Identifying Feathers, Part 2

feather 1I’ve talked about identifying feathers before, but I can’t help wanting another go at it, because it’s a fun topic and pastime.

After having found feathers in the pasture from great blue herons, great egrets, turkeys, mourning doves, Steller’s jays, scrub jays, northern flickers and western bluebirds, I came upon this beauty last week, and suspected it came from a Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, or maybe a rough-shouldered hawk. Safe guesses, all, since these birds frequent our neighborhood.

feather 5To figure out which feather I had, I consulted BIRD FEATHERS by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland. This book is a gem, and has helped me identify every feather I’ve found on the Wren Ranch, with the exception of two very small, very delicate specimens, which I assumed belonged to an Anna’s, calliope, or black-chinned hummingbird, but I was wrong about all three. (This story continued another day, when I’ve actually figured them out.)

The key to identifying this feather was to begin with the birds that frequent our yard, pasture, and feeders.

feather 2I started with the page featuring feathers from the sharp-shinned hawk. Not a match, however, as there is no white stripe that extends fully about an inch or so from the top.

feather 3It’s not a Cooper’s, either–again, no white band near the top.

feather 4But when I turned to the next page, I knew I had a match. See how the white band extends across the quill? And then there’s that pretty little swath of light brown on the right side that flares a bit in the middle. There is also a slim band of white at the top of the feathers in Scott’s book, and on the feather I photographed, although it isn’t clearly visible. This is the feather of a red-shouldered hawk, which is also the hawk that cries, cries, cries in the pasture. (It’s their nature to complain, I suppose.)


Grover Hot Springs Getaway

gateway to grover


Every year, Steve and I plan a getaway to Grover Hot Springs State Park. Sometimes we take off in the middle of June; sometimes it’s early September. Last year we missed our trip, as there was a forest fire near Pollack Pines that had closed Highway 50. We despaired, as it would have been our first outing with our new Minnie-Winnie, an outrageously ridiculous camping trailer that we’d bought to save our backs.


This year, though, we made it. Left on Sunday, returned on Wednesday. Burned a mess o’ road to and fro. Okay, not a mess, exactly. More like 240 miles.


Creek behind camp


Steve and I are big talkers. “Try something new, we say. Give Chester or Mt. Lassen a whirl.” But then we spend a few days at Grover and it pulls us in, just as it’s done for thirteen years now (minus that year with the fire). There’s so much to do! So much to see! This is the view from Space 47, directly adjacent to Space 48, the camp we enjoyed in those foolish years when we employed a two-man tent.




Here’s our routine: After setting up camp, we take Donner for a walk. She swims in the creek, runs in the meadow, and tears up the landscape with an inaugural “butt scoot,” which Steve and I heartily encourage. While she’s running, I take photos. This is a plant called Equisetum—commonly known as horsetail—which, when fully grown, makes a handy whistle. Just pull it apart and blow.




The snow plant’s scientific name, Sarcodes Sanguinea, translates roughly to “bloody flesh-like thing.” It’s actually a root parasite, but it got its name because it was once thought that it bloomed only in ice and snow. Not true. It’s blooming here in early June, and there isn’t a snowflake in sight. Just ask you-know-who (hint: black nose in photo).


Fallen pine above camp


This is a fallen Ponderosa. If you read my first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE, you might remember that the cracks in the bark of this pine smell like vanilla, or maybe butterscotch. This guy’s good-smelling days are long gone, however. He now smells like dirt and dry needles.


Steve watching deer


It takes a lot to wear Donner out. And when I say “a lot,” I mean 4.2 miles, uphill. Here’s Steve, resting. He’s also watching two does, which he hopes will walk on over.


Steve and Donner


Donner doesn’t like deer; she would like to chase them off. Steve tells her it’s not a good idea. Mama will get mad and start to yell, and no one wants to hear that.


Ren and Steve Selfie


This is a photo that Donner took. It’s MamaDada, she says.


View above camp


There are no poor views at Grover. This is just above our camp.


Morning coffee


So we had this idea that sleeping on a mattress in a Ridiculous Trailer That Resembles a Box would feel like snoozing on a cloud. Mostly that’s true, but if you’re novices, like us, it takes some practice to ensure that when leveling your trailer your head and feet are at approximately the same height. If not, you will begin to slip from your mattress to the refrigerator around 2 a.m. When this happens, you will need a pot of strong coffee the minute you and your husband wake up.


bfast table set


To get the day properly started, I decide to make French toast. The Ridiculous Trailer has an oven, stovetop, and microwave, but I can’t quite shake the delight of cooking in the open. So Steve helps me schlep all the fixin’s to the Great Outdoors, while Donner sets the table.


French toast fixins


Four eggs, milk, butter in a pan. One loaf of sourdough bread.


Donners tower 2


Donner’s job is to protect the Eaters-of-the-Toast from Would-Be-Intruders. That’s anyone with a dog on a leash, a kid on a scooter, or a bear cub come down from the woods.


Donners Tower


A dog’s job is never done.


Donner pensive


Okay, I lied. Sometimes a dog’s job IS done, but what’s the fun in that? Let’s take a quick nap and then start over. Please see above.



Nesting Season at the Wren Ranch



Remember this fellow back in January, when its tuxedo was alive with fungi? It wasn’t much more than a photo-op then, and nothing we particularly paid attention to, aside from its decoration. But on Sunday, when I pulled the green-waste bin from in front of the wood pile, a black flash caught my eye—a bird I thought was a phoebe.


“It came from down here,” I said to Steve. Stymied—because phoebes don’t frequent wood piles—I bent for a closer look, and to my astonishment (and almost indescribable pleasure), I found this cavity.


May_11_ladder-back woodpecker


It turns out this nesting hole doesn’t belong to a black phoebe at all (they build nests on ledges sheltered by an overhanging surface, or under a bridge, or niche in a wall), but to a Nuttall’s woodpecker. According to A Field Guide to Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds, Nuttall’s generally choose nest holes in trees trunks, at heights of two to sixty feet from the ground. This little hole, however, is no more than 20 inches from top to dirt, and so it’s brilliant—because who would think to look for woodpecker babies here? Not scrub jays, we hope, nor American crows, both of which dine on baby birds.


We’ll keep an eye on it, and if we’re lucky, Steve will snag a photo. Meanwhile…


May_10_robin's nest


…there’s a new robin’s nest in the grapevine beside the house…


May_11_hummingbird nest


…and an Anna’s hummingbird nest under construction in this nearby redwood. You have to look hard, but trust me, it’s there (little brown clump, mid-right); not yet as large as a walnut shell, but nearly doubling in size each day. As I stood to take this photograph, the little female flew up, cotton fluff in her beak, and hovered as she waited for me to retreat. Which I did. Slowly, quietly, respectfully, giving her the widest berth possible in which to complete her job.

Books, Books, Books…And a Little Writing Too

book 4

I’ve been incommunicado of late, working on a new novel and reading, reading, reading. I finished ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr a few weeks ago, and enjoyed it so very much; it’s a splendid book, but it does take a bit of hanging in to decipher the changes in dates. Once you’re roughly one-quarter of the way through, however, you’ll have it, and upon finishing the last sentence will understand why Anthony Doerr this very day won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

book 2
March and April were gifts from the Book Gods, giving us THE ANIMALS by Christian Kiefer, and THE OTHER JOSEPH by Skip Horack.

book 3

I’m well familiar with these authors’ previous works, and can promise that their newest books will not disappoint. Kiefer’s stunning inclusion of a chapter from the point of view of Majer, a blind grizzly, will leave you simultaneously weeping and rejoicing–despondent over the novel’s inevitable conclusion, while thrilled with the author’s original thought and voice. Horack’s effort is no less impressive: how can you not a love book that incorporates missing fingers and mail-order brides? You can’t, and you won’t. You’ll go crazy over this book.

book 1

THE GREAT GLASS SEA by Josh Weil is on order…

book 5

…as is BETWEEN YOU & ME (Confessions of a Comma Queen) by Mary Norris, a woman who has for the last three decades worked for The New Yorker’s copy department.  As a comma abuser, I’m in desperate need of Norris’ help — let’s see if she’ll land a hand.

Cleaning Day at the Wren Ranch



Over the weekend, Steve and I noticed the white-breasted nuthatches checking out this box, in which they’ve nested several times in the past (competing with Bewick’s wrens and western bluebirds, whichever claims dibs first). Even though we emptied the box year before last, we could see small twigs protruding from the entrance, which meant it was crammed to the top. Mom and Pop Nuthatch were painstakingly emptying the box, twig by twig, and so we gave them a hand today, and emptied it for them.




Here’s the long view of what all those twigs looked like.




And here’s the short view; it’s about two inches deep in there.




As long as we were emptying nesting boxes, we decided to tackle the box in back on the west side of the yard. This little box was chock-full too; it’s another nuthatch favorite.




While Steve was replacing the box on the tree, two red-shouldered hawks flew over, crying, crying, crying, before landing in the gray pine just to the right of these scrub oaks.




After Steve reattached the box to the tree, I asked him to bring his ladder over, so we could check out this cavity, carved by an acorn woodpecker. The good news is there’s more than plenty of room to raise a family in there, which also brings bad news: the entire trunk is hollow, which means it could (and probably will) come down in the next big wind storm.




Here’s another cavity in the same tree. It’s not as suitable a nesting spot, because it isn’t as deep. There’s an acorn stashed at the bottom, though, a treat for a rainy day.




Here’s a closer look.




Once we’d finished the nesting boxes, I took a moment to photograph these periwinkles, which are blooming perhaps five weeks early. We had the driest January on record this year, and today, February 15, we may have broken a record for the warmest. Even the bluebirds were sweating.




The azaleas like the sunshine, too. But honestly, it’s difficult to enjoy the warmth and beauty of this early spring, because the variables are so unknown. I’m a little worried the insects that nesting birds depend on will hatch too soon, and that by the middle of summer, Folsom Lake will resemble a teardrop in the palm of a giant’s hand.




Donner, however, holds no such worries. She lives in the moment, content to soak up the sun, let her eyes go droopy, and wait for a squirrel to swing by.

A Year in Compliments — Erich Kepner

IMG_9059 (2)


Today is Erich Kepner’s birthday, and a great day to compliment him on his devotion to our daughter Maya and their son Dillon Wyatt. Erich is the original good sport, willing to take on almost any project with a can-do spirit and a tool box. In the handful of years since Maya and Erich purchased their house, Erich has added a deck to the back porch, landscaped the front yard with drought-tolerant plants, and torn down a rickety shed. Before long, a mini-castle will stand where that old shed existed, and in it he’ll store his lawn mower and power tools, and some sort of cook stove, where he’ll whip up ribs and grilled corn and Texas toast for Maya. He’s good to their dogs, too, ensuring Country and Delilah get a daily run, or a game of fetch in the back forty.


We’re super proud of you, Erich, and wish you all the best on this birthday, and all your birthdays to come.

A Year in Compliments — Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl John Dyess


My totem animal is the great horned owl. Since moving into this house four years ago, several great horned owls have sporadically appeared in the redwoods on the east side of the house, and in the gray pine, just over the fence. While brushing my teeth last night, I heard an owl calling from one of the redwoods, so I cracked the window and returned his greeting. (Their call is easy to replicate – listen here for a sample.)

Back and forth we went, seventeen times, at intervals of thirty seconds for the owl, six seconds for me. After my last response, I counted to sixty-five before I heard him call again, this time from a distance, which meant he’d moved to a different tree, on to someone else. It hurt my feelings a little. Later, though, as I sat at my laptop, I heard him again, from the pine this time. His evening song was reassuring, as it always is, and I went to bed with the belief that for the moment, at least, this owl had found his home.


Illustration by John Dyess. Used with permission.

A Year in Compliments — Mother Nature



After a three-year drought in California, Mother Nature has graced us with us with 23.6 inches of rain, according to Steve’s records. Most of the rain (6.1 inches) fell during what Sacramento meteorologists termed a “massive storm” on December 11 and 12, and for us it was significant, filling the ponds and creeks and rivers. We’re at the base of the foothills, and so we tend to get a bit more moisture than Sacramento-proper. And because we’ve got a couple of acres, there’s always a lot of picking-up to do after a storm. The shot above is a small representation of the work cut out for us. Steve calls this “nature’s trimming.” I call it the job of one strong man and his pickup truck.




The pasture is loaded with mushrooms of all varieties. I spent a couple of minutes Googling “pancake mushroom,” figuring this guy would come up. Closest is this one, and it’s strictly a guess, but I suspect it’s a Lactarius of some sort, named for the milky substance it exudes when injured.




And here’s a photo of Steve and Donner, absorbing the long view of the pasture, contemplating nature’s bounty and all the work ahead.

A Year in Compliments — Elk, California

Crab claw

As I sit on the terrace of my room at the Elk Cove Inn, I scan the surf with binoculars, searching for seals and whales and otters. The kelp plays cruel tricks on me, bobbing up from the waves like whiskered heads, and my heart surges with excitement. I could say I’ve been disappointed a dozen times this week, but that wouldn’t be close to the truth. The truth is there are too many distractions to feel shortchanged, too much evidence of beauty. Just look at all I’ve found:


Pink seaweed


A twig of pink kelp, which reminds me of ginger…


Seaweed green


…and this sea grass, of sorts, which would nicely garnish a salad.


Unstaged feather and seaweed


Then there’s this peculiar tangle of seaweed, which has captured a feather…




…and me in the late afternoon. (The sun goes down around five o’clock, always before I’m ready.)


Dead bird


Not everything I find is delectable, but it all makes me curious. What happened to this Cassin’s auklet, I want to know. It no longer has a head.


Kelp cemetery


And here’s a photo of a kelp cemetery. Yesterday I walked boldly through it, wondering if the Sea Gods would strike me dead.


Skimming stone


And then I realized That’s not going to happen – look at this! They’ve gifted me with a stone.


Wave comes


I skimmed the small flat rock across a lingering wave, and it bounced thirteen or fourteen times. All right, ten times. Okay, it bounced twice, but it felt like more, given my grateful spirit.


Elk Grocery Store


A few days ago, after first arriving, I walked across the street to the grocery/deli to pick up a sandwich for lunch. I met Terri (the best sandwich maker ever!) and Sean there. It turns out Sean and his wife bought the store from its former owner roughly six weeks ago. I’m positive they’re going to make it.




This is my fifth trip to Elk. Always, Steve has come with me, but this time I asked to go alone. To get some writing done. I’ve worked hard each morning, hunkering in the breakfast room, with its excellent view of the sea. After five hours or so, when I can no longer straighten my back, I pack up my laptop and go for a walk, stretching the bones in my body.


Elaine and Pru Museum


On Tuesday I ventured forth to the Greenwood/Elk Visitor Center, where I met docent Elaine and her friend Prue. Elaine (on the right) is also a seasonal aide for the California State Park system. We talked about Elk’s history, and when we were done, I took a few notes about trees. Here’s an interesting factoid: The Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the world’s tallest tree, growing to heights of more than two hundred feet. It can have a diameter of twenty feet or more, and weigh over 400 tons. If you were a logger in the 1800s, you would have cut the tree by hand, using only axes, wedges, and two-handled saws. And it would have taken a week to get it done.


Post office looking in


Elaine also told me that Elk’s old post office closed in 1993. When they built the new post office across the street, it was as though someone said, “Okay, let’s go,” and then closed the door and locked it. Everything remains just as it was, including the circulars and flyers.


Box 53


Here’s Box # 53. The Year of the Snake. If you were born in ‘53, you prefer a peaceful life, and don’t like a noisy environment. Which is why you should come to Elk.


If you stay at the Inn, Patty and Mary, the innkeepers on duty during my stay, will take terrific care of you, feeding you a breakfast that will make you weep with love. And if you need a massage to get through your next two chapters, Felicity is your girl.


A Year in Compliments — City of Woodland

Pioneer High 1

Had a great time on Thursday, spending the day in Woodland and speaking about THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE to four fabulous groups, starting with English students at Woodland High. I was a little nervous, as my own teens left home years ago and I’m rusty talking to anyone between the ages of two and 34. But these kids were smart and respectful and asked tons of great questions, and I loved spending time with them.


At noon I attended a luncheon at Woodland Community College, where a group of fine men and women gathered to hear about the book, and then it was off to Pioneer High School, where the students pictured above also behaved beautifully. When did kids get so smart? I was blown away by the sophistication of their questions – “What tense do you prefer to write in?” and “Why did you dedicate your book to Steve?” I told them a bit about my background – how I met Steve during my sophomore year in high school (I was their age!), and how he’s been my trusted reader for 41 years now. If that blew them away, they were gracious about it, and generous, too: when I asked if I could take a picture of them for my blog, they readily agreed, although it turned out I couldn’t photograph their faces without permission from their parents. (Mr. Uebner had the brilliant idea to take the pic from the back of the room.) I wish you could see their smiles – happiness abounds.


Woodland Reads 2014


That evening I met with my last group at Woodland Public Library, and then headed for home. It was a terrific day all around, and I’m enormously grateful to Woodland Reads (a community program based on Seattle’s One Book One City) for selecting my novel as its 2014 book, and to Meg Stallard, who served as chief organizer and chauffeur. I also appreciated Wayne Ginsberg’s assistance with publicity. Thank you, Woodland Reads Team, and the city of Woodland – can’t wait to visit again!