Wednesday, April 29, 2009

DANGEROUS WOODPECKER?

The word pileated when referring to a bird means “having a crest on the top (pileus) of the head.” You can certainly see that—in all its bright red glory—in the portrait of a female pileated woodpecker, made as she worked a suet feeder near my front door this morning. The scarlet crest is easily the bird’s most eye-catching feature. Honestly, though, everything about this huge bird is simply spectacular Its size is about that of a crow. Yet its conformation is so primitive—seemingly as much pterodactyl as woodpecker—that the pileated somehow appears even bigger. Trust me, a photo won’t really prepare you for that first time when you look out and see this giant bird hanging from your feeder. The second shot shows—though not particularly well, and you will need to double-click and expand to see this detail—the tip of the long, sticky tongue the woodpecker uses to probe in a tree’s cracks and crevices and snake out an ant or similar crawly morsel. When fully extended, this worm-like tongue is considerably longer. Okay, I admit—perhaps I am becoming a bit obsessed with my oversized woodpeckers. The pileateds and I are still playing our photo game of sneak-and-spot…and I’m still losing most of the rounds. But I’m getting trickier and more adapt (or possibly just luckier) at stalking and waylaying them on their daily routines. Even so, the task is far from easy. The pileateds are ever alert, always watching, and will spook at a shadow. Plus, maybe it's me, but there’s something definitely disquieting about the look in their eye—a fierceness you don’t usually expect in a woodpecker. That, plus watching the way they use their long, stout, and obviously sharp chisel-like bills to lop off slabs of wood or bark from a tree with a casual whack—likely explains why I sometimes catch myself thinking…this crazy woodpecker could be dangerous! I kinda like that—a notion of menace in these red-headed wood whackers. Even if it isn't true. So keep your fingers crossed…maybe next time I’ll manage to bushwhack the male—or maybe the pileateds will bushwhack me. Either way, there's sure to be a good photo in the encounter.

Monday, April 27, 2009

LOVELY INVADER

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine, That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain; And, the first moment that the sun may shine, Bright as the sun himself, 'tis out again!
—William Wordsworth, “The Lesser Celandine”
For the past week or so, the corridor woods along the river have been a’gleam with the bright cadmium yellow blooms of lesser celandine. A yellow so intense that shadowy sycamore glades seem to glow. The island across from the cottage appears carpeted, as if thickly spread with mustard. Some folks mistakenly identify lesser celandine as buttercup. While the two plants have similar vibrant yellow blossoms, buttercup tends to grow in more restricted clumps; lesser celandine spreads all over like a low ground cover. Lesser celandine was Wordsworth’s favorite wildflower. He wrote three poems extolling its virtues and requested its image be carved on his tombstone. Unfortunately, when it came time for the old bard to be laid to rest, the stonemason got it wrong, mistakenly depicting instead greater celandine, a member of the poppy family whose leaves and flowers look nothing like the poet’s beloved plant. Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, prefers damp woodlands and timbered floodplains. The same locations where you’ll find bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauty, rue anemone, and a host of other favorite Buckeye wildflowers. Several states now classify lesser celandine as an “invasive,” because it’s early seasonal emergence and dense growth tendencies can smother out many of our native spring ephemerals—though when I took a walk along the riverside below the cottage earlier this morning, I found trout lily and patches of Virginia bluebell blooming happily amidst the celandine swathes. Personally, as invasive plant threats go, I’ll take lesser celandine over dastardly bush honeysuckle any day. By the middle of May, the vivid yellow blooms and shiny green leaves will all be gone. The riverine woods will dim, turn shadowy. And not until the great seasonal wheel turns full circle once more, and another April appears, will these lovely little invaders brighten our spring.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

FIRST WARBLER!

Spring’s migrating warblers are a treetop treasure—mysterious, dazzling, at once filling your eyes and ears with the vernal joys of the season. I began expecting them in early-April, watching and listening…hoping to confirm in my heart what I know in my head—that in this age of great uncertainty some things can still be counted on to follow the ancient rhythms. Spring’s passing warblers are messengers of reassurance. When I heard an odd trill yesterday morning, followed by a sharp chup, chup, the sound was both foreign and familiar—not something I’d been hearing recently, but something I’d heard before. It’s the same way every year…though I’ve been waiting and anticipating the call, I’m still surprised when I hear it, caught off guard. The bird was flitting through the top of a greening hackberry which leans over the river. I’m not very good at instantly identifying warblers, but this one was pretty easy thanks to the bright yellow patch on the top of the back at the base of the tail—yellow-rumped. A few yellow-rumped warblers actually winter over in Ohio, though I’ve never seen one. Most yellow-rumps, however, winter in the southern half of the U.S. They spend their summer in the north, from upper Michigan throughout Canada. During each of the springs I've witnessed here along the river, the yellow-rumped has been the first warbler to show up. Yesterday was one of those spectacular spring days April occasionally serves up—temperatures in the low-80s, a cloudless sky so crisply blue that it looks newly minted. I’d spent the early part of the morning working at the rear of the cottage on a patio I’m building. I’d just poured a cup of coffee and taken a seat in the rocker on the deck overlooking the river when the warbler appeared. I hadn’t intended to linger… But my philosophy allows that life is short. Work and responsibility are important—but so are such things as rivers sparkling in the sun, wildflowers blooming along the banks, and warblers flitting about like feathered jewels in the nearby trees. So I went back inside momentarily for camera, binoculars, and the coffee thermos, then resettled myself in the rocking chair. A man has to consider all priorities.

Friday, April 24, 2009

EXCAVATING FOR SHRUBS

The day is barely halfway gone and I’m I’m already thoroughly exhausted…beat…whipped…dang near killed. Why? Because I’ve spent the morning planting five shrubs. That is correct…five. Two forsythia, two spirea, and a lilac. The little bushes came in 8-inch pots. So I dug holes 20-inches deep and 16-inches across. And you’re right—it doesn't sound like much to have accomplished. Shouldn’t be all that much work. Any fool with a spade and a spare hour ought to be able to dig a few modest holes and insert a plant in each, right? Well…not always. These particular five holes required five hours to dig. That's right: FIVE HOURS! And no, I'm not the laziest, slowest, most incapable hole-digger on planet earth. The digging of holes is a different task entirely when you live on land which was once a low island. Land which was historically subject to flooding whenever the adjacent river rose to its over-the-banks stage. Land subsequently built up over the last century by five generations of stonemasons whose family owned the property and who, having access to a virtually limitless supply of limestone, simply piled load after load of stones and rubble from their various construction sites, and every so often added countless layers of soil—though often thin, and running the gamut from clay to gravely subsoil to black loam. At some point the island ceased being an island, the narrow channel separating it from the east bank having also been filled in with stone and dirt. And when they'd increased the former island's height by several feet, thereby deeming it sufficiently if precariously safe from all but the worst floods, they built the cottage, in 1914, of stone, naturally, with walls 17-inches thick, wherein I now happily abide. The upside is a home of peace and solitude. A house sporting such thick stone walls is nearly soundproof; conversations between even adjacent rooms must be carried on at a shout. The insurance company loves a solid stone building and awards a lower rate because it is so fireproof. Moreover, should the Shawnee Nation ever decide to reclaim its ancient hunting grounds, or Somali pirates move their base of operations to the river which flows past the cottage's front, the house might act as a serviceable fort. As an added bonus, the river is literally at my doorstep. If I want, I can catch a smallmouth bass without leaving the porch. Plus there are lots of stately old sycamores and other trees to provide plenty of shade from Ohio's summer sun, and everything from blue herons to beaver, hummingbirds to hawks to keep life interesting. The downside, admittedly minor unless you have decided to put a certain bulb, flower, shrub, or tree right over there, is that you never know if such a feat is actually possible until you poke the tip of your shovel into the earth. If it slips in without fuss, you cross your fingers and hope the following shovel's worth will do the same—as will all the shovel-probings thereafter. Sometimes they actually do. Even a blind hog finds an acorn occasionally. But more often—make that usually!—the shovel clunks on attempted insertion. This may occur at a depth of six inches or two. You hear as well as feel it. Cautiously you move the tip of the blade aside a few inches and try again. Should your shovel-tip telegraph another clunk, you might move again. But three clunks in a row definitely calls for consideration. Do you want to scratch off the thin sheath of earth to see if you've hit a few large gravels, some larger stones, or a block of limestone the size of a refrigerator…or do you simply want to give up and find another spot? Mostly I keep at it for awhile, bull-headedness being a family trait and a key part of my personality. I shovel-explore this way and that. Work my way through layers of gravel. Coax out fist-sized rocks. Employ the crowbar to pry out larger stones. In fact, the crowbar is regularly my tool of choice for excavating many such holes. I kneel on a comfortable pad—an old shower mat, rolled—beside the intended hole site, whereupon I attempt to spud my way, inch-by-inch, stone-by-stone, into the ground, scooping out the rubble with my hands. It's like spudding holes in a frozen lake in order to go ice fishing, except harder, more jarring to the arms, and lacking the reward of a few bluegill, walleye or lake trout at the end. Plus you sweat instead of shiver. After about an hour of this, if you're fortunate and haven't encountered an impassable block of limestone, you have a hole of sufficient depth and dimension to hold a shrub from an 8-inch pot. Should your luck hold throughout the coming months, the planted shrub might actually live, possibly even thrive. At any rate, you will have done your part—given time, sweat, sometimes blood, and a lot of musclepower, added good transplanting soil and a dab of fertilizer, tamped lightly, watered thoroughly, mulched. You've also whispered a few words of encouragement to the new plant, advising it to buck up and make the best of things, while promising protection from squirrels, rabbits, deer, mice, grubs, and all manner of insect pestilence, while vowing to feed, water, and nurture to the best of your abilities. On a good day hereabouts, the scenario for digging five holes and making the pot-to-earth transfer—factoring in the usual ratio of only one-in-five holes proving to be located in an all, or almost-all, soil situation, and thus requiring no more time and effort to dig than any normal hole—makes the completion of five holes in five hours right on schedule. Maybe even ahead, considering the hole for a rosebush I dug last year that required nearly a week. Or that other hole I abandoned after almost as long, because it took a while to outline the mammoth rock six inches below the surface, which lay recumbent as the gravestone covering the tomb of a Druid giant, and proved thoroughly immovable, regardless of levers, fulcrums, and all manner of loud imprecations. Which is why I'm quite pleased with the morning’s effort—and why I'm dreading the four additional shrubs yet to go. And by the way, the yellow tulip whose close -up portrait graces this posting came hidden in a load of dirt I spread along the foundation wall year-before last. Besides, bulbs for crocus, daffodil, and the like seldom require more than half-an-hour apiece to plant…unless you hit a stone and need to excavate.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

TAKEN OR MADE?

Yesterday evening, I picked up my camera, went out to check on the sunset—and got waylaid by a cloud. Not a particularly photogenic cloud, either. In fact, a rather plain cloud, small and unprepossessing, decidedly ordinary as clouds go. Still, I felt it had possibilities… Maybe it was the sort of charcoal smudging along its front, as if wherever it had been earlier, somewhere out of sight beyond the western horizon, that place had been a bit on the grimy side. I understood and sympathized. As a fellow traveler, I often find myself rather grubby after a long journey. The sky itself was not doing much to give the cloud a boost. The blue was dull and slightly grayish, like an oft-washed tee-shirt that still has color but long ago lost its brightness. Between moments of keeping an eye on the cloud and the lackadaisical sunset, I looked around and tried to find something to isolate and photograph. A long time ago, when I bought my first camera, the fellow who sold it to me and later became both mentor and friend, gave me an excellent piece of advice: “Don’t ever go out with the idea of taking photographs,” he said. “Thieves take things. You’re not a thief…you’re an artist; artists create, they make things. Learn to create and make photographs.” The distinction is, I believe, the fundamental difference between good photographs and snapshots. Photography isn’t equipment—it’s a conjoined mind and eye. An awareness. A philosophy of approach. Good photographers can, to an often astonishing degree, create shots—make photographs happen. Not that I consider myself a great photographer, mind you. But the idea behind this way of thinking and doing will benefit anyone with a camera because it requires you to look, to observe, to see…and to consider what you might do with whatever you find. It isn’t magic—though it can sometimes appear so to the uninitiated. If the cloud and sunset aren’t going to cooperate, I thought after a while, how about the fading light on the surface of the water? I like water shots. There’s often a surprising amount of color caught and intensified in the reflections off dancing waves and swirling current. Then a finch landed in a tree near the deck. Maybe a silhouette? The small bird paused just long enough for me to make a single exposure. The sky grew dimmer and the single cloud was joined by similar clouds—all slightly sooty, and as a group, possibly a bit more interesting. In the end, I came back inside with a less than impressive array of shots. It happens, even given the best of intentions. Sometimes you look and look, try this and that, and nothing seems to work, or at least work well. You can usually find and make photographs…though there’s still no guarantee they’ll turn out spectacular. This was one of those evenings. No fiery sunset, no stunning clouds, no surreal water reflections. Probably the best image I managed was another silhouette—of a tree across the river with the cloud-veiled sun beyond. The image at the top of this post. You may not agree that the photos from last evening are a whit better than snapshots…but I am proud to tell you they were all made, not just taken.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

PILEATED PASSION

There’s an old saying among racecar drivers that it’s better to be lucky than good…meaning serendipitous circumstance often has a way of trumping equipment and skill. This is equally true when it comes to photography. Sometimes all the preparation, fancy gear, and experience can’t replace just being there at the right moment. The sequence of photos of the pileated woodpecker pair are due mostly to luck—though I’d like to think I rather professionally pressed the shutter release button. Also, my description doubtless lacks proper ornithological terminology. I could spend a few hours researching and edit my text to read more scientifically. But I just shot these photos yesterday evening and wanted to share them as today's post—so those of you who do know better will, I hope, excuse my amateur’s enthusiasm. The photos themselves aren’t very good. They were shot in really low light at nearly 7:00 p.m. under heavy overcast; it rained perhaps five minutes later. The lens was a 200mm, hand-held at 1/50 of a second, there being no time to grab a tripod or adjust camera sensitivity settings. I’ve cropped and enlarged the images, done what I could to enhance them given the limitations of iPhoto and what I had to work with. Poor as they are, they’re actually better than I’d expected or dared hope. Please double-click for a better view.
The two pileateds in the tree—the male is on the left.
Regular readers of this blog have often heard me mention the pair of pileated woodpeckers which live on the long, narrow, wooded island across the river’s mainstream from the cottage. Every once in a while they flap over to check out the dead limbs on various trees in my yard, or grab a handy meal from the suet feeders suspended near the house. I tirelessly stalk them, sneaking to the room with the most convenient window in yet another attempt to add a few pileated images to my files. Nine times out of ten the wild-as-a-buck woodpeckers spot me first and vamoose. A game of hide-and-seek which is both frustrating and fun.
The male (still left) hops onto the female's branch and approaches.
Last evening, as I was having dinner, the male pileated flew across the water and landed about 20 feet up in a tree that’s perhaps 75 feet from the house. Luckily, my camera was within reach. As I took a couple of shots, I saw a second pileated heading over—the female. She landed close to the male, perhaps 8 feet away. Even though it had already grown darker, I took a few frames, not really expecting them to be usable, but wanting to try anyway. A moment later, the male transferred over to the same horizontal branch as the female, then began edging her way. I took additional shots.
The male pileated flies onto the female.
When the male pileated reached the female’s side, he spread his wings and jumped, mounting her for mating. No preamble, no billing and cooing beforehand—just skedaddle close and hop.
Mating!
The mating process took perhaps 15 seconds. The male came off and I noticed his flaming red crest sticking up and spread apart like the fingers on your hand. He sat beside the female for maybe 20 seconds, crest extended as if posing, then flew back to the place on the tree where he’d first landed when flying over from the island. Here he immediately began poking up the trunk looking for insects. A wham-bam-thank-you-mam romance if ever I saw one!
"LOOK AT MY CREST!"
The female sat tight, head down, not moving a muscle for at least 45 seconds. After this, she straightened, shook her head, glanced toward the male, and simply sat a while longer before flying to another nearby tree where she began her own meal investigations."Was it good for you?"
I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods over the years, and a lot of time watching plieated woodpeckers—and I can tell you I’ve never seen them mating. Whether witnessing such an event is truly rare, or simply rare to me, I don’t know…but I’m betting it isn’t something even the most serious birder sees every day.
"Not even dinner together…?"
I felt lucky to have seen this moment of woodpecker intimacy…and glad I have the images I do and can share them with you. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

GRATEFUL OBLIGATION

I’m apparently one of the few bird enthusiasts who doesn’t mind house sparrows…which is the more correct name for what everyone usually calls an “English” sparrow. In fact, I’ll go a step farther and come right out and say I rather like these jaunty little birds. A few years back, health and related circumstances pretty much confined me to spending a summer at the condo where I then lived. Outdoor time meant taking Moon the dog on short walks, or sprawling on a chaise longue on the small rear patio. A weathered board privacy fence divided this postage-sized concrete pad from those of the neighbors. I had a few flowers in pots and a swath of grass 18 inches wide and 10 feet long on either side of a single stepping stone—my “walk”—separating the patio from the blacktop parking lot and the garages beyond. A paltry bit of greenery which sufficed for a yard. It was a horrible plight for a fellow who usually spent most of his time afield—fishing, camping, hiking, traveling, and taking photographs—then writing about his adventures afterwards. I would have spent more time feeling sorry for myself if I hadn’t been so busy struggling to live…and grateful when each new day dawned and I turned out to still be around. One of the real pleasures that year was a pair of house sparrows who decided to nest in a box I’d affixed to the patio fence. As the weeks progressed, those dooryard sparrows and I grew close. The jaunty little birds became relaxed to my presence—going about their daily business with only an occasional speculative glance in my direction. The male tamed to where he’d pluck at leftover sandwich crumbs from the table at my elbow. Or sip from the dog’s water bowl sitting inches from my feet—even extending his trust to the point of hopping within a foot of Moon’s recumbent form when she stretched out on the patio to cool her belly on the concrete. House sparrows are monogamous. Their strong pair-bond commitment is established for the long haul, not just a breeding season fling. Moreover, they seem to enjoy each other’s company. Often they’d take time from feeding and housekeeping chores to chirrup back and forth, as if in intimate conversation, or regularly preening and nuzzling like Parisian lovers atop the fence. I watched how the couple tirelessly fed their young, from dawn to dusk, hustling all the way—taking turns bringing the newly hatched youngsters a running smorgasbord of tidbits. Everything from seeds and bits of grain, to worms and bugs of all sorts and sizes. Occasionally the male would perch atop the cedar fence and sing a few bars of his familiar, albeit simplistic and somewhat unmusical, song. And I thought him quite handsome in his gray cap and lighter undercarriage, brown back streaked with black, black chin, throat, and bib, white cheeks, and especially the rich chestnut bordering his crown and extending down the back of his neck. House sparrows are not natives. A hundred or so were brought to this country and released in Brooklyn in the fall of 1851. Historical immigrants, just like most of us…which I think the bird’s detractors too easily overlook. They like to live around us, even with us, preferring the human company of cities, suburbs, farmlands. No wide open spaces or endless dark forests, but dooryard birds who want to be part of the family. If they happen to be a little on the messy, noisy, and occasionally temperamental side…so what? We are, too. In truth, the house sparrow population worldwide appears to be dwindling, though no one seems to know why. And I can’t help but wonder if our lack of concern, the missing urgency necessary to solve the mystery and, if possible, reverse its course, isn’t rooted in the disrespect so often shown this ubiquitous species. Personally, I’ll continue to defend them, feed them, and enjoy them—because I’ve come to know them. They provided company, amusement…and something awfully close to friendship when they trusted and allowed me to be such a close observer of their life and world during a summer when mine seemed to be filled with darkness and despair. I appreciated it then and I'm grateful still today.

Monday, April 20, 2009

BEAUTIFUL BLEEDER

The petals of these lovely wildflowers, a pure bridal white, belie the plant’s rather startling name—bloodroot. You look at the single pristine bloom nodding on the tip of the delicate stem and the notion seems highly unfitting…not just incorrect but somehow demeaning for a plant of such flawless beauty. Nick the stem with a fingernail, however, and a drop of red-orange liquid will quickly appear and run down the slender stalk. And yes, the juice looks remarkably like blood. So much so that I rarely did this even as a kid. Not that I’ve ever been queasy around blood. Rather, I couldn’t reconcile causing such a pretty wildflower to “bleed” for no other reason than facile entertainment. At best it seemed childish, and at worst, cruel. The red juice will easily stain your clothing. It was once used as a strong red dye by Indians and, later, Colonists. Both juice and various parts of the plant were also employed in many ways to treat a variety of aliments. In modern times bloodroot extracts have been used to treat everything from skin cancers to sore throat. A bloodroot extract, sanguinarine, became the main ingredient in a popular toothpaste and mouthwash after it was found to be an excellent plaque reducer. Bloodroot juice can also cause skin irritation in some individuals, rather like poison ivy—though I’ve never had any problems handling and photographing plants. Also, because bloodroot is a member of the poppy family, certain substances within the plant are quite potent—and ingesting too large an amount can prove fatal. Bloodroot are among the earliest of the spring ephemerals to appear around here—typically following close on the heels of hepatica. Along with Dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, and Virginia bluebells, they’re one of the plants I look forward to finding in the just-greening woods when I began poking about in search of morel mushrooms. Morels and bloodroot often seem to grow in close proximity. These pretty wildflowers are indeed ephemerals—coming and going rather quickly. A bloom might last a couple of days; a patch of plants seldom more than a week. Their time is fleeting…but they’re always worth seeking out. For me, it wouldn’t be spring without the beautiful little bloodroot.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

WAKE FOR A WAKE

One of the collective nouns for a group of sitting turkey vultures is wake—as in “a wake of vultures.” Today, unfortunately, the word can also be applied in its more common usage in regards to the favorite sunbathing spot of my buzzard neighbors who roost across the river. The photo at the top of this posting was taken yesterday morning. Here’s how that same spot appears today…notice the empty space? Alas, the vultures’ preferred sun-greeting site has been cut down. Much as I hate to admit it—and as bad as I feel for the loss to the buzzards (and the handiness it was to me for taking their occasional photo)—the old sycamore had to go. The huge tree had been dead for several years. (There’s a rumor of intentional poisoning, but only speculation without proof.) You can’t tell it from the photos, but the tree actually stood between two houses, which are themselves no more than a dozen feet apart. An ancient, massive sycamore—easily six feet across at the base, maybe more, with a crown, where the vultures liked to perch, seventy feet above the base. The main trunk divided into several sub-portions about twenty feet up, and in typical sycamore fashion, numerous large limbs extended outward and upward in every direction—including over the tops of both houses. Make no mistake…this was a dangerous tree given its location and weakening structure. The tree's weight would have been measured in tons…and a considerable number, at that. Not just a tree that might just drop a big limb and damage a roof, but a tree that could quite literally crash down and flatten two houses—easily killing anyone unlucky enough to be inside at the time. Still, I hated to see the old monarch go. Short of actually counting the growth rings, I wouldn’t know how to estimate that sycamore’s age—though it was certainly in the hundreds of years. There are numerous sycamore around here and along the river; I can probably see a thousand without moving from my front deck. But this fallen giant was the king, the “big daddy” sycamore of the neighborhood. I wish it could have been saved…but cutting it down was the right thing to do. Yet I do wonder what the vultures will do. I’ve never understood why most mornings they flew across from the island, past dozens of equally suitable sycamores—huge, tall, washed by morning sun—to sit in this particular tree on my side of the river. I'm sure they had their reasons. But when the light and heat source is located 93 million miles away, why does a few hundred feet one way or the other make a difference? I wondered if they missed their favorite sunning perch this morning. So I looked and saw they were scattered in clumps or two or three birds among various trees on the island side of the river. (No need or application for a collective noun there.) And maybe they're just as happy not having to move so far for their morning sunbath. Buzzards are rather inscrutable. Nevertheless, today my black-robed neighbors and I—each in our own way—might just hold our personal memorial service for the fallen sycamore, a requiem botanica. The river which for centuries supplied water to the roots of the lamented giant can whisper a dirge…while a threnody might be furnished by the wind, which once swayed the great tree’s green branches. And come sunset, as the white-throated sparrows sings his vespers, in good and proper Irish fashion, I'll give the vanquished tree a wake.

Friday, April 17, 2009

FIRST VIOLETS

A huge red haw tree stood near the back door of the house where I grew up. Every spring, that big hawthorn turned white with fragrant blossoms—while the ground beneath the tree became a riot of purple violets. Violets of my effectuating, my personal doing—planted by my own grubby little hands at the blissful age of five. “Your violets, Son,“ Mom would often say, as we sat on the back porch enjoying spring’s warming sunlight. There were hundreds of them, a great circular patch thirty feet across with scarcely a blade of grass or a square inch of bare ground visible between the dense layered mat of round green leaves and purple blooms. Not that much else grew under the haw, anyway, though the ground was rich and dark. “Too much shade,” my father said. The saga of the haw-tree violets began one spring morning when my mother heard me stirring through the barrel of tin cans we kept near the bottom of the steps leading down into the basement. Unlike most of our neighbors, we didn’t burn our household trash. Peelings and scraps were put on the garden or into small holes dug around the yard. Cardboard and paper from packages (which seldom amounted to much) went into the coal furnace. Glass jars were washed and reused. While tins from what few canned-goods we used were collected in the basement barrel (to keep them from rusting) and when the barrel was full, Dad hauled them to the dump. I used old tin cans for lots of projects—everything from making drum sets which I hammered with nerve-shattering abandon, to fanciful body parts for “locomotives” and “airplanes.” The trouble was, I sometimes cut myself on the ragged edges, or got a bit of old tomato soup or chocolate syrup in my hair. This time, I informed my mother, I needed an empty container for some “purple flowers down by the ditch,” which I wanted to bring home. The “ditch” was a tiny seasonal creek which flowed past the far border of the neighbor’s yard. Four foot across at it’s widest, and rarely more than a foot deep, the ditch carried running water perhaps nine or ten months of the year—and often dried up, except for a few deeper pools, in July and August. Nevertheless, the ditch held crayfish, the occasional minnow, frogs, snakes and worlds of endless fascination along its muddy banks. It was also the bane of my mother’s efforts at keeping my clothes clean and dry. Ditches draw small boys the way a cow flop attracts flies. My mother, however—bless her heart!—also loved flowers, and understood the transplanter’s pull of heart. She washed out a couple of old peaches tins, handed me a small trowel, and begged me to try and not fall in more than once or twice. And so, thus equipped, at five years old I set off on my first plant-collecting expedition. I don’t know how many violets I dug up and brought back that morning, but I’d guess not more than a dozen. Doubtless more than a few succumbed to my rough and clumsy treatment—either during extraction or as they were replanted under the haw, where Mom says I insisted on putting them so I could keep an eye on their safety and give them water like I’d watched my grandfather do with his little tomato sets when he put out his garden. Surprisingly, a few violets managed to survive the relocation. In fact, they settled into their new home beneath the haw and thrived—multiplying and spreading exponentially with each and every spring; in time, practically taking over the entire back yard, the side yard, and by the time of my mother’s death a few years ago, a big portion of the front yard. “Those are your violets, Son,” Mom said once again the spring of the year she died. Mom was 94, and suffered from (among many ailments) glaucoma. Though almost blind, she could still see the purple evidence of my youthful escapade. "You planted them, Son," she repeated, and told me once more the oft-repeated story. When she'd finished, she looked out, smiled, and shook her head. "They are so, so beautiful." This morning, walking around the yard near the cottage, I found a small patch of common violets in bloom. Ohhhh… Sometimes all it takes to fill our day with beauty and solace and magic is one moment, a single sight or sound or smell. For me—today—it was these humble little violets. In much less time than it has taken me to tell you this tale, they carried me back all those years to the sweet soft security of home…to an April day of bright sunshine, when Mom and I sat for the last time on the warm porch, and saw a wealth of purple at our feet.
Your violets, Son…

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

BLUE JAY BLUES

You wouldn’t think attracting blue jays to bird feeders might be a problem. Certainly not in southwestern-Ohio. We have blue jays aplenty hereabouts. They’re abundant to the point of prolificacy. Anyone with a bird feeder has blue jays. In fact, I’ve never known any backyard bird feeder to want for blue jays. Usually too many blue jays. Unlike, say, house sparrows or starlings, it doesn’t take multitudes of blue jays to constitute “too many.” Some bird-feeding folk claim any number higher than one is too many blue jays. Quite a few say that number ought to be lowered. When I moved to this riverside cottage, I put out multiple bird feeders stocked with sunflowers seeds. I hung suet cages from the trees. I scattered cracked corn on the ground. The ravenous feathered hordes moved in immediately. Birds aplenty. A typical winter’s-day roll call ranges upwards of 30 species, not counting the river birds such as blue herons, kingfishers, ducks and geese. Spring-through-autumn sees the list expand considerably. I lose the juncos, tree sparrows, and purple finches, but gain warblers, orioles, several replacement sparrows, turkey vultures, and a dozen or two additional birds—likely more, except my birding abilities aren’t exactly stellar, so I doubtless overlook or misidentify various visitors. But for some mysterious reason, the local blue jays—brash, omnivorous feeders though they are—shun me and my varied offerings. Why? Did the buzzards across the stream carry false gossip of an old family recipe for blue jay pie standing ready for procurement of the prime ingredient? Have the owls been whispering their incantations of dark and dastardly intentions waiting to be carried out against trespassing jays? Or was it something the herons began, a rumor that as a fly fisherman I’d expressed the need to stock my fly tying bench with a fresh supply of blue jay feathers for fashioning streamers? Whatever it was, it worked. I never have blue jays. My neighbor who lives in the big house at the top of the hill has blue jays. I often hear them carrying on or see them in the tops of the big sycamores in her yard. But they don’t deign to come down here. Okay…the photo above obviously indicates things have changed. That stump is in my side yard. I scatter a bit of cracked corn upon it daily. And the shot was taken today. So that “never” should now actually read “seldom.” Yet I still don’t know the why of the matter, or what changed. The first year here—from June, when I moved in, through December—I saw not a single blue jay in the yard or around the feeders. Not one! Year two came and one bright February morning two jays appeared, squawking and dabbing at the corn and sunflower seeds. I almost choked on my breakfast oatmeal. But that proved their only appearance for the year. Last year the reluctant jays favored me with three visits—once in late-winter, and twice during the fall. This year, I’m already up to a half-dozen visits! Either they’re seriously scouting me for full club membership, or else they’ve freed up the occasional moment to enjoy a bit of comic relief—stopping by the snack stump and watching the guy at the window stare openmouthed in disbelief. I wouldn’t put such pranks beyond them. Blue jays are notorious jeering jesters. Blue jays are corvids, members of the same family as ravens and crows. They can make a large variety of sounds, mimicking other birds, even machinery or human speech. They mob together and gang up on other birds such as hawks and owls. They’re noisy, belligerent, adaptable, aggressive, and sneaky. That’s why when I’ve mentioned my blue jay dearth to others, I’ve regularly been told to count my blessings. Blue jays have, shall we say, a reputation. The trouble is, I like ‘em. I like their blue-cloaked looks, their noisy habits, their cocky attitude. And I want them to like me—or at least my yard and free eats. So just in case there’s a blue jay among my lurking readers, let me say I hope you and your clan will start dropping by regularly. I promise I’ll speak to the Canada goose, tell him not to chase you off. And I’ll make sure there’s plenty of food available. The welcome mat is out.

Monday, April 13, 2009

DUTCHMAN'S BREECHES

How can any wildflower enthusiast not like Dutchman’s breeches? If you can’t admire their dainty beauty, you at least ought to be amused by their peculiar pantaloon shape—like so much elfin underwear hung upside-down on a washline. There are wooded roadside banks near here, whose soil is rich with humus, that are now covered with their tiny white blooms. I passed them this morning on the way back from the library. Oddly, though, and for no reason I can imagine, the steep bank just up the dead-end road from the cottage—usually a riot of Dutchman’s breeches in April—is all but barren. What happened to last spring’s sizeable colonies? When I ambled up there a few minutes ago to take a photo, I counted fewer than a dozen plants where normally I would expect to find hundreds. Are they simply late? Dutchman’s breeches are one of the earlier spring ephemerals, in my corner of southwestern-Ohio typically arriving about the same time as bloodroot and trout lily. Their bulbs are easy to transplant, and if you have the right setting, can be easily added to the woodland garden. I scooped a few last spring from the shoulder of a road being widened. Various nature centers and the like, who often hold springtime “wild plant” sales, usually have Dutchman’s breeches among their offerings. For me, the springtime appearance of Dutchman’s breeches marks a trusted phenology checkpoint. Whenever I see the tiny white blooms spackling the woodsy hillsides, I know that it’s time to begin checking my favorite secret haunts for tasty morel mushrooms. I do, indeed, like Dutchman’s breeches. They’re lovely as wildflowers, naughtily cute, and a signal sure to stir my wild forager’s heart.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

EASTER SUNRISE

Easter Sunday morning and the sky is glorious with sunrise. Bright light, like molten gold, pours over the eastern horizon, gushing through the tangle of limbs in the big sycamore beside the drive and dancing in gilded delight on the moving mirror of the river’s surface. The perfect light for this most holy of mornings, when Christians the world over rejoice in the resurrection of their living Savior. In a while, after breakfast, I’ll get dressed and drive to church for Easter Service. Listen again to that familiar triumphant story of the rolled-away rock and the empty tomb, the two Marys and the disbelieving disciples, of Peter rushing in to see for himself…and later, the undeniable truth of the risen Jesus. There will be prayer and music—and just maybe they will sing at least a couple of the beautiful old Easter hymns I so dearly love. Easter is my favorite service of the year, a message of eternal hope delivered amid the vernal rebirth of unfolding spring. Easter is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Without Easter and Christ’s resurrection, the Bible becomes just another dusty text, Jesus simply another man, and Christianity merely a set of outdated customs and traditions. Belief in anything beyond the oblivion of the grave seems foolish. Except, I do believe the Easter story—believe that Christ died, was buried, and rose again. I believe it because I’ve tried to not believe and, thankfully, failed; because I find faith and belief fills something in me that remains restless and empty otherwise. The sun comes up on this holiest of days, reiterating my conviction in an everlasting beyond the constraints of time, while warming me in its light of grace. I write today for myself because there is so much beauty all around and my heart is overflowing. A new day is here and my spirit soars! Life is mine. There is jubilation, triumph, and exultation in the air, a scared welling which resonates like a pealing bell with who I am. Today I will celebrate Easter—because for me, there’s a wonderful, inescapable truth in this singular April sunrise.

WATERFOWL SMARTS

How long does it take to train a duck or goose? Not long—at least not when free eats are involved. For upwards of a month, I’ve been feeding a pair each of Canada geese and mallard ducks. Once or twice a day, I scatter a scoop of cracked corn along the top of the riverbank. My waterfowl quartet soon appear and take advantage, shouldering aside the doves and squirrels whom they see as uninvited interlopers. Mind you, these are not semi-tame citified birds, golf-course residents, or picnic area and park pond habitués, comfortably accustomed to people. Instead, they are wild born and raised right here along the river, intolerant of even the occasional summer fisherman or canoeist. Let them see so much as a movement inside the cottage and off they go, protesting loudly and flapping for all they’re worth. At least they were before I began my handouts. Now they tolerate me, and to a lesser degree, Moon. Anyone else and it’s a mad escape scramble, just like always. So they haven’t lost their fear of humans, just of one human. Which isn’t to say I can act too loud, too animated, too threatening around them. No shouting; no eye contact; no waving of arms. Unless the hand is holding the corn scoop—then I can give the feed a toss, nod their way, and tell them to “come and get it.” That’s okay. So they’ve learned to recognize me, learned I’m the source of their corn, and aren’t frightened by the act of tossing the corn out or motioning and telling them to come eat. But they’ve also learned to take turns, and worked out a schedule. Before nesting time, the birds began by appearing together—one pair or the other arriving first, to soon be followed by whichever pair remained. Now the goose and hen are on their nests. The drake and gander apparently aren’t into communal dining. Oddly, it’s the duck that eats first—within minutes after I toss out the corn in the morning. The goose might be paddling around the pool in front of the cottage, but he doesn’t come up until the duck has finished. When the duck departs, the gander takes his turn. The schedule is fairly rigid, too. Breakfast not too long after daylight, and supper a half-hour or so before dusk. In between, the midday hours are a catch-as-catch can potluck. One or the other—duck or goose—is apt to be waddling about looking for leftovers, but only one at a time. Should I be a little late in putting food out, especially in the morning, I’m soon reminded by regular bouts of quacks and honks, an impatient cacophony of loud, aggrieved reminders regarding my overlooked hospitality. More or less the same thing happens should I be caught sitting on my deck when feeding time rolls around—even if the food is already scattered. What they’re chewing me out about then is my not giving them their privacy. Eating alone means I’m not allowed, either. Just the other evening, the goose sat on the water ten feet out from shore, giving me the evil eye and bleating like a dump truck until I realized he wanted me to move elsewhere. Unwelcome on my own deck…the hand that feeds ‘em. Such audacity! Still, I’m impressed by how quickly they’ve learned, the way they’ve worked things out between them, their degree of discernment, and their cheeky behavior. Goofy as a goose? Dumb as a duck? Quite the contrary! That’s simply stupid as a simile.

Friday, April 10, 2009

RAIN DAY, REST DAY?

It’s raining today along the river. Not in downpours, just little spring showers which seem to lack enthusiasm. Good for the grass and plants, but not enough to get a fellow wet if, say, I decided to make a quick check of the mailbox up the hill. Not enough to discourage a robin from loudly singing his sweet swinging melody that’s so indicative of the season. Still, the day is dark and there’s a steady, slow drip along the eaves. And inconsequential as the rain is, there’s enough that Moon the dog, who detests getting wet, will—after ringing her chimes which signals a desire to go outside—pause under the sheltered portion of the deck and cast displeased looks back my way, because she believes that all dog-wetting rain is ultimately my fault. I’d hoped to work on my backdoor patio today—or at least on the planting bed which is the first element in the patio’s layout. Yesterday I drove a few miles north to a building supply store and picked up a couple of 4x6-inch pressure-treated timbers, each 16 feet in length. I’ll use these—along with shorter pieces of 4x6 which I had on hand already—to outline a 16x3-foot planting bed along one-half the rear wall of the cottage. I’ll then fill in the 8-inch deep box with a mix of flower seeds—and with luck, ought to have a nice bed of color by early summer. That had been the day’s plan—get the timbers down, leveled, filled with dirt and planted with seed. But unless the weather clears up and things dry out at least a bit, I’ll have to scrap the notion until tomorrow, when partially-sunny skies are predicted. Yesterday, when I was doing the bed’s preliminary digging, I realized how weak and soft I’d become over the winter. Muscles which hadn’t seen serious physical labor since late last fall are today stiff and sore. Plus my storehouse of stamina is noticeably depleted. Age plays a part, of course; each passing year puts a bit more wear and tear on our bodies, demands we draw deeper from our energy reserves. In youth and early middle-age, I spent this energy without giving it a second thought, as if it were boundless—which, in a way, it was. An overnight’s rest or even a meal would replenish any loss. Nowadays, there isn’t as much in the tank to start with and refills take longer and longer. Still, I believe the old saw that “people don’t wear out…they rust out,” to be the greater truth of the matter. I’ve seen too many 70- and 80-year olds bouncing around like the Energizer Bunny to fool myself otherwise. Nope, it’s too easy to spend the winter in semi-hibernation, like a bear in the den. The fire is warm, the house cozy, there are books and music and cable TV and the internet to keep us busy. Observation can take the place of participation when it comes to outdoor activities. Shopping at the mall, regular trips to the grocery store, and running errands may keep us occupied—but it doesn’t keep us limber and strong, energetic and healthy. Our job, unless it involves physical labor, doesn’t help much, either…and in my case, not at all. There’s no workout in poking at a keyboard for a few hours. It’s also why, after buying the timbers, loading them in the pickup, and hauling them home—I called it quits for the day, even though there was an hour or so of daylight remaining. Until my decrepit body gets back up to snuff (more or less…I’m not expecting miracles) I expect most of these initial workdays will be necessarily foreshortened. Quitting early has its rewards, however—at least it did yesterday. The day’s ending was warm and the rocking chair on the side deck offered comfortable embrace—a pleasant appeasement where I could sip a drink and watch the sun sink ever lower in the west. A woodpecker hammered on a rotting box elder limb. Finches chattered from the feeders. A pair of mallards came hustling up the river, flying low and fast, only a yard or so above the surface but making no attempt to land; the drake’s green head and neck shimmered like an emerald in the last of the waning light. There was a bit of a chill in the air, toward the end, and I slipped on a fleece pullover. Such a simple act, so everyday…and yet it always feels good, a small, sensual gratification. So many of life’s rewards are found in the basics. A drink when you’re thirsty. Food when you’re hungry. The view of a glowing sunset. Birdsong. A comfortable rocker. Spring’s sweet breath. A warm sweater. That was yesterday; today there’s rain. But even now, the sky appears to be growing incrementally lighter. And the eaves are no longer dripping. Is the rain over? Will I be able to get my flower bed prepared? Maybe…maybe not. Nevertheless, I intend to take a walk, even if I have to do so in the rain. Moon will come along, excited with all the new sights and smells. In her book, going for a walk in a light rain trumps remaining behind and staying dry—it doesn't mitigate my guilt in the matter. Some things never change.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

FOILED AGAIN!

Today, while still rather cold, has been bright and sunny—in sharp contrast to yesterday which was a series of on-and-off clouds and snow squalls every few minutes. Oddly, however, such changeable weather often produces interesting moments. Yesterday afternoon, a couple of hours after I’d written and posted the piece about the wood duck across the river [here] I looked up from my desk during another snowfall and saw the Cooper’s hawk come swooping in to check out the side-yard’s feeder area for any unwary small birds that might serve as a tasty meal. As always, the old Christmas tree was given a thorough investigation. My camera happened to be handy, so I made a quick portrait. [The white specks you see dotting the image are snowflakes.] The side-yard and tree are regular stops on the Cooper’s daily hunting route; I usually see the bird at least two or three times between morning and late afternoon if I’m spending most of the day at my desk, which offers an easy up-glance at the area in question. You‘d think this means the spot therefore presents a good success ratio for the effort—meals more often than not. But if my observations are typical—and I suspect they are—the truth is just the opposite. Most birds successfully flee the area as the hawk arrives. Small birds which do take quick refuge in the old evergreen’s tangles also escape, darting to safety unscathed, practically under the sharp talons and razor beak of their stalker. Their lifesaving trick is simple—the Cooper’s dives in one side of the tangle, or goes headfirst down from the top, and the hidden birds shoot out the opposite side. The hawk never seems to wise up to the tactic. Of the 40–50 hide-and-seek scenarios I’ve watched during the last month, I’ve only witnessed the Cooper’s end up with a bird firmly in its clutches once. On another occasion the hawk came rolling out (I kid you not—it was on it’s side flapping and tumbling when it reappeared from within the mass of evergreen branches!) with a sparrow, though not quite in control…and the plucky sparrow managed to get loose and fly away before the hawk could right itself and administer the coup de grâce. There could, of course, have been other successful hunts which I missed seeing. Even so, it's clear that for the Cooper’s hawk, feeding daily is a numbers game—make enough stops and you get to eat. And the odds of not being that meal are definitely in the prey's favor. Life as a hawk isn't easy—though honestly, I don't begrudge the Cooper's a few of "my" birds. Everything has to eat to live—and eating and living depend on something dying, even for the most fanatical vegetarian. The process can't be escaped except by degrees. Life thrives on death. The visit yesterday proved to be another "empty" stop for the frustrated Cooper’s hawk who dropped by for a bite to eat…but went away hungry. Can't you just see the expressed annoyance?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

BLOB IN THE BUSH

Do you recognize the blob in the center of this photo? Well…neither did I. The tree is located on the far side of the river. The light was dim and the snow was pouring down, as it has been doing all day. Blizzard one minute, bright sunshine the next, the ground turning from green to white back to green again in a matter of minutes. I thought the blob looked like a bird—but what kind of bird? Crow or turkey vulture came to mind, though it seemed not quite black enough and too bulky for a crow, and a bit undersized for a buzzard. However, the thick wall of falling snowflakes made such distinctions little more than a guess. I reached for my binoculars. Wow! Definitely a bird—and even though it had its back to me, I could make out enough markings that I thought I knew the identity. Then, for an instant, the snow paused. Double wow! I’d called it right. There was no mistaking my blob-in-the-bush…wood duck! Two minutes later the snow quit entirely and the sky brightened. I got a really good look. Here’s one of the better shots, cropped and enlarged; not great, but you can at least see a few—and only a few!—of this gaudy bird’s amazing colors. Many outdoor folk think the male woodie the prettiest bird in North America. I don’t know I’d personally go quite so far—but then I have my prejudices. Still, there’s no doubt Mr. Wood Duck is a mighty handsome fellow. Rather like a miniature mallard that decided to become a rock star, and let Hollywood dress and colorize him for the part—so long as they promised a wild hairdo and were willing to use the entire paintbox. If you poke along lakes and streams and backwater bayous much, then wood ducks are a familiar sight—though usually when you see them, they’re already “whistling” in alarm and well on their way to hustling somewhere else. It takes a pretty competent stalking job to sneak up on a woodie. Wood ducks nest exclusively in tree cavities (or manmade “duck” boxes). They’re common along the river here because a lot of the big sycamores have hollows in their trunks and larger limbs—perfect wood duck nest sites. I’ve read that woodies occasionally pick a nest hole as much as 50 feet above the ground—and not always smack on a streambank or lakeshore, either. Yet I’ve never found one nesting much higher up than 25 feet—though most of the rivers and streams around this part of the state are lined with ranks of sycamores, so a homemaking-minded wood duck looking to find a suitable nest cavity probably doesn’t have to search far. This is actually the first wood duck I’ve seen along my home stretch of river this year. They usually appear hereabouts anywhere from the middle of March to the first couple of weeks in April; this one is right on time. Last spring, I looked out one morning and saw six wood ducks—three pairs—cruising the pool across from the cottage. In the final shot, a long view, you can see the wood duck in the upper right portion of the image. The woodie is perched about 10 feet above the soggy ground of the island across from the cottage. To the left, is the half-submerged upper half of the old snag which fell a week ago. Good thing the woodie and his mate didn’t pick that cavity-riddled stump for their nursery.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A HUNDRED AND COUNTING!

This marks my one-hundredth blog posting—a milestone of sorts, though nothing to get excited about when compared to the efforts of my favorite fellow bloggers, many of whom have posted their way several times beyond this paltry score. Yet, it is more than I thought might prove the case when I first began—a real fear which I admitted in my very first blog entry. All previous attempts at journals, diaries, and similar forms of regular record-keeping over the years have, one-and-all, petered out in appallingly short order. It is because so many of you have read and commented that I’ve continued—and it’s this friendly interchange and support that has made the whole business so much fun. Of course this blog isn’t really a journal, though given the bulk of my chosen subject matter, it can’t help but follow the course of the seasons and their effect on me and the world around my riverside cottage. And in truth, it’s more of a nature blog than I intended…though I probably should have known better. What I’d originally envisioned was something a bit meatier—commentaries and essays rooted in ideas and beliefs, philosophy and arts; a deeper delving into the interconnections between life and the shape of spirit and individuality, cast against the matrix of daily activities and the natural world. What I wanted to avoid like the plague was a nature column which was nothing more than a recounting of scientific knowledge. (Plieated woodpeckers are the largest woodpecker in Eastern North America. Their wingspan can exceed 30 inches. They hack out characteristically rectangular holes in trees to find ants.) Facts, facts, facts. And nothing much more. I don’t like reading nature books that prove more textbook than tale. They are valuable, certainly, and necessary; and I do think any good nature writer has to keep up with the current field of knowledge. (And yes, I have shelves of the things, have waded through most, and refer to them regularly. ) But I don’t so much want facts in my recreational (as opposed to research) reading as I do essence. Tell me a story, work the facts, if germane, into the narrative. I really don’t care how much you know about plieated woodpeckers—and I truly don’t need to have every scrap of that burdensome knowledge passed along right this moment! Entertain me, make me think. The world isn’t a bundle of facts but of things, events, a past, present, future, with love and death and mortgages and recipes for apple pie. Get some of that in there when you write about pileated woodpeckers and I’ll be a lot more prone to read your stuff. In the end, I guess I want to know about the writers behind the writing. I want to know what they think and feel, what moves them, their beliefs and notions, likes and dislikes. I want to feel like we’re sitting across the campfire from one another, talking, telling about this or that, recounting something we found interesting or funny or tragic—with life and personality and nature resonating throughout. More than anything, I want to be who I am on this blog—to be honest and open, to relate my experiences and ideas. I don’t expect you to always agree, and you don’t even have to like me. I don’t like myself sometimes, either. I’m still learning the ropes of blogging; still trying to accomplish my original vision. I hope, one of these days, to be able to write another piece like this marking my 200th posting. I do sincerely appreciate each and every one of you who give up a portion of your valuable time to stop by the riverbank and read the latest dispatch. Unseen lurkers and regular commentarors, I thank you. As for what's ahead, we’ll all have to wait and see…for as the Book of Proverbs wisely reminds, “thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.”

Saturday, April 4, 2009

RISING WATER…

This is a sort of follow-up to yesterday’s posting and its brief mention of the effects of upstream rain, with today’s view of the recently fallen snag I wrote about last Monday.[here] As you can see by comparing the two photos, the river is up. I’d guess about a 5-6 foot difference in the water level. Most of this rise occurred yesterday, from mid-morning onward. When I checked yesterday morning—and mentioned afterwards in my posting—the water was up no more than a few inches above what it had been prior to Friday night’s thundershowers. I speculated then that the real effects of the storm and the amount the water level might subsequently rise, would depend on how much rain fell upstream, in the river’s upper drainage area to the north and northwest of here. Upstream rain is always the critical criteria for any riverside dweller; rain sluicing down upon our home stretch of river matters not a whit to the stream’s level, though it could be disastrous to those who live farther downstream. While this high-water view might cause one to conclude that upstream rainfall had been substantial…judging from past experience, I’d say probably not. I base that on the river’s slow rise. I’ve seen it reach this level within an hour following a drenching storm—and yes, that’s scary! This time, I’d say we’re just now seeing a fairly modest rain which fell on the drainage basin’s woods, fields, and farmlands, found its way into ditches and tiny tributaries, then into brooks and small feeder creeks, and drained on into mainstream of the river. From here the water will soon join an even larger river, which will itself empty into the Ohio River, get dumped into the Mississippi, and thence into the Gulf of Mexico after something like a week of downhill travel time. Another point—if you look at the two photos and compare the width of the island between views (see the water just over there, through the trees) you’ll notice how much narrower the dry land mass has temporarily become. The distance in the low-water shot from the near bank to the island’s far edge is approximately 75 feet. The island is about 400 feet long, and is one of several, all equally long and skinny, strung like the white-line center dashes marking a highway lane. In the high-water shot, that width is reduced to about half, maybe 35 feet. You can also see one of the low transverse areas which, during times of high water, allow the two channels to merge, temporarily sub-dividing the single island into three or four shorter islands. Note a large section of the fallen snag is lying in this now-flooded low area. That’s why I speculated the downed trunk might not be around following a rise in the river. We’ll see about that…though so far the old stub is hanging tough and staying in place. Perhaps you might wonder what island wildlife other than birds do during high water periods? Well, the fox squirrels have no problem; they simply imitate their gray cousins and take to the treetops, foraging on bud tips or whatever other edibles the season offers. I presume coons, possums, and skunks either abandon ship or den up, snug and dry, in of the many hollow sycamores. I’ve have seen deer become marooned for several days. The normal depth the water in the channel beyond the island is, in places, less than knee deep. Consequently, as the water begins to come up, even with a fast rise, there’s usually plenty of time to make an escape. But wait too long to move to the mainland, and they find themselves having to decide whether to swim for it, or stay stuck until the water levels lowers. For any deer which does manage to get themselves stuck, there’s a fair amount of browse available on the island, so food for a few days usually isn’t a problem. What can be a problem, of course, is getting caught on a rise where the water comes up even higher than pictured here. Once, the winter after I moved to this riverside cottage, a pair of whitetails became stranded on the island as the water rose to a point as high as I’ve yet witnessed. Fortunately, there’s a little knob at the island’s upstream tip that rises about eight feet higher than the land you see here. This became the deer’s home—a tiny island about 20 by 30 feet, or about the size of my cottage’s great room; yet a sufficient and safe enough refuge, nevertheless. The whitetails selected a sunny spot to bed down, out of the wind and facing upstream, and simply waited. Of course, there wasn’t much else they could do or anywhere else to go. While they probably got hungry during their ordeal, both deer made it off a few days later. The next twenty-four hours will confirm whether my guess on the water’s rise proves correct. It will also reveal (for this round of high water, anyway) the old snag’s fate…stay or go. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A WET-BUZZARD DAY

It’s a “wet buzzard” day here along the river. One of those drippy, drizzly, dark, damp, dreary days that I find delightful, though the aforementioned turkey vultures who roost on the island across from the cottage don’t look nearly so pleased. Rainy days aren't good for soaring, so a hungry buzzard looking for a tasty bite of breakfast roadkill sometimes has to sit idle and soaked, hoping for drier times. While the majority of their dark-robed clan have taken refuge by huddling on limbs of various large sycamores, close to the trunks, a handful of birds have found perches in the tops of a tree or two. Since these trees afford a good view to the west, maybe the birds are supposed to be acting as lookouts, scanning for a glimpse of clearing weather. However, they’ve all turned their backs toward the prevailing winds, which is also the direction of any possible storm relief. Rather than attentive, they simply look miserable. The rain began yesterday evening around 8:00 p.m. with a lot of lightning and thunder histrionics, which continued throughout the night. But the drama was more flash and sound than actual substance. A dawn inspection of the river revealed no more than a 2-3 inch rise in water level, though I expect that to increase some as the day progresses and the rain that fell north of here gets fed into the mainstream by the tributaries. When you live on a river, you have to remember it doesn’t matter how much rain falls on you and your portion of the drainage area—it’s the upstream rainfall that counts. Sometimes the water rises several feet here, although we’d never received the first drop of rain. Frankly, I’m glad to have this rain. The moisture will help bring out the wildflowers—of which, there’s been a dearth so far—and might, with luck, induce the delectable morel mushrooms to begin popping up in the greening woods. Most of us hard-core outdoor foragers rank these “sponge” ‘rooms near the top of our list for toothsome wild treats. The rain’s one downside is that I’ll probably have to buy that new lawnmower soon. My pair of Canada geese are doing their part, and they’ve even sublet a couple of corners of the yard to some noisy mallards…but the grass appears to be winning. I had high hopes [here] but the female Canada is now nesting over on the island, so her contributions to keeping my grass in check have been greatly reduced. Still, a bit of spring rain is a good thing…unless you’re a buzzard.