft remains of a magnolia pod under every outgrowth. Are magnolia seed pods the only host for this particular bacteria? Why not pinecones? They are just as prevalent.

Whatever the answer, these delicate pinhead mushrooms that look a little like baby's breath flowers, are the ultimate example of personal responsibility. They do their work and achieve their beauty whether or not anyone comes to watch.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Excitement in the Air . . .

It comes in the form of relational energies among the dozens of lemon yellow butterflies that flutter in the sun at this time of year above and around the naturalized impatiens flowers and tomato blossoms.

Never still for long, my lemon yellows are difficult to count, but at least six of them are currently in view as they actively pursue each other and their sustaining flower nectars. They are unmistakably aware of each others' presence as they dart and spin and follow one another from plant to plant, often lighting on the same plant, just inches apart. They rise into the air, chasEE and chasER, spinning and darting around and away from each other in what can only be flirtatious foreplay.

Today I've not seen them make contact but I remember another observation of mid-air crashing, in slam-bam-thank-you ma'am fashion. Having observed the mating of the white moths between that observation and this(see blog entry for 9/13/09 with photo), I wonder if there isn't more to it for the lemon yellows, as well. Do they retreat into the shadows to finish a job I'm not privy to witness? And how promiscuous are they? I can't tell if the spinning partners are uniquely selected, or if any one of the species is worthy of a go round. dkm

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Waiting for Wings . . .

Katydids sounding in every tree after dark, but rarely seen, pique my curiosity tonight. A green leafy one comes again to the outside of the kitchen window, revealing its white underbelly, green feet bottoms, and red mandibles in the light from my side of the glass. I watch long, hoping to see its wings rub together in the act of making its namesake sound.

One can stare at a katydid at close range only so long without looking away. I missed the moment of noisemaking every time, but could at least imagine it by the way the wings were folded flat against each other behind the back.

What I did see were the underneath connecting points of the six legs on what I think was the thorax. Six tiny flat feet at the ends of those long bent legs clung to the glass as the awkward creature crawled across the pane. Occasionally one of the front feet moved to the mouth where it stayed for much chewing action by the bright red mandibles---too tiny to see precise detail. Whether eating or cleaning I couldn't tell, but presume the former, since it was always a front foot, and since the sections of the underbody nearest the head rolled downward in an undulating movement---swallowing? If it had been cleaning, it might have done something about the hind foot that came along dragging strands of silk. dkm

Monday, October 5, 2009

Good as Yoga . . .

How, in 59 years, could I never have noticed the precious morning murmurs of birds waking in their roosting places, wherever in the trees they are? The serenity of that sound is worth setting the alarm and waiting outside in the dark for, and makes the pre-dawn whir & peel of traffic all the more annoying, because I know it covers the first and quietest chirps. Evenso, in the lull between moving vehicles, and before the actual calls begin, those random murmurs around the yard are better than yoga for starting a day off right.

Add a good cup of steaming coffee and a pink sky of rising sun for perfection realized. As the eastern light brightens and spreads upward, so do the wake-up murmurs, until they erupt around the yard into calls identifiable by species. The first one I recognize in this yard on this week at about 7:15 has been the Carolina wren, followed almost immediately by blue jays, nuthatches, brown thrashers, a hawk, and crows. But where are the robins I expected to hear?

Of course, the whole exercise revives my ongoing question of where birds sleep at night once nesting season is over and they abandon their cradles of stick and leaf and down. Do they simply roost on an open branch? How do they escape owls and other nocturnal predators? So far my consulting of the experts has not reaped a definitive answer. dkm

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In the Absence of a Rooster . . .

A sample of a few is not enough to determine the answer to my continuing quest to discover who is the first bird to sing in the morning. But it is enough to tell me I need to learn more about the variant chirps of the species in this backyard. After 4 mornings of focused listening from 6:45-7:45, I've learned mostly that the city's answer to crow of rooster is peel of siren, both police and fire, and that birds wake up slowly, not unlike people.

This 1/3 acre of backyard is tucked cosily into a surrounding length of woods that cover an estimated ten acres from end to end, according to Moe. The woods, aside from being lovely, dark and deep, are the reason for the wealth of wildlife we are privileged to see and hear, even in an urban area. I have wondered if it is the more concentrated, precisely because of the city around us, and I admit to an earlier misconception that we are insulated from city's noise and hustle. Relative to city central, I suppose we are, but these past two years of "paying attention" to the backyard have made me ever aware of the assault that urban development is to natural environment. Yet the animals and trees carry on as best they can, adapting to a point.

The immediate point is that the early morning traffic of Ponce and Scott prevented me from hearing the first soft sounds of waking birds, though a first-stir pattern did emerge---that of barely audible chirps just before 7:00---single syllables---some higher, some lower---some gutteral, some flutelike---from randomly scattered places in the surrounding trees, increasing in number by the minute, then erupting into multiple calls and songs almost precisely at 7:15. More on this tomorrow. dkm

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

First Chilly Morning

A cup from which I don't often drink is to sit outside in pre-dawn darkness to listen. I sipped of that cup this morning from 5:30-6:00 in an attempt to discover which bird is the earliest riser. I have often noticed, on my 6 a.m. walks with neighbors, a single robin's listmaking (to-do-today-to-do-today-to-do-today-check), and by 7:00 a full coucophony of birdsong tuning up, causing me to wonder who is first---or if there is a consistent pattern. In the absence of a rooster, is a robin the alarm clock?

I neglected to remember yesterday's wind, and that a wind usually brings a drop in temperature. This morning's "research" confirmed that pattern, at least, but revealed not the wake-up bird. The only sound was the drone and pulse of katydid---or was it cricket?

No birds by 6:00. Full chorus by 7:00. I got too sidetracked in walking conversation with good friends to pay attention to birdsong in the intervening hour. Quest to be continued. dkm, with yet another resolve to shorten these blog entries.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pure and Rounded Pearl

The torrential rains of last week (floods in metro-area / schools closed) followed by multitudes of mosquitoes have kept me inside and are reflected in my mood. With yesterday's return of blue sky and bright sun, and time today to sit outside again, my spirits lift. Nevermind today's hard news of nuclear arms threat in Iran. Like Scarlett O'Hara, I'll think about that tomorrow. Today I'll enjoy the crisp dry air, the waves of wind that bring showers of dry leaves and pine needles, the cardinal pair that flits in and out of the trees and bushes around the perimeter of the yard, the hummingbird (hummingbird!) that hovers above and actually lights on the bare branches of the dogwood and on last year's drought-ravaged hydrangea stems, the lemon yellow butterflies with cinnamon brown sprinkles that spin and mate and nurse the nectar of impatiens and abelia, the only flowers left in the yard so late in the season.

It is a Virginia Woolf day---a pure and rounded pearl. No appointments. But do have much deskwork re: oglethorpe, flute, bills, and manuscript revisions.

A Carolina wren sings pretty-bird-pretty-bird-pretty-bird-preet. Nuthatches are whee-he-he-he-he-ing in surround sound. Dry oak leaves float and swing to the ground.

I pay attention, inhale fresh air, and muster courage to face the news of the world's troubles---and energy to keep the promises I must today. dkm

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cricket or Katydid or What?

Late entry---written 9/18/09

A large lime-green leaf-looking insect appears on the outside of my kitchen window, well displayed by porch light and proximity. Fascinating as insects are, I usually avoid writing about them due to ignorance, particularly on the current question that keeps re-presenting itself: Who makes the consuming night noises in the trees---crickets or katydids or locusts or what? Additionally, I find it hard to describe sounds---though who can avoid notice of and attention to the late summer screech of these stridulating lovers?

Tonight the green thing on my window screams, "Write about me!" Or maybe, "Katydid Kate!" Alarmed to discover how little I know about it, not even its name, I remark only on the near perfect camouflage that copies the veins of a leaf in its wings; or its long long antennae, nearly twice the length of its two-inch body; and of course the elbow-like hind legs, full of potential for surprise. I'm glad a glass is between us, since my nose is but inches away. I hope to observe a little wing-rubbing, or to find the ear buds on the legs, but this specimen jumped back into the night after only a few seconds under my scrutiny.

I retreated to the internet for facts, there to consume what was left of the evening. It cleared my confusion right up. I discover that this was indeed a katydid, or bush cricket, but not a true cricket, one of hundreds and hundreds of species of "long-horned grasshoppers," which are not true grasshoppers, and are in turn a huge sub-category in the even larger category of orthoptera, meaning straight- or parallel-winged and including the major families of grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, AND katydids. That is: grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, and katydids each belong to their own families under the larger order orthoptera, but the species and sub-groups within each family often carry the names of the other distinct families. Hence: A katydid, sometimes called a bush cricket, is a member of the long-horned grasshopper division, but is neither a grasshopper nor a cricket. It is singular in its katydidness.

The umbrella progression of the family katydid goes something like this: Phylum/Arthuropod: Class/Insecta: Order/Orthoptera: Family/Tettigoniidae (katydids)---not to be confused with the many individual species of tettigoniidonous katydids, all of which carry equally cross-referenced names within the family tettigoniidae. I have no idea as to WHICH species my kitchen katydid belongs, nor do I care. But I'm pleased to be pretty sure that the creatures that make the night noises in Decatur, Georgia are probably katydids, not crickets, grasshoppers, or locusts. But they might be. It depends on the year and the website you consult. dkm

Tattered Right Wing

I'm late entering this---written on 9/17/09---

All day yesterday she came in and out of my notice. I doubt I entered hers but admit to wishing so. Again and again she hovered over different flower beds, shrubs, and general green growth in the sunny spots of the backyard. She didn't appear to be drinking nectar, but lit briefly on random green leaves in odd places around the yard---looking for host plants on which to lay her eggs, I presume, though I never was close enough to confirm w/eye-witness. So tenderly did she float and lower over each leaf of choice that it could have been nothing else. Did I imagine her delicate care and safe wishes with each touch? She would die soon. She must have known it. These were her babies. It's the same tenderness with which we look on our grandchildren---our legacy to the world. Perhaps I project.

The thing that was unmistakable was her tattered right wing---the full length of the bottom edge was mangled or missing, including the blue patches. She was a large and beautiful tiger swallowtail but only her left tail was left. (No need to say it, writers---I know what you're thinking---it's just wordplay---somehow I liked the effect of same word twice in one sentence against two meanings.) I wondered what predator she escaped, with what strength, and at what point in her life. A tatter that wide seems likely to have occurred while wing was still folded and wet---maybe in her first few minutes out of chrysalis. How long ago? Has she lived her whole life in tatters? At best, her life span is only about a month.

Last night we had friends for dinner on the deck. (Make that "invited friends to dinner") A large yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly with tattered right wing edges landed on and clung long to the banister, still as a statue. Later she fixed herself to the window on the door. She didn't move when we peered close, and was still there when we turned off the lights after midnight. This morning she was gone. I like to think she chose my window as her final perching place. Another gift imagined, but with the same effect. Gratitude. dkm

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ribbons of Green and Purple and Blue

Gasp. Gasp. Gasp. From where I sit this single minute I can see a bluebird, a lime green finch, and a tiny purple nuthatch all three---in the dogwood tree. They all arrived within seconds of each other. The finch came first, then the bluebird, followed immediately by the nuthatch, singing he-he-he-he-he-he-he---

The nut hatch left first, followed shortly by the finch. The bluebird is silent and lingers long. Then there's a pair of bluebirds, and a speckled baby flies to the dogwood over my shoulder. Mama joins her, not ten feet from my view. My breath catches. Tears well up. A fledgeling bluebird in September.

Gifts from someone, somewhere . . .

Muti, is that you?


The Mating of the Moths

Out of seeming nowhere falls a pair of moths to the grass in front of the swing, stuck together tail to tail and spiraling to the ground like a maple tree's helicopter seed pod. They are tiny white moths, about a half inch long from head to tail end, with only a one-inch wingspan. Had I not been listening to and musing about the wrensong, I would have missed them.

I squat close to watch. The mating there observed was no less than astounding. A black-tipped tan colored protrusion the size and shape of a grain of rice emerged slowly from the tail of the male, then spread out like a fan to surround and clamp down around the tail end of the female, who is upside down and looking stunned. The black tip has fanned into a tiny furry fringe that now surges and throbs. Every few seconds she tries to pull away on a blade of grass. He clamps tighter, his own feet holding tight to his grass blade as she pulls toward hers. The blades strain under their tug of war. After ten minutes of this I think I have time to get camera. When I return, the rice grain is back inside the male, but their tails are still stuck fast, and they are still tugging of war.

An hour later they are still there, not moving. This was no chance slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am crashing in the air like the yellow butterflies I've observed. Did the moths die in the act? dkm

p.s. Ninety minutes after the hour later, I went out to see if they were still in the grass---to see if they were dead or alive. I'll never know the answer, because they were gone. I can think of three possible outcomes. 1) They did not die, but eventually separated and flew off to carry on about the business of adult mothery---she to lay eggs and die, he to find another mate. 2) They did die and were eaten by a bird. 3) Exhausted from their coupling, they did not die, but rested long enough to be found and devoured by a bird. There is not a breath of wind. They could not have been blown away. dkm

Variations on a Theme

Wish I knew what determines, for a Carolina Wren, its choice of song when perched on an open branch in that meandering way it has. Last night it was an intentional call & response between two---pretty bird-pretty-bird-pretty-bird-preet, answered from away with a softer variation of same song and a slightly different lilt. More often I notice chee-boogie-chee-boogie-chee-boogie-chee---like the old Saturday Night Live schtick. This morning it began with an idle but repeated chirp, not unlike a rocking chair with a squeak in just one place in its tread, but more musical. From its perch in the sun on an open branch at the edge of the woods, the wren faced first one direction, then another, so to chirp in every position---like a first greeting to the day. Soon it moved to the top post of the nuthatch house and carried on with a pleasing cheeri-oh, cheeri-oh, cheeri-oh---with arched emphasis on the oh. And just now to an interior twig of the flowering quince for pretty-birdie-pretty-birdie-pretty-birdie-pretty-birdie. I could have mistaken it for a cardinal had I not been watching it heave its little buff wren throat. dkm

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Miller Analogy

Trees in September are like first graders in art class. Given identical instructions and supplies, every individual turns out a unique finished product.

Now trees, pay attention. Take your leaves, cells, and hydrocarbon tails; drain the green pigment from your chloroplasts, and show your remaining colors. Listen carefully, boys and girls. Take your orange and black paper, scissors and glue; cut out your shapes, and make a jack-o-lantern.

Voila! The perimeter of the yard and the fence posts on the bulletin board present an array of design, shape, hue, size, space, and expression of such impressive variety to quicken the heart, made no less spectacular and charming that it happens every year. The dogwoods are the first to begin it, and the bats, like encouraging art teachers, announce it overhead. dkm

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dr DeSoto, I Presume?

The tooth extraction intensifies, but the dentist does not work on the swing as first thought. His minimalist dental chair is a pinebough directly overhead, and high up. I only know this because for two days I've watched the teeth fall on the swing and on me---in a steady, perpetual drop from above---at the rate of one every ten to fifteen seconds. The swing is the landing pad, not the job site. I assume it's the work of a squirrel, thinking chipmunks don't climb that high, though focus as I might, I can not see the busy fellow. I can, however, determine the bough on which he sits by the single spot from which all the teeth originate---first over one side of the branch, then the other. Occasionally comes a core stripped clean. I'd expect to see the squirrel scurring to bring a fresh pinecone to the site, but haven't. Every morning and every evening the swing is covered with fresh discards. I sweep them away to sit. They keep falling on and around me. One of them glanced off my wine glass and made it ring. dkm

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tooth and Core

"Learn about pines from the pine, and learn about bamboo from the bamboo."
-17th century master of haiku, Matsuo Basho.

"Learn about poetry from the poem."
-Edward Hrsch, in How to Read a Poem, 1999

It's why I sit outside paying attention, but it's as much for the enticement of wonder, the thrill of the hunt, the intrigue of the mystery, the jolt of surprise as it is for the complacency of knowing. Reading something new in a book, while lovely, cannot compete with the pleasure of one's own discovery. What author at hand can predict what will pique my curiosity in the moment?

Today it's the question of who's been eating pinecone seeds on the swing. Chipmunk or squirrel, and when? Whoever it is has discarded dozens of pinecone cores in an oval on the ground around the swing. For the past week I've arrived at the swing to find it covered with pulled teeth of pinecone---thorn-tipped teeth that must be brushed away daily if I wish to sit pain-free. I cannot see the seat of the swing from the house. Will sit on bench deeper in yard for tomorrow's watch to see what I can see from there. The dentistry must go on all day for the volume of debris that accumulates on and around the swing in every 24 hour span of this September week. The cores are picked clean. Click on the photos to see enlarged detail. Who knew a pinecone could be stripped thus. dkm

Friday, September 4, 2009

Mushrooms After Rain

Half-circle shelves of orange and brown mushrooms grow from the base of the trunk of the pinetree behind the swing where I sit. I pried one off to examine it more closely. It's heavier than it looks. How little I know about mushrooms jars me.

These look to be growing out of the tree, but on closer inspection, they grow from their own center trunk anchored in the ground, like a pedestal table. The table top is a half-circle only because one side of it is blocked by the tree trunk. The surface of the top is ringed like the top of a tree stump, the difference being that the rings are furry and wavy. The outermost ring is bright orange and looks a little like the edge of a pancake---a furry wavy ringed pancake, the underneath side of which is a solid mass of orange brain-like or intestine-like rubbery tissue---but miniscule and dry. My next big purchase must be a good microscope.

Of all the surprises of nature, mushrooms inspire in me the most wonder---symbolic of all I do not understand. Always they beg the same questions. Why their grotesque beauty? Why have they thus evolved? Why the intricacies of design? Why the variety? What secrets hide under their skins? Whence cometh their energy? dkm

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Remembering . . .

Happy to return to attentive meditation after more than a month off.

Many things to write about in Ft.Lauderdale, FL, where I was tending grandchildren . . . like the masses of noisy green parrots in Sarah's neighborhood that have been multiplying in that tropical climate since the zoo aviarium was ravaged in one of the big hurricanes of the 80's (Andrew? Opal?);like the bird-sized brown lizards as common as robins that deck the decks there, how they run upright on hind legs looking like sparrows to the inattentive; like the tiny live lizard we chased from a corner in Makayla's room and later found dead; like the dog-sized iguanas that lurk by the creek near Thad's office and peer from the vegetation with prehistoric drama; like the canopy of unusual (that is, unknown to my experience) trees that arch the streets in Sarah & Thad's hot, humid, green, tropical but urban neighborhood; like the thousands---not an exaggeration---truly thousands of raptors that loom over the landfill mountain beside I-75, gradually darkening the sky as you near it, shocking you by their numbers, varieties, shades, wingspans, and eeriness as you pass by it, thinning as you leave it behind . . . with nothing like an hour-a-day to thoroughly describe any of them . . . not with two lively pre-schoolers, laundry, cooking, shopping, and housekeeping for a busy young family. That I have, in semi-retirement, the luxury of time to be intentionally "mindful" of the surprises of nature is an appreciation not lost on me when I visit my daughter's young family . . . and remember another such family twenty-five years ago.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back Soon

"Choose only one master -- Nature." -Rembrandt, painter and etcher (1606-1669)

I ache to think how long I've been away from my backyard meditation---three weeks. Houseguests and traveling to visit grandchildren are worthy diversions, but I'm less than whole without daily outside meditation. Returning Aug 27th to get back to writing routine immediately. dkm

Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Good Friend Barb

My friend who joined me to watch the house wrens fledge last week looked at Paul's photos of the nestling Carolina wrens---the ones I included in the July 17 blog entry under the title of "We're Hungry!" She clicked on the bottom photo in that string to enlarge it and see more clearly.

"It looks like a penis with a beak," she said.

Barb! You should write a blog. Or at least follow mine and make comments! dkm

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Thrill of the Fledge

Today's the day. I'm sure of it. Tiny heads, two at a time, poke in and out of the doorway. A friend joins me in the watch. We can't tell how many, but by the racket they make, we guess they are more than two. The parents can no longer satisfy them, though they both bring food every few minutes. The nestling squawks have changed to more mature chips, and constant. Now whenever the parents arrive with food, a tiny head stretches out of the doorway and snatches the morsel with aggression. Then another of the nestlings actually hands ( or rather, beaks) a fecal sac, like a relay baton, to the parent, who immediately carries it off to a nearby branch and swallows it whole. That's it, methinks. When they're grown enough to hand out their own shit, they're ready to leave home. It's the house wren equivalent of becoming potty trained. Every now and again one of the parents perches on the doorway or low-hanging branch in front of it to perform an extended version of wing-flutter I earlier called "Quiver and Fluff." Is it teaching them how to fly? Or coaxing them out?

Then comes the glorious moment. Mama Small is perched on the low dogwood branch just three feet from front of birdhouse. Two heads, maybe three, compete for the doorway, each one shouldering the others out of the way, when, without fanfare, one, two three mini-wrens hop in succession, one or two minutes apart, to the nearby branch. Mama Small flew to the ivy wall across the path and the three soon followed, after a few exploratory hops and flights within the dogwood. Two more heads appear in the doorway. After ten minutes of reaching and stretching and retreating and prancing, they too, follow the same tentative route to the ivy wall. Through binoculars my friend and I watch and thrill and whisper our encouragement. We have pulled our chairs to within 20 feet of birdhouse. We check the time. 10:29 a.m. (The nuthatches departure time was 10:15am. I just missed the prior housewren fledge when I came out at 11:00am on their big day. With just three samples, I wonder at the pattern. Do first fledges always happen between 10:00 and 11:00am?)

Then surprise, surprise, one more tiny head stretches and chirps in the doorway. Baby #6. To our quiet cheers and claps, she too hops to the welcome brnch, explores the larger dogwood, and joins her siblings in the ivy wall where they flit and chip and play. Though tinier than their parents, and not yet as sure footed on the branches, they don't look like the fledglings of other bird species. They are already sleek and handsome brown like their parents, with a hint of stripe on their wings. We couldn't help noticing that all six of them pooped the instant they landed on the welcome branch.

And now, while they play noisily in the ivy wall, one of the adults---I think the mama----comes back to the nest and cleans house, exactly like last time, as recorded in June 7 blog, "Where Will They Now Sleep?" dkm

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Thing I Didn't Want to Know

I have wondered why the parent house wrens always fly away with the fecal sacs they remove from the nest---why they don't just drop them to the ground beneath the nest. I hoped the reason was to remove evidence of nest location as a protection against predators. I feared they might take them to a distant branch to consume them themselves.

Today my curiosity was satisfied. Papa Small carried the small white bundle to a bare dogwood branch across the clearing from the branch of the nest, lifted his small head, opened his small throat, and gulped down his cargo.

For once I wish my guess had been wrong, but admit to appreciating the efficiency of it all. The parents' perpetual bringing of morsels to the nestlings leaves precious little time or matter for the parents' own meals. dkm

Monday, July 20, 2009

Paul's Carolina Wrens

The mama and her growing babies!

One-eyed Fledgling and Neil Gaiman

The poor thing came to my kitchen window early this morning. I in my robe, over first cup of coffee, couldn't miss its begging for attention. From window ledge this fledgling mockingbird, with tail too long and heavy for its scruffy round body, hopped to the table on the deck, where it pranced around long enough and close enough for me to see that in place of one eye it had only a buff-colored featherless spot. He flew away with tail dragging. I fear for his future. If a silent hawk comes down on his blind side, he's history.

An hour later, I wait on the edge of my swing for the house wrens to fledge. They are louder and more demanding today than yesterday, louder yesterday than the day before. I expect them anytime. A nest of robins has fledged from the pin oak tree. Fat and speckled, they hop around the yard, practicing their head tilts. Also, a new bunch of comical blue jays, not yet very blue, flit in the trees.

The regularity and frequency with which fascinating things to write about now present themselves---since Annie Dillard first inspired these daily observations---causes me to wonder how I could have spent a half-century oblivious to the mysteries of the natural world that are ever present in my own backyard---free for the asking---for the simple act of slowing down and paying attention.

I used to think such spectacles were available only to people like National Geographic photographers or academic scholars who devoted themselves to lifelong study in wilderness areas. It's not that the mysteries of nature haven't always dazzled me---but that I thought they could only be known through second hand experience---like nature magazines, books, films, TV. Now I'm beginning to feel like Danny and the Donuts---they come too fast to process. The urge to write about all of them becomes overwhelming. Better to choose one, and merely appreciate the others. The better to understand what John Muir meant when he wrote, "One day's exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books," though today's book was pretty damn good. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. dkm

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Yesterday I watched a small striped black & yellow bee chewing away at the skin of a dead earthworm on the ground under the swing at my feet. A magnifying glass helped. The most surprising thing was that after only a few minutes the bee had eaten away a gaping hole along the side of the worm through which I could see what looked like pure black finely ground compost. Worm castings not yet cast. Window to the worm.

The sun shines through my overhead window to outer space, revealing fresh blue cloudless sky in a circular frame of bright green leaves and needles. The breezes come in waves to rattle the leaves---brilliant and fluid green against blue---aahh---the breath of the universe.

It's a beautiful morning @ 65 degrees and low humidity. The kind of day that would make me want to fledge from my nest were I a baby house wren. Here's hoping my babies hold out at least two more days, as I can't stay past 9:00 today and must attend a memorial service tomorrow morning. Matters of life and death. dkm

Friday, July 17, 2009

Crooked Crests, Hawk, and Dove

The cardinals from the Carolina Jessamine have fledged. Two of the fluffy things are practicing their hops in the grass in front of the fallen jessamine inside which their nest is hidden. They look startled and unkempt, with disheveled brown feathers, short tails,and crooked crests. Only their bright red beaks are fully developed, not unlike adolescent boys whose front teeth are too big for their heads. The sleek-headed mother stands by, watching, protecting. I think I can see pride in her posture. She hops over to the impatiens under the birdbath and shows them how to snatch and eat the blossoms. Sure enough, both fledgelings follow suit. Velvety red petals dangling from giant red beaks are a stark contrast to the otherwise scruffy brown picture these fledglings make.

High overhead another fledgling, a mourning dove, flies to a pine bough. Through binoculars I can see its pale pink feathers, its long neck and heavy head, reminding me again of that long ago encounter with the hawk in the driveway, tearing and eating the flesh of a live dove nestling, still struggling for its life, caught in the talons of the hawk. I cannot eradicate the horrid snapshot memory of that heavy bobbing head gasping for life at the hawk's mercy, and losing. dkm

We're Hungry!!!!!

Are these photos of nestling Carolina wrens not remarkable? Good friend and blog reader, Paul Beuchele, sent them yesterday. I share them with his permission. The story about how he got the shots is as remarkable as the photos themselves.

His daughter, Cayte, heard the chirping in a hanging planter outside their window. They got a ladder and a camera to have a better look. The mother wren, of course, would not come to the nest with perceived danger standing by, so Paul mimicked her by making a soft whistle sound of his own to wake the sleeping babies. Sure enough, in response to his whistle, three wide yellow mouths clamored to the nest opening, which is a round hole on the side of the nest.

Click on any one of the photos to enlarge it for closer inspection. Don't miss the scrawny wing, the eyes, the power of those spectacular beaks, and that precious sleeping babe. Thanks, Paul and Cayte! dkm

Quiver and Fluff

House wren fledglings seem alive and well today, after yesterday's worry about the flies. They get noisy with every arrival and continue to chirp between feedings. No more flies, and it's a prettier day. Sunny, less humid, high in the low 80's. My guess: The fecal sacs attracted yesterday's flies on a hot humid day. The parents carry them off today after nearly every delivery, a pattern that started yesterday. Maybe they just got behind in their housekeeping. I know that same problem. A further guess: Maybe that long stay inside the house yesterday on the part of the mother meant she was gathering and stacking the fecal sacs by the doorway, the easier to carry them off today. They barely duck their heads through the door to get the sacs after each feeding. Logic says they would have to dig deeper had the sacs not been moved to the door.

A new wondering: Why do the adults sometimes quiver and fluff at the doorway and on the dogwood branch before and after deliveries? dkm

Thursday, July 16, 2009


I saw it coming toward me through the air, too fast for me to duck. I heard and felt it whiz past my ear. Was it as surprised as I? Pondering the flies around the birdhouse, I had been sitting still on the swing for a long time. I followed it with binoculars to the cherry tree branch where it perched behind and above me after its terrifying whir past my neck. It was a chubby fuzzy fledgling mockingbird, with tail not yet fully long but already distinctively enough marked for positive ID.

I love fledglings b/c they don't know yet to be wary of me, that is, of humans. They need not be afraid of me, but they don't know that either. This one allowed close approach, eliminating the need for binoculars. We looked each other in the eye. I tired of the game before he did and returned to the swing to wonder.

As young animals mature and develop caution of creatures like me, is it because they have memory, or is it instinct? Will this mockingbird remember our stare-down? Will his mother warn him to be more careful? Did that centipede remember the towel in the bathroom, or did he avoid it by instinct?

A pale thin crescent moon lingers in an eerie pastel sky at 11:00 a.m. The sun has burned off the clouds, the day is already uncomfortably warm. Be safe, scrawny house wrens with flies buzzing around your house. Until tomorrow. dkm

What Mean the Flies?

I'm worried about my nestling house wrens. The parents still come and go, ducking inside to carry off fecal sacs after almost every morsel delivery, but several changes in today's observation are cause for concern, whether real or imagined: 1) The time between deliveries seems longer, 2) The cries of the nestlings sound thinner, 3) The skinny adult (the mother?) entered the house at one point and stayed long with no squawking from the babies, and 4) Flies are buzzing around the house.

I've grown fond of these infants, and fear for their good health.

The mugginess of the morning, the pastel of the sky, the weakness of the clouds, the heaviness of the air, the forecast of heat for the day---the whole of the picture contributes to a prevailing sense of doom for my young family. dkm

Blind Perseverance

A many-legged caterpillar-like creature (dark brown, one-inch long, as thick as a coat-hanger wire, but ribbed and bendy) crawled across the bathroom tile with tiny feet rippling, miniature cattail-like antennae waving in wild frenzy. When presented with a towel laid in its path it eagerly climbed aboard. I carried it outside to examine during today's nestwatch before letting it go. With the towel spread flat on the slatted seat of the swing, the centipede made a beeline for the unfinished wood. Once off the towel, it refused to climb back on, no matter how thoroughly I blocked its path with the edges of the towel. It must not smell or see, b/c it didn't veer from its path on the swing until its tiny antennae came into actual contact with the towel. But try as I might, I could not get it to accept the towel in this setting, likely more preferable than the bathroom, which must have seemed disastrous to "him."

I can only imagine the discouragement of such a creature, with nothing to guide it but feelers, finding itself on an endless trek across a wall of ceramic tile. In that circumstance, the towel must have seemed an oasis in the desert. But not here, with hope of live greenery nearby. At one point, crawling deep in the groove between the slats of the swing with no forward route other than the corner of the towel, it rippled its feet in the opposite direction and reversed into a remarkable straight backward path along the groove as I nudged it from the front with towel corner.

Eventually I let it crawl away, not wanting to further torture it, and feeling a little like J.J.Audubon who, for the sake of study, killed and wired his birds---but not without new respect for the coordination and relative intelligence of that poor blind deaf but not senseless centipede. dkm

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Male or Female?

Hooray---a morning for reading, nest-watching, not house-cleaning, and writing.

Singularly focused, both house wren adults are feeding their nestlings as fast as birdly possible, arousing much newbird clamor with every delivery. Sometimes one parent arrives while the other is still at the door. When this happens, the newer arrival shoves the other away with much flutter and determination. I can't discern Mother from Father, unless the female is the slightly thinner one, emaciated from egg-laying and nest-sitting. Neither of them sing now. Too busy. I miss the bubbly musical song that was everpresent in the wait for the hatch.

Moe joins me in the watch for a few minutes before leaving on a golf excursion. We observe one of the adults duck into the house, emerge with a white capsule in its beak, and fly away with it.

"Fecal sac removal," I say, to which Moe responds, "Cleaning the bathroom. It must be the male."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day, Montaigne, & Evolutionary Biology

Today I begin to re-read the 26 essays of Michel de Montaigne translated by J.M.Cohen, that I first read in the early 80's---that time in my life when I began to profess the questions that had germinated in a college course---that course in which I so embarrassed myself by my own naivete/ignorance/innocence/and acceptance of the literal understandings of childhood. It's not that I was taught to take things literally, but that I so took them, in the innocence of youth---from the way the stories were presented and simplified in childrens' Sunday school classes---Mennonite SS classes, I might add, to compound the nature and simplicity and purity of my childish adherence to the stories. I do not blame either my parents or my teachers for my own innocence. I get quite impatient with so-called intellectuals who think they are so brilliant as to shed light on the ignorance of their forebears---when what they really are doing is coming naturally to a more mature understanding of their own. In their writings they sound like they are the first ever to think in such an enlightened way. How dare they presume to interpret their parents' belief systems by the simplified versions presented to them as children. (I'm currently reading Julian Barnes's Nothing To Be Frightened Of, and he is a perfect example). I hope my children will give me more credit than that.

All of that to say, as I re-read the Montaigne essays, I am struck by the extent to which my prior reading of them has shaped my active questions of the past 25+ years about religion and the existence vs. non-existence of a higher power---about coming to a more metaphoric and evolutionary way of thinking. At age 20, I began to formulate the questions, at 30 to read in pursuit of more questions, at 40 to ask them publicly, and now, at nearly 60, I begin to think most of them unanswerable.

So I am taken with Montaigne's humility in his relentless quest for the truth---and when finished with this edition, hope to embark on The Complete Essays, tr. by M.A.Screech.

In the meantime, the parents housewren are working themselves thin trying to keep the loudmouths in the rhombus house quiet. As one parent leaves, the other returns. Today they enter the house only half-way with each delivery, neither disappearing all the way inside, nor stopping fully at the door. By the rapid progression of the feeding patterns, I'm guessing tomorrow may be the day of fledge. dkm

Monday, July 13, 2009

Newbird Clamor

The voices of the nestling housewrens are much louder today than yesterday, just days before first fledge. Now they cry even while parents are out foraging for their food, not just when they bring it to the nest. I missed the moment of take-off with the last family by a few hours---and hereby resolve to be here to see it for these little ones---to see how big they are, to count them, and to thrill with them over that first astonishing flight. Both prior families fledged mid-morning, so will try to spend my next few mornings here. Retirement is good.

We are a few days away, I think, because the parents are still entering the house when they bring food. On the last day before the fledge, I've observed for both nuthatches and housewrens, the parents only come to the door, where they are met by hungry mouths. It may be as much a matter of no-more-room-in-the-nest as that of assertive-babies-competing-at-the-door-for-receipt-of-delivery. Whichever, it is a fair predictor of the immanence of the first flight. dkm

Sunday, July 12, 2009

And the Jays Go Wild

I never cease to be astonished at the mesmerizing rewards for nothing more than sitting still outside at length. Today's hour has presented such an array of avian spectacles about which to wonder, I'm hard pressed to focus on only one. Will it be the newly audible house wren nestlings, the pair of whee-he-ing white breasted nuthatches, the adolescent bluebird (small and dull in color/maybe adult female),the red-bellied woodpecker spiraling the pine trunk, the red-tailed hawk soaring overhead, whatever that large silent swooping black & white striped bird of prey was that so elevated the blue jays' ire, or the overlapping activity of all of them within a ten minute span, after 45 minutes of less notable observations? I've not even mentioned the trio of cardinals at the birdbath.

A bluebird and two nuthatches spark the most curiosity. The three of them arrived in the center grass together, as if play or travel mates, but I think now it was chance. They've ignored each other the rest of the hour. The nuthatches flirted with each other around the yard while the bluebird came back and back to the same dead dogwood branch by the housewren box to watch for lunch in the grass beneath. Every now and then it fluttered to the ground to go after something delectable. Right now it sits atop Moe's tomato stake with---surprise, surprise---a second blue bird on adjacent stake. There they perch for the longest, not taking their eyes off each other. Thrilling---but not so mystifying as the nuthatch that investigated the baby wrens in the rhombus house by climbing all over the top and sides, poking its head inside several times, and eventually flying away---all without so much as a chirp from the parent wrens. By their cavorting I'm guessing the nuthatches are mating and searching for a nesting site. But how did the tiny nestlings know to be silent for the nuthatch when they've been cheep-cheep-cheeping at the regular arrivals of their parents? And why did the parents not attempt to chase off the intruder? One of them was perched nearby in the flowering quince, and appeared to watch the proceedings, as did the bluebird from the dogwood branch.

Now, half an hour later, no sign of the nuthatches, bluebirds on tomato stakes, and the regular feeding activity of housewren family has resumed. The yard returns to the peace of a summer Sunday, but not for long. Ambles Calicat up the path---creating sudden havoc at every silent step. The frenzy of avian flutter and screech surrounding her slow progress cannot be described. Jays, titmice, house wrens, bluebirds, cardinals, and nuthatches alike coordinate forces. Do they all have nests in the vicinity, or is it professional courtesy? The usually secretive titmice come out in furious number. Have none of them discovered Calicat's incompetence as a hunter? She can't catch a blind mole.

Roger Tory suggests the mysterious bird of prey seen earlier was a short tailed hawk in dark phase---but that it would not be found north of Florida. By its markings, however, it could be nothing else. It was the size and color of a large crow, with distinctively black and white striped tail, observed in a silent near-vertical diving swoop out of pinetree, at first with wings and tail spread, then streamlining into a bullet shape as it disappeared into the lower canopy of green---and the jays went wild. dkm

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Good Mother

Frantic new bird cries in the front yard pear tree caught my attention as I arrived home from a walking errand, indicating feeding time on the nest front. Until now I had been unaware of a nest in the pear tree. As I approached, one large adult robin flew out of the tree and another thinner one arrived to perch on a nearby interior limb with a floppy worm dangling from its beak. The babies went silent when the first adult flew away. The second just-arrived adult waited to see if I posed a danger. For all my peering, I could not find the nest, so I stood still to wait for her to show me the way(a line from The Secret Garden). I assume by her gaunt appearance she was the mama.

Mama Robin was wary of me and not about to divulge the location of her offspring. We eyed each other like two statues connected by a lazer beam. Occasionaly she uttered a muffled chirp, with worm still dangling, and finally few away. I sat low on the sidewalk to take my chances that the father would return soon with a pizza delivery. Within seconds he did and perched first on a distant limb before following an indirect path to the nest. I was surprised to discover it was low in an endbranch of the pear tree almost immediately over my head. No wonder the mother would not go to the nest---with me so near. The father didn't appear to notice me. Maybe it's a guy thing.

The squawking began again in earnest when he arrived at the edge of the nest. I could see the gape-mouthed sparsely feathered babies bobbing their heads over the side of the next in competition for the worm. dkm

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Self-published Black-eyed Susans

A new patch of rudbeckia I did not plant is blooming beneath the dogwood branch where Mr & Mrs. Housewren perch outside their front door.

In years past I would have wondered how such a healthy patch could have grown there without my initiating it. More likely I would have considered them weeds not part of my garden design, and pulled them long before they could have bloomed. Now, after almost two years of backyard observation, and a dawning awareness of my miniscule effect on this tiny part of the earth we call "ours," I am grateful to the housewrens for planting them thus. They are brown-eyed beauties, doing their work of regeneration with or without me, in cooperation with the wrens.

Remains my question---why the beauty? That is to say---I recognize that the beauty of the black-eyed susan is not for the purpose of dazzling me. I'm quite happy to be dazzled by her, but she would look like she looks whether or not I or any of my fellow homo sapiens were here to appreciate her. Why is that? It's a question that begs the bigger ones. dkm

Recycled Nest

A new pair of housewrens frequents the rhombus house. I wonder if it is the same pair I watched from late April through early June--- from the building of the nest through the day of the fledge. Could be same pair, or same male w/new female, or same female w/ new male---OR---could it be a pair from the sixsome I watched grow up? Don't know if birds are incestuous, or how soon after hatching they breed. Once again, a degree in ornithology would be useful. Do they keep breeding through the summer? I would have thought it too hot by now.

Before internet access, I was willing to let my curious wonderings go unsatisfied. No more. Now, because so many questions can be answered for the simple act of typing them, I'm impatient with not knowing what I want to. Must go in search of the answers to how soon they breed, if they keep it in the family, and how many broods they have per season.

Have lost track of the residential activity in the rhombus house. Judging from the sequence I observed in last cycle, this new pair is in the stage of feeding new hatchlings not yet vocal enough to be heard. Papa and Mama Small come and go with regularity and without a lot of caution.

I've missed my daily outsitting and am glad to be back. Losing the hornets nest was a punch in the stomach from which I am not fully recovered. Have had little spirit for energetic observation, but accomplished much indoors in the respite---most notably, the building of my website and making it active. Check it out at

Finished and mailed the 7th draft of WL to three publishers. While I wait for the rejection letters, I must get to work on another manuscript, so as not to let the creep set in---or the anxiety. Will revive Madame Swallow, a picture book ms, though for this round I know how much I don't know. These revisions will require much research. Too bad about not having that degree in ornithology . . .

Don't want to turn this into a blog about writing, though it will be tempting with a manuscript about birds. dkm

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sky of Stone

It's about the sky today---the slow moving slab of heavy marble---shades of gray and white---neck-ache patterns that draw me up. At ground level all is silent, still, and dim---under solid cloud shadow. Not a breath of moving air. A deathly pall veils the morning. Single calls of bird and squirrel season the broth, but no other stirring. The leaves on the trees are like the human statues in Jackson Square (New Orleans) and Fisherman's Wharf (SanFrancisco)---eerie and still---waiting for a chance to move.

Now and again a chimney swift flies across the stone sky.

All at once, panicked birdcries saturate the back right corner of the yard. I know from past observations it is not without cause. Sure enough---emerges a slow cat, ambling up the path from The Wayback. A new cat I've not seen before---a calico with tiger gray striped tail, white feet, patchy face, and mottled orange and black back---like marble. She answers the sky. dkm

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Mystery Tops

The first ones were round and brown and speckled on top, shiny domes of many sizes, ranging from half-apple to half-cherry, but always a shade of brown. Then the domes flattened and lightened, and turned up at the edges to reveal provocative ruffly petticoats underneath, like the starched net can-cans of my childhood, or the skirts of flamenco dancers. Today, more have emerged from different places on the pile, each outcrop a different variety, color, shape, and size. One species has bright red caps that look straight out of a fairy story---one, tall thin furry fingers---another, flat yellow table tops set with wart-like tea cups. From where doth the energy come that maketh them to grow---these startling mushrooms on the woodchip pile? And how do they come by their unique designs? I assume by natural selection, but wonder for what purpose. If it is only to decompose the woodchips, why the lovely tops? The birds and squirrels touch them not, and nobody nocturnal has eaten them, even those born days ago. If not for food, what worth their beauty? It is likely relevant to regenerating their own kind, but even that would not require gorgeous array. Sometimes it causes me to wonder . . . . dkm

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mad as a Hornet

I can't get over being angry that the hornets' nest was destroyed. It makes me realize how out of sync I am with the rest of the world---how out of contact with the way other people think. When I tell them why I'm mad, they say things like, Ma, be reasonable!

It's 7:30 a.m. There is no breeze on the swing. The air feels heavy. No birdsong. No leaf rustle. No rattle of squirrel. Where is the life? The pine trees are tall and straight and quiet this morning. This morning after death.

Not a death of significance to anyone who wasn't paying attention. Still, I don't know what do with this angry energy. They are gone---just gone---which is loss enough---but knowing they came to a vicious and horrible end after I had preserved and protected their habitat for them is a betrayal of the worst kind. As if I had set them up for a pre-mature and violent death. It is no consolation that they would have died naturally at season's end---with the first freeze---according to genetic code. They were poisoned in my absence, when I had no way of defense against it, after a promise to let them stay until winter. Double betrayal.

I wanted to know how big the nest would have gotten, how the architecture progressed, how the hornets lived. I had hoped, after first freeze, to take the nest down gently, respectfully . . . to learn about hornet life inside the paper chambers. They will not come again. It's a small thing in the grand scheme. Others tell me I'm being irrational, that it was a dangerous situation. So I don't tell them of my grief.

Instead I think of my brother's grief for the loss of his son---of his unending grief and anger beyond measure---of his rational yet unbearable pain---and I send him love. dkm

Monday, June 22, 2009

House of Ill Repute

The number of hornets that labor on, in, and around the gray and yellow nest increases exponentially as the structure grows in size. At first, only one or two were visible at a time. Now sometimes four or five work end to end along the lip of each new shroud, while dozens fly in and out of the entrance that moves lower with every finished layer. I can see the results of the outside workers as they move along the cutting edges, but what are the others doing inside? And why? Is it all for the sake of regenerating the species?

The paper machet work of art that grows under the eave over the deck is a remarkable feat of engineering, a dazzling example of teamwork, an orchestrated synchrony of biology, a striped tapestry of terror, a teeming den of activity, a changing chamber of labor, a hooded haven of mystery, a wrapped parcel of energy, a tidy bundle of power and glory---oh---sorry---that was fun---

I researched enough to find out that hornets are the least aggressive of the stinging insects, but given their reputation, they have effectively eliminated our use of their end of the deck for the summer. dkm

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Beyond the Backyard: Shanghai

6/15/09 The object of my attention today---my own spectacular daughter---on the other side of the world---doing work of "profound significance to the country and the world"---to quote China Daily. Today the story is in New York Times & Newsweek. Tonight she was on NPR's All Things Considered, and last week her picture was in the French newspaper LeMonde---re: her work as "organizer" of the first LGBT PRIDE festival in the People's Republic of China.

I look at that photo in LeMonde of Hannah's upward gaze and am reminded of her infant profile in a significant memory of mine---a snapshot memory of one of the first times I held her in my arms---alone in the hospital room soon after her birth. I beheld her profile as she nursed---that same cheek and jaw and nose and upward glance---the miracle of her---and hoped to be good enough for her---that I could mother her well enough to prepare her for the world. dkm

Friday, June 12, 2009

Paper Machet Art

The hornets' nest I'm watching began in mid-May as a small gray structure about the size and shape of a Georgia pecan, attached to the eave outside the bathroom window on the back side of the house. It's two stories above ground but the deck affords a close-up perspective. I wish I had started taking photos at first notice. Within a week or so it grew to the size and shape of a perfectly round golf ball with a dime-sized hole in the very bottom. Within two days it had grown a long straight finger-sized tube that extended vertically downward from the hole. By the time I returned from my travels two weeks later it had transformed into a new shape entirely, thrice its size, with the hole, now quarter-sized, moved to the side facing away from the house, and near the top. At that point I began taking photos. In the twelve days since my return it has kept the same shape, but grown, one layer at a time to near coconut size. Its shape defies description. Each new layer is about a quarter inch thick and wraps the whole thing in a smooth papery covering that begins and ends at the side-hole entrance. The photos will tell the rest of the story. A description of the hornets themselves must wait for another day. dkm

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Coitus Interruptus

Had I not been paying attention to the two spinning cabbage white butterflies I would have missed it. Furthermore, had I not paid attention to last spring's courtship and mating flight of the lemon yellow butterflies, I would not have known its significance.

The IT to which I refer is the dropping out of space by a robin (I think it was a robin, though I can't be sure, falling and retreating as it did in the shade of The Wayback---definitely gray---either a robin or a mocker) to snatch one of the dueling cabbage whites from the act.

The two had been courting in the upper yard and had just taken their excitement into the shadows of The Wayback, when WHOOSH, a vertically descending fluttering bunch of gray feathers scooped one of them away. Afterward, a lone white returned to the sunny part of the yard, looking hangdog, if my imagination serves me correctly. dkm

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

To Be Eaten by Hawks?

By the morning quiet, it appears my fledgling housewrens are gone. Where did they go so soon? To be eaten by hawks? To begin new nests in other parts of the woods? With more questions than answers, I wonder if the male who now sings by the empty house is one of the new fledglings, or is it Papa Small, hoping to get lucky again? But wait---upon closer attention, several wrens are playing near the ground in the vicinity of the house. Fledglings not gone after all. They hop under the ferns, in and out of the abelia hedge, into the clematis arbor, chit chit chitting, practicing their new skills---only one bubbler at the house, if not Papa Small. They've all already achieved the size of their parents, which isn't much, I admit. I can no longer distinguish the young from the adults, unless by their song. Those on the ground only chit chit. The one by the house is shaking the bubbles out. Is he young or old?

It's clearly still nesting season in Decatur. A pair of cardinals flies in and out of the fallen confederate jasmine trellis near the ground, a robin totes huge clumps of dried grass and leaves to the top of the tallest dogwood in the back right corner of the yard---not the same dogwood of the housewrens. Brown thrashers hop in and out of the azalea thicket with pine needles in their beaks, and that singular housewren is perpetually bubbling outside the newly vacated rhombus house.

But where are the rufous sided towhees that had a nest in the top of the ivy arbor? By my count this is day # 42 for them. If tiny housewrens required 45 days from first day of nest building, I would have expected the robin-sized towhees to take longer. Did they come to some harm in my absence? Or did I miss their coming out? dkm

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Where Will They Now Sleep?

Later on same day of fledge, one wren, I think one of the parents, returns to the dogwood where hangs the empty house. Forlorn or bereft or relieved, I can only imagine. This wren hops around from branch to branch, singing its bubbly song. Job well done, the lyrics might as well say. Presently the wren begins to enter and exit the house repeatedly with a downy feather or tiny broken stick or tuft of dry grass in its beak---taking its cargo only as far as the first dogwood branch outside the front door, there to let it go. The brown blades flutter like chaff, the twigs drop directly to the ground, and the feathers swing away on otherwise undetectable drafts. Housecleaning. Not unlike shaking a rug.

Is it preparation for a new brood already? And what do bird books mean when they say "Fledgling period: 12-15 days?" Before this spring's observations, I would have thought the new birds continued sleeping in the nest while practicing their flying---until fully adult. Now it appears that once out they never return.

Which brings me to my years-old question: Where do adult birds sleep when not nesting? Bird books go on about mating and nesting behaviors, but I've yet to find the answer to the question of where birds sleep. The audubon birder I asked dismissed the question authoritatively without saying a damn thing. It may be a stupid question, but I still don't know the answer. Does anybody out there know? I would be humbled to hear from you. dkm

Hawk and Housewren

A loud gutteral call came from high above us---Moe and I having coffee on the deck again. Sort of a cross between a blue jay's caw and a crow's---yet unlike either. More bird-like than squirrel, but we were unable to identify it. Until just now, arriving on swing at 10:30, I hear it again, flying overhead, approaching---a duck or goose, I wondered? Then across the open center sky of the backyard, just above canopy level of the trees around edge of yard, flew a brown hawk, emitting the same gutteral call we heard this morning. Another mystery solved.

BUT---it brings little satisfaction on this day because I MISSED the housewrens' fledge! Too quiet, the house, at 10:45. Beyond disappointed, I cling to the hope that maybe they're sleeping and parents are away taking advantage of a moment to rest. But now I hear the same definitive squalling in the azalea thicket that, just yesterday morning, came from the rhombus shaped bird house. I walk back to investigate. Sure enough, a bunch of tiny tiny houswrens ( I counted 5, maybe 6) flew, as I approached, to low branches in The Wayback. Two sat squalling from the shed roof. Others cavorted nearby, fluffing. Perhaps I only JUST missed them. Alas, I calculated the days and waited long to see the glorious moment, only to miss it on Day 45. Makes me realize how lucky I was to share it with the nuthatches earlier this spring, at a time when I least expected it. Grace enough for one season. dkm

Following Grandma K's Best Advice: Never Give Up

Who builds the nest in squirrel world? Male or female? Whichever it is, this one entertained Moe and me over our morning coffee for nearly an hour. Unsuccessfully she kept trying to begin a nest high in the pin oak tree in the adjacent yard and was still at it when we went inside. She was cutting large leafy end-twigs and dragging them to a high Y in the interior of the tree. Each deposited twig pushed the one before it out of the Y, but Madame Squirrel appeared not to be discouraged. Again and again, she ran back out to another end-branch to cut a leafy twig twice her size, sometimes dropping it in process, starting over, dragging it back to the Y, consistently pushing out the most recent deposit in the delivery of the next. Do hope she gets the nest built before she goes into labor. dkm

Next day progress report: No nest in the Y, no sign of squirrel in the vicinity.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Meanwhile . . . More Surprises

Being on the swing for the bulk of the morning awaiting the miraculous moment of housewren's first fledge affords too many backyard moments to write about in one day. Four on this day from 7:30-noon---one being the fecal sac removal of last entry.

Two being a brief encounter with a mad mama. Moving fast so as to return to observation point ASAP, I carry the copper bucket of yesterday's kitchen scraps to The Wayback for burial, but am stopped at the top of the granite steps by a sudden insistent flurry of rusty brown thrasher, first in my face, then on the bottom step. (There are only 4 steps.) When she sees I am not to be deterred from my path, she reluctantly flies to the fence rail---but scolds and watches. Poor thing must have been in a panic. When I get to the bottom step I understand why. In the leafy path just beyond the landing step, a brand new brown thrasher, quite possibly on first fledge, is struggling to upright after a clumsy landing. But for its fluttering and shuffling, I might have stepped on it. It was the exact dull brown of the leaves, not yet the brilliant rust color of its mother. Feathers still fuzzy, tail still stubby and short. I'm not sure which of us was more startled, but the brief encounter served to halt me and send the youngster into awkward flight to the Wayback fence rail where its mother stood by. My apology did not unruffle their feathers. I buried my scraps and returned to Jim's swing to carry on with the nestwatch and Chapter 11.

Three being a jack-hammer in bird world. Back on the swing my attention was drawn to a violent sort of up and down movement on the ground under the arbor that arches the steps into The Wayback---the same steps where I had encountered the thrashers less than an hour before. An adult thrasher was thrusting its beak again and again directly into the ground. Each thrust involved a comical vertical stretching of the back of its head and neck upward into a sturdy posture that enabled it to force its beak, like a jack-hammer, vertically into the ground at its feet. It looked like it was trying to break something hard. I was astonished at the force of its downward thrust. So engrossed was the thrasher in the effort, I had time to get camera and make a slow approach. Alas, he/she flew away before I could get the shot, reluctantly abandoning her project. She had successfully opened a tiny acorn, leaving the bright orange nutmeat on the ground. I was sorry to have disturbed her, but happy to have the mystery solved. So many of my observations end in wondering.

Four being a raccoon! An arch-backed, tippy-toed, ring-tailed, black-masked, full-sized raccoon ambled across the slate patio between the corner arbors that lead to The Wayback---most likely attracted by the pungent leftover cooked red cabbage I had just buried. The cabbage had gone bad in the refrigerator in my latest eleven day absence. Investigating, I found the compost heap undisturbed, but Makayla's bucket of child-sized garden tools was upset inside the open shed and a number of clay pots lay shattered on the floor, explaining the loud crash I heard earlier and thought to be a falling branch. dkm

I make little progress on WL manuscript waiting for this fledge. Sun beats hot on the swing. Time to go in. Bye Bye Birdies, until tomorrow morning. Hope you can wait for me to cheer your first out-flying.

Fecal Sacs!

I've learned to expect the unexpected within my hour of observation, yet am always surprised by it. Today's mystery was to notice that after every few deliveries to open-mouthed babes at doorway, one of the housewren adults ducks its head inside the house and flies away with something white in its beak---about the size and shape of a large vitamin capsule, and bright white in the sun. Backyard Birdlover's Guide answers the question: "Both parents feed the young after the female stops brooding them, and both carry off fecal sacs."

By 7:30 a.m. I was on the swing with my breakfast and a day's worth of writing supplies, hoping to witness the moment of new freedom for the nestling housewrens. When this watch began 42 days ago I stood for long periods with camera poised, attempting to capture a photo of Mama or Papa Small entering or leaving the house. It required patience and resulted in weary arm muscles, not to mention many photos short of mark. Could never get camera still, shutter open, and bird in doorway simultaneously. When at last I captured a blurry shot I considered it a prize. Now, so often do they come to the door with special deliveries, I can get clear shots almost at will. Next prize will be the fledglings pushing off, if I'm lucky enough to be here at the moment. dkm

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Halleluia Chorus / Nestwatch Day#41

NOW the housewren nestlings make the noise I was waiting for. The nest came alive in my absence. I had guessed the nestlings would have fledged in the eleven days I was gone.

Two wide open mouths at a time, poking through the doorway. How many in all? Do they take turns coming to the door? Time will tell, but only if I'm here to see it. Moe tells me he first heard them four days ago. Today they make a constant chit chit chit chit even when their parents are away hunting food. And when one of the parents arrives at the door with a new delivery they go stark raving mad. Halleluia Chorus or me first, me first me first!

I thrill to find I'm home in time for their first out-flying---the better to discover what happens immediately thereafter. The brown headed nuthatches disappeard completely on the lucky day I observed their first fledge, at 10:15 in the morning, never to be seen again. Heard but not seen. I was under the impression they would have returned to their house for a few days---wrong again---as in so many of my guesses based on limited observation and knowledge. Their fledge was a surprise to me, just four days after I first heard them. What a glorious moment it was, though. That was before I turned my backyard journal into a blog. Sorry you missed it.

Now hoping to be more attentive to housewren fledglings, as I'm home for almost a month before next trip. Mama and Papa Small no longer enter the house with the pizza deliveries. They only poke their morsels into the gaping mouths in the doorway and take off again. The nestlings are running their parents ragged, never to be satisfied, not unlike human families. If you look closely at the photo by the header of this blog, you can see the gaping mouth of a nestling through the doorway. That photo was taken today. Will try to capture a clear one of the nestlings as they emerge. That would make me sing.

Perhaps today or tomorrow will be their big day. Let me not miss it while I go to house for binocs. dkm

Remembering the Crane

Came a crane---large, slow, level, low, close, gray.

Each downward wingpump pushed 5 cubic feet of air out of the way as the crane moved along its path over the water. How can wings that slow keep a bird that size aloft? And it was silent.

A farewell gift from the bay. I drove home all day spinning Ch 11 and remembering the crane. dkm

Fresh Supper

An hour ago this mullet was swimming happily in the bay. A fisherman motored by, slow and close to the dock where I was sitting. He was throwing nets. I flagged him down to ask if he'd sell me a couple mullet for my supper.

F: I only got three. I'll give em to ya.
D: I'd gladly pay for them. Don't you fish for a living?
F: (Might as well have rolled his eyes) Yeah, but 3 or 4 hunderd pounds at a time. I'm just fishin today.
D: Trouble is, I don't know how to clean a fish. Can you fillet them for me?
F: You got a knife?
D: Not a sharp one. Can you do it with a dull knife?
F: If you hurry up!
D: (Laughing) Okay, I get the point.

Three large mullet and three smaller fish were flopping on the floor of his boat. I ran to the house and returned with three knives and a grocery bag. He chose a knife and set to work on my dock.

D: While you're at it I'm going after my camera.
F: I'll be done before you get back!
D: But I want to give you a couple of greenbacks for your trouble.
F: Suit yourself.

I returned in time to get several good photos. He threw the heads, backbones, entrails, and the three little fish into the bay.

D: What kind are the little ones?
F: Junk in the net.
D: The crabs will eat well tonight.
F: You gotta crab trap?
D: No, I'm leaving tomorrow. Take this for your trouble.
F: I can't take $20 for three fish. Don't you have change?
D: Keep it. It was worth it for the photos.
F: If I had a stone I'd sharpen your knife.
D: Buy yourself a good bottle of wine and have a nice evening.
B: Thank you, ma'am.
D: Thank YOU.

I dredged the fillets in salty flour and fried them in olive oil. Mmmmm. dkm

Quiet Interrupted / Red Shouldered Hawk

Oh, that I could keep my mouth shut. I might have been able to make a positive identification with the help of my friend Roger Tory. But who wouldn't have been startled by the loud crash in the tall grass on the other side of the screen? I had been deeply engrossed in revisions of Ch 10.

I looked up, directly into the eye of what I think was a red-shouldered hawk, not 5 feet away, with only a screen door between us. He flew away immediately, gone from sight by the time I hollered, stood, and got to the door. What I could see in his momentary landing and take-off, aside from that scary eye-to-eye part, were large rust colored wingtops and a distinctly striped tail as he pushed off. His body was about the size of a crow, with smaller head, larger wingspan. I'm pretty sure he was after the little green lizard that had been rustling around in the sunny grass, entertaining me as I worked. Imagine HIS surprise. I hope I saved him by my scream.

I couldn't tell if the hawk was successful. I'm thankful I have only to open a carton of yogurt and stir in a few almonds for my lunch. dkm