The juniper titmice have a nest in the half-alive juniper in Biko’s round pen, not far from the patio. I set up the tripod by my lunch chair and played with various exposures and lens lengths. They, like most birds, are so acutely aware of any potential threat to their nest, that I had to pretend I wasn’t watching for a long time, with the camera aimed at the hole in the tree. Then I shot a few frames, a few times when there was no one around. After awhile, I waited til one of the parents flew to the tree, shot just a couple at a time, until they were coming and going without paying me too much mind. Above, one is taking food to quiet the tiny plaintive flutter of squeaks inside; below, removing a fecal pellet, I think. What else could it be? Like many (but not all) birds, they like to keep their nest clean.A rare visitor to the garden, this Bullock’s Oriole flew to the hummingbird feeder one morning and looked in the window, so I immediately sliced an orange in half and staked the pieces out in the yard for it. That’s what I’d heard they like, but he ignored the oranges and poked at a flower on the hummer feeder, licking leaking nectar. They prefer riparian habitat to more arid places like my yard, and are medium distance migrants, so I seem to only see them for about a week during late spring as they’re passing through in search of moister breeding grounds.Topaz is an incorrigible lizard hunter. Though it distresses me that she hunts lizards, at least she’s not going after birds… She comes to me with a particular yowl when she’s got one in her mouth, and then she drops it. The lizards freeze when she pounces and carries them, and it takes them a few minutes to liven up and try to run after she sets them down. In that moment I try to catch them, and carry them to a safe brush pile outside the fence. Not that the fence stops the cat, but that they have a chance to hide and live another day. Every now and then she plays with one long enough to kill it, but when I catch her first I can save it. This is one grateful Sceloporus. The irises have begun blooming earlier than usual. There is one true white iris, and one whitish-lavender iris, and both these light colored flowers attract these little yellow and black beetles. I watched for quite awhile trying to determine the nature of this behavior that looked like a vicious attack, but because time after time the smaller beetle emerged unhurt and came back for more, I suspect it was either breeding or just a territorial display. Though the beetles do have a little competition for their irises, like this Agapostemon, or green sweat bee. Below, a honeybee packs her pollen baskets to overflowing on the pink honeysuckle, which is now the bee magnet of the week, and smells almost as sweet as the fading lilacs. The garden roller coaster is in full swing now, and I can hardly keep up with the watering, much less photographing the abundant, diverse, and beautiful life that makes the ride into summer so raucous and delightful. Heirloom arugula is ready for picking for pesto, asparagus is winding down, lettuce is fresh and tender. The peach tree is loaded with small fruits, as are both apples, and I found about a dozen intrepid apricots on that tree that was hit so hard by several deep frosts during its prolific bloom. Late summer will be full of fruit!
The first of these exotic (read invasive) birds arrived in Colorado in the mid-nineties, and twenty years later they now inhabit all 64 counties, with a recent Christmas Bird Count total of almost 20,000 individuals. Purist birders despair, hunters revel, and me, I just think about how fast our world is changing, how many species are going extinct, how arbitrary some of our values are, and how glad I am to have any doves at all in my yard. I don’t feel as tolerant of invasive exotic plant species, however, like cheatgrass, whitetop, tumbleweed… that list goes on and on, and is the bane of any gardener’s existence.
May just may be the sweetest month here. Mountain bluebirds perch on fenceposts, swooping on grasshoppers; house finches nesting in the gutter over the front door fledge in the dead juniper, and magpie babies squawk from their high nest north of the house. From inside yesterday I watched a fragile house wren flap its new wings like a butterfly, and got outside just in time to see the last one leave the nest in the adobe wall. Black-chinned hummingbirds court and feed in the yard. A large black and yellow bumblebee as big as my whole thumb circles the lilacs and leaves, a small fast hawk flaps and glides across the flat bright sky on this unusually cloudy humid day with no chance of rain.
It looks like I’ll have peaches and apples this year, as those trees transition from bloom to fruit. The mingled scents of newly flowering trees waft through the yard and into the house through open doors. I’ve stood with my face in the crabapple tree inhaling deeply, watching bees, who scatter if I exhale without turning my head away. Honeybees don’t like carbon dioxide, and who can blame them.
I can capture all the photographs and video and audio I could store and more, and never capture the scent of these flowering trees, this luscious pink crabapple, this effulgent lilac, or last month the almond tree at night. The fragrance seems to pulse, as though the trees themselves inhale and exhale at their own extended respiratory rate, slower than we notice, mostly. Certain times of days the bees will flock to one or another.
My bumblebee anxiety has dissolved even further this past week, with scores of them on Nepeta, Ajuga, and the mind-bending lilac, another tree that’s never been more full of flower and fragrance. I sit with it an hour a day all told this time of year if I can, breathing its cleansing, intoxicating scent. So moved by its power over me, I sought lilac essential oil online with mixed and disappointing results. Many sources say essential oil can’t be derived from lilac for various reasons, and there are many brands of lilac ‘fragrance’ oil for sale, but I did find a few sites with directions for infusing lilac flowers in oil or water.
So I’ve ordered a bottle of grapeseed oil, and trust the deep purple lilacs on the north side of the lilac patch will be in perfect bloom by the time it arrives. Meanwhile, I’ll make lilac scones again this weekend. Last year Chef Gabrielle and I candied lilac flowers, and that was a lot of work for a lovely but minuscule result. The lilac scones provided much more gratification for significantly less work. The lilac, by the way, is also a non-native species, though not aggressive enough to be considered a weed…
In other spring food news, I’m set for the next few weeks for my greens intake. I made a dandelion smoothie for breakfast the other day, with apple, flaxseed, nuts, yogurt, blueberries, and ginger root. Yum! There’s a nearly infinite supply of dandelions to share with the bees, and Biko the tortoise who relishes both flowers and leaves.
There’s one stretch of road, on the way up the canyon to town, where wild turkeys often cross. They feed in the field below, and roost in trees uphill. In spring we watch the males’ magnificent displays as we cruise slowly by. Those of us who live here are pretty careful driving that stretch, though some of us have joked for years about hitting one for Thanksgiving dinner.
Yesterday, driving home from errands, feathers still flew as I approached the body; must have been a vehicle one or two in front of me that hit her. The bird, still warm, was missing her head. I put her in the back seat and drove home, thinking Do I really want to do this? But at least this way, I had the choice to butcher her, or throw her off the canyon for lions if I decided not to try.
I tied her feet to a juniper limb in the driveway, and pulled some skin off to assess the damage. One side was pretty thoroughly smashed, but the other side looked good.
I wondered, for example, if it would ruin the meat if I got some of the green guts on it. And what tool would cut off the feet? And how to begin cutting up the body. Also, if I got turkey offal or blood into the splits in my fingertips, would I get sick and die? By the time he called me, I had the body rinsing in the sink. David talked me through the rest of the process.
He explained about bloodshot meat: The breast on the hit side was deep red, shot through with blood that would make its flavor too strong for me, but, he said, I’ll bet you have two dogs that would love to eat that! Indeed I do.
After rinsing the legs clean in cold water I wrapped them, too, and popped it all in the deep freeze. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the meat, but knew I didn’t feel like eating it right then. Then, outside to sort the carnage.
I suspected that a young naturalist friend might want the feet, good wing and remaining feathers, so once I’d wrapped the guts and bloody feathers up in the newspaper that had caught the drips, I poured about an inch of kosher salt in a brown paper bag, and stood up all the parts, weeping ends down in the salt, to preserve them til I could get the whole deal to her aunt’s deep freeze. Such beautiful feathers! And the little curled feather ruffs that became of the skin that pulled off so easily. Who knew?
My neighbor with the milk cows gave me some kefir grains the other day. I gave up making kefir last spring because it just kept getting ahead of me; I couldn’t use it up fast enough to justify the cost of the milk I ended up wasting. This morning I transferred the grains for the first time. The kefir rollercoaster begins again! She said, I use it for everything I’d use yogurt or sour cream for. And I thought, aha! Turkey tetrazzini! A childhood comfort food with a wild twist. When my houseguests arrive this weekend, guess what we’ll have for dinner?
Maybe. We’ll see what they think of the idea of roadkill tetrazzini. Either way, I’ve practiced my homesteading skills, proven to myself I can be resourceful in a way I’ve resisted in the past (I have a friend who routinely eats roadkill, and I have balked when it’s been offered), and made use of an otherwise wasted life. And the dogs are loving their treats. Mother forgive us for our speed, I pray every time I pass a dead animal in the road. We don’t need to move so fast.
I’ve had company almost full-time for six weeks. It’s been wonderful to see so many beloved friends from across the divide and across the continent, and there have been lots of wild adventures.
While Kathy was here, we saw a pair of courting coyotes at the Black Canyon, a big horn sheep and lamb in Colorado National Monument, and two nests of fledgling raptors. Our goal was to see a predator per day, and we very nearly made it.
Two weeks ago when Cindy was visiting, she spotted it first: There’s a critter down there, she said. When I first saw the long black tail I thought A black panther! A melanistic cougar… I grabbed the binoculars out of the ammo can beside the bench to identify what that dark blob was: a black bear napping in the canyon, head down, eyes closed, right arm stretched out. We must have been upwind because none of the three dogs noticed. It was uncanny, because she had just brought me a belated birthday present, the long-awaited bear puzzle:
But the grand prize of wildlife sightings, the one everyone who comes here hopes to see, eluded them all and came only to me.
I was behind the house, I can’t remember exactly where or what I was doing, when I heard Stellar make an ungodly strange noise, as though he were terribly hurt, or had his head stuck in something. It wasn’t a bark or a howl, or even something between the two; it was an all over the place moaning wail, up down and around. I dropped whatever I was doing and ran toward the sound, calling “Stellar, what’s happened?!”
He was outside the dog pen, as was Raven, with no apparent harm to either, but he was dancing in a weird way and looking inside the pen, and I followed his eyes just in time to see something brown jump over the fence at the back corner. Was it a deer? But it didn’t bound over, and besides they can’t get over that fence like they can the yard fence; we had a tragic episode a few years ago proving that.
It flowed over. Deep inside I knew. This all took about ten seconds as I continued moving toward the dogs. I stepped on past their shed to look over the back fence and saw it trot about fifteen feet beyond the pen, then stop, turn, and look back to where, by now, Raven stood in the corner of the pen barking at it. A beautiful mountain lion stood broadside to us, looking full-face at Raven, for all the world as if it were considering whether to go back and get her.
I slowly stepped closer to the fence, Stellar quiet by my side, my heart pounding, my mouth hanging open. Don’t go back! I thought to the lion. Good girl! I thought to Raven. Time did stand still. I did not know what to do, but my head did not fill with that horrible static it does when I’m in a panic about some human unknown. It emptied of all but wonder.
I processed the fact that I couldn’t get a good picture of it with my phone, even if I could get the phone out fast enough, and so I stayed still, goggling at the scene, which was kind of a standoff: I looked from the lion to the barking dog, back and forth, flickering attention between the two, evaluating possibilities, considering whether to intervene with a yell, wondering where the cats were, and why it had jumped into the dog pen, and was everyone alright? Then I focused on the lion, breathing in my good fortune at seeing it, and then at realizing there was nothing in its mouth: The little cats were safe somewhere else.
It wasn’t a huge lion, but it wasn’t a yearling; maybe a two-or three-year old male, or a female of any age, and not the classic blond cougar we expect. It was redder at the back, with a dark shadow of black-tipped fur along its tail and haunches, lighter at the shoulders and head, with its face russet around the cheeks. It looked back and forth at us. As the energy among us calmed, I slowly reached in my pocket for the camera, and the lion turned and trotted off through the trees.
That whole thing took another ten seconds.
Stellar and I walked into the pen down to the corner where Raven still barked, Stellar as alert as could be, walking just under my fingertips. As he began barking I searched the sagebrush and junipers but there was no lingering hint of the lion. I checked the time: 5:08. I was expecting a call at 5:30 for virtual cocktails. Still catching my breath, I called the cats and brought dogs and cats in for their dinner, shaking just a little as I prepped their bowls, and then I made a good stiff drink.
This makes the sixth mountain lion I’ve seen since I moved to this land. I know there are plenty of them out there, and it’s one reason I love it here. But I’ve never seen one nearly this close to my house. Nor to me!
All kinds of thoughts, of course, ran through my head. I grabbed drink, chips, binoculars, phone and dogs, and went out to sit on the patio, where I simply looked around, feeling very much alive. I wondered if it was still nearby thinking about whyever it had gone into that pen and about the dogs who had chased it out.
I played back the images to lock them in: the glimpse of brown slithering over the tall fence, the long tail and then the lion stopping to look back at us, the rounded reddish cheeks, eye contact. Already it was fading. That kind of sight, we say it gets etched into our memory, but really it starts to fade the second it’s gone, and now I’m left with tissue paper stills of an extraordinary few seconds that pulsated with vitality.
The next evening, around the same time, I walked to the canyon as usual, armed only with walking sticks and two bouncing hounds. When I choose to put my life at risk, it is in this manner: to carry an iced martini in a blue-stemmed glass through a woods where lions prowl, to a canyon where bears and lions dwell, to sit still on a bench overlooking the edge. I count my blessings every day that I am able to live where the chance of being harmed by a wild animal is greater than the chance of being harmed by a feral human.
When I woke this morning to an inch of fresh snow and a clear sky with bright sun, I thought of my friend who got thrown by her horse last week. She is couch-bound for a long time, and in a lot of pain with some fractures and other injuries. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine her body wasn’t the only part of her aching when she looked outside this morning. We ski together sometimes, and I think when she looked out at the snow-covered junipers in the sun, her heart ached to be out there sliding through the woods on her skis.
I feel a cold coming on, and it was bitter this morning, below 20 degrees. I could have done what I did the past few snowy grey days: made coffee and sat warmly in the living room, working on the computer or reading a book. But I thought of my friend wishing she could ski and being unable, and I hauled my lazy, grateful ass out of bed, dressed, went out into the glorious morning, and snapped on my skis. With the balmy weather the past month melting what little snow we’ve had this winter, we haven’t skied in six weeks.
There is nothing graceful about me skiing through sagebrush and juniper on eight inches of crusty snow. But the dogs were thrilled and beautiful, flying away and back to me kicking up powder as I stuttered along the Typewriter Trail to the rim of the canyon and back. Snow blew from the trees in sparkles through brilliant air. She would have loved it.
I wish she could have skied today. Even immobilized, she is an inspiration. Because she would have and I wouldn’t, because I could and she couldn’t, I skied this morning. This one’s for you, neighbor.