Late Summer Sights and Sounds

bird butt

Summer is winding down, but the battles of the animal kingdom on our front porch continue unabated. It was a long time ago now that we beheld the image of the two wrens feeding the baby cowbird that replaced their true children. The cowbird suddenly one day chose to climb up the flowers in the basket that held their nest, but still cried out for more food. Then it was seen for a few days in the rhododendron below the nest, not yet ready to fly away, but still begging for food. Then, all at once, it disappeared. The parents of the cowbird did show up one day for a look-see, but the battle where the original eggs were displaced by the female cowbird went unseen by me.

We put up a mealworm feeder next to the wren’s nest. First we put it up because we thought it would make the life of the wren parents easier, but it took the wrens a long while before they discovered its bounty. No, what came first were the mockingbirds and the tufted titmice. Soon they scolded us whenever the feeder ran dry. We’d replenish the store and were treated to seeing the mother mockingbird (assumption) having to provide to two fledglings who squawked noisily for their share. They were as big as their mother, but still were dependent upon her largesse. Soon, though, we’d notice the feeder was running empty much too fast. Then, one day when I was on the computer in the room adjacent to the porch, I heard a commotion out there.  I looked to see a squirrel hanging on to the swinging feeder for dear life, only to lose his grip and fall noisily to the plants below. We tried to coat the aluminum pillar with vegetable oil, and that worked for a while. The squirrel didn’t try the direct approach for a day or so, but would scale the brick wall and climb up onto the roof. There we were treated to seeing the head of the squirrel peer over the edge, first showing up on the yard lights, next trying one of the hooks for wind chimes, trying to figure out how in the world to reach the succulent treats found in the feeder. He ended up sliding off of the porch roof and landing directly on the walkway. Squirrels, though, are tough and resilient, and he just shook the fall off and scampered away. Now I am attuned to hearing the feeder being attacked, and go and open the door, which is normally enough to cause the critter to jump down onto the porch railing, staring at me for a while until I move in its direction. Then and only then will it jump down and go around the house.

mockingbird

I believe this is the same squirrel that found my hose from my propane tank to the grill to be so tempting. Normally the propane cylinder sits nestled inside of my grill and I’m able to close the door. This time, though, the cylinder would not allow the door to close, allowing the squirrel to find both the wonderful grease pool, and the reinforced nylon hose coming from the cylinder pressure regulator. I can’t imagine the squirrel’s surprise the first time he bit into the hose and it began hissing at him, but after a while the hissing stopped, and my guess is that somewhere up in a squirrel nest I would find the remains of my partially dismembered hose. I hope it keeps the squirrels warm in the upcoming winter.

Since it is nearly the end of the summer, the hummer wars have become even more intense. There are at least three birds engaged in aerial combat now, and the maneuvers go on through the yard and out across the street. It is amazing how you can see these tiny birds from so far away, but once you are used to looking for them, you can see them everywhere. I see them perching in trees even before they have approached the feeder. All because I know what I’m looking for. But someday soon, these birds will just disappear. Our local birds will begin their migration to more southern climes, and we will be left alone with just the flicker and the wasps gorging on the sugar water. We keep the feeders up for a while to tempt any migrants from up north, but we know the time for watching the hummer wars is short, so we enjoy them while we can.

flicker

There is a sound found only in late summer. It is the symphony of the insects as they buzz incessantly in search of a mate. Though we may have fewer insects now, you cannot tell it when you listen to the minimalist music of the crickets, katydids, and cicadas.

The season is inexorably changing. The streetlight now comes on at 8:00, while in the midst of June, it was nearly 9:00 before it turned on. Eventually we will be unable to sit out in the morning without long pants and sweatshirts on, as the temperatures begin their yearly plunge. We’ve taken part in outdoor dining during this time of the pandemic, but realize that we are on borrowed time for that as well. Just hope that the restaurants can survive this coming reduction in their business. While the virus keeps up its relentless pace, it reminds me of a wolf pack stalking humanity, seeking out the weaker and the elderly to attack and kill. Now, though, things become serious. This week we are seeing the first week of high school football being canceled in my county due to local virus conditions. You may infringe upon many things in this society, but if you cancel high school football, you are really in trouble. We will see what comes of this.

Summer Reveries

Summer flowers

It is good to know in the midst of all of the concurrent crises we face, that nature  proceeds at its own pace unconcerned with all of the worries humanity has. Thus we return to summer in West Virginia, where the biggest issue is whether the cowbird will be successful in laying an egg in the wren’s nest up in one of our flower baskets.

We are loving it out in our outdoor living room, where we enjoy our coffee and newspaper in the mornings, and use its space for our afternoon cocktail. In between we can read or just watch  nature as it visits our porch. The finch feeder is in use most of the daylight hours, with the purple finches unafraid to visit while we sit there, though the gold finches are shy and only visit when we are not present. We were treated to seeing a hummingbird chase a finch away one day, though what the finch did to draw this attention is unknown. This year we are not seeing any non-conforming finches, where a brood is raised that includes a foreign egg from a cowbird. Last year we saw a young bird that was unable to use the finch feeder, though it tried valiantly. Instead, it chirped and waited for its father to deliver a seed directly to it, since it could not reach into the feeder with its own beak.

A wren built a nest in one of our hanging flower baskets. You can see it dart in and out, and it often scolds us, especially when we are at the table with our coffee. That puts us directly next to the nest, and that is obviously too close for the bird’s comfort. But it is the cowbird couple that is the most interesting. Last week I saw the couple, with the male perched a few feet away while the female scoped out the nest. At that time there were obviously no eggs there, and they flew away. But just yesterday I saw the female eyeing the nest again, and this time the wren flew directly at the cowbird, chasing it away. It remains to be seen if the battle will have future acts.

The fallout from the finch feeder keeps other birds busy who do not have the physique to feed directly from the feeder. Often we can hear the whooshing of the morning dove wings as they fly away after having poked through the rubble looking for intact seeds. And chipmunks cross our porch regularly, stopping sometime to search for seeds, while other times stopping under the hummingbird feeder and lapping up the spilled sugar water. Then they hustle off to whatever their business is.

This year I’ve seen not only the neon blue skinks skitter across the porch, but another color of skink. They are fast and you have to really be watchful in order to see them. So far they are the only reptiles we’ve shared our space with.

The flicker loves the hummingbird feeder. It will hang off of the feeder, and you can see it drinking as it brings the liquid into its beak and works it down its throat. The hummingbirds know that they cannot force the flicker away (too big), so an uneasy detente exists where the hummer will visit the side of the feeder opposite the flicker. It is amazing how much entertainment you can get out of a half-cup of sugar dissolved in water. We have seen at least one hummer battle, but know that more are to come as the alpha male perches on the wires leading to the house, keeping watch and driving away any other hummers who dare to intrude on its designated home turf.

2018 flicker

Several years ago we had to take down the hemlock tree that graced our front lawn due to storm damage. We replaced it with ornamental trees that won’t grow as tall so as to threaten the wires. The ornamental cherry directly in front of our porch is growing daily, as you can see the new leaves stretching higher each time you look at it. It may never give us shade, but that doesn’t matter to the birds who use any location as a handy perch.

We have apple trees which have very seldom given us apples. Not because the apples weren’t produced, but because the squirrels get to them first. But until this year, they’ve always left the crab apples alone. The tartness of them must be a turn off even to voracious squirrels. This year, though, the squirrels are taking the crab apples right off of the trees and eating them.

Squirrel

It is good to take the time to really see the world around us. If nothing else, this time of physical isolation and separation from the rest of humanity, has intensified the desire for watching the world of nature. It is good to realize that the life outside does not care about human pandemics, or divisive politics, or any of the other matters that occupy the airwaves. Just hearing the sounds of birds, and the chirring of the crickets helps to put things into perspective.

And the Living Is Easy (2018 Version)

2018 fawn

And the living is easy. This is a follow-up to my post a year ago when I evoked the bucolic aspect of my summer environment during the height of the summer season. Well, it is that time of year once again. As you can see, the new generation of hooved rat has been born, and is doing its best to persuade me that all members of the species are cute and adorable. So I find myself conflicted, deciding to not use my slingshot to poke at the mothers of the fawns that I find in my backyard. So far, I’ve seen one doe with a single fawn, and one with two. Since I don’t keep track of each deer around, I have no idea if that is the population growth for the year, but I’m good with that.

A week ago Sunday, we had just returned from a trip to NY late on Saturday. Accordingly, we decided not to make it to church on Sunday morning, and thus I was outside on my front porch, perusing the paper and sipping coffee, when it began to rain. It was not a normal rain, it was pouring down rapidly, so I looked at the drain in our driveway to ensure that we weren’t getting flooded. No problems. But then, the culvert across the street got blocked up and all of a sudden, all of the water from the hillside above us was cascading across the street and towards our driveway and drain.

 2018 flood

The street drains rapidly plugged with the same vegetable matter that had plugged the culvert, and muddy water inundated our driveway and blocked the grate in front of our garage door. It knocked down my simple paving block retaining wall, and ran across the yard, both above and below my car in the driveway. Having lived in the house for over 25 years, we had taken preventive action to keep water from infiltrating our garage and our lower floor. This was the first test of our new earthworks and we were pleased to find that no water made it inside of the garage except for a minor irritating amount that could be washed out with a hose. None of this 6″ of water soaking all of the miscellaneous material found inside of a garage. No mud coming into the lower floor of the house, requiring commercial assistance to prevent mold formation. I was pleased that I only had to move a bit of dirt and replace blocks in the retaining wall to return to pre-flood status. The picture shows the flow overwhelming the culvert across the street.

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The tomatoes and peppers are in their peak pre-BLT days. Lots of foliage, lots of small tomatoes set on the vines, but nothing ready to eat yet. Tomatoes got set out late this year because I had to do the deck cleaning and waterproofing before I wanted to set out the plants. Thus it was late May before I managed to get the plants out on our deck. The deer have still not figured out how to climb up the steps of the deck to get to the plants. Speaking of our deck, we moved into our house in 1992. At that time we had a deck made out of cypress that had clearly not been taken care of. We figured the deck was built sometime in the 1970’s, but it was nearly at the end of its useful life. We replaced the deck in 1996, and now our “new” deck is probably about the same age as the one we replaced. It really shows the advantage of ongoing maintenance – our deck has no wood rot or pitting problems, and the wood looks nearly like new. At this rate, the deck will outlast us.

 

We have our hummingbird feeders out, and they receive a lot of attention. It is too early in the summer for the alpha male hummers to set up ownership of the feeders, as they are still content to take their turns. But what was surprising to me is that another species loves the hummingbird feeders. The flickers are opportunistic feeders, and they will slowly draw nigh to the feeders, assessing the behavior of the humans who are sitting outside where they live. Eventually they start to suck the sugar syrup from the feeders, gaining sustenance from the red and yellow flower imitations. Flickers are omnivores. I have seen them on the ground, stirring up insects to munch upon. They also seek insects like other woodpeckers. Their ladderback feather patters and their clear call remind me that we are but trespassers in their turf. The other species we have a lot of this year are mockingbirds. They perch on the various wires leading to the house, and share their soliloquies of all other bird speech. I’ve often wondered what evolutionary advantage it is for mockingbirds to duplicate the sounds of the birds around them. That wonderful on-line source, Wikipedia, says that the birds sing the songs of others in order to convince rivals that this turf is already overpopulated with birds, and it is not to your advantage to stick around. My thought is that mockingbirds can be seen as lounge singers, doing cover songs of other birds, and it is up to you whether you think their act is good enough to stay for another round of drinks.

2018 flicker.jpg

Speaking of birds, in the summer one of my favorites is the finch family. It’s really family groups, as 5 or 6 finches come to gather around our feeder full of thistle seeds. You can hear them coming from far off as they chatter flying up to the multiple perches available to them on the feeder. Occasionally a chickadee will share a perch, but mostly it is the red and yellow finches who take turns on the feeders. Since they are messy eaters, they spill as much as they eat, which spawns a whole ecosystem of other animals cleaning up the spoils. Mourning doves and sparrows hop around on the ground, and chipmunks scurry about, finding the whole seeds that have fallen from the feeder. It’s a good thing that our two black cats have gotten older and are not much interested in going outside, because chipmunks are definitely one of our cats favorite prey. Right now, the chipmunks are catching a break instead of being caught and eaten.

2018 finch family.jpg

Summer is if nothing else, a state of mind. We have the great fortune to be able to slow down in the summer, and enjoy the late afternoon warmth while enjoying our favorite beverages. It is good to observe the rhythm of life going on around us, knowing that we are doing our small bit to keep things going by providing space free of herbicides and pesticides, allowing nature to coexist with us on our bit of West Virginia.

 All pictures by the author.

 

And the livin’ is easy

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First tomatoes before the end of June. For me, in West Virginia, that sets a record. Salad tonight from the last crops of lettuce and radishes, and the first green beans will be this weekend. Summer time has burst forth in its lazy glory, with cats stretched out in their 90° pose, as elongated as their bodies will permit on the concrete.

Even for those who have retired, summer brings on another level of indolence. Time is not as critical, since lessons aren’t being held, rehearsals have all been put on hold till the fall, and the front porch beckons. Our outdoor living room is our front porch, complete with most of our indoor plants enjoying their exposure to completely natural light. We sit and watch the hummer wars play out in front of us. A hummer will be slaking its thirst when suddenly it is forced to retreat at warp speed due to the return of the alpha male hummer who has claimed our yard to be his territory.

I see our string of apple trees alongside the driveway begin to shake. Looking over, I see that once more, my hope of having a pie or cobbler made of our own apples will likely not happen, since the squirrels are already taking the green apples long before they would be ripe enough for my taste. I watch as a squirrel holds a McIntosh apple in its mouth, the apple just beginning to blush red, and the squirrel runs across the grass to the nearby poplar where it climbs up to enjoy its feast. At least I get entertainment value from watching them. I just wish they’d eat the crab apples. I’ve got tons of them, and they won’t even touch them. The crab apples have weighed down the branches so that they are leaning down, nearly touching the car below.

Nothing is better than sitting out in the morning on the porch, drinking coffee and reading the physical newspaper. Yes, we still receive the paper each morning, and savor it. Especially in the summer when the morning is still cool enough to enjoy sitting out on the porch. Watching the rest of the world go by and feeling so blessed to not have to leave each day to do my bit to move the economy along in my job. My part of the economy now is to consume, and drinking vanilla/coconut flavored coffee is a wonderful way to do that.

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One thing that keeps on growing are the weeds. Since I use herbicides only for poison ivy, removing weeds is a labor-intensive operation. Just about the time that I complete ridding all the flower and vegetable beds of weeds, it’s time to start again. The other day, I was out weeding our brick walkway, being assisted by the cats, when all of a sudden our neighbor’s cat burst out of the Lenten rose in front of our house, swiftly followed by both of our cats. I had no idea that the cat was there, but it certainly caused excitement when it ran off. Fortunately, our cats didn’t follow across the street to the neighbor’s house. Turf wars are tough.

Looks like we have two does that had fawns this year. One has a single fawn, and one has two. Yesterday both of those families came down the hill and through our yard, along with a spike buck who went the opposite way back up the hill. To say that we are polluted with deer would be an understatement. We are now working on upgrading the landscaping of our sunny sloped garden in front by trying to find and grow deer-resistant perennials. Last weekend I put out about 10 new plants, and so far only one has been munched on by the deer. We can be hopeful.

It’ll be another month or so before I’ll start to look for bulbs to thin out. The old foliage has died back and I’ve pulled most of it out with the weeds. Probably the next time I’m out there weeding, I will see clumps of bulbs that have migrated all the way to the surface. Then I will dig out the cluster, taking 30-50 bulbs out and leaving about 10 in the original hole. The extras will go to other folks who want bulbs, and then I’ll plant the rest in some of the remaining places where we don’t have daffodils in the spring. Often that means going further down the hill to keep expanding the spring flower explosion.

This evening we will be enjoying some frozen concoction (that helps us hang on) on the porch while listening to the Pirates game on the radio. May you all have as great of a time enjoying summer as we do.