Monthly Archives: July 2008

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Moves into the Neighborhood

This male ruby-throated hummingbird darted in to have a sip at our feeder.

This male ruby-throated hummingbird darted in to have a sip at our feeder.

Sometimes, the littlest things can get me excited — like spotting a hummingbird at our feeder.  And they truly are little, as well as elusive. They barely weigh more than two ounces at the most and are about three to four inches long.

In May, we take down the seed bird feeder and put up a hummingbird feeder. Actually, my husband does all of the work, but I’m an enthusiastic observer.  The feeder is outside of our breakfast nook, which is at tree level, so we have a good view.

We spotted a hummingbird a few times at first, and then the feeder sat full and unvisited, it seems, for all of June and most of July.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird at our feeder.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird at our feeder.

After an autumn, winter and spring of lively activity by the seed eaters, who mobbed the feeder and fought one another for perches, it got awfully boring waiting at the window, staring at the red liquid that never seemed to drop. Occasionally a wasp would land for a sip. Ok, maybe I didn’t watch that much, but I did glance up from my newspaper every now and then.

Our conversation was sparkling each day.  “Has the level gone down at all?”

“I don’t think so.”

Dutifully, my husband changed the untouched nectar every week.

Then one day, my husband called out, “Hummingbird.”

I looked up.  Nothing.

“You missed it,” he said.  

This happened several times in a week.  I never saw anything.  I was beginning to think he was hallucinating.  It couldn’t just be my bad vision.  

Finally, just this week, a male hummingbird appeared. This time, when my husband said, “Hummingbird,” I actually saw one hovering at the feeder.  He said that he’d seen a female earlier.  Females are slightly larger, more brown-looking and have a whitish throat and a longer beak.

The next few days, I stood at the window off and on with my camera at the ready. That’s why I’ve included so many photographs.  I’ve got to make my vigil pay off in some small way.

A rare moment of stillness at the feeder.

A rare moment of stillness at the feeder.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only hummingbirds that breed in the eastern half of the United States.  They range as far north as Central Alberta over to Nova Scotia.  They are territorial and very feisty, particularly in late summer and early fall when they are fattening up for their long nonstop flight in September across the Gulf of Mexico to their winter quarters in southern Mexico and Central America.  They are solitary birds and don’t pair up the way cardinals do. After courtship and mating, the female hummingbird is left to do the child-rearing herself, including nest building.  She will repair an old nest.

A description of the nest sounds like something from a fairy story.  The female chooses a small tree branch where she builds a nest of thistle and dandelion down, held together with spider web and covered in lichen. She lays two eggs smaller than jellybeans.

Another view of our elusive ruby-throated hummingbird.

Another view of our elusive ruby-throated hummingbird.

At our previous house, about five miles north and also in a wooded area, we had several hummingbirds descend upon our feeders in late summer. They fought, divebombing and squeaking at each other.  When that happens, put up two feeders that are not within sight of each other, if you want to keep the peace.

The male has an iridescent red throat and is smaller than the female. The birds can beat their wings 55 times per second when hovering and even faster when moving backwards and forwards.  Nectar from flowers is its main food, but hummingbirds also will catch insects on the wing and snatch spiders from their webs.

 For more information on ruby-throated hummingbirds, go to www.wikipedia.org or to this site at Cornell University.

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide

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Filed under Biology, Bird-watching, Family, Humor, Kansas, Life, Nature, Personal, Uncategorized

Confessions of a Savoholic

My friend Jan gave me this photo in a frame after we graduated from college, and she moved to California.  She said this would be us checking our mailboxes for letters from each other, back in the days before email. I've saved all of her letters, including emails. And I still check my emailbox often to see what hilarious tale she has to tell me.

My friend Jan gave me this photo in a frame after we graduated from college, and she moved to California. I've saved all of her letters, including emails. And I still check my e-mailbox often to see what hilarious tale she has to tell me.

My birthday is coming up, but don’t mail me a card.  Forget a Christmas card, too.

As much as I’m eager to hear from you — and I assure you that I am — I’ll be compelled to save whatever you send to me.  I miss as much as anyone the fact that almost no one sends a “real” card or letter anymore, but it’s like booze to an alcoholic to me.

Your card, photocopied newsletter of your trip around the world, photos of your kids and dogs, the rare actual hand-written letter — I keep it all.  At least I’ve given up stamp-collecting, so I don’t have to save the envelope, too. (Although I might!)

It’s bad enough that I save every scrap of paper that my children have ever doodled on, but I also keep the greetings of people whose names I barely remember from Christmas to Christmas.

Once in January while walking with friends, I saw a ripped trash bag, its contents spilling onto the grass.  Christmas cards and –worse still — photographs were swirling in the wind.  I was horrified.  Someone threw away photographs?  I have every photograph I’ve ever gotten, plus the ten thousand I’ve taken myself.

“I throw away everything after a couple of weeks, ” one friend, Karen, said as I picked up one of the tossed treasures.  I even knew the family, which made it more heart-rending.  These poor smiling people were on their way to the dump.  Karen saw nothing cold-hearted about a trash bag full of holiday greetings and carefully posed family portraits.  She never sends any of these items herself, so maybe it’s understandable.  Her weakness is sending beautiful party invitations, which I’ve kept, of course.

“You didn’t throw away my photo, did you?”  My children with their cat, Malcolm?

“You can’t keep everything,” Karen shrugged.

“You can’t?”  Well, I’m certainly trying to.

Recently, I looked through my Christmas cards from 1999.  I cried again over the loss of a friend’s father.  That could be a clue.  Research studies are under way on the nature of hoarding.  It must be a primordial fear of not having enough of something, whether food, memories or information. At least I use my saved stuff — when I can find it.

Sometimes, I read “how to de-clutter” books, patting myself on the back that I got them from the library and didn’t add them to the glut of books and magazines I already own.  I even take some of the advice — for about a week.

The internet has been a gift.  I love email from friends.  You can keep in contact with people throughout the world.  The mail is easily filed and stored, thanks to Yahoo and Google.  My husband was shocked one day to see that I had 10,142 read messages in my inbox. Why not?  Google can handle it.

A related problem is saving articles on various interesting subjects.  I call it “cliptomania.”  I won’t tell you how many file cabinets I own and how many stacks of clippings are waiting to be filed.

I also save articles in cyberspace, where they don’t clutter my office, although sometimes I save the “hard” copy, just in case.  I think this means I’m a “digital pack rat.”  The New York Times allows you to save its articles at no charge and even tells you how many others saved the same one.  I’m not alone….usually.

Well, at least I don’t collect anything else.  Oh, gosh, I forgot about matchbooks, but since smoking is being banned in restaurants (I never smoked, and I never used any of my matchbooks….) free matchbooks are hard to come by these days. Problem solved there.

Naturally, I married someone who can keep everything he’s saved in one file drawer.  Periodically, he happily does a purge and then looks at my stuff.  The scariest words my husband can say are, “I’ll clean your office for you.”

Still, one Christmas he gave me ten pairs of scissors so I can clip wherever I am. It’s like giving drugs to an addict.  I’d enter a twelve-step program, but I really don’t want to quit.

I was just kidding about the birthday and Christmas cards.  I’ll be waiting by the mailbox.

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Chiggers!

 
This is a chigger, enlarged about 1,500 times. Chiggers are red until they are engorged, when they turn yellow. They feed on our dissolved skin cells, not blood. (Photo — Dr. W. Calvin Webourn, the Ohio State Acarology Laboratory.)

Since I’m still scratching like crazy, I decided to get serious about avoiding more chigger bites.  (See my post, “Berry Picking by Moonlight” for an impractical approach.) If you’re wondering whether there are chiggers in your area, there probably aren’t. If you’ve been in nature, you’d already know! 

HOW TO AVOID GETTING CHIGGER BITES:
Wear Insect Repellent.
Wear long pants and long sleeves (which is so much fun when it’s 95 degrees!)
Wipe off your skin with a rough towel when you come inside.
Take a warm shower or bath with soap after coming indoors.
Wash your clothes and used towels in hot water and detergent to kill any chiggers hanging out there.
                                                                                                                                                               Chiggers are the almost microscopically small six-legged larval (juvenile) form of an eight-legged mite (Trombiculidae), related to ticks.  How can something so small cause such torment? You can’t see them to pick them off.  By the time you feel their bite, it’s too late.  Your body has already started its allergic reaction.
                                                                                                                                                         Chiggers are constantly on the move, running onto your body from grass and plants, heading for areas of thin skin such as your ankles or groin area. Their mouth parts are weak, so if they can’t find a delicate area, they need a fold of skin or a tight piece of clothing to help them pierce the skin.
                                                                                                                                                                          In North America, humans aren’t a chigger’s preferred host.  Chiggers would rather bite reptiles or birds, which don’t get an allergic reaction.  We’re just accidental prey. (There are chiggers in Asia and the Pacific Islands that do prefer humans, and their bites cause no itching.)
                                                                                                                                                                       The chigger injects saliva to dissolve our tissue, which the chigger then sucks.  Our bodies react by walling off the corrosive saliva, forming a sort of feeding tube in the center of a welt that itches like crazy.  The tiny chigger then sits on the tube, alternately injecting saliva and then sucking up the liquid tissue.   Most chiggers are scratched off before they complete their one and only feed.  If they don’t get enough to eat, which may take three days of feeding, they won’t mature into an adult mite. Too bad! 
                                                                                                                                                                       The good news is that chiggers don’t carry any diseases.  However, if you scratch too much, you might get an infection.
 
Now, enjoy your summer outdoors!
 

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The Brothers Angora, Chapter One

Bones and Paddington quickly make themselves at home wherever they travel.

Bones and Paddington quickly make themselves at home wherever they are. Bones, on the left, is deaf, a trait that appears in Turkish Angoras. Paddington, on the right, has one blue and one amber eye, a frequent and even favored Turkish Angora characteristic. Turkish Angoras are known as the “swimming cats.” Bones loves standing in water in the sink.

We parents do crazy things for our children.  My husband and I volunteered to help our daughter move her belongings to a new apartment with two roommates while we visited her in Boston, where she attended college.

Usually, we flew, but this time we were bringing some small pieces of furniture, a computer and housewares in our minivan from Kansas City — a round trip of about 3,000 miles.  Our daughter gave us a list of what she needed.

“Oh, can you bring our kittens?”

“You have kittens?”

“Amber’s cat had kittens.”

My daughter.  What a jokester!  “Don’t they have homeless kittens in Boston?”

“These are Turkish Angora kittens.”

“Hmmm.” I didn’t know what a Turkish Angora kitten was, but how could that be important?

“And they’re rare,” she continued.

I sighed.  Still not impressed.  My daughter wasn’t going to be breeding and showing cats.

 

Paddington and Bones found a warm spot to enjoy the drive to Boston from Kansas City. Here they are somewhere in upstate New York.

Paddington and Bones find a warm spot on the dashboard to enjoy the drive to Boston from Kansas City. Here they are somewhere in upstate New York.

“And we promised Amber we’d take them.”

I pondered this information.  “No.”

A cry of dismay. “We’ve already named them.  Cynthia’s is Paddington, and mine is Bones.”

Well,  now that they had names, they were claimed.  It was settled then.  We’d be driving a pair of two-month-old kittens to Boston. No problem.  My husband and I didn’t cave in quite that easily, but it was still embarrassingly fast. (Part of the negotiations involved a small ball python.  Another story.)

On a break from classes, my daughter flew to Kansas City to get the kittens from Amber.  When my daughter walked in the door of our house with one crying kitten clinging desperately to her shirt, she looked miserable.  Motherhood can be hard.  But the kittens quickly adjusted to their new temporary home. They didn’t mind being confined to a bedroom and bathroom area, because our old cat, Malcolm, didn’t much like them in his territory.  Soon, the kittens discovered how much fun it was to pull all of the toilet paper from the roll and shred it.

“We’ll keep the cats in a carrier,” I said, when my husband wondered whether it was safe to have kittens running loose in the car.

Newborn Bones and Paddington snuggle together. The brother's mother was rescued from a home of a cat hoarder.

Cat owner Amber emailed this photo to my daughter and her roommate. They were hooked when they saw the snuggling newborn brothers, which they immediately named Bones and Paddington. The brothers’ mother was rescued from a home of a woman who had more than forty cats.

Confining the kittens lasted for about the first half-hour of the trip. The meowing was unbearable, so I released them. Once freed, they leapt and sailed around the minivan.  They watched from the windows and slept some times on the dashboard.  Online, I’d found motels that would take cats, and the kittens were surprisingly quiet when we settled in each night.   They snuggled next to us.  We also spent some nights with friends along the way.  With the kittens in the car, we stopped only for gas until we reached each night’s destination.

We moved our daughter into her apartment in the Fenway Park area. (Another story.)  There was hardly room for her and her two roommates to move around.  The kittens quickly made themselves at home, climbing above the clutter. I missed our furry passengers on the drive back to Kansas City.   To be continued.

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Filed under Cats, Family, Humor, Personal, Pets, Travel, Uncategorized

Malcolm, Old Friend

Malcolm never saw a pile of laundry he didn't want to sleep on.  Now he can't make the jump onto the bed.

Malcolm never saw a pile of laundry he didn't want to sleep on. Now the poor old guy can't make the jump onto the bed.

I’m the woman always wearing a sprinkling of cat hair.  Sometimes I take the lint roller to my clothes, but usually I don’t even notice the hair. 

I miss not finding Malcolm, our cat, lying on a pile of my not-yet-folded laundry. Yes, it used to irritate me a little, but he looked so adorable as he slept, shedding his lovely orange hair on my clean clothes.  He could be in the middle of a nap somewhere, hear the dryer door open, and be on my bed in a flash, ready to settle onto warm towels and clothing.  A dark load of black pants and shirts.  Perfect!  If he got there too late, even a cold sock or two would do as a foundation for a nice snooze. 

Just this year, he couldn’t make the jump.  He fell back onto the floor with an undignified thump.  He mewls pitifully now that he can’t get to his favorite napping spot, so I place him on the bed. I set the dark clothes aside, of course.

We brought Malcolm home sixteen years ago from Wayside Waifs, an animal haven.  My daughter chose Malcolm, because he was slightly fluffier than his sister, Sophie.  We should have taken her, too.

We knew nothing about cats, except that they seemed to be easier to take care of than dogs.  He came with worms, fleas and ear mites, but we managed to quickly get rid of all of the pests and felt proud of ourselves. 

Young Malcolm was like a rocket in our house, flying and leaping.  We couldn’t keep him from the counters.  He knocked plants over.  We learned about hair balls.  We discovered that cats can eat too much and then vomit.  Sometimes, if he was upset, he decided not to use his cat box.  We wondered what we’d signed up for.  It’s hard to remember that now when we see him waddling slowly around the house, a paragon of almost perfect cat behavior.  We have two younger cats, who remind us of how Malcolm used to be. 

No one appreciates Christmas morning more than Malcolm, who rustles in the torn paper and bats and chases the ribbons.  Malcolm has always liked to be held — or at least tolerated it very well — but he is much sweeter now.  He used to bolt at the sound of the doorbell and disappear when we had guests.  Some people didn’t even know we had a cat.  (Unless they were allergic….)  Now he seeks out anyone who visits and endures the tough love of children.

I could easily be one of those dotty old women who talks to cats, because Malcolm does talk back. He likes to sleep next to me, but that’s only been in the last two years.  Sad that he came to this so late, because now it’s a rare night he can leap onto the bed. He lies on the floor next to the bed, crying to be lifted to his spot.  Then he snores.

Last year, he lost a lot of weight.  It scared me.   Even the veterinarian was alarmed.  But after a change in food, he was quickly back to his plump self again.  I hug him tighter now.  He’s only a cat, but I can’t bear to think of losing him.

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Berry Picking by Moonlight

Chiggers lie in wait to make me lunch as I grab these blackberries for my own meal.

Chiggers lie in wait to make me their lunch as I grab these blackberries for my own meal.

How did chiggers make a living before people started wearing clothes?

An entomologist explained in a college “bugs and boys” class that chiggers have weak mouth parts so they need pressure to clamp onto our skin.  The invention of elastic waistbands was a huge boon to chiggerdom. 

This is blackberry season, which means every time I bring in a bowl of berries from my bushes, I’m also wearing a crop of chiggers.  I’ve never seen a chigger, but they sure make their presence known. Huge itching welts appear, usually in a line along my underwear.   Bug spray doesn’t always work, either. It’s almost like salad dressing to the bugs.

What would happen if we gardened in the nude?  Would the poor chiggers wander the naked skin, unable to take a bite? 

Naked gardening does pose other problems — sun overexposure and skin overexposure. I wouldn’t want a golfer on the adjoining course to miss a shot, shocked by the sight of me scampering around naked with a berry basket.  Some night I may just creep out to the bushes under the moonlight, flashlight in hand, hoping I don’t surprise a hungry raccoon, and tell those chiggers, “Bite me, if you can!”

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There Will Be Blog

The mini-van’s thermometer shot up to 94 degrees as we left leaf-shaded suburbia.  We hurried (careful not to exceed the speed limit) into the city, eager for a soft seat in a cool theater at a late afternoon movie, just before the higher evening prices kicked in.  We chose “Gonzo,” a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson, a man more than a decade older than us who chronicled our generation in a way we had not quite experienced ourselves.  We were happy to go along for the trip, even though we weren’t hurtling down a highway in a convertible Cadillac, fueled on Wild Turkey and weed ala Thompson.  We bought our tickets, fumbled for seats in the dark and settled in.

Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo journalist.

Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo journalist.

Hunter S. Thompson was like an early blogger.  Although his words were published — not instantly blasted to the public in bytes — the impact was almost as immediate.   He created, or at least perfected, personal, interactive journalism that shaped the news from his days of living among the Hell’s Angels and Merry Pranksters to dining with presidential candidates. 

For the 1972 presidential campaign, he typed his words on the campaign trail at the last minute and fed them into a primitive fax machine, while the production staff at Rolling Stone magazine waited for these last pages, usually hours after the printing deadline. 

I was a student journalist during the 1972 campaign.  I have no copies of the words I wrote that were printed in the student newspaper, but I’m sure they had no long-term or even short-term impact.  I just felt lucky to be the one chosen to document George McGovern’s visit to Union Station in Kansas City.  I also wrote about Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s campaign stop for her father at a hotel near the Country Club Plaza.  What I remember most was a video appearance of Richard Nixon on a large screen and wedges of iceberg lettuce swathed in French dressing on plates in the hotel kitchen, all equally unpalatable. Somehow I ended up in the receiving line and shook Julie’s hand.  I worried a little at the propriety of looking like a fan or an admirer.  Journalists need to remain objective. Thompson said he always wrote the facts — as he saw them. 

While he knew he’d get better stories as an anonymous observer, he didn’t mind shaping the story.  All journalists do that to some extent. We get to know our sources, even want to be stay on good terms with them.   Somehow, even though Thompson often angered his subjects, he still got access.  According to “Gonzo,” Thompson rode in a car with Nixon for more than an hour, chatting about football, because he was forbidden to mention politics or the Vietnam War. I’d be very surprised if Thompson wasn’t on Nixon’s enemies list.  Thompson loathed Nixon, favoring McGovern and making no secret of that.

Thompson shared his notes with Tom Wolfe for his “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”  Wolfe created his own form of writing, “the New Journalism,” using a colorful, original, involved voice.  Wolfe called Thompson the greatest American comedy writer of the 20th century.  Both men coined phrases that became a part of the language.  They both created trademark images of themselves, standing out in talent and in appearance from the crowd of writers in 1960s and 70s.

Tom Wolfe, 1978, on a street in New York City, in his trademark white suit, which helped to stand out among the crowd of writers.

Tom Wolfe, 1978, on a street in New York City, in his trademark white suit, which helped to stand out among the crowd of writers.

They couldn’t be more different in style. Thompson was casual, with his sunglasses and dangling cigarette and wearing some kind of slouchy canvas hat.  Wolfe is refined, always dapper in a white suit, hat and cane and white or two-tone shoes.  In November 1987, my husband and I happened across Wolfe in the Boston airport.  Wolfe had been in town plugging his Bonfire of the Vanities.  My husband took the seat next to Wolfe, whose elegant pale cream wool coat was neatly folded in a chair, his white homburg hat resting on top.  Wolfe was like a character in a book from another era, who was keenly and quietly reading us and the others in the waiting room.  I was suddenly very aware of my wind-blown hair and too-casual traveling clothes.   I later read in Bonfire the words of one of the characters deploring the poor state of dress of air travelers.

Perhaps, Thompson would scoff at millions of bloggers besieging the world with their own views, their own experiences, a cacophony drowning one another’s voices. Actually, he probably wouldn’t care.  Some people just rise above the crowd and will always find readers.

When I tell Pat, a friend, about an article I’ve posted or published, she promises she’ll read it — some time, maybe after a long day of work as a pediatric nurse practitioner, after yard work,  after dinner.  I laugh.  She was one of the group of us who’d seen “Gonzo,” and then her husband John encouraged me to write a “gonzo” post.  Gonzo is hard…..

A friend, Jan (See “planetjan” on my blogroll) says that encouraging friends to read your blog feels like “peddling giftwrap for your kid’s middle school.”

Inspired by the title of another movie we’d discussed, Pat says to keep at it.  “There Will Be Blog,” she proclaims.   And, so it continues.

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