Sunday, November 28, 2010

Scenic Sunday

Skating on Center Pond, Phippsburg, Maine

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Johnny-Jump-Ups Are Heartsease

     I started this post as a Wordless Wednesday, but could not keep my mouth shut. These flowers are Johnny-Jump-Ups, also known as Heartsease.  In my gardens in coastal Maine, they are the first and last flowers to bloom. The Johnnies jump up in April continuing through November. In years past, I have photographed them coming up through the snow. Native to the Pyrenees and Spain, violas escaped from gardens and naturalized across this country.  They are the progenitor of the familiar pansy.         
       Johnny-Jump-Ups are also called Heartsease with a long history in herbalism. The viola has been used to treat epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases and eczema. It has expectorant properties, and so has been used in the treatment of chest complaints such as bronchitis and whooping cough. A diuretic, it's been used in treating rheumatism and bladder inflammation.  Also, the flowers were considered good for diseases of the heart, from which may have come its popular name of Heartsease as much as from belief in it as a love potion.             
     A quirk of some violas is the elusive scent of the flowers which temporarily desensitises the receptors of the nose, preventing further scent from being detected from the flower until the nerves recover.
    When just opened, Viola flowers are used to decorate salads or in stuffings for poultry or fish. Deserts like souffl├ęs and creams can be flavoured with essence of Viola. The young leaves are edible raw or cooked. The flowers and leaves of some varieties have a distinct vanilla flavor with hints of wintergreen, delicious in salads. Candied violet or crystallized violet is preserved with a coating of egg white and sugar and still made commercially in Toulouse, France. Violet syrup is also made in France from the flowers' extract. In the United States, the syrup is used to make violet scones and marshmallows.
     Johnny-Jump-Ups, Viola ordorata are also used to make perfume. Because it comes and goes when it turns off the sense of smell, it's thought of as a flirty fragrance.
     In the language of flowers and speaking to the long time popularity of the flowers, Johnny-Jump-Ups have many other names:
Wild Pansy, Love-Lies-Bleeding, Love-in-Idleness, Live-in-Idleness, Loving Idol, Love Idol, Cull Me, Cuddle Me, Call-me-to-you, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, Meet-me-in-the-Entry, Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery (that sounds rude, now doesn't it?), Three-Faces-under-a-Hood (so does that), Kit-run-in-the-Fields, Pink-o'-the-Eye, Kit-run-about, Stepmother, Godfathers and Godmothers, Herb Trinitatis, Herb Constancy, Pink-eyed-John, Bouncing Bet, Flower o'luce, Bird's Eye and Bullweed.
     Call it what ever you wish, where ever you wish to call it, the tiny violas give my heart ease whenever I see them. In the spring, I think "Johnny has jumped up - winter is over!" In the late fall, I think "Johnny's still jumping -summer can't really be gone." How can you go wrong with a flower that can be used to treat a snotty nose or a broken heart, to flavor a marshmallow or scone? Now if only I can get violas to take the rap when I run at the mouth on a Wordless Wednesday. Don't blame me; the flowers made me do it.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Back To The Barred & MODO # 1000 - Barred Owl And Mourning Dove

Mourning Doves are plentiful in Maine. I saw fifty of them in these trees above a Phippsburg bird feeder.

    Sadly, and sometimes annoyingly, we have a lot of bird strikes on our windows. At peak fall migration, it's not uncommon to have an average of six hits an hour. This is a lot to me, especially as my heart quickens each time I hear that dreadful thunk against the glass. Every time, I rush from whatever I'm doing to see who was claimed by a pane and what I can do for them if they weren't killed instantly on impact.
     This year, there were so many strikes and so often that I kept a cardboard box in the living room, ready to receive the latest victim. I had it lined with soft, fluffy, comforting fabric. I'll admit, I'm not sure who the material comforted, me or the dazed birds.  Strikes have included the smallest - hummingbirds and kinglets, to the largest - a Sharp-shinned hawk and every kind of bird in between. I have tried all of the solutions to stop this. I have moved bird feeders away, put decals on the windows, hung things on the insides and outsides of the windows, all to no avail. The only thing I haven't done is put up net barricades, nor have I moved out. Would the birds still hit the windows if I moved out of the house? If they hit the window anyway and no one was here to hear it, would it make a sound? That simpleton's philosophical question leaves me wondering.
     Though I haven't managed to stop birds intent on suicide, I have become pretty adept at saving the ones whose plans didn't come together. My save rate is about 90%. This is my recipe:
(this is not medical, veterinary nor avian rehabilitation advice nor endorsement, just my recipe)
1. Act quickly. Snatch the bird up the minute it hits the deck. This prevents predators from getting it before it sobers up enough to take off on its own. This also prevents hypothermia. Birds get cold quickly even if it seems warm out to you.
2. Do not hesitate. Move with a firm, sure hand. Usually, I put a towel over the bird then scoop it up in the towel. I think this reduces the bird's stress because it can't see me. I may only be fooling myself, however. This isn't science. It also stops the bird from struggling. I'm used to it, but bird's have sharp, pointed little claws and feet and it can startle the rescuer when they dig into the hand. It's not productive for the rescuer to drop the victim when this happens. A towel prevents that.
3. Keep the bird straight, so that if there is bone or joint damage, the rescuer doesn't worsen the damage.
4. Be prepared. Have a cardboard box at the ready, lined with something like a towel to keep the bird warm. Don't wait to build the emergency room after the victim has arrived. Be ready.
5. Close the box and secure the top. The bird may become active and ready to depart before you realize it. It WILL try to get out and WILL be able to open the box like a monkey from a cage. You would be surprised how a little crack of light will inspire them to escape. I have a lot of experience with birds flying around my living room. So, believe me.
6. Leave the victim alone. Do not look in the box. It's tempting. You want to see how the patient is doing, get a peak at it, coo a little to it. Don't. Your big, gruesome grinning face leering down into the box only terrifies the stressed bird more. Think back - a primal memory from before you had speech: You, helpless in your crib.....your wart faced, Aunt Esther hovering above you like the flaming Hindenburg. That's what you're doing to the bird by looking into the box. Resist the urge to give that gift.
     When the bird comes around, it will start to make scratching noises in the box. When it begins to make enough of a ruckus, proceed to step seven.
7. DO NOT OPEN THE BOX! Take the box out of the house. Choose a location free of predators, make sure your dog is in the house. Make sure that you are in a place where the bird can fly to a safe branch if it's ready. Do not open the box while at the top of the Empire State Building or other high structure from which the possibly flightless bird will certainly fall to its death. A wounded bird can't fly any better than you can. Set the box on a table, the hood of your car or other stable platform. Open the box and step away. If the bird is ready to fly, it will zoom out of that box so fast you may barely even see it go. Rejoice and be thankful; you have done a glorious thing. Saving that life may balance out some of the really crappy, regrettable stuff you've done and will probably do another day.
8. If the bird doesn't take off, close the box and start over.

Note: Don't try to feed the bird. Don't put food or water in the box. It will just make a damp mess. A freaked-out injured bird isn't going to eat or drink your offering of love. The plan is that it will be well enough soon to go fend for itself in its natural environment.

     A few weeks ago, a Mourning Dove hit the window. I sprung into action like a well oiled machine, jump starting my M.A.S.H unit into high gear. However, after faithfully completing the emergency protocol enumerated above, the bird did not fly. Nor did it die, so I called Avian Haven, the nearest wild bird rescue and rehabilitation facility. They told me to bring the bird to them forthwith and without further delay which I did. I was eager to rush my wounded bird to freedom.
     Freedom, as it turns out, is a long ways away. Avian Haven is located in Freedom, Maine ninety-nine miles from my doorstep. I didn't hesitate to go, but it did take all day. Most working folks couldn't take the time. I pondered the gasoline cost. According to AAA, it costs about a dollar a mile to run a car. On the way, I stopped to use a restroom at a fast food establishment, using water and chemicals, paper towels and electricity. I got a cup of coffee in a paper cup. Most assuredly, the coffee beans were not shade grown. My expensive rescue mission prompted me to mourn more than my ailing Mourning dove; it had left a hefty carbon foot print and was expensive.
     Mourning doves are plentiful in Maine. In other states,  regarded as a nuisance and as game birds, they are shot for sport and out of irritation. Even the Avian Haven people weren't too choked up, though they did their jobs swiftly and caringly. Upon arrival, they whisked her away to intensive bird care, burning up more energy and resources to save her. They gave her a patient ID, "MoDo # 1000." They get lots of them there.
     On the long, birdless trip home, I had time to think. Was it worth all of that to save a bird so common, a bird that wouldn't live more than a couple of years anyway - a bird that after release would get snatched by a cat or strike a window and die? What was the value of that life? Did I have a cosmic debt to the bird to save it because it's problems were caused by man, or woman's window? In a moment of enthusiasm, I had volunteered to be a future transporter to the facility for injured birds  from far flung places. After all, Freedom is a long ways away. I decided that if I received the call, I would honor the commitment I had made, but I had doubts.
     Only a few days passed before I was called to transport the Barred owl seen here. It had been ensnared in a driving range net at a country club, left to dangle in the dark over night. The golf pro knew only that it was an owl, though not the species. When I met him for the pick up, the bird was in a cardboard box with a towel over the top. Following my own protocol, I didn't look into the box. I put it behind me on the seat and headed north.
     Tooling up the highway, listening to the radio, I sang along loudly to Aretha Franklin singing "Freedom"
while feeling pretty righteous about my part in saving this owl. I had nearly forgotten about the Mourning dove and my questioning of the reasonableness and sanity of these missions. It just seemed like such a great thing to be saving an owl!
    Over the radio and my own voice, I started to hear the owl scratching in the box behind me. "Oh dear," I thought. "It wants to be free already." Suddenly, I realized that I had not checked to see if the box was firmly secured. What if it got loose in the car while I was driving at seventy-five miles an hour? That could be really ugly! Quickly, my imagination spun out of control. I could see myself in handcuffs splayed out across the hood of my car screaming at a cop,"Officer! I crossed the median when an owl was loose in my car! I swear!" Of course, the owl, being a wise soul, would have escaped the vehicle and left for the Great North Woods by then. "Don't crack wise with me, lady!" The gruff and burly officer would command. I pulled the car onto the break-down lane and jumped out to check. Of course, my camera was in the passenger's seat. It only took a second to grab it, just in case.
     And that's when I did it, I broke my own rules violating article number six. I looked in the box just for a second. Well, maybe more than a second. Long enough to take a couple of hasty shots of its dear, little face and soulful, bottomless eyes. I felt like a bum, too. It was clear exploitation on my part. I couldn't control myself and had to see it, at its peril perhaps and I regret that.
    In the end, "MoDo # 1000" and the Barred owl lived and were released. They are both out there somewhere being free, maybe even being stupid on a golf course or flying into a window, but they are alive and they are free. And, I helped. If the phone rings again with a call to carry a busted up bird to Freedom, I'll go and not question the comparative value of the life. Because, if I had done nothing, had I not moved out of my "house" or off from my position about the value of the Mourning dove, I would not have had the opportunity to experience the Barred owl. They might simply have died, each of them, without a sound.

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Wordless Wednesday

This is a Barred Owl photographed in my car a week ago. This isn't exactly "wordless," now is it? So, it's a story for another day. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Scenic Sunday

View South of Newbury Point, Phippsburg, Maine

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

"BOLLOCKS! It's Not A Bullock's!" Bullock's Oriole

Bullock's or Baltimore? You decide!
Questionable oriole, species still in debate - Photographed in Phippsburg, Maine November 2, 2010
     A reader recently sent to me an explanation for the word "Twitcher" or to "twitch" birds. I said in a previous post that I didn't know why the urge to drop everything and rush off to see a new bird was called twitching. It turns out that the term comes from the twitchy, nervous behavior of well known British birdwatcher Howard Medhurst. Mr. Medhurst is reported to have frequently traveled long distances on short notice to see rare birds. "Twitcher," is most often used in Britain and Europe, and less frequently used to describe North American birders.
     Mr. Medhurst and I share numerous traits it seems; I am a nervous, twitchy kind of person given to chewing my cuticles, tapping my feet and generally not sitting still. Numerous times, I have, in fact, blown my life asunder throwing caution and duties to the wind in search of rare birds. My itchy, squirrely behavior makes me quick to pull the trigger, too. I'm not one to spend a lot of time analyzing and deliberating about things (unless they are emotionally unhealthy concerns. Then, I'll ruminate until the cows come home.). "Go with the gut," is usually my modus operandi. In birding, this isn't always a bad thing, either.
    It's true that much of birding indeed involves lots of studying of the subject, looking at books and web sites and brooding over field marks. It's time consuming and well suited to an unemployed person with some Obsessive Compulsive traits as I also have. But none of that concentration on a bird will suffice or measure up to seeing it in the wild, in it's natural habitat. Study does not replace the experience of a bird's gestalt.
     And what is a bird's gestalt, you ask? That quick flash of a wing, the song and call issued through the trees, a rustle in the leaves or scratch on the ground, the thing you catch from the corner of your eye. These are the flavors and nuances of a bird not quite captured in however beautifully  executed a lithograph, painting or photograph. I say that as a dedicated photographer, too. It's very difficult to represent in a single image all the little details that make a bird all of what it is beyond its physical self.
    With this bird, this damned oriole, I shot from the hip and killed the wrong perpetrator. I committed the Internet version of screaming "FIRE!" in a hotel lobby and exclaimed "BULLOCK'S ORIOLE!"  What rushed me down the river of judgement to start with was that I saw this bird on November second. Fittingly, that was election day. Haven't you ever gone to the polls then been presented with an issue which you realized you were ignorant about? Then, you filled in the little circle with your number two lead pencil (we still do that here, no hanging chads for us) making your best guess or simply going with your party, though not really knowing what the hell you're voting for? Well I voted, and I voted for the wrong bird; I voted for Bullock's oriole and it's probably only a Baltimore Oriole.  Having also voted for a losing gubernatorial candidate, I chose both of the wrong birds.
     To see an oriole of any kind in November in Maine is unusual. They are primarily nectar and insect eaters, so they migrate early as the food supply begins to wizzle up with the cold. I was sure this wasn't any old oriole either. I was sure it was a Bullock's which would be stunningly rare here.  Another reason that I leaped to this conclusion was that on exactly the same date last year, I saw what looked like the same bird. I had photographed it then, as well (photo below). The bird made quite a stir on the Maine birding circuit. With a pile of my photographs it was thoroughly reviewed by the Maine Birds Records Committee. "The Committee" is the body of experts that decides what a reported sighting truly is and if the sighting can be entered into official Maine birding records.
     The final ruling on last year's oriole was that it was probably a hybrid of  Baltimore and Bullock's orioles. So, it was not complete lunacy that I thought I saw that again. Besides, I have in fact, seen so many rare and unusual birds lately, that my identification coals were still hot. All it took to ignite them was a puff of air, a flash of orange wing and the wink of gold in the trees. Again, a stack of photographs has gone to "The Committee" for review. As if waiting for letters of acceptance to a prestigious university or in labor with child, I'm waiting on their decision. I'm thinking about taking up smoking again and drinking Scotch in the middle of the day and I've torn out patches of my own hair. I've got a whole lot of twitching going on. In my heart, I know I was wrong, though. I'm going to have runny egg on my face when the decision comes down. My bird and part of myself will be rejected. I will shout then, too. "BOLLOCKS! IT'S NOT A BULLOCK'S!"   
     "Bollocks," a fabulous British word meaning "testicles," is used figuratively to mean "nonsense." It's usually exclaimed after a minor incident or something unfortunate has happened. I find it a very satisfying expletive. And if "The Committee's" decision goes my way, if the bird is a Bullock's, there will be approval, admiration and respect for my birding skills, rather than the disdain I'm expecting. I can then declare "Top bollocks!" You've really got to love the British for their contributions to birding and the English language.
 Bullock's x Baltimore Oriole Photographed in Phippsburg, November 2, 2009
William Bullock (c. 1773 – 1849) was an English traveller, naturalist and antiquarian

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"In The Crows Of Passion" - Dickcissel Delight

     This delightful, and unusual bird showed up in my yard last week at my bird feeders. It is a Dickcissel, a name that unfortunately revs the purient thinking of the twelve year old boy latent in most grown men. No offense, anyone, but we did all go there, didn't we? Your answer is probably best kept between you and your god.
     The Dickcissel gets its name from its flight call, described by some as like a 'raspberry,' or Bronx cheer. You know - that sound you can make by putting your mouth to the inside of your elbow, sealing your lips to your skin and blowing. I've known people in my life who could put one hand under an armpit and squeeze air out making the buzzing sound that Dickcissels make. That was long before I knew about Dickcissels, but the talent always deeply impressed me. Within the next twenty-four hours, when you are in the privacy of your own homes, I'm betting that you will try that out, too. If you choose to do it in public, I can assure you that we women will be paying more attention to you now than when you were in Junior High School. And, you may attract some birds, as well. Dickcissels do have a song,  a simple, dry, "dick, dick, ciss, ciss, ciss" and a call that's a dry, single "chek." 
     Dickcissels are not common in Maine, though a fair number have been sighted this year, many of them along the coast. Their breeding habitat is fields in Midwestern North America. They migrate in large flocks to southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. They do occur as vagrants well outside of their normal range which is how they happen to be here. They forage on the ground mainly eating insects and seeds. Outside of the nesting season, they usually feed in flocks. They are considered a pest by farmers in some regions because flocks can consume large quantities of cultivated grains. In Venezuela where they winter, farmers poison them.
     They nest near the ground in dense grasses or small shrubs, or up to 3–4 ft high in bushes and trees. The one I photographed at our house was eating on spillage from feeders and did not fly higher up than ten feet into the shrubs.  Males may have up to six mates, with most attracting only one or two, and several failing to attract any mates at all. If only they had known about blowing a fart sound on the inside of their elbow, their averages might be better.  If these "bachelors" survive until the following summer, they will get another try to attract females, as the partners only stay together for raising one brood. Dickcissels are thus one of the few songbirds that are truly polygamous. When they leave for the winter what little pair bond existed during the summer is broken up. In preparation for fall migration, Dickcissels begin assembling in larger and larger flocks that gradually coalesce into flocks of thousands. Winter roosts can number into the millions of birds.
Nearly all Dickcissels winter far south of their breeding range. But, individual Dickcissels frequently turn up far from the normal range, often joining in with House Sparrow flocks. This fellow in my photos was, in fact with a mixed flock of sparrows, mostly Swamp and White-throated.
     I first noticed this bird, while still in bed. I can see a feeder from there and I have binoculars at my bedside. When I got up for a closer look, of course it was gone. I wasn't sure if what I had seen was the Dickcissel I surmised or not, as I had never seen one before (Though technically, I was wearing less than a bathrobe, I am still counting this as a Bathrobe Birding event). Later in the day, while working around my yard, I heard its unique farting sound. Ruling out my husband, I was able to  find the bird in the shrubs. I was over the moon ecstatic!
     The problem for me with seeing unusual birds or simply ones that are totally new to me is that I always want more. I can imagine what it must be like for a crack addict to be Jonesing for a fix. After seeing the Dickcissel, I kept hoping it would come back, looked for it over and over and listened to every sound in the woods and air. But it did not come back. Neuro chemically, I was awash in 'gotta-have-it" juices. Just when I thought it was over and I was calming down; I heard it: some unusual sound in the trees. I grabbed my camera and began sneaking around in the bushes, hoping against hope, my heart pounding, my hands trembling. But, alas, it was just a tricky crow mimicking something, perhaps indeed the Dickcissel. Crows can be very  clever with their mimicry  and more than once have sent me hunting in vane for a rarer bird than they. They have, indeed, flung me into "the crows of passion."