Sunday, March 11, 2018

Wild Thing

Blossoms and tufts of green leaves are sprouting all over in our garden. I've got spring fever and want to be outside as much as I can be! I've been cleaning out last year's old growth from the front yard flower patch and realized that I needed to be sure that the seedlings I was thinning out were not from the Georgia Asters that I want to encourage. So yesterday I headed to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which is just a short trip from home, to take a look at their aster patch for reference. I'm so lucky to live close to one of my favorite places to hike and photograph, as well as a source for gardening and botanical advice!

I think these are the leaves I was looking for

I made my way to the garden and found and photographed what I believe to be the aster leaves so I could compare at home. And since I was already there, and it was supposed to rain in the afternoon, I took the opportunity to try to get some photos of birds and wildflowers. The woods are teeming with color and life, brought about by warmer temps and spring rains. I was just heading off toward a nice trail to catch a look at a heron rookery I had discovered last week, when I heard a wild ruckus from a group of people walking up from that area. Weekends at the gardens are very busy, which is both good and not so good. Good for lots of people to be out enjoying a wonderful nature area, and not so good for people (like me) who are hoping to quietly observe the wildlife. But it's a big place and there is room for all of us. I am always happy to see families who allow their children to explore and experience nature. Quiet observers and rowdy explorers can easily compromise and even share some teachable moments. The kids were hollering and having a great time, shouting "hup, two, three, four" at the top of their lungs as they marched. It was pretty clear to me that the birds and wildlife would scatter for a while in their presence, and I didn't want to lose time before the rain. So instead of heron hunting, I turned around a took a walk through the wildflower garden, which I wanted to visit anyway.

Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia)
Eastern Redbud popping out all over (Cercis canadensis)
Trillium trio (Trillium maculatum)

As I entered the garden, something small scurried up a tree up ahead of me. It seemed too big for a chipmunk but too small for a squirrel, so I followed it and found, to my surprise, that it was a squirrel after all, just a very tiny one. A baby squirrel!

Cute little guy

I wondered if it had fallen out of a nest, but it seemed fully able to climb and scurry away, however awkwardly. It was young enough that it really didn't know what to do when faced with danger. First it froze. Next it scuttled maniacally around in the leaves at the base of a tree, like it had no idea where to go. Then it climbed just a little higher up on the trunk and stared at me. I looked around for upset parent squirrels and didn't hear or see anything. Usually, when I startle squirrels, they scamper to a high branch and screech and bark at me. But this baby was new to the whole stranger thing. He moved to the back of the tree trunk and peeked at me from first one side and then the other. It was adorable. I was having so much fun with this tender baby animal encounter.

So curious!

Right then, the loud kids arrived at the garden gate and were soon rumbling up the path toward me and the baby squirrel. Surely the quiet, tender moment was doomed. But thinking quickly, I stepped back and caught the attention of the three chattering teenage girls. I waved at them and made the "shhhh" sign while gesturing to come closer. They heeded my warning and quietly hurried over to me, intrigued. When I whispered, "baby squirrel" and they saw where I pointed, we became a nature observation team. The young humans and the young squirrel studied each other carefully for a long while. The little squirrel stayed on its tree, about 2 feet off the ground, peering from side to side as before. The encounter generated lots of "awwws" from the girls and parents. Definitely a good nature moment. As they were leaving, the parents and I discussed that it was unusual to see such a young squirrel out on its own and that it had better watch out for hawks. Indeed, there are plenty of hawks in the garden, and a pair of red-shouldered hawks have built a nest a short way up the path in this very section.

Red-shouldered Hawk with a freshly caught vole that I saw in the garden last week

I felt happy to have shared a sweet nature moment with the family, and to have salvaged my own photo op! Everyone was happy. Win! And the baby squirrel stuck around for me to take more pictures. He seemed wary but did not scamper away. I kept waiting for him to climb up high to his nest (wherever that was), but he seemed interested in me and would climb up a bit but then would come back down. Then up again, then down.

Climbing up

Then down

Then back up

Then back down again

After a few minutes curiosity got the best of him and he began inching closer and closer to me. And before I knew it, the little rascal was at my feet, and then climbing my leg! As cute as it was, I realized that this was not good for either of us, and I shouted. The baby squirrel scurried back to his tree, and I knew it was time to walk away. For 1 or 2 seconds afterwards, I entertained the idea of taking him home and rescuing him. But I quickly came to my senses and remembered: 1) wild animal, 2) illegal, 3) pets at home, and 4) squirrel. What was I thinking? So I finished off my afternoon with lots of fun photos and no new mouths at home to feed. Thank goodness reason prevailed. I hope my little furry friend gets a bit more wary of humans and that he doesn't climb the legs of any other people. I also hope that he quickly learns some hawk smarts. He'll need it--it's a wild world out there. But he sure was cute.

Inching closer

Closer still

Ready to jump on me!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Spring Cleaning

My shame: the filthy feeder

I took some photos of birds in our yard the other day, and when I was looking through them to pick the ones I wanted to post to Facebook, I realized how gross and dirty our bird feeders had gotten. I will admit now that before I posted it, I cropped one of the photos to hide the mildew that I was too embarrassed to show. My excuse was that the winter has been cold, and also there had been a lot of rain in the last couple of weeks and the bird seed had turned soggy and nasty. But in truth, it has also been a very long time since the last cleaning. After looking at the grime on the feeder, I felt very guilty. But no more! Today I rolled up my sleeves and tore into those filthy feeders.

Lots of opportunity to swap germs

Feeding birds is a great hobby. I love seeing what birds we can attract to the yard throughout the year. But it is important to keep the feeders clean, as well as filled. All those birds moving in and out can bring and share germs and disease. And wet or spoiled seed creates a breeding ground for bacteria that can make the birds sick. So, ideally, it is recommended that you give your feeders a good cleaning once every month. Or quarterly. Or at the very least, twice a year. I'd like to aspire to cleaning monthly, but I doubt I can be that diligent. But I know I need to step up my routine, because I don't want to attract birds just to make them sick or even kill them.

The Big Bucket and other tools

My personal feeder cleaning set up is not complicated. I use a large utility bucket, biodegradable dish soap, some bleach (to kill germs and viruses), a scrub brush, a plastic putty knife, rubber gloves, rubber boots, and the hose. It's a bit of a chore, because we have quite a few different kinds of feeders and several feeding stations. And some of the feeders are rather large. I think in the future I may pick up a small kiddie pool in order to soak the larger pieces.

Stripped down and scrubbed clean

First I strip the feeding stations down to the pole, removing attachable "branches". Then I take down and empty the feeders, using the putty knife to scrape out wet or caked on seed, and put the old food in the trash. I will spare you photos of the nasty wet seed today, but it was putrid. It can go bad in a fairly short time in rainy and warm conditions. Sometimes it even sprouts in the feeder trays. Today I was glad I had the rubber gloves.

A plastic putty knife is a wonderful tool for scraping out caked on bird seed

Next, I take apart all the tube feeders and clean out the inevitably clogged feeder ports. Good quality feeders will come apart to allow access to these places where water gets in and wet bird seed builds up and spoils.

Tube feeder taken apart

Then I scrub all the feeder surfaces with soapy water mixed with some bleach. I add about 1/4 cup of bleach to my big bucket. I scrub the tube feeders, suet feeders and remove and clean all the trays. Then, I scrub the poles, baffles and attachments, because the birds leave seed and waste residue on everything. After everything is scrubbed clean, then I rinse well and let the parts sit in the sun to dry. You do not want to put dry seed into wet feeders or you'll get mildew and caked food inside.

All clean and drying in the sun

While I'm waiting for the feeders to dry it is a good time to clean out the bird bath, scrubbing out algae and any old seed and bird poop.

Birdbath is clean, too

Then, everything goes back together again. The birds were annoyed with me while I was cleaning and then seemed confused by the missing and empty feeders while everything dried. But 5 minutes after I had set it all up again and refilled the feeders, they had forgiven me.

"Wait, where is everything?"

So now our yard has clean, sparkling feeders and I can rest assured that I am providing a wholesome and helpful environment for the birds I love. This will be especially nice for the Great Backyard Bird Count that starts this weekend. And I'll be able to post my photos with a clear conscience and no cropping.

Sparkling Clean and Ready for Visitors!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Searching for Feathers

"Hope" is the thing with feathers
-- Emily Dickinson

In our consciousness, there are many negative seeds and also many positive seeds. The practice is to avoid watering the negative seeds, and to identify and water the positive seeds every day.
--Thich Nhat Hanh

Cardinal watching me through the rain

I'm so very glad that it is finally 2018. 2017 was a spectacularly crappy year, for many reasons that I won't go into. Some were the obvious troubles that we're all faced with these days, and others were very personal, but it was definitely a year that I would like to put behind me. 2017 was a year of too many challenges. Sometimes I felt scared, sad or angry. There have been days and weeks where I was filled utter despair and anxiety, where the future seemed dark. But I believe that I am an optimist at heart and didn't want to succumb. I didn't want the negative things to drag me down with them. I tried various coping strategies for dealing with my feelings, with varying degrees of success. Not surprisingly, the best one so far has come from within. I made an attitude adjustment. I'm working to replace all that negativity around me by flooding my brain with the positive things. Rather than allowing myself to wallow in the "why me's", I've been trying to be thankful, to look for the good, and to appreciate the beauty around me. It's not easy, especially when I'm feeling down, but when I can actually pull this off it works really well. And when I need inspiration, I often turn to birds. Birds are easy. They're everywhere and yet each time I see them I find something new to appreciate and that turns my attention from my own brain and focuses it outward to the world.

Carolina Wren singing

Even in freezing cold, sweltering heat, or on a gray rainy day, I can look out my window and see these beautiful, interesting, and sometimes funny creatures moving around in the trees and shrubs.

White-throated Sparrow cocks his head

We have installed bird feeders all around the front and back yards and they are active year round. Usually it is just birds, but sometimes a lucky squirrel hurls itself from a bush and lands in the tray, and of course, there are always spilled seeds on the ground for the chipmunks (and our dog). Sometimes I will look out and see nothing but mourning doves or house finches, gobbling away in the feeders.

Doves, House Finches, Pine Warbler and Oriole all sharing a meal

Other days, great flocks of grackles descend on the yard, chasing the rest of the birds off of the seed and even away from the jelly that I leave out for orioles. In the spring, cooper's hawks come to hunt at the bird feeders. And it's all good. I love watching them all. Each one has its good points. I don't mind the responsibility of buying food, filling the feeders and keeping them clean, because it gives me the opportunity to watch these little feathered miracles up close.

Hermit Thrush in the driveway

The bright red on a Downy Woodpecker is always a thrill

House Finches are beautiful

Making an EBird report from the kitchen window takes my mind off of everything but watching the birds to complete my list. And after making these lists for several years now, I know which birds come and go with the seasons and wait in joyful anticipation for the return of the robins and waxwings, the juncos and sapsuckers, and the occasional rarity.

Long whiskers on a Pine Warbler

Unusual coloration on this Carolina Wren caught my eye

Ruby-crowned kinglet turns its head to find seeds

Last winter we "hosted" a rare rufous hummingbird and a trio of also rare orioles. It took a lot of work to keep the feeders full, thawed and clean through the winter so the hummer wouldn't starve. Knowing that he might return this year has given me much to look forward to. So far, no sign of the little guy, but his friends, the orioles, came back last week. When I hear their cackling calls and catch a glimpse of bright orange, it gives me a thrill and is just another reminder that life is good and that I am lucky indeed. I'm still hoping to see a rusty brown hummingbird blur zipping across the yard one of these days, and even though he hasn't shown up yet, just knowing there is a chance is good enough. So I'm searching for feathers--the beauty, goodness and joy in life--and watering those positive seeds, and I think it's working. I'm looking forward to a great year to come.

The vivid orange of a male Baltimore Oriole takes my breath away

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Take A Load Off

Dewy Wingstem seen at a Nature Ramble (Verbesina alternifolia)

I try to be a cheery person, but lately I have really felt the worries of the world weighing on me. It just feels like there has been one awful thing after another for months now. The tragic earthquake in Mexico City. Hurricanes in Texas, Florida, the Caribbean. Even a tropical storm up here in North Georgia. The death of an old friend. Constant, ugly politics. Social unrest. Data hacks. Nuclear missiles. Health. Family. Good grief. All together, it has been overwhelming and it is hard to not get bogged down and filled with despair. Sometimes my shoulders hurt and I find myself clenching my teeth and needing to remember to breathe. There are days I don't want to leave the safe comfort of my snug home/nest.

Gynandromorph (has characteristics of both sexes) Tiger Swallowtail in my own yard! Good thing I went outside that day!

Field Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) from a wildflower field trip just over the NC border. A new flower for me!

I get a lot of happiness seeing the fine details of tiny things like this immature grasshopper. Look at its eyes and the markings on its body.

But I come back to this time and time again. Along with my loving and supporting family and friends, one sure thing that always soothes my soul and helps me keep moving along is to put myself in nature. To take a Forest Bath, as my photo buddy Marilee would always say. When I take a walk outside in the woods or in a park or a field or our yard, and look and smell and listen to the greater world around me, troubles melt away. I can feel calm and wellbeing seeping through me from the first step on a leaf covered path. Out in the wildflower meadow, it is very difficult to hold onto those scary thoughts that want to take over my brain. The sadness, anger, frustration or fight or flight response are replaced with awe and appreciation and wonder. The endorphins course through me when I see a butterfly or salamander or rare flower or magnificent forest and I can feel the optimism and happiness push their way to the front of my brain. I start planning my next hike or trip or photo safari and feel motivated to immerse myself in the things that I love and find are most important, rather than letting those more distant and abstract worries drain me.

An American Snout butterfly that I found feeding in my front yard. I never knew they were so stunning, and strange. They camouflage by hanging upside down in trees. With closed wings, they look like leaves. The snout resembles the stem or petiole of a leaf.

A giant Black and Yellow Orbweaver spider and her egg sac at the nature center. The sack was hanging 15-20 feet away, so the size comparison is not accurate. But that was some spider, and some egg sac.

Beautiful blue fungus. I learned from a friend that it is called "Terana caerula (often referred to as Pulcherricium caeruleum)- commonly referred to as 'cobalt crust' or 'velvet blue spread.' In 2009, the German Mycological Society named this species 'Fungus of the Year'" Who knew there was such a thing as fungus of the year?

There are few plant activities as fun as popping the seeds of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). They are trigger activated and when you touch a ripe pod, the seeds shoot out. It is very surprising. And fun! Seen with friends in NC.

Part of a healthy lifestyle is to be active and reduce the stress in your life. Nature walks cover both of these. Of course, most of my walking on the trail is pretty leisurely and needs to be supplemented with harder exercise from time to time. But getting out and moving, even slowly, is so much better for you than sitting at the computer or on the couch. It is good for you physically and just makes you feel alive. So I have been trying to take advantage of every opportunity for family camping trips, bird walks, wildflower field trips, rambles, nature lectures, school trail guiding and hikes with friends that I can fit in.

Kidneyleaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia), one of the spectacular flowers we got to see on the wildflower field trip to NC.

A tiny salamander, about 3/4 inch long form head to tip of tail. I thought it was a little worm in the wet dirt.

An Orbweaver spider gathering up the silk from the web she had stretched out this morning. She will digest the silk and start a new web tonight. You can see her spinnerets on her abdomen.

Big Praying Mantis seen on a Nature Ramble. I think her abdomen is full of eggs.

I often prefer to walk and explore on my own, but these days I have felt a strong desire to surround myself with friends. It's nice to have people to talk to and share with. And it is especially nice to walk up to the trail and be greeted by a friendly face (or 20!). Being with other people helps remind me that there are many others who care about the same things that I do. Sometimes when we set off on our hikes, we commiserate for a moment about the latest bad news, but then we quickly move on to the purpose of the day, whether that be wildflowers, birds, insects or just exploring the trails at a new location. It feels healthy and good to be connecting, sharing, moving, and appreciating together.

Sleepy Orange Butterfly Chrysalis seen on a Nature Ramble at the Botanical Gardens

The rich blues of Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberuba) 

Because, in reality, we never know how much time any of us have to appreciate the beauty of this wonderful world. Tragedy strikes when we least expect it. So spend your time appreciating what really matters--family, friends, and this amazing world we live in.

The vibrancy of this gruesome but beautiful scene almost took my breath away. Purple, yellow, green.
A lucky Yellow Crab Spider has caught an unlucky Bee Fly.