Mo Bloggin'

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Archive for the tag “songbirds”

A good grass year

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Everything is still green and juicy.  Can you see the bird dog on point?

It rained again last night.  We’ve been having an unusually wet July so far, and though I’d normally be complaining, I’m totally good with it this year.  After last year’s drought, and the year before not much wetter, not to mention our freaky, end-of-times heat wave this past April, it feels good, even soothing, to have what is essentially a normal weather year. And yes, it’s great for grass growing on my shade-challenged little hillside. Last year the grass was done by the end of June. Once solstice passes, the whole growth thing shifts. Everything seeds out and if there’s no water the grasses just go dormant. I don’t have the well capacity (or hose capacity!) to do much more than spot watering so these rains are welcome. The sheep are still getting plenty of graze considering the time of year and the flock size. To that end, I’m managing the sheep differently than in previous years, partly because of the number – I just don’t have the grazing capacity, given the aforementioned shade challenges, to run much more than 5-head. And until two days ago, I’ve been running 11. Now it’s down to 9 (my freezer will be full in a week) and that will ease the pressure. So I feed hay pretty much year round, just less of it when the grass is growing. I’m still making decisions with the flock, and hope to breed this fall – it’s been a few years since my last lambs – and I’m culling for both fleece quality and temperament. After Minnie’s twins turned out to be as friendly as two puppies (and have remained so, two years later, bringing their mother along), I discovered how delightful it can be to have easy, approachable sheep. And seriously, on this small setup it’s crazy to do otherwise. So the wild, untamable ones are slowly being weeded out. I still have a couple more out there, but one will likely stay until her natural end (sentimental, plus she’s an excellent mother who produces babies that are not as wild as her) and the other one, well, we’ll see.  After she lambs she may be easier, plus I culled her dam, and I’m hoping without that freak-out influence from her mother she’ll follow the lead of the rest of the flock and at least get close enough to nose-touch my outstretched hand.

The songbird season has also shifted since solstice, with babies seemingly everywhere. And the song is changing. The Swainson’s daytime song has decreased as nesting goes into full swing. It’s one thing to mark your territory with song, it’s another to attract potential predators with them, and setting females and then the hatchlings and nestlings are very vulnerable. Plus the territories are well established now as everyone’s nesting.  The evening song is still magical, though I’ll miss it when it ceases altogether in another few weeks. I can guess where certain species are in their nest cycles by their song: the black-headed grosbeak had been insistent and melodic the last week, so are probably on  nest/brood number two now); the robins are still melodic but slowing down, with probable nesting number three underway, for the last of the season before it’s time to bulk up for winter migrations. The tanagers and western wood peewees are intermittent as well. Everyone is too busy to sing, with all those mouths to feed. And here the rain is helpful too, as it keeps the insect populations bountiful as well, so feeding the babies is easier. The drought last year was hard on everyone, from grass to invertebrates to feathered and woolly residents.

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Still filled with song in the evenings.

I saw a fat baby robin fly after its parent down the driveway as I was leaving for work one morning. And the other day I came home to a juvenile crow hopping and poking around the driveway as my car followed it slowly up to the gate. It finally flew up to the gate rail, then up to a low cedar branch when I got out of the car. There weren’t any screaming parents around, or any other crows at all, which was odd, because although it was fully feathered, it shouldn’t have been alone. I wondered if maybe it got bonked by a car as it flew too low across the road, and maybe lay stunned long enough that the parents left it for dead. Even that would be odd – crows are excellent parents and don’t give up easily. I was bringing the yard waste and garbage bins up from the road, and he watched me nervously from his branch. I picked some thimble berries from along the driveway, and pulled a little bit of meat off the rotisserie chicken I’d just purchased at the grocery on the way home, and put these on top of the yard waste bin, close to where he was perched, and left him there to go up to the house and unload the groceries. An hour or so later I went down to check. He was gone, and the meat and berries still on the top of the bin (Farley was right there for the meat). I hope he found his way back to his crow family.

A brown creeper nested in the loose bark of a cedar tree along the driveway.  I couldn’t get a good shot of the parent bird coming in or out, but coming out the view was akin to someone trying to get into their skinny jeans, as she squeezed out of this impossibly small space to go get more insects for the babies.

And then there are my dark-eyed juncos, a.k.a. Oregon juncos. In early June I was trimming some overgrown salmonberry branches I’d cut from behind the fence line, walking over to dump them into the pasture for the sheep, when a bird suddenly flitted from underneath my feet. I looked to see a junco on the fence, tsking madly at me. I turned to where I’d just walked. Juncos are ground nesters, usually tucking their perfect little nest beneath a fern or hidden in a bit of weedy overgrowth.  But there was nothing nearby…or was there?  It was all grass, but I saw a larger tuft of grass and walked back and…sure enough. This seemed extreme, even for a junco. But really, what better camouflage then  “in plain sight.” The only problem with this, aside from the fact that I’d nearly flattened it walking to the fence, is it was perilously close to Pal’s flight path – he runs down the driveway multiple times a day at breakneck speed (Farley too, though he’s not as fast as he once was), in the grass just to the right of the driveway tracks. If he didn’t find the nest with his mad bird dog skillz, then surely he would trample it by accident. And the sheep run down there too, grazing on the grass and sometimes galloping and leaping and tossing their heads in sheepy exuberance, sometimes being rounded up by an exuberant Daisy. No one would see this nest in time. So I added this bit of attractiveness to the landscape – the junco kiddie corral. (click on the photos for captions)

Judging by their size and feathering, I figured them to be a few days old when I first found them. They fledge (leave the nest) in 14 days, so it wasn’t too long before they were gone, off with mom and dad to the safety of the pasture and woods, with their little calls a zippery sound that’s hard to describe; it almost sounds like tiny chains being dropped. The male kept watch, flying and singing his song, helping feed the kids and warning them of any dangers.

A week or so later another pair were up by the house, the male trilling loudly from the corner of the roof, boisterous and animated, and, with a little anthropomorphism thrown in, one could say proudly. And the female was nearby, letting me get remarkably close as she hopped around the driveway, picking up bits of dried grass and dog hair so she looked like she was sporting a bushy, 1880s-style mustache. She’d fly off furtively and disappear with her beakful of nesting material, but I knew it had to be close. I finally was able discover its location by watching from inside the house. The pair would land on the railing of the back porch frequently, setting the cats to chittering at the window in feline excitement. So I hid in the door of the closet to watch them and saw the female duck behind a tuft of grass at the bottom of my retaining wall. Voila!  I checked it for several days in a row – the sheep ate a large fern leaf that was providing much of the cover – dang. First it was just the nest, looking completed, but no sign of the pair, no scolding. Maybe they abandoned the site? The next day there was one single egg there. The following day, a second egg, and a day later, egg number three and then she was setting on them. Time to put up the Junco kiddie corral again. This one would have to protect against the chickens too. The first nest was further down the driveway than they usually wander this time of year (plenty to eat up by the house), but this nest is within a few feet of my back door and if the chickens found it the eggs, or hatchlings, would be quite the delicacy (the chickens love stuff like this and regularly eat the cats’ abandoned hunting trophies: shrews, mice, small voles).

The fence against the wall would deter all but the cats. I could add some netting over the top, to prevent the most obvious access (the wall is about 4 feet tall here), but the cats can squeeze through the bottom openings of the woven wire fence too. I could put up chicken wire around the bottom (and with all this construction, I worry about disturbing the juncos enough that they abandon the nest). So the solution is total cat confinement for the next few weeks. The female began setting on June 29, which means the babies will hatch around July 10th (nothing so far) or 11th, and they’ll be fledged by July 25 at the latest. Then the cats can start going out at night again. Maybe. In the meantime it’s a bit of a circus keeping them from darting out the door every time I open it. They begin to get stir crazy after a while. All my area rugs are bunched up in the mornings, as they attack them and chase each other around at night, batting found objects around (something clicky/draggy last night – have no idea what it was). I found their cat carrier pushed across the floor of the loft one morning – not sure who was doing what up there, but sometimes living with cats is like living with monkeys – they get into everything and everywhere, sometimes literally climbing the walls, but certainly the window screens and clawing up the furniture.

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One of my favorite field guides.  My ex-mother-in-law gave it to me many years ago, and I reference it often this time of year.

 

The dawn chorus and my annual amnesia

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Summer Solstice Eve

It’s happening again, and I’m fully aware of it. I work harder each day to remember the whole year, the mud, the rain, the unease, the borderline despair that I feel during our long, wet Pacific NW winters. Those dark and dreary days, with the paltry 8.5 hours of “daylight” between sunrise and sunset times (we never see the sun, so I take it on faith that it’s out there) marked by sludgy grey clouds that even when they’re not leaking oppress and depress. The lights are on in the house all day long, the dogs come in wet and muddy on most days, and feeding the livestock in the rainy dark after work the chickens look miserable and the sheep look bored and as full of discontent as I feel.

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These are the skies I long for in December.

But I knew it would happen. It always does. After 7 months of rainy, dismal weather, and epic amounts of mud we’ve come into our season of splendor. We’re just moving out of jungle season (also magnificent) and now it’s settling into the rhythms of 16 hours of daylight (squeeee!) versus its opposite in December, and all the wonder and abundance of a fecund spring. Never mind that today (it’s the last few hours of summer solstice as I write this) is pretty much the saddest day of the year. Sure, it’s the longest day of the year, but it’s also the turning point where the days start to roll back, getting shorter and we begin losing daylight by increments, heading back to that dismal darkness. But for now we will dance in the sun and revel in the song and forget about that long, stressful winter. Instead, I will spend my days here soaking up all the goodness, settling into my wonderful little hillside on a sunny day like a broody hen settling onto a clutch of eggs, content to just sit and watch and listen to the glory of creation as it unfolds in panoramic vision—the bees being probably the most joyous visual expression of what I feel—and all of it to a exaltation of surround-sound. For it is Songbird Season, and I love songbirds.

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The package hive has been going like gangbusters, and filled their deep so I added a super so they have more room. 

Even now, with the windows only opened a crack I hear them.  Though today was warm, it’s been chilly for the past couple weeks—a normal, gloomy and damp PNW June—but I keep the windows open just so I can hear the birds. The calls, the chirps, and the songs.  Oh, the songs. The thrushes have all the others beat as far as melody and pleasing (to the human ear) song, though the Black-headed grosbeak and Song sparrow aren’t too shabby.  I think the Swainson’s thrushes and the robins (also a thrush) just can’t be beat though, for not only are their flute-like songs beautiful, they are positively incessant throughout the day (and they seem to be the most abundant). None of the other birds save the Dark-eyed juncos (a raspy tweee, not too melodious but not unpleasant) do much more than a few songs throughout the day.  Or maybe they’re just drowned out by the thrush songs.

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Red huckleberries – the robins, Swainson’s thrushes, and Western tanagers love these, and I’ve got lots of them to share.

The dawn chorus starts at about 3:30 a.m., just as the sky begins to lighten, with the twittering of the swallows, already out flying after several hours grounded.  The Swainson’s and robins chime in next, along with the grosbeak, Western tanagers, chickadees, song sparrows, towhees, and dark-eyed juncos. Other birds I hear throughout the day but don’t seem to sing much: the hummingbirds (a sharp chip-chip), Steller’s jays (wik-wik-wik-wik-wik!), crows and ravens (rawk), and the woodpeckers—hairy, downy, pileated, sapsuckers and flickers—plus the occasional raptor – osprey, red tailed hawks, and eagles (the vultures are pretty silent), or duck from the valley.

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When I come home from work the birdsong is like a balm, soothing jangled nerves after a long day at work and a gnarly commute. I change clothes quickly and head outside with the dogs, finding myself drawn to the woods, where the high canopy feels like a cathedral, and the songs are more soothing than any choir. It feels similar to the siren song of the old seafaring legends – where you are helpless to resist (though without the dire consequences, thankfully!). I am entranced, mesmerized, rapt, and spellbound, lured ever deeper into the woods to stand beneath the trees by some unseen singer, a bit of bone and blood and feathers, weighing barely more than a couple of medium-sized strawberries. The robins, one of the largest of all the songbird species that habit this patch of woodland, tips the scales at just under 3 ounces, the Swainson’s thrush a whopping 1.5 ounces, yet the woods are filled with their giant song. The robins have a huge repertoire, and there are some similarities to the Swainson’s song, but the Swainson’s, that furtive bit of greenish brown feathers, is the one that I wait for all year, their upward-spiraling flute song stretching an aural web as far as the ear can hear – close and crisp, and distant and haunting, overlapping, echoing and answering, a treasure of acoustic jewels for the lucky listener.

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Sunset on the solstice. 9:09 p.m.

In the long evenings I sit on my deck writing, and reveling at being surrounded by all I love, by place. The sheep are grazing the property, moving around in a cohesive flock; the chickens wander around, scratching and pecking, gobbling up fresh greens and all the insects they can catch; the dogs, dirty but blissfully free of mud, snooze like bearskin rugs around me, stretched out at my feet, farm-dog grubby and content. And all of it to the soundtrack of birdsong. The little male junco, in the tree near the deck, tweeeeing. The dapper Spotted towhee in the thick undergrowth, singing his buzzy trill. The robins with their myriad songs and calls high in the maples, and above it all the little prince, the salmonberry bird, my Swainson’s thrush in his deceptively drab olive-brown feathering, always hidden, and always singing, singing, singing.  I am captivated.

 

Memorial Day musings

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A beautiful blush-pink foxglove came up next to the deck this year.

We just observed Memorial Day here in the U.S., the day where we honor our deceased military. It’s a sad day, though most of us look at it, at least initially, as a day off work. It’s a much needed three day weekend for me, as I imagine it is for most of us doing the 9-5 thing, where we have an extra day to sleep in, relax, visit with friends and family, maybe a barbecue, and the start of summer and camping season. Only it’s not just that. The municipal decor (flags and bunting decorating our towns) and television programming reminds us why we have this day off. It makes me sad, as it does most, I guess. We are a warring nation, and have been in one conflict or another for nearly all of our 240 years. Some justified, maybe, but others not so much (including our latest, still going after 15 years – thanks W).

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I came home from work one day to see this – a great blue heron perched on the tippy top of a snag by the dairy across the street.  He must have been hanging out with the eagles.

It’s been rainy for the past week or two, and the cool, misty cloudiness has been welcome. But on yesterday the sun was back and the day burst forth. My damp little hillside is slow to wake up, situated as we are, but there was no denying the return of the sunshine. Everything green is rejoicing in it, and the birds and the bees exuberant with it. I’ve been listening to the local Swainson’s thrush, only just returned this past month. There’s one who’s staked out the lower woods, down by the driveway (his song is the first thing I hear when I get home from work each evening and get out of the car to open the gate, and it’s magical), and another at the top of this same patch of woods.  Their song goes back and forth almost all day, a lovely challenge and warning to one another: “This is mine; you stay on yours.”  Why can’t humans do this instead of the awful way we challenge one another, with arms and physical violence?

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The woods behind the house, where the Swainson’s thrush sing.  And, the night before I took this photo, a chorus of coyotes as well. 

Of course with the sunshine comes the humans, and the road activity increased markedly compared to the cloudy, wet Saturday and Sunday. During those rainy days I could hear the birdsong so much better, where on Sunday it was just snippets through the lulls in grinding engines and acceleration. If I could change one thing about this place, I think that road noise would be it…(location, location, location) or maybe I’d change the exposure to something more southeasterly – it’s a toss-up.  I took a walk in the woods on the other side of the fence, where the now-trickle of Rasmussen Creek flows. I actually saw a Swainson’s thrush – even when they come close, they’re masters of hiding behind a leaf or a branch – and I must have surprised him/her by being where I was.  S/he flew off to watch me from behind cover, disappearing again. I walked slowly, stopping frequently, and saw a song sparrow in a dapple of sunlight, fluffing and shaking off, grooming his feathers after a recent dip in the creek flow. I found a couple of discarded robin’s egg shells, the mother bird taking the impossibly blue casing (one wonders why the eggs are blue – wouldn’t a brown speckled version be better camouflaged against predators?) and discarding it safely far away from the nest after a successful hatching.

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A weather phenomenon over my house in an otherwise cloudless sky.  This HUGE circle or ring is evidently called a solar halo (though it was not encircling the sun) and was so large I couldn’t get a photo of all of it.  It looked like it was encircling my property from above, and was very cool, but also a wee bit eerie.  (Under the Dome, anyone?)

Then it was back to the gate, to Daisy’s obvious relief (“There you are!”), where Farley had been barking at bicyclists all day (he catches glimpses of them through the brush between the fence and the road), and up the driveway.  The sheep were in the pasture, content to stay there grazing in the sunshine and chewing cud in the shade. I heard the song of the dark eyed junco, chickadee, and towhee, the chip of hummingbirds as they zipper past, and the other robin family visiting the red huckleberry, and the towhee and Swainson’s in the red elderberry that twines through it.  The rustling and thrashing in the salmonberry bushes shows me a Swainson’s or a robin picking the barely ripe berries, and I revel in their enjoyment.

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Pal’s handiwork.  He’s the sweetest of my three dogs but he doesn’t mess around when it comes to varmints.  Evidently this one was delicious.

The cherry tree is moving towards ripening, though I have a gray squirrel who is decimating the unripe cherries. This frustrates both me and the dogs, though for different reasons. Pal actually managed to get two juvenile squirrels earlier this month – something I’ve not seen him do before, and I was at once squeamish and pleased. He was quite proud of himself (this is a dog who hunts all the time – mostly just stalking behavior – but has never played with toys of any kind, so when he prances up happily with a toy in his mouth it’s a bit of a shock), and I was ultimately glad to have them dispatched (Eastern gray squirrels are not native, crowd out our native Douglas squirrels, and eat songbird eggs and nestlings). I may try live-trapping the one who is prematurely raiding the cherry tree (which means my June visits of canopy birds I never get to see otherwise, drawn in by the cherry bounty, will be curtailed or eliminated altogether), but can’t figure out where I’d release him/her when I catch him. Having live-trapped/relocated in my previous home, I know how aggressive they are (kind of scary when in the cage), but I also saw a resurgence of Douglas squirrels at that property, with ongoing trapping and relocating.

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Gordy’s fleece; some really nice wool here, but also some not so nice as well (mostly due to my late shearing this year).

I spent some time skirting the fleeces from shearing earlier this month and there are only a few more to go.  It’s deliciously relaxing, and I listen to podcasts from Woolful.com as I skirt and evaluate.  And also throw the ball for Farley.  Daisy snoozes nearby in a pit she’s dug for herself in the cool earth, her nose adorably brown from her digging and nosing things into that just right shape. Pal runs by once in a while, always checking something out. I’ve been keeping the cats inside until dark, as it’s prime nesting season now, so they snooze the day away in sunbeams on my bed. Life is good.

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Gratuitous cuteness: The old guy (Farley) and his wonderful, adorable nose.

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