I think most of us spend a lot of time pretending to be something we're not, but these clouds do such a beautiful job of it. Makes me want to be a cloud.
We did it. We moved from our cabin in the Coulter pine, canyon oak, scrub oak chaparral country outside Lake Hughes, California to a bit of juniper, manzanita, scrub oak chaparral outside Prescott, Arizona. It’s similar, but different.
You’d think going from a tiny one-bedroom home, where we slept in a Murphy bed in the living room to keep warm by the woodstove, to this comparative castle would be a cinch, both logistically and emotionally.
Not so. The junk transport required three U-Haul trucks, two of them with car trailers in tow, and several carloads of boxes and bags.
Most of our ‘treasures’ came not from the house itself, but from a storage unit full of keepsakes; a garage stuffed with tools, a tractor and multiple unfinished car projects; and from my husband’s extensive office library at work. Yeah, we filled the place right up.
Surprisingly—or maybe not so much—the tangible things have not been as troublesome as the emotional baggage we carry.
We loved that crap shack through fourteen years of fire and flood; rattlesnakes, gnats, mice, and ants; brush clearance in summer and diligent feeding of the woodstove in winter. (That woodstove gave off the most glorious heat, though it didn’t come easy.)
What I loved most were the critters who kept me company as I worked from home in my tiny office area by the window, there under our big old oak tree. The hummingbirds, quail, lizards, gopher snakes, and scrub jays. A rare bobcat or fox. Coyotes, hawks, owls and bats, I loved them all.
And back when it used to rain, that delicious damp dirt smell, and the sound of the trickling stream, and how the post-storm light brought out a thousand shades of green.
My husband and I thought we’d never leave our combination Hell hole/paradise. We never wanted to, but LA County permits and California taxes drove us out.
The critters here in Arizona are again my favorite.
Since settling in we’ve seen wildlife galore, from the lowly Hercules beetle, through hummingbirds, quail, coyotes, javalina, bobcats and foxes, all the way up (in size, not importance) to mule deer and curious cattle.
I’m told we have elk and even mountain lions, though I still look forward to spotting these.
If the last few months are any indication, this will be a grand adventure. My hope is to find time to share photos and stories about my new neighbors--the animals, plants, rainbows and sunsets here in my new digs.
I hope folks stop by my blog to see, but if they don't, this'll make a nice record for my reminiscence in years to come.
If you do stop by, please leave a note so I know you’re out there!
I expected retiring from my software development job at IBM a little over a year ago would provide a sudden flood of free time. As much as I craved free time—I could finally finish that novel—It scared me!
I had nightmares of doing nothing but lazing about in front of the TV binging on peanut butter cups and slowly swelling into a rotund and purposeless slug-woman.
So, I immediately volunteered at CALM (CA Living Museum) in Bakersfield as both a Docent and a Wildlife Rehabilitation assistant.
That doesn’t seem like such a huge commitment until you factor in the hour and a half drive each way, and a bit of at-home prep work most weeks. FYI—The bighorn sheep, goats, pony, donkey and pig all enjoy carrots slices and apple chunks frozen into ice blocks on a hot Bakersfield day.
Volunteering at CALM has been every bit as educational and fun as I expected. I’d planned to write about it regularly on this blog, but in our first training class we were warned against oversharing on social media. So I’ll just say—CALM is awesome. Check it out.
Rehabilitating injured animals was my original goal, but it turns out being a docent is double-awesome. I knew I’d enjoy getting up-close and personal with the critters, but I never expected to enjoy the people as much as I have.
Watching kids’ (or adults’) eyes light up when they see a hawk or owl or tarantula or tortoise up close for the first time is priceless. Showing them the decorator crabs, sea cucumbers and abalone in the new California Coast Room and talking “tide pool” is one of my greatest joys!
Helping someone go from being afraid to come near a Kingsnake to touching its tail in rapt fascination, and explaining to them how snakes help keep down rodent populations—well, that just feels like the best public service I could provide. For both snakes and humans!
I’m going to miss CALM now that we’re moving back to Arizona, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Well, at least not for slugging-out in front of the TV.
Now back to that novel! And maybe just a few peanut butter cups.
I discovered something exciting last week! California Living Museum (or CALM) just outside Bakersfield is not just a zoo; it’s an active wildlife rehabilitation facility. They take in an average of over 500 injured or sick reptiles, birds and mammals every year with the goal of releasing them back into the wild.
Animals that cannot be released may become permanent residents, but that doesn’t sound like such a bad life. The lovely lady in the office described docents’ efforts to enrich animals’ lives by providing them with special toys and puzzles.
I wandered the grounds and found snakes and lizards, hawks and owls, crows and ravens, foxes, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. There were a couple of porcupines, a beaver, and some fishers, too, and apparently in the spring there will be a coastal and jellyfish exhibit.
They say they are always in need of volunteers to help with rehabilitation, and docents to help educate the public.
I submitted my application! Wish me luck! This blog could get a lot more interesting!!!
I may have found my Merlin murderer this morning. (See my 12/10/2015 dead bird post below.) I first spotted him before the sun had actually risen, and even my 60x telescopic lens couldn’t pull him out of the shadows.
As luck would have it, later in the morning he was still hanging around. He’d moved further away up the hillside, but at least the brighter light allowed me to catch his markings better in my photo. (Yes, look. An actual live bird photo at left!)
Compare this picture with the National Geographic 2014 photo contest winning picture of a Cooper’s hawk. Do you think it’s a match? I’m no expert, but maybe!
A friend and I saw what we thought was a Cooper’s hawk a few weeks ago while walking one of the wonderful trials out at Prime Desert Woodland Preserve. (If you get a chance, check out this great park just north of Avenue L on 35th Street West in Lancaster, CA.) To our novice birdwatcher eyes, our fellow trailblazer looked a lot like the picture of a Cooper’s hawk in the visitors’ center.
So, when I spotted my avian neighbor this morning, perched at the top very of a very tall Coulter pine tree, I thought, “Cooper’s Hawk? Or maybe red tailed hawk? How do you tell?'
I need to find a bird-watching group to hang out with and learn. My interest is outreaching my knowledge at an alarming rate! But the learning is what makes things fun!
1/4/2016 UPDATE -- I showed my photo to the raptor expert at the Raptor Free-Flight show at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. She says it's a red-tailed hawk not a Cooper's hawk. Ok, I'll buy it. I've definitely seen red-tailed hawks in flight around here. They're easier to distinguish when you can see their tails. I love it when they scream out in flight (listen here), but then I'm not a bunny or a mouse running for dear life.
BTW, the raptor expert agreed with my identification of the dead bird in the last post as a Merlin or Pigeon Hawk. One out of two. Room for improvement, but not hopeless.
At the risk of branding myself the dead bird lady, look what I found in my yard this time.
It was about 7:00 am December 4 as I walked across our little orchard, and there lay this still-limp bird. The first thing I noticed was how heavy it was for a bird only about ten inches long. The second thing I noticed was that one of its wings had been ripped off! Not a great way to start the day – his or mine.
Using my Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds, and the Beauty of Birds website, I decided it was a Merlin or pigeon Hawk. (Take a look at the pictures, and if anyone knows better, please let me know.)
Merlins are apparently pretty common both in the US and Europe, and winter in the kind of coniferous and mixed-height forests where I live here in California. The size and coloration seem right, as does the sharp falcon beak. Based on its grey/blue back feathers, I think it’s a male.
Audobon describes the Merlin as a small, stocky falcon. Beauty of Birds says it is more “heavily built” than most falcons, which fits my impression that it was heavy for a bird of its size. (I suppose most people don’t go around picking up dead birds, but I have been surprised several times by how light they usually are. Not this one.)
According to Birds of Beauty, the Merlin “is quite unafraid, and will readily attack anything that moves conspicuously. Merlins have even been observed trying to ‘catch’ automobiles and trains…”
That sounds like a good way to get your wing ripped off, but there are no trains, cars or even windmills close enough for him to have ended up here.
Beauty of Birds also says, “Adult Merlins may be preyed on by larger raptors, especially Peregrine Falcons (F. peregrinus), eagle-owls (e.g. Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus) and larger Accipiter hawks (e.g. Northern Goshawk, A. gentilis). In general however, carnivorous birds avoid Merlins due to their aggressiveness and agility”
He may have lost his wing to an owl shortly before my dog and I stumbled upon the scene. Or maybe he tried to attack something he shouldn’t have like a coyote, fox or mountain lion. Those all wander these parts.
He was definitely a thing of beauty, even in death. I wish I had spotted him when he still lived.
I stumbled across an especially ticklish BBC.com article over breakfast the other morning. Apparently, every child (and his Tickle Me Elmo doll) knows it’s impossible to tickle yourself. (There’s an NPR podcast on the subject, too, so it must be true.)
But I was perplexed. I said to my husband, “That’s silly. I can tickle myself.”
I demonstrated by running a light finger down that flappy, bat-wing part of my underarm, the part I pretend all women have, even weight-lifting Amazons. Within a couple of strokes I had to stop and scratch away the tickle. “See?” I said.
“Mmmm,” he replied. This is his normal response to most of my comments, even when his mouth is not full of oatmeal.
I went back to reading.
Neuroscientists speculate that it’s important that we be able to distinguish between someone else touching, punching or fondling us, as opposed to just our own arm brushing against some part of our own body. That necessary ability to distinguish self from other prevents us from tickling ourselves even in a dream, so they say.
“It’s interesting,” the article went on, “that people with schizophrenia can tickle themselves and we think that’s associated with things like delusional and alien control of limbs,” says George Van Doorn from Monash University in Australia.
Schizophrenia? Oh, my.
When, I read this part to my husband, he broke out of his typical conversational pattern. “Well, that would explain a lot.” He gave me an extra-long stare before taking his next bite of oatmeal and returning to whatever dull thing he was reading on his computer.
I gave him a hairy eyeball and proceeded to have a conversation with myself regarding this silly idea that one cannot tickle oneself! Maybe by “tickle” they mean elicit a full-blown, laugh-out-loud guffaw.
Or maybe I should see a psychiatrist.
I found a redheaded woodpecker (more accurately, a red-breasted sapsucker) dead on the ground yesterday, which caused me to lament again the senselessness of window-induced loss of bird life. He (and by his bright red head, I know he was a he) had apparently slammed into the glass even though the curtain was mostly pulled.
Considering the number of birds around here, it doesn’t happen all that often, but it’s still sad. I’ve tried stickers on the windows, and I close the curtains as much as I can bear, but still a bird neck or two breaks against the few windows of my tiny house every year. I can only imagine what damage those huge glass skyscrapers do.
When my mourning was complete, I fell under the spell of his beauty. His feathers so soft and colorful; the patterns of black and white, red, browns and even yellows so precise and intricate.
I opened a wing to see that each feather was colored in such a way that its placement on the wing contributed to the overall pattern just so. Were this an art project, the advanced planning to create each individual feather with markings to exactly fit its place in the grand scheme would have been astonishing.
For a furred animal, each hair comes from a localized position on the skin. So it’s fairly easy to see how a spot or a stripe arises. My calico cat is awash with stunning swirls of various browns and blacks, but I could paint that by flinging a few coffee and late choices on a canvas with my eyes closed.
On this bird, long feathers extend out from the skin, and lie against each other in a puzzle of overlapping pieces. And they all fit together to make a recognizable pattern, a pattern so repeatable that I can look it up in my Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds and find my red-breasted sapsucker staring back at me from the woodpecker section.
Life is amazing, even in death.
I’ve been listening to these Bird Language tapes my sister gave me – Bird Language by Jon Young (My sister is just the right kind of veterinary DVM, herbologist, nature freak crazy, BTW. She’s the best!) Jon Young was talking about not only recognizing that birds are calling, but figuring out what they are saying.
Are they making alarm calls, mating calls, or just calm conversational calls? Part of bird language is their behavior, too. Did they suddenly fly to a higher part of the tree as if something wicked this way comes? If you’re paying attention to birds, you can also be more clued in to the other animals moving through the landscape.
He also said that birds tell you something about yourself by their response to you as you move through their habitat. If you’re calm and don’t appear to be a threat, then they won’t sound an alert or fly away. According to him, even your mood on different days can affect the birds’ responses to you.
Flash non-fiction (True story!):
A couple of days after listening to these lectures, I was making my usual rounds of our property. Suddenly, I heard the crazy frantic peeping of a flock of bird near a little above-ground pond I keep for the critters here in the high chaparral.
“Oh, no!” I thought. “A wee little birdie has fallen in and is drowning!” Yeah, I know. What a dork. But that is indeed what I thought because, before I put in extra rocks, I actually found some poor little dead birdies in my pond one morning. Very sad.
Anyway, I ran over to see what the commotion was all about. No birds in the water, but the whole bush behind the pond was literally (and I literally mean literally) a-twitter with frantic little yellowish gray birds. (Next job – learn bird species.)
One rather ragged-looking little fellow just stared me in the face from about three feet away and continued to peep. “Hmm. I thought. I guess I must be a really great person, since they’re not flying away even with me right here.”
I dumped the pond to get them some fresh water, and … “STHHHhhhhh!!!” A rattlesnake, about ten feet away on the ground. Ah ha!! They were sending out an alarm about him! I was just random noise in their far more dangerous world.
Had I understood bird language I would have realized their response was less about me and more about the real threat down there where they were going for water. Taking another look at that ragged-looking fellow, I realized he had more of a shell-shocked look about him than a calm, "oh-what-a-nice-person-that-is-staring-at-me" expression.
So, I'd better get back to listening to those Bird Language lectures. And paying better attention!
First it was Madonna and Jimmy Buffet writing picture books. OK, I get it. They have kids. They were kids once. They’re creative types. Not to mention that they have big, famous names that can sell a lot of books. I forgive them.
But now a music star has moved into my science space, too! The new Gaga fern genus, named after Lady Gaga, contains almost twenty little monster species, one actually named Gaga monstraparva. Another takes her real name -- Gaga germanotta. (Who knew Lady Gaga wasn't her real name? Whoa!)
Must the superstars rise to the top in every field? Can’t they leave something for us little guys? I can still dream, I suppose. Perhaps someday there will be a fungus christened Daugust baertleinia. But I’m sure I’ll have to dig out of the swamp myself!
For most of my working life I wrote software by day and stories by night, a combo made even stranger by the fact that I started my adult life as a marine biologist/geneticist.