Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Winter Diner

Winter has arrived early this season, so our pumpkin’s got a snow hat and there’s been a food fight at the feeder for the past week.  I’m glad to see our winter friends return, with pointy heads, cornrows, and beaks long and short, sharp and puckered.   It’s a veritable fashion show of feathers: red, white, grey, brown, golden, blue, spotted, striped, flushed, fuzzy, in jackets, masks, wing amulets and long underwear. 

The chickadees break my heart in the morning.  Little but full of spunk, they scold until I trudge out in my snow boots and bathrobe to fill the feeder.  Once in awhile, one will alight on the railing nearby as I pour the seeds, scolding that she’d been up for hours by the time I manage to get up and bear the icy wind.

Once I am safely out of sight they visit and nosh all day long, swooping in and out, chattering up a storm.  Here’s the list so far this winter:  titmice, chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, finches gold and red, song sparrows, cardinal, blue jay, nuthatches, doves, carolina wren, and the unrelenting gang of juncos who have actually evolved at our feeder.  Juncos are by nature ground foragers who search under bushes, doing a scratch and sniff dance to find food.  But with much practice and trial and error, one of them developed the ability to fly up to the swaying feeder and land properly on it to eat.  Within days the others followed suit.  The junco gang is the first to arrive in the winter on our deck, and they undoubtedly alert the others that our diner has opened for the season.  I am glad to serve them.

Monday, April 8, 2013

It's All New Again

This one’s been a particularly long winter, with cold winds right up through the first week of April.  Even the daffodils, crocuses and forsythia have been keeping their buds squeezed tight, shy about blooming until today, our first day of 70 degrees.  So, here’s the First-Real-Day-Of-Spring report:

The trees are still bare, so I can see birds flitting about.  It’s going to be a sudden warm-up into the high 70’s to 80’s this entire week, and the migrators should be arriving soon.  I’ll have to get out and see what colorful return-ees from the tropics I can spot before the trees start to leaf out.

Today’s wildlife count: 

On a short walk along Valley Creek I see: about 20 trout facing upstream, swaying back and forth and waiting for bugs to come their way, one great blue heron standing like a statue on the opposite bank - also staring at said fish, 3 deer drinking, then startled, running up the bank across the trail in front of me, stopping twice to stare, and 2 young garter snakes, slithering through the leaf litter and wild flowers, one chasing the other Bambi-style, towards the sunny trail and creek below. 

There is lots of bird song for accompaniment, and much rushing and gurgling of the creek water, so it was a full sensorial experience for which I am grateful.  It could not have arrived at a better time, as those of us who live amidst the changing seasons really do get grumpy every winter, and are so grateful for the slightest signs of growth and color breaking through. 

What amazes me is the amnesia that happens every year.  We truly do forget what is to come, the details of the progression of things, and the miracle of the beauty, until it is upon us again out of the cold grayness of winter.  First, the buds appear on the trees and bushes, then one of their flowers blooms here and there, and then in a day or so the explosion of color, in pink, magenta, or yellow on gray bark, finally followed by the green leaves that fill in all the empty spaces. It's all a distant memory of an old promise, now being fulfilled.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Water World

This year’s spring snake sighting was in a stream at the lovely Chanticleer Gardens.  
I thought I was looking at a water plant, roots anchored on the bottom, single strand floating in the current.  But then it disappeared and resurfaced in a nearby spot with its tiny head, the size of my pinky nail, above the water’s surface, swaying to and fro and waiting for bugs, one assumes.  I had to bend down and stoop next to the edge to try to get a picture, but the sun was bright and it was hard to even find the little bugger in my frame. 

They say there is a niche for every living thing in an ecosystem.  Well this guy (or gal) had the perfect spot to wait for lunch to happen by; a cool rushing stream with little minnows, bright green water plants, damsel flies and water striders all around.  It went  almost undetected, save one lingering listener of burbling water on a spring day.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Spring Jam At Valley Creek

I wasn’t sure when to start the blog this spring.  Today was the day.  After a strangely balmy winter, and an unseasonable warm-up where all the forsythia, quince, daffodils, tulips, and crabapple seemed to bloom at once, we then settled into a nice brisk 50 degrees for about a month where everything stopped.  So we got to enjoy all of those flowers for several weeks.  Now we’ve had a real warm-up to 80, the trees are leafed out, and all is alive and chirping, singing, and winging. 

This afternoon I had what seemed to be a truly enchanted walk along a trail near Valley Creek.  Purple flox, wild roses in white and pink, red admiral butterflies alighting everywhere, the creek rushing and swollen from last night’s thunderstorms, two little frogs who dashed into a new mini-pond created in the upended roots of a felled giant tulip tree, (who soon resurfaced to gape at me), and a close encounter with what I call a chip-squirrel, which is actually some kind of miniature red squirrel with pointed tufted ears, a native of Pennsylvania.  The crickets were singing softly in the meadow as I neared the end of the trail, and blue jays alighted nearby, scolding me as I left the woods.

When I first entered those woods, my head was full of the computer, and jammed with worries about family and work. When I left I was filled with the sounds, smells, sights and adventures of another world.  How lucky I am to have it so close by.

This year's first spring blog is in tribute to my cousin Marvin Friedman.  He was a great artist, writer, comedian, and story and truth-teller all in one.  He left many great paintings, book and magazine illustrations, narratives of his childhood and family history, and funny, funny anecdotes.  Even though he was mostly a city-boy, he enjoyed my nature writing and occasionally wrote an inspired, improvisational, jazz- like response to my blog via email.  He will be greatly missed.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hummer Junkies

We live near the artistic homestead of John J. Audubon, famed bird and wildlife illustrator, located in a town cleverly named Audubon, PA. I bought some beautiful note cards with his illustrations of hummingbirds: two caught in mid-hover, green and red, delicate and dignified, their long, elegant beaks carefully inserted into slender pink blossoms.

Our resident ruby-throated hummingbirds are nothing of the sort. They spend more time chasing each around our deck, over our heads, and off into space than actually feeding. There are two females that return every spring, and this year we have also seen a smaller male - but he has been scarce, and one can only imagine why. The two females spend most of their time racing around, zipping in and out like Warner Brothers cartoons, in circles, up and down, with sudden sideways left turns, using the most impressive helicopter-like maneuvers to evade and chase each other away from our flowers and sugar-water feeder. When they are not competing for our outdoor buffet, they are hanging out on tree branches nearby watching for each other. They persist with these activities in the middle of thunder storms, in the hot humidity of our summer afternoons, and at dusk when we are sitting outside trying to eat our dinner. If we are not expecting it - like when we are looking down at our plates of zucchini and rice to scoop up another forkful - the sudden zooming by of a 3 to 4 inch creature whose wings are beating at 53 times per second – well, the sound can be quite startling. It’s a sound that the primitive-warning parts of our brains don’t quite recognize, and it's a bit nerve-racking every time. But we love watching them, and so we’ll continue to put out the juice that I suspect got them hooked in the first place.*

One day in the late summer, they’ll disappear. The only thing I wonder is: Where exactly do our dinner companions go every fall? The University of Maine Extension web site says that most ruby-throated hummingbirds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico, almost 600 miles, to their winter habitat in southern Mexico or Central America. I would love to know in which country they spend those months. Which lush, green rainforest do they hover in down there? Is it mountainous? Foggy and cool? Hot and sunny? I would love to affix a tiny H-bird-cam on their tiny heads, to see how they make the 1500-some-mile journey, and then how they make it back to our deck in Southeastern Pennsylvania each spring. How do they do it?

* For feeder solution, add one part table sugar to four parts boiling water, stir to dissolve the sugar. Boil for at least a minute. Cool before filling feeders. Keep feeder clean and sterilized. You should also have the long, tubular, red, purple, or pink flowers they like – as the flower nectar provides nutrition the sugar water doesn’t have. They need it for the long trip.

There are actually three in this video, recorded through a window (if you can catch them!) ...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Small Farms - So Tasty!

Fresh fruit!

In summer I am consumed with visiting farm stands and picking, buying, and eating fresh local fruits and vegetables. After being deprived all winter long, the vibrant colors and sheer abundance are shocking. We try to stay local in our produce purchases in the winter, which means that other than buying lettuce shipped in from California, we do without peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and most fruit unless it’s frozen or jarred. So in the summer we go crazy with fresh-off-the-farm strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, peaches, corn, tomatoes of every shape and flavor, lettuce, green beans, zucchini, melons, raspberries, cucumbers, red peppers, and anything grown right here or nearby in New Jersey.

We are so blessed here in the Northeast, and in this country, with our seemingly limitless availability of water and good soil and the peace and time for our farmers to plant, grow, and harvest. (I am so grateful to these small family farmers willing to put in the hard work for not very much money.) Not only do we get to eat this stuff the day it’s picked, but the wild shapes and sizes and colors are more beautiful than any painting. For those of us lucky enough to partake – enjoy the bounty!

Gotta go now – the smell of a sweet canary melon is beckoning me to scoop and eat!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Meadow Drive-In

I grew up in southern New Jersey, where the first drive-in movie screen was built. A true summer treat, you could ride there at dusk in the back of your parents’ station wagon in your pajamas, and during a good Disney double feature, pass out with the crickets as company.

Now I live in Pennsylvania, and I don’t know of any drive-ins that exist anymore. But we have a great meadow on a low hill in Valley Forge National Park that we like to drive up to at dusk on summer evenings. We pull up, park, open the windows, stick our bare feet out, and watch the show. Swallows - in their navy blue tuxedo jackets with white dress shirts - swoop and swerve, criss-crossing all across the field, over the car and up overhead against the pink and gray sky, catching their evening bug snacks. The red-winged blackbirds call out cheerily as they finish up their day’s business before retiring. Thrushes, orioles and bluebirds wing by, returning at last to their nests for the night.

The sky grows darker, and the air dampens and wafts across the field, carrying with it the sweet smell of sun-baked grasses. Crickets and cicadas began to warm up for their evening concert. The meadow dims, and one small light flashes gently, then another, and finally the whole field is filled with tiny fairy lanterns, flashing on and off in the darkness.

Like the drive-ins, there are few true meadows left anymore. Most of our land has been developed into houses and shopping centers, lawns and soccer fields. We treasure this meadow in the daytime, taking walks and enjoying all of its inhabitants. But we really like to be there for its always-entertaining evening show. We just don’t wear our pajamas. And at least one of us stays awake to drive home.