Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Why Do We Need Raptor Centers?

On October 29th–from 1 -2 PM at Writers & Books in Rochester, New York–I’ll be upstaged by an owl.

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I love to do events for young readers around my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in partnership with the area’s local raptor rehabilitation center. Staff bring live birds on the glove and introduce audiences to each, telling a little about the natural and personal history of the raptors in their care.

I talk about what inspired me to write the book (volunteering at my own rehabilitation center with injured birds of prey while courting another volunteer who would eventually become my husband). I also talk about why we need raptor centers in the first place.

Raptors occupy the lofty top of the food chain. They’re an indicator species, which means we can study changes in the environment, including our climate, by looking at them. For example, thin-shelled eggs and babies not hatching? When scientists noticed this, they traced the issue back to pesticide use, and environmental activists worked to ban certain crop poisons which rodents would ingest and pass on to birds.

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This Western screech owl lost her eye in a battle with a cat.

Do you like rats and mice? Me, too. But I don’t want to wade through a sea of them on my way to the mailbox. Raptors keep our rodent population down to healthy levels. A single barn owl can eat 1,300 rats a year. Burrowing owls chow down mass quantities of insects and beetles; again, I’m fond of these, too, but a few of them go a long, long way.

The issue that threatens raptors (owls, eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, vultures, and kites) is . . . well, to put it bluntly, us. We like to drive fast, and we end up colliding with birds that swoop across the highway in search of mice. We put up barbed wire fences, and owls get horrifically tangled in them. We put out rat poison, and rats ingest it, but then raptors eat them and become ill. We cut down trees with nests in them, and parents fly off, leaving owls orphaned.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Fortunately, raptor centers exist across the world to help preserve threatened birds of prey. Staff and volunteers dedicate their lives to providing them with medication, food, water, and clean and enriching home environments. Want to support your local raptor center? Here’s a list of rehabilitation centers by state. Many invite visitors to walk around and meet the birds. In some, you can even hold a birthday party or, in my case, a wedding.

 

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Me, releasing a rehabilitated hawk on my wedding day. No white dress here!

On Saturday, I’ll be doing a presentation with staff and birds from Wild Wings, Inc. in upstate New York. They’re wonderful people devoted to caring for raptors and teaching us about the value and beauty of these birds of prey. Yes, their resident owl is sure to upstage me.

It’s totally worth it.

For more information on the Rochester, NY event, click here.  I’ll also appear at Barnes & Noble in Eugene, Oregon on November 11th, 11 AM.

–Melissa

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide!

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Jake says “two paws up”

I knew I didn’t want to make a traditional book trailer. Typically, a book trailer’s a short video preview of one’s new novel or work of nonfiction or poetry. I’d made one for each of my previous books which, while quirky, followed a narrative about the stories I’d published. But my new book, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, April 2106) is my debut middle-grade novel about a 13-year old boy who’s essentially saved by Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, so I wanted to create a video in celebration of nature–a quick documentary that would entertain viewers and teach them something.

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Enter the banana slug.

I love witty nature documentaries like this one on nutria by Ted Gesing, and funny book trailers like this one by David Gessner. I decided to create an alter ego to highlight one of the weirdest creatures in Oregon’s natural world–Ariolimax columbianus. (Bonus info: As a college freshman, I enrolled at U.C. Santa Cruz because their mascot is the banana slug.)

My husband and daughter and I teamed up to create a three-minute documentary/promotional video for Avenging the Owl. I wrote the script and created a storyboard. Jonathan (who’s a professional photographer) filmed, and our kiddo provided sound effects and some physical comedy along with me.

Click here to watch the video, Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide

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Me and Ariolimax columbianus, BFFs

We spent several winter mornings hiking through Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, searching for banana slugs. Finally, we found one in the long grass under Douglas firs. The slug became our movie star for 24 hours, and then we returned it to the spot in which we’d discovered it, right next to the Coast Fork of the Willamette River.

For super-cool information on banana slugs, I relied on a brilliant nature guidebook written by Patricia K. Lichen. All of her titles sit on our living room bookshelf.

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Next up, we’ll be working on a three-minute documentary about owl pellets. Stay tuned, Northwest Nature Nerds, and stay outside!

–Melissa


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Oregon Country Fair–A Child’s Paradise

Veneta, Oregon—Here’s a list of the things I would have purchased at the Oregon Country Fair last Friday if I hadn’t blown my twenty bucks on tamales and Nutella-berry crepes:

  1. Dangly silver earrings with sparkly blue stones20150710_123510
  2. A giant eggroll
  3. A temporary henna tattoo
  4. A worm composting bin
  5. Tie-dyed boxer shorts
  6. A unicorn horn

If you live in Oregon, you know about Country Fair; it sprawls across 280 acres of forest and river every second weekend in July. If you’re new to the state, or you’ve shied away from attending because of the counterculture vibe and the presence of a handful of bare-breasted people, get over it and go. The counterculture is delighted to teach you how to juggle and belly-dance, and the bare breasts are canvases for beautiful paintings of sunflowers and goddesses.

Confession: My husband hates the fair. Early on in our courtship, he did the chivalrous thing and escorted me on our bicycles to watch the spectacle. Undone by crowds and heat and dust, he boosted me up to a stilt-walker’s bench (lately discouraged by Fair staff) and we spent hours watching parades of marching musicians, dragons, giant puppets. He tried to love it. He didn’t. Now, I attend with The Spud on the free shuttle from Valley River Center on Friday, 9:30 sharp so we can board one of the first buses out of the parking lot.

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The Spud meets her nemesis.

The Fair’s a child’s paradise, with opportunities for hands-on fun everywhere. Much as I’d love to organize my day with the schedule in the Peach Pit (OCF’s official event and entertainment guide) and move from vaudeville show to band gig to spoken word performance, with a child under 10, that’s not going to happen. Instead, we get off the bus, I point her in the direction of the ticket taker, and she’s off. Here’s what she got ahold of last Friday:

  1. A compost bin full of worms and lettuce
  2. A booth at which she learned to fold a cootie-catcher
  3. A hand drum on stage with a musician singing about the importance of recycling
  4. A table full of recycled inner tubes and leather, needles and thread and awls and stamps and rhinestones (she made a purse)
  5. A playground with a jungle gym on which frolicked some of her school chums, most of whom wore clothes
  6. A fairyland hideout built of moss and lichen and stones and other wonders

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Who needs Barbie? Kids play here for hours!

Go for the day, and give yourself over to the weirdness, or become part of it. We’ve painted our faces and danced in the drum circle and tried the giant hula hoop and chowed down on strawberry shortcake and ice cream and given quarters to the dozens of single and group musicians who play on the sidelines. We’ve taken refuge in the shady library when it all got to be too much, and we’ve stayed until the end of the day, until we’ve fallen asleep dusty and sated, standing up on the half-hour shuttle ride back to Eugene. There’s magic around every corner at the Country Fair–see you in 2016!

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Pay a quarter, get a Cat Fortune. Meow!


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Kayaking Coyote Creek with Bryozoan Buddies

“What’s that balloon-thingy?”

Surprise robbed me of eloquence, and I backpaddled hard to investigate the yellowish bladder-like object clinging to low-hanging branches over Coyote Creek.  “Is it alive?”

My husband squinted as I lifted up a skinny branch to investigate.  “I think it’s just stuff that’s built up over time.”

The thing fell off then, splashed into the water, and resurfaced.  Our daughter, Maia, scooped it up with her ever-present bug net.  “I got it!” she hollered.  “I just can’t lift it.”

Bryozoan and Jonathan

Coyote Creek’s endlessly surprising, just 20 minutes west of Eugene.  We’ve been taking our kayaks there for years, and each time, the journey along tree-lined banks over to Fern Ridge Reservoir yields revelation.  Once, white pelicans sailed overhead.  Another time, we spotted bald eagles.  Great blue herons are forever squawking at the splash of our paddles in the murky water and gliding off right in front of us. It’s a wonderful place to go for a wilderness experience among red-winged blackbirds and tree frogs and osprey and . . . bryozoan colonies?

For that’s what the bladder-like, balloon-thingy was–a colony of moss animals, aquatic invertebrates gathered together and attached to low-hanging branches.  Pectinatella magnifica, the colony we accidentally disturbed on a sunny Sunday in early October, is a round mass of heavy matter resembling white jelly.

Bryozoan Kayak

I know this because I committed a cardinal sin of kayaking–I pulled out my smartphone and posted a picture of the colony on Facebook and tagged my naturalist friends, desperate to know what the thing was before we left the creek.  My artist friend Barbara Gleason swiftly obliged, letting me know that her husband had heard tell of bryozoans on Coyote Creek a while back, and my biologist buddy Jayne Selwa confirmed the species.

“Why do they look like stars?”

My daughter leaned close to the mass she’d wrangled up to the front of the kayak and pointed out the tiny black arms radiating out from each zooid.  (I had to look that one up.)  The “arms” are tentacles lined with cilia that pick up food particles out of the water.

Jon and Maia Kayaking

The only food particles we had were two halves of a banana, one of which had fallen into the bottom of my kayak (but hey, it still tasted fine), and so we packed up and headed for Pizza Research Institute in Eugene’s charismatic Whiteaker Neighborhood.  Over slices and cider, we researched bryozoans and planned to return to Coyote Creek the next weekend to see what surprise the waterway would offer next.

To get to Coyote Creek, head west of Eugene on 126 and turn left on Central Road (across from Perkins Peninsula Park).  Turn left on Cantrell Road and look for a sign on your left and a vehicle pullout at Coyote Creek.  Click here for a map!