Thursday, March 10, 2016

Just a Little Spring Bling

All in all it was a pretty mild winter, but it's still nice to be bidding it farewell and welcoming the first signs of spring.

Mornings now ring with the songs of Pacific wrens, Bewick's wrens, song sparrows, and varied thrushes, with percussion added by the flickers drumming on trees, streetlights, and metal gutters.

I went out to poke around in the garden to see what it's been up to since I bothered much about it late last fall.

Periwinkles are the first fireworks to bring a burst of color.

Flower buds on viburnum, waiting to unfurl.

A trio of mushrooms. Couldn't quite catch the curly woolly-lamb
look of their stalks because their whiteness blinded my camera.

Somebody was nesting up in the magnolia last year!

Sedum rain saucer
Hellebore flower

The earthworms are still sleepy and quite grumpy about being disturbed.

Miniature daffodils are wide awake and honking.

Rhubarb is growing by leaps and bounds and will
be ready for harvest within weeks. Pie!

The first periwinkle.

Drops on a tulip leaf

Evidence that the red-naped sapsucker has been drilling in our plum tree.

Redtwig dogwood leaves serenely folded.

Huckleberry blossom

Branches that snapped and fell from on high over the winter bear
loads of fungi and lichen that are quite beautiful.

Moss! Acres of moss! Sit still too long and you, too, can be covered with it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Bird in the Hand

Pacific Wren (formerly Winter Wren)
In recent weeks I've had the privilege of going behind the scenes at a museum to look at birds close-up in the form of study skins.

Poring over stuffed, dead birds might not sound like everybody's idea of a good time, but for birders it offers an excellent opportunity to observe details and compare and contrast species in a way you never get to do in the field, where birds often appear as silhouetted blobs on a brightly lit sky, a streaky dash amid branches, or a tiny speck beyond the reach of your binoculars.

A study skin is exactly what it sounds like: a bird skin complete with feathers, beak, and legs that's been stripped of all flesh and stuffed so that it can be measured and examined. The stuffing doesn't attempt to recreate the bird's form in life, as taxidermy does.

(For more information about preparing study skins, as well as some points of view on collecting birds, check out this ebird page.)

Sometimes wings are prepared separately from the study skins so they can be displayed fanned out, making individual flight feathers easy to see. A study skin wouldn't last very long if its wings were constantly being unfolded. The wings are actually threaded in place to prevent them from being spread.

A museum's collection of study skins includes the remains of many birds who were found dead and donated for preparation. (I once had a bushtit stored in my freezer for years after finding it newly dead on the sidewalk outside my house with this aim in mind.)

It also includes birds deliberately collected for study, though unlike the overzealous collectors in Audubon's time, today's scientists take legal and ethical considerations into account.

Handling and studying the skins evokes many feelings: wistfulness and a twinge of sadness at the stillness of the birds and the brevity and evanescence of life; humility at the connection between now and then, as you hold a tiny bird collected by someone who lived a century before you; and awe at the magnificent beauty and variety of species.

Northern Flicker's exuberantly spotted breast

The impressive beak of an Evening Grosbeak
The comets and stars on a Common Loon's back
The useful field mark, the "butterbutt," of a Yellow-Rumped Warbler
The tropical splendor of an American Redstart
The odd, waxy tips on the secondary flight feathers of a Cedar Waxwing
A MacGillivray's Warbler collected in 1894. Holding it makes you pause
and reflect on both this little scrap of life that fluttered long before you
were born and the existence of the person who carefully penned
the information on its tag.
Orange-crowned Warbler. The study skins of smaller birds really
demonstrate how much of a bird's volume consists of the life pulsing
in it. This is particularly true of the wrens, which resemble empty pen
cartridges in the drawer but appear much larger in life when they're
full of spunk and fury and scolding you from a branch.
The formidable talons of a raptor (I believe they belong to a Great Horned Owl).

Friday, January 22, 2016

Hello, Kitties: The Paws That Refreshes

*Warning: Here be cat puns. If you cannot make dreadful, labored, and timeworn puns in an article about a cat cafe, when can you?

There's a new kit in town: it's Seattle's first cat cafe, Seattle Meowtropolitan, and it's located in Wallingford kittycorner to Archie McPhee's.

I met two friends there for coffee on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

Since moving to the suburbs, meeting friends for coffee is a rare event, unlike the reflex reaction automatic default it was in the city, where I couldn't step outside without tripping over the threshold of a coffee shop.

So I would probably have driven for much more than an hour to meet friends for coffee even if the cafe was boasting a playroom full of death adders.

At Seattle Meowtropolitan, ten dollars buys you a tasty coffee drink of your choice and 50 minutes in the cat room, which houses a dozen or more cats at a time.

I ordered a Meowca. I didn't ask for an extra chat, but I'm sure you could. The purristas were very friendly.

(Reservations must be made in advance because the number of humans is limited, and no one under age 8 is allowed in the cat room. However, you can also drop in to have coffee in the shop and just gaze through the window at the cats.)

There is a sign on the door to the cat room explaining the byclaws of the establishment and that you enter it knowing that you will encounter...cats. This would seem self-evident, but remember, this is America, land of litigation. You can't be too careful.

In the cat room, there are felines, nothing more than felines. And loads of cat toys. And wonderful structures for cats to climb, explore, and snooze on.

There are a few tables and benches for both humans and cats. We pussyfooted around the room, careful not to step on tails or toys, and visited kitties of all stripes and no stripes.

The cats come from a local shelter, and most are adoptable (there are a few resident cats). It's a great strategy for showcasing cats' individual qualities--the cats at Seattle Meowtropolitan were content and very much at ease.

If I didn't have two easily outraged cats and a boisterous dog at home, I'd probably have come home with this elderly orange tabby, who was grateful for a neck rub and rolled sideways to get a belly rub. Its back felt like a craggy mountain range beneath its thick fur, and it's nice to know this kitty will enjoy a pleasant retirement lounging on a sheepskin and basking in attention.

Some cats, like this big gray sleeping at head height, were not in the mood to have their naps interrupted, but they didn't get all fussed about it--they just gave you That Look.

The youngest cat, a cute little gray girl with white paws, was exhausted after a hard morning of playing.

An attractively marked calico exhibited an obsession with burrowing into piles of jackets and snuggling among them.

Another young cat preferred to do battle from a high perch.

This orange tabby knew how to sit on command and offer up either his left or right paw when asked. He was also clever enough to do whatever he pleased to get a treat when the treat-provider wasn't the cat-room employee.

The cats have plenty of places to escape from human attention so they don't get overwhelmed. There are boxes...

...and an off-limits "cats only" area in the back.

You can ponder the world according to cats in the bathroom...

...and there are also delectable treats to purchase in the cafe (you don't have to sit on command or raise your right paw to acquire them, though it would be polite if you refrained from jumping on the table to eat them).

We had a purr-fectly lovely time, of course, and it's definitely one of Seattle's most a-mews-ing coffee shops. And I'm not kitten around. I'm sure Abyssnian some friends there again.

Friday, January 1, 2016

First Bird of the Year 2016: Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Photo from Wiki Commons
A birder in Australia once started her new year with a sighting of a wedge-tailed eagle eating a straw-necked ibis.

If I were her, I'd definitely choose the eagle as my official first sighting, and not only because the general rules of birding mandate that the birds you count on your life list must be alive, but because the First Bird of the Year is supposed to augur the sort of year you're going to have.

In that regard, this sighting of a straw-necked ibis would not seem to bode well.

Living in a suburban neighborhood as I do, my First Bird is never going to be as dramatic a species as a wedge-tailed eagle. I figured that on this frosty January 1 it would be one of the busy birds attacking our feeders, and today that bird was the chestnut-backed chickadee--a pert little bird whose cheerful, busy ways make it the very incarnation of all those New Year's resolutions about making better use of one's time and getting things done.

Chestnut-backed chickadee at our feeder, winter 2013
"Our" chestnut-backed chickadees spend these chilly days diving down from the top of the plum tree to the feeder, plucking out sunflower seeds, and then swooping away to cache them in crevices and under bits of bark. This behavior makes them highly appropriate creatures to set the tone for our upcoming year, in which we must practice austerity in anticipation of paying for the Resident Teen's post-high-school education and wishing that, like the chickadee, we'd socked away a lot more in previous years...

Chestnut-backed chickadees are West Coast birds that favor old, wet forests with lots of Sitka spruce and other conifers, but like their relatives the black-capped chickadees they're also at home in rural and suburban gardens.

Their range overlaps with that of the widespread black-capped, but where they occur together, they coexist nicely because they occupy different niches: chestnut-backed chickadees typically scour the upper branches of conifers for insects, and the black-capped chickadees prefer to glean the lower branches and favor oaks over conifers.

The two species don't even bicker at the feeder--they're happy to take turns depleting the seed supply, and both dart in and out without fussing about the finches, towhees, and sparrows also thronging the banquet.

Ornithologists named the bird for its rich, chestnut feathers, but chickadees named themselves with their distinctive "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" call. The number of "dees" varies--a truly alarmed chickadee may tack on quite a few to its call when it wants other birds to join in mobbing a perched raptor or a land-based predator such as a cat. One scientist counted 23 extra "dees" in a chickadee's call when it detected a perched pygmy-owl.

Alas, poor chestnut-backed chickadee! In many books, its vocal abilities are frequently compared, somewhat unfavorably, to the  black-capped's.

Black-capped chickadee (left) and chestnut-backed chickadee (right) at our feeder

A 1968 Seattle Audubon Society guidebook says this species produces "nasal notes," a "harsh check check chickadee" and a "more nasal pip-durr-durr." (Imagine if they'd called this species a pipdurrdurr; how fun would that be?)

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America says the chestnut-backed's call is "a hoarse, high-pitched, rapid sik-zee-zee or just zee-zee." 

In The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Western Birds, it's said to utter "a squeaky chick-a-dee, somewhat shriller and faster than that of other chickadees" and often "simply utters a thin tsee-deee and thin lisping notes."

And Sibley adds that its typical call consists of "high buzzy notes with lower nasal husky notes tsidi-tsidi-tsidi-cheer-cheer or weaker tsity ti jee jee."

Thin, nasal, squeaky, hoarse, weak, high-pitched, long could you listen to a chestnut-backed chickadee chattering away with you in a coffee shop? (That's if you could put up with it hanging upside down half the time.)

Chestnut-backed chickadee at our feeder
But some writers were onto this nefarious Black-Capped Chickadees Set the Standard thing long ago. Ornithologist William Dawson, in his 1923 work Birds of California, pointed out that many authors wrote descriptions of the chestnut-backed chickadee's behavior that were entirely extrapolated from that of the black-capped.

He acknowledged that the chestnut-backed was "neither quite so lively nor so noisy as his giddy eastern cousin" but also that it was "one of the daintiest and most alluring of the dwellers in the redwoods," calling them "busy little midgets" and admiring "what a merry war they wage on beetle and nit." To his ears, the little birds trilled sweetee and a beakful of a phrase he rendered as a rather Croatian-looking kechesawick. He also noted that they uttered chickadee as kissadee, "the latter given so caressingly that you want to pinch the little darling."

John James Audubon didn't have much to say about the chestnut-backed chickadee, basing his account of the chickadee genus primarily on the black-capped, though he did paint a lively and charming pair of the birds. He called this species the chestnut-backed titmouse.

Titmouse is basically the Old World word for a chickadee, springing from an ancient Anglo-Saxon word tit (meaning something very small--stop that giggling, now) and another equally old word, mase (which also meant "tiny" or even "small bird, depending on the source).

The bird-word connection extends even into punctuation in an essay by one of the writers who toiled to produce the massive tome Birds of America, published in 1936 by the University Society with lots of assistance from Audubon Society and Cornell experts. In that work, chestnut-backed chickadees are depicted as "feathered interrogation points...interviewing and questioning every passer-by."

Speaking of interrogation, I think our chickadees are demanding more sunflower seeds, if the gimlet stares they're lasering through my office window are any indication....

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Feathers, Kids, and a Dose of Humility

Getting lost while driving in strange places is one of my biggest fears. Never mind that the strange place may be just the local hamlet of Kirkland; I could make a wrong turn and be unable to correct it quickly because of an angry driver tailgating me, and before you know it, I would be on The Highway With No Exits Until Bucktail, Nebraska!

So I wasn't sure I wanted to budge out of my house one Thursday evening a few weeks ago.

Plus, it was dark. And raining.

Nevertheless, I decided to shake off my slothfulness and actually drive somewhere after dinner, because it isn't every day that the author of one of your favorite books is speaking practically in your backyard, unless you happen to live next door to him or her and he or she is asking you to please come get your dog out of their chicken coop.

Reader, you will be glad to hear that I made it safely to my destination in Kirkland and even found parking. The event I attended was hosted by the Eastside Audubon Society and featured biologist Thor Hanson, author of the smashing book Feathers and the newly published The Triumph of Seeds.

Feathers is the kind of natural-history book I love best--one that sweeps together a multitude of fascinating facts as well as anecdotes and snippets of cultural as well as natural history and compels you with the same narrative drive that a good novel does. 

I pretty much expected that I'd learn more about feathers and possibly seeds that evening, which of course would've been wonderful, but just like the aforementioned Feathers, the author's discussion ranged across topics and lit on many subjects I hold dear: writing, kids, everyday wonders, and the instinctive affinity for the natural world that every child is born with and that can blossom or wither as the child grows.

I could natter on for ages about any of these topics but I'll stick with one of the anecdotes Hanson shared, a little story in which a child takes you down a peg or two without intending to do so and leaves you realizing that even if you think you're fairly humble, you're still capable of fluffing up your feathers and strutting a bit.

In the author's story, he was at a local shop in their very small town with his young son, where they ran into a little girl from their preschool. In the shop's window was a poster with the author's photo on it, announcing the date of an upcoming presentation. The little girl gawped at the author, looked at the poster, looked back at the author, then back at the poster, clearly linking the two and seemingly speechless. "Is that you?" she finally asked. Yes, came the reply. 

How could one not feel a bit chuffed at this bit of recognition? And then came the flattening reaction: the little girl studied the author, and then the photo, and finally asked, "Do you wear the same sweater every day?" 

(Note to self: borrow a sweater when the day comes that I actually get an author photo taken. And return it to the owner immediately.)

My dad had a similar experience once upon a time. He was an aeronautical engineer with many interests and loved nothing more than a wide-ranging conversation. One summer day, he was at a company picnic, and a little boy fell into chatting with him. Talk turned to jets and airplane design. Dad warmed to his topic as the boy stared at him, entranced. How wonderful to have such an appreciative audience! The boy was practically slack-jawed with fascination.

Then, without warning, the boy sped off and ran to his own father. He pointed back at my dad. "Papa! Papa!" he cried. "Look! Look! That man is all covered with little dots!"

It is quite true that auburn-haired Dad was liberally speckled with reddish freckles, which were on glorious display in short sleeves on that summer day. "Well," said Dad at this point, "that put me in my place."

Carol Burnett knew this feeling well; on her show back in the 1970s, she told a story about sitting on her young daughter's bed, talking to her earnestly--longer than she'd intended, as the child's rapt face and unblinking gaze encouraged her to continue. Satisfied, Burnett smiled lovingly at her daughter, waiting for a reaction. She didn't expect it to be the statement, "Wow. You sure have a lot of teeth."

I don't recall a time when anybody young or old hung on my every word, but there was a day when I gave a little presentation about writing books to a small group of kids in my daughter's elementary school.

Most of them were inattentive, but one boy was riveted. I turned the pages of one of my published books and warbled on about the writing of books for his benefit. When I asked if anyone had any questions, his hand shot up. That's when I learned the real source of his fascination: "How did you write all those words so perfectly in the book?" 

By which of course he didn't mean my deft word selection, but actually I would be very happy to see that as a review on Amazon. Hope is, after all, the thing with feathers.*

*A statement that I can no longer make without thinking of Woody Allen's reaction: “How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not 'the thing with feathers.' The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.”