Monday, July 23, 2012

Sharp Shin Attack

Feeding birds has frequently been the focus of this column because we have a variety of visitors sampling our sunflower seeds.  Since the tornado went through last May destroying a number of trees and forcing my husband to do some unplanned pruning, our backyard vista has changed considerably.  To distract me from missing my trees, we strategically hung several more feeders with great results.  We have more birds than ever.

            As a result, the population has changed a bit due to the sparse new landscape.  With the change in tree-scape, our brown thrashers have gone elsewhere. I loved watching them under the trees, so I miss their presence.

 Opening the view lets me sight a great blue heron that feeds near the bottom of our draw in the mornings and evenings.  For all I know, it’s always been there, but now I regularly see it.  Often times, a couple of mallards paddle up and down the creek while the heron wades.  Again, they may have always cruised this section of Big Creek, but I didn’t know it.

            With less greenery, it’s been easier to spot the cardinal pair snacking on our seeds through the winter and then perching in a nearby cedar to look Christmas-card scenic.  Unfortunately, about Christmas time, the little female of the pair disappeared.  I’ve watched, hoping she’d return, but the male returns alone time after time.  I wondered what happened to her, and now I think I know.

            At the same time our view of the feeders improved because of the open space, a neighboring sharp shin hawk benefited as well.  One recent afternoon, little birds kept crashing into the dining room window, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.  It wasn’t the right time of year for drunken cedar waxwings to collide in intoxicated flight.

            First, I heard a thunk, and when I looked, I found a downy woodpecker lying on its back considering whether it wanted to recover or not.  Fortunately for it and its hard head, the collision merely stunned it, so after getting up woozily and wobbling about, it flew off. 

            Not long after, a softer clunk alerted me to a bird/window wreck.  This time a little junco lay stunned outside the glass.  Again, after a short recovery, it took off, leaving me wondering what was causing this many unusual window contacts.

            About that time, I needed to work at the table positioned next to that window.  If any more birds crashed, surely I would see the cause of all these efforts to plaster my plate glass with down feathers.

            I didn’t have to wait long.  Within thirty minutes, darting sharp shin energy flashed on the feeder closest to the dining room, scattering feeding birds in its attack.  This time, I thought the dashing hawk and fleeing prey would shatter the glass and land in my lap.  As the tiny bird hit the window leaving a trail of gray down splayed against the glass, I could see the predator’s talons latch around it.  Someone would eat well that afternoon.

            This bird of prey did what hawks do to survive.  It fed at the feeder.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Travel Log of a Seed

            In traditional gardens and farm fields, one expects to find plants growing in tidy rows or circles. We prefer our plants in natural setting so we don’t get upset to find purple phlox or sheep sorrel growing amidst the buffalo grass.

However, I do have a distinctly planned area for flowers and another for vegetables.  Imagine my surprise when I looked out the front door to discover schwartzenberrry plants under our big pine.  

            I did not plant schwartzenberries! These obviously arrived via feathered-friend-carrier, an event that occurs more than we realize.

            A quick scan of the yard revealed a number of such deliveries--mulberry trees sprouting from the middle of cedars--golden currants grow under elm and hackberry trees.   The draw behind the house and  our creek bank are natural sites for wild fare, but mulberry trees growing beneath landscaped cedars and schwartzenberry plants beneath pines and cedars are out of place.

            It didn’t take long to understand why I have these vegetative oddities sprouting.  My next close look revealed hundreds of birds, flitting and hopping from branch to branch.  Thrashers sang their wake up songs as chickadees, robins, finches, jays, grackles, sparrows, blue birds, and cardinals added to the ruckus. 

            These visitors that brighten my mornings leave dietary deposits behind, which result in surprise landscaping.  I don’t always appreciate their largesse.  I recently found poison ivy growing under a nearby tree. Some bird ate ivy berries before resting in my whispering cottonwood.

            Figuring out the mystery of the surprise schwartzenberries left me marveling plants reproduction. Cottonwood and the thistle seeds float like little dust motes on spring thermals until they find a new home.  Elm trees reseed in a similar fashion with the help of the automobile to spread those saucer shaped seeds farther than nature intended.  I never leave my drive without elm envelopes waiting to be deposited along my path.

            Who can miss the trail of the mulberry splat?  Like imported pheasants, imported mulberry trees adapted to the plains better than the immigrants who brought them here.  The dream of a silk industry is gone, but mulberries remain and spread, thanks to feathered friends who spread mulberries and schwartzenberries.

            Other plants adapted more tortuous means of reproducing.  For instance, consider the devil’s claw, which grows in pastures and ditches.  These plants, deceptively delicate and  beautiful, look harmless until that seedpod matures in late summer.  Porcupine eggs are just as painful. They are seeds shaped like small bird eggs covered with Velcro-like projections. I don’t know their real name, but it is easy to see how they acquired the nickname porcupine eggs.  These latch onto dogs and other furry creatures to be transported into new territory.

            Nature has done her best to guarantee her creatures’ survival.  When I think of how seeds transfer themselves from the mother plant to receptive soil, I marvel at this plan’s perfection.  Sometimes wind does the job.  Other times, creatures, including humans, serve as unwitting transportation.

While I will destroy the invading poison ivy, I will encourage the invading schartzenberry plants so we can look forward to a tasty kuchen.  I hope I beat the birds to the berries. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Secrets Leaves Hide

          Years ago, if you had asked me my favorite season, I would have echoed responses given by folks around me—spring. Images of newness, rebirth, and returning life drew me like a magnet draws iron filings. 

Magazines’ subtle messages influenced me.  Pastel colors made me want bury my arms elbow-deep in winter-fallowed soil filled with writhing earthworms.  Budding leaf and flower photos delivered messages that made me want to dig out a fishing pole and a can of  worms to make a date with a crappie at a nearby fishing hole.

Even now I feel those urges, but I also find myself missing details I notice once plants lose  leaves, turning nature black and white.  Did color TV have the same effect on viewers?  Did we become so enthralled with colors and their effects that we missed subtleties we might have picked up watching an old black and white movie?

Don’t get me wrong, I love leafy trees and flowers anywhere I find them.  But I miss seeing hidden parts of nature during summer. 

What gets hidden by spring and summer growth?  Bird nests and squirrel nests for a start. After leaves fall, I discover how many critters raised families near me. Take a drive to check tops of leafless trees.  The woods are a bustling residential area.

An oriole’s bright orange catches my eye as it flashes by. Once leaves fall, I realize that little fellow wasn’t just a visitor.  It’s mate nested in a snug little sleeping bag of woven grasses in a tall cottonwood I drive under every day on my way to work.  Once spring leaves unfurl, that nest is hidden.

            We share our the creek with a  heron rookery.  Throughout fall and winter, seeing their empty nests reminds me temperatures will warm as days grow longer.

During leafless months, I count nests and smile to think how many more heron pairs have taken up residence in creek side trees.  Since the first week in March, I have watched them on the nest.  Silhouetted against the evening sky, one nestles into the bowl of the nest while the other stands watch with legs like black toothpicks against an orange sunset.

 Once leaves emerge, I only see herons as they fly to and from nests or as they spear their main course in nearby waterways.  So much green makes a mystery of their nesting and fledging young.

            It isn’t just leafed-out trees that hide nesting birds.  After leaves fell from my lilac bush last fall, I discovered why we’d seen a brown thrasher near our porch.  She’d been looking for insects to take to her nest in our lilac thicket.  We walked past her nest hundreds of times without noticing. 
            I enjoy the warmth and leaves spring and summer bring.  I enjoy promises of  new beginnings.  However, I have learned to relish discoveries I make when leaves drop and allow me to know more about a world that spring and summer hide.  

Assistant Pollinator

Watching bees and butterflies with their hairy legs clothed in gold pollen pantaloons as they buzz my garden fascinates me. While I do not want to let my leg hairs grow until they can collect yellow nodules of plant magic, I have joined the effort to pollinate my tomato blooms.

Last year, I optimistically planted 15 tomato and 12 pepper plants in our raised-bed garden. In the early, hopeful part of summer, I anticipated making quarts and quarts of salsa to fill empty pantry shelves to bulging. Sadly, I harvested 15 tomatoes the whole summer. The heat decimated my garden, leaving my jars and pantry empty.

This year, I risked early frost to plant six  carefully selected tomato plants as well as two pepper plants in early April  To further guarantee more than a 15 tomato harvest, I planted three rows of flowers—one each of zinnias, cosmos, and bachelor buttons—to encourage more bees and butterflies to visit my prairie oasis.

So far, my efforts have been fruitful. We have harvested dozens of tomatoes with more on the vine. The dilemma is the heat. It tends to prevent pollination and thus, a ongoing crop.

I have read about heat’s effect on tomato development. However, I have not determined whether it is a result of heat affecting developing tomatoes or the temperature’s effect on insects that fertilize blossoms.

To determine the solution, I decided to play pollinator. No, I didn’t let my leg hairs grow to collect pollen to transfer from one blossom to another. I robbed my watercolor box of its paintbrush. 
With watercolor brush in hand, I visit my garden in dawn’s cool temperatures. Moving from bloom to bloom, I tickle stamens and pistils of tomato blossoms to assist resident pollinators. I also give the blossoms a little vibrating shake to trick them into thinking I am a great big bee or butterfly doing its job.

My big dilemma is that I cannot tell if the reason I have more tomatoes is that I planted rows of flowers to attract more insects to my garden or if it is because I use a paintbrush to transfer pollen from one plant to another. 

I do know that it is as hot day and night this summer as last, so something I am doing has made a difference in tomato production. We have harvested enough ripe fruit to make fresh salsa, tomato soup, BLT’s, along with a dessert of salted and peppered sliced tomatoes.

My hope is that six tomato plants will produce enough fruit to can a dozen jars of salsa. More than that is an overflow of blessings.

Regardless of whether an insect or paintbrush filament is pollinating my six plants this, tomatoes dangle from vines like green Christmas balls. That beats the heck out of 15 lovely plants producing nothing but green leaves and tomato worms.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sandhill Songs

Leaves changing colors and a sudden nip in the air proclaim autumn has arrived more forcefully than any calendar.  With that change comes an ancient song.  Like steps on the porch announcing a visitor, this song is the sound of summer leaving and fall approaching. Autumn’s musicians herald ice storms and frosts that will finish lingering tomatoes and late summer blooms.

            When I arrived home from work, sandhill cries caught my ear. Knowing exactly what I heard, I moved to an open area where I could spy these primeval harbingers of spring and fall as they headed for the playas, or shallow lakes, of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. 
I heard the music long before I spied the musicians.  A raucous combination of croaks, rattles, trumpets, and high-pitched cries announced another vanguard of cranes racing South ahead of the incoming cold front.  With their distinctive long necks leading their gangly legs that trailed behind them, this awkward choir flew and sang.  My ovation lasted long after they passed out of sight.

After spending a little time learning something about lesser sandhill cranes and migrating myself to Kearney, Nebraska, to observe cranes in their spring staging area, sandhills have cast their spell and caught me in their magic.

 Aldo Leopold captures a bit of their mystique his book A Sand County Almanac.  “A new day has begun on the crane marsh…Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”

Part of their magic is because cranes have existed in a similar form for at least sixty-five million years.  One site states that “fossil evidence indicates the sandhill crane has been part  of Nebraska’s fauna for at least ten million years.” What a strand in the tapestry of existence!  According to many researchers, humans have only been in North America for 13,000 years. 

Another aspect of their magic is that hundreds of thousands of three and a half foot tall birds with six foot wing-spans know to fly each year to sand bars and riverine features between Kearney and North Platte, Nebraska.  In this exact place, they find essential nutrients to fuel their migrations to and from Canada and Alaska where they nest and hatch young on the tundra.  

Hearing autumn’s song reminds crane watchers to schedule a spring trip to the Platte.  Gabbles of thousands of cranes rising from the river in morning mists or coming in from surrounding cornfields at dusk  to descend on the sandbars creates a fraction of a moment where the watcher is woven into that ancient tapestry of million-year-old migrations.

An Incubator of Citizens

Self-reliance, dependability, perseverance.  Each word describes elements of a strong American.  In a world that doesn’t appear to reward or honor these qualities, how does one go about developing such attributes in America’s future taxpayers, voters, community volunteers, and politicians?  Is there a training camp where we can send our young people so that self-reliance, dependability, and perseverance become second nature?

Ironically, folks can skip the summer camp or the high dollar prep-school.  Rural schools all over our nation focus on these qualities every day.  It would be impossible to run a small school district far from resources that many large districts rely on if the staff and students didn’t model these traits from kindergarten through twelfth grade. 

Every strong, successful rural school teaches self-reliance from the time that little five-year-old first walks through the door.  Rural schools require students to depend on their wits and abilities to acquire information and resources that are easily attained in large cities.  Many of these students live a long way from a Walmart and depend on themselves to figure out how to create everything from collages, Halloween costumes, and shop masterpieces without driving to a shopping center. 

  This dependence on initiative instills a confidence you can’t buy.  It also teaches these kids they control their destinies.  As adults, they don’t expect someone else to take care of them.  They step up to care for themselves as well as others incapable of caring for themselves.

In rural schools, students don’t have an endless number of teachers, friends, support services, or supplies.  As a result, they learn that others depend on them to fulfill obligations.  With even one player gone from an eight- man football team, the other players face huge obstacles.  

When that player goes down or that band member is ill, he or she will sacrifice to meet their commitments.  Oftentimes, the crowd will see tears of frustrated disappointment burning the cheeks of that team member who isn’t physically able to be in the game or band.  Those kids know the team or school’s success depends on them.  This understanding of how communities successfully function creates the ultimate citizen, one who is more concerned about community rather than personal interest.

People who grow up functioning with limited resources whether those be talent, bodies, or money know the one resource that makes up for any elements they lack is perseverance.  It is perseverance that gets these kids through endless bus rides to and from school, from academic activities to athletics to music to forensics to FCCLA to FFA to Kayettes to church activities and for some to work at home or in a business.  Rural schools model and depend on people who stick with a program and finish it.

Self-reliance, dependability, perseverance.  These are  qualities rural schools instill.  Western Kansas incubates these qualities and delivers them to a waiting world.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Surviving the Current

What is it about hiking along a roaring stream high in the Rocky Mountains that mesmerizes human beings?  Is it the continual roar of the stream assaulting the ear or perhaps the unique scent of a billion fallen pine needles decomposing to moist loam? Maybe it is the ability to gaze skyward, allowing the eye to follow the towering line of massive evergreens until they merge with blue sky.

Recently I enjoyed a late afternoon mountain hike with two friends after we finished an all day teacher seminar.  As we picked our way up the mountain behind the conference ground looking for some real nature, I appreciated how gardeners had blended natural elements into the condominium landscape. 

Pines, firs, and aspens fit into the scene so naturally it appeared the construction crew simply built around them, but as we hiked away from the complex, I saw details not included in the condominium landscaping. 

Alpine wildflowers dotted the mountainside.  From delicate violets to brazen orange-red columbine, we found treasure after treasure we had not discovered during our village walks.

As we played a simple game moving from one wildflower patch to another, a kind of alpine dot to dot, our ears picked up a new sound--a distant roar. Finding the source of the roar challenged us.

Huffing in the thin air, we climbed upward, noting ab increasing volume.  Finally we spotted a stream tumbling wildly down the mountainside.  In late June, melting snows feed these freshets, adding power and majesty as foaming water eats its way down the mountain to merge into the Arkansas. 

This stream raced down the mountain and anything that fell in would experience a perilous course over large rocks and small boulders.  In addition, the stream had overflowed its banks, eroding dirt away from roots of ancient firs.  Some of these trees stood a good thirty feet tall, while water nibbled and sucked the dirt away from roots like someone cleaning a chicken bone before sucking the marrow.

Water raced, forcing small trees and bushes to dance to its tune.  In fact, some large firs and thin aspens had succumbed, scattering trunks and limbs to create patches of turbulence.

After climbing a bit higher, we stood on the bank and marveled that some of those trees still stood.  So much dirt had washed away in the current that daylight glimmered through the root system. One tree’s entire base appeared suspended above the foam except for a huge root that disappeared into the foaming depths.

I examined that fir suspended upright above the rushing water. It would require an amazing root to face such an onslaught. 

 This example of natural force reminded me that humans who survive onslaught after onslaught in life are much like that tree.  They too have an anchor to allow them to stand tall in life’s torrents.

Each of us must find what gives us strength to make it from day to day.  Finding that tree made me think about how my own support system strengthens my life. 


Tales Rock Art Tell

            Hunters are hunters are hunters. And some things never change—not even over thousands of years.  I base this epiphany on years of hunting for rock art and learning anywhere ancestral humans traveled they left their stories behind. 

Some of these communications are difficult to interpret and obviously not about hunting, so I leave them to experts who better understand sociological and spiritual underpinnings of native people.  However, many of the messages read loud and clear to anyone familiar with hunting, hunting magazines, or the “Outdoor Channel”—“I got the big one! Lots of deer, mountain sheep, elk, bear, buffalo, mountain lions—you name it, it’s here!”

Over the years, I have visited rock art sites throughout the West and  have yet to view one that doesn’t have at least a few hunting stories pecked into the rock.  Most of them have a lot of “visuals” devoted to the pursuit of wild game.   Hunting technology may have changed over the centuries, but hunters haven’t changed in the fact that they find no better finish to their experiences than sharing their stories.

In every group of hunters, one or two storytellers embellish their tales a bit, adding an edge to the event.  Those ancient rock artists also had ‘spin’ specialists.  Most of the information on the giant slabs of rock constituing their art pads is mundane—a small deer here, an entire herd, including does and fawns there, a goodly number of mountain sheep with nice but not outstanding racks following one after another there. Then the ‘arteest’ goes to work, and you see trophy animals depicted that make you want to leap into a time machine to take you to them.

Today we spend considerable resources managing game numbers.  Looking at many different rock art sites helped me realize how much our environment has changed.  Obviously more game existed when there were fewer humans and less pressure on the game.  In addition, mountain sheep furnished numerous meals for ancient people and ranged over more of the West than they do today.  I also spotted buffalo carved into Newspaper Rock in eastern Utah and wondered what size herds roamed that rugged area or if, perhaps, the artist recorded an event that occurred elsewhere.

Hunters love new technology, and over the years, I’ve learned you can date rock art by technology depicted in the rock art.  Bows developed later.  At one or two sites, I’ve seen guns represented by the artist.  Just as our modern hunting magazines reveal advances in hunting craft, these early sportsmen found  ways to expose advances in their capabilities. 

As a rock art enthusiast, I find myself mulling over implications that some things never change.  Humans enjoy nature, they enjoy hunting, and they enjoy sharing stories about hunting. I like to think our stories will be available to future hunters in 500 or 1,000 years, but I doubt it.  Even if we manage resources and habitat remains available, I am not sure paper and websites will hold up as well as desert-varnished sandstone.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The End of the Rainbow

Shamrocks, leprechauns, pots o’ gold.  What do those terms bring to mind?  For me the instant correlation is St. Patrick’s Day, a fun and joyful spring celebration.  As a child, I was sure the old stories must be true and anyone lucky enough to stumble upon a rainbow’s end would find the leprechauns’ pot of gold. I was also certain that mortals rarely, if ever, find the end of the rainbow.

As a good storytelling mother should, I perpetuated this childhood myth for my own children.  After all, this is how society maintains its customs and stories.  Of course, I embellished and brought little green people to life so that my children could almost see the wee ones going about their daily tasks.

After creating a leprechaun world and sending my own wee blonde lassies in search of four leaf clovers, I found myself confronted with a serious problem when it rained one late spring afternoon.   My eldest daughter was no fool and neither was the youngest.  With stories such as I had told, they were certain we only had to follow the rainbow to its end to find great riches.

            Nothing would do until I loaded both tots into our green boat, a huge Mercury something or other, buckled them into their car seats,  and went in search of the rainbow’s end.  We could see the colorful arc somewhere between Ellis and Hays, near Old 40 Highway.  From there we winged it. 

With a one-and-a-half-year-old echoing everything she heard and a sharp-eyed five-year-old navigating, we took off to find fortune.  A visiting friend and her daughter joined the expedition.  Everything is more fun if it is shared--especially when one is about to make a fool of oneself.

High spirits and laughter filled the car as we jaunted east on Old 40 in search of treasure. Crossing our fingers that the rainbow would not fade before we found it, we imagined how we would spend our loot.  The children wanted candy and toys, of course.  The adults thought more along the line of a car that had a roof-liner that stayed in place instead of drooping down to rest upon the driver’s and passengers’ heads. 

As we got closer to Yocemento, we could see r-o-y-g-b-i-v intensifying.  Rounding the bend, we saw the rainbow ended somewhere just north and west of the Yocemento where Old 40 angled. I turned north to a chorus of, “We are getting closer.  Look, Mom, it’s just over there.”

Just over there meant I had to follow a  lane paralleling the north side of Big Creek.  By now I was nearly as excited as the kids, not because I thought I would find gold, but because I never imagined  seeing the exact spot a rainbow ended. 

The navigators were right. Our search soon ended in someone’s driveway.
Of course, the kids were looking for a pot spilling over with gold coins.  My friend and I enjoyed the moment.  It was one of those water color days where the hues of sky, trees, grass, and dirt were intense, defined, perfect.  We felt as if we were in a masterpiece.

The end of the story was perfect.  There was no gold.  There were no leprechauns.  But...there was a wonderful goose--a story book goose, white and prissy--standing right where the rainbow met the grass.  It nibbled at the greens and looked nonchalant while we gazed.  It obviously had no idea it played a role in the formation a lifetime memory for two mothers and three children out on a lark. 

To this day, when the light is perfect and the girls and I see a rainbow over Yocemento way, we wonder if the goose still stands at the end of the rainbow. 

Pumpkin Patch

Pumpkin Patch

Gold, scarlet, and orange leaves and grasses, blue skies muted by just a hint of autumnal gold, air crisped by a gentle breeze, and burnished milo fields.  What more could anyone ask for on an October weekend?  Not much, unless you want to toss in a cornfield maze, a pumpkin patch full of traditional pumpkins, Cinderella pumpkins, and some odd gray - blue pumpkins, a toasty wood fire designed for roasting marshmallows and peanuts, and hayrack rides. 

From the time our girls were toddlers until they were pre-teens, we looked forward every fall to our annual trip or two or three to Love’s pumpkin patch up on the Saline River.  Weeks before it opened, the girls would gleefully ask, “Can we get our pumpkin yet?”

“Not yet; they are still turning orange,” I would tell them.

It wasn’t just the chance to pick out the perfect pumpkin; it was also the joy of riding to the field on a flat-bed trailer pulled by two huge draft horses. Every child and grownup, for that matter, grinned broadly as the wagon slowly rolled down the lane.

The year Love’s quit their pumpkin patch was a sad one for our family, one which was bemoaned every autumn thereafter.  Until this year, that is.

My eldest daughter and I anticipate the evening news with an enthusiasm that astounds other family members.  Imagine our joy when the news noted several area farmers planned pumpkin patches this year. 

Our joy multiplied when the day we planned to begin visiting the local patches dawned crisp, bright, and fully dressed in every possible shade of gold, russet, and scarlet. Eagerly, we called a close friend and asked her to join our expedition.  The more the merrier, we thought.

This particular patch required a bit of meandering through the countryside, an added bonus.  We feasted our eyes on picture perfect milo fields and multi-colored foliage.

As an added bonus, I discovered old-fashioned telephone poles, aged and decrepit, lining these unfamiliar rural roads.  I had never seen the short kind that have two little insulator holders on each side of the pole.  (Yes, daughter, they were before my time.)

Milkweed pods had burst, and fluffy clouds of down punctuated the ditches we passed.  In addition, I noted an unfamiliar plant sporting thick, red stalks, a leaf that looked worse for the recent frost, and clusters of berries hanging everywhere.  At first, I thought I had found wild grape heaven, but this was something else entirely--pokeweed.

Once we reached the patch, we saw people of all sizes wandering about the field looking for their great pumpkin.  Small children squealed with delight as they tried to lift pumpkins their little arms could not possibly surround.  Older peopled chuckled at the small fry and at their own memories. 

This particular patch had a cornfield maze which challenged our group.  Actually, we were a bit tall or the corn was a bit short for it to be a real threat, but the maze designer had added the challenge of a scavenger hunt to the intertwining lanes and dead ends .  We liked finding the little treasures and trinkets as much as any of the little people dashing through the maze.  The real thrill came when we flushed a rooster pheasant from his hiding place.  I don’t know who was more frightened, me or the bird.

After the maze, a trip through the Haunted Forest built a raging thirst, so we headed for the concession stand, which hawked standard autumn fare: spiced cider, apple fritters, caramel corn, s’mores, and roasted peanuts.

 A wonderful fire pit, ringed with native stone, caught our attention. We watched children roasting marshmallows for their very first time, which they then turned into their first ever s’more. I could feel their enjoyment. In my case, I had never eaten peanuts roasted over an open fire, so I ordered those.  The attendant told me roasting them brought out the flavor, and she was right.

I think the ambience of the day, the joy of children’s laughter, and  time spent with my daughter and a good friend  added the extra seasoning to make those peanuts so tasty.

Water Dish Swimming Hole

When public pools were first built during the WPA years, I am sure some naysayers complained about a waste of water and effort.  However, in heat waves such as we have experienced this year, sparkling, cool town pools draw young and old like a magnet draws iron filings.   On our hilltop, we’ve created the equivalent of the public pool for all our bird residents.

As the heat built, wicking away any moisture around, we put pans of water in shady places around the yard for our chickens.  I expected some local birds to visit and sip, but the crowds approach Disney proportions.  I suppose this has to do with the fact our section of Big Creek is nothing but dust, so these convenient pools are a haven for adult birds parenting just fledged adolescents.  This leads to some funny scenes at the local pool.

I recognize the young robins by their mottled colors and spindly bodies.  They remind me of 6th and 7th graders who have reached adult height but haven’t filled out yet. The parents, in general, come to the water pans to drink and groom circumspectly.  The young come for a drink and end up splashing half the water out of the container.  It’s like watching a water fight on steroids as they frolic.

Orioles react more cautiously regardless of their age.  Both the mature birds and the adolescents come to the water alert and prepared to flee at the least disturbance.  When young robins join them, the bright orioles leave immediately.

House finches and sparrows also tend to be businesslike in their drinking habits.  They focus on the drink and skip the frivolities.

A flicker youngster and its mother came in to refresh themselves yesterday and discovered tasty insects in the elm next to the water dish.  Watching the mom teach her baby to search the bark and pick out the insect consumed at least 15 minutes of my morning. 

The mom successfully pecked gourmet delights out of the rough bark. However, her offspring hunted without victory until the mother gave in and regurgitated insect chunks into its wide open beak.  I imagine she will be glad when that full size child can find its own dinner, and she gets to savor all her efforts.

Raucous blue jays are another rowdy bunch at the water.  They never seem to come in one or two at a time.  It seems like a gang arrives soon after the first jays lands on the edge of the dish.  I guess it’s the equivalent of a neighborhood of kids agreeing to meet at the pool at the same time.  Once the trouble makers arrive, even the chickens back off. 

These pretty but noisy birds are the equivalent of neighborhood bullies who push, and dunk everyone else.  By the time they finish their drinks and splashing around, I have to rinse their feathers out of the what water is left in the dish and refill it.

Ironically, one little visitor dares to challenge the blue jays to the water.  It isn’t a bird either.  We have juvenile squirrel who likes to sunbathe by the water pans.  He doesn’t seem to mind any of the other creatures who come in to drink as long as the family dog is inside the house.

No matter how wild and crazy the robins or the jays get in the water, that little squirrel lays outside the dish, preening under the splashes like he’s sitting under a sprinkler.  In between bird visits, he pulls himself up on the pan’s lip  to slurp a good drink.

While the water dishes aren’t permanent like a WPA pool, they serve much the same purpose in providing refreshment to the neighborhood.  The lady watching from inside an air-conditioned house gets plenty of entertainment as well.

Bunny Curses

            One of the joys of living in the country is the opportunity to view wildlife right outside the house.  One of the curses of living in the country is the opportunity to view wildlife right outside the house.  The very same wildlife that brings so much joy by morning can destroy a garden or flowerbed later that same day or night.

            Literature perpetuates the myth of the cute bunny in The Tales of Peter Cottontail and various other bunny stories that appear in childhood’s Little Golden Book series. When I was a child, Farmer McGregor mortified me.  How could he want to shoot poor Peter Cottontail, that cute, nose-wriggling, little bunny?  All Peter wanted was a bit of garden fresh lettuce.  How could Farmer McGregor begrudge Peter a leaf of two of lettuce?

            Lately, Farmer McGregor’s attitude toward hungry rabbits makes more and more sense to me.  Actually, the change in my attitude toward rabbits began last summer, but grasshoppers diverted my attention from the furry denizens of garden and flowerbed.  I should have stayed focused on the rabbit issue so I didn’t have so darn many cute critters hopping about the yard this spring.

            I mentioned the joy of watching wildlife earlier in this article. One form of this joy begins in early spring when the rabbits start remembering their reason for being—procreation.  As a prelude to the serious business of baby bunnies, much silly game playing, entertaining to humans who watch, goes on.  The games include leap bunny (something akin to leap frog) and bunny tag for hours or days on end. 

When I first noticed a couple of bunnies in the back yard leaping as high as they could straight up into the air, I thought they were being silly in the same manner our perpetually puppyish hunting dog acts on warm days.  After a few days, the two bunnies got sillier and sillier until I realized that they had more on their minds than just a celebration of warm weather and longer days.

            A couple of months later I went out to cleanup the yard.  As I raked up a particularly large pile of old bark and leaves, six small figures darted out, dashing in six different directions.  At first I thought I disturbed a packrat nest and did a fleet-footed dance appropriate for such a situation.  After I calmed down, I realized I had discovered a nest of ready-to-wean bunnies, a probable result of all that leaping and playing two months earlier.

            My first inclination was to think of their poor mother and what she would think when she returned to find her nest destroyed.  My next thought recalled the destruction of the previous year’s garden and flowers and how the rabbits had literally eaten my plants to the nubbins, eating everything but the salvia.  

            Somehow, one bunny survived our dog as well as the neighborhood hawks, owls, and coyotes by hiding under our lawn mower.  Eventually, to better protect himself, he discovered a secret passage into our screened in back porch.

 As I rode my exercise bike one morning, I looked onto the porch only to lock surprised gazes with that little rabbit.   Upon finding itself the focus of my attention, it promptly headed toward a microscopic crevice and squeezed through just as Peter Cottontail had eluded Farmer McGregor.   I had wondered how it escaped our resident birds of prey.  There was my answer.  It hid on my back porch, probably right under my swing.

After spotting the survivor, I planted my garden and several flower beds.  My husband took a nonchalant approach to “our” rabbits. His philosophy followed the lines of “If they don’t bother me, I won’t bother them.”

For a while it seemed his approach would work as we saw the rabbits nibbling only grass and weeds.  They didn’t appear to notice my garden or flowerbeds, lush after so many spring showers. 

That has since changed.   The rabbits fired the opening salvo of this summer’s epic battle by eating my salvia blossoms as hors d’oeuvres before chomping on the snapdragons, dahlias, hollyhocks, and rose leaves.  I suppose they picked their little rabbit teeth with the thorns from the rose bush.

Like Farmer McGregor I no longer have mercy in my heart for cute little bunnies.  As far as I am concerned, their furry exteriors and cute bunny noses disguise cold-hearted thieves and garden murderers.  Never again will I welcome these creatures into the yard with oohs and aahs, nor will I feel sad when nature takes its course and they become owl, hawk, or coyote food.  Or at least very sad . . .

Palette of Autumn Color

           The palette of autumn colors in western Kansas dazzles me every year.  I know some folks think the foliage tours in eastern states reveal the best colors of the season, but I wish they would take a drive across the prairie with me.  The colors may not be quite so obvious as the hardwood forests in the East, but anyone with a good eye can detect our subtle hues.

            Late rains recently have led to a bumper crop of sunflowers to brighten the roadside ditches.  I don’t know that I have ever seen so many blooms or such vibrant plants this time of year.   A local photographer must agree because I have seen him out numerous evenings as he snaps senior pictures against the lush backdrop of these flowers along the railroad tracks.  Between the majestic sunsets and the flowers, I do not know which is easier on the eye.

            Not only did the sunflowers get a boost from those showers.  So did the grasses.  Many of us have heard the old timers’ stories of the grasses growing as tall as a horse’s belly.  This year the big blue stem and the Indian grass would definitely tickle the bellies of buffalo or horses.  If this is how the ditches look now, imagine this prairie before section lines and barbwire divided it into parcels. Imagine if we could get a red tail hawk’s view.  It would seem that our section line roads stitch together multi-color patches of quilt. 

            In addition to the grasses growing so tall, they are also colorful and bound to intensify in color before winter snows blanket them.  Hints of bluestem’s trademark rust color have already crept up the stem into the native tall grass and mid grass grasses while the tawny hue of the Indian grass heads suggests the color of a lion’s mane.  What we at our house call ditch blue stem waves its pale ecru plume like little apostrophes punctuating the ditches and pastures.

            Mixed in with the taller grasses one also finds switch grass and other varieties of native and transplanted grasses.  Switch grass functions in this natural arrangement like baby’s breath in a store bought bouquet, as a filler. Along with the switch grass, one finds foxtail, side oats grass and brome adding a bit of color and texture to Mother Nature’s arrangements.

            While the grasses and forbs feed our eyes at ground level, tree leaves have just begun to succumb to autumn’s magic.  As I drive down the road, I note more than a hint of gold and rust among the leaves.  Sumac and plum bush leaves have also begun to take on the scarlet coat they wear this time of year.  The locust trees show off in brilliant golds and yellows.  Mardi Gras costumes could not be more brilliant.

            From season to season, as nature’s palette mutates and alters, western Kansans can always count on a backdrop of beautiful skies ranging from robin’s egg blue to gun barrel gray.  I have wondered from time to time if it is not the backdrop of sky color that sets off our grasses and trees so effectively.  Perhaps it is the clearness of aridity that sharpens the eye’s perception. Regardless of the reason, our eyes are treated to rich and varied vistas.

            The screaming orange and burning scarlet of New England may elude our view, but we will not miss them if we take a trip down a country road to enjoy our own show of color.  Between sky and earth, western Kansans have plentiful opportunities to enjoy autumn’s riches.  I haven’t even mentioned the glory of milo fields and other fall crops.  That is another article.

Opportunistic Feeders

            Embarrassing as it is to confess, I don’t wash my car as often as I should, especially since I frequently travel long distances in buggy areas.  We recently returned from a week long trek through insect-filled territory with predictable results.  Squashed bugs covered the front of the car.

            From my perspective, this just meant more work.  I needed to get out the scrub rags and the detergent and apply a little elbow grease.  From a couple of little birds’ perspectives, this was a traveling gourmet delight.  When I looked out the window the other day, I saw two sparrows working diligently at something around the front grill.  Upon closer inspection, these little opportunists were cleaning up on imported bugs. I had delivered a veritable feast to their doorstep.

            Lately the newspapers are full of articles of other examples of opportunistic feeders.    Several swimmers and surfers off a Florida beach recently discovered this the hard way.  As they were splashing and kicking, hungry sharks zeroed in on their movement and noise.  Since bait fish usually occupy those waters, the sharks apparently thought the splashing signaled dinner time.  I can imagine the surprise on the parts of both the swimmers and the sharks.  Neither expected that encounter.  Although a couple of the swimmers required surgery, no one died in that case of mistaken identity.

            Sharks are not the only creatures showing up for unexpected meal encounters.  We recently visited an area in Wyoming that suffered an early freeze and now is experiencing a drought.  As a result, bears, which usually hang out in berry patches and the like in the mountains, are showing up at Fido’s back door dog dish. 

One lady told me her sister left her back door open while she did some errands.  As she was carrying boxes from one area to another, her dog started barking frantically. Curious, she went in the dining area to see what inspired the noise.  A bear cub had wandered into her kitchen to check out his dining options.  Thank goodness she scared him out with a few wild gestures and screeches before his mom came looking for him.  In this particular community, officials had to destroy a grizzly and a black bear that could not resist wandering into town to look for food.

In southern Colorado, a bear wandered into a bottling plant and discovered the raspberry flavored ice tea vat.  The mental pictures going through my mind on that one lead to some possible ice tea commercials.  It reminds me of the old Coca Cola commercials with the big white polar bear.  I suppose this bear story is a case of life imitating art. 

Wild animals aren’t the only creatures to take advantage of a perfect opportunity.  I’ve never seen a dog miss a chance to clean up under a toddler’s seat at the table.  Any dog worth its keep knows where to find the good stuff.  I once saw a lab snatch the ice cream off a little girl’s ice cream cone when the tyke was waving her cone around and not paying attention.  Scolding a dog for doing what comes naturally is hard to do sometimes. 

On the note of letting a food thief off easily, it is getting close to the weekend and car wash time.  Can I justify another postponement with the excuse that I would deprive those sparrows of their gourmet goodies?