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Archive for the 'Seasons' Category

Our Barn Swallows Return

April 15th, 2009

This morning I thought I would write that we haven’t seen our barn swallows return yet this year.   And I was going to guess that they would return today… really I was!  So what happened?  The young boy was outside feeding the dogs before school, and when I came out he said, “Daddy! I think the barn swallows are back- I just saw something fly out of the nest!”    And he was right…  one of our little friends was sitting up on a wire, returning after spending the past 7+ months in transit to Central and South America.    There are many signs of spring, but it’s so neat to see the swallows return.  Last year I wrote briefly about predictability and change, and how we live among constants and chaos.   Symbolism with birds.

barn-swallow-returns

For the past few years the barn swallows have returned almost exactly within the same day or couple of days in early April.  This year they were over a week late- but obviously sense the weather knowing it was very wet and cold during that time.  If they can’t find insects to eat they will starve within a few days- so they don’t come back until they really know it will be warm-  and today begins a long stretch of warming days. 

Many people make a big fuss about purple martins- and they are beautiful and fun to have around too.  We even put up a new purple martin house this year in the hope of attracting some, but we haven’t been successful in the past.   Instead we have had a nesting pair of barn swallows for many years- and last year three nesting pairs right here at (or on) the house.  Which is really a bit much, because they build these muddy nests under the eaves, and then leave droppings everywhere.  But to watch them fly is sheer joy- and to know how many insects they eat… it’s just nice to have them around too.   Here’s a picture of one of the first-year swallows in late summer last year, stretching its wings above the house.

barnswallowinflight

The odd thing is that the main nesting pair built its nest on top of the floodlight in front of the garage, under the eave. Right where the cars come and go, and we walk around playing and working, just a few steps from the house.  The birds fly off when I stand under the nest, and return when I step a few yards away.  I’m always there.  They don’t seem to mind too much until the eggs hatch- then it’s a bunch of squawking and chirping, and if a cat is on the driveway they swoop down at it, hecking and trying to chase it away.  But they don’t leave their nesting site right in front of the house and garage, just a half-dozen steps from the kitchen.  They’re no dummies- they know a good thing when they have it, but it still seems kind of strange.

It’s hard not to think of them as friends while they nest right above my head, and fly all around the driveway during the day.  When I cut the grass in the fields they follow along, and swoop in front and behind the tractor, scooping up the bugs stirred up around the clippings.  Somehow I like them hanging around- even with all the mess.   Last year those three nesting pairs had at least two clutches of eggs each, and in one season they produced a combined 15-20 young barn swallows.  Where do they all go?  I hope they’re not all planning to come here!  Three nests are enough. 

barn-swallow-at-home

They’re not really our barn swallows of course, but I like to think of them that way.  It’s good to see them again, and this morning I said hello, and “Welcome back!” after a long journey.  The barn swallow sat on the gutter nearby, cocked its head and just looked at me.   Wouldn’t you love to know where it went, and what it saw on its journey?

A Simple Day

April 11th, 2009

Beautiful day today- it felt so nice to get things accomplished.  Finished restoring the old tractor’s mower deck and changing oil and filters to get it in shape for the season.  Took me forever to get the deck coupling reconnected to the power take-off… yes, the same one from before!  The boy played in the barn while I worked, and learned how to set up a wooden mousetrap while only getting his fingers snapped a few times.  After he figured it out you’d think it was the hottest new toy around- he got the biggest kick out of setting it up and tripping it with rocks or sticks.   He also helped me with some bolts and hard to reach items- he’s getting to be a big help these days.  We finished the day to a delicious supper of ham and potatoes that Mom cooked up.  All in all a simple, enjoyable day.  The kind of day that goes on forever, and when the sun starts down it’s almost a surprise.

It’s a weekend of shared celebration and memories too, and really feels like we can welcome the spring season now.  We’ll be looking for what the Easter bunny brought tomorrow- but it appears we aren’t the only ones looking for something… this robin spent several minutes burying its head inside this spruce!  Have a wonderful Easter sunday.

robin

Birds, Flowers and Surprise!

April 2nd, 2009

With days of warming sun, flowers and wild life abounding, it’s easy to find spring as a favorite time of the year. Finally we enjoy getting outside more and seeing so much of life around us.  Especially birds and flowers.  I love it when the wild violets emerge- I don’t know the species exactly, but isn’t this one beautiful?

Wild Violet © Fox Haven Media 2009

 

But the birds are so amazing right now, and if you get the chance I hope you’ll stop over and visit Carrie at Great Auk – or Greatest Auk? and read an amazing discourse between two elderly gentlemen about birds.   Elderly is a bit optimistic, considering the discussion at hand, but it’s a really enlightening and humorous effort while hosting the I and the Bird #97 blog carnival.

It’s a fitting day for the carnival anyway as I watched a Great Heron this morning by the pond… perhaps the same heron I snuck up on a couple years ago?  It was poised on the shoreline in quiet contemplation (not!), until I saw it strike quickly and then wolf down a small bass.  I’m a little protective of the fish in the pond, so I wandered down the hillside and the heron flew away.  They can be voracious.  I had to smile though- I hope it enjoyed its breakfast.

There’s so much more going on than just birds and flowers of course.  Yesterday my faithful labrador was huffing and whining quietly on the porch… I wasn’t really listening.  He continued nosing around a plant and then looking up at me until I realized he was trying to tell me something.  I’m a little slow sometimes… but I nearly jumped as I leaned over to see what he was looking at.  Turns out we had a guest, probably overwintered in a pot we brought in- raise your hand if you know what it is!  (And you herpers out there… Shhhh!).

snake

Okay, the answer is… a Red Milk Snake!

Memories of Spring, Rare Plants and Rare People

April 1st, 2009

On this first day of April I finally feel like spring is here.  The days are warming up and flowers and leaves are coming out everywhere- and the birds! When you walk out the door at sunrise, the singing is amazing.  Cardinals, Phoebes, Towhees, Sparrows, Bluebirds… it’s a wild cacophony of twittering and song.  Well, twittering means something else to most people these days…  but for me it’s the birds.

It is a lovely time of year though.  It reminds me so much of exploring the forests when I was younger.  I remember a spring in the early 1980’s when I really learned about the plants and wildflowers throughout the Ozarks.   I was taking a botany class in college, and wouldn’t you know it- most of what we had to do was hike and walk around looking for plants to identify.  My kind of class!  One time we were hiking throughout the northwestern Arkansas Ozarks and the professor had us gather around to examine a plant.  He gingerly held something up and asked if we knew what it was… no one answered.  He handed it to one of the guys, and said “Feel the little hairs on the stem, and tell me what you think…”  Within a few moments the young gent dropped the stinging nettle yelling “Owww!”  It only stings and itches for a short time, but we thought that was pretty funny- and I never forgot the plant.

On another trip to some beautiful highland slopes above a river, we wandered along below a bluff admiring the landscape.  One of my classmates found a neat little bush with white flowers, and was about to pull some off… “Don’t touch that plant!!!” the professor screamed, as we all jumped wondering what was the matter.  He ran up and we gathered around as he excitedly described that the plant, Alabama Snow-wreath, was very rare and only found in a few places across the southern states.

alabama-snow-wreath
Alabama Snow-wreath (Neviusia alabamensis A. Gray) GFDL Kurt Steuber

 


He knew of only two places it was growing at the time, one of them where we stood.  There were just a few bushes in a small circle, covered with white flowers.  The plant is still classified as threatened and is very rare, but has also been found in Missouri and a few other southern states.   Oddly, some have propagated the plant for gardens as it’s similar to spirea, but it’s still very uncommon.  I remember admiring the wispy white flower heads and standing in awe that the plant I was seeing only grew in a few places in the entire world.  As startled as I was by the professor’s response at first, I had to wonder how many other plant and animal species across the globe had a similar distinction.   The more I learned about plants and wildlife, the more I appreciated his convictions.   Perhaps that awakened the realization that the world is much smaller than it seems.

The journeys I would later make throughout the world became an exploration of nature too, and proved just how small the world really is- even while at times I felt torn watching the machinations of mankind against the backdrop of world politics.  I felt a greater responsibility than being a mere instrument of political will, and sought balance within myself through the years.  Nothing was ever as black and white as it seemed, but I am thankful for having made the journey.

Spring was never quite the same for me after those early days in school however.  Instead, the season after winter became a quiet revelation of the wonders of the natural world, instilling a sense of appreciation and mystery that has always remained.   How can one describe the joy and excitement of finding a new flower, plant or bird in a place you haven’t seen before?  Not everyone appreciates that mystery and beauty… to some it’s the same old thing.  But to those of us who feel the pulse of nature quicken in our hearts, it is everything.

A year or so after that botany field trip I was somehow chosen to pick up none other than Jean-Michel Cousteau at the airport one day, to bring him to the school for a speaking presentation on the environment.   I barely remember the event or what he did after I brought him to the school.  I do remember waiting at the little airport, wondering how I could be picking up the son of the famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau… the man I grew up watching on television and dreaming of the adventures and explorations he made throughout the world.

I wish I could even remember our conversation as we drove for a half hour to the school campus.  It was unremarkable, and he was tired from his journey.  I was young and wanted to make a good impression… mostly by not having an accident while driving the van on the way to the school!  I do remember that I tried to share a bit of the beauty of spring that year- he agreed, brightening a bit and  saying something like,  “Ah, oui! Yaas, ze vorld iz a beootiful place, non?” I remember wishing I could see the places he had seen, and travel to faraway lands.    Eventually I would, but in such a different way!  His life of course has become a celebration of environmental awareness and education, especially in terms of water and ocean issues- and a testament to his father’s life and research.

*******

Speaking of water and another spring ritual, our Koi Carp have become active once again in the pond.  They’re not true Nishikigoi or Japanese Koi, but rather a hybrid carp of sorts grown here in America.  But they’re placid fish, cruising around the pond, and I enjoy seeing them.  In November or December they seem to disappear- and all winter long I wonder if they are doing okay, especially under the ice.  They go into a near hibernation or stasis of sorts in winter, finding a deeper, muddy place to wait out the cold months.  In mid-to-late March they reappear near the shorelines, and begin cruising around in the shallow warmer waters.

Those in our pond are very large fish now- between 2-3 feet long.   Most are orange and black in coloration- but this one is a mottled white.  We call the very orange ones “Orangey” and the ones with a large black spot, “Spot.”  Very orginal, huh?! I haven’t been able to get close enough to tell them apart, but this year I’ll try to get more pictures like this.  We may call this one Motley or Patch…  That’s the tip of a bluestem plant in the foreground- the fish probably weighs 20-30 pounds or more.

Koi Carp

We had five at one point- beginning with three about 8-12 inches long, and stocking two smaller ones about 6-8 inches long a year later.  One of those disappeared, and we’ve seen the same four large Koi Carp together now for the past couple of years.   I don’t feed them- they help control the vegetation and subsist on a natural diet.  Thus far they seem to be doing just fine, and based on their life cycle, may still be here long after we are gone.

A Little White and Color in March

March 29th, 2009

A little snow in late March and it feels almost like winter again.  This was a wet, heavy snow and most of it is already melting.  I don’t think it even bothered the fruit buds, and I’m glad the day’s temperatures will be near 50 degrees F.  I just finished feeding the bees on Friday to help stimulate brood production- they should be snuggled in a warm embrace in the lower hive body, and when it warms up they can snack on a little of that sugar syrup.  Until yesterday the bees have been quite active however.  I noted that the serviceberry trees are blooming (even saw a bee on one of the flowers which answered my wondering if they used them), and the redbuds are only a few warm days away from flowering too.

  march-snowfall

But just yesterday the landscape was full of spring colors without the wet stuff. The pussy willow tree is about finished blooming now, which is over a week earlier than last year. Here are some of the flower heads just before dropping off the tree, with a little mason bee hovering about.

pussy-willow-in-bloom

March is also time for our PJM rhodedendron to bloom- this is one of my favorite plants and flower colors.  It’s often too hot and humid here for growing most azaleas and rhody’s  easily, but maybe we’ll find some shady places for a few more.

pjm-rhody

Hiking the forest boundary revealed our old friend Rue anemone blooming on the southern slopes. The rue flowers have a gentleness of color and form that reminds me of the quiet days of spring.

rue-anemone

I’m amazed how one day you don’t see anything, and the next day flowers are blooming everywhere.  Soon we’ll get a run of warm spring days and everything else will start bursting forth. Which means it’s really time to get the garden in… unlike some more productive folks, I’m feeling a little behind these days!

garden-angel

We have a little garden angel to look out for things though… This little angel is supposed to help me think of ways to put our bricks to use. As you can see, just the idea kind of makes one sleepy. Of course I’m not the only one looking for ideas about what to do with bricks, but I much prefer garden angels to guardian scorpions!

Marching Toward Spring

March 14th, 2009

The weather is back on a warming trend. Isn’t this a great time of year?  There’s so many changes each day as you walk around outdoors- I came around the corner of the house the other day and was surprised to find a small patch of jonquils in bloom with a little crocus nearby.  The daffodils are awesome this time of year and soon we’ll have large and small yellow flowers everywhere. 

jonquills-and-daffodils

 

By the way, I did finish the upgrade to the latest WordPress version. Hooray! Of course I was then locked out of the account for about 6 hours as I tried to reconnect to the database.  Oh boy… and then the login data was corrupted, but after much googling, tinkering, and gnashing of teeth, everything came together.  Other than a few formatting challenges it worked as advertised.  I was struck how after more than two years of writing here that I really enjoy it- and I would feel really bad to lose the data and writings.  I back up the database of course, but I haven’t printed out hard copies or anything.  I don’t know where it will lead, but perhaps after we’re all long gone someone else can read a little history of this time.  I wish I knew more about my own ancestors- what their lives were like and the thoughts they shared.  I’ll have to ponder that a little more.

Did you know that for the northern hemisphere the Vernal Equinox will take place this year on March 20th, at 11:44 am…?  Call me curious…  so in six more days we can have lunch and welcome spring once again.  Oh, wait… that’s UTC.   So let’s see for Central Daylight Time that means the equinox will take place at 6:44 am here in Missouri.  So make it breakfast then for the midwest… we can watch the sun rise and welcome a new day and a new season.  

I’ve been watching the pussy willow tree (Salix discolor) this week and the catkins are really full.  Soon they will burst forth with tiny yellow flowers and the bees will have a party.  Maybe we will too!

pussy-willow-catkins

Winter Giving Way to Spring

February 16th, 2009

As winter’s cold has crept back in we’re still feeding the birds and carrying firewood to the stove.  But a few days ago I heard the first Spring Peepers… and they’ve been calling everyday since.   It’s amazing that a tiny frog can make such a loud bird-like call, and they’re the best harbingers of spring that I know.  They usually start calling around mid-to-late February in our area as the sun brings warmer daytime temperatures to shallow water.

After school one day we took a walk in our small patch of forest to see what might be emerging.  I’ve heard that Witch-Hazel is blooming around the area, but we don’t have any that I know of.  They’re neat small trees or shrubs with beautiful yellow fingery flowers.  I think I ordered some from the conservation department, so with any luck after planting this year, we could have a tree or two of our own in a couple years.  I hope to continue to plant many diverse native species, but also to emphasize the one’s that flower at different months so the honey bees will benefit.  Which means we would benefit from the honey too!

On our little hike we discovered some beautiful patches of moss among the leaf litter.  It’s so green and lush and reminds me of stories of fairies, leprechauns and other forest enchantments when I find places like this.  Not to mention how soft it is… usually I try not to walk on the moss and lichens knowing how long it takes for most of them to grow.  But it looks so inviting… on a warm day I could just lay down and take a nap.

Winter moss in the forest

We also saw the bluebirds checking out the nest boxes, and defending them from the sparrows.  I’ll probably try to help the bluebirds by shooing the sparrows away…   I also saw an enormous flock of White-fronted Geese flying high above heading northward.  The Canada Geese are looking for nesting places too.  That afternoon a flock of geese landed on the pond.  I walk toward the pond and most of them fly off… which is okay with me given the amount of you-know-what they leave behind.  Two remained behind to check out the pond… and eventually they flew off too.  I do enjoy it when they visit.

 Canada Geese in February

It’s really fascinating to watch the seasons unfold- literally in the spring of course.  Most of the changes are very subtle, such as flowers that emerge and disappear in a matter of days.   Many changes are more apparent… the pond’s ice is now gone for the year.  It’s nice to see the open water again, and the shadows and reflections. 

Sunset in February at Fox Haven

After a warm day exploring, we finally watch the sun disappear behind the trees. It all looks so peaceful… and then we see something moving on that little stump by the water’s edge.  It’s one of the cats, prowling along the shoreline.

Pond Ice and Green Thoughts

February 3rd, 2009

Too busy catching up on projects and activities over the weekend.  Ah, but that’s good right?  The weather can’t make up it’s mind however, swinging from cold to warm days and back again.  I think tonight the low will be around 7 degrees F, but in a couple of days the high will reach well above 50 degrees.  Just maybe this is the last really cold spell for the winter?  The ice will probably be gone in a week or so.  I’ve started making the rounds and pruning a few more trees- and it’s time to prune the apple trees too.  That’ll be a project for this weekend, along with the garden if we have time.

The snow melted off most areas around the property, but the pond is still frozen over.  I was never quite confident enough to walk on the ice beyond the really shallow corners.  I did see some folks ice fishing on a few smaller ponds in the local area.  Our pond is mostly filled from the watershed, with many warmer spots where the groundwater runs off the property- hence the ice along some of the shoreline areas is far too unstable.

I’m not sure if these cracks in the ice go all the way through, but I’m not walking out there to check either!  The snow has melted off, but the ice has gone through several freeze and thaw cycles.

Cracks in pond ice

Here’s where one of the circles in the ice has thawed, with cracks branching out.   The stump was from a hundred year old oak tree that had a rope swing on it from two decades ago.  The tree eventually died and woodpeckers tore it all apart.   I wonder how long it will last…

Hole in the pond ice

It’s not all ice, snow, brown and gray…  I found my little Shortleaf Pine tree the other day- actually there’s two of them.  They were the only two that survived after planting a couple dozen seedlings two years ago.  But this one is doing great, and has started developing branches.  

Shortleaf Pine

Naturally I picked a drought year to attempt planting those seedlings in the spring of 2007.   If I had done the same last year the survival rate would have been much higher.   But I’ve ordered more native plants again- especially smaller shrubs and trees that help local wildlife such as sumac, buttonbush, elderberry, etc.  (I love having elderberry plants around- they’re great for sauce and jelly during the late summer’s harvest!).   The plants will arrive in March or April, and I’ll spend a week or two trying to figure out where to put the seedlings.

I really appreciate Missouri’s State Forest Nursery and the fact that they make native plants available at very fair prices.  It’s almost too easy these days to choose landscaping plants that really don’t belong in many regions across the country.  We may see a plant or shrub we really like but without realizing it we end up spreading invasive species that detract from the biodiversity of the native environment.    I do appreciate new plants and beautiful landscaping, but at least for the fields and forests in Missouri’s rural areas I hope to foster a more natural approach with native plants.  It makes you wonder though- we’ve got non-native Autumnberry trees around that are very invasive, and yet they’ve been here for about a hundred years now.  I’ve got a bunch of them I need to cut back and remove, but at least the Autumnberry fruit is edible and can make decent jelly too.

Snowy Landscapes

January 29th, 2009

What a snowfall we got the other day.  Our thoughts are with all those folks struggling to get their lives back together after the ice storms this week.  Thankfully we only received the white stuff- about 6-8 inches worth.    The kids were out of school for a couple of days, and we enjoyed a chance to spend some time together.     

The Shiba Inu loves to run around in the snow, and has a coat so thick he would be just fine outside all the time.    He’s running through the garden here and likes to look for rabbits and moles. 

Shiba Inu in winter

Speaking of the garden, it’s pretty sad looking.  I’m embarrassed to show how we’ve barely cleaned up last year’s growth.  The next warm spell we get I’m going to head out and clean it up, and topdress the rows with leaves.  It’s time… I’m already imagining tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, peas…

Garden bare in winter

I keep telling myself spring isn’t far off, especially while plowing the gravel drive.  I took half the snow off, but it’s still a few inches deep.  I don’t want to plow too closely or I would scrape away the packed gravel base.  We park one of the cars near the road during snowstorms because it doesn’t drive very well down and up the snow-covered slope.  Hopefully some of this will melt off today.

Plowing snow on gravel drive

But I just love how the landscape looks when covered in snow.  Maybe it even keeps the bees a little warmer?  Who knows, but in about a month it will be time for the queen bee to start producing a lot more baby bees.  Oh, if you’re wondering- the beehives are black looking because I wrapped them with black-painted insulation for warmth. 

Some people debate whether you should wrap hives in winter in the midwest.  Some believe it makes them too warm and hence they could be more active and eat more their winter stores of honey.  I like to think it helps them stay warmer, using less of their own metabolic energy to stay warm comparatively, and hence eating less of their stored honey over time.  I’m sure there are a lot more opinions and research out there… I’m a new beekeeper and still learning.  But this winter has been colder than normal for us, and I’m glad I wrapped them up. Hopefully they make it to late winter when I’ll start feeding and the cycle will begin again.

Winter landscape and bee hives

Winter Mysteries and Bee Shadows

January 25th, 2009

Looks like snow in the forecast for tonight or tomorrow…  If it’s going to be winter, I enjoy having some of that white stuff around- especially if the alternative is ice or freezing rain.   Late one afternoon as I walked along the pond dam the Little Bluestem just stood out beautifully against the background of the pond.  Snow flurries in the afternoon covered the ice briefly.

Little Bluestem and snow on pond

The next day was warm enough that the sun begain melting the snow.   I found the footprints of an animal that crossed the ice- they look like coyote or fox tracks, but I don’t really know.   Neat to see however.  I also have to wonder how the fish are doing under the ice?  Maybe if it stays cold enough we could even try ice fishing this year.

Footprints on the ice at Fox Haven

The next day the sun melted the snow off the ice to reveal a marvelous scene.  The thawing and freezing of the ice had created some of the most beautiful designs!  It almost looks like stained glass or something created by man… but only God and nature creates such beautiful scenes as this. 

 Designs in the Ice

It was even warm enough one day for the bees to fly around.  It was weeks since I had seen them, and I always worry that they are getting enough to eat through winter.  Watching them buzz all around the outside of the hive was pretty neat. 

 Bees flying about in January

I had to zoom in on one part of that picture above- I love how that one bee’s shadow is reflected on the white landing board!  Here’s a close-up-

Bee and Shadow © Fox Haven Media 2009

Is that cool or what?  I liked it so much that I cropped just the bee’s shadow and added it to the image rotation of the little pictures by the quotes above.  With cold nights and warming days, we could think about tapping a few maple trees for syrup.  That’s a project for another year, however, and for now we’ll just enjoy getting things done around the house.  I actually cleaned off that workbench in the barn yesterday with a nice fire in the woodstove- first time in several years.  With any luck, this mad streak of productivity will continue for a few months into spring.   Goodness knows it’s time to think about what’s going in the garden this year.

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