Monday, December 14, 2015

Reggie's Tree Topper

If you look closely, you'll notice a subtle alteration to our Christmas tree. It's up there, right at the top, see?

That old plastic tree topper might seem a bit out of place atop a homespun Christmas tree adorned in simple, handmade ornaments. But there's so much more to it than a simple tree topper. This is a finial perched atop a child's holiday memories. A lightening rod that conducted the best energies of a father who was hard on his family, its presence and its meaning protecting them from the things that were hard to understand.

Last night, I shared my mother's love of Christmas, and her insistence on having a live tree to decorate. As a kid, I had no idea how the tree got there, it just sort of magically appeared. I know now that there was always quite a row about getting the tree, getting it in the house, and positioning it just so.

My dad was hard on us, and there were times when it wasn't always so clear whether he loved us or just tolerated us. He had such wonderful character, a silly streak, and an abundance of friends. But with five kids, lean times, and more challenges than a child could begin to comprehend, he was demanding of his kids, sometimes downright harsh, and almost always repressed any kind of emotion in our company.

I often wondered what it was that made dad so unhappy. And it wasn't until I was all grown up that I could truly appreciate the challenges he faced, how hard the man worked, and his struggles to keep food in our mouths and a roof over our heads. I grew to know and understand that his love for us was a powerful force in his life, he just struggled to express it.

And so, as a child, I clung to the few things that brought out the best in him. The happy, silly, fun daddy that made me want to jump into his arms and beg him to always smile that smile that seemed to come straight from his heart. Things like the Christmas tree topper.

My mother and my brothers and sisters and I decorated the tree. Dad didn't participate in any way, until the very end. And then, he would root through the post-tree-decorating chaos until he found his tree topper, and, holding it above his head like a scepter, would proudly declare that it wasn't a Christmas tree until HIS topper was on! Mom would playfully object, "But, Reg, that thing is so old and nasty." (And it really was!) "Why don't we get a new one this year?!"

And, oh, how he would rant!

"There's not a damn thing wrong with this one!" he would exclaim, even though both of the side pieces that held the little bells had long since broken off, the wire that lit up the bulb in the middle of the angel hair center had shorted out, and in general, it looked like something he'd dug out of the trash! Once, mom even tried to buy a lovely new angel and just quietly replace Dad's topper on the tree. He hadn't been in the house but a minute before he noticed the switch, and he immediately went digging for that old, broken, decrepit --- amazing, beautiful, perfect topper.

In later years, dad mellowed so much, and he became the most loving father and grampa we could have ever hoped for. He's been gone for more than five years now, and I never miss him more than I do at Christmas time.

When he died, my oldest sister Laura took loving possession of Dad's Tree Topper, preserving that broken mess of beautiful memories, cherishing it as the treasure that it is.

Last Christmas, on a whim, my amazing sister Tina Googled "vintage Christmas Tree Toppers," and lo and behold, she discovered an eBay auction that had several of these vintage wonders for sale. She gave them to us with no warning last Christmas. And when I opened that box...well, I still can't think about it without crying.

And so, this year, the first of what I hope will be many, our tree is adorned with Reggie's Tree Topper. And if there is an after-life, I know my dad is here with me, smiling his best smile.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Prairapy Session

Kimberly Writes: I came home from the Midwest Native Plant Society's conference this weekend feeling totally inspired! Seeing so many people come together in celebration of native plants, pollinators, butterflies, singing insects - and just the wonder of the natural world in general - made my heart so happy, and filled me with such a sense of hope for the natural world. I am so grateful to Kathy McDonald, Jim McCormac, Ned Keller, Yvonne Cecil, and the entire team that organizes the wonderful Midwest Native Plant Conference. I'm thankful to have been able to attend two terrific programs by Cheryl Harner and Lisa Rainsong. (And Kenn's keynote was wonderful, too!) Thank you all for the healthy dose of inspiration and knowledge!

I decided to use my new-found inspiration as motivation to pull weeds in our prairie. Watching the transformation of half an acre of unmowed grass into a prairie has done more than restore habitat, it's restored something deep in my soul. When you're knee-deep and head down in an ocean of waving grass, your mind is clear, the sweat drips from an unfretted brow, and the best feeling in the world is when the stubborn roots of an invasive plant give way against your relentless tugging.

My back aches this morning, but the rewards were beautiful.

                                 Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
(one of my faves!)

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) shooting its stalk to the moon

And Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) loaded with pollinators!

And as I dragged one load of weed carcasses out to the edge, I came face to face with a little Viceroy caterpillar munching away on a small willow!

It was two hours of hard work wrapped in bliss, and the world seems like a better place this morning for my "prairapy" session!

Monday, June 22, 2015

From Kenn's Drawing Table: Red-legged Cormorant.

From Kenn's Drawing Table: Work in progress: Red-legged Cormorant. 

There are about 40 species of cormorants in the world. They occur on all seven continents but they're widely dispersed, usually with no more than four species at any one locality, so it would take a lot of traveling to see them all. 

By now I've seen most of them; my favorite is Red-legged Cormorant, a specialty of western South America (Peru and Chile), with a few also in southern Argentina. I had seen these birds on past trips, but when we watched them in Peru last winter, I knew I'd have to try painting them. The pattern of whitish spots on the upperparts is unique in the family, while the circle of sky-blue dots around each eye is another intriguing feature.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Eastern Meadowlark Observations

From Homebase in Oak Harbor, OH, Kimberly Writes: If you haven't read my last post, please do. It explains how Eastern Meadowlarks came to nest in our "yard gone wild!"

They're shockingly close to the house, allowing for wonderful observations of behavior. They seem to be most active in the early morning hours, the female bringing nest material...

 ...while the male takes to a high perch some distance away to sing and chatter.

The nest is built on the ground, in areas with dense grass and other low cover, in a small depression in the soil. The nest is a domed structure with the entrance on the side, made of grass stems interwoven with surrounding growth. There are typically narrow trails or runways in the grass leading to the nest. The grass is tall enough that I can't see the actual nest site yet, but the female lands some distance away a
nd I can see the grass moving as she follows these trails to the general area!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Beauty in Letting Go

From Homebase in Oak Harbor, OH, Kimberly Writes: 
After two weeks of neglect, our lawn, as viewed through the lens of conventional wisdom, was officially out of control. I mean, mowing your grass is what you're supposed to do, right? Yes, indeed, grass is meant for mowing, and a yard must be kept neat and tidy to conform with the ideal of what a perfect lawn is supposed to be.
Our wild and unruly lawn

Tell that to a Meadowlark!

For here in our little three acre patch of paradise, a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks is actively building a nest. Unexpected guests to our unconventional lawn.

Female with a mouthful of nest material 
Leave it to the birds to remind us of the benefits of letting go. To remind us that wild and unruly could represent perfection. That conventional wisdom should be challenged now and then. And that the reward might be a bird with the sun on its breast and a song as sweet as the summer breeze.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Northwest Ohio Birding Information

From Homebase in Ohio, "The Warbler Capital of the World," Kenn writes: 

We're coming up on the time of year when northwestern Ohio - specifically the Lake Erie shoreline in the area of Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge - becomes one of the most exciting and popular destinations for birding in North America. Longtime Ohio birders may know all about birding this region, but this year some new sources of information are available. And new birders, in particular, might want to save this post to help with planning spring birding trips.
American Redstart
First, if you're not familiar with the area at all, there's an overview in this feature article that I wrote for Birding, the magazine of the American Birding Association, in 2010. The Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) provides many kinds of free information for visiting birders, including info on birding sites.

The single most famous local site is the boardwalk at Magee Marsh. This boardwalk winds for almost a mile through a small woodlot between the marshes and Lake Erie, and great concentrations of migrants can be seen along its length and along the edges of the adjacent parking lot. For easy communication about the locations of birds on the boardwalk, numbers are etched into the railing, so that birders can report things like "The Golden-winged Warbler is being seen at #20." To find these numbers, it's a good idea to carry a map that shows their locations.
This map is available for free downloading and printing; you can print out your own and stuff it in your pocket for quick reference.
And here's another free map that gives more of an overview of Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
Black-and-white Warbler
These maps and others, plus other kinds of birding information, are also available for free at Black Swamp Bird Observatory. BSBO is located just north of Ohio State Route 2 at the entrance to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, and the observatory will be open every day in May.
When is the best time to visit? For starters, here is a basic overview of the whole spring migration, from late February to early June. Every day in late April and May offers good birding here, but some days are much better than others. If you have flexibility in deciding when to visit, how do you pick your days? Well, during this season, some friends and I study the weather and try to predict which days will be best for seeing migrants. We post these predictions, along with reports on recent sightings, on this blog. As I write this, the most recent prediction says that this coming weekend, especially Sunday May 3, should produce a very good arrival of migrants.

BSBO runs a springtime bird festival called "The Biggest Week in American Birding," scheduled for May 8-17 this year. This festival has the effect of REDUCING the crowds on the Magee boardwalk, since we hand out maps and directions to many other local sites, and run field trips all over a four-county surrounding area. For anyone coming to bird in the area, even if they're not registered for the festival, there is a wealth of information to be found in the Biggest Week Visitors' Guide. Printed copies of the Guide can be picked up at many sites throughout n.w. Ohio, but it's also viewable online in digital form
Bay-breasted Warbler
It's worthwhile to consider registering for the Biggest Week even if you're not interested in any of the workshops, field trips, or programs. Registration entitles you to various discounts at local restaurants and other businesses, and gives you free access to some fun social events. Online registration for this year's event will close this Thursday night, April 30. Walk-in registration will be available throughout the event at both the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the Lodge at Maumee Bay State Park, where the festival is headquartered.
In a brand new development this year, the Biggest Week has just become the first birding festival in North America to have its own dedicated bird-finding app. The sharp people at BirdsEye Nature Apps have developed a Biggest Week app. Although it's designed for the festival, it's already "live" and delivering information; you can click on a species and instantly see the locations of the most recent sightings in the area. It's available for both iPhone and Android, and it's free! 
Cerulean Warbler
If you're birding the area, you can also sign up to follow the Biggest Week on Twitter and have up-to-the-minute bird sightings sent straight to your smartphone. This blog post by Melissa Penta  talks about the Twitter feed, and links to information on how to have these tweets sent directly to your phone.

Finally, if you are coming to the area for birding, please stop at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory for information and birding maps, and to check out the book store and "window on wildlife." The observatory will be open every day in May. BSBO works year-round to promote research, education, and conservation throughout Ohio and the surrounding regions, and it's a good organization for birders to know.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

From Kenn's Drawing Table: Great Black Hawk

Kenn Writes: Some bird painters can put down just a few lines on canvas or paper and then start painting. I respect that, but it doesn't work for me; I have to have a detailed idea of where things are going before I start to lay in any color. I recently started a portrait of an immature Great Black Hawk, and the basic drawing evolved over a couple of days.

On the left here is the subfinal drawing. After putting it aside for a while, I decided to change the position of the head, make the bill a little thicker, and make a few other adjustments. I'll probably make more changes in the process of painting, but at least the foundation is set in advance.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Peru Trip with Wildside Nature Tours, Day 6: Screamers, Dryer Lint Birds, and Pink Dolphins

Another spectacular day on the mighty Amazon River and smaller tributaries. And just wait until you see what followed along on our evening skiff ride! Ho. Lee. Cow! (Er, dolphin!)

The lovely Capped Heron was a highlight bird of the trip!

Masked Crimson Tanager
Since this bird is closely associated with water, traveling by boat is a great way to see it!

Amazonian Umbrellabird!

Cropped at a very long distance, in the shade, from a moving boat! (Not bad for my little Canon SX50, eh?!)In addition to that wonderful crest, both males and females have an inflatable throat wattle that they extend during displays. The wattle is longer in the males, and can reach up to 14 inches. When fully extended, the crest curls foward over the face, thus the name Umbrellabird.

We were fortunate enough to get great looks at this Monk Saki Monkey. 
These woolly monkeys are almost entirely arboreal, rarely going to the ground.

Horned Screamer! (And, yes! They're as exciting as the name implies!) 
This massive bird (33–38 inches long and 7.7 lbs) gets its name from that long, spiky projection growing out of its head. It's a unique feature among all the birds of the world, and what's really bizarre is that it isn't a feather! The spike is a cornified structure that is loosely attached to the skull. And though it will sometimes break at the tip, it grows continuously throughout the birds' life.

 Horned Screamers also have two sharp spurs on the wings. 
You can see them clearly in this fabulous photo that Kenn took! 

For an example of the "Screamer" portion of its name, click here: 

 Great Potoo

Yes, that's a bird on that branch! What outstanding camouflage, eh? Potoos are 
nocturnal insectivores, "hawking" from perches for aerial insects. They live out 
much of their lives on broken branches, even laying their single egg and raising 
their young at the broken end of a snag. 

Kenn describes Potoos as looking like a mixture of dryer lint and tree bark! And he describes the voice of the Great Potoo as "something that sounds like it's trying to win a vomiting contest!" But I'll let you be the judge.

We ended this wonderful day with an evening skiff ride. And with the sun setting in the most dramatic fashion...
...we were suddenly accompanied by these magical creatures.

Pink River Dolphins

Before our trip to Peru, I'd honestly never even heard of Pink Dolphins. And, even if I had, I don't know that I would have believed they were real until I saw them with my own eyes. 

Amazon River Dolphins are the largest freshwater cetacean, reaching a length of 5 - 8 feet long. They have very long beaks (they look like giant pink hotdogs when they poke up out of the water), and while they're mostly grayish/pink in color, when they get excited, they turn the most ridiculous shade of Pepto-Bismol pink! (No, I'm not making this up! And, no, I haven't been drinking.) 

The dolphin in this picture is somewhere in between gray and pink. During our trip, we didn't actually encounter any that were bright pink, but I've seen photos, and it's astonishing!


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Peru Trip with Wildside Nature Tours, Day 5: Nature - Large and Small

Kimberly Writes: If I keep saying "this was one of my favorite days of the trip," I'm afraid I'm going to lose my credibility. But the truth is, every day of this trip had something special to offer. Day five was no exception, offering a study in nature large and small!

From giant moths and lily pads to tiny monkeys and birds, I have to say it...this one one of my favorite days of the trip! (Don't judge!) :-)

The lights on the Queen Violeta attracted some spectacular moths,
 including this large and impressive individual. (See it on my 
hand in the next photo for an indication of its size.)

See, I told you, it was a biggin! 
I haven't been able to pin an exact name on this bug (if you think the diversity of birds in Peru is impressive, you can't even imagine the lepidoptera!) but it looks like a silk moth of the genus Arsenura, and at least similar to Arsenura albopicta.

Our skiff stopped for a few minutes and we took the opportunity to search the vegetation. We were delighted to find several Painted Grasshoppers!

Seeing macaws in the wild always feels like a special blessing, so when a small group of Blue-and-yellow Macaws flew overhead we were delighted. But it really got the heart pumping when this one decided to pause for a few minutes! 
Even at a distance, this is an impressive bird!

Our adventures took us from the giant macaw to this tiny girl: 
a Glittering-throated Emerald! Isn't she lovely?! We thought we'd had quite a moment with this bird as she sat in full view for several seconds. But when she flew off, 
she had a special surprise in store for us!
She had a nest!
Tucked beneath the elegant, protective arch of a Cecropia leaf, 
this glittering gem of a bird and her magical little nest were like something 
out of a fairy tale! And those who know me well won't be surprised to hear 
that the grace of the moment brought tears to my eyes.

Hummingbird nests are like little dabs of magic. Built entirely by the female, 
they begin with mouthfuls of silk gathered from spider webs. Next come puffs of plant down woven together with more spider silk. And when it's all round and cozy, its camouflaged with flakes of lichen. Pure magic! 

The Boat-billed Flycatcher is aptly named. 
Just look at the schnoz on this bird! The only member of the monotypic genus Megarynchus, it breeds in open woodland with some tall trees from Mexico south to Bolivia and Argentina, and through to Trinidad. Boat-billed Flycatchers are one of the largest species of tyrant flycatcher.  

From a bill called a boat to a bill so tiny that it seems like an after-thought! 

Sand-colored Nighthawks dare to be different! While most species in the family
 are nocturnal and solitary, Sand-colored Nighthawks are partially diurnal, 
sometimes seen feeding on aerial insects in late afternoon. They're also gregarious, frequently found in flocks of hundreds. If you're having trouble imagining a flock of hundreds, check out the next photo!

This is just a few branches of a large tree chock full of Sand-colored Nighthawks! 
I think the people in our boat exhausted every expression of 
amazement at the sight of all these birds festooning every branch! 

We were delighted to find a Red Howler Monkey feeding low along the edge of the tributary we were exploring! Listen to the remarkable voice of this impressive beast
Can you imagine being an unsuspecting explorer walking through the jungle 
when THAT sound starts?  

Pygmy Marmoset!
The word marmoset comes from the French word “marmouset,” 
meaning shrimp or dwarf. Pygmy Marmoset is the smallest monkey but
 not the smallest primate—that title goes to the Mouse Lemur. 

 At just 4.5 - 6 inches long (not including the tail) and weighing, 
on average, about 3.5 oz., this is one of the world's smallest 
primates, and is the smallest true monkey.

 A full-grown Pygmy Marmoset could fit in an adult human's hand, 
and it weighs about as much as a stick of butter! (Can you say SquEEEEEE!)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Peru Trip with Wildside Nature Tours, Day 4: The Magic Cove

Kimberly Writes: Day four delivered one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip. After breakfast, we boarded the small, motorized, and maneuverable skiffs for our morning expedition. These small skiffs made it possible to penetrate deep into the flooded forests. A light rain was falling, but it did nothing to dampen the spirit of the day, and our group of intrepid travelers was richly rewarded.

We zoomed along the main river for several minutes before the skiff slowed and turned off onto a smaller corridor. We motored slowly for several minutes, and then, with a soft rain beating a gentle rhythm on the surface of the water, we passed through a dark, narrow corridor...

...and into a place that felt untouched by time.
Here, drifting along in a secret cove tucked away in a flooded forest along the Amazon River, the kid in me imagined that we were the first humans to visit this magical place. And my heart created a special place to tuck this memory away for safe keeping. 

Fields of Giant Lily Pads added to the majesty of this place, and we paused to marvel at their expanse and explore the life forms on these floating refuges.

High in a tree in the far off distance, a strange looking lump turned 
out to be a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth reminding us, yet again, 
that we were far from home in a magical place.

And, oh my, the birds... 
When this giant creature came crash-landing out of the rain and into 
the trees above us, every person in our boat held their breath in disbelieving awe. 
And when the guide quietly, but with great glee said, "HOATZIN," 
even the name of the bird was perfect for this dramatic scene.

Add if one Hoatzin is great, just imagine what TWO would be like!
 The sun peeked out and these two began a ritualistic dance designed
 to dry their drenched feathers. And it was spectacular!

Even the common Striated Heron stepped up its game, posing on a 
log stage with a prize. But no ordinary fish would do for this performance, no siree. 
This special heron delivered a Red-bellied PIRANHA to the scene.

And as we left the cove, an immature Great Black Hawk 
bid us farewell in fetching fashion, expressing confused curiosity 
of the strange creatures floating past, cloaked in colorful rain ponchos! 
The perfect closing to a remarkable morning.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Peru Trip with Wildside Nature Tours, Day 3: White-Sands Forest

Kimberly Writes: Day three welcomed us with a stunning sunrise ...
...and a very cool surprise: a visit to a habitat known as white-sands forest. If you look at the descriptions of habitats in the field guide to Birds of Peru, you'll learn without reading a word how exciting this habitat is for birders. The paragraph describing white-sands forest is nearly three times as long as the descriptions of other habitats! 

Tropical forests occurring on white-sand soils have a unique structure and are famous for their endemism. It took some special arrangements to visit this reserve and we were only there briefly. We dipped on the endemic species in the area, but it was still wonderful to experience a new habitat type! (And we did see some really cool things while we were there!)

The road into the white-sands forest habitat beckons.

Yellow-billed Nunbird (Monasa flavirostris) is a species of 
puffbird in the Bucconidae family. Smaller, quieter, and less conspicuous
 than the other nunbirds, they're considered rare to uncommon, 
so we were pleased to have such wonderful looks at this individual.

I'm not 100% certain, but I think this might be a Black-and-white Monkey Hopper (Eumastacidae). (My alternate name would be Ninja Grasshopper!)

That slash of white isn't something stuck to this bird's face, 
it's the mark that gives the bird its name: 
Silver-beaked Tanager (Ramphocelus carbo)! 

Silver-beaked Tanagers were common throughout our trip. They're active birds, making them a challenge to photograph (at least for me!) 

Though they aren't nearly as flashy as the males, 
female Silver-beaked Tanagers are lovely in their own way.

Beautiful butterfly? Think again! 
This is actually a day-flying MOTH! Green-banded Urania (Urania leilus).
Spectacular and fairly common throughout their range, 
they have a penchant for damp places.

Our first glimpse of White-eared Jacamar (Galbalcyrhynchus leucotis) 
had every person with a camera scrambling for a photo! We would discover that this species is abundant along the tributaries of the Amazon, and we'd be treated to point-blank views of this wonderful bird nearly every day. 

Learn more and listen to the bird's voice (recorded by Ted Parker), here.

After our walk, we returned to the Queen Violeta and an afternoon skiff excursion along smaller tributaries of the Amazon. 

Our visit to Peru was during the rainy season when the Amazon rises and creates seasonally-flooded forests. The forest floor and understory disappear beneath several feet of flowing water, and it was an odd feeling at times to realize that we were drifting along high above what would be the forest floor at other times of year. 

The daily excursions in the skiffs allowed us to explore river banks and areas 
of flooded forest in a safe and comfortable way, and to get wonderful looks at so many birds and other animals! 

Like this Straight-billed Woodcreeper!
(Dendroplex picus)

A Dusky-headed Parakeet (Aratinga weddellii) 
peering out from the nest cavity as we drifted past.

Even in the shade of the canopy, the sizzling saffron 
of this Oriole Blackbird (Gymnomystax mexicanus) 
was a sight to see!