Dear Lauren, again

I know it’s been awhile, three years since you died to be exact, but I’m back, writing, because I’ve things to tell.

First, I hope wherever you are there are some good birds.  I mean really good ones. Like your caracara. Lots of caracaras, all for you.

Caracaras all for you

I just got a female white-winged scoter, which was no. 368 on my bird life list. She was in the middle of about 60 lesser scaup on Ft. Myers Beach, floating and diving offshore. I love her because finding her was such an adventure.

White-winged scoter

I searched by myself last Sunday. The tide was low, and I got waylaid by a wonderful Indian wedding.  Are there any that are not joyful? I hope not, because they are so much fun, I’d hate anyone to miss out.  The groom arrived by boat–you could hear the drumming as they approached the island– and then he put on his fancy hat and mounted his bedecked white horse.

The groom

His family and attendants marched up the street to Bollywood music and drumming.  The bride’s family met them at the resort, and then all 250 of the guests headed to the beach, stopping for drinks served in real coconuts. (I wanted one, but we, the onlookers, were told politely to step back.)

Wedding flowers

When the bride, magnificent in red and gold, arrived  on the beach on her palanquin, carried by about six guys, she flashed her own cellphone, much to the crowd’s amusement, since they were doing the same. I smiled all day, especially when I realized how many hours I spent happily not doing what I set out to do.  Thanks to you, I knew all about Indian weddings and could provide commentary for the clueless public on the beach. I did not stay for the stealing of the shoes, however. (I took these photographs with my cell phone. I know you hated yours, but the camera is terrific.)

Back to the duck…Monday, I returned and spotted the scoter in among the lesser scaup offshore. I really did have to scope every duck carefully to find her. Makes it all worth it.

The second time, John went with me and was first in-line for coffee at the Dairy Queen while I was occupied. I can’t remember, but I think you liked their coffee…but all coffee was as vital as blood to you, wasn’t it?  Just think of all the types of pots we’ve all tried and loved–perk, drip, Mr. Coffee, Chemex, god forbid, INSTANT, electraperk, and my favorite–the orange enamel one you just dumped the grounds in and boiled.  That was good coffee.

This coffee pot is apparently now “retro”

Do you get a chance to read wherever you are?  I hope so. My favorite new book is The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. I love stuff about Irish Catholic families for some reason. My friend Kathy heard the author speak, and said she mentioned the ideas of substitution and sacrifice as topics she wanted to explore in her latest novel.  In it, the substitute is a man who fought in the Civil War for another man who paid $300.  My own great great-grandfather did the same and I tried to find out who fought for him, but the records are gone.

Nuns have to turn their heads to look out.

The book has nuns in it, but they are interesting nuns. Did you know those big black and white head coverings were to keep them looking straight ahead not at the world around them? I found that interesting, especially after I purchased a new winter jacket for our trip to DC over New Year’s. It had a hood, and I couldn’t see anything to the left or the right.  I wonder if nuns were ever struck while crossing city streets– faith, I guess.

My favorite in the Vermeer Show at the National Gallery by a fellow artist, Gabriel Metsu–so much going on in one painting…Woman Reading a Letter

I wish you had been in my pocket when we visited DC for New Years. The Vermeer Show was fantastic. I love Vermeer because of the camera obscura stuff, but this show was of him and other Dutch artists painting around the same time (mid 1600s). Whole galleries of women opening and sending letters and making lace and even scraping turnips. And then men, and drunks and rich folks just hanging out.

Vermeer does light, women and pearls so well

Love letters and satin, and little dogs, and whoever heard of brothel paintings? We had lunch with Henriette Rahusen , who is assistant to the curator, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. ,whom we met. What a treat. I am so proud of what she has done with her life. Many years a World Bank wife and mom, and now a historian with a PhD. Oh, and she says the artists painted everyone with light on the left because right-handed artists would position their easel near the window in a way that their dominant hand, or painting hand, would not cast a shadow over the area of the canvas or panel they were working on.  GOOD TO KNOW.

Henriette treated John and I to lunch in the staff dinning room in the East Building.

Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party is back at the Phillips and its surrounding exhibit had a slightly similar theme.  It featured all the people at the party, and what their relationship to Renoir was–fellow artists, benefactors, his wife, other friends, and one fellow they couldn’t find much out about, poor guy.  The exhibit included several paintings by the party goers, which gave you an idea of what their lives were like, about 200+ years after Vermeer and his cohorts.

The Luncheon of the Boating Party

Of course, The Boating Party itself is fantastic.  It draws you in and you wish like sin you could have been there too. Young, beautiful and happy. Drinking eating and laughing on a beautiful day on the water under that fantastic awning. Which he painted in later. There are such geniuses in the world.

We had a great time in DC with our friends, eating and drinking and talking and laughing.   It has been three years since we last were together. It was sort of like the Boating Party but it was cold and there was no awning. But there was love. And loss. And an appetizer called a Grand Plateau.

Capitol Grill’s Grand Plateau.

Oh god or whatever,  I hope you know how much I miss you. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve thought, “Oh, Laurie would just love this.” I just hope you get this, somehow, someway, and till the next time, love from your friend,


PS I also want  to talk about grandmotherhood, but another time. And plants, and the oculus at the African American Museum on The Mall. And joining Zonta, and even Trump. And how he drives me to drink, which I have given up for the month of January.  More later.








Bird of the Day


Equipped and ready to Bird
Equipped and ready to Bird

I belong to a bird club.  This is not news, lots of people enjoy birding with others because, as my friend France says, “more eyes=more birds.” (See her blog at Bird Tweets at )

The Caloosa Bird Club was founded a long time ago (1958) in Lee County, Florida. Every Monday morning members meet at a pre-arranged spot.  High on caffeine, many of us have been up before dawn.   We quietly creep out of our homes loaded down with binos, scopes, water, sunscreen, hats, notebooks and iphones (with birding apps).  Anticipation is in the air.  It keeps us going–who knows what we might see and hear?  For a birder, that’s key–we live now but there’s always tomorrow.

Vince McGrath, lifetime member of the Caloosa Bird Club
Vince McGrath and Georgia Nef, lifetime members of the Caloosa Bird Club

This particular Monday in November one of our leaders was Vince McGrath, one of the best birders in Southwest Florida.  Vince is a master naturalist and has been watching birds since he was 12.  He’s now in his 50s and has not slowed down or lost his enthusiasm. He  can whistle many bird songs and recognizes chips and churps that the rest of us ignore.  He keeps one eye on the trees, another on the beach and a third on the sky. And he walks fast, sometimes urging folks to keep quiet and walk faster. This trip there are 25 of us.

Birding the Beach
Birding the Beach at Little Estero

We looked for birds in an area called Little Estero Lagoon on Ft. Myers Beach, and  headed for lunch around 11:30. We picnicked under a huge strangler oak at the Mound House, a historical site on the Bay Side of the island. The oak is majestic, the shade welcome and there were enough tables for the whole group, plus restrooms.  (Such amenities, my friends, are birding heaven.)

Mound House Tree
Mound House Tree

As is the club’s custom, we eat and then complete the bird list.  Many of us also list individually on ebird, but the club list is kept internally. Each of us has a sheet to check off the birds we’ve all seen. And so we began: “mottled duck, wood stork, magnificent frigatebird…”finishing with the warblers, which are always last.  Today, we log mostly shore birds, 52 species  overall.

A Semi-palmated Plover
We found lots of Semi-palmated Plovers

Last, we vote on the Bird of the Day.  Vince announces that we “have not yet seen the Bird of the Day. ” In fact, those of us with cell phones have just received texts about a Franklin’s gull on a beach to the south of us , and we speculate that we might be going there, which would be a deviation from club protocol, but possibly worth it. “Yes,” he said, pointing up, “it’s in this very tree…a great horned owl.”

“No,” you’re joking with us,” a member responded, joined by others, who, to our amazement, find we have been sitting directly under the owl.  The owl was content to watch with all-knowing eyes, swiveling his head and then taking a snooze. He was big and brown and high in the tree–to a casual observer, just a bunch of leaves or a squirrel nest.  But not to Vince, who discovered the owl while he was eating and kept quiet for 15 minutes.  Many who know Vince were also amazed that he could keep quiet about a bird for that long!

A great-horned owl at the beach?  That was our Bird of the Day.  Who knows what we’ll see next? That’s the fun of birding.  Our motto:  Keep Looking Up

Owl at Mound House
Owl in the Tree

(To watch a video of Vince in action:



Dear Lauren


You and me, summer 2014.  Two happy birders
You and me, summer 2014. Two happy birders

March 26, 2015
Dear Lauren,

I think about calling you every day…the thought occurs to me that I would like to talk with you about how much I miss talking to you.

And, if you were here–in this silly world–I am sure we would be sharing things on Facebook. Just stupid stuff — art and birds and other things that make life worth living.

I could have told you about our women’s retreat and the blue yarn and the gorgeous canoe trip on the Alafia River. The river of fire. You would love the river of fire. My friend Mary and I saw a mama gator and her babies, and in four miles of canoeing on this winding  river, we saw only one beer bottle. No other trash. Isn’t that wonderful, you and I would say, marveling and assuring ourselves that life is good.

Alafia--The River of Fire
Alafia–The River of Fire

And then I would tell you about my money raising efforts for our church. About how uncomfortable I have always felt about asking people for money, and how I decided that someone had to step up, and the thing I like about being a Unitarian Universalist is that you get to explore new ways of thinking.  My comfort zone is pretty wide, but it doesn’t include asking for money. We would agree about the money, but I would know that you don’t see much use in belonging to any church, and I would change the subject. All the same, I hope your memorial service will be at May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church in Syracuse. The Art Fair they sponsored was one of your favorite shows.

And there was always the weather. I’d ask you how things are going in upstate New York and you could bitch about the snow and cold. I loved your asteriks –you called it not snow but S***. We really agreed on the stupidity of snow.

You’d share what was happening in your own studio, and preparations for Art Walk, which were always a pain, even though you had it well organized, with meetings and people and new artists on board. Every June, you and your garden made Art Walk rock. Even when it rained and someone took the street signs down.

One of your lanterns
One of your lanterns

And we would talk about Gallery 54 in Skaneatles and how things were going there–what was selling and how many sponge holders and lanterns went out the door. There must be a lot of your sponge holders by sinks in upstate New York. And I know the really lucky people have one of your lanterns. They are magic.

Next to birds, we loved to talk about gardens and plants. What about your gorgeous Japanese maple that snapped off this winter–any hope? I have bird houses in my front garden now, and the pottery head you gave me and my ruined pillar, My abandoned folly.

My front yard
My front yard

I hope someone will care for your garden this spring. And leave some of your ashes there. And put water in the birdbath.

Lauren's garden 2014
Your garden July 2014








I probably would have told you what I was reading, and then you’d have shared what you were reading, and we would compare notes on Antiques Roadshow finds, and Home and Garden TV. I know we would agree that Fixer Upper was the best show, even though it’s set in Waco. Both of us always liked old houses, especially fixed up old houses, and Chip and Joanna have done some good work, even if it is in Texas. We definitely would have liked Chip and Joanna.

We would have liked Fixer Upper
We would have liked Fixer Upper

Of course, we would talk birds. First a feeder report from you. Is the red-breasted nuthatch still there? I saw a brown-headed nuthatch here in Florida! Nuthatches rule! Only you would cheer. What else is coming in–any red-wing blackbirds yet? One is sitting outside my window now. I would tell you about Caloosa Bird Club trips and how fantastic Wakodahatchee is and that we must go there next time you come to Florida.

And then I would ask about a dessert for eight, and you’d suggest champagne sherbert and I would put it in the little blue glass bowls I inherited when we owned the house next door to you in Syracuse. I would use the recipe you wrote out by hand.

in your handwriting
in your handwriting

Then I would just cry a bit, because you are gone and I miss you. And all the silly trivial things in life that we shared. And all the big stuff too. I know this letter  will never be finished. I will close it the way I always have–
More later,

Check the wires. Look it up.

This morning, early, it was foggy in Florida and I learned two new words that begin with the letter “P.”

Yesterday, while birding a weedy field beside a busy highway, three of us encountered a tiny but beautiful butterfly nectaring on a scrubby daisy.
We looked it up and it is called a Phaon Cresent.  Phaon it a Greek word and that sounds  like “Foun.” Even better, there is a Greek myth to go with it….Phaon was an ugly oarsman on the River Styx. Aphrodite needed a ride one day, and she came to the river disguised as an old crone.
Phaon gave her a ride and asked nothing in return. In payment, she gave him some cream which made him beautiful. Who wouldn’t love this myth? And this sweet little butterfly photographed by my friend, France Paulsen? I found Phaon to be a very worthy “P” word.

The Phaon Crescent has a wing span of 1.25 inches
The Phaon Crescent has a wing span of 1.25 inches
The Phainopedia is sometimes called the Black Cardinal

And then, I checked my email and found that a possible phainopepia had been spotted on a power wire on Sanibel. It’s a bird that has never been reported in Florida before, but there was no proof  –no photograph, in other words.
It’s an all black bird that looks like a cardinal or a cedar waxwing. Females are grey and so are juveniles. My husband, also a photographer, joked that the person who sighted it should have “thrown on the brakes and caused and accident to get that shot.” But then, he’s used to me calling out bird possibilities, and he knows to pull over.
Phainopepia is definitely a worthy “P” word. It means “shinning robe” in Greek.  Maybe sometime I’ll see one in a desert state where it eats mistletoe and never wanders out of its area.  Except once in a lifetime, and here’s hoping.

Always check the wires, and always look stuff up. That’s my motto, and I’m sticking with it.

Crested Caracara Week in Florida

For Lauren, who loved all Florida birds


The Magnificent Crested Caracara
The Magnificent Crested Caracara, photo by Dan Pancamo


In Florida, the last week in January was Crested Caracara week. I declared this week myself because I wanted to discover some of these magnificent birds.  My Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America indicates you can find them in the central part of southern Florida.  Also in some parts of Texas, and definitely in Mexico, where they appear on the national flag, sitting on a cactus, holding a snake. (Some say it’s an eagle, but I prefer the caracara interpretation.)

Note the Toupee-like Crest

A crested caracara is big–almost as big as a vulture, black and white, and has long yellow legs. Its bill is blue and it has a patch of featherless skin just behind the bill.  This patch of skin is like a mood ring,  changing from pale yellow to bright orange, depending on whether or not the bird is relaxed or stressed. As I understand it, if this patch of skin is pale the bird may be resting, orange it’s under threat, or eating, or choosing a mate.  Something exciting. Pink skin behind the bill means the bird is a juvenile. Completing the crested caracara’s appearance is a top knot of black feathers that looks sort of like a toupee. A bad one. To see a caracara is to love one.

A Handsome Bird
A Handsome Bird, photo by E.J. Peiker

My friend France and I went to Felda, Florida, about 45 minutes east of Ft. Myers. There, the land is orange trees and pasture and not much else.  But sure enough, there were some caracaras  sitting in a tall Australian pine tree just waiting for their week in the sun.

Usually caracaras hang out with vultures. Even though they are classed as falcons, they prefer carrion. Dead stuff, although they will eat anything they can catch or steal. Admittedly, I had seen caracaras before,  feeding or waiting for something to be killed on central Florida roads.  However, these sightings usually occurred when we were flying along at high speeds, tailed by trucks. I would yell, causing the husband-driver apoplexy, and by the time we could turn around, the caracaras had disappeared.

But today the crested caracaras were just sitting…until about 9:30 am or so, and then the show began. Pairs of them, and they are big birds,  would take to the sky and fly together, almost wing tip to wing tip or stacked up vertically.  It looked to me that they were flying just to see if they were coordinated enough to join up, if you get my drift.  Sometimes they did the talons locked thing and took an awkward tumble or two toward the ground. They also made noise, a chucking sound, not pretty, but effective, at least for them.

The Pair Perform
A Pair Perform, photo by M. Brummermann

After the sky show, they grabbed adjacent fence posts and rested. For longer than they flew around.  It was not a magnificent aerial show, like say, eagles, but we humans were thrilled. It was time for bird love among the caracara, and we got to witness it.

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If you are not a bird nerd, like me, you probably don’t know how birds actually mate.  It’s called a cloacal kiss, and sometimes it takes less that a second.  I’m not making this up.  Birds don’t need any outside appendages like penises slowing down the flight, so it’s all tucked inside. While they are sitting somewhere, the male gets on top from behind and the female adjusts her position and they rub their cloacal openings. Sperm goes in,finds an egg and this results in actual eggs–fertilized, laid, incubated and hatched. The cloacal opening is used for all things–defecation and egg laying too. A neat and tidy system.

Resting up for the real business of Spring
Resting up for the real business of Spring

Sorry for the lecture on bird sex, the point is I can only hope that these caracaras nest and raise young so there will be more of these wonderful birds in Central Florida, where they are listed as endangered.  And we can celebrate Crested Caracara Week again.

Special thanks to my friend and extraordinary birder France Paulsen and my talented husband, John Swank for some of these wonderful pictures. Their blogs: and

(Other photographs were obtained on the internet and the photographers are named, thanks to Google Image Finder)

Tales from Bunche Beach

Bunche Beach
Bunche Beach

Bunche (the e is silent) Beach is the only mainland beach in the Ft. Myers area (  All the beaches except Bunche are on outlying barrier islands.  As you might expect, given the name, it was the beach reserved for people of color. It is named in honor of Ralph Bunche, African American diplomat and Nobel Laureate. This being Florida, it, and the other beaches were integrated in 1963-4. As I understand it, the beach also spent time as a  hangout for good ole boys and a place to let your dogs run, as well as a spot for nudity and male-on-male solicitation, but now it is county property and pretty well patrolled.

Piping Plover, an endangered species
Piping Plover, an endangered species

Also, as you might expect, it’s not a great beach for swimming.  In order to actually get in deep water, you have to wade out a very long way. Other times, the tide is so high there is no beach.  It’s a mud flat with a sliver of white sand, perfect for small children and birds. No dogs are allowed, primarily because some of the birds that frequent Bunche are severely endangered, the piping plover being one.  Dogs, even on leashes, upset birds.  And, it must be said, occasionally in the off season , I am turned off  by creepy-looking old men in cars who seem to be waiting for…what I don’t want to know.

During season, Bunche is a well-used beach, kayak launch and fishing spot.

The in-season people I observe who go to Bunche fall into roughly four groups. Primary among them are the birders.  The beach is on the Great Florida Birding Trail and has the signage to prove it. If you’re lucky, during the right month (March-April) you can observe the piping plover AND a mangrove cuckoo. And a lot of other wonderful birds, on shore and among the mangroves.

The second observable group during season are fishing people and kayakers.  They could be split into sub-groups, such as Spanish-speaking fishermen/women and families and  well-covered (especially in floppy hats) white men in specially equipped kayaks. There are also wading fishermen and cast netters.

Next come grandparents and parents with small kids. There is almost no risk of being knocked down by a wave on this beach–for kids, it’s a paradise, even if there are some embedded mangrove stumps in the sand.

My last quantifiable group of humans would be first-time visitors, natives, and those who live here for the winter months. They can be sub-catogorized into shellers, walkers and readers, sunset-watchers, those who bike in, and sleeper/sunners. Oh, and busloads of elementary school children and sometimes college students who come for beach study/fun.

Good stuff from the beach in May:  the sand egg is made by the decorator worm !
Good stuff from the beach in May: the sand egg is made by the decorator worm !

Off season, like now, it’s a mix. But there are still great birds in May, beautifully colored in preparation for breeding season up north, and wild flowers and fish and interesting stuff that washes up on shore.  Lots of people still come to Bunche on the weekends.

If life is a beach, Bunche would make for an interesting journey. I plan to visit during the summer and observe what I can of both the flora and the fauna.  More Bunche tales later, and there IS drama…like the morning heavily armed police arrived and told everyone to get off the beach NOW. More later.

Willets, the most commom shorebird
Willets, the most common shorebird. Photo by John, at



Birding the Everglades: Let It Be

The Smallest Post Office

And now, to my own promised land–The Everglades. It’s 176 miles south of where I live in Ft. Myers.  Actually, it’s south of where everybody lives–the very bottom of the state of Florida.  You get there on a two lane road (the original Tamiami Trail), and we stopped a few places to bird on the way. There’s not much in the way of food or even gas as you travel south.  There’s a tiny post office in Ochopee (Smallest in the USA)  and some Seminole and/or Miccosukee settlements. About half-way down we encountered alligator road kill. One of the birders riding a motorcycle said she smelled it before she saw it.

As far south as you can go
As far south as you can go

The Everglades is amazing.  It’s flat flat flat.  The highest point is 8 feet above sea level. The Sawgrass is about waist high and browny green.   Every now and then, breaking the blue and sawgrass horizon are small groups of trees called hammocks, which are like islands for the plants and animals. (And people who get to walk the boardwalk trails.)

Legend (or not) has it the first white man said, upon viewing The River of Grass, “Let’s fill it in.”  Since then, human kind has done it’s best to wreck the Everglades, which is presently on life support. The water, both fresh and salt is precious. It’s all about the water.

Sawgrass for miles and miles
Sawgrass for miles and miles

The Everglades are not a scenic national park, like Yellowstone. It’s a biologic wonder–the largest  contiguous freshwater marsh in the world. The coastline has more than 10,000 islands. Man has damned, canalled, diked, diverted, polluted, and drunk the water from The Glades for years, to its detriment. Time will tell if the damage done can be undone.

purple ganninule
purple galinulle

The most wonderful birds still make their homes in The Glades.  Purple ones like the galinulle and pink ones like the roseate spoonbill(see slide show below), little tiny warblers and gnatcatchers and American white pelicans with 9 feet wing spans, kites, hawks and vultures that soar and ducks that waddle.  Some birds are elusive, like the mangrove cuckoo, and others appear totally unfazed by humankind, especially on the 1/2 mile loop Anhinga Trail near the Florida City entrance to the park.  Shark Valley, another entrance, features huge gators you almost trip over if you are busy watching birds.

Unconcerned gator

There are also mammals, insects, amphibians and reptiles, vertebrates and invertebrates.

The Everglades are home to some endangered rare things. Nesting wood storks, for example, odd and wonderful manatees, and scarce panthers. Invasive creature–pythons and walking catfish also call it home. The Everglades is water, food and habitat– we need all three to live and so do its creatures.

walking catfish--ugliest fish in the Everglades

You have to SEE The Everglades to believe it.  My husband John is a photographer.  He tagged along on this adventure and captured some of it beautifully:

Let it be.

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