Archives for category: bird-watching

In-box Exhaustion

Oh, will it ever end? I make excuses–oh it’s the end-of-quarter reporting period, or the end-of-the-month, but that’s really not it. In fact, the constant alarm, the never-ending solicitation for funds has become the new normal.

Not that there aren’t very real and important issues. There are. I am alarmed by the rapid and dramatic changes in our climate. I am overwhelmed by the abdication of civility and procedure in government. I am heart-broken at our nation’s apparent devolution into bigotry and racism. I am undone by the damage done to our democratic institutions. Sigh.

But, my inbox is overflowing. I often get upwards of two hundred emails a day, most bearing a plea for help and an “opportunity to give.” There is just not enough of me. I have to pick my battles.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to walk my talk. I keep a low-carbon footprint. I minimize driving. We keep the house on the cool side, and eschew air-conditioning. We garden and seasonally grow much of what we consume. We recycle and, more importantly we exercise our buying power to match our values–minimal packaging and basic.

So many of our elected representatives have gone to the dark side. They serve the interests if the ‘donor class’ instead of their constituents. (Then they run against the very institutions they occupy!) We live in a constant state of faux-alarm. It’s exhausting. Meanwhile, in the brouhaha, we lose precious time to bring ourselves back into a sustainable equilibrium. And the emails just keep coming.

I am old-fashioned. I still write actual letters to my representatives. Like any good old hippy, I protest, standing shoulder to shoulder with other aging environmentalists, taking solace in the cold that we can still muster a crowd when it counts. I could pull the plug on my news. I have friends who have done just that. But it seems that removing thinking people from the mix just leaves us with a runaway train.

My primary coping mechanism is to spend time in the woods. I gather firewood, I forage–sometimes I just walk about noting what wildlife is active and leaving its mark. Beyond that, I do what I can, and take comfort in the fact that I am older. Caring is a young person’s sport. It’s some relief to see some of them step up to save the planet that they will inherit. Perhaps it’s enough to be a good steward to the things under my control and to enjoy the simple beauties of season and nature as I go about my day.

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Sandhill Cranes, Yesterday

No Reservations Needed–

A.V. Walters–

Back in my California days, I always wanted to go see the Sandhill Crane migration. There was an area outside of Modesto where the cranes would come and settle for a while each year during their migratory cycle. A couple of friends were also interested—but we never made it happen. One of the three would always have a conflict—and the other two never got it together to do it anyways, or we’d miss out on the limited reservations for crane viewing. Back there, you had to do Sandhill Cranes by appointment.

The cranes are beautiful. They’re a little odd, with a strange whooping type call. I know this because, now, thousands of miles away, the cranes are our neighbors. They live nearby in the cedar swamp between here and the town of Cedar. We can hear their weird yodeling call during the long light of summer evenings. In the late autumn, or early spring, sometimes they’ll fly over to the cornfield adjacent our little apartment, to glean corn bits from the field.

It’s funny how something you failed to pursue in one part of life, actually comes to your doorstep later. We don’t get a whole migrating flock. It seems that our cranes stick around for the winter. Maybe they do a short trip south—but if they do, it’s pretty abbreviated, because we see them so frequently here. I think I prefer just a couple of neighbor cranes to some overwhelming migratory flock. It’s certainly more intimate—and doesn’t require a reservation.

Snow Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, Today

Autumn Olive…

A.V. Walters —

With olive-like leaves

With olive-like leaves

Also known as Russian Olive, the Autumn Olive is considered a pest species. In the want ads of our local newspaper, guys advertise that they’ll pull it up by its roots, for a fee. Apparently it arrived as a domestic landscaping plant—but escaped into the larger wilds. I don’t know why nobody likes it.

In the spring is has tiny, extremely fragrant, delicate yellow, trumpet–like blooms. Though you have to inspect to see how lovely they are, just walking by smells terrific—like you’d walked into a tropical bouquet. The plant itself is just a shrub, with foliage looking a lot like olive leaves—and so, the name. I suppose some object to the thorns. I haven’t had too much trouble with thorns—even pruning. You just need to be mindful of them to avoid being scratched.

The real surprise is the fruit. It’s ripe in the fall. The plant book describes it as tart, but edible, mostly for migrating birds. I guess I’ll have to leave some for them—I love it. It is a sweet/tart combo that I love. Rick just turns up his nose, thinks I’m crazy. Next year I’ll try making jelly out of it. I think that tartness would be lovely captured in a clear jar of scarlet. I haven’t seen any recipes. Could it be I’m the only one that likes them? (Other than the cedar waxwings.)

But I like the fruit

But I like the fruit

Spring has Sprung

A.V. Walters

We’ve been busy here in Empire. We’re gearing up to build—and hoping that the snow will melt in time for construction. Spring is making inroads into winter’s territory. Here in Empire, there’s a big patch of ground making itself visible in our front yard. Once it gets started, you can almost watch it by the hour. Yesterday, robins appeared. Neighbors whom we haven’t seen in months have started to take walks around town and in front of our house. Spring is here. (But the tapwater has yet to get the memo. It’s still 34 degrees. I can hardly wait for it to warm up enough so that I can turn off the water.)

Of course, Cedar/Maple City (only 15 minutes away) was the season’s big winner in the snow department. We went there yesterday—it took snowshoes to get us to the building site. Snow is still at least knee-deep there, mushy, crusty, difficult to maneuver snow. It’s a case of hurry-up-and-wait. We’ve fetched our tomato cages and buckets, in preparation of the bucket garden–but one look at the site and we just sighed. (We’ll need to fence the garden, the deer here are voracious.) I’m anxious to get back to my gardening.

I’ll report more as the situation develops. In the meantime, perhaps I can update the emu situation from Two Rock.

At Home, With The Royals

A.V. Walters

Of our five emu chicks, two were adopted by a fancy, Napa Valley vineyard/winery. Those two little emus had been our favorites, the ones we named C3 and Sleepy. Their royal gig was to serve as guardian and companion animals in the vineyard’s menagerie. This place was not just a grape-growing operation, it was a full-blown winery castle. Castello di Amerosa is a noted tourist attraction between St. Helena and Calistoga.  They were adopted out as little bitty guys, in full baby-emu plumage. We wistfully watched them go off to a royal life at the castle, pleased that they’d fared so well.

Do you remember me?

Do you remember me?

We always intended to visit. After all, how often does one get to see a full-sized medieval castle? (Really, check it out; it is really quite impressive— www.castellodiamorosa.com) As the time drew short for our own departure to the east, we finally decided to make the trip to see how our little, feathered, former wards were doing. We emailed our contact, Carlos, and asked if we could visit. He was thrilled, sent us photos and directions. But, the photos puzzled us—the Royal Emus were blonds! (What do they say? You can never be too thin or too blond?) Really, what could explain how different these emus were from their plebian siblings?

Castello Di Amerosa

Castello Di Amerosa

As we drove up the winding drive, the castle (and it really is a castle) peaked above the hill. We parked in the lot, and walked over to take a look at the grape vine encircled castle, complete with a moat and drawbridge. Carlos soon found us and brought us over to the area of the grounds with the emus. Along the way, he introduced his other charges—geese, guinea hens, goats, sheep, peacocks, and a wide variety of chickens. Finally, there they were, the emus. Blond.

Blonds?

Blonds?

It wasn’t just the photos, these emus were decidedly lighter in color than their parents or siblings, back on the farm. We scratched our heads. While the emus didn’t recognize us, they clearly related to us as folks who know and handle emus. (Besides, we brought apple treats!) They let us rub the fronts of their necks and feel their feathers. And, therein was the secret…the feathers were brittle, bleached out and broken. Something was clearly wrong.

Where did they get those white knickers?

Where did they get those white knickers?

The kings and royals of yesteryear often suffered different ailments from the mundane health-hazards of the surrounding, peasant populations. Like modern folk everywhere, the Royals of the past suffered from diseases of excess—gout, heart disease, obesity. We decided to ask what it was these emus had been eating.

Sure enough, it turned out that they’d been feeding the emus the same special-mix they had for the peacocks. But, peacocks are seed-eaters and Emus are grazers. Their enclosure was too small to provide a normal, grass-eating diet. (And, like teenagers everywhere, they’ll gladly take the fast-food, rather than seek out the best nutritional options.) Emus need a feed mix that has a high proportion of roughage and greens. These royal emus had a diet that was too rich in calories and not high enough in essential vitamins and minerals.

We pointed it out to Carlos, the damaged, brittle feathers and explained. Nodding, he agreed and assured us he’d get the proper emu feed the very next day. And, not a moment too soon—those emus will need to rebuild their feathers to stay warm this coming winter.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

Our visit was a complete success. We did look at the castle, a bit, but most of our time was spent with The Royal Emus.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

Reunited

A.V. Walters

We ran those two emu generations side by side, in adjacent fields for at least a month, wondering if and when it would be safe to put them together. The emu elders continued to be a bit pissy to the babes, reaching over the fence to nip and thwack them at every opportunity. But, earnest Gatsby wouldn’t give up; he was bound and determined to win those big emus over. When we came into the field to feed the adults, he’d run up to the fence line to greet them, only to be met with a hiss and a peck on the top of his head. We had to wonder, was there any recognition of kinship, at all? Not that I expected much of the Mrs., (After all, female emus have a cut and run approach to parenthood.) But the males are the nurturers, and will even adopt unrelated emu young. And, these were their own babies.

Maybe we waited too long to do the introductions. After all, Gatsby and Kelvin were now emu teens, complete with ‘tude’. (I know a great many parents who’d like to pretend that their teenagers aren’t related!) It wasn’t even essential that there be an emu reunion. Elmer has enough land and enough sheep (on both sides of the main road) to employ separate teams of guardian emus. My concern was that they meet, and be at least civil, so that if Elmer needed to put them together it could be done without fisticuffs.

By late July, the over the fence hostilities had lessened to the point where it was worth a shot. The adults were no longer starving—receiving daily rations with the babes since their move. They’d put a few pounds back on, and were much more relaxed. Still, mom and dad demonstrated clear interest in the lower pasture. You see, the baby emus were in an old orchard and the adults obviously coveted the easy availability of free, seasonal apple treats. Our emus had relaxed and learned, too. At least Gatsby had learned to visit at the fence line, just out of reach. Kelvin appeared to have lost interest in the big emus next door. We decided it was time.

One sunny day, we marched across the farm for the regular emu feeding. After everyone had finished their kibble and the apple treats had been generously distributed, Rick unceremoniously swung open the gate between them. It took a few minutes before they realized what was up.

Gatsby got it first. Emus! His head perked up with the recognition of this momentous change. Then, at full emu speed he headed directly for the grown-up emus.

Fearing violence, Rick and I stepped towards the fray, without any idea of what we’d do if there were an actual emu fight—wave our arms and shout, “Heel emus, heel?” I’ve been in the middle of an emu altercation—limping away with a broken toe, for my trouble, as a result. I had no interest in doing it again. At the last instant, Gatsby veered off and ran circles—what appeared to be joyous circles—around the adults. Emus! Gatsby was in his glory. Since the moment he first caught sight of the adults, he had wanted herd-status. And, here they were, at last!

For their part, the adults, while keeping an eye on that crazy Gatsby, had bigger plans. They headed straight for the apple trees that were now available to them. Kelvin hung back safely, and wisely, on the perimeter. Every now and then, Gatsby would cut a corner too tight and intrude on the personal space of the adults. He was rewarded with hisses and pecks—but, to our relief, no kicking. An emu’s kick is its best defense and offense. And, if an emu starts kicking, things are serious.

Dining in Peace

Dining in Peace

We stuck around for forty minutes, or so. Gatsby was still careening about the pasture. He was the happiest emu I’d ever seen. He’d run in big circles and then come back in to do smaller circles around the huddle of emus, who were quietly munching apples, under the trees. He didn’t even mind when one of the adults would mete out a hiss or nip, asserting who was, after all, in charge of this operation. Gatsby didn’t protest—he clearly wasn’t interested in dominance. He wanted unity.

Finally, after a protracted run, Gatsby quieted down and joined the adults. If he got too close, Mr. and Mrs. were quick to give him a whacking, so he’d temporarily join his sister, who was grazing in wide circles on the edge of the action. Kelvin appeared a little put out. She stayed close, but at a safe range from the group. They didn’t pay her any mind. Her best buddy, Gatsby, had completely thrown her over for the adults. She looked just a little lonely, but that was her choice.

Taking turns as lookout.

Taking turns as lookout.

 

Rick looked at me, “I think our work here is done.” And so it was. It was another step in the direction of emu autonomy. There’s the tug of parenthood, combined with the relief of demonstrated independence.  We stopped and picked some blackberries on our way back down the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A.V. Walters

Each year we have this same battle. The swallows arrive and want to build their mud-daubed nests under our eaves. I like them; they’re streamlined and beautiful, swooping in elegant arcs over the farm. I don’t fully understand the dynamic, but in their search for nesting sites, they’re attracted most to the protected areas just over our doorways. They’re almost as messy as emus (on a smaller scale) and, as beautiful as they are, I’m not inclined to duck and take cover whenever I enter or leave our home. One minute they’re endearing wildlife, and the next, they’re a strafing, dive-bombing hazard. They can nest anywhere on the farm except over my back door.

Elmer has a soft-hearted farm rule. Tenants are free to dissuade birds from building nests. (And so I’m out there like a maniac waving my arms, shouting, beating on the window and carrying on.) But if a bird pair builds a nest and lays eggs–they get to stay for the duration. We are not allowed to interrupt bird families.

Some years ago, Elmer was asked by some South American scientists if they could run DNA tests on the farm’s summer swallows. The scientists wanted to know if these Two Rock swallows were of the same family as their own Brazilian swallows.  Thrilled to be on the cutting edge of science, and to watch-first hand as the scientists captured, tagged and took blood samples, Elmer was the chief proponent of the Swallow Investigation. Sure enough, the DNA revealed that our summer swallows are the same ones that go all the way to Brazil.

It’s the same with most migratory birds. We think of them as our songbirds, swallows, warblers, hummingbirds or ducks, but really we share them with their winter neighbors. Even our Monarch butterflies are traveling visitors. The alarming part of that is that we cannot protect them. Habitat must be protected across half the globe to make the world safe for our migratory friends. That knowledge came as a shock to Elmer. The world got smaller with that knowledge. Elmer does his part with the nesting rule.

It’s that simple. One chicken farmer can make a difference with a rule, making it possible for the swallows to live and breed on the northern leg of their annual trek. We can decide to save a species by changing our behavior. Last year, Elmer put an owl house in the peak of one of the barns. Swallows, owls, a little information can go a long way to inform our decisions and how we move through the environment.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to let them build a nest over my door, but they are otherwise welcome visitors. They have as much claim to make a home as I do. And if they get ahead of me, build a nest and lay eggs, I’ll just swallow hard, and endure the inconvenience like I do for the emus. When it comes down to it, we’re all immigrants here and we can just make room.

(Oh, except for those noisy mourning doves–I don’t know what to do about them.)