Thursday, April 24, 2008

It was a TWO Owl Night!

Barred owls are a strong part of our home here in the country. These huge birds measure 20 to 24 inches top to bottom and have a wing span of 3 ½ feet. There’s a thick growth of tall dark pines that run around the south edge of our property, and it’s the favorite kind of nesting locale for them to raise their families.

All year long, we’re treated to their calls, and it’s fun to listen to their conversations and know what they’re doing in any season. The barred owl’s call is quite complex and drawn out, a two phrase set of notes, that sound something like, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-alllllllll?”

That long last southern drawl note is pulled out, and varies for different birds. That’s the standard call, and often we’ll hear it right out our door, and answered by another owl a quarter mile away. Sometimes they call back and forth all night long.

In early spring, in the urgency of the mating season, they’ll start with the standard call, and it’ll rise in speed until it degenerates into a rapid confused hoot-hooting. Sounds sort of like teenagers, getting all excited and noisy. Later, we’ll hear the owlets, practicing their calls, clumsily slipping in their syntax and slowly getting it together. We laugh when we hear a baby muffing his lines, and a prissy elder answering back in stern tones. Sounds like, “Get it right, you young punk!”

With all this activity, we seldom see the owls, and if we do, it’s usually just a huge shape as it glides across the open space and disappears into the dense pines. This week, we had a magical thing happen. Our 3 ½ year old granddaughter was with us, and we were sitting outside, close to dusk, just relaxing and talking. The owls were calling around us.

Suddenly one called really loud, and close to the house. It was so loud that it scared Anna and she cowered down with her hands over her ears, very afraid. We always want to teach her about the natural world, so we told her what it was and we decided to call back to it. So we did. All three of us made owl calls into the evening air—and it worked!

We fooled the owl, and it came gliding out of the pines, flew right over us and landed in a tree about 30 feet away, in plain sight! It was cold, so we wrapped a blanket around Anna, and went to sit on the ground a little closer to the owl sitting there to watch it. Soon it called again, and another answered from nearby. It called again, and here came the second owl, landed in a tree about 10 feet away from the first one.

They sat there sort of calling softly to each other and watching each other while we greedily soaked up the sight of these two magnificent birds, so intent on each other that they didn’t even notice us. We were able to talk to our Anna about these birds, and she was so excited about seeing them that she was trembling with excitement. What a night!

Just that quickly, she went from fear of the unknown mysterious spooky creature, to knowing what made it and appreciating how special it was. The next day, while we were outdoors working around the place and walking our path, she insisted we stop frequently to call the owls again. So we did-and I’m sure we’ll do it again!

We enjoy the natural world around us so very much, and it just triples our joy to be able to share it with one who will be responsible to protect these wild parts of tomorrow’s world. I think it’ll be in safe hands.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bloom Time

Each year, when the exuberance of spring happens, I think-"How could I ever leave this place?" It's just so very beautiful, and it gets better each year. I've been on this land now for about 35 years, moving in when I was a young bride, and now retired, Jim joined me, with his hard work in clearing the brush and cleaning up things, and how the place has changed!

When we moved here, the previous owners had used a lawn service who came out regularly to spray poison all over. The grass was green, and weed free, but there wasn't a bird on the place, and the mosquitoes were terrible! I stopped the expensive lawn service, worked in more natural ways, and the lawn is now a combination of amazing variety, from grass, to creeping charlie, violets, and all kinds of wild and growing things. The birds provide a constant joyous dance of color and life, singing us awake in the morning, and the owls wake us in the night with their curious questioning calls. As I write this, I can hear the robin singing his night time call, and see the bright yellow finch at the feeder, along with the brilliant red cardinal and his more sedate colored, but still beautiful mate, the brown toned female cardinal. There are also, hairy and downy woodpeckers, chickadees, and many more, crowding around to share the life at this great place. I can hear the Canada geese now, encouraging each other with their noisy honks as they settle into the wetlands behind us for the night time rest.

The field out back that started as rye grass is now a wonderful woods, working through its transition from sumac and brush, into a tall, quiet maple, poplar and hazelnut woods.
We made a path that we walk frequently, reading the animal tracks in winter, and just enjoying the place, all year long. Oak trees are making a strong inroad and you can see the changes as you wander our path through the quiet growth. It's an amazing place, and the birds keep the mosquitoes in check most of the time. The little magnolia bush outside the front door that used to be shorter than my 5 foot 3 has grown taller than the house, into a magnificent exhuberance of pink glory, and just today it arrived at perfection, driving me outdoors with the camera to capture it yet again.

For Mother's Day last year, my children gave me a weeping cherry tree, something I've wanted for years. I had no idea what a success it would be! The bees are just mobbing it, and so intent on harvesting their pollen that I could get up close and take this picture of one of the little workers burrowing into a blossom.

The forsythia are just glorious, and the daffodils that Mom gave me years ago, have come up everywhere with their star shaped faces shouting Spring is here. Out in the back corner, the old weeping willow tree that I planted over 30 years ago from a pruning left by the roadside stretches its pale green switches 25 feet into the sky.

My heart always just leaps with joy each year when this process happens, and I hope it'll never change. The only thing that's not happened yet to make this a perfect spring is-MORELS! We haven't found any yet. But soon now! Maybe tomorrow.

A Two Fox Day!

Seeing a fox out in the wild is always a thrill. They're just the most wonderfully wild and free animals, and truly beautiful. I've never spotted one on our own property, but have seen the tracks through the winter snow, and see a fox a couple of times a year, in the area as we travel.
We had to make a quick trip to Terre Haute last week, and as Jim drove, I spotted a fox, just strolling along in a field. I saw it clearly, just walking along in no hurry, and could see it for a while as we passed the spot. I was amazed, because you never see a fox just walking, usually it's that rapid, energetic trot.
It made me happy to see that gorgeous wild animal, just at its ease, casually moving through its world, completely ignoring the traffic going by and at home in the woods.
Then to my amazement, as we were traveling back north toward home, I spotted another fox! This one was right at the edge of a field, watching some small mouse and getting ready to pounce. Every part of that fox was on complete alert and rigid and gorgeous.
Seeing one fox always makes my day, but this was a two fox day! What a lucky thing.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Spring's just the best time of year.

This was a long winter. Somehow, it just seemed to drag on and on, and never want to give up and release its hold on us. I think we're finally making it through though. Longer days, and warmer temperatures, force us outdoors to scratch in that ground once again.

Jim got bitten by the gardener bug bad this year, and planted about 30 tomato plants in the living room windows. He carefully carried them outside on warm days, and brought them back inside at night. Planted some out in the garden, only to lose them to frost. Thank goodness he had enough extra plants to start over again, and now they're growing well out there, hopefully giving us an early start on the season.I'm trying something new in my raised bed this year, dividing it off into foot square spaces and planting intensively in those squares. We'll see how it does. Makes sense to concentrate plantings in small spaces and just weed and feed in those areas. Using our good compost sparingly in those small spots should give us some terrific production. I've already planted about 16 of the squares, and can't wait to see how things come up.

We had Anna out and made a small fire to roast some marshmallows. Anna doesn't really want to eat the marshmallows, just set them on fire and blow them out. As long as she enjoys the fun.....

Maple Syrup

This is posted late, but better late than never. This was my year to make maple syrup. Now that I'm retired, I have the time to walk through our little woods, and tap the maple trees for syrup. Since we really only need a little bit, it doesn't have to be such a huge project as some people go through, but it does, as always, take 40 to 50 gallons of sap to cook down to one gallon of syrup. So you have to gather a lot, no matter how much you plan to make.

We keep changing the system each year, to make it easier for us to do the work. Jim carved sumac branches into spiles years ago, and we hung our rinsed out, recycled milk jugs on them to catch the sap as it came dripping out of the trees.

We can tap any maple tree that measures more than 6" in diameter, and there are a lot of those around here. This year, knowing that I didn't need a lot of syrup, and not feeling too ambitious, I just drilled 7 taps, and walked the trail twice a day to collect the yummy drippings. I bought plastic tubing, forced it onto the end of the spiles, tied a light nylon line around the tree, added an s hook to hang the jug from, and put the end of the tube into the jugs. That way, there were far fewer bugs in the sap than in previous years. Of course, we strain it before we put it on to cook, but it's nice to have it clean in the first place.I spent one day working with our outside stove to cook the sap down, and just about froze. It was a really cold day. Then I got smart. I put big shallow roasting pans on the top of the wood stove on the back porch and just kept them filled with sap. As it cooked down, I added more.

It was a lot more comfortable job on the back porch than running all the way outside all the time, and I could get lots more done in the house at the same time too. The house was dry and needed the humidity, and when it got too steamy on the back porch, I just opened the windows and let it vent for a while.

In the end, this year we got 6 cups of delicious, thick syrup, and it'll be delicious on pancakes and waffles when the family comes out for our annual family breakfast soon. Becky will make waffles, and we'll add sausages, and juice, and toppings made from our fresh blueberries and peaches last year, along with our precious maple syrup. It'll be great.
We've already used it to flavor a pot of baked beans and to sweeten a delicious dessert of peaches and crepes. How wonderful to have a place where we can create something so delicious with what we've got going right here in our own back yard.