Ticked Off!

Last year’s weather in our part of the Southeastern U.S. was fraught with above normal amounts of rainfall.  This season, mosquitoes seem much worse than usual, I suspect due to the breeding grounds established by the year-ago torrents.  For me, though, the worst onslaught overall has been the recent abundance of ticks.

For many people in our “modern” world having a tick attached to their person is the equivalent of having an STD.   I know some folks who have avoided such an experience all their lives (tick bite, I mean).  But not me!   Last year, I set a personal best (?) of at least sixteen attached ticks over the spring and summer.   This includes one which perched on a very personal, private area of my male anatomy, the noun which identifies it also beginning with ‘p’.  That episode was both highly insulting and revolting.   However, I will point out that none of the aforementioned ticks survived their brief interlude on my anatomy nor have I contracted Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (yet).

Aside from the great degree of moisture our region experienced in 2013, I also learned a few years ago that tick populations will surge about three years after a healthy nut crop.  The reason being, animals which feast upon acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, pecans, etc. are also perfect hosts for those blood sucking mini-monsters.   Conceivably an annual evaluation of the nut count in your neighborhood could lead to an accurate prediction as to when you should take that long awaited vacation to Antarctica.

Perhaps you’ve already noticed this, but we’ve been rather fortunate that most biting, sucking insects have been designed to be relatively slow moving.  Mosquitoes, no see ‘ums, and horse flies are in this category.   I believe we would be in a constant state of distress if mosquitoes could fly with the speed and maneuverability of a hummingbird.

However the Blue Ribbon winner for creating paranoia in the human brain is the disgusting tick.  Simply get into your truck to head home from an afternoon in the woods and then notice a tick crawling up the arm of your companion.  At that point, every small, moderately ticklish sensation on your own flesh explodes into the worry that relatives are stealthily sleuthing over your own hyper-sensitive skin searching for a nice secluded spot to start dining.   And, if you’ve been in infested areas long enough, such angst will be verified as your thumb and index finger search frenetically like a Bluetick Hound looking for escaped convicts.

Chiggers are another loathsome creature that create maddening itchiness in hordes of red blotches.  It may be anathema to some, but a coating of clear fingernail polish on the irritated spot is a proven ‘cure’.  Colored polish works just as well, but may amount to stop lights for your bedtime partner.  Which reminds me of the time I acquired dozens of bites on my feet and legs and had applied a dot of lovely lavender nail polish to each one of them.  Unfortunately, soon after my ‘selfie’ paint job, a bout of gout required a trip to the doctor.   Dutifully exposing my lower limbs, I watched the doc’s eyes swell with images of refugee camps while he promptly snapped on his examination gloves.  Despite my assurances, I’m confident he thought I had leprosy or termites or some combination of both.

The point of all this mindless chatter about creatures many seem to be able to avoid (probably due to living in hermetically sealed environments) is that it ain’t possible for any person to experience the out of doors without being claimed as food by some six-legged blood sucker.   Of course, you can bathe yourself in Deet and then wonder in later years why you are growing another arm or experiencing a strong desire for raw, bloody meat.  And while petroleum products are also a proven deterrent, I choose not to set myself up for self-immolation.

In my experience, grassy or “weedy” areas where the vegetation is about twelve to eighteen inches high are where chances of becoming a donor are greatest.  Picking blackberries seems to be the activity associated with the most pronounced risk.  The best defense is prompt bathing along with having a friend (preferably a ‘close’ friend) administer a complete and thorough check for ticks.  Given the right set of circumstances, these inspections could lead to other, more pleasant activities.  If building a new home or remodeling an existing one, consider constructing a shower that will allow adequate room for four or five of your closest friends to clean up at the same time.  Regardless, keep on gettin’ outside and remember the average healthy human can readily survive the donation of a pint or so of blood.

Birds of Smith-Gilbert Gardens by Pat Pepper

By way of introduction, I made the acquaintance of Pat a few years ago at Smith-Gilbert Gardens.  A retired (English) teacher, she is an avid birder.  I hope she will be kind enough to be a periodic contributor to this blog.


Birds of SGG by Pat Pepper

While most of us are already in summer mode, the bird world is still exhibiting spring fever. Friday, June 13, was not an unlucky day for me at Smith-Gilbert Gardens (SGG) in Kennesaw, Ga., as I made the rounds of the garden looking for bird activity. I smiled at a House Wren singing at the top of a Red Cedar. I had seen a House Wren in that same spot about a month ago. Perhaps it was the same one, unlucky in love as he hasn’t found a mate yet.

SGG is a bird nursery right now. After looking and listening to the House Wren for a while, I saw a bird on the ground near the flag poles. I did not recognize its markings right away, but its size and behavior (scratching at the ground and hopping backwards) was that of an Eastern Towhee. I assumed that this bird must be a juvenile Towhee. I checked my bird guide and matched this bird with the juvenile picture in the guide. They matched!

Juveniles of any bird species can be very difficult to identify. Just like fawns who have white spots for camouflage, juvenile birds look very different from their parents, even their mothers. This, of course, is for their protection. Notice the differences in the male, female, and juvenile Eastern Towhees in the following pictures. They all, however, have a small white patch on their upper wing.

Male Eastern Towhee

Male Eastern Towhee

Female Eastern Towhee

Female Eastern Towhee










Juvenile Eastern Towhee

Juvenile Eastern Towhee

I had guessed the identity of this juvenile based on its behavior, which is a good reminder to all birders that you must take into account visual and audio clues, behavior, and range when trying to ID birds. Light, as well as your binoculars, can play tricks with the coloration of birds.





As I continued on my walk, I spotted another juvenile. This time it was a Gray Catbird.

Juvenile Gray Catbird

Juvenile Gray Catbird


Juvenile Gray Catbirds look much like their parents except they appear fluffier. Like most juvenile birds, they are less wary of us. If I had approached an adult Gray Catbird as closely I had this juvenile, the adult would have quickly flown away. Usually, the juvenile’s parents are not far away and still are watching out for their offspring, so the juvenile is not completely defenseless.

Another example of a juvenile bird’s immature behavior in regard to wariness occurred soon after I saw the Catbird. I was standing at the south end of the meadow looking at a male Brown Thrasher chase another male Brown Thrasher on the lawn when I heard a whooshing sound above my head. I looked up to see a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk on a pine branch. He had a juicy caterpillar in his mouth and stared at me for a few seconds before proceeding to eat his breakfast.

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk


A mature Red-Shouldered Hawk would not have chosen to perch so close to an animal (me) that might be a threat to it. This was something that juvenile hawk still had to learn. After the juvenile finished his caterpillar, he flew to another branch higher up in a nearby pine. The juvenile began to vocalize with that high, clear cry…keeyur keeyur. One of his parents quickly flew to him. I’m sure that juvenile got a quick reprimand about having landed so closely to me.

If you see a young bird on the ground, don’t assume it has been abandoned. Watch it for a while to see if a parent flies to it, or look up on branches to see if a parent is nearby.

There is so much fascinating drama going on all around us in nature. Go grab your binoculars and get a front row seat!

Happy Birding!

Bird Brained?

I am watching a friend while he drives his tractor and pulls a sixty- inch wide mower.  He is cutting his hay field of some forty acres.  Above, a midsummer sun coasts lazily through an azure sky as man and machine move noisily back and forth.  Sweet smelling grass lies in pleasing, uniform swathes and soothes the sounds and smoke from mowing.

At the same time, a gaggle of Purple Martins weave in tight, wildly erratic patterns about those implements.  Their numbers are hard to ascertain as their wheeling, diving yet graceful movements make them difficult to count.  At first glance, their wild maneuvering appears to be indicative of frustration with the tractor’s presence. These seemingly fearless fighter jets of the bird world swirl in individual patterns within inches of the machine and its operator, only to bank sharply and return for pass after pass.  Described by graceful silhouettes, their flights encompass every imaginable angle while staying within a few feet of the methodical tractor and its trailing mower.  Yet, their collective flying on dark- tipped wings never results in collisions or intimidations and my friend continues his work unimpeded.  It takes a few minutes for me to understand what these lovely, aerodynamic creatures are actually doing.

As the growling tractor makes its even cuts through the pasture, I notice that myriads of insects are rudely evicted from their respective hiding and feeding places.  Those not engulfed by the mower blades boil into helter-skelter flights with both alarm and escape on their minds.  Their explosive scattering occurs in every possible trajectory, a continual fireworks of six-legged frenzy.   In turn, the Martins are taking advantage of this easier- than- usual opportunity to feast upon the displaced insects.    Occasionally the birds take a break in proximity to the ongoing harvest, perching in a straight line on a telephone wire that crosses overhead.  Their rest periods are brief though, as they remain almost incessantly on the wing, swarming about the moving tractor and its offering.

By taking a slower pace, I am able to witness this symbiotic relationship between a human endeavor and Nature.  I am fortunate and these observations make me smile.   I think about a rather common insult, “bird brain” and I realize there should be some revisionist thought given to this derisive term.  ‘Bird brain’ should represent a sincere compliment.