Sunday, March 28, 2010

'Bye Goldfinches! See You Next Year!

Most of the goldfinches seem to be gone. There are still a couple of thistle-scarfing hangers-on, but the swarm appears to have moved north. The last time I saw the full flock was last Sunday during the snow. As other local bloggers mentioned, just about the time they got really showy-looking, they left.

It's as though, having spent the winter with us in their olive drab, they were a little embarrassed to be seen in sparkling lemon-gold plumage.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Welcome, Spring!

Very Early Spring
(by Katherine Mansfield)

The fields are snowbound no longer;
There are little blue lakes and flags of tenderest green.
The snow has been caught up into the sky--
So many white clouds--and the blue of the sky is cold.

Now the sun walks in the forest,
He touches the bows and stems with his golden fingers;
They shiver, and wake from slumber.
Over the barren branches he shakes his yellow curls.
Yet is the forest full of the sound of tears....
A wind dances over the fields.
Shrill and clear the sound of her waking laughter,
Yet the little blue lakes tremble
And the flags of tenderest green bend and quiver.

This is our first full day of spring. The sun is definitely NOT walking in our forest, and the birds are cold and hungry. Normally, there is little interspecies fussing and fighting among the feeder-birds. The male cardinals squabble amongst themselves, sometimes with great shows of fluttering wings and the occasional aerial fight. Today, however, even the finches are feeling brave. Here's one of the goldfinches warning off a cardinal.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Surrender, Dorothy! There's flying monkeys out there!

There were lots of new sounds to process when we moved out here from the Big City. Squawks and trills from the trees. ("What bird is making that noise?" "A squirrel." "That's not a bird." "Clever of you to notice.") Strange rustlings from the weeds, and when the weeds are eleven feet tall and growing right up against the house, this can cause some concern. Squeaking tree branches. Frogs that said things distinctly different than "ribbit." The roar of the river just behind us, reaching record-setting flood levels just as we moved in.

And then one night, we were startled to hear the monkeys. "Startled" may be an understatement. Books were flung...eyes widened. Someone may have said "Aaauuuggghhh! What is THAT?!?"

It was an amazing cacaphony of shrieking hooting barking coming from several directions at once, and the sources were very close.

I hoped the doors were locked.

I hoped monkeys didn't eat schnauzers.

I hoped there weren't any bananas in the living room.

As I was trying to decide between calling 911 or Animal Control, the pandemonium suddenly stopped. Someone must have called an emergency monkey meeting at a distant location.

We eventually were able to identify the culprit, and as it turned out, the monkeys were not what they seemed. They were actually Barred Owls (Strix varia), beautiful brown-streaked birds with round faces and ominous eyes. How a noise like that could come from an animal without opposable thumbs, I'll never know.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Camp Joie de View

We have a campsite in our Not-So-Big-Woods. Nothing particularly fancy--just a clearing overlooking the creek and its deep bank, a circle of stones for a campfire, and a concrete bench used either for quiet contemplation or for holding cooking equipment and lanterns. Sometimes we pitch a tent and sleep out, sometimes it's just nice to spend an evening under the stars and among the trees, as we did earlier this week. The site has been named Camp Joie de View, combining my name with a celebration of the lovely view over the creek that wraps 2 sides of our property.

After a dinner of hamburgers cooked over the campfire (and a quick retreat to the house for a change of clothes after I dumped my drink in my lap), we just sat. As Dr. Ruth Young over at Talking Nature says, if you just sit quietly, things happen.

You might get the stinkeye from a black-and-white warbler, concerned that you're gobbling up all the good bugs. Jumping from twig to twig, then shimmying up a tree trunk in a darn good impression of a nuthatch, this twitchy little thing was constantly in motion. Always, though, with one eye on the suspicious couple in the red camp chairs.

You might get to hear the hoarse "Squonk!" of a Great Blue Heron, circling the big trees across the creek before settling in. The look so awkward in trees. I'm constantly surprised that they don't come crashing down through the branches, wings askew and legs tangled in vines. I watched through binoculars for a very long time before it dawned on me that one of them was sitting in a nest. And so was the other. Sometimes, I'm not as observant as I'd like to believe.

You might wonder about that ungodly high-pitched noise. It's hard to hear it at first, but once you notice it, you can't shake it. What is it? Oh. A tufted titmouse? Really? Yes, really. In fact, one that's just visited our feeder, then flew a hundred yards so it could eat one of our peanuts above our heads.

You might get to hear a Barred Owl hooting and barking. And if you happen to be looking in just the right direction at just the right second, you might see its silhouette as it flies in for a closer look at you, apparently decides you're ok, and glides out again. Don't even try to hear it--just take a moment to be thankful you aren't a mouse.

Late at night, while you doze on cushions on the ground waiting for the fire to burn out (and waiting...and waiting....) if you're very lucky, you might hear two packs of coyotes tumbling through the night, sounding like a playground full of kids laughing and screeching.

Nature IS out there.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Second Entry in The Parade Of Predators

Just days ago, a coyote ghosted through the woods behind the house, leaving us breathless. This morning, a bobcat strode with great seriousness and purpose from the driveway, around the side yard, and across the back yard before melting into the same set of woods, probably heading for the creek just beyond. A gorgeous animal with camouflage just as effective as its canine partner from last weekend.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Henbit was always part of the lawn when I was growing up. Its tiny purple flowers were a more reliable sign of spring's approach than robins or daffodils. I called it "clover" when I was a kid. Looking back, I think that's what I called most of the plants in the lawn that weren't obviously St. Augustine grass. I was not a botanically-aware child.

Henbit's fancy dress-up name is Lamium amplexicaule. It grows all over the United States, and Europe, and in large swathes of Africa, Asia, and probably Mars. A member of the family Lamiaceae, it is related to mint, oregano, thyme, lavender, basil, and sage, its more herbal cousins. The leaves are said to be edible, and especially good when lightly dressed in a salad. You can see henbit's resemblance to mint in the texture of the leaves, and the square cross-sectional shape of the stem.

Henbit is often confused with Purple Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), but henbit's leaves attach directly to the main stem, with no petioles. Purple Deadnettle leaves dangle a bit, often overlapping, while Henbit's leaves wrap around the main stem, forming a shape like a cup or bowl.

Because henbit has just always been part of the standard outdoor greenery for me, I was taken aback when I started researching the plant: there's a considerable amount of vitriol aimed its way. "It's taking over my lawn! How do I kill it?" "I thought I killed it all, then it came back!" "Oh no! It's in my lawn AGAIN!!!"

All this over....henbit? I think of henbit as the cute purple flower that blooms even in winter, not as a skulking psycopathic lawn & garden destroyer. How bad can it be, if the bloom looks like Dino the Dinosaur?