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Phenomenal Phoebes

A Say’s Phoebe, my summer joy

Wrapped in melancholy as thick as the smoke that obscures the northern horizon, I sit inside in the cool house, in the recliner, just thinking. A flutter outside the window, and a phoebe lands on the cable where the parents perched for months while nesting, where the babies learned to cling as they were fledging. It gladdens me to see her there, after a long hard summer. It’s mid-August, and soon the phoebes will fly south to their winter range along the US-Mexico border and beyond. 

My little phoebe family. It was an emotionally arduous journey, wrapped up in so many other journeys of love and loss, to get them to this point! How funny, to think of them as ‘my’ phoebes, but I do. They’ve been a lifeline for me during this season of profound loss, and there was a week at the end of May when I thought I’d lost the phoebes too.

Feathering their nest

They began plumping up last year’s nest under the east deck in early April, singing, chirrrrrrupping, and both swooping in from the yard carrying bits of fluff from the weathered patio rug, wool from the garden fence, prayer flag tatters, bits of grass, and other soft scraps. The nest was pretty large for the two-inch deck joist it was resting on, tucked into the corner with the wall and the foundation beam.

On April 20th, I found the nest fallen into the geraniums below. It was upside down, but it was barely disturbed. Without thinking, I got the ladder, a 1×6 board scrap, screws and screw gun, built a wider ledge, and tucked the nest back into the corner. The next day they were back at work. By May 9, she was sitting on eggs.

The first rebuild, on top of the ledge just below the joist corner where the original nest sat precariously.

I watched with delight as Mrs. Phoebe sat on her nest, and her husband bird flew and sang and hunted the yard. I worried when a whole day passed and I didn’t see him, but he’d invariably show up in the evening, perching in the birch tree, before flying down to check on her. 

Since the phoebes arrived summer before last, I’ve not had a grasshopper problem. They also eat flies, wasps, and moths, some of which lay eggs of potential garden marauding caterpillars. We have a symbiotic relationship. I do what I can for them. But sometimes it’s not enough. 

Every day I’d sit as much as possible at the patio table or under the nest, for morning coffee, lunch, midday break, and happy hour, as the phoebe father flew around me. She would take breaks too, to hunt for herself, then return to the nest. They perched on everything upright in the vicinity, from the shepherd’s crook where the hummingbird feeder hangs to the dead locust sapling, to the back of a chair, to the candlestick beside me, so close I could identify their prey without binoculars. 

I was amazed with their dexterity: one flew straight at the tower wall, I was sure it would die from the collision, but it snagged an insect off the wall, banked steeply, and flew off unharmed, well fed. One evening I sat sipping a martini with my bare legs up on the patio table, enjoying Phoebe TV. A fat black fly landed on my thigh. A phoebe swooped down and plucked it; all I felt was a rush of air, not a thing more, in that split second thrill.

On May 25, I noted the chicks chirping; they are silent, or at least below my hearing range, for a few days after hatching, so these were at least a few of days old. On the 27th, I saw three fuzzy, barely-feathered heads popping up above the nest edge! Success!

Feeding the first clutch, just a few days old.

The next day, I had to take Stellar to the vet in Montrose and since I’d be gone all afternoon, I shut the cats in the house, a precaution to protect the phoebes while I couldn’t keep an eye on them. Just in case. Mostly, the cats feared or at least respected the phoebes, who would swoop down clacking at them when the cats crossed the patio or, phoebe-forbid, lay down under the nest. But since they were still hanging out on the patio, I didn’t want to take a chance that one would snag a phoebe mid-clack in my absence. The poor kitties were also being chased around the yard by magpies, who were raising chicks in a juniper on the other side of the house. 

When I returned, I released the cats and fell asleep in the recliner. That evening, I sat down in the deck chair outside the window, under the nest. The phoebes flew and perched and chattered nearby. Ojo jumped up on the bench behind me among the geraniums. Hey! get outta there! I scolded, turning to look: he was intently peering at something on the bench, and to my horror I recognized it as the phoebe nest. It was upright and empty. I was crushed. 

No sign of a chick anywhere. I assessed the possibilities, and concluded that a cat couldn’t have reached the nest without an extraordinary acrobatic feat involving the ladder, the hanging orchid, and an advanced rock climbing move called mantle. The obvious culprit was a magpie, who could easily have swooped in to grab the chicks, and knocked the nest off the ledge. What to do?!

I gathered ladder and tools again, a curved juniper stick, and some 1×2 scraps, tidied up the nest and replaced it, braced it with the juniper, and screwed in some baffles spaced so that, I thought, the phoebes could get in but not the magpies. The poor phoebes flew around confused for a few days, until I realized the baffles obstructed their entry. A desolate week after I removed the baffles, the persistent phoebes began to tidy and fortify their nest again. Around Juneteenth, she settled onto her second clutch of eggs. Joy returned to me.

Sort of. In the meantime, Raven had died in mid-May, followed closely by Auntie’s stroke; Michael had a stroke in early June and died ten days later; Diane entered hospice, and another friend received a scary diagnosis. Around July 5th, new phoebe babies hatched, providing solace as Auntie continued to decline, while Diane died in mid-July, the same day a next-door neighbor also died. 

The phoebe feeding frenzy ramped up, and consumed me. Again, I spent as much time as possible outside watching, or watching through the window in passing.

Most songbirds keep impeccably clean nests. Shooting images of mama feeding babies, I also captured a couple of her carrying away their fecal pellets.
Stretching and strengtening brand new baby wings
A short week later: One by one, chicks fluttered the few inches to perch on the joist above the nest.
All in a row, she feeds and cleans them one by one.

July 25, the first baby flew over the nest from one deck joist to the next and back a few times. The next day it flew from the nest, following mama onto the wide-open window frame, about a four-foot flight with a one foot drop; then mama flew back to the nest and baby followed. I saw the first flight of the first phoebe baby! 

I watched like a hawk from then on, and kept the cats inside if I couldn’t be outside to supervise. I couldn’t bear it if one of them caught one of these dear birds we’ve all worked so hard all summer to bring to maturity. By ‘we all,’ I mean myself and the phoebe mama and mr. husband bird, and of course Stellar. It’s been a lesson in perseverance.

As I sipped coffee, I watched mama fly from the ladder to the nest and back, calling, encouraging them to follow her. At lunch, I spied the eldest chick perched on the garden cart handle, where mama fed it. Mama lured it around the yard from tree to tree with a fat grasshopper in her mouth, while the other chicks perched on the joist, peering at the activity beyond, screeching for food.

Within a day, all three chicks had left the nest.

The next 24 hours were filled with excitement, as the remaining chicks took their first tentative flights to joists, the window frame, the ladder, and finally, nearby trees. 

Phoebe fledgling in chokecherry
Phoebe fledgling in juniper

For a couple of days, they returned to the nest to roost overnight. During the day, I could hear the parents calling in the woods beyond the yard, and occasionally spot one of the five flitting through the trees. A week later, I noticed mama, with a full beak, flying to the ground outside the bathroom window. I ran outside to see what was up, and all three babies flew up and away. I think she took them away from the house that first week, far from the cats, to teach them flying skills, and then returned to the insect-laden yard to teach them to hunt for themselves.

Since then, I’ve spied the three chicks along the driveway fence, hunting in the field; noticed occasionally one or two phoebes returning to the house in the evening; seen them perched and flying around the yard day to day; each siting a delight. 

On August 6, Auntie died. I lost myself to grief for the next week. Compounded by the global loss wrought by Coronavirus, a devastating fire season from the Arctic to the Book Cliffs, mind-boggling corruption and democracy-dismantling by the US government, shredded environmental protections and climate chaos denial, I struggle daily to keep my chin, and my spirits, up.

To see a phoebe last night, still coming home to roost, gladdens my sorry heart. I know they’ll leave soon, but the good Lord willin’ and the climate don’t rise too much, I’m confident they’ll be back next spring. 

Three Days Under the Crabapple Tree

Way back in April, honeybee in Tulipa tarda.
Drama in the dandelions
Grape hyacinths keep on blooming despite a deep freeze, and bees keep coming.
Excitement in the tulips
What exactly is going on here in the apricot tree?
Big bees and little bees. Bombus griseocollis?
Anthophora, a digger bee. For awhile, the apricot tree was ‘the bee tree.’ Thankfully, its bloom survived an 11 degree night, perfect timing, and looks like another bountiful apricot crop this year.
Bombus huntii are prolific this spring, thank goodness.

Bee sightings ramped up over the past month, from crocuses and grape hyacinths to dandelions and tulips, to blooming fruit trees. First the apricot, then the wild plum, then the crabapple. A butterfly I haven’t seen much in the past is also prevalent in the past week, the Anise swallowtail. Hummingbirds have also come to the fruit trees, but so fast I haven’t been able to catch one with the camera.

Unperturbed by the presence of two catahoulas in the yard, and a wild woman with a camera, this doe continues to browse where she pleases in the yard.

Despite the lockdown, or perhaps because of it, I am busier than ever outside in the garden. I can’t tell you where my days go, except to say that they are filled with as much color, light, love and joy as I can manage between sunup and bedtime, most of it outside in the garden. Work is of course diminished, as is almost everyone’s in this dire time, but I am doing my best to make the most of extra hours in the day. Fortunately my body is in better shape than it’s been for years, thanks to physical therapy and a healthier attitude, and I’m able to work more in the yard than now than ever before. I’m so tired by the end of the day that I just don’t sit down and post the pictures I’ve taken. Off to bed now, with more thoughts and images to come. Wishing for everyone to lay low, look close to home for joy and beauty, and stay well during this continuing pandemic. Please don’t be impatient and too quick to seek the old normal, which I hope never comes back. The planet and all its non-human inhabitants has appreciated the break from our reckless pace.

Cultivating Joy in a Dark Spring

How is it that with all this extra time on my hands I still can’t unclutter my house? Oh yeah… the garden is waking up.

First to bloom in early March, purple dwarf iris.
As the purples fade, these new Iris reticulata ‘Eye Catcher’ bloom for the first time.
Then the first native bees take advantage of grape hyacinths…
… including Muscaria azureum, a delightful surprise this year, which only grows to a couple of inches tall.
Here they are just sprouting from bulbs planted last fall in my Blue Bed.
The first butterflies come to these early spring bulbs.
And also the first bumblebees!
Last week European pasqueflowers began opening, attracting an early digger bee…
… and one happy spider with a not-so-lucky little sweat bee.
This one fares better on a little yellow tulip.
This tulip is an accidental hybrid between Tulipa tarda, the ground-hugging wild tulip, and a tall coral-colored cultivar I planted many years ago. Told I should name it after myself, I just did: Tulipa ritala.
Meanwhile, Stellar wobbles along on his last legs, filling my heart and breaking it at the same time.

I simply don’t have words to convey the maelstrom of emotions that swirl within like March winds this spring. Above all there is gratitude for the many blessings this life has given me so far. I’m grateful to be an introvert who works from home anyway. I’m grateful that I have a reasonably healthy body, though my immune system is not robust and neither is my right lung, which never quite fills all the way. I consider myself to be fairly high risk, and so I’m grateful I have friends willing to shop for me and deliver necessities. I’m grateful I’ve worked hard for nearly thirty years to create this beautiful refuge, which now offers solace and peace amid global turmoil, and I’ll be grateful when I am again able to share it with people.

Other emotions may be less healthy but are also valid: rage at the rampant greed and graft manifesting at the highest levels of government during this pandemic when all humans should be working together to stave off despair and death; disgust at the ignorant response by trump cult believers that is causing so many more Americans to sicken and die; despair that the dying petroleum industry and the politicians that subsidize and profit from it take advantage of our distraction to rape and pillage even more egregiously our fragile planet. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention: Broaden your information horizons.

Meanwhile, the Say’s phoebes are back shoring up at least two nests around the house. A day after they first fluttered into the yard, I took last year’s nest off the top of the ladder leaning against the north wall, and lay it down so I could use it this summer if I needed to. The next day I felt so bad that I gathered scrap wood, tools, and screws to build a little shelf in the same spot where I could replace the nest. But once I stood there with all the materials I realized it would be way too complicated, so I propped up the ladder against a joist to provide corner stability, and tucked the old nest securely back into place. It’s one small thing I can do…

Like Biko emerging from hibernation, I take advantage of every sunny day to appreciate the rich beauty of this particular spring.

Pleasure Hunting

“The Hunt” was painted by Scottish artist Robert Burns around 1926, as part of his coherent Art Deco interior design for Crawford’s Tea Rooms in Edinburgh.

Deep into the first puzzle of the season, a light snow drifts down again. We’ve all ordered our puzzles for the year, and since everyone else’s were primarily blue hues, I chose different colors. There are so many factors to review in choosing only one puzzle per year. When I first got addicted, I made my selection solely by the image itself. As it became clear that more recent puzzles feature more complex cuts, I began looking for harder puzzles, those with fewer edge pieces, smaller pieces, more intricate whimsy pieces, and now, knock me over with a feather, there are several with alternative solutions!

How did I never think of doing this before with the whimsy pieces?
All the pieces are whimsical but whimsy pieces have a recognizable shape, either an animal, plant, person, or part thereof, or they’re geometrical or symmetrical. Whimsy pieces are at the heart of what makes these puzzles works of art in their own right.

The seemingly infinite variety of the cuts, as Liberty’s designer gets more inventive season by season, brings surprise and delight in each new puzzle; older puzzles in our community collection continue to gratify as I do them again with a different strategy each time: from the outside in or the inside out? starting with a color, or a figure, or clockwise or counter-clockwise…? The designer’s puzzler fans here are growing with him and seek more complexity in each puzzle we choose. This winter we’ve all opted for challenging puzzles, one even designated “Experts Only.”

Opening the puzzle box that enticing new puzzle scent wafts out. I have a particular way I sort the pieces, as I unpack them from their tissue paper nest. Whimsy pieces all to one side, obvious edges at the top, and then some other classifications as each unique puzzle invites. People have asked if I have a strategy, and the truth is that the particulars of each puzzle dictate how I sort its pieces, and all following aspects of my strategy: each strategy is unique as the puzzle that shapes it. So I’ve sorted all the pieces, played Forest House with them, and it’s time to stretch my legs, my back, give my eyes a break from close-up for awhile.

I look away from the table, and movement out the south window catches my eye, three does leaping the picket fence. A small forky buck strides up under the apricot tree.

No wonder the does leapt. As he stalks stealthily west across the yard and leaps after the does, I notice a good-size three-point buck in the brush left of them. Scanning for more I glance away, then am drawn back by odd movement. The buck has something caught in his antlers, and seems to be struggling to scrape it off — is it wire? God no! I’m always worried I’ve left some stray piece of wire or fencing around that will accidentally snag a buck.

Then I see he’s got a juniper branch stuck in his antlers: he does, then suddenly he doesn’t, then he does. Then he stands tall with his white antlers free of green twigs, and looks to the right, into the woods, from which emerges a larger three-point buck, stalking in that wild restrained way of rut. The smaller buck casually veers off to the south, and the big buck comes to the same juniper, a small sapling I see now, about four feet tall, and rages through it with his antlers in the same manner. Both have been spreading their scent all over this little tree from their forehead glands. Topaz sleeps in her cushioned bed on the sunroom table missing the whole thing. She would’ve enjoyed watching it. The large buck turns back into the woods, herding an older doe ahead of him.

Not a great photo, but observe the buck’s lips, partially obscured by a twig: His upper lip is curled, and nostrils squeezed, in the rut behavior called flehmen, where he inhales directly into a scent organ beyond the roof of his mouth. Many mammals do this for different reasons, and in this case he’s scenting the female he follows in hopes of breeding.
The observed distracted by the observer, he drops his lip and watches me for a moment, before continuing after his quarry.

It’s been a thrilling wildlife interlude, more fun than I could have asked for in a ten-minute break. After they’ve all moved past the boundary fence I let the dogs out to read the air, and we stroll around the yard before returning to the now oddly more relevant puzzle.

Not only is this ‘complex whimsy’ piece that stands on its own four feet precious by itself, but with the first connecting pieces in place it reveals one of Diana’s nymphs. The other nymph lurks in the corner…
This kind of truly whimsical detail just brings me a quick hit of joy. And they pop up throughout doing the puzzle, like little mental pop rocks all sweet and fizzy.
Corners can now be made of three pieces, not just two! Notice the little bat full of toes?
While sorting, there seemed to be a lot of flat edge pieces. There are actually a lot of flat fake edge pieces semi-symmetrically arranged, above, and below.

At this point, on the third morning, I can hardly bear to finish the puzzle, yet I can’t stop myself from working it. So few pieces left, only barely easier than it was at the beginning to find a matching space for each. So complex, so alive, a naturalist’s delight. Fleas as one-of-the-leopard’s spots! A tiny monkey face in the top left corner and another half monkey, magpies flying all across the top; pink toes, too many feet! But they all fit into their perfect places perfectly. It’s time to invoke Kathleen’s Rule.

I’ve been working so far with Seymour’s Rule, which is usually called into play before starting the puzzle, but can be invoked at any time. Seymour’s Rule dictates that you may look at the cover image once, before starting the puzzle, and never again until you finish it. At first it seemed unimaginably challenging to me, and I excused my lack of willingness to play it by saying, I enjoy the original artwork too much to not look at it from time to time while doing the puzzle. But now looking makes the puzzle too easy, seems almost like cheating, which is what Seymour obviously thought, and also Philip, who insists on this rule.

To start a puzzle, I usually pick a distinct color there’s not too much of, in this case the black jaguar’s pelt, and gather and assemble as many pieces as I can find of it, sometimes invoking Kathleen’s Rule for just that section. There are always missing pieces, that show up later in the puzzle with just the tiniest fleck of the color.

Kathleen’s Rule states that once you pick up a piece from the table, you must place it before you can pick up another piece. You may slide pieces around to get a closer look, but once you’ve lifted it, it must go into its proper slot. You don’t want to invoke this rule too early in the puzzle, or it might drive you mad, so it’s usually only called when there are a few dozen pieces left out. However, I find myself enjoying doing more of a puzzle in this methodical, meditative way, and often start with nearly half the pieces left. But of course I bend the rules when I play alone. All except the cardinal rule, No Food or Drink on the Puzzle Table!

I like to save a special piece for last, which, again, the nature of the puzzle dictates.

And there she is, Diana and her Nymphs, and her jaguars, and monkeys, and magpies, in her mythical jungle, together after two and a half days of concerted focus. A weekend well spent, with a few chores and exercises squeezed in between bouts of obsession that left me with a stiff neck and blurred vision. Next long weekend, I’ll tackle the alternative solution, unless another puzzle comes my way first. Notice how the weird, imperfect symmetries of the original solution now make sense.

It took a few times looking at this image to discern that it’s a stag’s head. Getting my myths mixed up, I thought at first perhaps it was a tree. Now it’s so clear I see nothing else: Actaeon, the hapless hunter who stumbled upon goddess Diana bathing naked, and whom she subsequently turned into a stag.

That Mangy Old Doe: Adventures with Peaches

Just a couple of recent dahlia pics to remind the world that yes, dahlias are worth the trouble, especially for native pollinators and honeybees. Deadheading with snippers once or twice a week and feeding occasionally keeps them blooming for a long season from mid-summer into fall.

How the young fawn knows to lay low when the doe steps away in alarm from a human strolling through the woods with dogs, old dogs that no longer give chase; and how now later, the older fawn, still spotted but fading, still more slightly built, less than half her mother’s size, how the older fawn knows to step lightly and exactly with her mother under similar conditions. They rise like a breeze from their bed west of the fence, already stepping diagonally away, the doe looking calmly, alertly over her shoulder at me, the fawn like a feather on that breeze a full stride behind, attentive only to the mother she knows at all costs to follow.

Another doe, the mangy old doe who kept the ground clean beneath the apricot tree now grooms the peach. We fenced it off again after she began pulling unripe peaches from lower limbs, shaking others to the ground with her tenacity, breaking branches. We waited that morning, watching, until she left of her own accord. 

Is she spitting out the pits? Kathy asked. 

It sure looks like it. But maybe she’s just dropping pieces.

Wouldn’t it be funny if she’s spitting out the pits?

After she left we rolled out the fence and secured a big ring close enough to the trunk, far enough out under the crown, that she’d be unwilling to jump inside it. She could almost reach the outer leaves. She looked sadly when she returned a few times, but then adapted. 

Recent weeks have focused on monitoring the peach tree, gauging ripeness not only by both color and feel, but also by observing birds. A scrub jay keeps returning, pecking at one or another of some top fruits, a finch or two checks them out. I’m waiting, morning and evening, and sometimes lunchtimes, to see when a whole finch family descends on the peaches; then I’ll know it’s time to start picking.

It feels like the right time but it takes a few days to get the feel of which peaches to pick, which to leave on the tree to ripen a day or few longer. Hummingbirds have been using the cover of peach leaves to guard their feeder, and buzz close as I lean over the wire, reach into the canopy, and quick pull or twist a fruit off. Filling my shirt with a dozen bright peachy pink fuzzballs… gently settling them into a bowl inside the house, and suddenly they look so much yellower, so much less ripe, so much smaller, than they did when I picked them!

Within a week I’ve salvaged all the peaches I can. What’s left on the tree, besides a few untouched just too high or deep inside for me to reach, have all been pecked a little or a lot by various birds. This morning, the old mangy doe is back, looking longingly at the peach tree just out of reach.

Oh! I think, I’ll open that up for you. She steps a few feet away and nibbles on Rhus trilobata, watches out the corner of her eye as I switch the water to another sprinkler, she waits. I approach the peach fence from farthest side and she glides twenty feet toward the yard fence, not unduly alarmed. Walking under the tree I slowly roll up the field fence into a tube a yard across, hook its loose ends over the next layer in a couple of spots at the seam, and drag it to the side, all while murmuring to the doe, glancing at her then down and away, while she waits, relaxed and poised for flight if necessary.

I turn and walk the thirty feet to the patio; before I reach my chair she’s under the peach tree watching me. I smile, watch her watch me, until she too smiles in a way, her body releases a level of guard, she drops her head, and begins to feast on fallen fruit remnants.

Hmmm. I wonder if she’ll spit the pits?

You’re welcome!

After she’s had her fill for the time being, she strides cautiously across the yard to get her greens, a few mouthfuls of feral heirloom arugula, before leaping the south fence, leaving the yard.

Meanwhile, I got busy on the peaches…
I’d never made cobbler before and found an easy recipe. After glopping the batter into the hot buttered pan I lightly smoothed it without disturbing the butter layer.
mmmmm, then I spooned the hot peach mixture on top of that, sprinkled with cinnamon, and baked.

With two big bowls of peaches on the counter and tomatoes rolling in, it’s time to get back into the kitchen and save some more summer for winter, coming all too soon. But first:

Puppy pile under the wild rose at Karen’s house. The litter of seven was born to a sweet bitch abandoned by her owners when they moved. They told a neighbor, “If she bothers you just shoot her.” Rescued by Karen’s daughter, sweet Nellie has been a good mama, and now it’s time for the pups to find good homes…. But mine won’t be one of them: I’ve got just the right mix of garden companions at the moment, a household in harmony, with two old dogs whose last days I’m counting with bittersweet attention.
Topaz and Stellar greet each other beside rapidly ripening paprika.
Elusive Admiral Weidemeyer flitted through the yard again a week after Kathy first spotted him, alighting on an aspen sapling. Not the only butterfly surprise this summer!