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Elderberries, Juncos and Schoolwork

February 25th, 2009

It’s a beautiful day today and I have grand ambitions for taking care of many outdoor chores.  By the way, that little shrub that I mentioned the other day in the picture is an Elderberry.  How it grew there I don’t know, but it blooms in May and June with pretty white flower clusters- and I love the berries for jam and jelly that mature in late August or September.  Here’s last summer’s efforts at making jam– the elderberry jam never set up, but the sauce is wonderful on pancakes or biscuits.  We’re almost out of the elderberry sauce now, and I’ll have to pull some more berries out of the freezer.  Maybe I should trim around the elderberry bush so it has a little more space to grow?  Last year I was stuck in a patch of briars trying to reach the elderberry clusters.  The good thing is they were blackberry bushes… but ouch!

We’re still feeding the birds- they go through almost four feeders full of seed every week or so.  I think we’re finishing the second 40 pound bag of mixed seed, and the second 15 pound bag of thistle for winter and that should be it.  I love having them here, but you’ve got to keep the feeders full.  The young boy helps me with that and loves seeing the birds.   I’d like to think it helps some of the birds make it through winter that would otherwise have a difficult time.    And yet with days like today in the 60’s the birds are off exploring for insects and other natural fare.   Soon it will be time for them to disperse to nesting sites, and for birds like the Junco to head back north.  We don’t have them here in summer- they leave in March and come back in November.   Here’s a Junco on the Mugo!

Junco on Mugo

 

By the way, have you seen the math the second grade kids do these days?  I’m amazed by the expectations that schools have and how much work they are assigned.  Overall it’s a very good thing, but it seems like so much more than we ever did as youngsters, and I have to wonder if the strategies are really effective at times.  

Between the reading, weekly book summaries and reports, spelling tests, composition and math, it’s a wonder they have time to be kids.   At least his school still has recess, music, art and PE.   But our little guy is having a tough time being fast enough with his “math facts.”  That’s where the kids are timed- and he has to do 25 addition or subtraction problems in 2 minutes!  He knows it really well, but it takes him 4-5 minutes to finish them.   We even practice them every day on paper and with a little electronic gizmo to help memorize them, but he’s at a plateau and not getting much faster.   So his grades show a 35% or 40% even though he’ll finish the sheet in 4-5 minutes with only getting one or two wrong.   

Personally I think it’s a shame to force the speed drills on kids so young- and to grade them poorly even though they know the math.  In fact he’s very good in math, but because he sees himself finishing slowly and getting poor grades, he thinks he’s “not good at math.”   Kind of sad, but I try to help him understand that he is good at math, and with time he’ll get faster.   I just want him to continue learning- remaining receptive to it, and to understand that it’s not all about speed.   Skills he learns now are important as building blocks for the skills he will need in later grades, but some children develop more slowly in certain areas.   Obviously the standardized testing is a big part of it- and those tests begin in 3rd grade where he will start taking the timed tests that will be part of academics for the rest of his school days.  

What’s very strange is that he can naturally remember the words to poems, jokes and songs without even trying- he’s far better at that than I am.  And yet he doesn’t remember numbers the same way, or doesn’t think he does.   Contrast his math with his reading… he’s already at a 5th or 6th grade reading level, and simply devours books.   I’m so proud of him, and feel like lots of effort really paid dividends. I used to sit with him for hours as a 3, 4 and 5 year old, going over sounds and sentences every day to develop phonemic awareness, and practice his reading skills.  And he always had mom or dad or grandma to read to him as well at bedtime.   But the reading practice wasn’t easy, and he didn’t always enjoy it.  At one point he really didn’t like the book/program I had, so I gave it a few week break and switched to a more fun phonics reading approach.  He loved it. 

But I remember at one point wondering if he would ever get it, and finally around age 6 he just took off.  To this day I still remember the first little phonics book he read on his own-  afterwards I said “Guess what?… You just read that all by yourself!”  He didn’t believe me at first, and then he was surprised at himself.   Now he knows he’s good at reading, and he really enjoys it and is proud of himself.   I hope he can develop his skills and appreciation for math and such to feel the same way.   Yet who knows, maybe he’s just more of a word person than a number person… everybody is different.

Still January, Still Winter

January 24th, 2009

Woke up to 8-10 degrees F this morning, after a few warmish days.  Even the bees came out to stretch their wings earlier this week.  Okay, my spring thoughts are early- can you blame me?!  There’s about 25 Juncos and other birds darting around the feeders.  Our little cat Princess just had to go outside yesterday evening to explore, and darted out as we were coming in… so she got to spend the night somewhere very chilly.  The dogs are in the garage when it’s this cold, and while letting them out this morning Princess runs back into the garage, “Meeowwww!” she says, asking to come inside the laundry room. 

The other day my wife and son found a little woodpecker on the patio at the base of some windows.  Presumably it was stunned from flying into them- she just picked it up off the ground.  But I came in that evening to find it wrapped up in warm blankets in a little box, blinking its eyes at me and turning its head.  As I looked at it the lab stuck his nose at the little bird and up it flew!  It was a male Downey Woodpecker, and was hanging on near the windows, then flew over to the brick on the fireplace.  I simply reached up and gently grabbed it, prying its little claws off the brick.  It didn’t even fuss very much- I don’t know if it was just not afraid or what.  Here’s another one near the feeders.

Downey Woodpecker near feeders

It was dark outside by then however, so we put it back in a box to keep through the night.   The next morning after the sun came up, they gathered to watch as I took it outside and opened up the box.  The little woodpecker grabbed on to my fingers with its feet- and didn’t seem to want to let go.  Finally I pushed it towards the edge of the box, and it looked around for a bit- and then flew up to the top of an oak tree.  Cute little guy- hope he made it!

Here’s a nest I found way up high in another oak tree.  It’s deceiving, but this is a pretty big nest- probably close to 10-12 inches in diameter on some large branches of the tree.  What do you suppose it’s from?  It’s not Mourning Doves- they make messy stick nests.  This one is quite nice and tidy looking, but I have no idea what kind of bird made it.  Will they use it again? Interesting things you can find in winter.  One of these days I’ll get a nice spotting scope to help get a better look at wildlife and such.

Bird nest in oak tree

Sunday Friends

January 11th, 2009

After many clouds and colder weather we are enjoying a beautiful sunny day.  It’s hard not to think of spring on days like this, and I’m already feeling behind with garden planning and a host of outdoor projects.   I think some people just feel that way all the time, and like it or not I’m one of them.   Time to gather some more firewood too since we’re already working down the last two piles really fast.  This week promises to be very cold again. 

Yesterday I replenished our bird feeders and put up one more.  So that makes four feeders near the house and the birds seem to appreciate the free buffet.   I’m sure they would be fine by themselves, but I just like to have feed available especially on those bitterly cold days and nights.  And it’s fun to watch the lively activity around the house, especially during the gray days of winter.  We get at least a dozen species, but the finches and juncos seem to be the most common.

Finches and Juncos below the bird feeder

And the yellow lab really enjoys being outside in winter, and always finds something fun to do.  Would that my spirit soared as constantly as his… he’s always ready to go with such unbridled enthusiasm.   The young boy took this picture of him while we were looking for the right Christmas tree to cut down for his grandmother last month.  That was a fun afternoon.  We’re still looking for the snow, and a chance to really play!

Yellow Labrador Retriever

Cold, Icy and… Birdy?

December 5th, 2008

I’ve never seen the pond frozen this early in December before.  January and February are the coldest months for us, but waking up to about 16 degrees this morning was downright chilly.  The jet stream is so far south that we’re getting a good bit of that Canadian air this month.  There’s a reason I don’t live in Canada in the winter… I can only imagine how much colder it is up there!

Ice on the pond in December

So there I am, after the morning routine and getting the boy off to school, finally sitting down with a cup of coffee.  My reverie was short-lived, nearly spilling the coffee all over myself after a loud “Whump!” on the window behind me.  I looked out to see a dazed female Cardinal sitting below the window, her head slowly nodding with eyes closed.   I hoped she was not permanently injured, but I also knew she would either die by a) freezing to death after going into shock from the impact in such cold weather, or b) become breakfast for our wandering cat Princess.

So out I go, picking her up and taking her to the porch which was a little warmer at 40 degrees.  I set her down in the sunshine and left her alone for an hour, head still nodding with eyes closed.  But it’s the season for miracles and when I came back later she was alert and eyeing me suspiciously. 

 Female Cardinal

I figured she’d be okay then but went to pick her up and make sure… Zoom!  around the room she goes.  She wasn’t quite ready to acquiesce to such human manhandling.  But after a few flutterings at the window and much pecking at me with that orange beak I finally had her, and took her out to the bird feeder where she promptly flew off to a nearby tree.   I imagine she’ll have a sore neck for a few days, but hopefully she’ll make it.

It’s a too common theme at this time of year with birds flying into windows.  There was another Cardinal in the House one time, but it was a he, near-death, and after spending a night with us, he surprised me by his resilience.  I was even more surprised writing about Nuthatch Nuttiness…  somehow the outdoor world, birds and flying has always been part of my life.  I even worked at the World Bird Sanctuary for a time in my youth, helping to rehabilitate raptors. But that’s another story.

Rest Stop for Waterfowl

September 27th, 2008

An early morning the other day and two large flocks of Canada Geese decided to visit the pond.  They were obviously heading somewhere, and only stayed for a short while.  I think I counted over fifty-five geese, honking and chattering as they landed with a splash.  I walked down the hill and they looked at me as if I was intruding on their rest-stop!

Canada Geese landing on Fox Haven Pond

The geese look so awkward as they begin to land, paddling with their feet and flapping their wings.  But then they quickly settle into the water, tucking their wings back in and heads erect, regaining their composure.

Canada Geese settling on the water

Soon we may see a few more ducks and geese and leaves on the water!  The leaves have begun to change color and fall off the trees.  Autumn is here.

 

Hummingbirds at the Feeder

May 24th, 2008

We have a few thirsty hummingbirds that visit the feeders each day.  The only resident species here in Missouri is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  The female in this picture seems to take turns with the male at the feeder many times during the day.  In a few weeks there will be young hummingbirds flying all around, and then it’s like a festival at the feeders with little birds zooming everywhere.   

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

It’s hard to believe these little birds migrate all the way to Mexico and Central America.  It doesn’t seem possible for an animal that weights 1/8 of an ounce, but their tiny hearts beat faster than 4 times each second while resting and more than 20 times per second while flying and feeding.

Bluebirds Leave the Nest

May 17th, 2008

 I was walking along minding my own business when I was dive-bombed by a Bluebird.  They had been  rearing young in the nest boxes, and as I looked down I found this little guy sitting in the grass.  Another fledgling was in the garden a few feet away.  Very strange because they couldn’t even fly yet.  I left them alone and when about my business. 

Fledgling Bluebird

Later that evening as the sun dipped below the horizon, I found another one near the door of the barn, all alone.  Not a Bluebird adult in sight and that one looked even more pitiful.  I usually leave wildlife alone knowing that nature knows much better about how to take care of itself than I do, but we were due for cold and heavy rain that night and I had a feeling the little guy wouldn’t make it.  So I plunked him back in the nest box near the garden.  He (she?) hopped right in and looked at me hungrily.  I said goodnight, and the next day checked the box again.  The bird was gone.  Maybe it’ll grow up around here with the others. 

There are quite a few Bluebirds flying about the grass now, eating crane flies and other morsels, with the little ones hopping and flying about.  I love how they eat so many bugs.  Of course I wasn’t too thrilled with the Phoebe’s the other day- they were perched above the beehives snacking on my new workers!

 

Gandering at Geese

May 2nd, 2008

Sometimes I think I should call this blog The Pond Watcher based on how often I find myself looking wistfully at the water.   Mostly I simply enjoy watching all the critters that live in, on or around it.  Many animals just visit briefly, which keeps it interesting.  But lately we’ve had a family of Canada Geese visiting with their youngsters. 

So I guess I’m gandering at the gander, the goose and the goslings :)  There are a few ponds in the area, and the geese actually walk for hundreds of yards through the fields to different ponds with the goslings in tow.  They have also nested here in the past, but I discourage that due to all the, well… you know what.  We live right here at the pond, and with too much of the ah, you know what laying around, it becomes quite messy.   But the geese have prevailed this year, and I’ll enjoy watching them swim around the pond.

Of course the little goslings are very cute to watch, but the harsh realities of nature takes its toll as there were seven little guys following the parents around last week, and now there are only four left.  We have a lot of hawks, coyotes, foxes, fish and turtles around…  But maybe these four will make it to adulthood?  There is no shortage of Canada Geese in the midwest, but it’s neat to watch them grow and learn to fly.

Family of Canada Geese in May

Toad Love on Earth Day!

April 22nd, 2008

Its been a busy few days and the pace of spring just amazes me.  We finally had time to get most of the garden planted, even earlier than last year.  Hooray! Not being satisfied with last year’s cucumbers, I planted four different kinds this year.  Now if I can only remember which ones I planted where… doh!

We’ve been planting many small trees around the property, and transplanting a few others.  Isn’t it wonderful to dig in the earth once in a while?  My hands are sore but somehow after packing a tree in it’s new home in the ground it actually feels like you’re doing something.  This year we need to put up some deer fencing, or the trees won’t make it to next spring. 

Ah, but I just remembered it’s Earth Day today!  I hope everyone has a chance to get outside and enjoy the wonders of spring. 

The American Toads (Bufo americanus) have been trilling in and out of the pond, and their chorus is amazing at the height of mating season.  We had a picnic down by the pond and watched them calling and laying gelatinous masses of eggs.   

The toads can be found all around the ridgelines and around the house during the year, so it’s interesting to see them in the water during breeding season.  My picture of Toad Love last year was about 20 feet from the water’s edge. The males grab tightly to the back of the females and they find a weedy place near the shoreline to lay the eggs.   It was funny watching them swim tandem under the water for 4-5 feet at a time, and then come popping up!

Male and female American Toads

We must have seen about 30 toads along 50 feet of the pond shoreline.  Here’s a lone male trying to lure a female to the sound of his voice.   From what we saw, most of the female toads were already spoken for.  Keep tryin’ fella! 

A lonely male American Toad

 They didn’t seem to mind our presence… they had a job to do.  These masses of eggs will become thousands of tadpoles in a few weeks.

American Toads with egg masses in a pond

We appreciate the toads because they eat a lot of insects as well.  In mid-summer, they can be found near the house under the porch lights having bugs for dinner.

For those not inclined to appreciate the merits of toads, here’s a bloom of Wood Sorrel.  But it’s funny, my toad post from last year also had a picture of Wood Sorrel. 

My new late-April spring saying:  The Toads are in love when the Wood Sorrel blooms. 

Wood Sorrel blooming

And the Baltimore Orioles have returned, although they only stay for a few weeks it seems.  This one’s plumage is a little dull compared to those I saw last year, but it’s also about two weeks early.  Maybe a female? Or will the coloration become brighter orange with time?  I may try to set out some orange slices and a feeder to see what happens.

Baltimore Oriole

And I did see the first Hummingbird today already.  I put up the feeders yesterday in case, but didn’t know they were really back yet.  Our Barn Swallows are busy working on their nest, and it seems we’ll have two mating pairs this year.  So lots of Barn Swallows to take care of the bugs too.  I was hoping for some Purple Martins, and one actually landed on the Martin house this week- but was promptly chased away by a House Sparrow of all things.  I’ve got to remove that sparrow’s nest…  For now it’s back to planting trees.   Enjoy the day!

A Hungry Visitor

April 12th, 2008

Our friend the Great Blue Heron has returned.  It doesn’t nest here, but makes the rounds in the morning to try and find a meal or two.  I was walking back toward the pond the other day and saw it flying away with a very large bulge in its neck.  “That better not be our koi!” I shouted.  Last year we found a huge bluegill laying on the bank with big scissor marks down both sides of its body.  The heron had grabbed and tried to eat it, but couldn’t.

Great Blue Heron at the pond

All things being equal (which they’re not), I would rather the heron feed somewhere else.  I’ve heard that some koi owners lose all the fish in their ponds to herons.  Can’t blame them for finding food where it’s most convenient. They are beautiful birds, but we like managing our own fish population!

As I walked closer to the heron it flew away over the pond with a raucous “Aawwwk!”.

 Great Blue Heron flying over pond

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