Archive for the ‘birding’ Category

Magic happens

June 9, 2007

My blogging friend Ombusben posted a wonderful entry about “Mocking the Mockingbirds.” I took me back in space and time to at least two different occasions.

If there is something I really miss in western Oregon, it’s mockingbirds. I guess we just don’t have quite enough heat for them to enjoy living here. Or maybe they’re just too lazy to commute for such a short warm time.

Several decades ago, I lived in northern Marin County in California. I loved the house, including the 40′ swimming pool in the back yard. The story I want to tell you began there.

At the time, I was 8+ months pregnant (a situation that continued for about 6 weeks–my daughter is still chronically late) and very uncomfortable most of the time. I awoke very early in the morning unable to sleep, and I would slip outside and lie in a deck chair by the pool.

In a corner of the yard was a huge Monterey pine, the tallest tree in the neighborhood. Those of you who know mockingbirds will understand that this characteristic makes it a mockingbird magnet.

Each morning a mockingbird (the same one, I’m sure) would come and sit on the very tallest branch and sing to me for hours. He had a huge repertory of bird calls. It’s hard to remember being happier, even as uncomfortable as I was.

When my daughter was 13, I had been living in Oregon for nearly a decade (again–I was born and grew up here). We bought a wonderful old house that had  been horribly abused. But it was a terrific house on a huge lot about 5 minutes from downtown, and we loved it.

I was out slogging in one of the flower beds one morning not too long after we moved in. The yard, if possible, had been even more abused than the house, but we were determined to get it back.

My back and shoulders and knees were all hurting from crawling around weeding. I looked up at a huge spruce tree in the back yard (the tallest in the neighborhood) and thought, “If I just had a mockingbird, I would be totally happy right now.”

Three days later, I was still weeding in the same area. I began to hear beautiful bird song, at least a half dozen different species. I started looking for the birds, and here’s what I found: In the top of the spruce tree was a mockingbird.

He sang for me as I worked for several days. Then he was gone. He never came back.

I’ve often wondered how far he had to come that it took three days to get there. I also wondered how he could have heard my call/wish from wherever he was.

But I will never forget him.

Some pictures for Jenny of spring in the Pacific NW part of the U.S.

May 28, 2007

But the rest of you might enjoy them, too.

Between the garden, houseguests, and trying to get my manuscript together, I’m in overload and don’t have the concentration to write something creative here. So here are a few pictures instead.

Here are a couple of my friends the hummingbirds. Ralph and I went to town very early this morning for the Sunday papers and I forgot to check their food before I left. Ben went out to have a cigarette (I am now more than three days without one) and said they were dive bombing him, shaking their wings (he couldn’t tell if the middle feather was extended or not), and cursing in hummer talk. They are calmer here, they’ve been fed:


Today I counted 12 at one time, but it’s rather difficult to get a reasonably focused picture when they’re all buzzing around. And the feeder is in the shade most of the time, so you can’t see the irridescence of their feathers.

Here is what spring looks like down by the river:


The bright blue flowers are larkspur, on stems about 3 feet (1 meter) tall. The white flowers that look a little like Queen Anne’s Lace are really something called cow parsnip. The foliage is very different from QAL, as you can see. This combination stretches for about 1/4 mile along the river near us.

The building in this picture is Ben’s workshop. The orange/light yellow flowers are “red hot poker.” The orioles love this plant, which is why I was hoping the strange bird I saw the other day was an oriole. The tall spindly stuff next to the pokers is horseradish. The branch you can see just above the rain gauge (I’m glad I took this picture, I didn’t realize the tree is growing over the rain gauge) is a sumac, just unfolding now, that turns neon orange in the fall.


That’s it for tonight. . .

The new welfare class

May 23, 2007

That’s what my husband Ben calls the hummingbirds. We have a yard and garden full of blooming things, but I have a dozen or so birds (apparently the contingent that wintered in Mexico has finally worked their way this far north) who squabble consistently over my little 6-flower hummingbird feeder.

It’s far better than the soaps on TV. They each have a personality, and although some of them keep a fairly low profile, others would rather fight than eat. There is one that I call The Guardian (Ben calls her The Bitch) who likes to sit on a nearby branch and monitor the feeding. When she thinks it’s time to do so, she descends like a Valkyrie and wipes the feeder clean with her beak and wings. It stays empty, on the average, for about 10 seconds.

There is another bird who is very nervous. She is a problem, because she hovers and buzzes the entire time she’s eating. Ben says she probably never saw a flower with a footrest before. But her buzzing makes the other birds think The Guardian is about to descend, and they all start flying around and beaking each other and generally behaving like unruly toddlers.

When I said that it was like having a dozen preschool kids, Ben said, “Well, look at the bright side. You don’t have to give them baths, wipe their bottoms, or pick up their toys.” Point taken.

This morning I got up at 6 a.m. because I knew the feeder was low on food. I made some the night before but hadn’t refilled it. My feeder holds about a quart of syrup. I filled it at 6 a.m. By 6 p.m. it was bone dry. I made some more food, but since it takes awhile to cool, I took the feeder down so the birds wouldn’t find it empty and abandon it. Besides, it needed cleaning. For the next half hour three of the rufous birds fought fiercely over who owned the airspace where the feeder used to be, all the while surrounded by colorful flowers.

But a quart in 12 hours–I think I’ve created a monster. Today at any given time (at least while I was home–it’s my writing day in town), there were from 4 to 7 birds on the feeder. Yes, 7–there are times when they share not just the perch but the feeding hole. The little green Calliopes are better at this than the Ruby-throats.

So there’s new food cooling downstairs, the feeder is clean, and I’ll probably be up by 6 tomorrow again.

They are so beautiful.

Sunday morning, and it’s raining

May 20, 2007

I attribute this mainly to two purchases. Yesterday I bought a) more bedding plants that love hot weather, and b) some supplemental garden watering equipment. I may be days before I get to test any of them.

The hummingbird wars are in full swing this morning. We’ve generally had 3 or 4 of them flitting around the feeder, but as if cued this morning, 7 showed up all at once and engaged in about 20 minutes of aerial maneuvers and combat. They made me laugh out loud at times.

Yesterday I went into Newport. I’ve taken on the job of emcee at the Nye Beach Writers’ Series, a once a month series of readings and performances. This is the best job I’ve ever had, no pay, but about once a month I get a new book free.

Last evening I had the pleasure of introducing one of Oregon’s truly fine poets, Vern Rutsala. Vern was one of my workshop leaders at an MFA residency, and I admire him as poet, teacher, and person. So afterward I joined him and his wife Joan at the Shiloh Inn lounge for what was to be a glass of wine and a few minutes of catchup conversation. We ended up spending about two and half hours of gabbing, story telling, and literary critique and made plans for a more extended session here at the farm in the near future.

The turnout at the reading was fabulous, lending weight to my request that we include more poets in our featured readers.

But I didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m. I’m too old for those sorts of hours any more, and I’m dragging around a bit today.

So this will be a short post. I’ve some friends coming down for a late lunch, and I’m hoping the rain will let up a bit because I plan to barbecue. If it doesn’t, I’ll just move my truck and barbecue in the carport. But I need to do some tidying, prep, and stuff.

Happy Sunday, all.

Begonias, birds, extreme prejudice and ahi tuna

May 14, 2007

OK, this morning the sun was shining a bit and I found an angle to take shots of my begonia baskets that doesn’t show my Ma Kettle mess.

 Here is the red one:


Here is the pink one (although “pink” doesn’t really do it justice and neither does my camera):


These are a great solace to someone who gets tired of green, green, green. . .

My friend Ellin came to dinner last night for barbecued ribs and assorted other stuff. Being Ellin, a nurserywoman, she brought me a bunch of annuals and a loaf of fabulous homemade bread as her contribution. So once again, I’ve been planting today, and surprise, I’m still not done. But I have to go take out some more blackberries and nettles from my recovering flower bed before I can plant the marguerites, African daisies, and assorted creeping, flowering groundcovers that she brought me.

I saw a bird yesterday that I’ve never seen here before. I just got a fairly quick look at it, but I’m 99% convinced it was one of the orioles. I used to see them occasionally in town. My friend who knew all of these things (now dead) told me that if I planted red hot pokers and there was an oriole within two miles, it would find them. My red hot pokers are just blossoming out. I hope it was an oriole. They are very lovely.

The Western tanagers have been hanging out much closer to the house than usual, actually acting very friendly. This is fine with me, as I think them one of the most beautiful birds to ever have inhabited the earth. They seem to have no fear, which is smart. I would never harm a tanager.

I just heard the blast of the shotgun, which says there were pigeons in the orchard again. When Ben left to go down and scare them off, I said, “Give the pigeons my regards.” He answered, “I will, with extreme prejudice.”

After he was gone, I thought about how weird it was that I actually understood this. I think I’ve been hanging out with special forces guys for too much of my life. ;^}

Now I’m going to go shut things down for awhile. It’s Mother’s Day, so I get to pick the menu. I found some lovely ahi tuna steaks that are going on the barbecue and will be served with a salad blessed with local fresh bay shrimp and avocado.

Ben will probably grouse–there will be no meat or potatoes. I don’t care. This meal is better for him, and it’s spring, and everything is growing. There is so much to be happy about.

Birding update

May 12, 2007

I see I forgot a couple of things in my last post.

Also ubiquitous are the Stellar’s jays. As I think I’ve noted before, they are particularly bright and beautiful this year. They are also particularly friendly, and they hang out around the house in ways they have not done in the past.

I’m not a great fan of jays. They raid other birds’ nests, make a lot of noise, and are generally obnoxious. But for some reason, I’m enjoying ours this year.

But more than that, in my last post I dealt entirely with the visual.

I forgot to mention the pileated woodpecker that is driving us all nuts. He seems to stay across the river. But he’s been laughing at some particularly raucous joke almost non-stop for two days. He moves up and down the terrain, but he keeps laughing.  Remember Woody Woodpecker? He sounds just like that. It’s amusing at 3 p.m., not so great at 6 a.m.

While I’m talking about sound, I forgot to mention the baby red-tailed hawks. They’re flying, and you can’t help but notice. They fly along with this sound that is either “help me, help me” or “look at me, see what I’ve learned to do.” Either way, it’s interesting.

Birds of the Big Elk; DIY adventures

May 11, 2007

I am taking an enforced break from my assorted projects today because all of the batteries I need at the moment are dead. So I’ve started the generator and will give them at least a partial charge. I’ll tell you about the project, then about some rather amazing birds from the last few days.

I’m trying to hang some closet-pole-type hangers from the back porch supports for my hanging baskets. I’ve got the holes drilled, but the only suitable screws I could find are square drive. I have a square driver, even one of the right size, but it has to go into a screwdriver body. I don’t have a square driver that has its own handle.

I have a very good Ryobi drill/driver and I stole a battery from one of the Ryobi flashlights. But the body is too fat to fit in where it needs to go. So I got out my little Makita with the tilt head. It fits just fine, but I haven’t used it in over a year, so of course the battery is deader than a doornail (what does that mean, anyhow?). So, when the Makita battery is ready, I’ll go finish the job that’s 80% complete. Technology has stopped me once again.

We’ve got a ton of birds this year, and I’m really enjoying most of them, the exception being the wild pigeons that are trying to steal our small cherries and plums. We’ve discovered that pigeons apparently have an attention span of 28 minutes. That’s how long after you scare them away that it takes them to return. And they are very smart, but that’s really long story I’ll have to save for another time.

Yesterday in the garden I saw a young bald eagle. He was so new his feathers hadn’t changed color yet. He was trying to fly with the turkey vultures, but they flew so much more gracefully and effortlessly than he did that I think he became embarassed. At any rate, he soon flew away.

Ben and I saw a pair of golden eagles up above the ridge. I think they were getting ready to mate, but they flew off up the valley so we didn’t get to watch. I’m not a voyeur, but I’ve wanted to see that ever since discovering Walt Whitman’s fabulous poem “The Dalliance of Eagles.”

The hummers are at war around the feeder. There are two ruby-throated females. They are the most territorial and aggressive of the lot, and I think they spend more energy duking it out than they get from the feeder. They’ve been beak to beak several times just today.

There are also two of the little green ones. They are much smarter. They fly into the nearby trees and just wait quietly until the two red ones get so mad at each other they fly away with one chasing the other. Then the little green one hops on the feeder and eats her fill.

Today Ben and I were sitting on the deck watching the hummer wars when a male Western tanager flew up and lit on a branch about 6 feet from our heads. He just sat and watched us for awhile. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, but they have bright yellow bellies and neon red heads. They are very lovely. He also did us the favor of calling, so now we know for sure what at least one of their calls is like. Finally he ambled off.

Of course there are also robins and juncos everywhere. There’s also a bird that I haven’t identified yet, but I will. I need a better bird book. The Audobon guide has too many with too little detail and variation in the pictures, and my Pacific NW Audobon field guide doesn’t have enough.

I’ll bet you’re tired of my complaining, so I’m going to go check the barbeque. The bird stuff got interrupted by Ben, who came up to the house to see why I was running the generator during the day. When I gave him my long song and dance story, he said, “Oh for Pete’s sake! Where do you want them?” “Where the holes are drilled, I’ll show you.” In five minutes he had them both up and I had my baskets hung. I was actually sort of hoping for that. He’s a foot taller than I am and had a much easier time of it.

I’ll take a picture in the next couple of days, but right now I’ve got so many half-finished projects going on in the back that it looks like Ma Kettle lived here, and I’d be embarassed to show you that.

A quiet day in the country

March 23, 2007

My whole body hurts tonight. It’s really all Ralph’s fault. He came down this morning and said, “I’m going to go clean out the leftover stakes and stuff in the garden so if it ever actually dries out, we can till.”

Now, it wasn’t intended that way, I know, but for me this was a guilt-inducing comment.

So I made some sandwiches for Ben and I (one for Ralph, too), tidied up a couple of things, put on my mud shoes, and went down to the garden. Ralph had finished his stuff there. So I pruned four rose bushes and moved three of them, dug out the raspberry starts that were doing their best to double the size of my little patch, dug up a mountain of groundberry roots, and collapsed.

Ben came down, and we went off in the RTV to mark the places where I wanted my trees. Then we picked up the mail, in the process running into Ralph who was weed-eating like crazy on the steepest hill. Ben told him what we’d been doing and he said, “I’ll be right down to help plant and fence.”

So this after noon we planted the spruce (and this is embarassing–I have to learn to do a better job of fact-checking. It’s a Sekkan Sugi, not a Siddon Sugi), the “Blue Ice” (another embarassment–it’s a cypress, not a cedar), the two maples Tom and Lisa brought me, and transplanted 7 noble firs. The first four were all fenced to deter the beaver. The others may get fenced later, or they may have to take their chances.

So now the only thing left to be put in the ground is the “heatherbun,” and it’s a good thing, too. Ralph and I are off to town to see the tax man tomorrow, and on our way home we’ll be stopping to see Merle Dean. So I’m sure there will be more trees.

My arms hurt, my legs hurt, my head even hurts a bit. But after we were finished planting today, I looked up and saw two swallows, the first I’ve seen this season. I was kind of flying right along with them.

We had a spring dinner tonight, baked chicken from a recipe on the Best Foods bottle that incorporated a lot of mayonnaise (surprise!) and Parmesan cheese, steamed rice, and fresh asparagus. It was yummy.

Now I’m on about my third glass of a good Shiraz, and I made the mistake of saying I wanted to leave at 6:30 if I could drag myself out of bed. I think my flashlight battery is charged, so I’ll take my weary flesh and blood and head of to king-size nirvana for the rest of the night.

It’s the first day of spring, and the sun came to the party

March 21, 2007

Today is the first REAL full day of spring (the equinox was at 5:07 p.m. local time yesterday), and I woke about 7 a.m. to find the sun shining. But it was colder than the dickens (that’s normal here: clear=cold, overcast=warmer; the clouds hold the warmth down closer to the ground), so I slept another hour. I am really missing alarm clocks–NOT.

When I got up, it was 34 degrees (F), so I lit the kitchen stove, Ben got up a short time later and lit the living room stove, and good thing, too. By noon it was just barely 40 degrees outside. Eventually it got up to 51 or 52, but that was midafternoon.

This is still a winter sun. It’s all glitter and brightness but has very little warmth. And it doesn’t really help that our house sits at the bottom of the north slope of a ridge. The trees have grown so tall that we get early morning sun and then nothing much for several hours (at least this time of year).

But it was still a pretty day. The Stellar’s jays are very beautiful this year. They seem much brighter blue than usual, and their little black heads much darker. They are real pests, but they’re so pretty in the sunlight that I forgive them.

I got some of the gardening done–the irises moved, potted, or planted, some pansies and violas that I totally forgot about in the ground. I discovered my Stargazer lilies are all up, and I think I’ve even got wild irises coming back (I was afraid I lost them all last year). But then I found the 16 strawberry plants that still need to go in the ground (they weren’t lost, I just forgot about them in my previous inventory), and that means digging up the groundberry roots where I want to plant them so I don’t have another total mess in a few months. And it’s just too muddy for that, even in my LL Bean mud shoes. I’d just turn the ground into concrete.

The trees didn’t get planted because the guys have been up running chainsaws all day in an area they’re turning from jungle into meadow/field. But I’m not too worried about the trees because we’ve agreed on where they’ll go and I know Ben and Ralph will plant those even when I’m gone if I lean on them. They also need to be fenced to keep our eager beaver from getting a taste for exotics.

There was a great article in the paper today about cooking fiddleheads (young fern fronds). But it referred to “ostrich” ferns, which I can’t find in any of the books I have. We have sword fern and deer fern and lady fern and maidenhair and licorice and of course the real pest, bracken fern. I have acres of sword ferns, and if the fiddle heads really taste like asparagus, I’d give them a try. This writer seemed to think you should just go buy some at the market, but that seems like cheating when I have all these ferns around here.

And there was also a wonderful piece on spring wines. I love Beaujolais, both the “nouveau” and the somewhat more civilized “villages.” And there were a couple of tips on good merlot and barberas, two other favorites.

Still no word on Tom’s treatment, but he mailed me a bunch of pictures he and Lisa took out here this weekend. They’re clogging up my mailbox, so I’d better get them downloaded and deleted while I’ve got the generator running. Somehow I suspect it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun at 42 Kbps. . .

Two deaths, and other observations

March 17, 2007

Today was about as perfect a spring day as you might imagine–blue skies, sun, 67 degrees. I had all the plants I bought a couple of days ago to deal with, so I had a perfect excuse to go grub in the dirt.

But the day was marred by the death of the little falcon who moved in a few days ago. The songbirds knew it before we did. They suddenly reappeared, the juncos, the kinglets, the robins, they were all back in place. Ben said, “The merlin must have moved on.” Then he found her body.

She was lying unmarked near our garden. She obviously had a broken neck, but there was no indication of how it might have happened. I had seen her earlier in the day swooping and diving on the hill across the river. The body was fresh, no bugs, even.

She was very lovely. I kept a few of her feathers to make some powerful dreamcatchers, and Ralph gave her a decent burial down by the river so Coyote wouldn’t carry her off. We all felt sad.

I found a white violet blooming about halfway down the hill below the house. I thought I had lost all of my white violets. This one must have seeded from another plant. Two of my old-fashioned violets were blooming, and of course I had the two new ones. So in the warm afternoon, I spaded up an area, created a violet bed under the trees off the back deck, and planted them. I found a baby trillium in the mess (first year) and moved it into the violet garden and staked it so no one would step on it.

The violets hadn’t been in the ground two hours when I looked out to see a huge banana slug, antennae waving, headed right for my favorite. Now, I hate slugs. But I generally let them alone as long as they stay up in the forest degrading the duff. This one had been floating in and out of the yard for days. I did my best to ignore it, but when it threatened my new violet, I’m afraid I lost my tolerance. I didn’t torture it with salt. I just quickly decapitated it and disposed of the body. My karma is probably ruined for some time, but my violet is still beautiful.

Ralph cooked corned beef and cabbage (a day early, admittedly, but I have to be gone tomorrow evening). It was superb. All in all, a most satisfactory day.