Friday, February 24, 2012

Counting birds for fun

Greater Roadrunner. We see these daily on the hill, pretty much year-round.

We participated in the Big Backyard Bird Count this past weekend, for the first time. As I’ve stated before, I’m not the birder here on the hill; my husband is. But I got us into this adventure, and he jumped right in with me (thanks, honey!).

I had so much fun counting birds. It appealed to three parts of my basic character:  The Accountant, The Competitor and The Nature Girl.

In the bird count, the observer tallies the most birds of a species that she sees at one time. The Accountant really likes tallying things. She is ever motivated to see more things to tally. At the end of the observation period (at least 15 minutes), The Accountant got to enter her tallies into a database. Then she could look at the tallies of all observers in her zip code, state and nation. Fun times!

The Competitor liked finding more and more species to add to the tally list. On Monday (the count ran from Friday through Monday) when the weather was lovely, she spent a lot of time outdoors gardening and watching – for more bird species to report. One other birdwatcher was submitting reports for this zip, so the race was on to find a species that the other counter had not seen.

The Competitor's and Accountant's activities dovetail nicely.

No telephoto lens here, but I made an attempt to show
some of what we saw. In the back, peeking around
the feeder:  house finch. The black and yellow fellow
is a lesser goldfinch. The photo is of unsufficient quality
to identify the bottom bird, but look, you can see
birds flying (bottom and top right).
The Nature Girl loved having an excuse to stare out the window or around the yard or up in the sky for a good cause. I mean, really, who wouldn’t love sitting in a big recliner, cup of coffee nearby, binoculars and bird book in lap, IN PAJAMAS.

She also enjoyed learning new nature stuff. 

Now, I shall reunite those three parts for the rest of the post.

What did I learn? I identified a new bird at our feeder:  a pine siskin. We’ve not seen one before. Pine siskins like to hang out with goldfinches, of which we have had a surfeit this year.

I also learned how to tell the difference between a turkey vulture and a black vulture (the black has white wingtips; turkey has white wingtips and lower fringe of wings). I also heard a black vulture bark. Who knew? Well, birders knew, obviously.

Here is my checklist from Monday:

            Black Vulture - 9
            Red-shouldered Hawk - 2
            White-winged Dove - 8
            Mourning Dove - 1
            Greater Roadrunner - 2
            American Crow - 1
            Carolina Chickadee - 1
            Tufted/Black-crested Titmouse - 3
            Chipping Sparrow - 2
            Dark-eyed Junco - 5
            Northern Cardinal - 2
            House Finch - 2
            Pine Siskin - 2
            Lesser Goldfinch - 3
            American Goldfinch - 3

The only visitors not seen were the robins (we’ve seen lots this year), and the scrub jay (which turned up today, of course).

If you are interested in learning more about this fun nature activity, visit Big Backyard Bird Count. To see what species were seen in what numbers where, follow the link to "explore the results."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

February blooms

Today is Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, hosted on the 15th of each month by May Dreams Gardens. I have not participated in several months, because - well, I've had nothing blooming. I'm so proud to report that there are blooms on the hill today!

For the most part, the blooms are rather isolated. The exception: the violets. They are blooming prolifically right now. I don't know where these violets came from. They are not growing anywhere else but in my flowerbeds, and I did not bring them here myself. No matter. They are welcome. What sweet plants they are!

The next biggest bloomer is one you've seen here recently:  the trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) in a pot on my porch. We have had only two light freezes, and this jewel has not been damaged. Hurrah!

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) is really hitting its stride right now. Of course, it is a pesky weed if found in the wrong place. But when growing out on my land, I think it's a beautiful and interesting wildflower!
Other stray and lovely blooms: on left, wind-flower (Anemone heterophylla); on right, a lone bloom where I sowed wildflower seeds last year - coreopsis?

Four- nerve daisies (Hymenoxis scaposa) started out in a bed, but are naturalizing. They are native to our area. Go, daisy, go!

This purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) has been blooming for the past several months. We've had no freezes hard enough to take it out.

The pink oxalis (Oxalis articulata f. crassipes) has popped out just a few blooms so far (left), while the purple oxalis has been blooming for the past several weeks. The foliage was nipped in a freeze a few nights ago.

The berries of silver-leaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) are eye-catching, if deadly;
they are supposedly poisonous. After reading about this plant on the Wildflower Research Center site ("aggressive, poisonous weed"), I should eradicate these ASAP.

That's all for me! Visit May Dreams Gardens to see what's blooming in other gardens this month, and thanks for stopping by!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Farmer Dan's garden

The weather was lovely on Saturday – or at least it looked lovely through the window. My husband, desperate to avoid cleaning out our shack, proclaimed, “We shall clean up the garden!”

Mixed lettuce - hurrah!
So out we trooped: my husband, daughter, father and I. My father, who was only an observer, scurried back to the house quickly. It was not quite as lovely as it appeared; a cold wind cut through our blue jeans.

Nonetheless, the rest of us persevered.

You may recall that I planted seeds in early December when I was playing Pioneer Woman. It was a leap of faith, as weathermen had prognosticated that the drought would continue and I had resolved not to water AT ALL.

The seeds germinated, thanks to continuing showers, then languished as young plants for a month or so. A freeze approached, so I covered that bed with row cover and left it in place.

Voila! The row cover’s heat- and moisture-retaining ability did the trick. Our garden contains flourishing lettuce, healthy but small spinach, turnips and Swiss chard (the last two are not quite so far along). I have not grown veggies in a long while, so this success is gratifying.

(My husband is the usual vegetable gardener. It says so on the garden gate.)

Interlopers overran the rest of the garden: thistles, hairy vetch, henbit, etc. We rousted them. Every one. We rousted them in such a vigorous fashion that we had to doff our coats. We rousted them so vigorously that I’ve been sore for the last two days. Then my daughter tossed the interlopers into the compost bin (they had not gone to seed yet, never fear!) and tromped on them quite thoroughly and disdainfully. “Take that!” I heard her shout. Or not.

Ready to plant. Yes, that is an eight-foot fence - deer proof!

In between disdainful tromps, she discovered egg cases of unidentified insects and adopted a millipede (“I shall call her Millie,” she said. Or was that I?)

My father reappeared to make sure we were following proper garden protocols.

Now are ready to plant. We are still in the same boat: we cannot, shall not water from the well. But rain continues, so we will plant the most drought tolerant vegetables we can find as early as possible and wish them good luck. Your good wishes are welcome, also.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Squeamish? Read no further . . .

Living in the country is not for the squeamish.

Here on the hill, our water comes from a hole in the ground, a.k.a. a well. Rainfall – or lack thereof – is a constant concern. Our well held out over the summer, but we know the supply is limited.

We try to conserve water in a variety of ways. Have you heard the expression, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down”?  Those on wells in drought-prone areas have.

Not for the squeamish.

Occasionally, we outpace the well’s ability to refill, despite our best conservation efforts. Several years ago our local well guru installed a mechanism to shut off the pump when no water is available, and turn it on again 30 minutes later. Occasionally we trip that shut-off.

About midway through December, I got careless and cleaned two bathrooms consecutively. The pump shut off. No problem, right? Just wait 30 minutes.

But this time, the refill took a few days, with the pump shutting off repeatedly. Even when the  pump was on, the water pressure was low in certain faucets. Husband Dan was puzzled; when you’re on a well you either have pressure or you don’t (unless you are running water somewhere else, which we weren’t). The well was refilling at a much slower pace, but why the low pressure?

I called the well guru (“Oh wise well guru, come to our aid in this time of duress”). He determined that we had, indeed, run the well dry. He suggested that we walk three times around the well head, pausing each time to sprinkle herb de Provence and sea salt over the top. Then the entire family should join hands in a circle around the wellhead and pray to Poseidon for life-giving liquid.

Alternately, he recommended installing a 2,500-gallon holding tank, so the well could pump at a more leisurely pace. Also, the tank could hold trucked-in water, should the well go dry. Many of our neighbors have these.

As it was two weeks before Christmas, I voted for the first option; my family refused to cooperate. We are still considering the second proposal.

A week later, my husband stood fuming in the shower under a teeny trickle of water, trying to understand this situation. Why was the water pressure so low? He got out, dried off, and unscrewed the shower head . . . and found a clump of dead ants.

Ants, full of ANTagonism toward humans. They are not thirsty now
with all the recent rain. In fact, their mounds have flooded down below
so they have pushed them above ground.

He roamed the house, unscrewing other slow faucets. They were likewise clogged with ant carcasses. This included the kitchen faucet.

Are you feeling squeamish now?

My theory: In the drought, the ants were desperately thirsty. They crawled down into the well seeking water. Some fell in and drowned – over time, lots of them. When I ran the well dry, the water level dropped to the pump, and the dead ant bodies floating on the surface of the water were sucked into our system.

We consoled ourselves with the fact that these ANTibodies might protect us from the fire ant ANTigens we encounter. Maybe we have received ANTivenin for ant bites, or perhaps it will just serve as an ANTidote to their stings. Either way, this incident did reinforce the ANTipathy we already felt for fire ants.

Was this disgusting? Oh, yes. But we survived. I guess we're not too squeamish for the country.

Favorite spot in the garden:

Actually, this spot is on my kitchen windowsill. My mother-in-law brought some sprigs of flowering quince from her garden. When I stand at the sink and try to look out the window, my eyes are drawn instead to these lovely blooms. They seem somehow Asian – simple, lovely. In her garden, this looks much redder. On my mustard windowsill in fluorescent light, it became salmon-hued. It's lovely no matter the setting!