The miracles of each moment. December 1, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: everyday miracles, great blue herons, Kazuaki Tanahashi, natural wonders
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Silence Dogood here. I’d been complaining to our friend Ben all day that we hadn’t seen the usual array of birds and other creatures that usually come to or live in our yard, making it colorful and fun. I kept going to the back door to check on them, but they just weren’t there. Where on earth had they all gone?
Then, a miracle happened. I saw our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, staring fixedly out the deck door, so I came over to see what had attracted her attention. And just then, two great blue herons rose up from our little creek, Hawk Run, and circled the yard before departing for parts unknown.
Great blue herons are called “great” for a reason: They can reach nearly 5 feet in height and length, with a wingspan that can reach 6 1/2 feet. I see great blue herons in flight, their long legs trailing behind them, maybe once or twice a year. And I occasionally see them in my neighbor’s yard, poaching a free meal from the fish and frogs in his water garden. But I’ve never, ever seen two at a time, and I’ve never seen one in our yard before.
OFB and I are privileged to own a beautiful piece of calligraphy by the master Kazuaki Tanahashi called “Miracles of Each Moment.” This was definitely one for me.
‘Til next time,
How to tell if a pawpaw’s ripe. October 10, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
Tags: eating pawpaws, pawpaws, ripe pawpaws, what to do with ripe pawpaws, zebra swallowtails
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I have quite the little pawpaw grove here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We planted three different varieties in the hope of getting a good crop (pawpaws need a second variety to cross-pollinate in order to set fruit), and last year, for the first time, we finally got some fruit. But before we could harvest them, the critters made off with them all.
This confused us, since the wily wildlife here at Hawk’s Haven usually strikes our berries and other fruiting plants the second they’re fully ripe, but not a second before. And these pawpaws were still green!
We’d become intrigued by pawpaws, a native fruit also known as “banana custard” because of its texture and flavor, when a friend brought us some ripe fruit from her trees a number of years ago. The big fruits are oblong and about the size of the small yellow mangoes you sometimes find alongside the large variety in the produce aisle. They have golden yellow flesh and large black seeds, which are easy to remove. Then you can scoop the flesh out and eat it as is, add it to muffins, cookies or bread (a la banana bread), or use it to flavor homemade ice cream.
The pawpaws Deb brought us had a noticeable yellow flush over the green skin, and we were waiting for our fruit to change color when it vanished. This year, we have a bumper crop of pawpaws, and OFB and I are eager to get a few for ourselves this time. But, once again, they’re still green. So you can imagine our shock when our friend Leslie stopped over and announced that our pawpaws were ripe and, in fact, she’d just eaten two of them!
“But Leslie, they’re still green!” I exclaimed.
“They’re definitely ripe, or at least the ones that have started to soften up are,” she responded. “They’re delicious! You’d better get out there and pick some.”
What the bleep was going on? I went online and Googled “when are pawpaws ripe.” Sure enough, it turns out that the skin of some pawpaw varieties will blush yellow when ripe, but others just stay green. Ways to tell if the green ones are ripe include checking for a slight give when pressed, like a ripe mango; putting your nose up against the fruit and seeing if you can detect a fragrance; and twisting the stem sideways to see if it detaches easily from the tree. Other folks just wait for the fruit to fall, then harvest it quickly before something else does.
Not that we begrudge our wildlife their share of pawpaws. The reason we grow them is that their leaves are the sole food of the caterpillars that become the gorgeous zebra swallowtail butterflies. We love butterflies, so we grow pawpaws for the zebra swallowtails and milkweeds for the monarch butterfly caterpillars. We just wish the critters would leave a few pawpaws for us to enjoy!
If it ever stops raining, we’ll be out there checking for ripe fruit. OFB and I will probably go for the scoop-and-eat method rather than making bread or ice cream. One final warning from the web: Apparently pawpaws can go from lusciously ripe to black-skinned and inedible within days. So once you pick them, eat them ASAP or scoop and freeze the flesh to use later.
‘Til next time,
The frogs of winter. October 8, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: frog hibernation, frogs, frogs in winter, why don't frogs freeze in winter
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been enjoying the company of two frogs who took up residence in our deck’s half-barrel water garden this spring. They’ve stayed with us all season, and their occasional commentary and antics have kept us amused when we sit out on the deck every dry evening to relax and watch the sunset with our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh.
But now, with the weather cooling rapidly and the leaves falling, we’ve become worried about them. After all, if the winter is cold enough, that water garden can freeze almost to the bottom. (We move the water plants to a similar half-barrel in our greenhouse to overwinter.) Would our frogs have the good sense to head to our little stream, Hawk Run, which runs beneath our deck bridge, and burrow into the mud bank for their winter hibernation?
Our friend Ben felt that research was in order, so I turned to my good friend Google, which revealed some truly amazing facts about the winter habits of frogs. First, while they do hibernate, they don’t burrow into the mud to sleep the winter away. Instead, they just remain suspended on the pond or stream floor.
But what if the water freezes? Well, of course the frogs freeze with it. Only they don’t, or not exactly. According to frog expert Rick Emmer, writing in Scientific American, frogs come with their own antifreeze, which keeps them from dying even if they freeze.
“True enough, ice crystals form in such places as the body cavity and bladder and under the skin, but a high concentration of glucose in the frog’s vital organs prevents freezing,” he writes. “A partially frozen frog will stop breathing, and its heart will stop beating. It will appear quite dead. But when the [water] warms up above freezing, the frog’s frozen portions will thaw, and its heart and lungs resume activity…”
Yowie kazowie! That explains why frogs are found as far north as the Arctic Circle. Let’s hope it’s enough to protect our resident frogs if they decide to hibernate in our water garden this winter. We’d be very happy to see them again next spring!
Cedar waxwings at last. October 6, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading.
Tags: attracting birds, backyard birdwatching, birdwatching, cedar waxwings, red cedar
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Our friend Ben was surveying the morning scene from our deck door yesterday, enjoying the view across our plant-filled deck and backyard. As I watched, I became aware of a large flock of grey birds on the privet that borders Hawk Run, the little creek that runs behind our house.
Mind you, I’m not referring to those horrible privet cubes people love so much, but to a tall (as in 15 feet), graceful, open, airy plant, left to grow the way God intended. A privet left to its own devices is a delight in all seasons, with its exquisite form, clusters of tiny, highly fragrant white flowers that turn into clusters of deep blue-black berries, and bright yellow fall foliage. In winter, the berries cling to the shrub, and I love to watch the mockingbirds enjoying them.
But I digress. Observing this flock, I noticed several things. They were bigger than chickadees, who have already arrived for the winter with their cousins, the titmice. Titmice are grey, too, and are bigger than chickadees, but I’ve never seen more than three or four at a time, and here were at least 12, maybe 20.
The crown feathers of a titmouse’s head form a crest like a cardinal’s, giving it its name, tufted titmouse. I thought I could see something crest-like about these birds’ crowns, too, but the triangle seemed to be flattened, pointing backwards. Could it be, could it finally be, that I was seeing a flock of cedar waxwings?! Our friend Ben raced for the binoculars.
Yes!!! These amazing birds, so common in the northern half of the country in fall and winter, had never been in our yard before. In fact, Silence Dogood and I had never seen one. And here was a whole flock! Resisting the urge to hog the binoculars, I called Silence and we stood at the sliding glass doors, just revelling in our good fortune.
How did I know these were cedar waxwings, when the birds I was watching appeared to have dark grey backs and whitish underparts, and the pictures in our bird books show brown backs and cream underparts? Their tails gave them away. In fact, our friend Ben thinks they should be called cedar waxtails, not waxwings. The tips of the tail-feathers of waxwings look like they’ve been dipped in deep yellow candlewax, and our binoculars showed that clearly. (The secondary wing feathers are tipped in red “wax,” giving them their name, but our binoculars didn’t reveal that.) I’m sure the birds really are brown and cream, but take this as a caution as to what light conditions can do.
I don’t know about you, but there’s only so long Silence and I can stand still and hold up even small binoculars to our eyes, and shifting focus constantly makes Silence dizzy. So after a few minutes, we decided to risk it. Arming ourselves with our steaming mugs, we slipped out onto the deck as discreetly as we could manage and sat down. And then we were really amazed.
Not only were the waxwings clustering on the privet, alternating between it and some nearby evergreens, but the air was literally filled with birds and birdsong. We’d begun filling the feeders again a few weeks ago when it got cold. And because our large yard is wildlife-friendly, we always have lots of birds. But this particular morning was entirely different. There were the chickadees, goldfinches, titmice, cardinals, mourning doves, and the last robins. There were our nuthatches, and we could hear the resident woodpeckers at work high in the tree canopy.
But here, too, was the first bluejay of fall! (We love big, bold, colorful jays.) And the air was full of warblers, flying from tree to tree, and the waxwings, and myriad other birds, coming so close to us in the branches overhead, I thought at any moment one might land on us. Silence and I agreed that it was the most amazing morning either of us had ever experienced.
I guess it’s not surprising that we finally got our cedar waxwings: We have two huge red cedar trees in our front yard, which bear thousands of waxy blue-black juniper berries, providing food and shelter for myriad bird species over the winter. And cedar waxwings get their name from this evergreen. The question is, what took them so long?
Why grow native plants? September 26, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
Tags: butterflies, milkweed, monarch butterflies, native plants, nurturing life, pawpaws, pollinators, zebra swallowtails
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Silence Dogood here. Sitting on my deck yesterday afternoon, I saw the clearest explanation possible for why we should choose to plant the often plainer native plants, or allow them to live and thrive on our properties, when much more stunning cultivated varieties (known in horticulture as cultivars) and species are available.
I’m by no means a native-plant purist. I love my peonies, irises, roses, spring bulbs, chrysanthemums, hostas, Japanese maples, you name it. But I make room for the natives alongside the others: the asters and goldenrods, the gorgeous white-flowered nettles, the milkweeds, the pawpaws, the rudbeckias (black-eyed Susans), the jewelweed along our creek.
Why? Well, because they support life. Last week, at our farmers’ market, I bought some stunning cultivated asters and mums, rich and full, bursting with purple, cream-and-yellow, and red blooms. I wanted to add some color to our deck and eventually plant them out in our yard. Wow, were they colorful!
So there I was, sitting out on the deck enjoying the beautiful afternoon, as the sun began its descent and lit up the leaves of our trees and the foliage of our deck plants. It also happened to light up the blooms of native asters, much paler and lankier than the ones on the deck. And I could see that the blooms were teeming with life, as bees and other insects swarmed over them, collecting pollen and sipping nectar. Looking to the side of the deck, I saw bumblebees galore visiting the orange jewelweed blossoms. Nearby, the white blooms of the nettles were alive with insects.
Meanwhile, there was not a creature to be seen on the souped-up asters or mums on the deck, despite the wealth of flowers. Not one.
I love plants that support all life, not just our life. I allow milkweeds to flourish here because they provide food for monarch butterfly larvae, not just because their flowers are amazing. I grow pawpaws because they provide food for zebra swallowtail larvae, not just because their fruits are so delicious they’re known as “banana custard.” I allow red cedars, generally viewed as a weed tree, to grow here because they provide food and shelter for birds in winter. And I love the clover that grows in our lawn, adding beauty and inviting bees.
I hate it when the nuts crash down from our black walnut, butternut, and shagbark hickory trees every fall. I’m always convinced one of them is going to brain me or our friend Ben or our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, or cause us to slip and break our necks in the dark. Yet these trees provide a wealth of food for squirrels and other local wildlife, just as winter is closing in and they need to build up fat reserves to survive.
Seeing those native asters, lit by the sun, inviting so much life, and seeing the sterile though much more showy version on our deck, really brought the point home to me. Life isn’t just about us. It’s about sharing our beautiful earth. And providing food and shelter for our fellow creatures, rather than creating a sterile landscape solely for our own enjoyment, is the way to do that. No, we don’t have to plant exclusively native plants. Yes, we can allow natives to share our yards with the exotics and cultivated varieties we choose to add for show. In the end, we’ll all be better off.
‘Til next time,
Pickerel frog sighting! August 27, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters.
Tags: Catskills, pickerel frog, salamanders
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Silence Dogood here. This past weekend, I went to a retreat in the Catskills. Supposedly, the place where the retreat is held, with a huge lake set among beautiful forests, is crawling with porcupines. I was hoping to see them, having had a great experience petting a porcupine at the wonderful wildlife park in San Diego years ago. I’ve had a soft spot for porcupines ever since.
Sadly, I didn’t see a porcupine. But I did get to see two amphibians I hadn’t met before: a pickerel frog and a bunch of tiny salamanders.
The pickerel frog wasn’t down by the lake, as you might have expected, but up a fairly steep hill beside a small tree. But I recognized it at once, because I’d just looked up pickerel frogs, leopard frogs, and green frogs so our friend Ben and I could identify the two species that have occupied our deck’s half-barrel water garden all summer. It turned out that we had a green frog and two leopard frogs; pickerel frogs were too small (just 1-2 inches) and covered with bold, distinct spots.
The one I saw at the retreat looked just like the one in the picture. For some reason, I’d thought that pickerel frogs were a Southern species, but obviously, I was wrong. I was very happy to see this little guy! But I still wonder what he was doing way up the hill rather than in the lake.
What was in the lake were the salamanders—dozens and dozens of tiny (2-3-inch-long) black salamanders, swimming next to the shore. The salamanders that I’m familiar with are much bigger; I’ve seen orange-and-black tiger salamanders that were over a foot long at my family home outside Nashville, and many more modest salamanders that were still a good 6 to 8 inches from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail.
I assumed these salamanders were infants, but my friend Stephanie, who was walking along the lake with me, assured me that they were adults who’d returned to the water to mate and lay eggs. Why would salamanders lay eggs now, with winter coming, I wondered. But then, if they were infants, why wouldn’t they have hatched out in spring and enjoyed a full season of growth before winter’s arrival?
I’m not familiar with small black salamanders, so if any of you can shed light on the issue, please feel free to chime in and relieve my ignorance! Whatever the case, it was fun to watch them, and to see the pickerel frog. It really enriched my retreat!
‘Til next time,
You know you don’t get out much when… August 20, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: blog humor, garden humor, garden spiders, orb weavers, spiders
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I recently returned from a trip to our native Nashville and to Bardstown, KY (in the heart of bourbon country). Naturally, we’d taken OFB’s larger and more road-worthy car, leaving my brave but battered little red VW Golf idle in our parking square.
Once we’d returned, we’ve been running errands together and recovering from our trip (along with our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, who’s always totally wiped out after being boarded). In other words, loafing. I haven’t seen the need to head out on my own, so the little red car has remained in place.
You can imagine my amusement when I went out to get the mail this afternoon and saw that a big, bold garden spider, the yellow-and-black orb weaver (Argiope aurantia), had woven its elaborate web from one tire to the daylily row alongside! I couldn’t wait until OFB returned so I could show him. We love these showy spiders, and it was the first one I’d seen so far this year.
I guess it’s time to move the spider to a safer location and fire up the old VW before the tires start to rot…
‘Til next time,
Now we are two. August 18, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
Tags: barrel water gardens, frogs and water gardens, mosquito control for water gardens, plants for water gardens, water gardens
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were thrilled yesterday to see that two frogs have now colonized our half-barrel deck water garden. And not just any two frogs, but two different species: a leopard frog and a green frog. The leopard frog floats on the surface of the water garden, while the green frog prefers to lurk, submerged, with just its eyes and nostrils protruding above the water’s surface.
We like to provide a diverse assortment of plants in our water garden: a towering papyrus, bulbous water hyacinths with their purple flower spikes and glossy foliage, watercress, water iris, and submerged vegetation (ferny anacharis, in our case). Some years, we’ll add water lettuce, water clover, parrot feather, and so on, but we try not to overcrowd. It may not look like it at the beginning of the season, but those plants will spread! We also like to add a handful of water snails to help with algae control.
Anyway, it’s always fun to enjoy the water garden even when there are no uninvited visitors. But what a thrill to see that frogs have discovered our water garden and are adding life and liveliness to its surface, not to mention providing mosquito control. We don’t know about you, but we’d rather look at frogs than those doughnut-shaped Bacillus thuringiensis mosquito “dunks” any day!
Why they’re called katydids. August 3, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading.
Tags: katydids, nocturnal insects, summer insects
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Last night, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were sitting out on our deck with our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, enjoying our chili lights and the flames of our citronella candles and the sounds of the night.
Then we heard it, high up in the trees, an insistent, repeating “Katydid! Katydid! Katydid!” Well, actually it was more like “kadydit.” But it clued us in to how this pale green cross between a grasshopper and a fairy got its name.
Every now and then, and always at night in high summer, we see a katydid on the screen of our deck door, drawn by the warmth of our kitchen lights. We remember a time when we would also occasionally see the magical, magnificent pale green luna moth, but it has been many years since one has graced our property. We mourn our loss.
But at least we still have katydids. And at least we finally understand their peculiar name.
Hummingbird heaven. August 2, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening.
Tags: attracting hummingbirds, hummingbirds, plants for hummingbirds
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Our friend Ben enjoys seeing hummingbirds, those bold little buzzers, as much as anybody. What I don’t enjoy is the thought of setting up hummingbird feeders, then defending their syrupy contents against mold, ants, wasps and the like. So here at Hawk’s Haven, Silence Dogood and I grow hummingbird-friendly plants, the kind that provide nectar naturally and give us a season-long display of beautiful flowers in the process.
Our hummingbird-attractors start with spring’s columbines. Then there are our trumpetvines, phlox, jewelweed, fuchsias, cannas, agastache, and monarda (bee balm). But for us, the real highlight comes now, when our rose-of-Sharons come into bloom.
Rose-of-Sharon shrubs are easy not to love, the sort of trailer park of plants. They leaf out really late, so you’re looking at bare branches on your rose-of-Sharons long after everything else displays lush growth. If you grow them, you’ll spend hours every year cutting down “volunteer” bushes. And even when they leaf out, they’re completely boring until they come into flower.
However, we tolerate and even encourage rose-of-Sharons here at Hawk’s Haven for their hummingbird-magnet attraction. It’s well worth months of boredom to see the little hummers visiting the blooms (which are actually quite lovely). We encourage milkweed (the preferred food of monarch butterfly caterpillars) and pawpaws (the preferred food of zebra swallowtail caterpillars) for the same reason: We enjoy the wildlife as much as the plants.
There are plenty of other hummingbird plants to choose from; I suggest that you look into the best ones for your region. (And if you live in a cold climate, as we do, don’t forget that plants like fuchsias and cannas do fine in containers.) Bring on the buzzers!