Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Feeding the senses

Several weeks ago I attended the Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference in Columbus. It was a day spent in the company of other nature lovers (who work at it for a living and/or are just home-grown naturalists like myself), learning lots of good information about different species that share their space with us in Ohio.

The theme of this year's conference was "It All Makes Sense!" and each presenter tried to tie their subject to one of the five senses. There were presentations about skunks (representing "smell"), paddlefish and the caviar market (representing "taste"), Northern Saw-whet Owl banding (representing "sight"), wild boar populations (loosely related to "sound"), singing insects (more closely related to "sound") and kids and conservation (loosely related to "touch").  All of the presentations were interesting, but some stuck with me more than others.

Probably the most engaging of the presentations was the one about singing insects, given by Wil Hershberger, co-author (with Lang Elliott) of The Songs of Insects. (I got my own autographed copy during the morning break!)  Wil told us a bit about singing insect physiology, including how they make their songs, how they hear the songs, and how they respond to them.  And of course he played audio recordings of a myriad of singing insects, from crickets to katydids to cicadas.  After his presentation, there was no doubt in my mind that I had to have his fantastic auditory field guide!

The other presentation that really stuck out in my mind was that of Matt Sorrick, who is the Director of The Center for Science Education at Hiram College here in Ohio.  He talked about kids and conservation and how exploring nature in their own back yard could be the magic "touch" to saving the world.  If I were an educator, I probably would have considered his talk to be a bit controversial because he made some points that illustrate how the last 40 years of environmental education may actually be holding our kids back.

For example, he mentioned media outlets like National Geographic and the Discovery Channel which cover great educational topics, but the focus is almost always on exotic places, not our own backyards.  These exotic places, like the Grand Canyon, Mt. Everest or the rain forests of South America or South Africa are far away and will not likely be visited by school-age kids for research and study.  Another example he brought up was programs in parks and preserves.  Once again, these programs are good and mean well, but they also have restrictions (put in place for very good reasons) such as staying on marked trails, not picking plants and not disturbing bugs or wildlife.

His recommendation was to encourage kids to explore "nearby nature."  Nature in their backyards, and in their neighborhoods.  These are places where they can feel free to pick a flower or catch a butterfly or look for toads and salamanders without having to necessarily worry about rules.  This ties into another key concept he brought up, one which is undoubtedly influenced by Rachel Carson (more on her in a minute):  kids need frequent, positive, unstructured experiences in nature, and they need an adult who will encourage them in this free-form nature play.

Rachel Carson understood this concept very well, and we learn how she encouraged it in her grand-nephew in her book The Sense of Wonder (actually an essay first published in 1956 under the title "Help Your Child to Wonder" in Women's Home Companion).  This is truly a marvelous book, and I am very grateful to my friend Karen for bringing it to my attention.  I would like to quote a passage that I found particularly poignant:
>I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.  If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grown.  The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.  Once the emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.  Once found, it has lasting meaning.  It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know that to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.
And so, Mr. Sorrick brought the sixth sense of "wonder" into his talk as well, a sense that I don't think we should take lightly when it comes to thinking about our relationship with nature.  Every naturalist I know, every birder I know, every nature-lover I know exhibits it, and it's probably one of the key things that make us all so comfortable around each other.  Wonder is at the intersection of awe and curiosity.  It's what keeps us from worrying if we get our clothes dirty or wet when crouching down to examine a bug or flower.  It's what holds us spellbound as we watch a heron stalking fish in a lake or when a hawk soars overhead.  Wonder opens us up to the world in special way. And remember: it's never too late to develop and nurture your own sense of wonder.

Where does your sense of wonder take you?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Early spring blooms

The early spring-blooming perennials have been brightening our days for a few weeks now - crocuses, daffodils, and now the hyacinths are opening up.  Forsythia and tulips won't be far behind.  Dandelions are already showing their tufted yellow manes, and I'm pretty sure I've even seen dandelion fuzz flying through the air already!  That's one plant that doesn't waste any time going to seed (much to the dismay of those who like to keep a manicured lawn).  It's at this time of year that I tend to shift my focus from birds to flowers.  It's only natural - as the trees begin to leaf out, it becomes harder to see the birds perched within the canopy, so why not look down at something that's not going to fly away on a dime?

There are two early-blooming wildflowers that I have noticed already on our property:  Coltsfolt and Rue Anemone.  I'm sure there are more, but these are the only two I have spotted so far with minimal observation.

Don't count on this photo to help you identify Coltsfoot. I haven't captured any images of them with the flowers fully opened, unfortunately. They could be easily mistaken for the dandelion at a quick glance, but the flowers are quite a bit smaller, and there are brown markings on the stem that dandies don't have. Also, the stems are leafless until after the flower has set seed. The leaves resemble a colt's foot, thus the common name. Coltsfoot is a common medicinal herb used to soothe upper respiratory ailments such as coughs, asthma, and bronchitis, but recent studies have detected a compound in the plant which can lead to liver damage, so it should be used sparingly.

Rue Anemone was my most recent floral find. This is a first for the property as far as my findings are concerned. I could have easily overlooked it, which I have obviously done in past springs. It's quite a dainty plant, and I found it growing behind our abandoned compost bin just above the creek.

I love all the little blooms that are still so tiny, just waiting to burst forth. I took these photos between rain showers today, which made for all these lovely water droplets caught on the leaves and petals.

What's blooming in your neck of the woods?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Here we go again

A special note of thanks to all of you who took the time to read my poetry submission over at the Daily Writing Tips blog.  And some of you even voted for it - wow!  The poem didn't advance to the next round, but at least it didn't have the least amount of votes, so I know someone out there loves me!  You guys are so awesome.

Speaking of writing, I've gone crazy and created yet another blog just for my writing.  I've been pondering it for a while, but a few things fell into place that made now seem like the right time.  If you'd like to check it out, you'll find me at Writing on the Page (a link will also be over in the sidebar, just like for my photo blog).  Things here will continue as usual - I just don't want to bore folks with all of this poetry and stuff that may not always relate to my love of nature (but most likely will anyway).

Also, a quick mention that the HOTH layout will probably be changing again soon.  Blogger has finally given us the ability to do much more customization with templates without the need to know HTML and the like, so it's time for a little spring sprucing, I think!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Welcome home, my Phoebe friends

Spring has sprung, and I am delighted to announce that our resident pair of Eastern Phoebes has returned to nest on the side of our house!

They are about a week behind schedule as compared to last year. I wasn't even sure they were going to nest in the same spot again. There was actually a curious Carolina Wren checking out and reshaping the old nest for a few days.

Not to worry, though. Once the Phoebes made up their mind that they would settle in this spot, they immediately set to work reshaping it into a bowl fit for the finest Phoebe fledglings. (Say that 3 times fast!) It has been interesting to watch over the past few days how it has really taken shape. Lots of moss has been added around the outside, and it seems more firmly anchored to the side of the house. It's a big nest, though, to be sure. I think this is the third year this nest has been recycled.

This is the first year we have been able to observe them via video from day one. A bonus from this early observation: the male and female spent time together at the nest during the first few days. Time spent together lasts very briefly, as evidenced by the fact that we first started watching them on Friday, and by Tuesday the female was the only one captured on video at the nest 90% of the time. Based on which bird is doing what, we think the bird that raises and lowers the feathers on his head is the male (we call him Don King) and the one who doesn't raise head feathers is the female. We came to this conclusion because Don King mostly stands around while the female does most of the work (not using human sexist views here - the female is responsible for nest building and for incubating the eggs, as noted on BirdHouses101.com).

I would think that all this back and forth, back and forth, must be exhausting on the female. In this video I feel kind of bad for her: she comes in carrying a rather large bug in her beak and starts in on a little bowl shaping, at which point she drops the bug and continues with renovations. To me it looks like the bug gets caught on the side of the nest, so I don't know if maybe she was able to pick it up later or if she truly just forgot about it.

I would expect egg laying to begin in a few days, so incubation will probably start in the next week or so. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

P.S. I submitted a bird-themed poem to a competition over at Daily Writing Tips (opens in separate tab/window) - it's titled "Lucky". Go over and check it out if you have a chance. If you like it, please let your voice be heard by voting for it. Or vote for any of the other 9 poems - they are all great. Thank you!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spring meditation

The crocuses lift their faces skyward, bringing the first riot of color of the year to the yard. Morning still breaks with a chill, but the dawn chorus has already begun. The early bird gets the worm, and maybe a lady to carry on his line if he's lucky.

The days blaze warmer, and sunshine falls from the sky, bringing with it the promise of new life, energy, and fresh starts. Although the calendar has not marked it yet, spring has wrapped its arms around us. It came in tentatively, dropping hints here and there. Winter wanted to stay in our hearts, and held on for dear life, like fingers clinging to a crumbling cliff. But then, like a flash flood, the vernal time was upon us and the warmth and the rain and the sun and the song rushed in.

Evening beckons us to don jackets, and the smell of coolness hangs in the air. The frogs trill and the creeks flow, ceaseless sounds providing a perfect backdrop for meditation. It is a good time for slowing down. A good time to sit - to watch, to listen, to be.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book extravaganza!!

There's nothing like a good book. I will admit that I am a bit of a book hoarder. Our bookshelves are full of a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction, but there are two subjects that dominate the non-fiction shelves: cookbooks and "outdoors" books. The outdoors books cover gardening, homesteading and home building, most of the Foxfire series, field guides of all sorts, and natural history and nature-related books.

I love the public library, and I have no problem borrowing books from it, but some books I feel I must just own. Books I think I might need to reference at some point. Books I think or know I would want to write in. Books that I will read over and over. You get the picture.

Needless to say, I was very excited when my most recent Amazon order arrived bearing more books for my collection. I had had my eye on one of them for a few months, but those wily folks at Amazon and their "Customers who bought this item also bought" list showed me a few other books that piqued my interest. I mean, The Singing Life of Birds - how could I pass that up?

The problem is, I've got a bazillion other books that I've purchased in the last 6-8 months along the same lines that I still haven't finished, or even started for that matter. Last Child in the Woods (Richard Louv). Silent Spring (Rachel Carson). Cuckoos, Cowbirds and Other Cheats (N.B. Davies). One book I did manage to finish recently is Scott Weidensaul's Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. The book taught me a lot and made me reflect more deeply on the different aspects of the growing hobby of birding.

When it comes down to it, these books are in my personal library to help me increase my knowledge base, be it of the natural world or in the kitchen. If I can interpret a habitat and know what grows there and why and who benefits from the flora, or if I can know what to use as a substitution when I run out of milk for that muffin I'm making, then those books made a difference. In their own way they opened up my world view just a little bit more.

What about you - what are you reading these days? What's your favorite work of fiction? Non-fiction? How many books do you own that are still waiting to be read? (Please tell me I'm not alone in this situation!)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The good, the bad, the trashy

The signs of spring are mounting. My final avian sign of spring arrived today: the Eastern Phoebe. I'm amazed at the timing of these sweet little birds. March 15th, give or take a day or two, is when they come back to our woods. I've been straining my ears for them for days, and when the sound finally rang true this morning, it brought a little tear of joy to my eye, and certainly made my heart skip a beat. It still remains to be seen, though, whether they will reuse last year's nest. It's getting a little tall, since it was already reused last year - they pretty much built a new nest on top of the one from the previous season. I'm not sure if there's room for yet ANOTHER new nest on top. Interestingly, a Carolina Wren has expressed interest in the nest and has started reshaping it a bit, so we'll see what happens.

Speaking of nests, we put the Bluebird boxes out in the field across the road today. We removed them from their winter home up here on our wood shed, dusted them off a bit, and hung them out in hopes that we'll have a good nesting season.

Last year wasn't so good: not much interest in the boxes in general, and the one nest attempt that I'm aware of did not end well. What it must be like to birth and raise your children so out in the open like that, with so many predators around - I would think it to be quite a stressful time. I wish them health and safety if they decided to use our boxes this year.

Once the boxes had been hung, I took off into the woods to see what I could see.

Lots of seed sprouts. Don't know what the plant will be, though!

There was also a very cool tree that has obviously encountered some strange stresses to be growing like this:

It looks like the trunk split in two and then twisted around itself. As I got closer to it, it started to look like something else, though...

This view looks to me like half of a face of a Barn Owl.

Unfortunately, my walk in the woods was not all about cool and pretty things. It doesn't take long to spot trash by the creek.

This 5-gallon bucket came in handy... for containing some of the other trash that I found.

Dave and one of our neighbors did a pretty major clean-up of the creek a couple of years ago, and they hauled out a lot of tires. There's still a few back there, though.

I really wanted to get at this stuff, but the water level looked to be a little deep at this point, and since I didn't have my diving gear on, I wasn't going to chance reaching for this flotsam.

Standing back a little ways shows even more trash, including the mother lode: a plastic tricycle (it was too small to be a Big Wheel). I'm sorry to say that there are some folks who live way upstream from this spot, clear on another road, and their yard is always full of trash, so I wouldn't be surprised if at least some of this floated down from their place. Not to mention that people like to just dump stuff in the creek every once in a while. You know, 'cause it's fun. Sigh.

I don't want to end this post on a sour note, so I will also share some tracks that I found in the sand and mud.

Not the best impression, but you can easily make out the 5 fingers.

According to my research on the interwebs, these are raccoon tracks. The track on the left is a hind foot, and the one on the right is a front paw.

All of these tracks were made on some fairly uneven ground, and I'm sure the coon had to dig in quite a bit just to keep its footing, so claw marks show up pretty well.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Peents in the hood!

Wow, what a great day I've had, filled with many first signs of spring. I saw a Red-winged Blackbird alongside the highway today. I heard spring peepers this evening. But most importantly, I heard American Woodcocks displaying practically in our backyard.

Dave and I had just come back from a nice evening walk. I stayed out to fill the bird feeders and then to spy on a tree that I think MIGHT be hosting a Barred Owl nest (this is not yet confirmed), and then I heard it - the unmistakable twitter of an American Woodcock descending from its aerial display high in the air. I ran inside to tell Dave (I probably shouted it, actually, because I was so excited): "You gotta get out here - there's Woodcocks!!!" The funny thing is, we had just been talking about Woodcocks during our walk, wondering if there is any suitable habitat for them around where we live, and it turns it they are just up the hill from us!

For those of you in the audience who aren't birders, the "peent" referred to in the title of this post is one of the characteristic sounds the male Woodcock makes during his mating display. Quoting from Cornell University's All About Birds site:
"The male American Woodcock has an elaborate display to attract females. He gives repeated "peents" on the ground, often on remaining patches of snow in the early spring. After a time he flies upward in a wide spiral. As he gets higher, his wings start to twitter. After reaching a height of 70-100 m (230-328 ft) the twittering becomes intermittent, and the bird starts chirping as he starts to descend. He comes down in a zig-zag, diving fashion, chirping as he goes. As he comes near the ground he silently lands, near a female if she is present. Then he starts peenting again."
We contacted our neighbor whose property the birds were actually on, and some evening soon we're going to go up there and observe them more closely. One of them flew overhead this evening, looking like an over-sized bat, but that was the only view we got. Hopefully we'll be able to get some better views up on the mating grounds.

Stay tuned!

P.S. One thing I forgot to mention when I originally put this post up: I sat outside for a little while longer after all the peenting stopped, and I could hear the earthworms and other creepy crawlies moving around under and among the leaf litter. At least I know there is plenty of food available for the Woodcocks. As to hearing the sound of the soil moving... that only creeped me out a little...

Monday, March 8, 2010


The sun shone powerfully this weekend, and I spent some time outside basking in it. My, did it feel good. We still have remnants of ice and snow hanging on, clinging to the cold spots where the sun doesn't shine. And while the beauty is undeniable, it will not miss the snow and ice when it's gone.

This weekend marked my first tentative scratchings at the leaf litter and soil. I was looking for signs of new life, and I found what I was looking for. The Helleborus that I planted late last spring has survived the winter and is sending out new flower buds already. I gently pried away the leaves that have covered them over for so many months, and practically squealed with delight to find at least 3 distinctive flower buds.

I put the leaves back in their place. I'm sure the flowers would survive frost and/or a freeze, but they might as well stay protected until they are ready to push through on their own.

I also spied some ivy that I bought last year and left in a spot in the yard, not really knowing where it's final home would be. Well, it established roots where I left it lie and has some nice green growth. There were also plenty of things growing in harmony with the moss, like the basal rosette of this flower that I do not know. Ahhh, knowing that things are growing... it's a good feeling! And this is only the beginning.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Right now is enough

Don't let the snow in these photos fool you - the weather around here seems to have turned a corner, and a lot of our snow has melted. The sun even shined today - for the entire day! But this was the scene at our feeders last weekend. The snow had piled up overnight and buried the mealworms contained in this dish. The Carolina Wren knew they were there, though, so it dug away until it found the prize.

I've been thinking lately about time. Mostly it's been in response to a poetry prompt over at Read Write Poem (I warned you all that I would be working on my writing chops - this is one way of doing so), but the subject went even deeper for me this morning when I contemplated what text would be appropriate to link my photos of the Wrens to a poem about time. Then, as I was cropping the images for this post, it hit me. How do animals experience time? I've heard more than once that dogs, for example, "live in the moment,", and that they don't plan for tomorrow, or for the next hour for that matter, and they certainly don't dwell on the past. What about birds? I would have to assume they are much the same way. I doubt that there was much thought of the future in this Wren's mind while it was digging through the snow to find a worm. Here all we humans are, wondering about when on earth the weather is going to clear up and when it's going to start seeming like spring, and talking about how bad this winter has been. By contrast, all this Wren is thinking about is right now. Sometimes I think it would be a relief to have such a seemingly simple thought process, such an uncluttered mind, but then again, if that were the case, I wouldn't have the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

Right now is enough
We spend so much time looking forward, waiting for what is not now.
Awaiting the song and bloom of spring,
Awaiting the sun and harvest of summer,
Awaiting the cool and blaze of autumn,
Awaiting the hush and white of winter.
We live within one season, all the while longing for the next,
As if the present isn't good enough, isn't pretty enough, isn't alive enough.
As if right now simply isn't enough.
Past, present, future;
Was, is, will be.

If you like to read poetry or write poetry, or both, you should check out Read Write Poem.