Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Inside the Car, Inside the House and Then the Rest of the World

I turned on the radio during my drive to work: " you've given up texting," said the deejay. "What!?" exclaimed the co-host. "No, but I am thinking about it," explained the caller. "What would you do about friends that rely on texting?" asked the deejay. I flipped to a classic rock station after trying NPR out of Philadelphia "...stacked from Cottman to Girard..." and the "oldies" station which was playing an annoying commerical jingle instead of a weak disco tune.

The iPod has been very fond of Alice Cooper tonight. Now it has dug up Sleater Kinney from a past life. A Dave van Ronk song or two would be preferable, but the iPod has now chosen the grey clouded Skip James. Now DOA.

Several downy balls of eastern phoebe fluff nearly spill out of their nest above the tractor. They are listening to each other breathing and the life slowly evaporating out of the moss that their nest is built from.

The Baltimore checkerspots barked up a rush (Juncus sp.) and are learning it is the wrong tree.

Their brothers are fat on turtlehead leaves. They whip their heads as I pass them. I reach for the wizened but still alive caterpillars on ferns, rushes and sedges and put them on turtlehead leaves. This sentiment is why my lawn has ever expanding tufts of unmowed areas - take a hard right to avoid the black birch sapling, tack back to take out the Star of Bethlehem flowers and kick up the mower blades to narrowly miss the goldenrod.

The garden often has bird feathers on the earth. I welcome them, but please go easy on the blueberries.

Another cellophane balloon in the Sourlands. I never find them in the Hopewell Valley. There must be some kind of thermals - wouldn't we all rather see a red shouldered hawk wheeling on that warm draft instead of 99 Lufte Balloons?

Is holding a stare with a member of the animal kingdom more transfixing than with one of the plant kingdom? Flowers are faces. They turn to the sun. We know when they are looking away.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Intentions and discoveries

Grass leaved chickweed, perhaps? I don't remember it being in our yard last year. Did I simply forget?

I meant to document the progress of our lawn to meadow project.

"Project" is not quite accurate. "Project" implies action. We stopped taking action - we stopped mowing. Occasionally, we weed a multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle or autumn olive seedling, and sometimes we pull small carpgrass (Arthraxon hispidus) and Japanese stiltgrass. Rarely, we transplant a few leftover natives into the meadow. The dandelions and chicories work the hardest on the meadow - busting up the hard packed clay and mysterious layer of gravel that underlies the entirety of the meadow.

So, I went out with my camera and photographed the increasing number of plants that are residing in the meadow.

Speckled Joe Pye weed stems - measles. Striated water hemlock stems - a sharp pin striped suit. Waves of violet leaves. Sedges. A dogwood sapling. The turf grass is largely gone except for around the pond, really a pondlet, which is as of this week, dry, most likely for the remainder of the summer. Sweet vernal grass, a non-native is abundant, but I expect it to fade in prominence over the years.

Looking at a photographs, I documented something else. Small things, things very difficult to see. Things that I might have seen with my eyes had I not been photographing. Focus, click, next...

Here is what I see now:

The house wren uses 2-3" sticks (pin oak in our wren's case) to build a nest. I never noticed that the bird also weaves a few delicate blades of dried grass in, too. He's not just a coarse fellow.

Spring beauty going to seed is also a place for a tiny insect to escape the hungry bluegrey gnatcatcher high in the white oak.

While I was recalling that I've heard nimble will grass called both native and non-native, a leaf hopper escaped my detection.

Dandelion seed heads catch the light and my eye. An insect or bird (I've seen finches eat them) enjoyed a few.

Scrap wood

Leave a piece of wood in the yard for a week, and who knows who will move in.

Who knows what you might interrupt when you move the wood.

Who knows what civilizations have already been built.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Birds on a Friday in May

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) watches the blue-winged warbler, Hopewell

Grape (Vitis sp.) awakened by the common yellow throat, Sourland Mountain

Scarlet tanager sings to the wild yamroot (Dioscorea villosa) and Christmas fern (Polystichum acrosticroides), Sourland Mountain

Prothonotary warbler song & Liquidambar styraciflua leaf, Conagaree Floodplain

I saw a waterthrush today. A plump, long-legged and orange-legged bird with a rear-end that is always bumping up and down. He or she was picking along the brook. Tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeak, towhees, veeries, orioles, catbirds, grackles, crows, pewee, white-eyed vireo (1), hooded warbler (1), downy or hairy woodpecker, mourning dove, red-bellied woodpecker, chipping sparrows (one with nesting material - two blades of dry grass), robins, jays,waxwing (dozens!), common yellow-throat... all very noisy.

On Monday, the bluebird drove the great crested flycatcher away from the empty kestral box and the occupied bluebird box. We built and placed a box for the flycatcher that evening.

Knowing these birds by song, silhouette or flight pattern is exciting. Their wingbeats accompany each photograph. Their alarm call echoes a twig snapping under my foot.

Meanwhile, the chipping sparrow eats a green caterpillar and the great crested flycatcher has not settled into the newly constructed nesting box on the red maple.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The internet will not replace books... this evening's lesson.

The veery doesn't really care either way -- "Just leave the trees alone," he says. "Fiber optic cable lining a narrow dirt lane in the Sourlands? Doubt the phoebe would get too much use out of it. Already have the phone lines. Serves those bluebirds, too. Books? Birds don't get much use out of them." The veery sighs, "Vvveeer."

Well, a book on insect would have helped me identify even one of these insects. I am afread the internet did not.

Centipede in the garden, discovered after removing sheet mulching (newspaper). I searched the web for "orange and black centipede". I determined that there may be a centipede with the common name "orange and black centipede" in the eastern US which looks nothing like this centipede. Also possibly exists in Australia.

Baltimore checkerspot in the meadow near a patch of turtlehead. The internet was not used to identify these caterpillars. I flipped open to Brushfoots section in a 500 page book on caterpillars. Lucky break.

Spidermites on diabase? The micro-scarlet tanager.

Shield bug, stink bug. Internet of no appreciable assistance on this one. I am certain that it is not the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halys). Thank you, co-op extension.

Winged emerald insect on bladdernut leaves. Internet search for "green winged insect" "north america"? Good luck. It's not the horrendous, invasive emerald ash borer or a gypsy moth. Really narrowed that one down!

Little insect on spent wild geranium flower. Wonder why insects spend time on flowers going to seed? Is this insect piercing the wall of the forming seed?

This little bluebird egg was laid three days ago. One more was laid yesterday. I saw the lady bluebird enter the nest box today. I bet there is another egg. The creatures in the eggs are waiting for a feathered body to warm them into a fuller existence.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Carices of the Low Ground

Foggy meadow morning, carices blooming.

Carex squarrosa

Woven blades of Carex squarrosa

Carex gynandra

Carex annectens

Spike rush

Golden ragwort

Baltimore checkerspot caterpillar - dozens were everywhere in a patch of turtleheads!

Golden Ragwort blooms cover half the meadow right now

(Note: Carex sedges are pretty hard to identify to species - don't take my word for the names above!)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What I saw in the last three days

Scarlet tanager graces several groups of quiet walkers with his velvet beauty

Kill site feathers in breeze

Kill site droppings

Box turtle retracts a foot

Two indigo buntings, both cloaked in rich blue, darted past me and landed in the hemlock. I whistled to Jared, and he arrived on the front porch, binoculars in hand. "Two male indigo buntings! On the fence!"

I have seen a bunting only once before -- at a tangled clearing in the middle of the Sourlands forest. I heard a song repeated again and again. I searched the branches -- I had to find the singer. I finally did. He was perched not that far away, conspicuously atop a dogwood.

Sometimes things come easily, in a rush. The past several days were a bit like that. I had instinct on my side, not mine, but the instinct of the creatures that all around me.

It went something like this: The bluebird said, I am a cavity nester. Let me explore every cavity I find. This is easy to do around my house. Many sassafras and tulip snags are filled with woodpecker holes. A kestral box is mounted on the telephone pole. Two nesting boxes line opposite sides of the yard. One was claimed early on by a cacophonous house wren. Recalling previous year's early morning house wren wake up calls, I made 3 gourd bird houses and hung them further from the house.

The bluebird pair made the rounds -- last year's box, kestral box, even the stubborn house wren's box. The chickadees check out the boxes and one of the gourds. The wren is intent on filling all houses with stick piles.

Meanwhile, the phoebe (who has already been observed posting the nest wite of previous years, atop the stoplight) zooms by. A black-throated blue warbler foraged the lower branches of the hemlock. I heard wheezy calls come from the pin oak. Couldn't quite place it, and the sound, like many unrecognizable bird songs, received only part of my attention. Two turkey vultures cruised in low. Thwack, thwack, thump, one landed on the black walnut. The other landed on the fence post and fanned her wings for the sun. I walked down the path for a better view, and --wheeze, wheeze-- cedar waxwings! Two catbirds, one with nesting material, joined the black throated blue in the hemlock. Baltimore oriole, goldfinch in the elm.

And that's only some of what I saw...

Wood thrush sits on her eggs, her mate silently watches the photographer from afar

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Stewardship and beauty

How are we to care for a place if we have no love for it? How do we care for an individual, any entity -- rock, leaf, fur -- if we have no abiding connection to it?

If we lack beauty we have only fear and alarm. If I have no beauty within and without, I have nothing. If my heart does not jump when the phoebe joins me in the garden, if I do not stop when I see the first wild geranium flower, if I stride down the trail unaware of the grosbeak's song, how can I ask anyone else to care a wit about stewardship?

Wild landscapes, full and robust, are beautiful. I may find them frightening when everything looks the same and I feel lost. Painful when I am stung by a caterpillar's bristly hair. Wistful when the last petal drops. These are all feelings. I think beauty might be beyond an emotional feeling. A deep sense, an intuition perhaps.

How does one separate out the cultural definitions of beauty? Well, I suppose, I might ask another question: "Is this wild landscape healthy?" If the answer is "Yes," a feeling of well being and wholeness swells within. Does that sense come from learning or intuition? Both? Can they be separated? Separation of head and spirit may be our culture's death.

A friend of mine says, "You and I, we see nothing but invasive species here. Deer browse. A mess. Someone else hikes here and says that it is beautiful." Does the hiker look closely enough? What does his instinct say about this crippled landscape?

When I work with people in the field, I ask them to look closely. How does the forest look? Let's read the forest together. What is the forest saying? Smell the inner bark and leaves of spicebush. Listen to the talk coming from the branches all around us. Who is singing? What do the rustlings and scratchings tell us?

There is a thread that connects us to everything around us. If we feel the world is ugly, we are tangled in a terrible web. If we feel beauty is all around, the threads glisten like dew on spiderwebs and dance like birch catkins shedding pollen.

We then find the strength to run to the places where beauty is glaringly absent and steward.

Friday, May 1, 2009

In the Low Ground

Golden ragwort's cheerful flowers

The forest is full of spring wildflowers but the meadow gets a later start.

Sword-like shoots and the first sun-ray blooms stand hands-widths above the low ground.

The low ground is the meadow in front of our house, mowed only once a year - in winter. Thus maintained it remains a vast open garden of herbaceous plants.

The wildflowers of the forest rush to utilize the bountiful light of early spring, before canopy leaf-out. The meadow, where the shrubs and trees are trimmed to their crowns every fall, doesn't hurry to complete its entire life cycle in March, April or May.

The meadow will be at its most luxuriant in August and September, but the first shoots, fronds, fiddleheads, stems and tiny blooms of the spring meadow make me cherish the low ground.

Basal leaves of golden ragwort (Senecio aureus)

Basal leaves of Dichanthelium clandestinum - Deertongue grass

Spring cress - Cardamine bulbosa

Sensitive fern - sensitive to late spring frosts, that is - otherwise very adaptable


I fenced this Highbush blueberry which I found growing in the meadow - so it wouldn't get mowed, or browsed by deer

Carex gynandra/crinita - deer seem to enjoy trimming the tender tops of this wetlands sedge

Three trees at meadow's edge:

Black birch in flower

Flowering Dogwood

Amelanchier arborea (serviceberry)