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My days – when I am at home, and not at work – have been spent bird watching in my own backyard. Birds are God’s gift to me, and the little haven we have built on our 100×100′ lot has been our gift to the birds. We are surrounded by sterile yards – I try not to judge my neighbors who have different values than I do, but hey have yards without flowers, without water, and without insect life: heavily sprayed and poisoned against the influx of weeds or creeping things, they are lifeless habitats while our yard is a virtual Eden.

My computer presently holds over 400 photos shot with my DLSR (set on “sports”) that I need to meticulously go through and delete, edit, choose, and watermark. I am spending more time with my husband than on the computer, so it may be a while before I get to these photos (think cold winter months).

Tomorrow, I will haul artwork down to the yard: things that need to be sanded down before I can repaint, and things that need the use of my Dremel tool. But my DSLR will be at hand to take more photos of the birds that inhabit our yard – and which are becoming more comfortable with the presence of two human beings who pose no threat to them.

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The Spotted Towhee – I like this photo because while it lacks focus and quality, it shows the speed ith which a wild bird can escape the camera’s lens. We have a nesting pair and their one fledgling in the yard. hey take no less than three baths a day!

There are the juncos, the Bewick’s wrens, the house finches, and the song sparrows. The Anna’s hummingbirds are at odds with the Rufous hummingbird over the five feeders hanging in the yard.

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That’s not counting the black-capped chickadees that have decided the hummingbird feeders are also a good place to catch small insects!

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There are three black-capped chickadee siblings. They’re idiots. I have a series of phots (as yet unedited) that show one sibling losing its grip on a hummingbird feeder, and ending up hanging upside down, like the fellow above.

I mentioned to my husband that all I was seeing were the siblings, and no chestnut-backed chickadees.

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I have a series of photos of this little guy deciding to take a bath by hanging onto the pocked piece of granite. He’s much smaller than his black-capped cousins.

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Then there’s the bushtits… I’ve seen them play in the sprinklers before, but this summer they decided to entertain us by taking a communal bath in the concrete birdbath. This is not one of the better photos – as I said, I have a lot to edit! Bushtits are tiny little grey fluff balls so non-descript that most people don’t even notice them. They are one of my favorite birds.

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I call them the Three Stooges. There’s only two in the photo (obviously), but there are three of them – siblings from the crow’s nest in the Doug fir across the street from us.

It’s a good summer. A bird summer. I’ll be shooting photos and setting them aside to deal with when the weather turns cool enough to sit upstairs and edit. I haven’t started on the insects and blooms. The birds are enough.

Shalom. I’m still here.

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Don and I celebrated 38 years of marriage early last month, and we ended the month celebrating his birthday.

Losing both dogs last summer was something of a turning point in our marriage. Where once the dogs acted as something of a buffer between us, we were now stranded in mourning and – at least for one of us – a sea of loneliness. We have been driven closer through these months, spending more time together and rekindling that spark of love and friendship that first brought us together.

Now, the weather is starting to turn into summer (we have cold days still, and will have them until a week or two after the Fourth of July – it’s just the pattern of weather over the Pacific Northwest: you can’t trust it to stay summer until a couple weeks after the 4th). My mornings are often spent out in my little corner prayer garden, watching flowers and birds. I’d rather be outside than inside on any nice day.

We would rather spend time together.

I’m not writing or painting right now. I’m just spending time with my husband. I do promise to carve out more time for my own hobbies, but for now I am learning to be content with more time away. It wont always be like this: fall and winter will come, and the house will close in on me. I will need to write and draw.

Now – my husband needs the time I spend with him.

Don’t be fooled into thinking I am only doing that: spending all my time watching TV shows with my other half – I’m not. I garden, I will be canning, and I just snapped over 250 photos of life in our backyard (birds taking baths – it’s a real theme). It will take some time for me to work through all of those photos, winnowing out the very best ones (I have it down to 130, but that was just the first go-through).

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Friends came down to help us celebrate the old man’s birthday. Life is good.

We were all up and moving early on Monday, the 18th. It was still raining. Raining. Steady raining. Ugh, raining. Don wanted to go see Devil’s Tower, and it was low-ceiling clouds and raining. Still, we took a back road that was mercifully without traffic, and made our way out to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

We actually paid $20 to get closer, only to realize it was still raining and we could see it just as well from outside the National Monument boundary. We had to elbow our way through other tourists in the gift shop and duck under other people’s umbrellas (who uses an umbrella, anyway?). Hiking up the trail seemed a useless activity between the tourists, the umbrellas, and the rain. Photography was definitely out. BUT – we came, we saw, and we were impressed with the sheer magnitude of this strange tower in the midst of rolling hills and flatlands. Creation is amazing: erosion, glacial power, rock.

We wanted to get as far west as we could in one day. I made it to Bozeman before calling it quits. Five o’clock in the evening. In Bozeman. Bozeman has growing pains and a lack of traffic signals to deal with the amount of traffic that hits the pavement at quitting time. I took the first cheap motel and parked. We’d already agreed to not try camping in the rain in a tent with an inadequate rain fly, and sleeping in the car… well, been there, did that, had the crick in the neck to show for it (Don did).

There were a few brew pubs to choose from, but they all closed at 8PM (why?). However – and this is big – Bozeman is home to Montana Ale Works*. Montana Ale Works is a tap house in an old railroad station. The directions were simple, and we found it with no problem. The place was hopping and the wait was 25 minutes!

*I won’t add a link to their website as it is infected with spyware.

I did take a photo, but it was too blurry: the station house is long, every nook and cranny filled with tables, seats, benches, and wait staff balancing five or six plates overhead as they weave in and out of a clueless clientele. The bar is in the center, and every stool was filled. The noise level was too much for my HSP brain and I nearly turned around and left. Don, however, was intrigued and felt the wait was worth it, so we stayed.

We split a Kobe/Angus hamburger (vegetarian and vegan friends, avert your eyes):OMG. The best hamburger I have ever eaten. We tried two different beers, one in particular that impressed us was Kettlehouse Brewing’s ColdSmoke Scotch Ale.

We crossed the street to Heeb’s Grocery and found these:

We didn’t try the Jeremiah Johnson, but we did buy the Pig’s Ass Porter. It was very nice.

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Yes, that’s a Feckin’ IPA in the middle. Feckin Brewery & Smokehouse is our favorite local small brewery & watering hole.

Don popped open a Pig’s Ass Porter in the motel room, but I put my head on the pillow and – boom! – didn’t wake up again until he shoved me over to get under the blankets. I wanted to sleep for a very long time…

Tuesday. We were up early, again, and on the road. We arrived in Missoula an hour before the Northside Brewery (Kettlehouse Brewing Co) opened. That gave us a little time to stretch our legs and explore the unique railroad crossings of Missoula. Missoula is a place that needs more time to visit than we had!

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The Double Haul IPA (far right) was a tad too hoppy for me. The Fresh Bongwater Hemp Ale was an easy drink (I really wanted to get a T-Shirt regaling the virtues of bongwater, and I don’t smoke). Tick Czech Ale was a wonderful pun and nice sip. Eddy Out was good, too. Of course, we had a pint of the ColdSmoke Scotch Ale, and we bought a pint of whiskey-barrel aged ColdSmoke to bring home to a friend.

Kettlehouse Brewing has two locations – we went to the north (and secondary) location, which is in an old brick railroad warehouse. The floors are original plankwood, and the decor is a little rustic, and the wait staff is laid-back and friendly. No crowd here at noon on a Tuesday, but I bet the place is hopping at other times.

We switched up our travel plans in Missoula and took US 12 south to Lolo, where we turned west over Lolo Pass. It’s a two-lane with not a whole lot of traffic, and the western slopes of the Rockies descend slowly, steadily, and the highway follows the waters of the Lochsa River and the middle fork of the Clearwater. The country is full of history from Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through it, and from my own family: my great uncle worked the Bitterroots as a Forest Service Ranger, my dad did a lot of youthful work in those mountains, and I remember a family trip along that very same highway sometime in the late 1960’s.

We lunched in Powell, Idaho, coasted on to Lewiston, and got lost once trying to find Hells Gate State Park. At least it wasn’t raining or even threatening to rain!

Paid $25 for a tent site, drove a mile out to the site only to discover that the campground host had forgotten to turn the sprinklers off and the <expletive> site was flooded. Of course, the host was absent, so we had to drive back down to the Visitor’s Center to change campsite designation. The result was we got a really nice spot on the edge of the park, away from most of the other campers.

At dusk, the magic happened. I’d already put my camera away as it was too dark to photograph, so there are no photos.

One owl rose from the shadows of the cottonwoods, followed by another. Silent flight, on wings broad, they began lazy circles just above the trees. Then another ghostly owl joined, and another. They circled above the heads of clueless campers, with noiseless wing strokes. They clicked in chirping staccato: echo locating insects and small prey. Occasionally, one owl would utter a short, rasping, screech. Six owls, six circles of flight, dipping into and out of the cottonwoods. Barn owls, all. Late into the night, we could hear them overhead, chirping and screeching as they hunted. It was the last magic act of our road trip.

We flew down the freeway from Itchkeppe City Park in Columbus, Montana, bound for the rental in Hermosa, South Dakota. Gas & breakfast at a truck stop on the Crow Reservation, and then a side trip to see the site where General George A. Armstrong met his unglorious end.

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I visited this site in 1966, and it is still just as sad and lonesome as it was then. The voices of the people who lost their way of life (this battle was the beginning of the end for the First Nations) and the cries of the white men who died there still whisper in the winds. The very ground cries out, and the crickets in the grass sing sorrowful melodies.

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Prayer flags flap in the wind from the monument that was erected to honor the warriors who died defending their sacred lands.

We drove out to the site of Reno’s Retreat, and gazed in awe at the expanse of contested land, and wondered at Reno’s frustrations as he could not reach the ill-fated Seventh Cavalry.

We also logged two new birds for our life-list: the lark bunting (which I never got a photo of) and the lark sparrow.

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The sparrow left his own commentary on the history plaques, most of which was not kind to the human species and their wars.

We raced across Wyoming and into South Dakota, stopping in Rapid City for gas. There, I did something so 21st Century that it amazes me still: I figured out how to get Waze o tell me how to get to the rental in Hermosa! This was a good thing as the house was way-the-heck-out-there. (For my adult children: I programmed Waze and then handed the phone to Donald with the instructions, “Waze will start talking, so just hold onto this.”)

We still; had lovely weather when we arrived at the rental, and all the cousins were planning on a trip out to see the evening ceremony at Mt. Rushmore, so we decided to jump into someone’s car and join them. It’s a good thing we did as the mountain was shrouded in clouds for the rest of our visit!

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(Photo courtesy of Ellen Block)

Saturday, we went off on our own to drive through Custer State Park. I apologize now if you were someone who got trapped behind us as we wandered through those winding little roads at the posted speed limit: I just drove over 1300 miles to see the damn park and I wasn’t going to speed up simply to appease someone who can’t slow down and look at the flowers. We also apologize to anyone who stopped behind us thinking we saw animals: we were looking at wildflowers and trying to identify them. You should try it sometime – it might expand your world.

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The narrow tunnels were amazing. Not sure who that guy is or why he’s holding up the granite wall…

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Every last one of the cousins managed to arrive at Sylvan Lake on Saturday, but at different times.

Don and I drove down to the little town of Custer because we wanted to check out the beer sub culture. We ended up in the Bugling Bull, sitting at the bar next to a lovely couple from California who were celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary.

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The taxidermy was wonderful: some very lifelike poses, and then these two items. On the right is a typical Jackalope (which, despite the name, sports antlers and not prongorns). On the left is… um… what I referred to as a “beavalope” but was informed it was a “horny beaver”. I did not name it.

There was also a drunken pheasant on its back, balancing a bottle of whiskey with its legs, but I did not capture a photo of that anomaly.

It rained all day Sunday, so we simply stayed in and enjoyed each other’s company on our last day of the 2018 Melrose Family Reunion sans the Melrose Girls: Phyllis (died 2017), Donna (too frail to come at age 88), and Mary Lou (died 1995).

Tomorrow: the road home

It has been six years since we went on a road trip, and forever (plus a day) since we went somewhere we haven’t been before. Here’s a little background on this road trip: when I was going on ten, my folks pulled us all out of school early to make a long trip to Durand, Wisconsin, to see my oldest cousin (on my mother’s side) graduate from high school. We pulled a rented trailer and Dad promised us all these fun stops: St. Louis to see the Budweiser horses, Mt. Rushmore to see the presidents, the Little Bighorn Battle monument, nd Yellowstone National Park.

The car over heated pulling the trailer and we cut out St. Louis and Mt. Rushmore – the two places my ten year old heart wanted to go. I won’t say I was disappointed in the site of Custer’s Last Stand as I had just finished reading biographies of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, but I was disappointed that we did not stop in to visit the memorial for Comanche, the sole survivor of the US Cavalry on that fateful day. If you are not familiar with the story, Comanche was a US remount (cavalry horse) of a dun color (buckskin) who somehow managed to escape being mortally shot by anyone on either side, and who became a sort of legend of survival of a battle that signaled the end of a way of life for the indigenous peoples of the American continent.

I just cared that he was a horse.

I loved Yellowstone, also, but Old Faithful was a huge disappointment (we were there less than a decade after the 1959 earthquake that put the geyser into a momentary tailspin) but I got to meet a grizzly, up close and personal (not a tale for this post, sorry. I got very close).

We have always camped rugged: we had a six-man tent for years, then we moved up to the back of a For Explorer, and then life intervened and we lost both the rig and the tent – so we purchased an inexpensive tent for the trip. All other camping gear was on hand: stove, pads, sleeping bags.

I left the itinerary rather open: three days to get there & three days to come home, who knew where we would land?

Day #1 was a long day as we passed from Oregon into Washington State (who said self serve gas was cheaper has never pumped gas in Washington State!) and into Idaho at the narrowest point of the panhandle. My only goal was to get to Montana, and we did that.

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The requisite campsite photo: we paid ten dollars for this site, had wonderful hosts, and they even had garbage dumpsters. I thought we entered a time warp. If you are interested: Cabin City Campground. 1980’s prices, clean, well-maintained, highly recommended. We were there for the overnight, so can’t say anything for the sights.

Day #2… We drove into one helluva a lightning storm near Livingston. Cloud to ground strikes and cloud-to-cloud strikes, pouring rain. I stepped off the gas pedal a tad in case we had hail and the person who was about to pass me decided I was the wiser driver and pulled back, too. Fortunately, no hail. We did, however, see two elk carcasses where some hapless truck driver came around a corner and – SURPRISE! – there were elk in the road. Oy.

We pulled into a campground just outside of Columbus, Mt. FREE. Unheard of. It’s a city owned campground run for the benefit of travelers Donations accepted.

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The threat of more rain kept us from setting up our tent (which has a crappy short rain fly) and we spent an uncomfortable night sleeping in the KIA. I love the Sportage because it is built for short people to drive, but for sleeping in…? It sucks. The guy with the snowy beard ended up with a bad crick in his neck. But we did have flushing toilets, even if they were for giants.

The people camped next to us had no idea of camping etiquette and crossed through our camp site to go to the restrooms more than once. They didn’t seem to be “all there” so we didn’t say anything, but – really?? They were nice enough, just a little unfamiliar with how one should behave in a campground with designated sites. Oh, hell – do I have to spell this out? You don’t walk into or across the site next to you. There’s a little road or you can circle wide through the grass, but you DO NOT walk through a site.

I picked up a friend and carried him over to meet Don.

He’s some kind of moth. I haven’t bothered to look him up. If you can ID it, I would gladly appreciate that. It was newly hatched.

We were outta there before 6AM Pacific.

I’ll post more later. Blessings.

 

You never know when a thing will turn out to be a ‘God-thing’ (that’s Christian-speak for “a mysterious coincidence that must have been ordained by a higher power”). I don’t like the theology that teaches that everything that happens in life is a lesson, or even that everything happens for a ‘reason’, but sometimes things do happen in a way that you can look back and see how it all lined up in the cosmos for the end result to come together. If I were the author of a story, I would call this the plot line: one seemingly innocent action takes on a domino effect until everything comes to a climactic end that could not have happened without the original action.

I’m probably over-simplifying what happened. But, as miracles go, it had a start that seemed quite unlikely to go anywhere.

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A pair of puddle ducks wandered into the parking lot at work. These are relatively tame mallards that reside (most of the time) in a small pond along Meyers Road, between an apartment complex and a church, right off a busy thoroughfare. This particular pair, however, visited our office frequently enough that I started putting out dried mealworms for them to gobble on. They even wandered into the office once, much to my boss’ dismay and my laughter.

The kids at the gas station nearby named them “Duck-duck” (her) and Goose (him). Goose has a particular marking on the front that makes him readily identifiable. DD could be any old mallard hen.

I take at least one walk per day, during my break period. The pond is less than five minutes’ walk, so I can go down there, visit with whatever puddle ducks are about (or the resident nutria), and return to work well within my allotted time. It’s a nice nature break, even though I am not fond of nutria (non-native, invasive species), or of the mottled mallard/domestic duck mixes that make up most of the puddle ducks that make the pond home. There’s a kingfisher late in summer, the pond is a designated lamprey hatching ground (I’ve never seen a lamprey, but that’s an important conservation point), and the occasional Canada goose will take a gander (haha – pun intended) around.

Duck-duck hatched nine ducklings and I briefly attempted to follow their life story. Nine ducklings is a fair amount – maybe one will make it  to adulthood. Mortality for mallards is high in the wild, and in town. DD eventually melded with the other hens as the total duckling count (22 in all that first week) went down. The hens either moved their babies further downstream and out of sight, or the babies were picked off and the hens sought out a new mate for a new batch of eggs. I was left with a hen and five ducklings, then three, and, finally, one.

The one duckling, I am happy to say, has passed through pin feathers and is maturing into a pretty mallard hen. At some point, her mother abandoned her, too.

Several years ago, on a different worksite with more ponds, a friend and I watched a hen duckling raise itself. It was orphaned the first week of its life, and its siblings were picked off before they were five weeks old. Yet the one survived, raising herself, and when autumn came, she flew off with the rest of the migrating mallards. They may have a high mortality rate, but they are not incapable of surviving the greatest odds

I have been posting updates on Instagram and Facebook, gaining a small cult following – mostly of my good friends. Friends leave me photos of ducks or wild birds.

Last Wednesday, a friend sent me a video of some firemen rescuing a hatch of six ducklings out of a drain pipe. I can’t find where to share the video, but I’ll recap it briefly for you: the grates were lifted and firemen hung upside down into the darkness to catch the tiny buggers while mama duck quacked hysterically from the safety of some grass nearby. These ducklings even swam under the road to the other side where more firemen dangled down, their backsides and legs above ground – all to rescue a clutch of six. Then they put the whole family in a bag and took them to the safety of a stream to be released.

Thursday, I took my walk. I had my windbreaker on, but it was a tad warm. As I neared the church parking lot, I observed a mallard hen acting strangely, quaking and flying in circles – she nearly attacked a car pulling out of the drive!

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I could hear peeping emanating from below the water drain in the driveway. There were three babies down there, and I could not easily reach them!

My first thought was to walk on by – what could I do? Nature is cruel. There’s no obvious way to remove that grate to reach down into the shallow space below. But I’m the woman who cries when the dog catches and kills a fledgling sparrow in the backyard: how could I walk on by?

I dialed the non-emergency number and explained the situation. They’d send somebody, sometime. Meanwhile, an elderly woman with a cane had joined me and we determined there were actually five ducklings under the cement – and mama duck was nigh on hysterical. We had to do something.

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I’m not terribly squeamish about spiders, but there were a lot of spider webs between me and the babies. The holes were just over 1.63″ wide. The space underneath was about a foot wide and a foot deep, and only ran the length of the driveway: there was no end exit.

Even *if* I got my arms down there, how would I catch one and how would I bring it back up through that narrow slot without hurting it?

I had a system: I put both arms in and brought my hands together onto the huddled and frightened babies. One at a time, I caught them and brought them up, carefully using both hands to extract them from the grate. The first two, I nearly lost because they bolted for the street as soon as I had them free. The third one bolted up the drive so fast that I had to throw my jacket over it to stop it.

Fortunately, mama duck caught on and huddled near a tree, clucking as each baby found its way to her. My cohort kept mama from bolting toward the road, just by standing there.

The last two scared me. My arms were already turning purple and swelling where the skin had been pushed and forced down the holes. The babies in the hole were frantic. I could get one – but could I get the last one?? So many thoughts – and that video – ran through my head, but in the end, I managed to snatch both babies at once. I wasn’t sure how I’d ever get them up through that grate, but by some miracle of physics my hands and ducklings fit through.

I carried them over to mama duck who was apparently counting how many we’d rescued. She booked across the church lawn as soon as she had five ducklings to lead.

The photo of my right arm doesn’t show the whole glory of the deep red-purple bruise I earned. My new found friend posed for a victory selfie and a hug before we parted ways.

I called non-emergency back and canceled my request. They hadn’t even dispatched anyone yet.

It was exhilarating, crazy, heart-pounding, desperate, adrenaline-pumping, and amazing. It was made profound by the realization that someone had just sent me a video on rescuing ducklings the night before, and that video played in my head the entire time. She sent that video because I started following the adventures of the ducklings on the pond, and I started doing that because of a pair of puddle ducks that wandered into my office when the doors were open one sunny Spring day.

God, Who was authoring the plot of this story, had His eye on the ducklings. It was never about me or my crazy heroics and somersaults (I did somersault at least once, tripping over a fleeing rescue) – it was always about the five ducklings that slipped through the cracks in a driveway on their first trip away from the nest they hatched in. Just little puddle ducks that have a low survival rate anyway – but five babies that were important to the way the Universe works. Five little ducks were destined  to make it as far as that pond, to enter into whatever wonderful (or not-so-wonderful) things Life had prepared them for.

Listen to this song, and replace the word “sparrow” with duckling. It seems almost silly, but it makes my heart swell to understand that no life is insignificant.

His eye is on you.

This is the time of year when I most love our backyard. Sixteen years of labor comes to fruition, and the flowers bloom, the beds are temporarily whipped into almost-weedless state, birds have their nests, and the bees are warming up to all the blossoms. This year, we have no dogs or cats, and while that is strange to contemplate it has been a boon for backyard bird watching.

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Bewick’s wren decided to move into our shabby single car 1940’s garage. The fledglings left the nest about a week ago, as evidenced by the bird guano on the garage floor (and everything else). They abruptly left on Wednesday, when no one was watching. The nest remains tucked in behind the radio and some other dusty shelf ornaments, but the birds are gone.

Spotted towhee has at least one fledgling in the yard (I included that crazy captured from the newel post – Towhee is hard to photograph!). Towhee loves the multiple bird baths in the back yard.

Song sparrow loves the options, too, but has been highly elusive of late. One year, when Murphy was a pup, Song sparrow had a nest in the Camellia. Murphy killed the fledglings as soon as they hit the ground. I cried. My husband reminded me it is the circle of things, and I hated him. Murphy is gone now, but Song sparrow remembers and no longer nests in our yard.

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The juncos have been silent. They’re all paired up right now, and tending to nests. We catch a glimpse here and there. I saw two bushtits today, but no more, which means they are also sitting on nests and waiting for the fledglings to be able to join together in their joyful little mobs.

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Crow found the bird bath in the back yard. I washed a robin’s leg and claw out of it yesterday, and today I washed something murky brown out of it. I don’t hate crow, I just wish he knew he wasn’t a raccoon, and doesn’t have to wash his food… in the bird bath.

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The band-tailed pigeons are flocking now. There’s always a sentinel in the now-dead lodge pole pine out front, keeping an eye out while the rest clamber over the bird feeder, jockeying for position. I love their colors in the Spring: the subtle changes of rosy breast feathers against the gray.

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We had a shy black-headed grosbeak come by this week. They aren’t really bird feeder birds, but they will pause while they move north along their migration route, and before the elm trees go to seed.

IMG_4173The house finch is a permanent resident.

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Anna’s hummingbird is also a permanent resident. She’s happy to have real flowers, but won’t hesitate to tell me what she thinks of slothfulness if the hummingbird feeder runs dry. We had two fledglings come through the backyard this weekend: skinny little birds still figuring out how to balance on the feeder, and completely unafraid of us.

I sat in the lawn chair this evening and looked out over my several flower beds and the vast expanse of ‘lawn’ that is really just mowed wild grass, wild geraniums, tiny yellow flowers, and clovers. Green played upon green, shadows danced. The birds came and went, intent on their business, but always with an eye cocked toward me. There are no dogs or cats here, now, and the birds seem to know this.

It’s the trade-off for not having a pet: my garden is full of avian life that is increasingly unafraid of me. My heart is at peace with the birds.