Monday, March 30, 2009

Ranger Tries Again

Well, you can't say that he doesn't try!

I've mentioned that Ranger hasn't mastered bird hunting yet, much to my relief. It's not for lack of trying, though.

His first efforts involved quick darts from under the deck towards the bird feeders. The birds, naturally, just flew away.

So Ranger got trickier. About a month ago I saw him rolling in the grass and birdseed debris, then lying quietly next to the feeder. Camoflage?

That didn't work, so he quit bothering the birds for a while. The cotton rats were much easier prey and readily available. They must have gotten boring though, because he's back to trying for the birds again.

Today I saw a couple new techniques. First there was the stealth approach.....

When 30 minutes under the feeder didn't work, he decided that, "If the birds won't come to me, I'll go to them!" So up in the tree he went.

Nothing magically appeared, so he checked out the "link" between the finch feeder and the tree branch.

That wasn't fruitful. Maybe this basket of fat hanging here?

Still no luck. And while Ranger is ingenious at trying out new approaches, his patience is rather limited. So he quit for today...and the birds rapidly flew back in to reclaim their territory.

I shouldn't laugh, because one of these days he's going to be successful, but it's still rather humorous to see his repeated attempts. Maybe we should have named him Edison (of the Thousand and One Steps to Success)!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Further Adventures of Ranger, the Electro-Cat

Okay, the title is a little misleading. As long as Ranger gets to spend massive quantities of time outside, he's basically leaving electrical cords alone inside. I don't dare dangle them in front of him, though. He's definitely an opportunist!

Luckily with all of the time he spends outside, Ranger has not proven to be too adept at catching birds. (Yes, I'm knocking on wood - at least metaphorically - as I say that!) Animal-snob that I guess I am, I'm not too worried about the hispid cotton rat population that seems to provide him with the most frequent victims. It'll be another matter altogether if he starts getting Harris sparrows, Carolina wrens or goldfinch.

Anyway, I got quite a laugh last week when he suddenly discovered a fox squirrel that comes in occasionally to bulk up at the feeders. As I stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes, the first thing I noticed was a rusty blur streaking along the ground and up a tree. Then a black blur followed close behind it. When the action paused, the squirrel was high up in the branches of the green ash, chattering and flicking its tail vigorously, not letting its eyes leave Ranger. Ranger actually disappointed me - he climbed up in the tree and seemed to study all the angles for several minutes, but abandoned the chase that day after barely getting 1/3 of the way to his quarry.

By the next day, he was more determined, however, and worked his way at least halfway up the tree before deciding to go after easier prey. (Maybe the grayer day just had him more inclined to chase away his boredom.)

I'm quite sure that the squirrel can balance on far smaller branches than Ranger can, but it's going to be interesting to see how far out a limb Ranger is willing to go!

Late March Bird Tales

One of the most fascinating things to watch during a winter storm is the behavior of the birds. Given the number that showed up at my feeders during this storm, there must not be much natural food left around. This mob is a mix of red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, grackles, Harris sparrows, white crowned sparrows, and starlings. Judging from my usual mix, you can probably find a few house sparrows, a few house finch, some goldfinch and pine siskins, and a few juncos in the melee too.

On Friday I had fun watching a standoff between a starling and a red-bellied woodpecker, both determined to dominate one of the suet feeders. Obviously the cardinals thought it was pretty interesting too! (Oh, the red-bellied woodpecker least temporarily. As soon as he was through, however, the starling came back with a couple friends and worked hard to reduce the amount of suet left. That'll teach the red-bellied!)

The cardinals come in to feed regularly throughout each day, usually in groups of 5-7. In the evening and during storms, though, I've counted over 20 at a time using the feeders or waiting for their turn. If you look carefully (and probably enlarge the photo a bit), I count 22 (15 males and 7 females) in this shot.

Spring Snow Storm

As I mentioned in my last post, starting on Friday we've been living through a spring storm. This particular storm seemed mixed up - it couldn't decide if it was a sleet storm, a freezing rain/ice storm, a snow storm, or a thunderstorm, so it gave us a fair amount of everything.

Today the temperatures are back up in the upper 40's and the remaining precipitation of all forms, leftover on the ground, is starting to rapidly melt. I'm not sure how my plants are going to be affected for the year, though, since many had already started to leaf out significantly, some even to bud and flower. So I took a few photos this morning....

The daylily foliage looked transparent and glassy where it stuck above the snow mix. Daylilies are hardy plants and I'm sure they won't take any lasting damage...but how ugly will they be this spring? Will all of this lovely new growth crumple and wither as soon as it melts?

This clump of yellow tulips came with the house, but the first year we were here it was almost nonexistent. Each spring it's gotten fuller, healthier and sported many more blossoms. This year it was holding close to a dozen buds, surrounded by a healthy number of leaves. The tulip blooms had just started opening a day or two before the storm hit. I can see some breakage...what will the total damage be?

I rescued this lovely bunch of peonies from an old garden in the area that was due to be sold. The timing was such that I had to move them during the heat of the summer, so they looked bad for quite a while last summer, then finally gave up the ghost and died back. I thought I'd lost them for good. I was really excited when they came up so vigorously this spring, but now their early emergence isn't so positive anymore....

Throughout the yard, there are so many other plants affected that I can't begin to list them all here. This is a photo looking down my courtyard perennial bed: the Dames' rocket clump in the foreground is definitely bedraggled and the leaves on the lilacs and Amur maples look suspiciously fragile. Will we have lilac blossoms and maple seeds? How sparse or "burned back" will their leaves be? Buried under the snow at the foot of the lilacs are grape hyacinths, sprouts from variegated Solomon's seal, Lamium and assorted other perennials beginning to wake up from their winter rest. I'm incurably optimistic about plants' ability to survive, but only time will tell how well.

Unappreciated Luxuries

Friday brought a sudden interruption to the beautiful spring weather. A spring storm descended with wickedly strong north winds, temperatures just below freezing, and lots and lots of sleet. All in all, though, that day wasn't so bad.

When we went to bed on Friday night, though, I noticed on my last trip out that it seemed to be raining lightly. That wasn't so good.

I, unfortunately, turned out to be correct both as to the type of precipitation coming down and as to my sense of foreboding. Yesterday morning when we woke up, the house was unnaturally quiet and rather chilly - the electricity had gone out during the night, leaving us without heat and without water. For starters.

The telephone line followed shortly thereafter.

I try hard to be aware and appreciative of the common things in life that we tend to take for granted, but every time the electricity goes off, I am brought up hard against the reality of how much I count on its steady presence in my life.

Anticipating possible interruptions in service, we were fine as to drinking water. Flushing, though, became a luxury. The house maintained its inside temperature reasonably well, considering the winds howling outside. (Thankfully the outside temperatures were in the upper 20's, not in the single digits or below.) After about 9 hours, the house temperature had only gone down 5 degrees.

Life, however, seemed suddenly put on hold. I needed to sort the clothes in my closet...but the thought of changing in and out of a series of outfits to check their fit seemed abhorent in the chilly temperatures. I needed to start my tomatoes, peppers and some herbs...but we had no water to moisten the germinating mix or to fill the reservoirs. I needed (badly) to sort the recycling paper...but it's boring enough while watching a movie; the thought of doing it without any sort of mental distraction seemed unbearable.

The cats and dog were grumpy because we wouldn't play the "Let the cat (dog) in, let the cat (dog) out" game.

And Prairiewolf and I were grumpy because we didn't have our appropriate morning caffeine drinks...having forgotten to buy any Coleman fuel for the camp stove.

So what did I miss the most over the course of the day? A shower - any shower, but preferably hot - and hot coffee. Seemingly minor, everyday things...but yesterday I realized what an unappreciated luxury they each are in my life.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Springtime Serenade

It's evening on St. Patty's Day. The temperature reached the upper 70's today, the sun shone brightly, the wind was light and breezy - in short, it was an idyllic spring day.

I put in the rest of the strawberries we had bought 10 days ago, leaving me with enough bed space for 24 more plants. I think I'll try a 3rd variety there - we saw Quinealt (a June-bearing variety) at Johnson's the other day. Or maybe I should put in 24 more Ozark Beauties? That would give me more everbearing plants, as well as hide a few of the everbearers on the backside of the bed, in case the cotton rats come calling from the tall grass.

I'd begun to despair of my "gamble garden", planted back on March 7th, but today I saw the first glimpses of green coming up in the area that I had planted to Drunken Woman lettuce. (I couldn't resist the name when I was ordering from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange!) Hopefully the peas, spinach, and the other lettuce variety I put in won't be too far behind.

Next, I "woke up" the front flower bed. Actually, no, that's taking way too much credit for myself. I should say that I noticed that many of the perennials in it were waking up on their own, so I "turned down their covers" by removing most of last year's growth and many of the leaves that had accumulated around their crowns over the winter. For once I did this early enough that I wasn't dodging all that new growth!

The entire time I worked I was serenaded by a combination of chorus frogs and birds.

Normally, auditory input isn't my strong suit. In fact, if I had had to learn in school through totally auditory means, I'm sure I would have failed miserably. However, I am finding that the natural sounds of a prairie sooth me in a subconscious way that I hadn't known was possible. I find myself relaxing and smiling, stopping every once in a while simply to listen.

How sad that most people don't get to enjoy this natural outside musical accompaniment anymore. Even in my mother's neighborhood, which boasts large yards and big farm ponds billed as lakes, the frogs have been gone for years. (In that case, my bet is that lawn chemicals were the cause of their disappearance, but it's purely a guess.) I know that some folks buy CDs of natural sounds to imitate this phenomenon, but there is no way that those CDs can come close to hearing the actual sounds, with the sun beaming down on you and a breeze playing with your hair.

So, for those of you who can, I urge you to open up your windows and wallow in the richness of the springtime frog chorus. And for those of you who can't hear them singing near your home? I can't think of a better reason to switch to organic yard maintenance and gardening for wildlife. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Quiet House

The house seems very still and quiet today. I had to take Becker in for leg surgery this morning and it feels like there is a missing piece here at home.

About 2 months ago he developed a limp in his right hind leg. We took him to the vet. They x-rayed his hips and generally checked him out, said he'd strained something and to keep him quiet. (Yeah, right.) So we did our best and his limp disappeared.

Then about a month ago the limp reappeared. This time dosing him with Rimadyl didn't help. We took him back to the vet, who diagnosed a torn cruciate ligament - the canine equivalent of a torn ACL in a human. Surgery was recommended, so off we went to the only veterinary surgeon in Wichita for a consultation.

There were a couple options, but the surgeon recommended a TPLO - tibial plateau leveling off, or something similar. It involves cutting part of the tibial head off and realigning it to transfer the forces from a forward and angular motion to an almost vertical motion when he uses his leg. By changing the pattern of force motion, it reduces stress on the knee joint and allows the tendon to heal...I think. Without surgery, the vets all said he'd be lame for the rest of his life.

So he's in having surgery. We'll have to keep him quiet for at least 8 weeks. (Ouch.) He's not supposed to climb flights of stairs during that time, meaning that he won't be able to sleep by our bed...which he won't understand. (After all, that's where the pack sleeps!)

I miss him. I'm worried about him. I'm nervous about keeping him appropriately quiet during his recovery. This, too, shall pass...but, oh, I wish I didn't have to put him through it!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bird Feeding This Winter - Part III - Suet Takes the Cake

Suet is generally considered the food of choice for woodpeckers and maybe some chickadees. It's been interesting for me to note who has actually been eating it this winter.

The flicker, of course, fits the woodpecker stereotype:

The mockingbird, though, is definitely not an advertised suet lover - however, I only see my resident mocker(s) at either the suet or the water, and it's usually at the suet:

Then there are the "if he likes it so much, maybe I should try it" casual feeders, like this immature white crowned sparrow:

I've noticed cardinals in that last category too.

Of course, I've seen downy woodpeckers and red bellied woodpeckers eating lustily at the suet, too, as well as those pesky starlings. Usually the chickadees seem to prefer the black oil sunflower seeds in the hanging feeders, but sometimes they seem to crave something a little "stronger." Among my favorites feeding at the suet are the Carolina wrens who generally dart in during the late afternoon hours for a quick snack.
Whether suet, sunflower seed, thistle, cracked corn or a mix, the bird feeders have attracted a lot of life and action to the yard this winter. They and their gluttonous following keep me endlessly entertained during the cold months...and I feel satisfied, too, thinking of all the fertilizer they are depositing on the ground and of all the overwintering bugs that they are searching out for their "in-between meal snacks".
I can't imagine my wintertime yard without them.

The Gift That's Kept on Giving

Our wonderful friends, Flip and Shelley, gave us a bird bath for our deck railing at Christmas this year. We put it up about a week into January and waited to see what would happen.

Our history with heated bird baths in this yard was short, but not especially sweet, so we had some misgivings. When we first moved in two years ago, I'd put a heated bird bath on the ground not too far from the feeders. Within a few days, starlings had discovered it. Every time I filled it, a huge flock of starlings would descend within 20 minutes and bathe in it. Ten minutes later they would leave, presumably fresh and clean, while the bird bath had been emptied of most of its water...and the little water remaining was absolutely filthy.

For several days I tried to keep up with rinsing it out and refilling it with fresh water after the starlings left, but they would come back almost immediately and foul it again.

Finally, I just decided to let the birds fend for themselves. We have the draw out back and it usually has some open water in it, so I wasn't too worried. I just wouldn't be able to watch the birds as they drank and bathed.

Shortly after we put up this new addition in January, though, it started attracting more desireable "customers". At one time or another, almost every bird species that uses our feeders has winged over to wash the seed or suet down with a fresh, slightly warm drink of water.

Here are a few of those customers that I've managed to capture on camera:

The male cardinal - so vivid that no one else wanted to share the spotlight with him!

The social club (white crowned sparrows and a pine siskin), telling an immature white crowned sparrow who's waiting in line that it's just not his turn yet!

A Harris sparrow and a female cardinal, sharing a suspicious moment together.

I don't like feeding seed on or near the deck because of the undesireables that it draws, but this bird bath seems to be a perfect solution for bringing the birds in close enough to get a reasonable look at them. The starlings have come in onesies and twosies to drink, too, but they evidently want stable ground beneath their water for bathing, as that hasn't been an issue.

Thanks again, Flip and Shelley, for a wonderful addition to our backyard!

Bird Feeding This Winter, Part II - Migratory Anomalies

Another interesting thing I noticed this winter was that I had several individuals who spent the winter here from species that I would have expected to winter further south. Global warming? Or just an anomaly? Or simply the fact that I'm a little further south here than I was in Mayetta?

Here, for example, is a female red winged blackbird that I saw, off and on, with a flock of males all winter long. This photo was taken on January 12th:

Then there were the cowbirds. I had several of those visiting fairly regularly all through the winter too. This photo, of a brown-headed cowbird male feeding with 2 red winged blackbirds, an immature white crowned sparrow and a female cardinal, was taken on January 13th.

I didn't get a photo of the last major migratory anomaly that I noted: a single common grackle that also flocked with the red winged blackbirds at my feeders for much of the winter.
About a week ago, the grackles started coming through in large numbers, still mixed in with flocks of red-winged blackbirds. I'm hearing killdeer call, so I know that their migration has started too. I'm going to have to research a little further and see what, if anything, my oddball winter residents can teach me.

Bird Feeding This Winter

I try to do the Cornell FeederWatch program each winter. Or I should say that I used to do the FeederWatch, many years ago, when we lived in Mayetta, Kansas. I didn't bother doing it in Mobile, because we had so few birds. Besides which, because of the set-up of the back deck there, my feeders had to be set up so far away from the house that it was inconvenient to watch the birds consistently.

The winter after we moved here, I re-enrolled in FeederWatch and started regularly counting the birds at my feeders again, but I did not get around to entering my data. This winter I managed to both enroll myself AND start entering the data. Because I'm doing it on-line, I can count for 2 days every week, so I've chosen Mondays and Tuesdays. They've turned out to be frustratingly busy days, requiring me to be away from home quite a bit, but I've done the best I can.

I've noticed a few interesting things:

The FeederWatch folks are suspicious of my numbers of white crowned sparrows. I don't know why I have so many, but I seem to have become the winter hangout for both matures and immatures, in about a 1:2 ratio. It's hard to photograph the big flocks, because they often appear in the late afternoon, when the sun is getting low directly behind them and their brown feathers blend in well with the brown grass. Here, though, is a photo of a couple adults taking some liquid refreshment (in the company of a female cardinal) at our newly installed, deck rail "water bar".

(I started the winter with less than 10 white crowneds, soon went up to +/- 25 at a time, and actually recorded a couple cold days in January where there were over 50 at a time.)

Speaking of cardinals, another cold winter day I had over a dozen cardinals firing up the trees:

Harris sparrows are even more common at my feeders than white crowned sparrows are. My high count for those was over 100 at one time. This poor photo is an enlargement of a small portion from a much larger image. Despite its poor resolution, it shows the plumage of Harris sparrows better than any other photo I currently have. (Guess who needs to photograph a few more Harris sparrows?)
Well, more observations in another post, as 3-4 photos at the resolution I like to keep them is all that Blogger will accept per post.

Spring?! Maybe Not So Much

Be careful what you wish for.

We had 85 degrees last Thursday, according to a post I wrote last Friday. Last night it got below 20 degrees. Today it managed to reach, grudgingly, 36. Tonight's supposed to be back down to 20 again. Then tomorrow we're slated for a high in the upper 30's again.

I had decided I was ready for spring, doggoneit!

We were supposed to get rain when all of this rolled through. That would have been a fair exchange, but we stayed bone dry on Saturday while the storms aimed about 15 miles north of us, then we received the huge total of 1/8" when they reappeared on Monday. Hardly enough to be worth the multiple tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings that we had to suffer through. (On the other hand, we didn't get any tornadoes, golf ball sized hail, or 100 mph winds either! I do appreciate the storms' forbearance in that regard.)

Looking on the positive side, little has leafed out or flowered out enough that I think these temperatures will be a major setback. The strawberry plants we bought Saturday are tucked into the garage, since we were in the process of hardening them off when the cold came back. The asparagus crowns I put in on Sunday should be safely below ground where these temperatures won't do much to them. And the "gamble garden" I put in on Saturday (peas, lettuce, spinach) may or may not come up...but it was a gamble garden, after all.

It's supposed to slowly warm up through the weekend, until we settle for a while in the 30's at night and in the 60's during the day. Those temperatures sound pretty spring-like to me. I'm definitely looking forward to their arrival.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Further Adventures of Electro-Cat

When last I was blogging regularly, we were having issues with our young black cat, Ranger, who seemed addicted to the buzz he got (literally and figuratively) from chewing through electrical cords.

We tried buying a plethora of new cat toys and giving them to him one at a time, replacing each "boring" one with a fresh new one. That worked for a couple days, but toys just couldn't compare with real "juice."

We were at last confronted with the ultimate decision: Ranger either had to go back to the shelter (where he would probably be unadoptable due to his rather bizarre habit) or we would have to start letting him outside. I didn't want an outdoor cat but, faced with the alternative, I decided it was the lesser of the two evils.

Ranger was petrified at first. I'd throw him outside when I caught him chewing on a cord and he'd cower under the potting bench on the breezeway until I opened the door again. Then he'd dart back in. After a few days, I saw him cautiously explore the yard a bit. By the time a week had gone by, though, our other cat, T.J., was green with jealousy and decided that he wanted to be an outdoor cat too. I tried to keep him in, but he got increasingly adept at sneaking out and I finally just gave up the battle. Once T.J. was outside, Ranger seemed to think that being outdoors was great fun.

Now they are both outside as much or more than they are inside. We try to keep them inside at night since we have cat-eating coyotes that roam the property, as evidenced by the claws I've found in their scat. So far, so good on that account. Ranger has become quite the ratter. I don't mind his thinning the cotton rat population, especially around the house and flower beds, but it is very hard to watch him playing with his prey for hours at a time before killing them. The ultimate cat toy, I'm afraid.

I've observed that most cats seem to become birders or mousers/ratters preferentially. Ranger has tried to go for birds, as the photo below evidences, but he's much more successful with the rats. That's probably best for almost everybody concerned...rats excluded.

Spring in Kansas

Wow. I knew it had been a while since I posted, but I had no idea it's been almost 2 months! No wonder blog entries are floating around my brain constantly these days: I haven't given myself a good chance to clear them out lately.

Be that as it may, I have to write and celebrate the beginning of spring.

Of course, I'm in Kansas, so the first rule of thumb is that spring in Kansas is capricious, to say the least. A week ago Wednesday it was 76 degrees F.; last Saturday we woke up to 12 degrees F.; yesterday it was 85 degrees F. I am SOOO glad for our heated and air conditioned house. Sometimes I think it's amazing that any plants or animals can survive this land of extremes.

Saturday was especially humorous, since I woke up to the return of deep cold outside, then shortly thereafter found the first tick of the year...unfortunately crawling on my head. Presumably I have one of the cats to thank for that gift.

Truthfully, I've been talking to the weather gods for the last several weeks, asking for colder temperatures for a while still. I really hate early springs, since they are so often accompanied by the heartbreak of a late, killing frost. The weather gods have not been listening to me however...except maybe for that brief sop to their conscience at the end of last week. I gave up begging yesterday. Something in the air got to me...and I've suddenly turned a psychological corner now, where my mind and body are screaming, "It's spring! Get outside and get busy! Grow, plants, grow!"

Of course, also typical of Kansas, after 2 years of major moisture (literally record-setting last year), the skies have turned off and we've had almost no moisture at all for the entire winter. Things aren't critical yet, but I'd sure be happy to see a few days of heavy drizzle. Given the lack of rain, my first tasks this spring have ended up revolving around watering, as deeply as I have the patience for.

That's not all bad, as it gives me a relaxing time to see what's coming up. Crocuses, both established and newly planted last fall, are in full bloom. Tulips and daffodils are in various stages of leaf emergence, while the grape hyacinths are just beginning to peek through. (The latter is surprising me, because I remembered grape hyacinths as being one of the earlier spring bulbs.) Summer phlox, some of the salvias, and the hairy phlox have all developed healthy new sprouts and it's time to cut back whatever remains of last year's foliage.

I'm really curious to see what has made it through the winter. I planted late last year, especially in the back courtyard, so I don't know how well established many of those plants were before winter's cold and dry hit. We've also had an overabundance of hispid cotton rats, thanks both to that record-setting moisture last year and to the fact that I'm leaving the tall grass tall. The cotton rats are not a problem as far as invading the house goes, but they sure do eat a lot of vegetative matter.

The lilac leaves are beginning to open, which seems terribly early to me, and the buds on the Callery pears are swollen, fuzzy and showing promise of white.

The final switch into spring fever came last night, though. We had the sliding door open in the kitchen, enjoying the warm evening air. Sitting at the table I first heard migrating songbirds overhead, then the first of the chorus frogs singing in the draw. Future freezes or not, spring is here for the year.