Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Habitat for Avianbirdity

It's wintertime...again

Well, did you get everything you wanted for Christmas this year? Has your life been thoroughly enriched by celebrating "quality time" with relatives and loved ones? (Note the careful separation of the two terms, just in case they are not necessarily synonymous in your life) and finally ask the BIG question; Am I ready for 6 more (months) of winter!?

Well, after you park that big ole' snow-eating machine in the garage for the third time today, stomp off your brown Sorrels on the back door rug, and grab a cup of hot sustenance, it may be time to look inward to your basement for a temporary solution to shack-happy madness...build a bird house. Why a bird house you ask? Well, firstly it's a "birding" blog you have stumbled across (hell-oooh). Secondly, you have always wanted to build one right? Thirdly, It can be very therapeutic and relaxing (if you have been "cleared" on the use of power tools) Fourthly, what were you going to do with all those scrap pieces of wood taking up space and gathering dust anyway? Fifthly (is that truly a word I ask you?) and finally, the birds will thank you so why not?

There are plenty of resources for this worthy endeavor in your local library, bookstore, nearby nature center or pet store. Here are a few links to on-line information you might try as well, but the Internet is FULL of places to surf towards. (Link 1 - Link 2 - Link 3 - Link 4) The most inportant aspect of creating a suitable (ready to move in) dwelling would be the hole size of the entrance, and whether or not there is a perch just outside it. Different birds require different accomodations so begin with which species you wish to assist with house-hunting. Start by noticing which birds you see in your area and build-to-suit. No sense constructing a "spec-home" for upscale birds from uptown, when your neighborhood seems to attract only middle-class shoppers. That's not to say that there are "more desirable" birds that deserve a place to live, while others do not. It's just to state the obvious fact that if (just because) you build it, they might not come (anyway). So with that nugget in mind, here are a few specific homes for specific birds: Chickadee - Wren - Robin - Bluebird - Wood Duck. Know also that many birds will not utilize a bird house regardless of it's splendor and craftsmanship...they just don't do hard sides and a roof. Don't get discouraged if the birds don't find it immediately, or even in the first year it has been hung either. Give it time. Give them time.

There are as many schools of thought regarding which birds are "deserving" of houses as there are discussions and disagreement about even allowing certain birds to live at all. I'm not in those circles and probably would have my membership card (if I had one) retracted for not adhering to "the code" or something, so I just do my own thing. For instance, several years ago I built a house specifically for the many House Sparrows which my yard consistantly attracts. I wanted to build a piece of "functional art" more so than boring accomodation, so I began with the idea of an old western town. I used old barn wood over symetrically square cubicles to decorate the outer sides. I incorporated scenes from old photographs and details from movies I enjoy to create the motif I was hoping for. The result was a pleasing to the eye main street scene, all ready for occupancy, multi-level apartment for the lowly House (formerly English) Sparrow. I really prefer the older term for these hearty stallworts of the urban jungle. I sense another blog topic in here somewhere regarding these misunderstood survivors. The Blue Book of Birds of America (1931) says, "Imported into America and liberated at Brooklyn, N. Y. about 1850, the English sparrow, because of its bullying attitude toward other birds and its destructive habits, is looked upon as an undesirable alien...it should not be confused with our desirable native sparrows." Well la-dee-da I say...I still root for the Green Bay Packers even though Brett has been gone all season, their defense blows, and they missed this year's playoffs. I wish for all fat kids to make the swim team and for nice guys to finally get in the front of the buffet line. Furthermore I say, hurrah for the lowly undesirable English (House) sparrow...Welcome Home ya'll...Welcome!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Seven Swans a Swimming, Six Geese a Laying...

The Twelve Days of Christmas must have been written by a birder.

Who has not sung or is not familiar with all the counting that goes on in that most famous of Christmas Carols? Did you ever wonder why all the fuss about counting birds? Someone must have been fixated then and probably still is to this day, especially at this time of year. The Christmas Bird Count, or CBC has been going on since the year 1900 with (now) tens of thousands of participants. Granted the majority are not "egg"-headed scientist types, just ordinary citizens doing the counting, but the Audubon Society has been "counting" on them for over 100 years to "feather" their nest of information on birds. The Enderis Park Bird Watching Club (EPBWC) did their part once again this year for the cause. Although 14" of fresh snow had fallen the day before in the Milwaukee area, 6 intrepid "counters" took wing (first for a doughnut and cup of Joe) and then to their mini vans, Durango, and Prius. With maps of "area 16 and 20" in their midst, the group stepped out into the 27 degree air and looked skyward.

The wind brought the temps near zero degrees but that did not dissuade Tammy, Don, Jill, Julie, Nola (and the Birdstud here) from carefully scanning each tree, bush, and open area for their quarry and putting a dash mark aside each enumerated species. Why do this you may ask? My answer would be; Why Not?! The data is valuable, the camaraderie exceptional, plus it's fun to get your fanny outside in the elements from time to time for the sheer exercise. Area 20 was covered by the group in the AM and Area 16 by me in the PM.

The counts we submitted to the Schlitz Audubon Center on Saturday December 20th are as follows:

Area 20 (Final Count)
American Crow - 5
American Robin - 31
Goldfinch - 100
House Finch - 7
White-breasted Nuthatch - 1
Hairy Woodpecker - 1
Downy Woodpecker - 3
Dark-eyed Junco - 4
Northern Cardinal - 9
House Sparrow - 31
European Starling - 105
Northern Flicker - 1
Black-capped Chickadee - 13
Cooper's Hawk - 2
Mourning Dove - 5
Pigeon - 27
Herring Gull - 5
Mallard - 10
Blue jay - 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk - 1
Red-tailed Hawk - 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 3
Total Birds -
366


Area 16 (Final Count)
American Crow - 8
American Robin - 30
Goldfinch - 35
House Finch - 35
White-breasted Nuthatch - 2
Downy Woodpecker - 3
Dark-eyed Junco - 19
Northern Cardinal - 16
House Sparrow - 60
European Starling - 180
Black-capped Chickadee - 10
Mourning Dove - 13
Herring Gull - 3
Mallard - 10
Fox Sparrow - 1
Tree Sparrow - 1
Total Birds - 426

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving (a story...)



"Fresh" turkey for Thanksgiving...Yum?

So the story goes like this...My friend Dave (who lives in Muskego, WI) and his wife, invited a bunch of their friends and neighbors to their home (on a 7-acre parcel) before Thanksgiving a couple years ago. They had been "raising" turkeys in a large pen in the yard and wanted to have a "Turkey Slaughter" party. Now I had never been to a "Turkey Slaughter" before, (Sure, many other types of slaughters...your basic puppies, goldfish, cats, monkeys, etc. but never a "turkey" one before) So all of us (the Fam) went out there. Now this was quite a scene to arrive upon. There were several 55 gal. drum (barrels) propped over wood fires, filled with boiling water, plastic-covered wooden tables with groups of people hunched over them pulling feathers, saw horses with shiny metal cones mounted to them, all around the immediate area...(more to come)

Nola and I stood overseeing as the rest of the Devereaux kids piled out of the car and wove their way quickly around the spectacle like sperm searching for the elusive egg, running to and fro amongst the assembled adults and paraphernalia with their mouths hanging open at the carnage. I approached Dave and was given the Cliff's Notes version of the various techniques involved in the day's "activities." The queasy bite of anxiety nibbled at my gut as I walked to the edge of his property towards the narrow strip of trees beyond and between the old farmer’s fields which had been subdivided to create these large suburban, yuppie plots of land. Acreage that had once stood resolute and proudly gave of itself for the noble purposes of food production had now been reduced to hosting 3000 square foot dwellings for those of means, attempting to escape life in the City, while remaining close enough to ply their trades in, and to glean their livings from. (Oh, and some of us are forced to actually live IN the City, but wish they did not have to; but that's another story, for yet another day)

Dave (God bless him) had told me that the "fun" started when I had tracked down a (previously released) bird, captured it with the aid of a fisherman's landing net, and brought it back to the killing fields for processing. Having forsaken the net (I was after all a Northwoods boy) for the "sport" of a purely hand-on experience, I made my way towards the gaggle (or was it "flock?") of hysterically frightened and fleeing black-feathered turkeys. (More to come...)

Wading through the tall grass near the woods, I attempted to "corner" the low-intellect birds by walking crouched over, arms spread wide as I approached. This seemed to work however a few of the gathered managed to run the gauntlet of my encroaching sweep by taking flight, up and over the others into the adjacent field. Lucky for them, at least as far as my impromptu round-up was concerned. I zeroed in on a large hen that looked tasty and bulled my way forward into the bramble and sticks that littered the wooded section of the property. My breath circled around my head as lunging forward with my gloved hands, I came up with not one, but two of the glassy-eyed fowl, grasping them by the legs. The flapping of their wings unleashed a swirling cloud of loose feathers and served to fan the air as if I had grasped a tornado...

There seemed to be no practical way to keep and hold two turkeys simultaneously, so quickly "weighing" the two struggling captives while being bludgeoned with their escape attempts, I chose my victim by allowing the other to think it had outsmarted its predator, releasing my right hand's grip on its powerful legs. The "other" remained firmly in my left hand as I successfully returned from my walk to the preparation area. The kids looked on in wonder as their father (great gloved "bare-handed" hunter) paused briefly for a photo. "Now what?" I enquired of Dave. "Put it head down, in the cone." he replied. As the bird was conveniently in that position, I dutifully did as I was instructed and the turkey slipped effortlessly into place with a whoosh. The cone was fashioned from a clean new piece of sheet metal bent into an inverted cone shape with a top opening of about 14" and a lower funnel "spout" of about 3". Now, the only thing that was able to move was the head, and it undulated back and forth like a terrified serpent from the open end of the metal.

Removing my gloves, knowing what I had to do next and not wanting to think about it for very long, I looked for and grasped a wooden-handled Chicago Cutlery chef's knife and knelt to the ground next to the cone's narrow end. I planned to grab the colorful head with one hand and deftly slice through the feathered neck as quickly as possible. What I did not plan on were two things; that the neck vertebrae would prove a bit of an obstacle and that my children would have gathered around to watch. In hindsight, I should have chosen a large scissor-style brush pruner and did the deed with a brief closing of the jaws, but I was a "man" after all, and I had captured my prey and was going to "show" that I could handle such a simple task as if nothing could faze me.

Bare left hand on the warm leathery neck and right hand pulling the blade across the throat, blood spewing forth into a cardboard box below as I did so, the less than razor-sharp knife encountered resistance. Determined to finish this gruesome demonstration of machismo, I hurriedly began to saw violently and tug the blade across and upward. At this point my bare right hand was lacerated against the bottom edge of the cone, adding to the blood that pooled in the catch pan. Rather than admit I had done such a stupid thing, I finished removing the hen's body from its head and quickly relocated my glove, pulling it over the gash wound. My wide-eyed kids began screaming and ran away into the tall grass as if their father was a mass murderer and they were his next victims.

Pulling the dripping headless bird from the cone with my bleeding gloved hand, I walked it over to the 55 gallon drum filled with boiling water and held it in for a count of 60 (seconds). The soggy steaming fowl was then put upon a wooden table and stripped of all its feathers by hand. Gloves were definitely worn for this task. The bird was re-dipped into the boiling water two more times to get those tougher "peepcha" feathers (That's Polish for "pin"). The moment I pulled the feathers from the breast area I became concerned about a large "sore" spot that displayed itself on the skin beneath the (now removed) feathers. It basically looked like a 50-cent piece sized open wound. It was black and red and oozing stuff. Oh crap... Upon closer examination, the area actually had a (pardon the pun) foul odor as well. My Brother in Law Alan (ex-farm boy) was there and assisting me that day (as well as collecting his own bird…Uh-hmmm...he used a net to fetch his bird) and explained to me that this was a pressure sore from the yard bird resting in its own droppings for whatever reason and an infection had developed causing the fecal matter (are you getting queasy yet?) to fester under the skin. Well, by now the taste of "fresh" turkey began to sour in my mind as I did the "finishing activities" by gutting the thing and rinsing it with copious amounts of water against hope that the smell (and most likely actual taste) would not be as unpleasant as it seemed that it would be. (Perhaps I should have "brined" the thing in bleach?)

Basically the turkey was graciously accepted, bagged and taken home where it was unceremoniously placed in the alleyway dumpster...we bought a frozen replacement from the store...never again to slaughter.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Back to Door County

Door County Wisconsin (Fall)

Camping with the family in Peninsula State Park this late in the season was a first for the Devereauxs. Fortunately for us, the weather basically cooperated with cool but tolerable temperatures. When you get that close to a Great Lake like Lake Michigan, you can pretty much figure that all weather bets are off. The sky on the first night we arrived was crystal clear, providing us with an unlimited panorama of celestial beauty. Add to that the new moon, and the constellations stood out like a pimple on the nose of a prom date; shiny, prominent, and unforgettable.

The cool night air was kept at bay due to the reliable propane pop-up camper furnace. With the sun rising over the shimmering blue-gray water, many small shapes bobbed on the waves. Among the more familiar floating Mallards, Canada geese and Ring-billed gulls were other smaller diving birds with prominent white patches on their heads. The strikingly contrasted, yet diminutive ducks dove and re-emerged over and over while my wife and I watched. Dozens and dozens in small flocks moved over the water looking for bits of food beneath the surface. The birds turned out to be Buffleheads. Pairs of male and females darted amongst the other ducks and geese along with a few dozen female Common Mergansers. Birding in general was great, with about 50% of the leaves having fallen to the ground. A Pileated woodpecker, knocking its beak on a dead birch was located by following the sound it made. Bark was falling to the ground beneath it as the excavation continued unabated even though we paused beneath the tree to observe. It is the actual "observance" of the animal doing what it does naturally, that I enjoy the most. A total of 22 species were logged over the next 24-hours as I pedaled my way some 10 miles along the many roads and trails available to Peninsula visitors, and I never even got my feet wet. Add to the experience the aromatic waftings of a smoking wood fire and a cold (adult) beverage of your choice and you have a wonderful, relaxing weekend worth repeating.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Who IS Joe the Plumber anyway?

I am Joe the Plumber...Really!

This blog submission will not be politically slanted... I swear. It's really intended to deflate some stereotypical beliefs and to serve as an affirmation of a few little-known details regarding a handful of tradespeople, that don't fit a standard template. If you have read my bloggy little thoughts in the past, you'll no doubt already have a pretty good idea what's inside my head. For the rest of you who accidentally stumbled into this environment, sorry but you'll catch on fast.

Yes, it's true that I am a Master plumber and have been plumbing (with yes, an actual license) since 1980. I do not own my own business now (or yet), but worked for a family business for 17 years. During that time working closely with my father and mother, I learned what hard work, persistence, and steadfastness to the cause were all about. If the work was slow, the paychecks were slim. If the customers did not pay, the business received no money, but employees and Uncle Sam still got theirs. Hours spent on the phone pleading for a payment from Mrs. Smiths and Mr. Jones taught me that people will accept a pay-as-you-go plan if offered; thank you very much, and the priority for actually paying off a bill for a potty repair, easily falls from their radar when compared to a week's worth of groceries. (Which by the way, they paid for 100%, before leaving the store.) Seeing the working world from this angle provided me with a unique opportunity for balance, when (after moving to the "big city," and learning "how we do things here") I joined the "Local" in 1988. Money was instantly better and work was plentiful, but it didn't take long to see that ALL workers (no matter what their abilties, attitude or work ethic) are treated as a group, no matter what. Remembering that these men and women were all licensed by the State and may have had different strengths and weaknesses, didn't matter to the "contract" signed by their employers. I could see how this union of the trades, was a powerful tool for leveling out the playing field for all workers due to their affilation with it. Everyone moved along at the same pace, same economic benefit, same paycheck amounts right? No. Contractors somehow found a way to reward their star performers. Those that shined brighter were compensated at a different level than their "brothers" who just showed up, mailed it in, whatever. That's Not Fair right? (FYI: the "contract" was only a "minimum" required amount.) I thought we were all "equal" here...well, I was not complaining as I was one that was being "over compensated" for my ability and attitude, but some were definitely hacked off. After all, equity for all right?

Why bring this up B-Stud? Well, just know that no matter what economic system is created to artificially balance or equalize everyone by rules, laws, "fairness" or by contract; hard work, persistence, and steadfastness to the cause, still motivates some "Joe the Plumbers" to want, and achieve more than the next plumber. It's just human nature (for some) right?

Well, it is for THIS "Joe the Plumber"/husband/birdwatcher/balloon animal-tyer/gardener/House-watcher/volunteer/website author/blogger/Dad.

So, the only thing I will say political is, VOTE. Vote your choice, vote your heart, vote your future, but do vote. (or just be quiet, once the winner is chosen, and accept your contract.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What Are YOU Waiting For?

Life is short, and a positive sustained run in the stock market is much, much shorter.

The way the markets have been plunging lately, making that ugly sucking sound as you watch your future earnings disappearing, tends to give one pause. It should also sound the alarm clock in your head to wake up and smell the (high-priced) coffee. Just when you thought it was safe to dream of retirement, pulling the pin, heading for a warmer climate, the welcome mat to your Winnebago was jerked out from under you, forcing you to get up, dust yourself off, and park it in the storage garage for a few years of recovery. What might this be telling you? Well, one lesson to be learned is that it's not ever good to hold off doing the things you love now, until that "someday" when you "have the time, and money" to do so. You may never get the chance if you wait. (Oh, and it's OK with your kids to have some fun now...I checked.)

This theme has been visited in the past by those far more egg-headed than the B-Stud. Take for instance, "More Ice-cream Less Beans" by Brian Andrew published in 1996. This book basically tells the reader to skip the boring main course and get to the dessert. My 47 year-old take on the whole thing is much simpler; Live it up and quit moping around, just smell the roses, notice things on the ground, look at people in a brand new way, watch what they do, listen what they say. Find your niche' and flourish in it!

To tie this mantra for living into this format of Birds and Blogs; Go Birding NOW and don't wait for the someday that may never come. Heck birds don't care if you have $100K in your portfolio or cobwebs anyway, and they are much more interesting than staring at a spreadsheet.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The 2008 BWD Big Sit



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Appreciating all things avian was the goal of the day.

It was still dark as I pulled the white Dodge Dakota pickup into one of the parking spaces in the lot at Havenwoods State Forest. The air was crisp and moist on this autumn Sunday, October 12, 2008. I loaded up the wheeled folding wire cart with all the equipment I felt I would need for the day. Muffled strains of distant traffic noise could be heard along with the chirruping of crickets as I slowly dragged it to the paved road to the north of the building. The road abruptly ended about 1000 yards from the lot and I was forced to double back slightly to locate the dimly lit mown grass path. Two large rocks had been rolled in place just off the pavement to adequately discourage motorists from attempting egress. It was here that I left the hard navigable surface for the uneven footpath into the woods. Walking slowly through the wet grass as to not stumble or dump my load, I moved deeper into the forest quietly slipping through the ground fog. I was heading for a place I had scoped out a few weeks back where I imagined I would have a variety of habitats in which to scan. As I neared the rust-colored metal arching bridge over Lincoln Creek, I glanced to my left and stopped in my tracks. Through the dim moonlight on the surface of the small ½ acre pond lying 200 yards away and below the trail where I stood, floated hundreds of dark shapes. I was mesmerized. What were they and should I just stop here? Because I was the only one who was likely to participate in this particular Big Sit today, I made an executive decision to create my virtual 17 foot circle right here, forsaking the area I had imagined myself inhabiting for the day. I pulled the cart off the trail towards the treated wood Boy Scout Eagle project bench that was thoughtfully positioned overlooking the water and waited. 

Carefully removing the contents of the cart, I unpacked a few things in order to get to my Bushnells. As I raised them to my eyes and turned to the shapes on the silvery pond, I was startled by a noise behind me. Hhhphhhhh…Hhhphhhhh! arose from the direction of the bridge abutment on my side of the creek bed. I froze. Hhhphhhhh…. Hhhphhhhh! the sound repeated itself. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I turned to face the bridge. Hhhphhhhh…Hhhphhhhh! The only thing that helped me stand my ground and not bolt from the area was a memory from my days as a deer hunter raising the possibility that a Whitetail may be just below the ridge and had caught my scent. I chuckled to myself wondering what I may have done had I not considered this possibility as I walked though the darkness to the bridge to investigate, hoping I was right. Now, having viewed more than my share of slasher movies while practically screaming at the screen for the lead character to not go into the darkened room, I vaguely wondered why I has not taking my own advice. Perhaps the slight crackling noise of my approach on the gravel near the start of the bridge may have spooked whatever was previously making the sound, as I heard nothing further, nor did I see anything as I peered into the gloom. I turned around and walked back to my bench to await the glow of the impending sunrise. The surrounding woods smelled damp with dew and tendrils of white mist hung mere inches above the fallen leaves. I sat as high as possible on the back edge of the bench with my feet on the seat. Having dressed for the day in olive drab and brown layers I was insulated against the morning’s coolness, and prepared to remove clothing as necessary throughout my 12-hour stint. Perched as I was on 2” of treated pine, Bushnells in hand staring out at the pond, I reached beside me to turn on my .mp3 recording device. If there were bird sounds to be heard, I would capture them for reference later.

I sat virtually motionless about 25 minutes watching and listening to the geese on the pond occasionally honk their disapproval at small incoming sorties of visitors. With my backside needing a break from the lumber massage it had been subjected to, I quietly climbed down to stretch. The light from the rising sun cast an orange glow to the distant trees as the world around me brightened ever so slightly. I snapped a few photos of the pond and surrounding scenery catching a glimpse of a Great Blue heron standing stoically amongst the feathered throng that floated nearby it. Small ducks were dipping their heads under water and paddling around like small service boats in a marina. The crickets continued their background soundtrack as I celebrated the growing lightness of the forest. A muskrat dog-paddled its way back and forth to its subterranean home shuttling mouthfuls of succulent reeds while green and bull frogs jumped into the water from the bank. Without warning another group of geese decided that the pond looked inviting and flew in for a quick dip. The honking from the gathered started slow and steady but grew in intensity until suddenly the entire 500 or so Canada geese decided to take flight as a group.

The noise was deafening as they all vocalized and flapped their wings defeating the gravity that held them on the water’s surface and took to the sky, their cacophony fading slowly away to the southwest, as I stood there with my mouth open in awe of the sheer spectacle I had witnessed. “Wow, one in a million,” I said out loud to no one. The ducks hadn’t left but were visibly disturbed and milled around reorganizing their ranks. About two dozen geese (the new comers more than likely) remained in the water honking as if to critique the mass takeoff, and through the pandemonium the Heron had stood unmoving, seemingly unfazed, providing for me a new definition of the word “composure.” Their departure seemed to wake up the balance of the songbirds in the immediate area as they could now be heard warming up their individual parts of the fall dawn chorus to come. Pulling out the drab green soccer-mom chair from its matching nylon condom, I set it up facing the opposite direction from the wooden bench. Finally unscrewing the cover on the blue thermos bottle and pouring myself the first cup of the day, I smiled and picked up my notebook to log in the avian species that had already been a part of my 2008 Bird Watcher’s Digest Big Sit experience.

After making one entire slow clockwise tour of the pond’s shallow reedy edge, eating whatever it could spear, agitate, or impale, it waded to the southwest section of the pond near the edge. With two spotting scopes trained on the heron, it stood, sat, dozed, stood, sat, dozed, and preened endlessly for 8 hours within 3 feet of the same pile of rocks. Mallards would occasionally swim up next to it resting on one orange leg, as if to keep it company for a while. This was a definite bonus having it in constant view for the entire day, especially during the doldrums of midday bird watching drought. I alternated chairs, ate a bagel with cream cheese and apple my wife had packed, took photos, logged the occasional species, and even popped open a tin of smoked oysters to celebrate a flock of Eastern Bluebirds that buzzed and chirped around me, before settling down on the steel of the bridge railing. Wife Nola packed-in a lunch of a Subway sub sandwich, chips and a Diet Pepsi around 2:00 PM and EPBWC Treasurer, Julie Ristow joined us shortly after I began eating. (Notice: All shameless product endorsements have been uncompensated for the purposes of inclusion) The two of them watched with me for the afternoon and enjoyed the nearly 80-degree unseasonable weather, reminding me of the cold-wet sit we had endured the year before in Sheboygan. 28 species logged and 12 hours later, I packed up the truck for the return trip, feeling relaxed, happy and grateful for the opportunity to be in nature among its incredible beauty and wonder. Did we (EPBWC) win anything with our 28 bird species sighted? - Nope, but the rewards are endless...

Here’s the complete list in order sighting:

Canada goose
Mallard
Great Blue heron
White-throated Sparrow
American Robin
Belted Kingfisher
American Goldfinch
Peregrine Falcon
Least Flycatcher
Downy Woodpecker
Red-winged Blackbird
Ring-billed Gull
Blue jay
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Phoebe
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Bluebird
House Finch
European Starling
Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker
Gray Catbird
American Crow
Killdeer
Turkey Vulture
Black-capped Chickadee
Common Nighthawk
Mourning Dove

Monday, October 6, 2008

Read any Good Books Lately?

A good guide can make all the difference.


When I go out in the woods looking for birds, I always take along Kenn Kaufman and the Stokes. Well, not really the actual people (however cool that would be) but their birding guides in book form. Sure, you can say, "Look at that birding geek Birdstud, with his camouflage fanny pack strapped on his backside...isn't he a dork?" But, I don't care. There have been too many times in my young amateur birding career where I have needed to consult with those much more knowledgeable than I am. Enter experts, Kenn Kaufman and Don and Lillian Stokes. In my limited experience with field guides, I prefer the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and for Warblers (those energy-filled little, hard to identify beauties) The Stokes Field Guide to Warblers. Both of these books are compact, vibrantly colored, chocked full of information and easy to understand. (I only wish I would have written them.) I mean, any book that asks and answers the burning question of, "What is a Warbler?" gets my vote each time I open the thing. I love to sit and peruse the pages flipping back and forth to compare my field notes with the tell-tale signs noted by the authors, with one caveat to the beginning birder that every book I have picked up will tell you; look at the darn bird for as long as you can making all the (mental notes, at least) notes you can BEFORE you crack the book. Why? From experience I can tell you that you may think you can pick out that new bird from the pages and pages with only a quick look at the actual bird, but as soon as the question of one or two wing bars and were they bright or dull arises, you'll wish you would have done what I suggest. Now, I know the temptation will be there to just "peek" into the book, but don't do it! - Watch that birdie as LONG as you are able, and log all the info you can...then go for it. (Note: you can purchase Kenn's guide online - HERE)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

You Don't Say?


If you keep an open mind, you never know what you'll hear.

The old man had obviously seen me before I saw him. I had been peering though the Bushnells into the underbrush at a Winter Wren when the old man shouted from about 30 yards away, startling me. "Ya seein' anything?" he inquired. I turned around to face the voice. Walking out of the woods on the well worn trail, he came leading a small dog on a leash. His red plaid woolen vest was pulled over a threadbare olive green jacket. The flaps on his battered hat covered his ears, but his hair poked out in crazy angles announcing to the world who was actually in charge of his appearance. The pulling, choking shelter-rescued mutt was also wearing some sort of cover-up around its midsection and was attempting to gain the upper hand in setting the pace of his master's walk. As he neared me I said, "I was looking at a Winter Wren and have just seen a Yellow-rumped Warbler." "Yeah, I seen em' last time me and the dog walked along the river...have ya seen the big red one?" he replied. "Hmmm no." I answered, "but I did see a Red-bellied Woodpecker in that tree, and it's still there," as I pointed upward to a distant tree. "Yup, seen it, the big red one...see it all the time," the old man verified.

Well I mused, this guy must walk along here often, however he sounded like one of those, been there done that, that's nothing new, you young whipper snapper; types, so I was best to just run the old 'respect your elders' drill and keep it short. "You walk through there," the man 's breath came out as a fog in the 45 degree air as he pointed a gnarled finger, past the brush and toward the river, "and you can see the Huron." "No kidding?" and nodded as I responded, clearly over matched here in the avian arena. "Ayuh, seen it a lot of times." said the octogenarian ornithologist as he finally succumbed to the straining canine and allowed himself to be led farther down the path, and out of my sight. "Wow," I chuckled to myself watching his hat dissapear into the woods, "a real Huron right here in Wauwatosa."


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sciurus Carolinensis Electrificosis and the Mallard

I thought I was quacking up...

Are you familiar with that time of the early morning when sleep is slowly slipping away, the light is slowly changing against the closed blinds but you remain lying there enjoying the warmth of the sheets, refusing to surrender to the whisper of reality telling you to arise and face your day? I was in such a place of contentment one Monday morning when I heard the sound of quacking, just outside our lower corner apartment. Now the sound of quacking wouldn’t normally be a sound that would attract much attention, as ducks are universally spread throughout the globe in areas known to have fresh water available and are generally quite commonplace. This particular quacking, given its proximity to a heavily traveled 4-lane thoroughfare and the complete absence of any water source piqued my curiosity. I smiled as I lay there listening to each carefully regulated quack, and dreamed that I was once again back in my beloved Northwoods, when suddenly there was a FLASH that projected against the corner window, instantly stopping the anticipated next quack and killing the power to the digital alarm clock.

Now wide awake, I jumped to my feet, pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a pair of tennis shoes as I dashed to the apartment door. The exterior door from the building’s hallway to the outside was just around the corner from my apartment, so I pushed outward on the aluminum bar and stepped out. Looking for a (now-silenced) quacker, I scanned the small grassy side lot and concrete walkway that led from the side street. No duck could be found. I glanced up at the top of the nearby power pole transformer and saw a small trailing wisp of smoke and a disconnected fuse hanging like a broken arm. My eyes moved down the pole towards the ground below when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the exterior door had opened, and a figure had emerged. Though I didn’t know her name, I recognized her as one of the two women living in the corner apartment across the hallway from me. I had seen her and her “partner” on many occasions as they came and went. I asked her if she had also heard the quacking or the flash. She acknowledged that she had seen the flash and her power was also out. I explained that I suspected to find that an avian wader was our culprit, but had yet to locate the victim.

I fixed my attention back to the power pole and saw a brief movement in the leaf litter from the previous fall. Approaching cautiously, looking at the twisting form on the ground my initial thought was it was much too small for a duck. Recognition dawned on me as I bent over the gray and furry form that lay scrambling and smoking at my feet, a squirrel! Its tail looked like a hairless rope; its four feet had exploded at their last joints and remained attached by mere smoking ligaments, its ears showed signs of blood and it was pissed! My thoughts drifted to finding a club when the tree-hugging neighbor, who had now joined me in my visual triage screeched, “We’ve Got to Save It!” “Ahhh, save it?” I asked incredulously. “Yes, it’s injured and it needs help, so we’ve got to catch it!” she breathlessly continued. Now, I have successfully handled my share of woodsy creatures in the past, so the thought that an injured squirrel would not wish to be “saved” never entered my head. I reached forward to grab the squiggling writhing rodent assuming that it would appreciate my quick response to its plight as I placed it in the loving care of my neighbor. Wrong! As my hands closed over its slim body, it twisted its head around and BIT me.

Now I was pissed but only slightly wiser as I threw the beast to the ground, bringing my bleeding hand to my eyes for a quick inspection of the damage. “Damn it!” I exclaimed as I looked to my intrepid partner for an explanation she was unequipped to answer. “Are you sure about this “rescue” thing?” I implored while incredulously watching the quadriplegic repeatedly leap from the ground up to a nearby tree trunk, finding no purchase for escape. Seeing her resolve and confusion at my inability to capture a poor, injured defenseless mammal, I turned and walked to my car parked nearby in the lot, muttering, “I need gloves.” Hand protection in place, I searched the area that I had pitched “Rocky” to mount a different strategy. Movement in the nearby lilac bush drew my attention so I moved to intercept. I wish that I had thought to put on a tee-shirt as sharp sticks scratched my sides and chest while I parted the woodwork to lean in for another attempt at a merciful intervention. This time the wriggling and worming wee-titan of the forest spun and sunk its incisors deep into my gloved hands again and again, finally eliciting enough release to leap from my hands to the roadway and across. It scrambled like a fuel-injected tortoise on stumps to the other side as I stood there in stunned admiration of its tenacity. Never having been bested by any small creature before, I was now determined to finish the job. Running across the side street, my gloved hands outstretched, I plunged into yet another shrubbery. This time, ignoring the chewing, pinching twisting “victim” I crossed the street victoriously imploring for a box in which to place the squirrel.

The entire comedy had unfolded in the span of less than 5-minutes. Squirrel safely (I gave a damn if it was “safely”) in the neighbor’s cardboard box and out of my sight, I reentered my apartment to apply first aide to my throbbing hand. Greeted by my wife, I recounted a thumbnail sketch of the previous few minutes. She burst my triumphant bubble with a question; “Could that squirrel have had rabies?” Crap, I hadn’t thought of that in the heat of the capture. I cleaned and dressed my hand with a nagging worry in my gut. I promised to call a doctor’s office with her question as soon as I got to work, kissed her and off I went armed with the number for the clinic. Later, dialing the number with trepidation, I silently rehearsed the question and potential answer, wondering what the series of shots to my stomach would feel like. A nurse answered my call and sat listening patiently as I recounted the sins of my stupidity ending with the question I dreaded. Several moments went by as I strained to hear if she had registered the horror I had relayed to her through the telephone. The sound of stifled laughter came through the earpiece as she excused herself and her emotional outburst. Intense relief flooded my soul as she told me not to worry about squirrels and rabies, but to be extra careful of infection. “INFECTION!” I scoff at thee infection, for I have stared potential rabies in the face and it blinked.

Later that afternoon, with the results of my good fortune retold to my fretting wife, I enquired as to the squirrel’s condition at the loving hands of the local animal shelter. She grinned and said, “Oh, they put it to sleep.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Which Feeder for You? Thistle Do Just Fine, Thank You.

Experience is often the best teacher. Sit down class and take some notes...

A few years ago I was introduced to a new style of feeder for finches. I had tried the fancy plastic tubes, wire cages, and blocks of hardened seed to entice these beautiful golden and black ornaments of the trees, down to my yard for a bite to eat. I had spent tens of dollars experimenting with variations, placement, new seed, etc. with little to no success. Enter; the nylon "sock."

I was drawn to the simple solution while patronizing the Havegard Outlet store outside of Sturgeon Bay, WI as I looked at a photo of a curious white bag on the wall behind the cash register, positively decorated with birds. $ 3.99 later, I walked out with my new feeder in the palm of my hand, wondering if I would suffer buyer's remorse. Fast forward a week later, feeder filled with fresh Nyjer thistle seed, the sock did not disappoint. It was if the thing had a magnet in it and goldfinches had suddenly become ferrously attracted. I was astounded and pleased. I needed MORE of these wonderful little devices at once!

Unfortunately, a 2-hour car ride was not in the cards, so I did the next best thing; I shopped locally for more socks. What I found was encouraging and decoratively pleasing as well. The socks I found even had decoys painted on them! - What could be better? I purchased one of these and excitedly filled and hung the new birdy lure with anticipation. What I discovered soon after was that my new "prize" just did not have the same effect on the finches. In fact, they snubbed it and it's colorful drawing of a cousin or sibling, by ignoring it altogether. Hmmm? What was this?! Were they offended by the crude representation of their proud species? Was the whole idea being spurned due to a technical coloration faux pas? Whatever the reason, I was dejected and took the thing down ASAP vowing never to attempt to fool mother nature again. What I did not realize until an "AH-HAH" moment a year later, was that it had nothing to do with the painting, color, image, at all. What the big problem actually was, had to do with the size of the openings in the weave of the fabric. The seed simply could not be extracted by the birds! Who knew? Sure, a squirrel could rip through the fabric and obtain all the seed it wanted rendering the bag useless, but a tiny bird?

So, take (learn) it from me...buy larger weave socks and enjoy your finches!


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Speak Softly and Carry a "Walking" Stick?


If you are quiet and stand still long enough to listen, you may even notice a few extra special things.

Havenwoods State Forest is located on the north side of the big city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It's 237 acres of grasslands, forests, and wetlands are "open" 6 AM to 8 PM to all visitors looking to escape from the rat race that is the largest urban city in Wisconsin. I personally discovered its vast avian diversity in 2007, during an afternoon, post workday reconnoiter. Deciding that it would become one of my favorite local haunts, I have visited many more times since, with my favorites on lazy Saturday mornings.

My latest sojourn had me suited up in my usual geeky birding garb and on the traffic bond gravel pathway, at 8:30 AM. Bushnells firmly strapped crisscross style, I inhaled deeply, pulling in the State Forest air. I wondered how many other fellow Milwaukeans knew of this special place. In the distance, a sole figure dressed in a gray tee shirt was laboring towards me. Continuing southward, scanning the shorter vegetation on the sides of the path, I noticed small birds flying in and out of the greenery. American Goldfinches by the dozens darted to and fro, males flashing their characteristic bright yellow and black color while their duller "better halves" did their best not to be outclassed.

The jogger was close enough now to read the writing on his chest. "ARMY" was plainly visible in large black letters as the crew cut coiffured man who wore it, passed by with a gracious, "Good Morning." This impressed me and I responded with my own greeting. I recalled that the Army's 84th Reserve base was nestled just to the south and against the land I was currently birding. Earlier in the spring as the unit readied themselves for a 4th of July appearance, I had heard a pretty fair rendition of the famous Sousa "Washington Post March" emanating from the parade grounds, as I searched for Eastern Meadowlarks. Deciding that there is nothing like hearing a good march while walking through a forest, my chest swelled with good old American pride. Now, seeing this guy and the 10 other committed individuals that trailed along behind him, revived that emotion once again. I was proud and glad that there were people who were willing to sacrifice their all for the rest of us.

Trees filled with Cedar Waxwings offered an opportunity to watch some serious bug-catching action as I stood on the edge of a field. Off in the distance, the clatter of a Belted Kingfisher sitting on a small rusty signpost on the edge of one of the water features, caught my eye. A juvenile Pied-billed Grebe floated and dove deep after some underwater breakfast. Standing still and silent near the 1911 concrete train bridge, looking at a young family of Indigo Buntings in a shrub, I felt something on my leg. I don't startle easily, and I'm glad I didn't reflexively swat the nuisance. I looked down at my hitchhiker friend and saw it was a walking stick insect. I hadn't seen one for many years and smiled at the tenacity of this one, as it climbed and climbed upward. Placing it gently back among the detritus it was expertly mimicking, I walked onward noticing the many native Compass Plants and purple cone flowers. Gazillions of grasshoppers and small black crickets sitting on the gravel flew like popcorn, parting my wake for the safety of the tall grass, while puffy clouds drifted overhead like wads of mozzarella floating in a bowl of french onion soup.

I smiled, counted my blessings and went on looking for birds.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Finding your "Center" in Life

Sometimes Life gets in the way of actual "living..."

As the days now get shorter and the sun angles change to lengthen out late afternoon shadows, my thoughts turn to the one "natural" thing in my life that remains unchanged yet unpredictable...Birds. Yes, Birds folks. Birds do things their way, on their time schedule, showing up (or not) when and where they choose, and for periods of time known only to them. Sure, we humans "think" we have things mostly figured out, but I for one hope we're wrong. I want to creep silently through the underbrush or along a line of trees in an open field never really knowing what I will see. That makes it special, new, different, each time I strap on the Bushnells. Do I have kind-of an idea what I may see where and when...sure, but the looking is the thing. "My" thing anyway.

At the end of my "supervisory day" with many individuals wanting to talk to me, ask me questions, garner opinions, ask permission, tap my computer skills, you name it, having the opportunity to stop for a peek at what's hiding in the trees is extremely cathartic. In a job where the same things are expected each month, each quarter, each year, and the cycle drudgingly repeats itself, isn't it nice that one activity remains where chance is everything, and I discovered it for myself? Yes, I say, YES! You see to me it's one of those things where the process of observing is as rewarding as the finding. Fishing and hunting are like that for many. Often individuals who consider themselves "sportsmen and women" are lumped together with those overzealous individuals in their ranks who take a different approach, one of conquering and capture, while their true interest lies in the mere experience, and not of the ultimate trophy.

As I approach 50 years of age and look out of these "middle-aged" (assuming of course, I'll be 100 when I die) eyes at the clamor around me, finding my "center" has been difficult. Those of you reading this who have been through it can relate, while those much under the 1/2 century mark will most likely wonder why the introverted speculation is necessary. I understand the quizzical look on your face as I too thought I had it all together, but trust me, and file this bit of advice in your sock drawer for someday; find your centering place, and "live" there, as the rooms are always big enough, the temperature is always just right, and the food is awesome. Don't let anyone or any "thing" spoil it for you, because if you are fortunate enough to discover it, you are going to be OK.

Yeah, OK is good enough sometimes...


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Birds of Lake Park


Milwaukee has a LOT to offer Birdwatchers:

One of Milwaukee’s best places to look for (watch) birds has got to be in Lake Park on Milwaukee’s lake front. A Milwaukee County park, it features diverse land features, plants, trees, and terrain. The park itself has become a gathering place for people of all interests; joggers, bicyclists, Frisbee golf enthusiasts, soccer, rugby, mothers with small children who play together on the equipment and in the sandbox, hikers, dog walkers, and of course; birders. With regularly scheduled “Warbler Walks” in the spring and fall of each year, local bird-watcher Paul Hunter and his peers know the lay of the land by heart and have each path, walk and geographic separation named and surveyed to accompany their archived detailed species counts. (Visit Paul’s Page for more information.)


I have personally been to the park at least 8 times and have come away with new birds for my lifelist almost each time. I have been there on the cold windy days, the cool rainy days, the sunny glorious ones too and am always glad I came. The trees are always filled with birds, and the feeders in the park are consistently, lovingly filled by the Friends of Lake Park. I will say I am a bit chagrined by the “dog walkers” of the park who have decided that the wonderful fenced-in tennis courts are a good place to allow fido to run leash-less and free upon. (I even took a video HERE if you wish to be similarly appalled.)


...But then again I digress...If you can look the other way and not pay any attention to the distraction of lawbreaking going on around you, (and I know you can) look to the trees for your reward. There are many trails to explore and discover. The upper pathways offer the best views of the varied species available. The lower ones, while bucolic, are a bit too densely packed with vegetation to afford a good view of the animal life. Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were the stars of the day this sunny warm August 31st morning. Their chittering and squawking could be heard all over the ravine as the different family units gathered. The cool breeze from Lake Michigan wafted through the openings in the trees bringing a fresh odor of all things watery. Harley Davidson's 105th anniversary party was winding down it's Labor Day weekend celebration but the "potato-potato-potato" sound of the bikes could still be heard rising above the bluff. Birds seen this day were; the aforementioned woodpeckers, Chickadees, Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Canada Geese, House Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers. The hour spent walking along the pathways was serene and relaxing and will soon be repeated. I suggest you wend your way there for a visit as soon as you are able. The warblers are coming soon and are not to be missed!


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Just Horsing Around

Do YOU enjoy horses?

In 1986 on a visit to St. Bonifacious, Minnesota, I came face to face with a terrifying new challenge: riding horses. The Stanchfield farm stood on the edge of a grove of old oak trees at the end of a long dirt road. Crisp autumn air blew through the slats on the corral fence as the horses within slowly walked the perimeter. “Would you guys like to ride?” called Judy from the doorway of the barn. “Ah, sure,” I answered for Nola and myself, not really sure if I actually did want to ride. “Well, go on into the fence at the gate and wait there for me,” replied Judy as she finished feeding the baby cows their test formula. You see the Stanchfield farm tested new and “improved” animal feed on young cattle as a part of its function. The horses were just for fun we were told. “Have you guys ridden before?” asked Judy as she approached the two of us. Nola replied that neither of us had ever ridden before other than a trail ride or two in the Eagle River area so we were not too familiar with the process.

Nola was introduced to a older female whose name was, “Misty.” I was led over to a younger male who as luck would have it, carried the moniker of “Rocket.” “He’s a good horse. You shouldn’t have any trouble with him,” stated Judy in a matter of fact way. I should have known better even then as I approached Rocket and he stared at me as if to say, “Whoo boy, here’s a live one…y’all watch this.” With Nola mounted in her saddle, I grasped the horn and swung my leg up and over as I’d seen John Wayne do on many TV westerns. “That wasn’t so bad,” I thought as my rump settled into the leather cradle. Judy handed me the reins and said, “OK, just kick his flank a bit to get him started,” and she backed away towards the fencing to watch. Big mistake. I did as she instructed and suddenly Rocket was off like one to the other end of the hard-packed corral at a dead run.

I jerked back into the saddle and my head whipped like a rag doll as Rocket kept gaining speed. I pulled back on the reins with both hands until the bit dug into his mouth as deep as it was ever going to, but still the horse ran at top speed towards the other side of the fence. Bam, bam, bam went the saddle under my butt as I let out a whoop and desperately hung on with both knees as the ground below whizzed by. Just as I felt we were about to smash into the adjacent fence, Rocket pulled up and turned around. “Whew!” I exhaled, as it appeared as if the nightmarish ride was finally over. I looked over at Judy from the opposite side of the fenced area and was about to say something when Rocket took off again at break-neck speed back. Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh! Was about all I could get to escape as my body bucked up and down on Rocket’s back. Pulling the reins back with all my might, Rocket seemed to increase his top speed and mock my attempts to control his movements as he raced headlong to the other side once again. This terrifying sequence repeated itself two more times with my anxiety growing by the second as I failed in the slightest way to make Rocket do anything I wished.

Just when I thought I’d have to hold on until my next birthday, Judy stepped in and distracted Rocket with a carrot so that he braked so instantly I almost flipped over his lowered head. Judy had a look of embarrassment as she tried to explain that he’d never done that before. I shakily dismounted and kissed the ground I’d almost been tossed upon. “Damn!” I exclaimed, “I don’t ever want to do that again.”I guess I can honestly say that horses and I do not understand each other...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering Mom



Joan Devereaux - (Dear Mother of the Birdstud) {8-20-1938 to 2-2-2008}


You often are a product of your upbringing. I definitely am. I owe my love of birds to my departed Mom. It's her birthday today, she would have been 70. Since this is the first anniversary of her birth since her death on the 2nd of February, 2008 I wished to retell the story of her last days on this earth...


The urgent phone call came to me at around 4:00 PM on Wednesday January 30. As Mom lay (propped into a semi-sitting position) in the “hospital bed” in her living room, her tortured cancer-riddled body had given hospice workers subtle indications that she was “days away” from passing. These warning signs were passed on to Dad and sister, Lisa and in turn they notified the rest of the immediate family of the inevitable.


Being careful to include the comfy over-sized “Up North” sweatshirt that Mom had gifted me several Christmases prior; I packed up a suitcase with a few days’ clothes Wednesday evening. I then gathered a few more things I thought I would need and placed them near the door for tomorrow’s departure, and then eventually went to bed for the night thinking about her while tightly clutching our (bedroom color-matched/Mom-manufactured) crocheted afghan.


With the blessings and well wishes of Nola, Dedra, and Max, I was able to escape work responsibilities and leave from Milwaukee around noon on Thursday January 31st driving my old truck up highway 45 toward Rhinelander. About 10 minutes in to the 4-hour drive I phoned Mom’s house. Denise answered (good, she was already there). I explained that I was “on my way”. She relayed the message to Mom who wished to speak to me. The weakened (eager) nearly breathless “I love you” that came through the phone was just what I needed to keep me focused on the lonely drive north.


As I opened the door to my parent’s house a welcoming chorus of “Joe’s here” rang out. Mother looked up (clearly relieved) from her bed with a big smile, as I came to give her an eager kiss. I whispered in her ear that I was glad she waited for me and that I loved her so much. I announced to my Dad that I would be staying in the house (with him and mother) and would even sleep “log-like still” on one side along the mattress piping of his king-sized bed if I had to, but I wished to remain in the house. He laughed and said although it was OK if that’s what I wanted, he did indeed have a small cot in an adjacent room. I tromped in and out the door with my belongings for a few minutes being careful to stomp off the clinging snow onto the rug. The small blast of cold January air that escaped into the room with each trip back and forth to my truck seemed to be a welcome distraction to those gathered around her bedside, as no one seemed to take offense.


After settling into the small multi-purpose room that also served as a place where Dad could continue to perform his important work for the State of Wisconsin reviewing plumbing plans, I greeted everyone and received the most recent update on her dwindling condition. I sat next to her taking her warm hand in mine. Her carefully manicured and painted fingernails lied to the outside world as to her actual physical shape, but indicated a deep love and respect from the daughter who was responsible. Her once bright eyes now appeared slightly dimmer and extremely exhausted from the long battle she had endured and seemed to know was yet to come, in the minutes, hours and days ahead.


The girls (her faithful and adoring daughters) insisted on an impromptu “slumber party” in the living/dying room by her side, that night. None of the assembled vigil would or could know until later, how Thursday afternoon and evening would be Mom’s best (or her last) coherent moments with us. Regretfully and with a heavy heart son Chuck excused himself to his family in Sugar Camp fervently eliciting promises from those who remained behind to call him the moment something changed. Excusing myself to the tiny room, I unpacked and set-up the computer and scanner I had brought with me from Milwaukee, and proceeded to slowly (digitally) capture all of Mom’s print and photographic memories from a small plastic box where she kept them. Funny we all seem to imagine how people’s full lives can be reduced to a few keepsakes, trinkets and images, but each one of us have something that we feel identifies us and makes us matter in the grand scheme. Yellowed and brittle newspaper clippings, booklets from obscure events, dateless black and white prints, torn ticket stubs, and certificates of achievement mean something to the saver but most often can’t tell the story behind them. This I sadly discovered as I examined each kept thread of my mother’s existence and attempted to manufacture my own special meaning and chronology. How I wished to have had her by my side narrating as I peeled each layer back, yet I remained determined, yes driven to give her survivors a precious gift and mother a tangible legacy. You see Mom was not one to ever blow her own horn, create attention to her exploits, or even think of bragging her accomplishments. So as a result of the many hours spent between taking in as much of the present living/dying Joan Devereaux as I could handle and reliving her wonderful past through her keepsakes, the hole she would leave in all our lives grew deeper and wider. Baby Joan, teenage Joan, big-hair Joan, classy Joan; all of the many images that made up her life flashed on my computer screen as I lovingly handled and prepared each memory as if it were (as if she were) vibrantly alive. How does one fully represent someone’s life in a matter of minutes? It was with immense privilege I accepted such a daunting challenge but as the hours went by I began to feel woefully inadequate to the task.


Mom was a “real looker”, and she displayed that beauty as expertly as the model she had once trained to be long ago. Dozens of poses, hair styles, hair colors, and outfits each carefully chosen and each appropriate to the times were captured on the photos I sorted through. I feverishly kept up my quest determined to immerse myself so deep into her past that I almost felt as if she would not die if I doggedly kept up my digging and research into her life. Each time I took a break to check on her, convinced she was going to be sitting in a chair quietly watching TV or knitting, I was cruelly reminded of her current reality. “It’s not fair” my mind screamed. “This just sucks” would follow. There could be no sense to any of it. She was much too young and special to so many for this to be happening.


Meanwhile Dad would pace, the sisters would fuss and medicate and the rest would sit quietly alternating worrying and praying over Mom. In what now seems all a blur; home hospice workers (both Aides and Nurse) came, tended, advised, and cared about all of us over the next 36 hours. Wonderful friends and neighbors dropped in with well wishes and food for the rest of us you could muster up an appetite. Joan had long ago stopped being either interested (or capable) of eating and was now only accepting syringe-filled morphine doses and droplets of water from the loving hand of her family entourage. But, she was HERE in HER home surrounded by loved ones who not once shied from any task no matter how difficult, complicated or unpleasant. My sisters and brother comforted my father, each other and me with their stories, and humor as the tense Friday hours wore on.


Very early Saturday morning, as I lie in my cot in the small room which had become my private escape and workshop, I could have sworn I heard strains of Amazing Grace in the next room. I came around the corner in the still pre-dawn darkened room to discover that Denise had been sitting very near Mom singing softly. This was to be Mom’s last day on the earth and my sister had sweetly set the tone. Stories about the final day will vary from person to person and I know I’ll eventually hear them all, but my favorite moment of the day came at no particular memorable minute to me now, but the effect was lasting. I was on one of my sorties past mother when she opened her eyes briefly. I paused, waved to her from the foot of the bed and smiled at her. She looked back at me, eyes filling with recognition, and smiled the most beautiful smile I had ever received. As a quick as the moment came it evaporated as she again closed her eyes and went back to the place in her mind where she was fast retreating. That smile, that single wonderful, loving smile will remain on my top 10 list of all time. Thanks Mom.


Finally around 5 PM on Saturday the tribute to Mom was ready. I removed it from the computer’s CD burner and put it in the living/dying room’s DVD player. The family group assembled in a semi-circle and we all sat both smiling and crying as we alternated between watching the TV screen and mother‘s shallow labored breathing as she lay on the bed. I needed to get out for a breather after that so I left for a short time to purchase supplies for the reproduction of copies of the tribute. Upon my return from a local store I busied myself with the last task of duplication while every so often pausing to either look closely at Mom or to sit for a few minutes holding her (non-Lisa occupied) right hand. (You see Lisa had connected herself to mother’s left hand and was not about to give it up.) If love was a cure our mom would not only have beat cancer but would also have lived forever.


At approximately 8:00 PM Lisa and Denise noticed some vast changes in Mom’s physiology (stemming from her toes on up her lower body) and pointed them out to me and then to Dad. More pain-controlling liquid morphine was administered into her open mouth (as scheduled) around that time as well and an alert went out to all assembled. Her breathing changed yet again in the next few minutes to something totally different (akin to agonal breathing) and ineffectual as Dad and then each child took turns gently kissing her, whispering a special private message into her ear. Just as Denise was about to complete her turn, I noticed that Mom had stopped breathing altogether. A spontaneous recitation of the Our Father prayer began and we all held each other while weeping and crying uncontrolled bursts as the realization hit us that she had passed away. I glanced at my wristwatch and saw that it was 8:30 exactly. I felt for signs of life in her and found none. It had happened. Her glorious spirit had taken flight. Now we all cried for ourselves and the future.


All that is left of dear sweet Joan (Wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend) besides the memories, photos and plaques are; the scent of gardenia, turquoise jewelry, various yummy crowd-pleasing recipes she handed down and taught each of us to perfect, the way she pronounced the word package in the South Milwaukee way as “paggage”, samples of careful handwriting, Hummingbirds, Loons and the joy of birds in general, bottles of nail polish, slot machines awaiting a “pull” of the handle, America’s Funniest Home Videos, new things in the grocery store to be tried, internet shopping, her purse, her determination, her strength, her selflessness and her legacy (which is in each of us), to carry on. We’ll miss you Mom…Happy Birthday!


Hummingbird

­­By: Joseph E. Devereaux

Long ago and far away, was born a gentle soul


One of five blessed with a twin, she made her family whole.


From early on her beauty shone, with grace personified,


Kind and patient careful girl, fate to be her guide.


Country girl to city girl, and everything between,


Flowers, fashion, style and charm, the best he’d ever seen.


A handsome prince and promises would sweep her off her feet,


Into his loving arms she fell with happiness complete.


Doting wife her sacrifice was personal career,


Faithful husband fairytale regrets were none, no fear.


Mother dear to children four, her family to sustain


Resources thin, invention high, make do and don’t complain.


A friend to creatures great and small, to care for them she’d try,


Things that slither, crawl, and hop and other things that fly.


She’d decorate her hearth and home with more than she could use,


Though give it all away she would, like jewelry and shoes.


Voice as smooth as polished glass, soothing to the ear,


Singing softly round the house, her children longed to hear.


Driven volunteer was not afraid to take the lead,


Willingly she’d raise her hand and tackle any deed.


Loved to cook though not a chef her recipes could vary,


Tasty dishes she prepared are all but legendary.


Entrepreneur, idea-girl, and partner to her man,


Work side by side together on the business master plan.


Our dear old friend whose luck ran out, one February day,


So many happy times to share, until she went away.


Her bravery and strength was surely testament to all,


Live your life with no regrets and answer every call.


Sweet memories are all we have of Joan, to keep inside,


She heard God whisper, “Hummingbird, it’s time for you to fly”