Posts Tagged Great Blue Heron

While they sleep …

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia 'Elizabeth'

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’

Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.

The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.

The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.

But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.

The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.

The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.

A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.

This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.

Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.

The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.

Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.

Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.

But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.

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Expanding Your Garden

Great Blue Heron about to take flight into the new year.

Great Blue Heron about to take flight into the new year.

The handsome creature above was kind enough to park itself on a large oak in our backyard on a cloudy New Year’s Day. Wonder Spouse grabbed my camera (it was closer) and managed to catch the Great Blue Heron just as it tensed before gliding down to the creek. As we can imagine the bird’s great wings expanding wide for flight, so can we imagine ways to expand our gardens.

Over the decades, I have become a more selective gardener. In early years, I planted any plant offered me, and rarely looked farther than my local stores for transplant possibilities. I am now much more selective, saving the diminishing choice spots in my yard for specimens like the Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) I’ve told you about before here.

In that post, I mentioned that I’d never seen my specimen bloom. Having read that the flowers are inconspicuous, I thought perhaps I’d overlooked them on my tree. But now I’m fairly certain that my tree had simply not bloomed for me — until now. Now all the upper branches are covered in fat flower buds just beginning to show hints of maroon petals within.

Those are all fat flower buds on the high branches.

Those are all fat flower buds on the high branches.

I finally found one bud within reach of my camera that was showing the color of the strappy petals.

Lower branches are still holding on to browned leaves, but the reddish tinge of flower petals is visible here.

Lower branches are still holding on to browned leaves, but the reddish tinge of flower petals is visible here.

The flowers are not showy, unlike the spectacular fall color display of the leaves. But their appearance expands the presence of this specimen tree, making it a magnificent year-round addition.

My garden expands as my transplants mature and prosper, but I have other ways to increase my garden’s presence in the world — by sharing it with others.

Like most gardeners, I’ve been giving away plants for many years. Some special plants just love to multiply, and it gives me great pleasure to share them. My shared wealth expands my garden’s reach to both ends of my home state and many points in between. I hear from the owners of those distant gardens when one of my garden babies blooms. It’s fun, for example, to hear whose daylily bloomed first and for how long.

It delights me to know that sometimes my garden expands itself by transferring the gardening bug to others. A housemate from graduate school — a city girl with no experience with the green world when we first met — told me years later that she plants a vegetable garden every year now. Working the garden with me — and tasting the results — persuaded her of the benefits of this pursuit. I am thrilled every time I manage to bring another soul over to the green side.

In recent years, I’ve expanded my garden in other ways. I grow extra vegetables each year, so that — weather and pests permitting — I can share them with friends and the local food bank. The Garden Writers Association sponsors a formal program to foster this idea. They call it Plant a Row for the Hungry.

You can do likewise in your garden. Or if you don’t have space for a food garden in your yard, consider helping with a community garden. The university in the town adjacent to mine runs a successful community garden program on campus. The bounty is shared with university staff and other community members who want to supplement their diets with fresh-grown produce.

And the land conservancy organization in my region supports what it calls the Local Farms and Food platform of their mission by allowing local food banks to operate community gardens on some of the arable lands being preserved by this organization. Arable land — an increasingly scarce commodity in my rapidly urbanizing area — is not just preserved, but put to its best use.

I’m sure my region isn’t the only place with such garden-expanding opportunities. If you are inclined to try expanding your garden in such ways, check with your local colleges, food banks, and land conservancy groups. If they aren’t already growing food to feed the hungry, maybe you can help get such a program started.

I also expand my garden by sharing it with friends who need a little extra beauty in their lives. Last year, I cleaned up and planted a tiny garden space at the home of a friend battling a major illness. Knowing she would be spending many days recuperating at home, I hoped that this small plot full of color would lift her spirits. Because she likes to cook, I also planted a pot full of culinary herbs that could sit on her patio, a few steps from her kitchen.

This year, another friend recovering from a major health challenge has a lovely empty garden space beside her new house. She is excited about planting this area with native flowers that will bloom enthusiastically and attract pollinators. I’ve begun potting up some of my garden multipliers for later spring transplanting to her new bed. And during yesterday’s absurdly mild weather here, I took cuttings of rosemary and Spanish lavender, placing them in a flat in my greenhouse. By the time spring arrives, they will be well-rooted and ready for new homes.

Rosemary and lavender cuttings will root easily in the greenhouse in a few weeks.

Rosemary and lavender cuttings will root easily in the greenhouse in a few weeks.

In my opinion, every southern Piedmont home should have a few rosemary shrubs growing nearby, for enhancing culinary masterpieces and inhaling their aromatically therapeutic properties.

As the years make my joints creakier, expanding my physical garden at home will likely become impractical. But I will always be able to expand my green world in these other ways.

As you readers of this blog plan your own spring and summer gardens this year, I encourage you to expand your thinking beyond your personal garden space. Whose life can you lighten by sharing your garden this year?

 

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Bird Brains

Great Blue Heron

Over the nearly 22 years that Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres, we’ve added a lot of mostly native shrubs, trees, and wildflowers to the property. In so doing, we created much new habitat for the winged ones. Birds of many species happily find lodgings on or near our property, and they conduct much of their business — food-gathering and courting/territorial displays especially — within ear- and eye-shot.

I confess that it is easy for me to lose an hour just sitting where I can watch and listen to the avian inhabitants who share my space. Of course, sometimes their proximity creates challenges. Take Carolina Wrens, for example.

I love these busy little brown bundles of energy, but they have a habit of seeking nesting sites in impractical places. I routinely chase them out of my greenhouse — it’s just not big enough for me, my plants, and a family of wrens.

Yesterday, I unknowingly closed one into my garage after I completed my chores. When I returned a few hours later to retrieve my car, I first had to persuade a confused Carolina Wren to exit through the door. This is not as easy as it sounds. The wren’s mate was waiting in nearby bushes, greeting its wayward spouse with quite a scolding.

Eastern Bluebirds are my current greatest challenge. I love bluebirds. Who doesn’t? Their cheerful burble — sort of a cross between a babbling brook and a quiet chuckle — signifies spring to my ears. Several pairs of these beauties nest on our property, which is probably why the gorgeous red-breasted males feel obliged to perpetually prove their worthiness to the demure females.

I have read about Cardinals fighting with their reflections in windows. Until last year, I had never seen an Eastern Bluebird obsessively battle his mirrored self. We had hoped it was a one-time fluke — one confused male who thought that throwing himself against the windows of our house and garage was the way to win his true love’s undying admiration. Either the same one has returned, or the obsession has spread.

Yesterday and again this morning, a male bluebird is repeatedly throwing himself at my bedroom windows, where the sun first illuminates the house. If his behavior pattern holds,  he will move to different windows as the day progresses, following the sun. The windows in our garage are still covered in wing prints from last year, the dusty film on the outside creating a perfect medium for his imprints. They are very high windows, which is why they’re still dirty. However, I doubt they are dirty enough to discourage the bird-brained bluebird from his obsession.

He talks the whole time he’s battling himself. The female sits in a nearby tree and burbles back at him. I’ve tried going outside and explaining to them that this behavior is a waste of their resources. But their brains are dominated by reproductive hormones. Like most human teenagers, only one thought rules their minds.

And finally, as I was sitting in my living room yesterday, I noticed a Great Blue Heron standing statue-like on my floodplain. He seemed to be gazing into the water of a small shallow pool, but he was too far from it to catch a fish. When he didn’t move for five minutes, I realized I should try to photograph him. But using the telephoto lens through window glass makes for less than ideal pictures. My apologies. I tried stepping out onto my deck for a cleaner shot, but I only got one before he flew off.

He’ll be back. We see his kind regularly, along with just about every other bird species you would expect for our region. That’s one of the many wonderful things about creating wildlife habitat — you never know who will stop by next.

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