Archive for October 2009

A Little Death

October 29, 2009

The sun was out but still the day felt more like January than March in Seattle. The swollen brown buds on the ceonothus and the red-flowering currant clearly said spring.

Standing on the patio, I did a half circle trying to decide what area needed work the most. A small brown wren tussled the moss beneath the smoke bush. Winning a clump it flew off carrying its size again in stringy green stuff to pad its nest. Definitely spring.

I was just about to attack some weeds when I heard that unmistakable sound. There was something not quite right about it. I turned just in time to  watch the little green creature fly behind me. Pirouetting, I saw it struggle to rise over the cedar fence atop the wall that binds the west side of my yard. Horrified I watched it fail to make the height, smash into the fence and fall down into a tuft of grass between the black railroad tie that tops the wall and the fence beyond.

Tip toeing over so as not to startle it, I leaned over to see behind the grass. It seemed to stand on its tail, wings spread, chin rested against the rough wood with its long narrow beak pointed to the sky.

White downy feathers shook with the force of its breathing. I thought of rescue – sugar water and warmth. Inching forward I saw the the reason for its weakness. In the center of the little forehead was a single red-rimmed puncture. There was nothing on the fence that could have caused such a wound. The creature had been in obvious distress before it connected with the grey cedar.

So I leaned there against the wall. After a number of minutes the rapid breathing slowed and then finally stilled. And I stayed there with the little hummingbird until it died.

Later, discussing the incident with a bird scientist while watching a banding demo, I learned that the wound had probably been incurred during a fight with another hummingbird. Despite reading about how territorial the birds are, I have never actually witnessed a fight, just the aftermath.

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Things That Creep

October 21, 2009

I slid the edge of the box along the rubber mat in the tub and he scuttled towards the drain. There wasn’t room to cut him off so I angled the box closer to the drain. He switched direction and headed for the side. Moving cautiously, freak them out and they damage themselves, I slid the cardboard up and under him and he did what I wanted, jumped to the edge. When I tipped the box upright he slid neatly inside. I released him out back near the border of the driveway hoping he wouldn’t end up back inside the house.

By fall standards he was a little guy, maybe  a centimeter long in body with similar leg extension. Often the quarter size spiders show up inside this time of year. The larger they are the less likely they are to survive a relocation attempt. For something that so many people are terrified of, spiders are remarkably fragile.

I confess, I don’t try to relocate every creepy thing that shows up in the house. But I try to when I have the time. Similarly, when working outside I exercise some caution. When bags of compost leaning against the wall have small snails stuck to the hidden side, I pick them off and set them on the ground at the base of the wall.

Digging up weeds or holes for new plants turns up worms and ground spiders. Knocking the soil surface with the trowel sends the later scurrying away. I pick up the worms and put them in a shady are beneath a plant where I am not working.

Gardening makes you aware of the allies you have in the smaller creatures. Whether its composting, aerating the soil or eating other less welcome bugs, those tiny things do some heavy lifting.

I still get the creeps when one of the those huge spiders goes streaking by. How is it that they are always in your peripheral vision, never right in front of you? But I have learned to check my fear reaction to many things.

After getting stung as a child I had a pretty extreme fear of bees. The fear worsened when I lived in first one place infested with carpenter bees [not actually likely to sting but the things were two inches long and when they thumped on the windows it sounded like a hand] and then in another place with attack wasps.

The native bees in my garden have taught be differently. They fly from bloom to bloom and are more than happy to maneuver around me when I am in the way. One flew over my head and down into its hole in the dirt right next to my trowel. [I left a few weeds there so I wouldn’t disrupt its home.] Even better, as their numbers increased with the number of blooming plants over the years, the number of wasps has diminished. They used to build nests all around my back deck. This year there was only one small nest.

Many creatures who are the protagonists in horror shows are now things of wonder. Last Halloween I spent an hour standing guard over an orb weaver during an event at the zoo. I explained to the visitors that she didn’t need glass around her because she never leaves her web, that the only reason for glass would be to protect her from us.

That’s why last summer when I needed to remove a yellow jacket nest from a deck chair, I waited until the cool of night and then went out with a long pole to knock it off. I still ran for the door as they buzzed angrily on the deck. But as I slammed the door behind me in case I had been followed, I knew I hadn’t taken out any friends with pesticide.

Plant Problems

October 15, 2009

Anyone who has spent any time looking up plants, online or in books, is used to finding information about the problems you might experience with them. Roses, for example,  are notorious for the long list of problems gardeners have to be prepared to manage including black spot and aphids.

Not red-flowering current. Look up Ribes sanguineum. All the native plant sites practically wax poetic about how easy the plant is, how universally lovely it will be, how it loves sun and is drought tolerant. A suggestion to plant them in a sunny location with well-drained soil is the only advise on how to care for them.

Over the years I planted three of them in my yard. The first currant, one of the first native plants I put in the yard,  I planted in full southern sun in the back yard. A few years later a second went into a partially sunny location in my front yard. The final one I planted in the back but shaded for the later part of the day by a large ceanothus. That one receives the least amount of direct sunlight of the three.

All three leaf out and then bloom profusely in spring. The hummingbirds visit morning and evening moving from one to the next. Come summer, it’s a different story. As summer progresses, more and more of their leaves brown along the edges giving the shrubs a worn look. Up until this summer it was limited to the outer edges of the leaves. Then this summer, the oldest one died. When some leaves turned completely brown and fell off, I tried several things to save the shrub. More water, less water, fertilizer. Nothing worked.

The remaining ones are holding their own but I am worried. Ribes is supposed to be a long-lived plant. I would like to know what is causing such stress each summer before I lose another. Searching on Ribes yields nothing but expositions on how care-free these shrubs are. Put the word “problem” in the search query and you will get a page describing how some other plants has problems while currant has none.

I am not the only one experiencing trouble. I power walk the hills in the neighborhood a few times a week and as I do so, I inventory the native plants along the way. Ribes is a popular plant locally because it is one of the native species that is easy to obtain. Every specimen along my route has the same brown-tinged leaves by mid-summer. Not one resembles the verdant images in Pojar or on the King County Native Plant site.

It is interesting that the two survivors are not in the sunny spots the plants are supposed to love. Both get sun but are shaded for the hottest part of the day. However the one that died is probably in the best drained soil of the three. The back yard has a high quantity of sand in the soil whereas the front yard has a lot of clay. Yet the one in clay survives.

Over the winter I will continue my research in the hopes of finding a solution. Meanwhile I am happy that there are two left as those red flowers are the first to lure the hummingbirds into the yard in the spring.

Colorado Habitat

October 10, 2009

I spent a long weekend in Glenwood Springs, Colorado visiting my brother. Happily I got to see some wildlife and habitat from alpine meadows of the Western Rockies to the high mountain desert of National Monument.

Aspens at Maroon Bells

Aspens at Maroon Bells

While the fall color is coming late to Seattle this year, there were entire stands of Aspens  at higher elevations that had already dropped their leaves. I have read about Aspens in their fall color but never about the trees in winter. They are astonishingly beautiful in a way that is very alien to someone who has lived in the Northeast and then the Northwest. Row upon row of perfectly parallel trunks, all the same color like the bristles of a brush. Only at the tops, where there is a real density of branches arching away from the trunks, do they blur into a furry masses like fur brushed off some great sled dog.

On the southern and eastern sides of the hills, mountains and plateaus the aspen form large groves or are mixed with conifers. On the northern sides, where in the winter the sun penetrates for only a few hours at most, there are thicker stands of pines. The ground plants are, in early fall, mostly brown and dry as are the grasses.

Up on the mountains the forests are bisected by flows of rocks and flows of water in about equal proportions. As impressive as the rock falls are, frightening swaths of boulders, you can still find  places where their path is diverted to one side or the other by one unyielding tree. At the higher elevations the rocks echoed the chittering of pikas scurrying about as they prepare their winter dens.

There was a thin blanket of snow beneath the trees on a particularly steep north facing slope and deer tracks crossed from the nearly emptied crater lake into the trees.

The most prevalent bird was the magpie. Almost as ubiquitous as the crows are in Seattle, they were everywhere in town, always in pairs. Though similar in size to crows they are very differently colored and possess a longer and narrower tail. Despite that, when walking on the ground, their movement is similar to that of crows, staulking about purposefully and they have the same tendency to stay on the ground until forced into flight.

When I see hawks in the city they are either perched or soaring high above. All the ones I saw in Colorado were flying down near the ground. They would fly for a distance just ten to twenty feet above the vegetation and then swoop down to hug the top of the tall grass perhaps following some small creature trying to reach the safety of their den.

I finally got to see ravens. We were up on Grand Mesa at a lookout called Lands End [very different from the place with the same name in Cornwall!]. There was a thermal just off the cliff and dozens of ravens were coming in from below and riding to it’s end high over the cliff. A great spiral of black birds rose up to the top where they peeled off, two-by-two, to chase each other out and down to pick up the ride again. They are almost as vocal as crows but the sound they make is throaty and not as harsh.

We didn’t see any elk but we did see a pair of white-tailed deer at the side of the road driving back down from the top of Grand Mesa. Shortly after I spotted a buck on a slope below the side of the road looking over his shoulder at our car as it went by. We also saw a moose at the far side of a road-side field when we stopped to investigate why another driver had stopped.

All of those sightings were in the alpine areas. When we visited the National Monument the wildlife was more limited just as the plants were fewer and further apart. I spotted small lizards twice. Both times I saw them moving fast out of the corner of my eye. Each froze when I turned to look their way and stayed perfectly still while I examined them.

The only other living creature we saw in the desert was a small bird tapping away inside the gnarled remain of juniper trunk. Even the signs of life were few. Down in a slot between the rocks there was a bird’s nest, affixed to a tiny ledge in the wall over our heads. Beneath one pinyon, a cone had  been partially pulled apart, presumably by a jay extracting the seeds.

Dead Juniper at National Monument

Dead Juniper at National Monument

There are several reasons why there is less vegetation and wildlife than here on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. Less water is the big one. Another reason made itself evident on my last day there when it began to snow in Aspen. At the higher elevations, winter comes sooner and lasts longer resulting in a shorter growing season and more difficulty obtaining food in the winter.