Author Archives: Melanie McNeil

About Melanie McNeil

Quilter, Designer, Teacher, Writer

Barred Owl Visit

Any day with an owl visit feels like a lucky day.

Last evening as Jim and I ate dinner on our deck, the sun was dropping in the sky behind the trees. A squirrel broke the peace, screaming a few feet away from us. There are a number of neighborhood cats that roam, so we often hear a squirrel or bird sound the cat alarm. The squirrel was persistent and I looked into the trees to locate it. On a branch 15 feet away and above my head was a grey tail hanging down. That was no squirrel tail — it was an owl!

The tail I saw first, with its beautiful distinct bars.

The angle of the sun and the deck screening made photos tricky, but Jim was patient and got several. Click any photo to open the gallery and see more detail.

Soon the squirrel alerted the robins, who took up the chatter. They scolded and dive-bombed the owl a few times, brushing their claws through the owl’s feathers. The owl remained unperturbed, though at a point it turned its head to face down its harassers.

While Jim watched, the owl stretched a wing out, and then swept the wings up and back while spreading its tail. The setting sun and screening added a lot of sparkle to these photos.

As we fell asleep later, we heard the owl call, reassuring us that it was still in the yard.

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Hands and Hearts — A Quilt From the Whole Family

A quilt made by me, with considerable help from Jim, for our son and his bride. Read about the process of designing and making.

Catbird Quilt Studio

Do you remember this piece? I made it in April as a “sketch,” just something to try forming shapes and colors and lines into a picture in appliqué. It’s a representation of a Claddagh ring. The traditional Irish symbol represents love (heart,) loyalty (crown,) and friendship (hands.)

The pretty heart in the middle was printed like that from fabric I bought eleven years ago. I drew the hands and crown from the basic Claddagh ring symbol. And then I encircled it with a ring of batik. It is all on a black Kona cotton background.

At the time I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it, or if I would do anything more. I considered the possibility of creating a small wedding gift for Son and his fiancée. But I didn’t have a plan.

Then about a month before the wedding, I started hankering to make that gift. I…

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Catbirds

Jim has been watching the phoebes for weeks. A few days ago he noticed the nest was empty, and it seemed the family was gone. Just this morning he spotted them again. Though the fledglings are out, the phoebes are still in our yard.

The nest, a “permanent” structure, sits on a beam under our deck. With the babies gone, Jim drilled a small hole between floor boards to get a better view. The hole is only about a quarter inch across, but the camera lens on the phone is smaller than that. He was able to get this photo looking down into the nest.

Phoebe nest 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Of course the photo makes it look as large as an eagle’s nest, but in truth, the cup of the nest is less than 3″ across.

The wrens also seem to have sent their first brood out into the world, as it’s become less noisy out our back door. Often they have a second brood, so we’ll look forward to their chatter returning before the summer is out.

We still have the catbirds. Early this year we were treated to several of the plain, grey birds in our yard. Usually we’re only aware of one or two.

Catbird. 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Catbirds on suet feeder. 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

What birds are hanging around your yard these days?

Cute Speckled Fawns

We love watching the visitors to our yard. Jim’s been sharing photos of the phoebes that took up residence under our deck, and a few days ago he showed you a video of a groundhog, twenty feet up in a tree eating mulberry leaves. Deer often come around, too.

Recently we watched a doe with one tiny speckled fawn as they approached the house. The doe caught sight of us in the window and stopped next to a tree. While she stood, fawn nearby, a mama raccoon came down the tree next to her with two babies! It was like a scene from a Disney movie, choreographed so the animals are in the same shot.

This morning a different doe appeared with two fawns. They are so sweet and spindly, with the pale freckles making lines along the ridge of their backs.

Jim caught some video of the three of them.

Do you have visitors in your yard or neighborhood?

Backyard Birds | Cooper’s Hawk

When Jim and I looked for a different home more than a decade ago, one thing Jim insisted he wanted was a view to the west. Having grown up on a midwestern farm, he learned to love the broad horizon, with its window on the setting sun and on incoming storms. What we actually got, though, is quite different from that. Instead, we have trees nearly touching our house on the west side. With summer’s leaves unfurled, the view beyond our property is completely obscured.

My view to the west, late spring, early evening.

We can’t see oncoming storms, but we do have yard birds. If you read the descriptions in bird books or at one of our favorite sites, All About Birds, you would see that most of our birds like the margins between woods and grasslands. They find familiar territory here.

Some of our birds are seasonal, migrating to or through the area, while others are around all year. Recently Jim posted about a pair of Eastern Phoebes that are nesting under our deck. The phoebes are new to us, though this is within their summer region.

As I worked in the kitchen a few days ago, I hollered at him to get his camera. A Cooper’s Hawk was perched on the tree out back. Usually when we see them, they are too far away too see clearly, or they are swooping through, intent on catching a meal. But this one was still, and at my eye level. It also was directly above one of our bird feeders. No, it doesn’t find its meal in the feeder; it finds it at the feeder. Coopers eat smaller birds and rodents. Once we watched one land on, firmly grasp, and fly off with a struggling squirrel. Surprisingly, they’re not terribly big birds, only about the size of a crow. Click any photo to embiggen.

Besides the great photos, Jim also was able to get this short video.

We don’t have the setting sun, but we have an ever-interesting assembly of birds out our window.

Connections

Recently I was introduced to Deborah, who works with my new neighbor, Heather. When I told Heather about it, I thought about the web of connections leading to this chance meeting. 


A mid-August day in western Illinois can take your breath away. Temperatures run high that time of year. The humidity of the Mississippi River and the flat, fertile ground clings to everything and makes it hard to breathe. But on that day in 1933, the air was milder than usual and a light rain freshened the skies.

On that day in 1933, John welcomed Dorothy to his side, and they spoke their vows to honor and love each other, vows that were kept for 69 years. While Dorothy held his hands, her bridesmaid and cousin Rosemary held the bride’s bouquet.

John and Dorothy had nine children together, one of whom was Jim. Rosemary and her husband had children, too, one of whom was Chuck. Chuck and Jim, second cousins, knew each other as they grew up, attended the same university, and had overlapping social circles.

When Jim graduated college, he married, began a teaching career, and became a father. His teaching career thrived and his daughters grew, but his marriage struggled and ultimately ended.

One summer Jim began a master’s degree program at another university in Illinois. While there, a mutual friend introduced him to Melanie. Melanie and Jim quickly fell in love and married the next year.

After Melanie finished her degree, she applied for a job in downtown Chicago. Her interview was on the coldest recorded day in Chicago history (really!), and she got a job developing software for a major bank. One of her work mates was Bruce. Soon Bruce left the software development team to join the bank’s trust management group.

After a couple more years, Melanie left the bank to enter graduate school. She finished the degree and gave birth to a son, after which she taught Finance at the same school.

In the summer of 1992, Jim, his wife Melanie, and their young son moved to Iowa. Melanie was about to start graduate school (again!), but Jim didn’t have a job arranged yet. After 23 years teaching high school science, he hoped to find a similar position.

John and Dorothy’s son Jim spoke with Rosemary’s son Chuck. Chuck had a connection in the same Iowa town, a man who worked in administration for the school district. With Chuck’s recommendation to ease the way, Jim accepted a teaching position in the district. Jim had many talented co-workers at his school, people dedicated to their students. One of those was Jan, a gentle man who taught physical science.

Jim, Melanie, and Son were fortunate in other ways in their new home. Across the street in one direction lived Darrell and Judy, who treated the new family with kindness. In another direction lived Kathy’s family. Her son attended the same school and played on the same soccer team. The mom of another boy on that team was Beth, a relative of Kathy.

In 1996 Darrell and Judy moved across town. Melanie finished her degree in 1997 and applied for a job in trust investment management. The man who interviewed her and hired her was Bruce, her co-worker from Chicago, now living in Iowa.

Between Melanie’s new job and Jim’s teaching position, it made sense to move. In 1997 they moved to a new house, right next door to Darrell and Judy. Darrell and Judy’s neighbors on the other side were a woman named Hazel and her daughter Holly.

Holly was older than the son, but the two became friends. Their friendship deepened when Holly helped Son learn how to play clarinet and saxophone. She helped him learn the basics and Son came to love the saxophone. When he entered junior high he was fortunate to have an excellent band teacher. The band teacher encouraged the kids to play in the jazz band, which Son did.

In high school he continued to play. His jazz band excelled and often won area jazz band contests. One of those contests was hosted each year at Son’s high school. It was the annual qualifying contest for state competition. Many of the judges are professional jazz musicians and educators from the area. When Melanie helped run the qualifying contest in 2006, she met a jazz musician and professor named Steve.

Steve plays with a few different bands. One of those bands is called “The Beaker Brothers,” and they play a lot of rock from the late 1960s and ’70s. Ed is one of Steve’s bandmates in that group.

After Jim retired from teaching in 2007, his friend Jan recommended he work for an education resources company. Jan started there when he retired from teaching. Ed worked there, too, as did Darrell.

Backtracking in time… In 2002 Jim and Melanie and Son moved to a different house. Next-door neighbors on both sides worked for the same education company where Jim later worked. Two doors down lived Nancy, a retired teacher who quilted. In 2007 Nancy invited Melanie to a meeting of the local quilters guild. At the meeting, Melanie reconnected with Bethrelated to Kathy, who lived across the street from Melanie and Jim when they first moved to Iowa. Beth quilts, too. 

In summer of 2017, Nancy and her husband, the neighbors two doors down, sold their home to downsize. Heather and her husband, moving to town to work at the hospital, bought the house.

A different stream of time… For decades Jim has been a blood donor. Years ago, one of the phlebotomists at the blood bank, who frequently jabbed Jim when he donated, was Deborah. Yes, the same Deborah who recently met Melanie.

On a Friday night a couple of weeks ago, Melanie and Jim went out to hear The Beaker Brothers play. Steve and Ed were on stage with their bandmates, covering the Allman Brothers and other bands of the era. When they took a break, Steve visited with Jim and Melanie. As he did, Deborah approached to say “hello” to him. She already knew Steve through her friendship with Ed and his wife. As it turns out, Ed is Deborah’s ex-in-law.

Deborah recognized Jim and introduced herself to Melanie. She now works at the hospital in a different department. It is the same department in which Heather works.


Deborah and Heather might know each other despite all the other connections. But Jim and I only know that Deborah and Heather know each other because of all the other connections.

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Herman Melville

Great Horned Owl Visiting Again

In February we told the story of a great horned owl visiting our backyard. Before that day, we never saw or heard one in our yard. Today we had the privilege of a second visit.

This time it perched on a lower branch than before, and Jim was able to get some terrific shots.

Great Horned Owl. Eastern Iowa. 11/15/2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Click on any picture below to embiggen.

And here is a short video to show a bit of personality.

We watched it as a cat roamed through our yard beneath it. The cat was lucky the owl wasn’t ready for dinner. Later a squirrel grazed under the bird feeder and similarly escaped a violent death.

It was quite a treat to see this beautiful bird.

Autumn Walks

by Jim and Melanie

One of our true pleasures is walking or hiking with each other. The pace allows for companionable silence or conversation, and for experiencing our current surroundings while letting the past and future fade. When we travel we look for opportunities to hike, and at home we walk the neighborhood or make small outings to local trails. Serendipity often blesses us while we’re out.

When visiting Washington state last month, we intended a hike in Point Defiance Park, a city park in Tacoma. It hugs the shoreline of the Tacoma Narrows and Commencement Bay, south of Seattle. Jim also wanted to visit the park’s rose garden, displaying the last of early fall’s blooms.

What we didn’t anticipate was the dahlia garden. The tall-stemmed blooms overwhelmed us with their joyful colors. We don’t see many dahlias where we live, so we lingered for a while, taking dozens of photos. Here are a few. Click to embiggen.

~*~*~*~

This week we hiked closer to home. We drove to hiking and mountain biking trails a few miles away, next to the Coralville Reservoir. There are several miles of trails, rated from easy to difficult. Because they are for bike riders as well as walkers, the trails are designated for one-way traffic to improve safety. We hadn’t hiked in this area before and enjoyed the new adventure.

Most of the trail is within the trees with no view of the water, though you can see the reservoir in places. The fall colors are slow in coming this year, and the trees are still leaf-covered, perhaps due to our mild summer.

Our moment of serendipity came about halfway through our hike, when we chanced upon this Santa-on-a-tractor-in-a-creche. It seemed to be the perfect representation of Christmas in Iowa, though a little early.

Since we hadn’t been to these trails before, we stuck to one designated as “easy.” There is a lot more to explore for other times. We’ll go back.

Snakes on a … Sidewalk!

by Melanie and Jim

Most snakes in Iowa are pretty harmless, not scary like snakes on a plane. The ones we see most often are non-venomous and pretty amusing. They are Brown Snakes, and they typically measure from 13-18″ long. Most we see in our neighborhood are smaller than that, with lengths from about 8-12″.

Yesterday’s first snake sighting was on the paved trail behind our house. We had just left the house for a short walk when we happened on the snake, stretched almost its full length across the trail. We estimated it was about a foot long, maybe slightly more. There was some dappled sunlight warming the little thing. They seem to appear in early fall. They like areas with water and some woodland border, making our neighborhood the perfect habitat.

Jim ran back to the house to get a camera while Melanie stood guard. Two women came along and admired it while we waited. They said there were other snakes that were much smaller farther along. And then one of the women hopped a little and pointed to two more snakes at the edge of the sidewalk. A bicyclist rode by, and we directed him to the side so he wouldn’t run over the small monster.

Finally Jim came back, camera in hand.

Slightly out of focus, its tongue is flicking at high speed.

Great picture of its markings, including the top of its head.

With no sense of scale, you might think this is large and ferocious!

A few seconds of video, with Melanie’s finger to show how tiny it is.

After that encounter, and noting the two other snakes at the edge of the sidewalk, we didn’t see any more for most of our walk. Shortly before getting home, Melanie saw another skedaddle into the grass. It was a larger, longer snake and moved very quickly. It moved too fast to get a good look at it, but because of its larger size, we guess it may have been a garter snake.

Snakes are always fun to see around here, partly because we know they are harmless if not bothered. Do you encounter snakes where you live?

Sending Quilts to Texas?

Catbird Quilt Studio

The hurricane disaster in Texas may displace people from more than 100,000 homes for at least several weeks. They need housing, food, water, and some way to replace all the goods lost to water damage, or simply washed or blown away. Should you send replacement items? Should you send quilts?

It’s tempting, isn’t it? A quilt is a tangible item to show your concern, to offer both comfort and warmth. I’ve already seen a number of requests for quilts for Texans. I’ve also seen one of those requests in a Facebook group called a fraud, and deleted after the group moderator couldn’t affirm its legitimacy.

In the past I’ve made quilts to give post-disaster. But unless a disaster is local, I won’t do it again. Why not? Very simply, if a community is facing the scale of tragedy that Houston and other Texas cities are facing, figuring out how…

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