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Bluebirding

6-10 inches overnight at the ranch. E & I took Nora for a night walk in the storm and on our return the house looked storybook cozy.
I sat next to a Montana firefighter on a flight to Reno this fall, and described our big lovely pines by the house planted by my grandfather 75 years ago. She said they don’t pose a dire problem as the forests are up the hill and the corral and road make a good fire-brake.
It was in the 40s when we arrived, and we raked mountains of leaves from the yard, as the warm temps were fleeing in front of an arctic air mass. 10 degrees and less, with snow.
The storm breaks. Clear skies and no wind, so we head up top to walk the bluebird line along the county road. E has 6 frozen blue eggs of Bluebirds in her pocket from a nest too late in the season, and will add one more.
Mountain Bluebirds head to Mexico for the winter, but will return in March when it still looks about like this. This house is new this past summer, and spring will be its first occupancy. This bit of the ranch is delineated by imagining a line from the bottom L to top R.
This bird house marks the southern border of the ranch, on into the Little Belt Mountains.
Hawks are spinning up out of the forest, heading out to hunt on the blank wind-scoured highlands.
The forest runs out of cover, and the alpine highlands lead to the mountains.
Nora and E can hear “The Hum”, maybe it has something to do with the blurry shapes flying about that only the camera can see. Or there is frost on the camera lense.
Looking North across the winter moonscape of the alpine highlands, down and across to the Highwood mountains on the great plain of the Missouri river.
About 2/3 up the frame is all ranch land, the distant Highwoods seem to connect right into the alpine grassland.
Nora tells me how great her long legs and a long coat are. They just seem like a particular sort of fashion in town..
13 houses of similar design; by the last three I had it figured out.
A flip-open lid for quick nest inspection, and a side door for seasonal cleaning. Two cedar fence panels (5.5″ x 6′) makes 3 houses, and with the hardware each house costs about $5. There are cheaper ways, but these get hit by bears and cows and hail and blizzards.
The little brass hooks pin the lids and doors closed. The metal D-rings (a pair near the top, and at center bottom for stability) provide sturdy metal-to-metal contact points for the hanging wire.
Slot openings rather than holes. The process moves right to left for prototypes to show model. The first four originally were side-door only and have turn screw doors that pin into a matching cylinder mounted in the door.
These door-hinge-only houses were the first, and at the end I went back and added roof hinges made of bicycle inner tube (one long $10 hinge cuts into 4 double hinged houses- and I ran out of hinges before I ran out of houses). I also ran short on D-Rings, so went old-school with wide-head screws.

It seems that every two years I have to make a new bluebird house design. I hope these answer all the issues the prior designs haven’t addressed.

Two different designs of the past were my Zero Profile https://dangerhart.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/zero-profile-bluebird-houses/ which are only used by tree swallows, my redwood house designs began here https://dangerhart.wordpress.com/2015/06/ which led to https://dangerhart.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/mountain-bluebird-house-upgrade/ and then a series of 6 slot houses https://dangerhart.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/mountain-bluebird-condos/ that the bluebirds have used successfully.

Here comes the arctic front with days of hail, rain, and mountain snow.
A detail of the bluebirds in the storm pic. They finally decided to move from the garage to the new (2 years ago) nest box on the old power pole by the garage.
Clearing old nests from a bluebird house, and these eggs were a few nests down. E blew them clean and brought them home to SLC.
Xander inspects the groceries, while I get to work with the new hardware outside.
Last year the bees moved their hive three planks up, and a wren built her nest in the old hive. All empty now, so I foam them all closed. I also triaged the pecked and bored out corner planking with a long run of angled metal sheathing.
Up at the corral iris bed, before adding in ground cloth to the first two levels. A project abandoned after too many snakes under the rubber tarp made us wonder if ground cloth is just asking for more snakes.
All the weeds are piled on the old rubber pond liner, which in turn is piled on a nest of Garter Snakes and a fat Bull Snake. Clue: there is a discarded snake skin top L under the RR tie that E and I had startled ourselves with earlier. Of course I pulled the liner back just where the Bull Snake was coiled up. I used a rake to pull the tarp back more and Garter Snakes went everywhere. I went into snake overdrive and killed the Bull Snake with a shovel; even after seeing he had no rattle. They will flatten and widen their heads when threatened, to look like a rattlesnake, and he struck at the shovel after my first attempt wounded him. Glad he wasn’t the real thing, as it took me a sec to line up the second kill blow. A real rattler on a hot day (it was barely 50) would have had me- probably when I pulled the liner back. No more rubber liner tarps.
When E and I were up for Xmas we were visited by a whomp on the roof, and the clatter of little feet. Not Santa. A packrat knew to jump from the big pine to the house and had one or three entrances at three eve overhangs. I baited the basement trap and killed him, then reset the trap and it remained empty. Still, I need to block up those holes. I need to make a hook ladder. I’m not sure how long to make it, so I go with overlong at 16 feet. I use 2×3’s to keep it light, but strong. The rain and chill is about to shut me down for the day.
The next morning I create the hook, using bolts to secure the 90 degree angle protruding through the top. The legs will fit over the peak of the roof- and I will have to cut them down in-situ to fit the opposing angle of the connecting roofline.
Nora gives me some advice on rooftop safety.
The peak delta needs both ends capped, and to the R where the roofs overlap each other is the third critter problem. This will require the ladder be moved a few times. The plan for blocking critter access is first to push expanded metal into the gap, then fill everything with dense spray foam. This needs to set for about an hour, which means it will probably definitely rain on me when I’m up there, and rain lots more when I get down. Then I head back up for more rain and cut the excess foam away, and cap it with bondo heavy body. Weather permitting.
AL ladder is braced with webbing to the deck support, keeping it from kicking out when I’m on the second little ladder laid flat on the deck roof (this one is there mainly for descending from the wooden hook ladder). Then the hook ladder is pushed up over the crest and flipped over so the arms brace against the other side.
I also invested in this roofing climbing harness in case my wooden ladder wan’t as clever as it seemed.
I’ve screwed a support beam into the tool shed, and will climb up, toss the rope to E, and she will tie me off from the other side of the house.
Up we go.
Nora knows her plan is solid, and doesn’t even need to watch.
It might also hail a bit once you get up there.
Then hail a bit more.
Then sock in for a few days of 40 degree temps raining hard enough to send Nora hiding under the bed all night, while it snows on the mountains.
The hail slides off the roof in sheets.
In between storms I move the ladder and do the other side.
The bondo matches the color of the steel roofing; each end of the delta is backfilled and capped off. Just the last overhang to go. I thought I’d be able to scrape and paint while I was up, but the weather barely let me get my real fix done before we timed out and and had to leave. I did tighten down and add in many more roofing screws.
While the foam was curing up on the roof, I decided that one of my little improvements might get a feller killed- in blocking off the steps to the basement from packrats I had created a perfect rattlesnake den. I backfilled it with rocks and capped it with foam panel and wood sheeting. Next I lined the wood sheeting with cling wrap, closed the door, and sprayed in expanding foam. This will stick to the door and not to the panel for a perfect fit, and I foamed beneath the foam panel as well.
Here I’m cutting away the excess foam of the seamless fitting for the now snake-proof door. When closed it looks like an ice-cream sandwich. I will buy a bunch of chip rock granite and backfill the area I’m standing in, and a few others as well- just to make a smooth surface that allows no snakes to hide: E had a garter snake tell her a thing or two from the sandstone portion.
The view from the top on our way back to SLC- let me zoom in for you…
Mount Baldy is to the R in the distance, covered in fresh snow, now a few days old. We take the pretty back route over Bridger pass into Bozeman for more June snow.

Grant deadlines have kept E busy ’til now, and lucky for us, the weather up North has been cold and the spring has been slow. We saddled up the truck and jumped out of town in a hurry, as soon as E could break away. After a cool and blustery drive up, I unloaded the truck in a twilight rain squall.

June 17th at the ranch. Job #1 is always The Yard. We have arrived three weeks late for our spring mow. The overall season for Montana is 20 days behind the average, and up here the lilacs have just bloomed and the Iris are coming in.

The morning’s high grass needed to dry out from last evening’s rain before mowing, so I set about fixing the water heater, frizted during last fall’s hunting party, replacing both elements and the bottom thermostat. The elements were really stuck in there, and took some ranch-ineering to create smooth enough application of leverage to break loose without breaking. Got it all figured with a thick old bent nail and a section of pipe.

The cold & wet spring convinced us to forego the bicycles, and instead we brought up my lawn mower to live out its golden years helping this brush mower keep the yard in check (E found a used electric mower for our little postage stamp of lawn in SLC). Once I knocked it all down, we let it dry and E followed up with the bagging mower. The bag would fill at every turn.
E pulls wagon loads of weeds from the flower beds while I make the initial pass of the brush mower.
Nora helps me keep the old brush mower set at its highest level- the front end likes to drop from its pins.
Many late freezes have nipped the lilacs, blooms are still emerging.
We take a yarding break for some Bluebirding: many nest boxes are full- 6 chicks in most nests. My white pvc cylinder nest boxes are all full of Tree Swallows.
This was a busy deer bed two nights ago; two days of yarding to address the lawn.
Imagine if the 400 iris I planted a few years back hadn’t all disappeared.
E and I have just finished weeding the bed, to the right is the mass of weeds on a now infamous rubber mat.

-from E’s letter home: Last fall, Dan had put down a used rubber pond liner to deter weeds there at the edge of the iris bed where the foot bridge ends over to the corral gate. He pulled back the liner and discovered where all the garter snakes were living and a larger snake that looked like a rattle snake without a rattle. Eghads what a greenhorn mistake! Nine or ten garter snakes (each 24 inches in length) slithered away, but the other snake stood its ground. We had both been walking all over the rubber surface and stepping on the snakes, so that added to the weirdness of the discovery. Dan was pretty freaked out and decided to off the larger snake to be on the safe side. Internet searches when we got home confirmed that we killed a bull snake. They are difficult to distinguish from rattle snakes and flatten their heads to resemble rattle snakes when threatened, which is just what the snake did. So, we feel pretty bad ….. but with treatment cost of rattle snake bites coming in at $100,000 – $120,000, we thought better safe than sorry. 

It is warmer along the S wall of the house, and the lilac garden is in full bloom.
The bigger Iris bed in front, expanded last summer, will begin to bloom by week’s end.
This year’s cold spring have kept my hard trim of 7 lilac bushes looking ratty. The two in the middle are beginning to fill out. Later in the week I trimmed the suckers around 5 and laid ground cloth around one. It takes a whole lot of cloth to go around a bush, and I wanted to save some for the big iris bed at the corral (all prior to the discovery of the rubber mat snake haven).
Last summer’s White-Faced Wasp nest is now the home of our friendly Wren.
The willows are off to a slow start with frost pinched tips. On our last morning two pair of Bullocks Oriels arrive- double our previous nesting population!
The creek is running clear and strong, as we’ve pulled debris and cleared the shores for the past few falls. (and the cattle are up on the hill as yet)
A little marsh ends here at the bridge, a Mallard and his mate flushed from just around the bend.
The mower and I freed the poppies from the overburden of grass and weeds. Just through that shadowed spot at center is our Rhubarb patch.
Nora with the rhubarb.
This section of the yard is left wild. In 2013 I removed all the metal scrap that been heaped for years, which was replaced by weeds and wild carrot that I knocked back, and now it is finally looking healthy.
The Cedar Waxwings, Robins, Wrens, Bluebirds, Goldfinches, Calliope Hummingbirds, Kingbirds, Oriels, Bats, and bunnies are all pretty happy with the digs. No sign of our house bees, although the sub-letting bumble bees are busier than last year. I just learned of the Old World tradition of “Telling the Bees”- informing the household bee hive of any deaths, births, or marriages; best done through rhyming song sung softly at their entrance.

Just after dark a funky short semi truck drove past, and a bit later E saw bright lights up the coulee. It was our bee keeper, dropping off hives while the bees are all home for the night. He headed down and placed hives at the neighbor’s as well.

This pair of swallowtail butterflies kept busy in the lilacs.
As big as my hand and always here or there or drifting in between.

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Groups of Mountain Bluebirds were scoping out birdhouses along this ridge.

E & I had planned a ski trip to the ranch in February, but Montana’s -20F arctic air and feet of snow had kept us homebound 530 miles due south in balmy Salt Lake City. Last weekend would be the last weekend for snow, so we drove out in a bit of a snowstorm that spanned nearly the entire trip, but only spat out a few white-out 4×4-only sections. We saw a huge herd of hundreds of Elk in the Madison River valley outside Yellowstone Park, as well as a Bald Eagle flying up the river. At Three Forks we saw Blue Heron’s and Buffle Heads (ducks), near where we spotted a Moose and her calf in fall. We made it over King’s Hill pass before the storm settled in, and I jumped back over the snow-blasted pass the next morning for powder skiing at Showdown before it closed for the season.  The rest of the week was spent sledding, taking Nora up Belt Creek canyon for a Nordic ski along a snowbound mountain creek, skiing the snowbound Kibbey Ridge road section of our bluebird houses, stomping about the hills in snow-boots, and keeping the wood-stove fed. As we diddled around on the snow, the Mountain Bluebirds began arriving in threes and pairs- or multiple singles.

Our overwintering Nuthatches had kept watch over the house and greeted us with enthusiastic antics. Mountain Chickadees had joined them and the ranch yard was a jungle gym of little birds catching bugs from the air. On a clear starry night standing out in the frozen silence, a sonar note repeated mechanically from midway up a hillside. It was emanating from a rotating platform, fading and growing more precise as it pointed in my direction, then past me and down the valley rotating around up the valley and down again. I hadn’t known we got submarines up this high, that, or it was a Saw-Whet Owl (it took two bird books to rule out the submarine). Coyotes sang at night and chirped from the hills during the day. The arrival of the Robins and the thawing of the yard creek signaled the slushing of the snow and the mushing of the mud, and we headed home a few days early in a truck more mud-ball than metal.

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Nora discovers what nothing smells like.

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E along the Kibbey Ridge road, our southernmost Bluebird line.

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E & Nora think this might be the last day for skiing, as Danger cleans a bbird house.

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View from the bbird house, down to the Highwood Mountains and Square Butte.

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Highland hayfield with the snowy pyramid of Iron Mountain.

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zoomed view…

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E & I while away the evenings with this 1,000 piece songbird puzzle in the shape of Western Bluebirds, while out in the hills the Mountain Bluebirds are arriving.

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Yesterday these ladies walked up here in a whiteout snowsquall while I was downhill skiing at Showdown ski area.

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Wishing we’d pulled the sled up here.

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Nora gives her lady a smooch.

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The north slope forest behind the house has gathered its snow. The barn is at the lower left.

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Wind and wan sun have already scoured yesterday’s snow from the hills.

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The yard is a thick drifted snowbank locking fast the gate.

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No squirrels to hassle the pretty new bird-feeder. None of the wild birds knew what to make of it.

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E completed this needlepoint over the winter, adding buttons (red berries and a white button sash) from her grandma Holder’s button tin. “A proper vest for a proper Rooster. Every Rooster greets the day dressed in his Sunday best, that’s what proper Roosters do.”, says E. with a giggle, adding, “No, I’m serious.” as we hang him in the ranch living room. 

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We were surprised to see groups of Mountain Bluebirds pinwheeling about, yet it was the day after the Spring equinox. Robins arrived a few days later.

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Southern highlands sunset phone signal sojourn.

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The heifers all line up to use the new phone; are bummed that we still can’t check messages.

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Looking North into the ranch.

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Smoke on 360 degrees of the horizon.

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Moon is back to white, from the blood-orange of a few nights ago.

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Up at the high meadows above the hayfield along the Blue Bird trek.

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This steep is a snowbank in winter, and stays green even in our Flash Drought year. 

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Surprise! Karen has jumped up from CA to visit for a few days at the ranch.

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One of the highland’s magical spots.

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Bluebird overlook from their front porch. Four hatchlings from a week ago are now fledged.

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A quiet evening and Karen joins E & I in putting up the new series of Bluebird houses.

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E watches a herd of deer watching us.

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Setting a whole new leg of Bluebird-House trekking.

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The deer are moving out as the sunset begins to move in.

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A last group of deer run the to the ridgeline.

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A fawn leaps to catch up with her group.

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Smoke down from Canada tinges the light.

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cool air rushes through the warm grasses and summer lifts from the earth

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Setting the last of the new houses.

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E can see the wooden bird house the bear opened like a lunchbox way over on the road. 

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More of a thermos than a lunchbox, E thinks the bear may just ignore the new models.

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the stillness of twilight sweeps beyond the mind’s eye

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infinite sky over unending undulations of coulees and mountain

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The moon is a dusky primrose from on top, but later rises again at the house… 

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Deep layers of atmospheric smoke tint the moonrise from the yard. Same night, different moon.

 

 

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Bluebird Houses: new design

June’s trip to the ranch revealed Tree Swallows taking over many Bluebird houses. They are lovely little birds, and will nest next to Bluebirds and vice-versa;  so I came up with a new design of birdhouse to place 25-50ft from the existing wooden houses. Some parameters: I want it to sleeve over the wooden fence poles of the barbed wire fence offering no incentive for cows to rub on them; easy to check for nesting birds via removable lid, with escape for mother out from entrance hole; easy to anchor to post and remove from post and clean out; insulates from heat & cold; waterproof and ventilated; can handle the harsh extremes of Montana highlands- all-weather / UV / extreme wind.

The far right is the first try; all black ABS in two sections connected by a snap-in drain insert (glued to the bottom/footing and pinned with a bolt to top/birdhouse, the lid is an insert bolted in place with a an inner screw-in lid as overkill for cleanout, the whole thing is spray-painted white and cost $17 per unit. Incredibly tough, but too pricey.

Next was an attempt to blend white pvc and fiberglass fitted inserts (ABS don’t fit and there are no similar PVC parts) – so no way to glue and join top to bottom. Plus, the inserts never quite snug-in or are too big. Too many issues and pricey; abandoned to the bin.

Finally I came up with a mix of irrigation tubing (multi-layered freeze-proof), black ABS tubing and black ABS drain insert, capped with a simple white pvc cap.

Materials:

4″dia x 10″ sections of insulated pvc irrigation tubing (10′ length @ $10.35)

4″dia x 4″ sections of ABS black  (2′ length @ $10 x 3ct = $30)

4″dia  ABS black Snap-In Drain Insert ($3.08)

4″dia Cap pvc ($2.48ea)

Total $102 per 12 houses, or $9.50 per house. Cost per unit just tops redwood/cedar, but these should easily outlast the wooden houses with no issues of warping & splitting, cleaning/viewing access, livestock damage; we’ll see what the Bluebirds think.

Notes: 1. With reciprocating saw or bandsaw, cut irrigation tubing to 10″ sections /  Cut black ABS tubing to 4″ sections (clean & level on sanding belt). 2. Put white cap on 10″ Irrigation tubing and measure down 1″, using 1.5″ hole saw, cut out entrance hole (angle upward slightly to deter water runoff), remove cap. 3. Put Cut-Off wheel on drill; scribe 3 lines below entrance as toe-holds, then move to inside wall and scribe midway at entrance down to bottom for fledging chick’s toe holds. 4. Place white cap as roof, drill hole for bolt undersize and bolt will self-tap, then drill 12 holes around back edge of cap & through pipe for ventilation (upward angle to deter water & small dia to deter insects). 5. Sanding Drum on drill bevels out base of irrigation tubing for seating ABS Snap-In Drain Insert (plus smooth entrance hole)- press insert into place with squeeze clamps or tap with dead blow hammer. 6. Brush out and wipe down interior. 7. ABS glue to bottom of Drain-Insert & 4″ section of black ABS, join and press for 30 seconds, set aside for curing. 8. Drill two holes near bottom of ABS tubing, run galvanized wire through ea. hole to drop well below rim of tubing, and use pliers to clip outside section leaving enough to twist into a loop/anchor. The wire runs down inside tubing and will wrap around woodscrews drilled into the fencepost, holding the house in place. 9. Drill holes into black ABS near joint as ventilation from the bottom (visible on far R prototype).

 

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Roof w anchor pin unscrewed

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Upper Ventilation holes , Front Door with toe-holds.

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Floor & Door, with climbing grooves cut into sidewall.

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Upside Down

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Lashing Wire