Friday, May 16, 2008

Nature Running Amok!

What a Spring we’re having! We’ve been so busy enjoying all the spectacular things we’ve seen this year that I’m way behind on posting to the blog. We’re on the road today, on the way south to attend a family wedding in South Carolina. Jim’s driving, it’s a rainy, misty day, and I’m in the back tapping away on the laptop. If I can get this all written out, I’ll just be able to post it later, when we find internet access tonight.

The last I wrote was about seeing the two owls in a tree near our house, and Anna being so thrilled to see them. Well, it didn’t stop there at all. Seems like our little place has become a stopover for lots of unusual animals, and they’re showing themselves with regularity.

The night after we saw the two owls, we were eating dinner on the back porch with the good view of the backyard, and Jim suddenly stiffened, and said, “What the heck was that?” He’d seen a larger bird than usual, landing clumsily in the yard and got up to investigate. What we had was an American Woodcock, strolling slowly around near the garden. Jim was able to get this good picture of this strange looking bird, as it stood surveying the yard before taking off on its hunting exposition.

It’s been described as the bird with no neck and a carpenter’s pencil in its mouth, and that’s just what it looks like. It’s a plump little bird, weighing about 8 ounces, very short legs, and the head sits right on the body. Big brown eyes watch the world around it attentively. The bill looks long and flat, and is flexible at the tip. This bird loves swampy or wet ground, and slowly walks around, stomping heavily with one foot, then swaying its body forward to stomp again. It’s feeling for earthworms in the ground, and the rhythmic stomping drives them near the surface, where the bird plunges his beak into the sod, the flexible tip opening to grab the worm and he jerks it out and gobbles it down.

So for about an hour and a half, this strange bird slowly stomped around the garden fence, feeling for worms. We never saw it find one, but watching his slow dance was almost hypnotic, and we were compelled to watch for as long as we could see it. Apparently this bird is quite common in our part of the country, but almost never seen, because it’s so shy and blends in with the natural colors so well.

Last year, we attended a naturalist presentation to see the mating flight of the Woodcock, and it’s like no other. The male finds a flat open space, and uses his feet to rake away grasses and weeds to make his arena. He parades around this open space, making small soft calls, until he hears a female respond to him. Giving a discordant Preeeeet sound, he takes off in flight, spiraling up and up over 200 feet, then wafting down in a seesaw motion, he lands right next to the female and parades for her. It’s amazing, the specialized physical characteristics they’ve developed, and how they find each other. How wonderful to be able to share our world with something so unique.

More Owl Sightings
The night after the Woodcock, Anna’s parents came by to drop her off, and she had told them about seeing the owls. Standing out on the patio, they asked us if we had seen the owls again, and we had to say no, we’d just heard them call. Just then we heard a very loud owl call, very close by. We all stopped to look for the owl, and my son spotted the two lovebirds, together in a tree about 20 feet away, in plain sight! Wow! We tried to get a picture, but just couldn’t make it work, but we stood in open mouthed awe at the two beautiful birds, obviously together and ready to start this year’s family. They’re usually so elusive that we’ll see them fly toward the pines, then just disappear as they slip into the dense foliage. How amazing to be able to get this kind of good look at them.

From being afraid of the sound of the owls, Anna now calls to them regularly as she plays around the yard, seeming to think, in her 3 year old mind, that they’re just part of the farm, like the new kittens, and the earthworms we dig up regularly. Really neat, but just ordinary miracles. Not a bad way to see the world, I guess. She's entranced by our latest batch of kittens, only four this time, and that 's plenty but they sure are special to a kid.

Square Foot Gardening.
We’re trying something new this year in the garden. Our soil is so very poor, that every vegetable scrap we get goes into the compost pile, each year to carefully use in select spots for planting a new crop. Last year, Jim built me a raised bed, so we could more easily work with a more limited space to plant things, and concentrate the nutrients from the compost in just the planting area. This year, we took it a step farther, and divided that bed into square foot spaces, using slats from an old Venetian blind. The theory is that you make a smaller, more intensive place to plant, and have to feed and weed, only the part that matters. Since you never step into the bed, there’s no packed down dirt to have to loosen each year. By dividint it all into one square foot spaces, you can put something different into each tiny plot, and confuse the bugs and critters who search by scent for their favorite snacks. We’ll see how it works.

I’ve got flowers, herbs, onions and garlic planted in separate little plots, next to and among potatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, okra, lettuces, cabbages, squash and tomatoes. It should be an interesting year in the garden, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all works. We’ll still have later plantings of things in rows, but this should give us some early small amounts of veggies until those larger amounts come along. Things look good so far, and when we get back, I’m going to have to get busy on trellises and props for things to go vertically, since they’ll have to go up, because they can’t go sideways.

The Hummers Are Back!

Oh, hooray! Our tiny magical hummingbirds are back. We just love watching these ferocious little dynamos, and look forward to their return each year. This year we put up three feeders, right next to the glass of the windows on the back porch and kitchen windows, so we could get a good look at them when they come in to feed. Once they get used to us each year, they don’t seem to be bothered at all by us living our lives right next to them. In fact they come and hover right outside the windows sometimes, and you can almost see them wondering what we’re up to, watching to catch a glimpse of us, just like we are looking for them. They're not used to us enough to get a good picture of them yet this year, so I found this picture elsewhere to post with this story.

We’ve learned more about these tiny birds this year, and it’s neat stuff to know. They actually eat bugs! That’s amazing and a good thing to know, since we have a lot of them around. The hummingbird egg is about a half inch long and a little over a quarter inch across, about the size of a jellybean. The mother usually lays two eggs, and the babies hatch out within a day of each other. The nest is a little cup, sitting upright on a horizontal branch, about an inch and a half in diameter, and woven of magical stuff, like spider webs, lichen, and fairy dust, I think. The mother and father bird both feed the babies a slurry of nectar and partly digested bugs. They migrate south for the winter, going all the way to South America and some fly across the Gulf of Mexico to return to us in the spring, sometimes resting on the tall rigging of ships on their way north.

Of the one in three who make it past their first year, all will return to their place of birth, often setting up household in the same tree they hatched out in. So as we feed these birds, we should have a slowly increasing flock each year to return to us. They don’t flock but stay in singles and twos, choose a feeding place and fiercely guard it from others. We try to set up several feeders, so they can spread out. We’ve seen the male in past years, perched near a feeder and chasing off all other hummers who come by to feed, even bigger birds who just fly near to investigate. The bees will sometimes rest on the bottom of the feeder scaring off a hummer when its feeding so it can harvest the drop or two of nectar the hummer will scatter when it flies off so quickly. Pretty fierce competition for a little bit of sugar water. We’re so lucky to be able to watch all this drama going on in our own back yard.