Sunday, June 21, 2009

Don't let the veery fool you

A veery pair can call in members of the thrush genus faster than the ice cream man can call in the neighborhood kids. This I learned.

A pair of veeries have been very active around the house the past few days. I thought they might be nesting late (they are single brooded however). Today I received an urgent call to the back window - a veery chick was stuck in a cold frame. The little bird's wings were not flight ready, the frame was several inches too tall.

The parents flew repeatedly across the yard. "Veert. Veert."

We went outside to assist. By now, several birds took interest. I decided to remove the bird rather than the heavy frame. The chick shrieked. I was divebombed several times by two veeries and one robin. I shrieked.

I lifted one edge of the frame and the chick tried to run up the steep incline. "Veert!" "Tseep!" All I could hear was robin and veery wings and alarm calls.

The chick ran for cover - an unmowed patch of clover. The veery parents and robin had called in a catbird pair and an oriole (thankfully did not divebomb me).

We went inside and watched the parents sail back and forth looking for the veery chick. We never witnessed the reunion, but abaut a half hour later heard soft calling - hopefully, the chick, saying, "Feed me, then tuck me in. It's been a long day."

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Crows calling raucously in the early morning. Earlier than I want to get up. Still calling at around 6:30 so I get out of bed and take a look outside. Usually they're onto something interesting.

"Hey Rachel, can you get the binoculars?". I see a big brown bird in the tuliptree next to our house.

Out she comes with the 'narcs.

Bald eagle! Up on the Sourland ridge, why? Maybe crows chased it all the way here from the nearest big body of water. Last time a bald eagle came through, a pack of fish crows was on its tail.

The crows have suddenly lost interest in this one, but not the baltimore oriole. The oriole is a brawler with a funky theme song to accompany its dashing colors. No bald eagle is going to mess up this fine morning!

I had my camera by then, little lens pushed up against the right eyepiece of the binoculars.

Little did I know while taking the photo that the oriole was nearly flying up the eagle's tail.

The eagle got tired of being harassed, turned and flew its great big plank-wings away. Away from the forboding Sourlands, land of black-hooded thugs.

The oriole, still itching for a fight, turned right around and took on three brown-headed cowbirds.

This little beauty showed up a few days later, inside, by the grow lamp where the baby maidenhair ferns live. We saw him before going to bed, on a night of torrential rains. Naught to do but let the little wood satyr spend a dry night with us. The next morning, I gently held his two wings between my thumb and middle finger and placed him back outside.

There is a little clump of pussytoes growing alongside a narrow woods path near the pond. I have to admire the american lady butterfly who found this patch, possibly the only one for quite a ways around. There she laid the egg which became this little chomper.

I (well, Rachel and I both) are trying to learn our butterflies and caterpillars this year. One of the things which is making the task so pleasurable for me is how it builds on my love of plants. These beautiful creatures are absolutely interdependent on our native flora - in a vivid and visceral way. It makes me feel good to witness a wild relationship, to see the dependency at the heart of predation, the ragged chomped edges at the fringes of every birth.

These fuzzy little trumpets belong to a partridgeberry just up the trail from the pussytoes-being-eaten.

I saw this ragged appalachian azure investigating black cohosh flower-spikes. This species hosts on black cohosh; its caterpillars consume buds as well as leaves, and are tended by ants. The Sourlands appears to be the southernmost outpost of this (rather scarce) specialist in New Jersey.

Some of the dill in our garden is being slowly eaten by this caterpillar. Looking up "dill" in the caterpillars book led us to the entry for black swallowtail. As the dill self-seeds rampantly each year... bring on the swallowtail larvae!

This truly huge caterpillar remains a mystery to me. Found it (and several others of its kind) in a wet meadow at the Plum Brook Preserve, apparently hosted by young white ash saplings. No luck finding it in any books. It was about four inches long and nearly as thick as my thumb.

I was in the wet meadow because we were releasing Galerucella beetles, the biocontrol for the invasive plant purple loosestrife. Purple loosestrife will now have ragged chomped edges like all of our native plants... and be much less aggressive. Welcome to the ecosystem!


A few additional sightings...

I think beetles might be next year's learning project. Look at the art deco stylings of these two little chompers!

Another stunning shell - the neighborhood box turtle who seems to be relishing the monsoon season we are having.

Unknown insect on poison ivy

baby robin

Catskills hermit thrush

Saturday, June 13, 2009

An unusual name

Osmunda cinnamomea and Dennstaedtia punctilobula.
Catskills, New York

An unusual name. It rolls around the mouth, hums in the mind and tumbles into conversation. It ages well like a lover distant enough. It enters homemade songs though it rhymes with nothing.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

White in the Evening

White clover is beloved by bees. I was stung by a bee last summer when I stepped on the poor devil. I had just hung up the phone with a friend who lives in Philadelphia. We were discussing bee stings and I mentioned that I have never been stung...

Water hemlock is beginning to bloom this week.

Spittle bugs.

Multiflora rose - pollinated, setting seed, waiting to tear another shirt.

Penstemon digitalis appeared in the yet to be mowed area.

Blurry photographs - I never allowed myself the pleasure as a black and white photographer.

Wild grape catches the eye as evening approaches.

Golden ragwort thrives in areas that are mowed midseason. The seeds' flight is near.

Stunning in all life stages, the checkerspot has a much more lovely adolescence than I had.

The last Baltimore checkerspot caterpillar like a flag on a Juncus gangplank was moved to a turtlehead (Chelone glabra) by human intervention.

The mist and rain are frequent. It can't rain any harder, and then it does. The sun sets slowly through clouds. The yellowthroats notice the day is sliding into night. Their fight over the maple thicket and the willow thicket will have to end. Trills and calls. I move closer to the three, sometimes seems like four, birds. I've never noticed before how tiny they are. Never noticed how rich their song is, how furious their rattle.

They fly to the maples to the willow to the maples to the willow to the maples. Watching these three males dispute territory was not my intent. Cool air and checking on the checkerspot caterpillars was. Crouching, my legs are getting sore, shoulders bitten by insects. Daylight is fading. I won't make my bed in a willow thicket tonight, so I move on.

One checkerspot caterpillar. One checkerspot chrysalis on June 10. I first found the caterpillars on May 17. It's a tough neighborhood with energetic yellow throats and hungry baby phoebes, cardinals, titmice, Carolina and house wrens.

I train my eyes for white things as I look over the turtleheads. The search is lazy and timid. I don't want to destroy a chrysalis. I truly hope to see the butterfly emerge. I wonder how many orange butterflies I have called "monarch" have been another species.

No other chrysalises turn up. The light is fading quickly, turning blue, the color white is emerging from the green.

Friday, June 5, 2009



Our garden soil is adequate. N P & K, the major soil minerals are present in adequate levels. No need to march to the hardware store and fuss over blood meal, bone meal, seaweed emulsion, fish emulsion, and synthetic, petroleum-laced fertilizers. Anything with a "zer" in it is suspect.

The forties and fifties advertising boom wreaked havoc on spelling. Ever since then we've been sliding down the dumbell: Frigidaire, Kidz Korner, Qwik, etc. The dubious return to low-fat earth of the nineties gave us zingers like: Lite n' Natural. I imagine the "zering" of verbs into nouns came from this recently founded tradition.

These Lite n' Natural fertilizers, I am as suspicious of them as I am of the synthetic stuff. They all smell Acrid n' Unusual to me.

Meanwhile, the trace minerals that assist plants in their daily lives, those that enable them to take up the major soil minerals - these could be "depleted". Not "adequate". I'm watching the plants for signs.


"Adequate, Bernadette," my grandfather replied. My mother looked at her father through narrowed eyes. He grinned faintly, thin lips under a thin mustache.

After every meal my mother cooked, my grandfather said this. It was a sweet game, and we all played along. I gasped and said, "Pop-pop!" My grandmother, never amused at this game, "Oh, Leonard! For Heaven's sake." My father and brother laughed.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Leaves of Three, You're Ok By Me

A couple years ago I worked at a farm. I regularly plunged my hands into a cold water coursing over IPM-raised lettuce. I wiped down shelves covered in farm fines (this term is usually used to describe the powder-like byproduct of mining or quarry operations. The material is so minute that it is always held in suspension while in liquid. Not great for creatures downstream like trout. Here, I use it to describe the soil that is pulverized by tractors and boots and then blows into every crack much like New Jersey's own Dust Bowl.) I broke down cardboard boxes, hoisted half bushels of apples into trucks and carried trays of herb seedlings like a waitress.

One day my beat up hands said, "Enough of the Cherry Punch and Orange Oil industrial soap. Enough of the ice cold vegetable washing and garden soils. I quit." I brushed my fingers across the counter top. "Ow." An electric shock went through my hands.

I was reminded of the lovely Southern lady who worked in Accounts Payable at the plastic pipe company I worked for years ago. Her fingers were bent from arthritis, and one careless gesture caused her pain. She held her fingers in whichever hand hurt less and winced. I winced, too.

Now I understood. My hands were swollen and red. The slightest touch was awful. Months went by and autumn turned to winter. Ouch, ouch.

I visited an herbalist. I was prescribed a homeopathic remedy - Rhus tox, which is how herbalists often nickname it. Now called Toxicodendron radicans, formerly called Rhus toxicodendron. What great name, sounds terrible! What is it?

Poison ivy.

Relief was immediate. I was amazed. Truly. Months of pain evaporated in hours.

I have never disliked poison ivy. I have an awareness of its abilities after seeing my mom suffer terribly from regular cases, and I myself having a chronic, mild case all summer, every summer. It is a powerful plant and gained my admiration.

Because of my work, I discuss invasive plants with people all the time. "Butterfly bush, barberry, Chinese silver grass... all invasive garden plants," I say. It's tough for some to hear. "Really, my purple loosestrife? I never noticed a problem with mine." Once I finish with this discussion and questions are answered... I often hear:

"Yes, like poison ivy. Invasive plants. What about poison ivy?"

"Hmm. That's a native one. Poison ivy. Yes, native. You know, I used to work at a farm..."

Many plants have leaves of three. Jack-in-the-pulpit has poisonous berries.