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The Morning Stalk

Sunday, November 19, 2017

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You never know when you're going to have an extraordinary day. I've learned to watch out for the weepy gray days, the ones trying so hard to be ordinary, to pass without notice. November 17, 2017, was just such a day.

While doing my morning wildlife feeding, I noticed a big dark doe walking, all the way out the meadow. Most people say, "Oh, it's only a doe," as if a doe were somehow less a deer than a buck, but I like does. It's like Patton Oswalt said long ago: "I like porn. Because I can GET porn."

Does are easier to see and far easier to stalk; does are easier to identify from year to year, as they aren't always changing their headgear and going through wild hormonal changes. So I threw on a coat and my boots and headed out to stalk this intriguing animal. 


The first thing I noticed about her was large size. Then, her deep blue color, and her beautifully straight topline. Hmm. 


And then I picked up the brilliant white stockings down the back of her front legs. 


She stopped and stood, rooted, staring back at me, and she was so beautiful I thought she might have to be Jolene. Jolene! Is it you? I couldn't remember if Jolene had a red tail, tipped in black. All these little things matter, all these things remain constant year to year, and I add them up to figure out who is who. 

But I don't waste any time looking at my photos when I'm stalking deer. I'm too busy getting those photos and keeping a low profile. I am happy to figure out who I've got after I upload them, when I can closely study and compare the current photos with my library of photos of known individuals. I hadn't seen Jolene since May, and she was heavily pregnant then. 

As luck and the rut would have it, this doe was not alone for long. Out of the woods to the west came a very large buck!


I immediately dropped behind the tall goldenrod, thankful that my part of the meadow hadn't been mowed.  I dared a few shots, rising up just enough to get the lens on him, then sinking back down. 
From his point of view, there was something small, odd and dark popping up and down in the frost- bleached goldenrod, and he wasn't sure what it was. 


I crawled, holding my camera under my belly, getting closer and staying in cover. I peeped up. The buck was still there, still looking at the spot where he last saw me. 


I stayed down. I wanted him to forget about me and think about sex. Finally he turned and continued parading slowly toward the doe. Fabulous! I took that opportunity to hunch-run a bunch closer, while his attention was diverted.


When his bone-white antlers pierced the darkness of the Virginia pines, I knew I had someone special. I couldn't help but notice his beautiful topline, and the white stockings down the backs of his front legs.


Does a buck follow his sister when they're all grown up? If she's in heat, does he know not to court her? Or is it hers to refuse and outrun him? These are things I wonder, and will likely never know. Surely they know each other by sight and smell, if they were raised together. 
Could poor crooked Ellen have been the outcome of a brother-sister tryst? 
So much to wonder. 


Look at his neck--swollen with muscle, built up by fighting saplings and other bucks. Look at the length of his tines. Eight points. A gorgeous gentleman.


When he turned, I could see a pretty good gouge on his right hind leg, doubtless from another buck's tine. He was moving well, though, keeping up appearances for the doe.


The doe had been watching me all along, and she was unnerved by how close I'd gotten. She rushed toward the buck and he broke into a run.  If you click on the photo you can see her motion ghost behind him. 


She was moving right along, outpacing him.


The eternal chase. You can see how heavy are his neck and forequarters compared to hers. He's ponderous by comparison.


It had been a magical encounter. I love little more than being out in a meadow with deer, having some cover to hide in while I watch them living their graceful, beautiful lives.


Next, we'll figure out who that doe was.

The Thing About Jemima

Friday, November 17, 2017

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Jemima came to me as an 11-day old nestling, dehydrated, starving and very sick. It was three days before she kept her eyes open, and I had to force-feed her a lot. I think she had been jostled out of the nest, and her parents judged her not worth trying to save. Jays are smart. People like me are dumb. We lead with our hearts.

From that period of deprivation,  when she went unattended for at least a day, she suffered an interruption in the growth of her flight feathers. And when they reached full length, some of them broke off at the weak spots, which are called fault bars. 

October 7, 2017. Missing primaries.

As a result, this bird is flying on a lot fewer feathers than she should have. As fate and biology would have it, blue jays retain their juvenile flight feathers until late summer of their second year. She won't molt the broken stubs of her juvenile flight feathers until August 2018. Until then, I pray the ones that remain hold. But there are no guarantees with wild things. More could break off at any time. The fault bars run across all of them.

August 2018 is a long time to hold your breath. But you may be sure I am holding my breath.


Maybelline (left) and Jemima, November 11, 2017

I count on Maybelline and the local winter flock of jays to watch out for Jemima. Not much gets past a blue jay. Almost nothing gets past seven of them.

Jemima still flies. She flies with difficulty, and she doesn't get much altitude, but she's learned to hop to the top of a tree before she takes off if she needs to cover a lot of open space. That gives her time to look out for hawks before she launches, too.  

November 11, 2017. Chicken in her grip.

I tell her that if she can make it until her feathers molt in, she's going to be a beast among beasts. She's going to be the strongest blue jay that ever lived. She already is.



I took this photo on October 15. I was outside, and while I stood with my back to the sun, Jemima landed on the Bird Spa, which I keep scrubbed and sparkling and disinfected--for her. I was so close to her that my shadow fell across her. And she turned her back on me and drank. That is trust, and it is as rare in wild birds as rare can be. It's the most beautiful thing I know. She's not sitting on my shoulder any more. But she'll turn her back to me and drink, and if you know anything about how birds think, you know what that means. I won't do anything to betray that beautiful trust. And that would include capturing her to take her in until her feathers molt. Not going to happen.

I have been fighting with myself for months about whether to tell you about Jemima's flight feathers, mostly because I didn't want to have to deal with the blowback and handwringing. But I finally decided to. I've come to detest secrets, and to question the necessity of keeping them. So, having told this one, I'd ask that you not pity her. Jemima is tough and strong. She doesn't need sympathy. She needs support, good food, and her flock.


I control what I can control. I can give her food and clean water. I never miss a day.  Cooked herbed chicken. Pork roast. Pecans, pine nuts. Peanuts. Corn. Sunflower hearts. She gets the good stuff, and I keep it coming. I'm doing everything I can to help her. Know that. Every day I'm privileged to lay out her breakfast is a gift. 

Every single day she survives, every day I'm granted to watch her interact with her flock and her mate is a gift. It would be stupid of me to wish she had a full set of flight feathers, but of course I do, every damn time I see her fly. And then I smack myself back to reality and say, "It is what it is. Work with it. Tell her story."

I didn't see Jemima from November 1-November 9. Her chicken went untouched. Well, almost untouched. There's a Carolina wren who's developed a taste for chicken. While I worried and imagined the worst about my blue angel, I diverted myself photographing this wee mite stealing Jemima's food.

Wren, eating bird.

Wren, contemplating the propriety of having eaten bird. omgwhathaveijustdone?

Deciding not to feel guilty about it. To have more. It was delish.

So you can imagine, not seeing Jemima for 8 days, the kinds of thoughts and fears that coursed through my mind. The conclusions I came to. Maybe she'd tried to migrate after all. No. She knows damn well she can't do that. Maybe that little sharp-shin got her. No. She's as big as he is. She'd fight back. 

My mind is the devil's playground, most of the time. I've had way more to process lately, to make OK, than I feel I can handle. I melted down on Days 6 and 7, just lost it. I said goodbye to her, too. And having let go (mostly),  I was OK on Day 8. I had to move on. What's my choice? No matter what happens to you, moving on is your only choice. 

As my wise,
 hilarious new friend Stephen Andrew Jones says, "Let go, or be dragged." It's my new mantra. More than one person can have the same mantra, right? 

And then, on the morning of November 9, eight days gone, Jemima plopped onto the Secret Studio Feeder as if she'd never left. 


 She glugged down her chicken and hid about a pound of whole corn and went BOOGABOOGA at the mourning doves and stood down a chipmunk and was completely herself and most of all HERE. Alive. Jemima was not dead. NOT DEAD!!


Trying and failing to get Peanut # 7 in her gular pouch for air transport to a secret hiding place in the tangle on the east hill. To get there, she flies along the side of the house and up to a telephone line. Re-adjusts the peanut load, then launches on a sustained flight that's easily 130' diagonally across the meadow. Not that I just went out and neurotically paced it off, or anything. Who'd do something like that?

Jemima, flying with a full load of peanuts. And not nearly enough wing feathers. Nov. 12, 2017

My point is, Jemima is making her way. Whether or not she's aeronautically sound or even "releasable" matters not. She's out there, released since June 11, and she's playing the hand she's been dealt. Well, aren't we all?

Maybelline, Nov. 12, 2017

I've told beautiful Maybelline to keep watch over Jemima, and he says he will. He wishes she would share some of that chicken. I tell him to help himself!  He answers that he's still working up the courage. But sitting two feet from me through a pane of glass is a very good start, Maybelline!


Jem and Maybelline hung around like dirty shirts Nov. 9-12. And then didn't show up Nov. 16 or 17. I'm waiting it out again. Trying not to obsess. I'm not good at not obsessing about this bird. 

So. Know that this situation is hard for me, know that I'm doing the best I can by her, and please consider that in your comments and suggestions.  I believe in this bird, and you should, too. No pity. No sympathy. And most of all, no handwringing! I can sit here and wring my hands dry, completely unassisted. You'd be amazed how good I am at it.
letgo,orbedragged letgo,orbedragged letgo,orbedragged

Send us your positivity and strength. Please save the rest.  If a hawk takes her tomorrow, hers is still going to be a hell of a story. I've told you about 10% of it. The rest will be in the book. Just before Jem showed back up, I signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to tell her amazing story. Because I was still in the middle of my JEMIMA'S DEAD!!! meltdown, it didn't really hit me until the next day how lucky I am to be able to do that. How lucky can you get? A publisher is waiting for your illustrated book about a blue jay? You get to write about, photograph and paint blue jays now? For a living??

Really, though, as if not having a contract would stop me...nothing could stop me, because Jemima has become My Thing.


Saving Jemima.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. October 2019. Be there. 

November 11, 2017. Full as a tick. She's not fat. She's big-boned.

Jemima Update: Enter Maybelline

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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Do you notice blue jays more than you used to? When you see them, do you take the time to really watch them? Is there perhaps more affection and understanding in your gaze than usual?

Good. Jemima and I are doing our job.

While I don't expect Jemima's fans to undergo a full-blown BJO (Blue Jay Obsession) the way I have, a little obsession never hurt anybody. Everywhere I go, and I mean everywhere, I hear blue jays. I see blue jays. And when I hear blue jays, I grin from ear to ear. Because I don't hear birdcalls. I hear my girl yelling. I fancy I know what they're saying to each other. Thanks to having raised Jemima, I am hooked into the world of blue jays. And I am still an infant, still opening my eyes, taking most things in without knowing their meaning.
But I know a whole lot more than I did on May 15, the day before Jemima entered my life.


A beautiful jay in Mount Auburn Cemetery in mid-October. I walked around that place until I ran into some jays. And then I was in heaven, just me watching the blue people, doing what the blue people do. And them watching me back. Maybe seeing the pictures in my head of my Jemima, back home. Maybe getting why I was so glad to see them. I consider that a distinct possibility.

Here's the deal with Jemima as of November 13, 2017. She's still here.  I held my breath all through September and October and the first half of November, because that's when blue jays move, if they're going to move. And ours seemed to empty out. I'd hear jays in the woods, but the ones that had been coming to the feeders were gone, or otherwise occupied. It's hard to know with blue jays. 

The only two who stayed around the feeders were Jemima and the bird we call Maybelline. They've been attached to each other since they were both juveniles, in mid-August. And the fact that Jem and Maybelline stayed around, apparently for the winter, when the rest cleared out is no accident. That will become clear in my next post.

When you see two blue jays this physically close to one another, you can be sure they're close in a relationship way, too. 
"If you suspect something, it's been going on for a long time." (M.B. Zickefoose)

In this photo, Jemima's in the back. That's Maybelline in the foreground. You will notice how much black Maybelline has around his eyes, and on the side of his face and neck. Phoebe named him back in July, noting that he was wearing an awful lot of makeup. Yes. I just called Maybelline a guy. Wearing guyliner, I guess. Because I'm 99% sure he is. Just as I'm pretty darn sure Jemima's a female. And no, I'm not changing Maybelline's name to Maybe or Malebelline or anything like that. It's a perfectly good name.

Maybelline started accompanying Jemima in mid-August. Who knows when jays form their pair bonds? I do. While they're just a few months old, as juveniles, that's when. At least these two did. 
Maybelline, Aug. 26, 2017, waiting for Jemima to load up at the Secret Studio Feeder

I cannot tell you how delighted I am that Jemima found a friend, nay, a mate! in August, and that they're still an item in November, hanging even more closely together. I almost never see one without the other popping into view. It just makes everything better, so much better that they're together. 

Jemima is perfectly comfortable being watched and photographed from inside the studio. She's never known anything else. But she is no longer tame.  I remember when, if I left the screen out of the studio window, she'd come into the house and raid the mealworm bins! I remember stuffing her back out the window, laughing. Nope, nope, nope, you're not coming in any more. God, how I'd love to have that problem now! She'd never come into the house now.

 Such sweet memories. That was only July. A lot changes in a few months when you're wild. 


I've devoted most of my time since late June to writing Jemima's story. It has as many shades and intricacies as her exquisite plumage, twists and turns and subplots. 

I started writing for publication in 1986. I've been writing and illustrating my own books since 2004. But I've never had a project like this one. It is a great and delicious luxury to tell one bird's story. To tell not the stories of 26 species, as I did in The Bluebird Effect; not 17 species, as in Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest; but the story of one singular bird. 

I get up every day and can't wait to get to my laboratory, where I sit and write and stare out the window and wait for Jemima. I hate going away. I even hate going into town. 

Don't want to close my eyes 
I don't want to fall asleep
'Cause I'd miss you, babe,
And I don't want to miss a thing.

Next: The Thing About Jemima




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