That’s all that is left. Poor Fuzzball, he so wanted to be free. But it cost him his life.
Last evening there was a knock on the door. “Your owlet is on the ground, right near the trail.” Apparently Fuzzball just didn’t care for his chair nest anymore. He wanted out. Rich hurried over and sure enough Fuzzball was out exploring. He figured the safest thing to do was to find a protected area for Fuzzball to spend the night, and deposited him in a deep thicket.
At 5:15 this morning, Fuzzball was out and about once again. Rich found him near the trail, relieved to know he made it through the night but concerned for his safety. Returning just half an hour later, all he found was a ring of fuzz and feathers. Nature had taken its cruel course. Rich surmises that a fox found Fuzzball and after a brief struggle carted him off to his den to feed his own hungry family.
It was 11 days ago that Fuzzball first entered our lives. In that short time, he brought a lot of joy to the many people who followed his story – in Rich’s blog and mine, out in the woods, watching from the road, and hearing it from friends. Rich did all he could for the little fella, but just could not curb his natural tendencies. Fuzzball couldn’t fly yet, but he could scurry around on the ground. He wasn’t good at holding on to branches yet, but he could scratch and bite whenever Rich re-rescued him. He was a fighter, and we hoped he would make it. But it was clear Rich could no longer protect the impetuous owlet who longed to roam. Rich did all he could, and we agree that helping Fuzzball survive in his home habitat was the right thing to do. Rich would do it all over again, despite the hole in his heart right now.
It’s worth reading Rich’s final blog post about Fuzzball, as he included many photos and videos he was unwilling to share before in order to protect Fuzzball from too much human exposure.
This is one of my favorite photos from the whole journey. It was nice knowing you, Fuzzball. We will all remember you fondly.
It’s not easy being a foster parent. Especially to an owlet.
Fuzzball seems to have adapted to his new nest quite well. Rich calls it Lawn Chair Nest 2.0, and amazingly it has remained stable on its perch high in the tree. Fuzzball appears content to sleep on the seat by day and host Mom at night when she brings him treats to eat. Not much has changed since Fuzzball’s Rescue, but that is good news. The more time that passes, the closer Fuzzball comes to getting his flight feathers. We harbor hopes that one day he will be strong enough to fly up to his real nest. Until then, we wait and watch. Becoming complacent in our foster parenting.
This morning that changed when Rich returned from his visit with news. “When I got to Fuzzball’s nest, he wasn’t there!”
“The seat was empty. But I looked up, and there he was, standing on the back of the chair!”
It would appear that Fuzzball was ready to try branching. Lacking tree limbs to walk on, he found the next closest thing. This I had to see. Sure enough, there he was, back against the tree, stretched up to his full height. Suddenly he looked really BIG! Even though the sun was already climbing in the sky, he was wide awake and turned to watch me as I approached.
Fuzzball seemed quite proud of his accomplishment, and I have to admit I was impressed. Something like parental pride blossomed as I left him and headed out for my run.
When I returned, a third ladder had joined the collection down by our garage. There was only one explanation – Fuzzball. Rich wasn’t home, and curiosity ate away at my psyche. I had to check on him.
Approaching the nest, Fuzzball looked at me from the seat of chair nest. I silently congratulated him on safely making it back down to his resting spot. I moved around to get a better look. All looked well.
But that was not the whole story.
“I found Fuzzball on the ground again this morning,” Rich reported. Apparently he wasn’t so savvy about getting down from his perch after all. But it didn’t end there.
Rich filled me in. Fuzzball fell on his own the first time, but he plunged two more times – with help. Rich had decided Fuzzball needed an opportunity to try real branching. So he carried him up to a branch and carefully set him down on the limb.
Fuzzball was unable to hang on with his toenails, had bad balance, or just lacked Mom’s training in how to navigate in trees. He tilted, scrambled, spread his wings then plummeted to the ground. Rich tried again. Fuzzball suffered a similar fate.
Rich just happened to capture one of the falls on video. (Note, this is a private video that Rich will delete in a few days, to prevent it from going viral and exposing the owlet.) Click here to view the action. Apart from Fuzzball’s unfortunate tumbles, what I found most interesting and reassuring was seeing the growing feathers on Fuzzball’s wings.
Three strikes and out. Rich conceded the failed experiment and returned Fuzzball to chair nest, where I found him, unaware of his recent drama.
Fuzzball must have been relieved to be back on a stable platform. It was bad enough causing his own fall. Now he has to worry about saviors who can be a threat!
We foster parents don’t always get things right. But our hearts are in the right place. Hang in there, Fuzzball!
The name originated when my husband, Rich, was in the hospital for open heart surgery. He was relegated to a hospital bed for nearly two weeks, and in that time numerous staff members came and went, attending to his needs. Rich was always polite, thanked them profusely and inevitably talked about owls. In particular “his owls.” Soon hospital folks would enter his room and say, “Oh, you’re the Owl Guy!”
For five years, Rich has been watching the same Great Horned Owl couple. Starting in February he stalks the snowy woods near our house in the dark, listening for their hoots, tracking them down until he finds their nest, which often moves from year to year. Once spotted, he haunts the site, watching and photographing the miracle of life. From eggs in the nest under Mama Owl to fully grown and forced out of the territory in the fall, he chronicles the lives of the owlets. From fuzzballs to independent owls. They have become “his owls.”
Rich’s owls first gained fame during the pandemic. Isolated by Covid, Rich spent more hours in the woods than ever, and the owls chose to nest in a spot with a perfect vantage point for photography. There were three owlets that year and Rich blogged about them almost daily, posting pictures of their development and progress. His readership boomed. Others, similarly isolated, followed the owlets – a cute and endearing diversion provided by nature during that period of seclusion. Over time, Rich created a children’s book with his best photographs of the beloved owlets and theirjourney to adulthood.
This year, there are two owlets. Due to the long, harsh winter Mama laid her eggs much later than usual, and the first fluffball did not appear until well into May, followed by a sibling a week later. Rich was elated, once again back on owlet watch. And then the unthinkable happened.
Fuzzball fell out of the nest.
Rich happened to be near the nest with two trusted photography buddies late one afternoon last week when one of them spotted Fuzzball huddled in a depression, 80 feet below the nest. Estimating the baby bird to be about four weeks old, Rich noted that it did not yet have any flight feathers. It had not even started “branching” yet (walking out on branches near the nest). With the nest at an unreachable height, the poor owlet had no means of survival. Rich donned his falcon gloves (he’s rescued owls before) and laid the frightened but seemingly unharmed bird in a towel-lined tub.
Rich contacted Wildwoods, the local animal rehabilitation center, but they were already closed for the day. As we had dinner with Fuzzball resting nearby, Rich’s brain was churning. Surely the bird would be better off near Mom and Dad than doomed to life in captivity? Was there a way he could create a new nest for Fuzzball, where he could be watched, protected and fed by his parents? Abandoning the unwashed dishes, Rich sprang into action.
I had no idea that a lawn chair could simulate a nest. But apparently Rich did. Covering it with a packing blanket for cushioning and to prevent the bird’s talons from catching in the mesh, he finished it off with bungee cords to hold it all in place. Next he hauled our longest ladder into the woods, and with the help of a family hiking past, he hauled the “nest” as high as he could and secured it with bungees stretching around the tree.
Getting the bird up into the nest was a tricky climb, but at last Fuzzball was installed in his new home.
We both heaved a sigh of relief with Fuzzball off the ground and in sight of his real nest. The question was whether Mom and Dad would find him and take care of him? Sleep was elusive that night.
Morning brought good news. Fuzzball was alert and active – he had survived the night! Rich talked to Wildwoods and convinced them that the owlet was better off in his new nest, and promptly secured the site with Caution tape and a warning sign to leave the little guy alone, and NOT post on social media. Humans were as much a threat to Fuzzball as his natural predators.
While pleased with the decision to leave Fuzzball in the woods, I also knew it would enhance our home life. Not only are they Rich’s owls, they are Rich’s owlets. My only role may have been iPhone photographer, but I couldn’t help but feel invested in these birds. Rich’s wellbeing and mine was secured as long as this experiment went well.
A few days later, Rich installed his trail-cam opposite Fuzzball. He was richly rewarded when he caught a nighttime feeding on video! Fuzzball sat upright, seemingly looking up in the direction of home. Soon Mom flew onto the chair seat alongside Fuzzball and immediately began tearing up bits of food which he rapidly devoured. It was working!
Rich still lives day by day, checking on Fuzzball morning, noon and evening, and spying on him with the webcam at night. I get detailed reports. Fuzzball’s rescue is our newest entertainment.
Covid has shut down large chunks of my social life. Confined me to writing at a table in our bunk room instead of the cozy environs of Amity Coffee. Diverted me to Zooming with my delivery-mates instead of bringing library books to shut-ins. Shackled me to the stove every afternoon at 5:00 instead of eating out now and then. Limited our table to two instead of the frequent dinner guests we love to invite to our home.
There have been positive sides too. Loads of time for writing, urging my book forward toward becoming a real manuscript. Seeing family more than ever, the only personal contact we’ve allowed ourselves indoors. Getting out to enjoy our State Parks. Pairing up with friends to run and walk and talk, talk, talk in the great outdoors. Pedaling my bike up and down the shore, waving to other cyclists and runners.
And then came “recovery.” I had minor surgery to repair a hernia the same week Rich had his latest heart procedure, sidelining us in tandem. Our Covid-suppressed household narrowed even further, as life quieted down to allow our bodies to heal. I finished several books, started knitting again and poured myself into my writing. In solitude. Indoors.
Although I bounced back quickly, I was still under strict restrictions: do not lift over 15 pounds, avoid straining my core, no cardio exercise for two weeks. Then came the empowering words, “Walk as often as you feel able.”
It started out as shuffling. I barely made it to Superior Street and back. I couldn’t keep up with Rich for a 1-mile walk, despite his impairment. But each day I was determined to try again. Four days in it actually felt like walking. Each day from there got better, my walks longer.
When I’m running or cycling, I’m aware of my surroundings but more focused on the activity. Pushing my pace, pedaling up hills, getting in a good workout. Walking has shifted me into slow motion. I have more time to appreciate nature as I amble along. I open my eyes and ears to the world around me. It’s as much about the escape as it is about moving my body.
I hear the soothing rush of Amity Creek for the whole distance of 7 Bridges Road, and pause on the bridges to watch it gushing with spring run-off.
My limitations encourage me to sidetrack and look more closely at the evidence of Spring’s struggle to arrive.
I have more time to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise, even if the sun is hiding.
I catch a glimpse of nature’s artistry created by the prolific rainfall, and pause to admire.
I take the time to play with “burst mode” on my phone in order to catch the waves at their highest.
I stop and sit on the rocks warmed by the sun, listening to the water gently lapping.
I catch the scenery I see almost daily, but in a new light.
I’d be lying if I said I was content with my daily walks. I can’t wait for the day I can resume running and cycling. I’m told to “start slow with short timeframes.” So I’ll continue to supplement that with more walks, more observations. Still living life in the slow lane.
I'll be the first to admit, birding is not my thing. I have tremendous admiration and respect for Rich's dedication and boundless patience in pursuing his birds, and the amazing photographs that he captures. But he no longer asks if I would like to come along. He knows better. Loons, however, are a whole different matter.
I spent several hours in the kayak today, cruising the calm water of the lake in the afternoon sun. On my travels I spotted several loons with baby chicks. The fluffy little fledglings paddled behind mama, an entrancing sight.
Rich was thrilled with my reconnaissance efforts, and was eager to photograph the young loons. Immedately following dinner he announced he was heading out in the boat to look for the loons. This time he asked, would I like to come? The answer came without hesitation. Yes!
The sun dipping low in the sky lent a beautiful golden hour light to the scene. Evening's calm stilled the waters, and the waterskiers had been replaced by boats claiming their fishing spots. All was quiet on the lake.
We found mama loon and her twins in the same bay where I'd seen them. At first, they were hidden in the reeds, but they soon obliged by swimming out into the open where they didn't seem to mind us watching. We could hear soft sounds made by mama to her chicks – something entirely new to me. Never before had I been close enough to hear their nurturing murmurs.
Papa soon materialized and proceeded to hunt for dinner. He repeatedly returned with food to feed the chicks. We could tell when he was coming as he would swim under water but near the surface, creating a v-shaped wake above him. By this time the chicks were nestled on mama's back, well situated for papa to bring them tasty treats.
As we watched, a chorus of frogs suddenly broke into song, croaking mightily around the bay. It was magical witnessing nature in the warmth of the setting sun.
There is something deeply compelling about loons. From their haunting cries to their mottled black and white coats, they are are undeniably special. It is an honor to share our lake with them. I never tire of their majestic presence. I may not be a birder, but I'm always game to go looning.
It's been almost four weeks since the storm raged through Duluth. Waking in the early morning hours to blinding lightning, constant thunder and howling winds did little to prepare us for the devastation that we would find when dawn came. And even then, we couldn't even imagine the true extent of the damage.
We were among the fortunate. With just three moderate sized trees down in our yard, only our driveway was temporarily blocked. But heartbreak was only a short distance away. Our neighbors lost several venerable old trees, including our very favorite pine tree that dominated the skyline and was perfectly framed in our window. In its place we saw only jagged shards where the trunk had snapped, sending the majestic tree down into the woods below.
A bike ride around the neighborhood revealed further ruins. Everywhere I looked there were downed trees – in yards, on houses, clobbering fences, blocking streets, dragging down power lines. The strangest site was a tree that had been launched 50 feet across a yard to pierce the roof of the house and exit through the end wall. And yet, the apples on the tree below had its produce blown to the ground in the opposite direction.
That tour was early in the morning, and already people were out working. Neighbors helping neighbors, city crews acting quickly to reopen roads, strangers swapping stories. The camaraderie would continue throughout the lengthy power outage that ensued, as we all learned to cope with being off the grid and generous offers of help came from friends outside the “war zone.”
By now, many of us have returned to life as usual. But the landscape is forever changed, and the massive clean-up effort continues. Sometimes that comes in unusual forms. And I shouldn't have been surprised when our neighbors topped that list. Enterprising, outdoorsy, optimists and just plain good folk, they turned their misfortune into opportunity. She calls it “making lemonade.” He calls it building a sauna.
The big red portable lumber mill appeared on the lawn early in the morning. And so did a couple of operators. Soon the trunk that was once that big old pine tree made it onto the bed of the mill, and the cab passed back and forth turning it into planks and posts. It made for marvelous entertainment as I sipped my morning coffee on our deck.
One of these days, when the sauna heats up and steam releases the pine smell, that giant of a tree will be immortalized. It seems very fitting. For in the process of cutting it into logs, they managed to count its rings. 240. It started growing the very year our country began. I am in awe.
I always knew it was a special tree. I just didn't realize how special. It took a mighty storm with winds over 100 mph to bring it down. I will miss its dominating presence in our window. But I'm glad to live next door to folk who are engineering a way for it to live on. Farewell old towering pine.
It's one of my favorite things at the cabin – seeing loons and hearing their plaintive cry. Sometimes I can get fairly close to them when out in the kayak. But ultimately they always dive and swim away, surfacing far off in any direction. So imagine my surprise this morning when we saw a loon paddling languidly at the end of our dock.
Knowing how skittish they are, I set up my camera and monopod on the deck of the cabin. I was afraid that getting any closer was likely to drive him away. But after snapping a multitude of photos, I ventured halfway down to the lake, and eventually right onto the dock. Still Mr. Loon lingered. Swimming slowly back and forth, he seemed to accept our presence, even when Katie and Erik joined me. He wasn't fazed by us in the slightest.
Eventually the loon swam away. But he left us knowing we'd seen something special. Thanks for the visit, Mr. Loon!
It’s been so drab for so long. It didn’t help to wake up to dense fog, which obliterated all surroundings, brown or otherwise. My morning run took me up to Hawk Ridge, where nature defied all knowledge of Lake Superior or even houses below. With my senses screaming for stimulation, I went out on a mission to find color.
Knowing I’d need to get away from the lake to lose the fog, I headed up to Hartley Park. Getting out of the car I could already tell the difference – the sun that had finally emerged packed some real warmth, and it wasn’t long before I was shedding layers in the welcome heat. The hunt was already off to a good start.
My primary mission was to find wildflowers. That meant sticking to trails that were more out in the open, in the hopes that I would find a microcosm of spring where things were blooming. What I found instead were nascent blades peaking through the fall’s dead grasses, ferns beginning to take form and little else. I realized I might have to lower my expectations, and look for color in other forms.
Reaching Hartley Pond I found a peaceful scene. There a lone loon dove and surfaced in the calm waters. I gradually became aware of the birds singing in the trees and the sounds of nature surrounding me. I decreed that the blue of the sky reflected in the pond, surrounded by the green trees qualified as color.
Moving on, I was glad for my hiking boots as I slogged through wet and muddy terrain. In following one of the little streams, I spotted the shiny green head of a mallard. He cooperated long enough to pose for me, and I decided to chalk another one up for spring color.
I marveled at the fascinating plants growing alongside the stream, with their bulging balls bobbing above the leaves. And then I saw them – flowers! They were Marsh Marigolds, and I found one – and only one – that was in full boom! My first wildflower of the season, glowing in a radiant yellow and brightening my day. I could finally declare success. And if one wild flower is in bloom, surely others are soon to follow. I can’t wait for the explosion of color.
What do you get when you cross a passion for photography with a life-long love of birds? 365 Days of Birds – my husband Rich’s latest project. It’s a year long challenge he created for himself, dedicated to photographing a bird a day. As a fairly new amateur photographer, his intent was to use the assignment to improve his photography skills.
Now we are 61 days into the project. Yes, we. For although it’s Rich’s project, it has a habit of spilling over into my life as well. All the way out to Colorado and back, he scanned the skies. After all, he had to get his bird for the day. Then there are the pre-dawn ventures, hoping to get that golden hour light on his birds. Or the spontaneous photo opps on our way home from church. I never realized this project would be so all-consuming. But I will also grant that he has gotten some amazing photos.
Although Rich has frequently invited me to accompany him on his bird hunts or other photo shoots, I don’t often go along. I’ve learned that I just don’t have the dedication, patience and persistence that it takes to get the perfect photo. Nor do I have much staying power in the bitter cold – a staple for photographers in northern Minnesota. So I accept my limitations and pursue my own passions. Writing in the warmth of our lovely home, with a big mug of steaming coffee nearby suits me quite well.
This evening I must have let my guard down, as I agreed to accompany Rich out to see a Great Horned Owl and her owlets in a nearby park. Armed with my own camera and tripod, I set up shop next to Rich and promptly photographed the dead stub of a branch on the tree. A nearby photographer with a foot-long lens on his camera kindly set me straight, and it became clear just how well camouflaged Mrs. Owl was. And peering at the display on the back of my camera, I could just make out the owlet. To the naked eye, both were nearly invisible.
Somewhere overhead, father owl perched invisibly in a tree. I couldn’t see him at all until he swooped down and flew overhead to a distant grove of trees. From there, he traded hoots with Mrs. Owl and baby owlet turned to the sound of his voice. That was really cool. Unfortunately, so was I. As the cold seeped through my jacket and my fingers turned to useless stiff appendages, my interest waned. Still, I was glad I’d seen them and hoped I’d gotten at least one decent photo.
So now I ask, what do you get when you cross a fair weather wanna-be photographer with a natural reverence for majestic creatures? One Day of Birds.