Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When hurricane winds blow...

Where do wild turkeys go?

I'm happy to report that these wild turkeys came through Hurricane Irene without a scratch, but they sure looked hungry. Interestingly, they disappeared about two days before Irene struck, perhaps sensing the falling barometric pressure. Most likely, they hunkered down away from low lying areas. The Mute Swans and their cygnets are just fine, too (see August 9 and 23 postings).

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cause and Effect

Hurricane Irene may make 2011 a record disaster year (image: NOAA)

According to preliminary estimates, hurricane Irene may make 2011 a record breaking year for billion-dollar natural disasters. It's too early to say what Irene's total impact will be, but it's likely that her effects will be widespread and the damage along the entire eastern seaboard will be considerable.

Whether we're breaking billion-dollar records or experiencing all-time highs in natural disasters, one thing is clear ― climate change is real.

Climate change is here.

What mankind does is the cause and subsequent weather events are the effect. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the connection. I'm just wondering how bad it has to get before we finally stop what we're doing and focus on the undoing. If money is the best incentive, okay. All that matters now is taking swift action to reverse our course ASAP.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sum and Substance

This hosta is known for its stupendous size

Two 'Sum and Substance' hostas are the stars of my front hosta border, which I planted where lawn used to be. It took a few years for them to reach their full size, but it was worth the wait! If you're looking for a magnificent hosta that will light up a shady area in your garden, 'Sum and Substance' will meet ― and exceed ― your expectations. Click on the photo for a close-up view.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

More on downsizing lawns

Remove some lawn and plant a perennial border in its place

Let wild violets spread to form a groundcover

In posts from August 21st and 22nd I wrote about my efforts to reduce the size of my lawn, but I only mentioned my back lawn. There was lawn in the front of the house as well and it curved around and into the back yard, 5,000 square feet in all.

I began the downsizing project in front, where the lawn size was smallest, because starting small is the best way to tackle this project. First, I removed a wide strip of sod and planted a bed of hostas and ferns in its place. I planted mature hostas that grew quickly to create the feeling that the border had always been there.

Wild violets had invaded a good portion of the lawn (and butterflies love wild violets), so I gave them free reign. Still, I kept mowing throughout the growing season and fertilizing in the fall. This year I stopped mowing and let the violets do what they will. Soon enough I had a thick mat of green groundcover, mostly violets but with some weeds growing in between. I've trimmed the mat with sharp hand shears twice this summer and I'm pretty happy with the results. The violets will crowd out any remaining weeds in time.

As you can see in these photos, I have very little lawn left. Moss is growing in some places, and since I love moss, I'm thrilled to see it spreading. The rest of what's left of the lawn will give way to violets, and as I write this post, a few wild asters are coming up in between the violets. The point is, I no longer have a front lawn and I like it. Seems the songbirds and wild turkeys like it as well because I often see them foraging there. Insects and worms seek out this shady patch of green and the soil stays moist longer there.

I only wish I had done this sooner.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Butorides virescens

Green Heron in a swampy section of the Charles RiverImmature Green Heron (Butorides virescens)

I only had seconds to take a photo of this Green Heron; it was very shy and took off as soon as it saw me. Plus, I travel light and don't have the proper camera lenses, though I ought to. The second photo shows the bird's striking plumage and eye. Green Herons breed in swampy thickets and marshes like this one. To learn more click here.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's description of its behavior is exactly what I witnessed: "Forages in swamps, along creeks and streams, in marshes, ponds, lake edges, and pastures. Stands still next to water and grabs small fish with explosive dart of head and neck."

I discovered a very informative video about a baby Green Heron rescued on Cape Cod this summer. You can drag the button forward and skip the intro news, or just listen for a minute until the segment appears. You'll learn that when you choose to have tree work done can literally make a life or death difference for these and other birds. The same applies to the burning of brush. Please take a moment to watch this video.

As always, click on these photos for close up views.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Swans and cygnets feeding

Both parents look after their young
Cygnets stay with their parents for approximately six months

I wrote about this family of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor), on August 9th, but on Sunday morning I saw them again and this time the whole family was together. I had a better view of the cygnets; there are four, not six. Watching the family feed was interesting and the cygnets have become quite skilled. Dad (the cob) keeps to the rear of the group to protect his family. At this stage, the cygnets are safe from predators such as crows, herons, turtles and large perch, but not from foxes and mink, which will also take adult swans. Click on the photos for a better view.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Heck no, I won't mow

This project only took an afternoon (the turkeys helped)

After years of vowing that I would someday reduce the size of my lawn, I finally took the plunge. As I explained in my post on August 21st, starting small was key, but once I got started I couldn't stop. Maybe the espresso coffee I had added to my enthusiasm. In any event, after removing the sod I again added peat and edged the second bed. I'll be planting a sedum cultivar that spreads quickly and forms a very attractive groundcover in part of this bed. More on that and my plans to add clover to the existing lawn in a future post. 

This is a work in progress and I'm planning to refine the border on the left, but overall, I'm pleased. It was easier than I thought and I like the new design. 

For a long time I justified maintaining a large lawn because I leave most of my acre wild. But now, I can still enjoy some lawn and do even more to help wildlife by making room for additional native plants that provide food, cover and nesting materials. I can even imagine putting in a small pond. 

Obviously, I think downsizing your lawn is an all around good thing. But if you still need convincing, note the following benefits: 

●Save time ― less mowing and mowing less often
●Save money ― on water and fertilizer
●Expand your “birdscape” ― birds love worms and worms abound in these garden beds
●Drought proof your garden ― most native plants do well with less watering
●Gain space for more native plants
●Last but by no means least ― reduce your carbon footprint!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Downsize your lawn

Start small by extending a garden bed

For years, I spent too much time and money taking care of approximately 5,000 square feet of lawn: mowing; watering; fertilizing; weeding; raking; and aerating. I stopped using chemicals long before anyone else I know and was quickly labeled as some kind of a nut. I use nothing but organic fertilizer and I let clover run wild, but I'm still enslaved. What about you? 

This month I began “sculpting” the back lawn, cutting an undulating border with a sharp edger, removing strips of sod, and then adding peat to the soil. I set my groundcover plants out just before a soaking rain, which is ideal for helping them get established. Rain is due tonight, so this afternoon I'll finish planting the rest of the Ajuga or Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), and space them closer than recommended to achieve a thick mat of green and bronze growth sooner. 

If getting rid of some or all of your lawn is looming large on your to do list, take heart. Starting small is the key to success. I'll have more to say on the process and other benefits of downsizing your lawn in the next post.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Further, faster, higher

Atlas moths (Attacus atlas)
Photo: woodleywonderworks.com

New research by scientists in the Department of Biology at the University of York in England shows that species have responded to climate change up to three times faster than previously appreciated. These results are published in the latest issue of the leading scientific journal Science.

Project leader Chris Thomas, Professor of Conservation Biology at York, said: "These changes are equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the Equator at around 20 cm per hour, for every hour of the day, for every day of the year. This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of this century."

Birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, spiders, other invertebrates, and plants featured in the evidence. For example, Atlas moths have moved 67 metres uphill on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo.

Read more at Further, Faster, Higher: Wildlife Responds Increasingly Rapidly to Climate Change.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Grow your own birdfood

Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) Birds relish these berries

Behold the lowly pokeweed, one of the best "bird food" plants you can welcome into your garden. I say "welcome" because pokeweed pops up here and there in and around gardens and most people yank it out. As it grows, small pink-white flowers appear in summer on erect racemes, followed by thick spikes of fleshy, purple-black berries. Click on the photos above for a closer view. Once established, I think pokeweed is an attractive shrub.

Please note that the berries are toxic to humans but safe for birds and they do love them. Pokeberries attract many songbirds, including woodpeckers, waxwings, cardinals, bluebirds, and morning doves. They can persist into winter so it's important to leave the plants standing. They're also an important source of nourishment for migrating birds.

Other fascinating facts about pokeweed:

The Declaration of Independence was reportedly written in Pokeberry Ink made from the crushed dark purple berries, hence another name for the plant, Inkberry.

Poke is also known as: American Nightshade; Crowberry; Pigeon Berry; and Pokeroot. Although the leaves are poisonous, some people eat poke salad, which is made from the young poke leaves before the toxins develop. And if you've never heard the song, Poke Salad Annie, by Tony Jo White, click here to listen.

The recipe for Poke Salad calls for the cook to gather tender shoots of poke, considered a delicacy when only 3 or 4 inches tall, They can be cooked like asparagus but heed this warning from The North Carolina Cookbook: When preparing poke weed for consumption the first time, allow an experienced person to teach you what parts are safe to use and how to prepare it. If the wrong parts are eaten and pokeweed is not prepared properly, it can be poisonous to consume! It is important to use only the thick, succulent new growth (3 to 4 inches at the growing tips). The rest of the plant contains so much Vitamin A that it may be poisonous unless it is boiled in water 3 times (the water must be discarded 3 times to leech out the excess Vitamin A.)

I don't know about you, but after reading that, I think I'll leave poke to the birds.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gray Whale laid to rest

Beached female gray whale Swimming with her calf (Photos: Associated Press)

This is such a sad story and what I find most moving is the connection that the Yurok Indians have with whales, their abiding respect for them and for the natural world. Gray whales can live up to 80 years and their long memories are key to their survival. This 45-foot female gray whale took refuge with its calf in Northern California's Klamath River nearly two months ago. The calf swam back out to sea on July 23, but the mother remained. "It's very sad," said Thomas O'Rourke, chairman of the Yurok Tribe, whose reservation lines the banks of the river south of Crescent City, California. The whale died around 4 a.m. as it was observed by a number of scientists.

O'Rourke visited the dead whale and said a prayer for its new journey. He believes it might have been showing its calf a place it had known in its youth."This is the farthest up river I have ever seen a whale," he said. "They come into the mouth regularly, the bottom end of the estuary. I believe there is a message there, and we are still yet to understand." The whale was expected to be buried later on the gravel riverbank during a private ceremony held by the Yurok Tribe among tall willows near the spot where it beached.

Read the story and view photos here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dirty Girl

The Baby loves to get dirty

Who knew that my efforts to reduce the size of our lawn would provide The Baby with the perfect opportunity to do what she loves best, roll in dirt? She also likes to roll around in wild turkey dust "bowls" after they've taken their dust baths.

She seemed particularly pleased with the layer of peat I put down to improve the soil for planting groundcover and native plants.

More on ways to tackle reducing the size of your lawn in a future post.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fox trot

Photo courtesy of www.wild-life-rehab.com

I heard a series of haunting calls as dusk fell tonight. The cats heard them too and leapt to the windows, on full alert. We stood quiet and studied the open garden and woods beyond for several minutes but saw nothing. Then, on my way downstairs, I spied a fox kit trotting past a back window. He seemed joyful and excited, probably because he and his family can finally hunt again after two days and nights of heavy rain. Now, even in mid August, often a dry month, everything is lush and green, and lots of critters on the fox menu are just as eager to be out and about tonight.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Corn is high

A corn field in Dover, Massachusetts

The corn is high now and last night's full moon was called the Green Corn Moon by American Indians. It was also called the Full Sturgeon Moon by fishing tribes, since sturgeon were most readily caught in August.

According to National Geographic, "Once abundant in North America's Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River, lake sturgeon populations have plummeted. These freshwater monsters, the continent's largest fish, are extremely long-lived. Scientists determined that a six-and-a-half-foot (two-meter) specimen caught in Canada in 1953 was 152 years old."

New England has been blessed with wonderful weather this summer; not too many hot days and enough rain in between to keep things lush and green. I am well aware that severe and historic drought has stricken many other areas of the country. Some are comparing it to the Dust Bowl weather event that occurred in the 1930s. Then and now this kind of drought has caused terrible suffering for every living being.

The drastic climate change events we are experiencing in 2011 will only get worse if we don't act now. It seems that mankind is in deep denial. What will it take to spur global action? As we prepare for a Presidential election here in the U.S., I would like to think that candidates will place high importance on our environmental stewardship responsibilities, but I fear that jobs and economic recovery will block any real progress.

Our economic recovery is imperative, but as Al Gore pointed out in "An Inconvenient Truth," deciding between bars of gold and turning around our climate change future is a decision too many people hesitate to make. Yes, gold is very tempting, but if we can't live on our own planet what good is it?

Sadly, at present all eyes are on gold. The great irony is that while gold may provide "shelter from the storm" in uncertain financial times like these, it has no power to protect us from environmental storms.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Swimming in certainty

Crystalline water at Walden Pond

If there's one thing I'm certain of it's this: I love ponds! My favorite summertime ritual is to get out of bed, head straight for a pond and dive right in.

Funny, after I've been pond swimming my hair always feels so soft and smells so fresh. Later in the day I find I don't need the deoderant I forgot to put on or feel the need to shower. Course, you have to pick a clean pond in the first place.

Like most kids, I loved going to bed as dirty as possible. Taking a bath was an option I'd happily skip if I had my way. On the rare occasion that I can begin my day baptized by pond water, I go to bed unwashed, the rapture of nature's elixir still with me.

These are the days.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Walden Morning

Summer morning at Walden Pond

Walden and I go back a long way. There was a time when I used to swim here every day, right into October. Life was much less complicated then.

It felt that way again this morning when I went in for a swim around 8am, then lingered in a quiet little cove for a couple of hours. Young mallards swam by, chipmunks darted along the bank and when a dragonfly fell into the shallows right in front of me, I was glad to rescue it and watch it revive and dart away. It would have been doomed had I not been there. Once in the water it was helpless. Those light, lacy wings were totally immersed and small fish were heading toward it, intent on nibbling at them.

But I was there. It was an amazing morning and I will be posting more photos.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Back where I belong

Bicycling along the Charles River

For the first time in more years than I care to count I went for a long bike ride in the country, covering nearly 30 miles on what turned out to be a perfect high summer day. An old injury had me convinced that my biking days might be over.

Though it was a regular workday (for everyone else) I was lucky to enjoy a quiet ride, with spectacular scenery, a nice breeze and no humidity. There was nothing between me and the scent of Summer Sweet in bloom and the sound of crickets chirping except for a few gear shifts.

I spent most of my childhood on a bicycle! A need for freedom and a deep desire to spend as much time as possible outdoors was as important then as it is now.

The feelings of exhilaration and total happiness are the same. It's good to know that some things don't change.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Summer, Part Two

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

By the time August rolls around, way too many people are saying summer is almost over. They're so wrong. We're just beginning late summer, a glorious time that lasts into most of September. After that, in New England, we look forward to Indian Summer.

American Goldfinches are prime players in what I like to call, "Summer, Part Two." These late breeders often wait until July to build their nests and lay between two to seven eggs. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "American Goldfinches are the only finch that molts its body feathers twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. Frequent molting is both time-consuming and physiologically taxing for the birds. Some scientists suggest this may be the reason goldfinches breed so late in the season — rarely beginning in earnest until mid-July. Another possibility is that the birds wait to nest until thistle, milkweed and other plants have produced fibrous seeds, which goldfinches not only eat but also use to build their nests."

I feed goldfinches year round and I'm vigilant about keeping seed available. Thistle seed is what they love and using a thistle sock seems to work best, even in winter. It’s easy for them to cling to and they love feeding upside down. But, if you really want to attract goldfinches to your yard, be advised that feeding thistle is not enough. You need to provide a reliable source of water, good cover, plants and habitat for nesting.

Cornell says goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, selecting an entirely vegetable diet and only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect. A variety of seeds is best, so plant perennials that provide seed, such as anise hyssop, asters and sunflowers. And when your perennials and annuals go to seed in the fall, resist the urge to cut them down to the ground. Leave the stems and seed heads standing — they provide a good source of nourishment for goldfinches and other birds into winter. Also, birds love to forage in the garden, scratching and looking for seeds, so tidier, in this case, is NOT better.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Swan and cygnets

Mute swan with her cygnets

I came across this Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) and her cygnets today, preening on a raised mound of land in the Charles River near a small heron rookery. It was difficult to make out how many cygnets were in the group, but I'd venture to say there were six. These cygnets are gray or "Royal" and start off with gray down and grow in gray-brown and white feathers, giving them a mottled look.

Male and female Mute Swans choose the nest site together and use any material within about 40 feet to make the nest. The female (or pen) lays between 1 to 12 eggs, the average being 6. The eggs are laid every other day and only when the last egg has been laid does incubation start. The incubation period lasts about 35 days and the pen only comes off the nest for very short periods to drink and stretch her legs. The male (or cob) takes over after a recognition head lifting ceremony. The cob will defend the nest against foxes, dogs and other predators.

Cygnets normally take to the water 24 hours after the last cygnet has hatched, usually in May. The parents do not feed them, but the pen will 'foot paddle' to bring food to the surface for cygnets to eat and pull out reeds which the young would otherwise be unable to reach. One parent will always be on guard and they often travel in line with one parent at the back, the other in front. The pen will carry the young on her back. The swan family is very close and if a cygnet is lost, the parents will often look for it up to a week. Natural predators are pike, foxes, mink and cold, wet weather. Unfortunately man poses further hazards.

Nature has been clever with the swan's moulting period when they cannot fly. The moult takes about 6 weeks and for non-breeding birds takes place about July time. A pair with cygnets moult at different times, first the pen and then the cob in August to September so that one of them can always defend the young.
Source: Fairford Swan Aid

Swan lovers everywhere will be interested in The Swan Sanctuary and Simply Superb Swans.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Set them free

Buddhists liberate lobsters off the coast of Massachusetts.

Read the story here.
Photos by Brian Snyder/Reuters

When you love animals but live in a world where the majority are objectified and treated with cruelty, you have a distinctly different point of view. For example, I do my best to avoid lobster tanks in supermarkets because seeing the creatures bound and imprisoned, languishing until they are butchered or boiled alive really upsets me ― unless I can do something about it. On several occasions, I have purchased crabs and lobsters and driven up to coastal Maine with friends to set them free. Knowing they could be trapped and shipped back again, we always chose the most remote areas to help increase the odds in their favor. But, like these Buddhist monks and the animal lovers that accompanied them, the exhilaration of setting them free (even if only for a few weeks or months), and the desire to spare their suffering always made the effort worthwhile.

Thanks to these folks, 534 lobsters were liberated (on a whale watching boat at dusk). Were they astonished and grateful to find themselves unfettered and back in their natural element again? You bet. Lobsters are sentient creatures that can live 100 years and, like us, carry their young for nine months. To learn more about lobsters, click here.

One of the participants involved in this event said it all when she said, "Their happiness is as important as your happiness, their suffering is as important as your suffering."

Three cheers for everyone who helped carry out this compassionate mission. You don't have to be Buddhist or vegetarian to save animals from unnecessary suffering; you only have to care.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Time going by

”I've been aware of the time going by.
They say in the end, it's the wink of an eye."

~Jackson Browne
from The Pretender

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Elderberries for Birds

Elderberries ripening (Sambucus canadensis)

and ripe ― this variety is 'Adams'

For years I was obsessed with elderberries and I can't say why. I'm fond of all berries and brambles as well as birch trees, geese, mosses and ferns; the list goes on and on. They hold a magnetic attraction for me. Then again, flora and fauna are the inspiration for Nature Is My Elixir.

Anyway, back to elderberries. Seeing them growing wild, heavy with purple berries glistening in the late summer sun, was always exciting and watching the birds descend on the bushes even more so. Cedar Waxwings are one of my favorite birds and they absolutely love elderberries.

Two years ago I finally ordered three elderberry plants from a nursery that specializes in plants for birds. One variety bears red fruit in June and the other two produce the purple fruits you see in the photo above (click on both photos for a better view). The thing is, the birds eat most of the berries while they're still green! This is the first summer I've had a chance to see so many purple berries still on the plants. The nurseryman said it would take two years for the plants to bear a good crop.

There was a time when I had visions of making elderberry wine, inspired in part by the song Elton John sings. But growing bird food has become much more compelling and over the years, I have steadily been replacing non-native, purely ornamental plants with natives that provide food and cover for birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, wild turkeys and all kinds of wildlife.

As a gardener with an artistic sensibility and many years of experience I am surprised at the significant shift in my approach ― and very pleased. Fragrance matters and always will but what means the most to me now is restoring ecological balance. In "going native" I'm doing just that and creating a haven for the wildlife I love.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Blue Whales of August

The Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

A pod of 15 Blue Whales, a mother and her calf among them, gathered to feed off the coast of California on August 1st. Sightings of blue whales are very rare. Click here to see video from ABC News. Blue whales are the largest animals ever known to have lived on Earth. These magnificent marine mammals rule the oceans at up to 100 feet (30 meters) long and upwards of 200 tons (181 metric tons). Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant.

Their hearts, as much as an automobile. They are among Earth's longest-lived animals. Scientists have discovered that by counting the layers of a deceased whale's waxlike earplugs, they can get a close estimate of the animal's age. The oldest blue whale found using this method was determined to be around 110 years old. Average lifespan is estimated at around 80 to 90 years.

As pollution degrades our world oceans and destroys more and more marine habitat, try and imagine what these leviathans face as they journey around the globe. Just imagine what they have seen across the years! In 1931, only 80 years ago, their habitat was pristine compared with what it is today. We can do better and we must. Get involved with Oceana, an organization dedicated to protecting the world's oceans.

DID YOU KNOW? Many of our daily decisions — some we might not even think about — impact the health of oceans. Everyday products with petroleum (e.g., chewing gum and aspirin) can be a source of ocean pollution. The seafood we choose to eat also has a big impact on oceans. For every pound of shrimp caught ten pounds of other marine life are killed and thrown away! There are many ways to help the ocean. You CAN become a conscious consumer. For example, buy only fish-free pet food and only seafood that is harvested sustainably. It's easier than you think and you will make a difference.