A Gardener

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To take up arms against voracious slugs, seed-slinging weeds, and countless other gardening perils, a person needs to be keen. To do so for 30 years, a person must be crazy. OK, call me crazy, but I love the payoff when everything botanical on my dinner plate came from my own garden – vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts – all home-grown. True, I have other interests, such as teaching youngsters their letters at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLf2VpiICMMb1gWs1Q-S8crTKn2d-ZDxV9 but my calling is my garden. Actually, I mean to say my garden calls to me. Constantly.

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Beat the Odds

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Sing, twitch, flutter, repeat. Such is the routine of a Bewick’s wren in nesting season, the wren I wrote about in Size Always Matters. https://gardenjoysandwoes.wordpress.com/2019/05/02/size-always-matters/

Two weeks ago, I noticed a few strands of dry grass protruding from the bow deck plate of my canoe. The canoe sits inverted, three metres off the floor, on a rack on the carport wall. The opening to the deck plate is big enough to slide a flat hand into, but too small for a clenched fist. That makes it a good, protective place for a pair of tiny wrens to build a nest.

And they did.

Flash forward a week, and the young hatched. I realized this when was working on my shed, which sits at the back of the carport. Movement caught my eye, and I stopped and held still. I watched.

An adult Bewick’s wren, tail cocked high as is typical, stood on a beam of the carport. In its beak, it held a fat, beige grub. The wren hopped and twitched and turned, looking in all directions. Me, it ignored.

Next, it flew to one of the struts of the canoe rack. Again, it twitched and looked. Still wary, it flew to the yoke of the canoe, and checked one more time. Clearly, you can’t be too careful where youngsters are concerned.

Satisfied that no nest robbers lurked in the area, the wren darted into the opening of the deck plate. A riot of cheeping erupted from the nest.

“Feed me!”

“No, feed me!”

“Me first!”

“Me, ME!”

“I’m staaaarving!”

In less than two seconds, the adult stuffed the grub into a gaping maw, snatched up a sac of nestling poop, and zoomed away.

With a hammer in one hand and three nails in the other hand, I was ill-equipped to immortalize the scene in pixels. Instead, I revelled in this opportunity to bear witness and imprint a memory. Here were fragile, tiny creatures being wary and fruitful. The wonder of it!

Two weeks later, I was brushing my teeth after breakfast and heard an unholy fuss of scolding outside the open bathroom window. Ever curious, I climbed onto the rim of the bathtub and peered over the edge of the high window.

Clinging to the lower rim of the window frame was a newly fledged wren with tufts of down among its new feathers. It acted like, having tried that crazy flying thing, it now deeply regretted leaving the nest. Below, the parents fussed and scolded. They flew up to flutter near the youngster, badgering it to further efforts. It grumpily ignored them.

Naturally, I scurried off to get my camera. By the time I emerged from the house, the fledgling had moved back into the carport to sit on a high ledge. Nearby, a nest-mate perched on a metal pole propped against the wall. They both looked entirely dissatisfied with life outside the nest.

The fledgling pictured above is recognizable as a youngster by its stubby tail and the yellow edges on its beak. It already shows the pale eyebrow characteristic of a Bewick’s wren, but the long, expressive tail of the adult lies yet in its future.

I took a few photos, but didn’t linger. Best to leave them undisturbed. Later, I checked the carport again, but saw no birds. Now is the time for them to move out into the world and learn foraging skills from their parents. I know the odds of survival for fledglings are low, but I plan to ignore those numbers. I choose to believe these particular youngsters will thrive.

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Try out my video about owls. Good for kids learning to read.

So Far, So Good

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Chickadee Central is bustling again. In April, it bustled with activity when a pair of chickadees hollowed out a nest hole in the small, half-dead hazelnut tree in my backyard. In early May, all was silent while the female incubated her precious eggs.

Now, the eggs have hatched. I haven’t seen the eggs or the hatchlings, but I know there are youngsters in the nest because of the frantic feeding activity. What kind of activity? A chickadee, beak filled with a caterpillar and a spider, zips onto a branch in the nearby large hazelnut tree. It sits and looks left, looks right, looks up, looks down, and looks all around again. Then it flies to a perch in the small hazelnut tree and repeats the process of searching for threats.

But that’s not all. In the small hazelnut, it flies to a second perch, closer to the nest hole, and looks right, left, up, down, and around again. Satisfied that the coast is clear, it darts for the hole in the tree and vanishes…for a scant few seconds. Then it erupts from the hole, beak empty, and speeds away.

Moments later, a second chickadee appears and follows the same procedure. The parents always seems to have at least one pale green caterpillar in their beaks. I suppose even baby birds need their “greens.”

The male chickadee has double duty. He feeds youngsters and defends the territory from threats and usurpers. Today, I watched this little warrior rout a starling that had dared perch in the nesting tree. No matter that a starling is at least five times the size of a chickadee, its presence was unacceptable. Begone!

Pumped up with righteous indignation due to the starling, the male then flew to my neighbour’s window. There it threatened and attacked that wretched mirror chickadee that never gets the message. Begone!

Occasionally, the male takes a break from feeding the youngsters and comes after the mirror chickadee in my kitchen window. He perches on a chain hanging from the eaves and glares at the intruder. Then he flies in to hover by the glass and deliver a sharp double kick to the mirror chickadee. Sometimes he gives the unwelcome fellow a righteous peck of his beak, too. Then he flutters back to light sideways on the hanging chain and glare anew. Eventually, he decides the mirror chickadee is thoroughly chastised and won’t go any closer to the nest. That leaves him free to continue with the feedings.

These chickadees are city birds, tolerant of humans and their strange ways. It doesn’t matter that I regularly mow the lawn, roaring back and forth near the tree. As soon as I’ve departed for more removed areas of the yard, they are back to business. Given that their business involves the rigorous removal of green caterpillars, I anticipate a healthy year for my apple tree.

The apple tree and I both give the chickadees a big Thumbs Up! We wish them a healthy brood, and may they and their offspring all return next year to nest, produce yet another generation, and pluck pesky caterpillars from our neighbourhood trees.

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Meet another city bird in my video about the house sparrow. Good for kids learning to read.

Size Always Matters

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My garden is a war zone. This is a startling revelation to me because I’ve grown up in the gentle arms of myth, the myth that gardens are healing oases of sweetness and light. Observation has eroded that myth over the years, but I’ve clung to its core despite mounting evidence.

Two days ago, I was in my garden and in my bliss as I tilled the ground with my Italian hoe. As I worked, I dreamed of the pumpkin seedlings I would plant once the soil warmed up. Ever patient, one of my resident crows perched in the hazelnut tree at the far end of the garden and waited for me to finish. It wanted to inspect the freshly turned ground for insects and worms. Our times together are a dance we both enjoy.

Sometimes I will walk away from my work to fetch another tool or my weeding bucket. The crow will swoop in to strut across the soil and grab a goody here and there, all the while with one eye cocked in my direction. It knows I’m still active in the area, but as long as I don’t intrude on its comfort zone, it’s prepared to stay. That comfort zone is three to four meters, if I’m facing the crow, and closer to two meters if my back is turned.

So, I tilled the ground, and the crow sat in the hazelnut tree. But a little brown bird that I suspect is nesting under a pile of branches near my shed was not happy about the crow in the tree.

“Scold! Scold! Scold. That’s too close,” it seemed to say.

I paused to listen, trying to identify the bird. It was a small brown dot, too far away from me to see detail. After a time, it stopped scolding, and I forgot about it…until…

Yesterday evening, I was again tilling in the garden, this time musing about the scarlet runner beans I will plant when the risk of frost has passed. A breeze sighed, a starling sang, but otherwise, all was quiet. Then I remembered the scolding bird and how I’d planned to listen to some bird calls to see if I could identify it.

“Do it now,” I counselled myself. “If you don’t, you’ll just forget it again.”

Pulling off one of my work gloves, I dug out my phone and opened a birding app. The two top contenders for little brown birds that might nest in a pile of branches were song sparrow or Bewick’s wren. I started with the wren and played one second of song #1. Nope. A second of song #2. Nope. But a brief spurt of song #3 was spot on. I shut down my phone and slipped it back into my pocket.

“Push OFF!” scolded the little brown wren, which had appeared out of nowhere and was now bouncing angrily on the ground just off my right boot heel.

I jumped and mentally cursed myself for playing the songs in the yard, not in the house. If I’d thought it through, I knew better.

An eye blink later, the wren was on the compost box where it sang a full phrase of war song. Then it flew into the plum tree above the compost and sang a medley of threats and statements of ownership.

“Sorry. You win,” I muttered. “The usurping wren has fled.”

Once the wren decided the threat had been thoroughly routed from my area, it moved back to the vicinity of the crow and gave it a fresh round of verbal abuse. Eventually, it claimed victory over all and fell silent again.

It reminded me of the proverb, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” A Bewick’s wren weighs about 10 grams. A crow weighs about 500 grams – that’s fifty times bigger. An average adult human weighs about 60,000 grams – that’s six thousand times bigger than the wren.

The wren did not physically attack either of us, but verbally? “Oh yeah! And don’t you forget it!”

The size of the fight in that wren is epic.

 

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Wrens and crows are welcome in my garden, but rabbits are not. So far, they haven’t intruded on my neighbourhood. That means I can have nothing but good thoughts about them. Here’s my video story about rabbits.

New Life from Death

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All atwitter. That describes my small hazelnut tree these days. It is a surprise and a delight.

Last week, I looked out my kitchen window and I noticed heightened activity around the tree. It’s not unusual for a tight-knit flock of chickadees to visit my backyard. They flit among the branches of the two hazelnut trees near my porch and forage for insects and spiders. Much activity and much chirping occur for a minute or two. Then I blink and they are gone.

But the activity I saw was different. I paused and observed. Then I gasped and reached for my binoculars to bring the details even closer.

A pair of chickadees is excavating a nest hole in a rising arm of the hazelnut tree. For days now, they have been working on it. One of the birds flies over, enters the hole, works for a few moments, then flies out with a beakful of sawdust. It zips to a branch in the larger hazelnut tree, and “ptui!” spits and shakes the sawdust out of its bill.

Like a tag team, the pair works the hole. No sooner does one chickadee fly out of the excavation than the other zips in. They give each other an occasional chirp of encouragement, and they work feverishly for upwards of ten minutes at a time.

You’re right, a chickadee ain’t no woodpecker that can chisel its way into solid wood. This pair has noticed that one rising branch of my hazelnut tree has died and is being slowly softened by wood-rotting fungus. The gradual rot has made the wood just the right consistency for a tiny chickadee beak to dig into.

How clever they are! Not only have they been alert during foraging and noticed the state of the tree, but they have selected just the right spot on the branch. It slants slightly off vertical and the chickadees have located the opening of the nest hole on the underside of the slant. That will give the nest a measure of protection from falling rain. Oh yes, there will be plenty of spring rain in this climate.

When I first noticed the pair making their nest hole, I could watch the tail of the active worker waving about near the opening as it dug deeper. Now, the tail disappears into the hole. Just how deep will they go, I wonder.

It’s impossible not to be charmed by these two wee birds. Their energy and enthusiasm make me laugh. When I see one spitting out an amount of sawdust so tiny you could count the flakes of it on the fingers of one hand, I marvel at their optimism.

The potential for eggs, hatchlings, and new members of the flock gives me joy. No longer do I mourn the gradual death of the tree. Without that death and decay, there could be no chickadee nest hole and no chance to bear witness to the promise of spring realized.

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If you think what a chickadee can do with its beak is amazing, try my Easy Read video about bird bills.

 

Pure Silver

 

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Great news for my vegetable garden!

Last month was the coldest February since humans started keeping exact records in my little corner of the world. It was a shock to all of us who are used to a generally mild, west coast marine climate. The excessively frigid weather forced us to excavate more layers of clothing from the backs of closets and the depths of trunks. And we were still cold.

My garden was shocked, too. Before the cold weather hit, we were having a rainy, temperate winter, milder than usual. The rhubarb had started to send up its first shoots, and some late-seeded chard was looking nice and green and ready for a quick start when temperatures warmed up. Then…

Wham! The cold weather hit. Heavy frosts crippled and killed the overwintering broccoli plants, the ground froze and, shocking for our area, stayed frozen for weeks. By the time the sky decided to lay down a modest blanket of snow, it was too late to insulate anything. The deep freeze had laid waste or set back all but the hardiest weeds.

In the parks, ponds froze and the ducks stood morosely on the ice or crowded into the tiny patches of open water that were few and far between. Hummingbirds sat hunched on their nectar feeders. The dominant hummingbird in my neighbourhood sat on the feeder under the protection of the eaves and glared out at the falling snow. He looked grumpy and acted grumpy, too. He chased off any other hummingbird that approached the feeder. Never mind that there was more sugar water in it than he could eat in a month. Never mind that I wash the feeder and refill it every week during the cold season. No, it was not for sharing.

Finally, after the February from Hell (if Hell had frozen over) the temperatures are creeping up bit by bit. Once again, the rhubarb is trying to grow. Stalwart pussywillows have put out their fuzzy, white toes. I am sharpening the secateurs and planning what needs to be pruned next.

Should I bemoan the killing cold of February? Some might curse the freeze, thinking of the delayed rhubarb, the dead broccoli, and the devastated chard. Me? No. I actually bless and thank it.

Freezing winter weather is the most natural of pesticides. In my garden, it will have killed countless (but not all, sigh) overwintering slug eggs. A typical mild winter would leave my early seedlings at the mercy of ravaging hordes of tiny slug juveniles with typical growing-youngster appetites. In years of horde attack, I struggle to protect my tender, baby chardlings. Organic gardening restricts my options of defense, none of which are as effective as alternatives from back in the bad old days of Anything Goes. Happily, this year will not see a plague of slugs.

Even beyond my own garden, we will see benefits of prolonged and much colder weather in forests to the east and north of me. In recent years, those trees have suffered from ever-growing numbers of invading, tree-killing beetles. Weather that is cold enough for long enough will kill these beetles. Great news for the forests!

Yes, it’s good news all around. You’ve heard people talk about a cloud having a silver lining. That’s not what’s happened here – the entire cloud is silver, a fitting colour paid tribute by the sun when it glints off the ice.

 

Do you have a reason to rejoice in cold weather? Share it in the comments.

 

Here’s a riddle to solve. The answer is a five letter word. Can you get it right without peeking at the video? It’s a trumpet, it’s a straw, it’s an arm, it’s a hand, and it sniffs out landmines better than a bloodhound – what is it?

Quack, Quack!

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In winter, it rains and rains in my little corner of the world. We console ourselves by saying, “It’s great weather for ducks!” Yes, it’s nice to think there are some creatures in the world that enjoy grey, wet days that go on and on. This time of year, the wet days seem to go on forever.

Do you remember learning the childhood song, “Old MacDonald?” It taught us that cows say moo and ducks say quack. It turns out that farm ducks are derived from mallard ducks, and they do say quack. Yes, indeed. But mallard ducks are only one of more than a hundred different species of duck in the world, and a whole lot of them do not say quack.

Different creatures have different voices. Go figure!

The American wigeon, for example, is a duck that makes a sound like a wheezy whistle. That handsome devil, the wood duck, will peep and trill and make noises that have nothing in common with a mallard’s quack. The bufflehead sounds more like a crow, and the common eider occasionally hoots like an owl. Old MacDonald’s head would spin at all this variety.

Ducks are not alone in having different voices and different ways to express themselves. Consider the human writer. One of the fun things about winter is it inspires us to huddle indoors and read more of other people’s blogs. Maybe even try some new ones.

To get you started, here are a few short ones that might make you laugh, or shake your head, or nod sagely.

Flash fiction with Little Fears: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/58570484/posts/2169867303
Finding the lighter side of darkness: http://damselinadress.ca/?p=4200
Short autobiography in pictures: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/89677433/posts/2157291808
Thoughts on the games we play: https://onceuponyourprime.com/2014/11/18/is-profanity-legal-in-scrabble/

Every writer has his or her or zir own style of expression. Collectively, they make the blogverse explode with the music of a million unique voices. Such a symphony of words at our fingertips!

Do you have a favourite voice in the blogverse? Share it in the comments.

 

Take a look at some of the variety of ducks in the world in my Easy Read Nature Story:

Octopus’s Garden

rainleavesIt’s winter and it’s the season to prune (when the weather permits, which it rarely does). My rain gauge has been working hard. Just last week, we had 72 mm (almost 3 inches) of rain in two days. The street drains, many clogged with dead leaves, had a hard time draining the water away. As a result, lakes formed – extreme hazards to determined (yes, my friends use a different adjective) cyclists like myself.

Strange notions flow through my mind when I’m pedaling along through sheets of rain. Songs like “Under the Sea” and “Octopus’s Garden” form persistent earworms that clog up rational thought. When you think about it, both songs have weird lyrics, the second song is especially strange. Being pummeled by rain from above and splashed by accumulated water from below on a wet day does not leave me wishing to be “under the sea in an octopus’s garden.” That sounds altogether too watery.

Apparently, someone told Ringo Starr that octopus gather shiny stones and tin cans to put in front of their dens like a garden. He was charmed by the idea, and was inspired to write his song. I’ve never come across such a fancy “garden” while SCUBA diving, even though I’ve seen my share of octopuses in dens around the world. Our local octopus is more likely to have a trash heap of crab shells near its den – the leavings of its favourite meal.

Still, the fantasy aspect of “Octopus’s Garden” is lighthearted and fun. That’s something to give a person a reason to smile this time of year. I’m grateful for that.  I am also grateful that we get lots of rain here instead of lots of snow and ice. Treacherous, ice-slicked streets are the hazard that will stop me riding my bike in the winter. I may be crazy, but I’m not suicidal.

There are cyclists who will ride in ice and snow. When I see them, I find myself wavering between horror and awe at their audacity. They don’t inspire me to join them, though. Nope. No thanks. I’ll stick to wet days and nonsensical songs, thanks just the same.

What’s happening in my garden right now? On the grim side, the winter rains are compacting the soil and solidifying the clay in it. On the bright side, my rhubarb is showing a couple of pink shoots. It’s as eager for spring as I am. Come onnnnn, Spring!

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Did you know an octopus has three hearts? Try out my easy read nature story for kids here: