Witch Hazel Comes to Call

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Through the Looking Glass…

 

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Above: author’s witch hazel tree blossoms

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A scalloped witch hazel leaf highlights this beautiful shrub

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Returning to Red Willow River… Photo Bruce Nelson

 

In Celtic and many other pre –Christian and Indigenous traditions when All Hallows occurs on October 31st the year is coming to a close. What I find most compelling about this ancient nature based religion is that it follows the seasonal round. For example, as I look out my window the fading colors of falling leaves remind me that the Earth is preparing for her winter sleep. In the woods the bears will eat and move less, becoming lethargic as they dig their dens for winter hibernation.

 

After All Hallows, the Feast of the Dead, and All Soul’s Day (a three day festival still celebrated in every country but the United Sates), a space opens up for a number of weeks during the darkest months of the year that doesn’t close again until the winter solstice when the sun reverses his direction. In that “space in between” the veil is thin. It is a time for dreaming, reflection, tying up loose ends, creating intentions for the future, and feeling gratitude for the gift of life. Unfortunately, trickery also thrives in this place, so it is important to stay awake and wary during this darkest time of the year. I follow this ancient tradition because in my world my inner life seems to reflect that of the outer seasonal round and those mysterious spaces in between.

 

This month I reflect upon the last year, re –reading my journals for new insights, identifying old patterns that continue to keep me spinning (some of which I have never been able to change – it seems to me that I have always lived my life on the edge). It takes a certain amount of grit to return to the past, since overall, this year my life has been in a state of chaos and “not knowing” with so many changes taking place – some seemingly miraculous. Yet, deadly repetitions also plague me. This ongoing de-stabilization is not doing much to keep me on an even keel. Each day seems to produce another reversal, a deadly new silence without explanation, or crazymaking confusion that leaves me enervated. I am tired a lot.

 

However, when I peruse my journals or look out the window I recognize that there have been two stabilizing influences in my life that act like the keel of a boat. Human friendships have grown deeper roots, and because for me, Friendship is the taproot of Love, I am grateful indeed for those few people with whom I have come into deeper communion. They know who they are.

 

The other calming influence has been my relationship with my dogs, Hope and Lucy, my dove Lily B, and my enduring love for all Nature. This love is woven through my journals, my dreams, my days and nights, a thread that has sustained me for many years. My curiosity about whatever creature/ tree / plant captures my attention drives most of my writing since Nature also provides the mirror for what is occurring in my life sometimes in uncanny ways. When I write about an animal or plant, even when I am unaware of it, I am also writing about a part of me.

 

And this brings me to Witch Hazel, a plant that I have loved since I was a child. My grandmother always kept a bottle in her medicine closet. Whenever we succumbed to poison ivy blisters, my little brother and I would scratch our skin until it was bleeding and then slather the wounds with witch hazel for instant relief; we loved its smell! And it healed wounds in days.

 

As an adult I have continued to use this plant – based alcohol as a cleanser, an astringent, and to stop bleeding. Recent studies have shown that the active compounds in witch hazel – flavonoids, tannins, and volatile oils act as cleansers because of their astringents and do stop bleeding but Indigenous people had other ways of knowing and understood the healing properties of this plant long ago. In this country they drank witch hazel tea to stop internal bleeding, steamed twigs to soothe sore muscles, and to treat colds and coughs. Today, witch hazel is one of the few medicinal plants actually approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a non – prescription drug ingredient, which unfortunately does not enhance its credibility to me, since the FDA routinely approves potential drugs it has not tested adequately.

 

Indigenous peoples, especially North American tribes also discovered that Y shaped witch hazel sticks could be used to find underground water. Dowsing for water is a skill that I am familiar with because I have used these sticks to tap underground water sources in the past. When the forked stick bends suddenly it is always a surprise, but the water woman in me just smiles.

 

“Water is Life.” Many of us are learning this truth in this time of planetary crisis, but for me that knowledge has been embodied ever since I can remember. Living near/on water has been a necessity, there’s no other way to put it. The only time I lived any distance from this element was during a period in my childhood when we lived in New York, but even then the Hudson was never far, and once back in the country my brother and I had access to my grandparent’s brook where we spent most of our spring, summer, and fall days in play.

 

This “Borderland” tree has magical attributes in both Indigenous America and in Europe, perhaps a quality I may have sensed as a child. The ancient Celts considered it to be the tree at the heart of the Otherworld. In Norse mythology it was known as the Tree of Knowledge. The Greek god Hermes was believed to make himself invisible by using an upright twig of this tree. The witch hazel’s connection to the well of wisdom present in many mythologies is strengthened by witch hazels’ presence around wells, which even today are festooned with votive offerings in Britain and Ireland. The name witch hazel has its roots in wych, an old Anglo – Saxon word that means to bend or shape.

 

As might be expected the witch hazel tree is also associated with women – especially old women, who are both feared and condemned by various cultures but continue today to practice their craft of healing, midwifery and prophecy. The infamous witch burnings in both Europe and America attest to the fear, hatred, and disgust that led to the slaughter of thousands, perhaps a few million innocent woman healers who were considered to be witches. In a peculiar reversal twigs of witch hazel are still used as a form of protection from the witches themselves! Witches are usually women who live alone on the boundaries of their respective cultures and they have intimate relationships with various aspects of Nature including the element of water…

 

The magic powers of witch hazel live on today whenever a water diviner uses a hazel branch to dowse for water. It is believed by some that as the branch bends to reveal water hidden within the ground it is also straining to connect with the ancestors hidden deep within the memory of Earth herself. As a self proclaimed water witch I think there is truth in the above statement.

 

Many years ago when I first bought this land I planted a witch hazel tree down next to my brook. When I built my house I planted a second tree next to my well, and when my brother’s ashes finally came to rest here under Trillium rock, I planted a third tree for him.

 

For the past couple of days these trees have been on my mind because it is almost time for them to bloom. Clusters of small fragrant pale yellow blossoms with finger like petals hug the twigs of this tree – like bush (Hamamelis virginiana) and I wanted to see if any flowers were visible. When I checked the two below the house my brother’s little tree had leaves that were still green, the one by the well had turned yellow… Not surprisingly, blossoms were not present on either plant because neither had lost their leaves.

 

However, when I visited the first witch hazel I planted, now a large graceful vase shaped bush, I was delighted because most of the leaves had fallen and the tiny yellow flowers were in bloom. The blossoms are equipped with both sets of reproductive organs but act as either males (producing pollen) or females (producing fruit)! Small bees and (annoying) gnats are pollinators. Each seed pod has two tiny shiny black seeds which are ejected from  small pods during the following spring.

 

I lovingly trimmed back a few dead branches and made a “Y” shaped stick from one to bring back to the house. Then I photographed a blossom for this blog. In the background the sluggish brook water barely moved over its stony path. Drought is very hard for me to deal with, psychically and physically, so seeing the healthy tree with its new shoots made me very happy. American witch hazel (also imported to Europe) is not really a tree, it is more like a shrub developing many stems as it ages. It attains 15 – 30 feet in stature. It has a number of traits I love including smooth gray bark and an architecture that defies convention. It’s branches zigzag in every direction at once as it roams for light, which it is, because it is an under story tree that thrives in forest openings. It is also one that loves living near water.

 

When I said goodbye to my witch hazel I brought the forked stick back to the house and left it outside the door to remind me of  witch women, women with wings like me who are readying for the transition from one world to another… When I heard the Great Horned Owl call outside my window last night, I thought of my sturdy witch hazel branch… Is it my imagination that the spirit of the old women, witch hazel trees, and owls are all calling me to be present for an important change?

 

Early next month I will be traveling across country to Abiquiu, New Mexico hopefully to enjoy a second fall and a milder winter just as Nature in this part of the country prepares for her long winter sleep.

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The Art of Concealment

“Bears reintroduce us to our animal shadow, its biological reality in the outdoors, its eternal grip on our cultural soul.” Peter Nabokov

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Did you know that polar bears that hunt seals on ice flows slither along on their stomachs until the seal looks up? Next the bears cover their coal black noses with white paws and then rush the seal from 15 to 20 feet away.

My query (and fascination) revolves around how polar bears know that they have black noses? Do they look at themselves through the mirror of still waters? Are they engaged in self – reflection?

What kind of cognitive thought processes are involved in making the decision to use what polar bears “know” about themselves to hunt their prey successfully? How do all bears know what they know? This epistemological enigma haunts me.

The apparent consciousness of the importance of self concealment is something that I have witnessed repeatedly when “walking with black bears” in the forest as an ethologist – that is, a person who studies black bears in their natural environment.

Often I am astonished by the disappearing act of a bear who simply does not want to interact with me. His/her ability to melt into the forest leaves me wondering if the bear I was following through dense foliage was actually there in the first place.

That such a large animal can move with such speed, stealth, and grace is a Black bear behavior that never ceases to amaze me. Even if one chooses to tolerate my presence, s/he may slap a tree, or huff once or twice to remind me to keep my distance. If a bear turns, flattens his ears and lowers his head, I know this bear has changed his mind and is about to false charge me. If I choose to stand my ground this animal might race in my direction and inevitably veer off at the last moment. Having been the recipient of a false charge that really frightened me during my early research years, I choose instead to speak quietly to the bear telling him that I am leaving. I have never had a bear follow me after one of these encounters.

(Should a bear choose to allow me to accompany him/her – usually it is a yearling that allows me to participate – I am treated to behaviors that I would ordinarily miss like the choice of mushroom or a small flowering woodland plant like oxalis that a particular bear prefers to eat. Certain berries apparently appeal to different individuals because I have witnessed one bear passing by what seemed like a coveted delicacy, a bright red jack in the pulpit berry cluster to chose a single dogberry. Stopping to rake away dead softwood logs seems to be a universal passion, no doubt because tasty protein rich grubs/ants etc. are present during all the summer months).

Cubs are taught by their mothers the moment they leave their dens in the spring to climb a tree at the first sign of danger. Mother “umphs” and in seconds the clickety clack of tiny claws can be heard, if not seen as the young ones scamper so high up a tree that it is impossible to see one even if the researcher knows one is there (occasionally a cub refuses to stay treed and is cuffed or spanked by mother). Baby bears are usually masters of self – concealment!

Females with cubs are also very much afraid of large male bears who will sometimes kill the cubs but they are not afraid of humans. This does not mean that they are not wary. They are (All bears have to be taught to fear humans). When meeting a person a female Black bear with cubs will stand up on two legs to see the stranger better. If she perceives no threat she will change directions and move off deeper into the forest with the cubs trailing behind her. If threatened, she immediately trees her cubs to conceal them and starts running in the opposite direction. Many cubs have been orphaned by hunters who shoot the mother.

Grizzly and Black bears have an equally amazing ability to walk in each other’s footsteps, so that over time it is possible to witness trails made with deep indentations in boggy places. In the woodland areas I traverse bear trails are narrow and are used year after year by various Black bears who also conveniently, remain totally anonymous to anyone but their Ursine relatives. Do bears think about this strategy while they are walking, and if so what conclusions do they draw?

During periods when a number of Black bears use the same general area a network of trails appear. Sometimes one path runs parallel with another with only a few trees in between. During mating season the use of this network of trails allows dominant and sub adult male bears to avoid each other without conflict, a fact that always leaves me with a sense of deep respect, because bears choose not to engage in open conflict whenever possible. Black Bears use saplings and brush as a form of concealment to avoid potential problems.

Another example of self – concealment that Black bears exhibit is one that always makes me laugh. Even when a bear is curious about me s/he will usually insist upon peering at me through a screen of twigs, or from behind the trunk of a tree. And make no mistake, Black bears are very curious about people who do not threaten them (I have read that the same is true of other bears but I am writing from personal experience and don’t want to generalize). Curiosity is a sign of intelligence.

There is a distinct pecking order that is part of bear biology with older males on top, females and cubs beneath, and yearlings at the very bottom. After leaving their mothers in June/July (if the mother hasn’t been shot the year before) male yearlings (second year cubs) are also searching for new territories. Young females spend their lives living in their mother’s home range, so the young males are at the greatest risk. Tragically, it is these young male bears that are most often shot and killed.

Black bears are diurnal animals – that is they are normally active early in the day, nap in the afternoon, feed again before dusk and sleep during the night. However, due to the pressure put upon them by hunters they have become “night bears.” By the end of a yearling’s first summer the bear has adapted to becoming nocturnal in order to survive, another example of using concealment as a strategy by choosing the safety of darkness.

More fascinating is what happens when it is time for a northern Black bear to enter a den for the last time before hibernation. If there is snow on the ground a bear will walk backwards in his own tracks to enter his winter abode. Why would s/he go to so much trouble unless the bear was aware of the need for self-concealment from his/her worst enemy, man?

The art of concealment is well developed in Black bears biologically because they evolved as prey animals. The animals survived because they could climb trees in a flash. In areas where there is no forest cover Black bears are absent because these native bears co –evolved on this continent with the carnivorous (now extinct) short faced bear and lived in heavily forested areas where they found safety in trees. Even 4 LB cubs can disappear up a tree in seconds. We now know, thanks to bear biologist Lynn Roger’s video cams, that cubs practice climbing in the den, just three weeks after birth. Today, Black bears are most commonly found in arboreal forests in northern areas that stretch into the Canadian Shield but small populations exist in southern in mountainous areas like those in northern New Mexico.

That bears also have an ability to reflect on their behavior before acting in a particular way seems quite obvious to me not just because of their ability to conceal themselves. Some of this concealment behavior is, of course, related to survival (biology) as already mentioned, but their thinking is not. Bears have navigational skills that defy explanation, they have complex, sophisticated, flexible, and poorly understood social organizations, they love to play, and can heal themselves of wounds with plants from the forest (How do they know which plants to use as a poultrice or to ingest?).

By developing the intelligence and forethought needed to act in ways that require bears to think ahead into the future as well as to solve immediate problems is enough to blur the distinction between bear and man on a permanent basis from my point of view.

In closing I dedicate this little essay on the “Art of Concealment” to one male yearling in particular and by extension to all wandering bears that face a perilous fall journey as they search out new territories, or stay in one they have already chosen while being hunted mercilessly by man.

May They Learn Fast.

May They Learn Well.

May they live through the winter in order to feel the warmth of the return of the sun as it appears over a spring horizon as they emerge from their dens …

 

 

The Furry Bumblebee

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All summer I have been keeping a keen eye out for bees of any kind, but especially the bumble bees because in the last few years after the honey bee collapse these fuzzy insects seem to have increased their numbers helping to pollinate flowers, vegetables, trees, and shrubs around my house.

Until lately, I have been very disappointed because relatively few bees have been around my very wild flower gardens. I have seen exactly two honey – bees all summer. Some mud and miner bees have been present but I have fretted about the bumble bee absence.

A week ago when my beautiful white hydrangea bush, now as big and bushy as a tree (not the popular variety known as PG) finally began blooming I glimpsed Bombus ternarius commonly known as the orange belted bumble bee visiting the clusters of pure white blossoms along with a number of other native bees. For the first time all summer there were enough bees pollinating the flowers to create that lovely bee hum that I used to take for granted. I was so delighted I recorded a video as much for the sound as for the sight. I find myself repeatedly returning to my pearl white bush (that positively glows in the light of the full moon) to hear a bee symphony.

Unfortunately, some North American Bumble bee species are experiencing significant population declines. Several species including four native to Maine were once very common and now are rarely observed. The usual culprits, habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticides, herbicides, and diseases and parasites introduced through widespread use of commercially raised Bumble bees are part of the problem, but so little research has been done overall that it is difficult to assess the status of the sixteen or seventeen species (statistics vary according to the source consulted) that are known to live in Maine according to the Maine Bumble Bee Association.

Bumble bees are social bees and belong to the same family (Apidae) as honey bees because the females store collected pollen in special pollen baskets on their hind legs. The queen is the largest bee (and she alone will winter over), workers, also females, do not lay eggs, and the males (drones) are most active during the late summer and fall. In Maine, Bumble bee colonies rarely exceed more than 40 individuals.

Bumble bees visit flowers even in cold rainy weather and are superior pollinators. Some species live below ground, others above ground, and a few appear to have no preference. Nests appear in abandoned rodent habitats, in undisturbed meadows and pastures, abandoned bird nests, cavities in rock walls, foundations, and other sheltered areas.

Bumble bees are robust in appearance but their color patterns are often highly variable within species. Curiously they are often similar among groups that inhabit the same geographic region. I wonder if the buttery yellow Bumble bees that love my scarlet runner beans and nasturtiums are the same species as the orange belted bumblebees that loves my bush. They are exactly the same size, small by Bumblebee standards, but otherwise appear identical.

Bumble bees can be found all over the world in Asia, Europe, North America, Central and South America. They are typically found in higher latitudes though exceptions exist. I know from experience that lowland tropical species of this bee exist (Peru). A few species even range into very cold climates like the arctic where other bees might not be found. One reason for this is that Bumble bees can regulate their body temperature, via solar radiation, the internal mechanism of “shivering,” and by radiative cooling from the bee’s abdomen. Other bees have similar physiology but this phenomenon has been well studied in Bumble bees.

Bumble bees extract nectar from a flower using their long tongue and store it in their crop. Some species also exhibit what is known as “nectar robbing.” Instead of inserting their tongue these bees bite directly through the base of the corolla to extract nectar. These bees obtain pollen from other species of flowers that they visit.

Pollen is removed from flowers either deliberately or accidently. Incidental removal occurs when Bumble bees come in contact with the anthers of a flower while collecting nectar. The body hair of the bumblebee receives a dusting of pollen, which is deposited in the pollen baskets.

Once collected, Bumble bees return to the nest and deposit the harvested nectar and pollen into brood cells (made of wax) for storage. Because Bumble bees only store a few days’ worth of food they are much more vulnerable to food shortages. However, because they are much more opportunistic feeders than honeybees these shortages may have less profound effects. Nectar is stored in the form it was collected rather than being processed into honey.

Bumblebees form colonies but they are small with the female being responsible for the construction of the nest, and that nest only lasts for one season (except for some tropical species). The last generation of summer bees includes a number of queens who overwinter separately in protected spots. The queens live at least one year; the workers die at the end of the season.

Bumble bees have a unique genetic system whereby mated females control the sex of their eggs, with daughters developing from fertilized eggs and sons from unfertilized eggs. Unmated females produce only sons.

In temperate zones during the autumn young queens mate with drones and sleep during the winter in a sheltered place.. Early in the spring the queen emerges to find a suitable place to create her new colony. Then she builds wax cells in which to lay her fertilized eggs. The eggs that hatch develop into female workers and in time the queen populates the colony, with workers feeding the young.

Bumble bees are being raised for agricultural use because they can plant species that other pollinators cannot by using a technique called buzz pollination. For example, bumble bee colonies are used in greenhouse tomato production because the frequency of buzzing effectively releases tomato pollen. This is a perfect example of species interdependence – something we know almost NOTHING about.

In these times of uncertainty and climate change it is even more important to take whatever conservation methods we can utilize to maintain our Bumble bee populations. What follows are some tips to help conserve these bees (and others).

  • Minimize lawn areas – mow less often – mowing kills bees – mow in the evening or on windy days when it’s cool and overcast.
  • Keep gardens and grow fruit bearing trees and shrubs – provide a succession of flowering periods beginning in the spring and lasting into the late fall
  • Plant wildflowers in the spring for those early pollinators
  • Avoid marigolds and other hybridized plants that have no pollen (they are sold for blooms only)
  • Tolerate dandelions and other “weeds” like mullen, wild primrose, queen anne’s lace, st john’s wort, wild violets, milkweed and goldenrod.
  • In the fall let your ground fruit rot
  • Provide an area of undisturbed ground/dirt somewhere on your property
  • Create brush piles
  • GIVE UP ALL PESTICIDES AND HERBICIDES.

 

Give our pollinating friends a chance to help our plants grow. Remember that without bee pollination we would have no food to eat.

Mason Bees

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Have you ever seen a Mason bee? Last spring I was drawn to my both of my neighbors beautiful fruit trees; apple and crabapple blossoms are a feast for flower loving eyes, and each time I approached one of these blooming trees I could hear the sound of Honeybees. Delighted, each morning I would stand under those boughs just listening to the humming of what seemed like a thousand bees joyously soaking up this natural symphony… When I saw the blue – black Mason bee burrowing its head into a fuchsia blossom I was transported back to Maine…

Why? Because in Maine the Honeybee collapse, (due to invasive mites) has decimated the population. To give you a poignant example, just yesterday I was outdoors inspecting my luminous pearl white almost tree –like hydrangea that always comes into bloom in early September. Each year I used to anxiously await the arrival of honeybees to watch them search out the sweet nectar of this lovely plant. These days an ominous silence splits the sky in two. Then amazingly I saw a single iridescent blue- black bee land on a flower, and in that moment was transported back to Abiquiu…

New Mexico has many native bees that pollinate 75 percent of the native wildflowers and fruit trees, like plum, prune, almonds, apples, and cherries. These native bees including the Mason bee are actually more efficient pollinators than Honey bees but don’t make honey.

Mason bees (Osmia lignaria) are found throughout the fruit growing areas of the upper Rio Grande (as well as in Maine). There are about a dozen other species in the genus Osmia that are found in New Mexico. Most nest in tunnels in wood, straw or in homemade houses that people provide for them. The bees typically provision each brood cell in their small nests with a ball of nectar and pollen to feed the larvae. For anyone interested, it is also possible to buy wooden nests commercially.

Mason bees (like other wild bees) have many advantages over Honey – bees. They are very docile and do not sting. Most are solitary or form very small colonies (like Bumble bees do). Mason bees are also active during inclement weather. They are such efficient pollinators that fewer bees are needed. They are also resistant to mites.

If you live in Abiquiu New Mexico you can help support Mason and other native bees by purchasing locally grown fruit at farmers markets like the one in Espanola that Sabra Moore runs.

You can also grow bee friendly plants and trees in your yards. It is important to provide water that is changed every day for the bees. It is also eco- friendly to leave your bees a pile of unused open sand/dirt somewhere in your yard, because Miner bees, for example, live in holes in the ground and they use mud to seal their nests. Because Osmia nest in holes in dead wood an old woodpile that is left all year round for these blue orchard bees to nest in is also most desirable.

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I once took bees for granted, enjoying their presence but not focusing on individuals beyond the friendly bumble bees that I loved as a child. But these days I am anxious to learn about all kinds of native bees, because Nature is doing her best to compensate for lost bees (especially the European honey bees that provide us with honey), and we want to do anything we can to help them! It is important to remember that without bees pollinating our plants and flowers we would not have fresh vegetables and fruit to eat.

Black -chinned Hummingbird

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One of the joyous aspects of coming to the desert is that I know that I will be seeing Black –chinned hummingbirds again. This small emerald green-backed hummingbird of the west with no brilliant colors on his throat except a thin strip of iridescent purple bordering his black chin has to be one of my favorites. Because it is so difficult to see the rich deep purple band on the males I am always on the look out for it. I have a feeder just outside my east window and in the morning when the light is right I can usually glimpse a brilliant flash of deep purple.

This year the hummingbirds arrived in Abiquiu during the middle of April from Mexico, (or the Gulf coast) just a few days too early because we had a cold spell with temperatures in the low twenties, and one morning a blanket of snow covered the desert floor.

My neighbor found a dead male Black chinned hummingbird on his feeder early that winter morning. As soon as I heard this news I requested that the bird be brought to me, because I knew that hummingbirds have developed an ability to survive cold temperatures by drastically lowering their heartbeats and going into a state of torpor. Unfortunately this bird was dead having already been placed in a freezer.

Frequently, these birds can be revived if held in the palm of one’s hand; once movement is detected it is possible to feed them sugar water with an eye dropper by forcing open the birds’ beak and dribbling drops into the side of the hummingbird’s mouth. Be very careful if you do decide to do this because hummingbirds, like all birds, run the risk of choking. The fluid can kill them. Afterwards the bird can be placed in a small softly lined box to recover completely and then set free.

It is a good idea to put hummingbird feeders out about a week before the first Ruby  throated and Black –chinned hummingbirds arrive because there are so few natural sources for food available. Here in Abiquiu, I will be placing a feeder out by the beginning of the second week in April. Most folks are aware that hummingbird populations have been stabilized because so many people love to feed them.

These birds are strictly migratory wintering in Mexico or along the Gulf coast.

Female Black- chinned hummingbirds are larger than males and have brilliant green backs and pale whitish gray throats. Most females arrive later than the males.

Courtship displays begin soon afterwards with the males sky-diving around the females, flashing their neon throats, or hovering in front of their potential mates and flying back and forth in front of them. These behaviors are always accompanied by whirring sounds.

Hummingbird nests are extraordinary structures that are built by the females. They are shaped like tiny cups and made of grasses, plant fibers, spider webs, and lined with plant down. The outside of the nest is camouflaged with lichens, dead leaves or other debris. The female lays two tiny eggs that are incubated by her for two weeks. She feeds the nestlings by sticking her bill into their mouths and regurgitating tiny insects, nectar, and sugar water. The nestlings fledge at three weeks. The female has two broods a year.

Watching a Black- chinned hummingbird feed in natural surroundings is fun. To catch small insects the hummers may grab them in mid –air and sometimes take them from spider webs!

Black – chinned hummingbirds can be found in semi – arid country, river groves, suburbs, mountains and hills throughout the west. Unfortunately they are at risk because of climate change, so lets appreciate them while we still have them.

Postscript:

This will be my last entry before returning to Maine. I will be leaving on the Summer Solstice and be making a 4 -5 day trip. Just this month a hummingbird sat under the Fire Moon as I took the picture. It seems fitting that my last article would be about these wondrous little birds that I love so much….

Doves and More Doves

IMG_2852.JPGEurasian Collared Doves

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Lily B came to me almost 25 years ago. I had always wanted a bird but my ambivalence about caging had prevented me from acquiring an avian companion. My personal bias underwent a radical change when I read that African collared doves were imported into this country to parent exotic birds because they were such good parents, and after they grew too old they were set free to fend for themselves. A few small flocks survived this harsh treatment. The fact that they were considered to be “trash birds” distressed me deeply and when I discovered it was possible to acquire one of these doves for $5.00, I ordered one.

 

Lily B is a cream colored dove with an unusual pale lavender tint to his plump body. With penetrating red eyes and a throaty triple coo, Lily loves to sun bathe in the early morning sun, and is keenly interesting in cooking. He spends a fair amount of time in the kitchen, and prefers Havarti cheese as his daily snack. He roosts in hanging baskets.

 

When I came to Abiquiu Lily accompanied me (he has never been caged) and his melodious singing brought a close relative of his, the Eurasian Collared dove, to our bird feeding station.

 

The two are almost impossible to distinguish unless one listens carefully to their calls. African collared doves have a deep throated song, while Eurasian doves have a similar triple coo that lacks the rich tone. African collared doves can also occasionally be spotted in this area but sightings are quite rare, and it is usually the Eurasian collared doves that we see this time of year in pairs.

 

Like Lily, the Eurasian doves have buff colored, robust bodies, startling red eyes that look black from a distance, red legs, and a black ring that circles their necks in a horseshow shape leaving a gap at the throat. If you think that you have spotted an African collared dove listen to the call. If the triple coo is soft it is a Eurasian collared dove and if it is deep and resonant then you are listening to an African collared dove.

 

The Eurasian dove is native to Asia and was introduced into North America in the 1980’s. Presently this bird is found throughout the U.S. except (oddly) in the northeast. They forage on the ground for seeds and insects, and sometimes eat berries. Collared doves typically breed close to human habitation wherever food resources are abundant and there are trees for nesting. The males have a harsh two syllable territorial warning call. Both males and females sing and the female adopts the mating song of her mate. The male chooses the nesting area, the female decides upon the exact site. The male builds the nest. The female lays two white eggs in the casual stick – laden structure, and both parents sit on the eggs. Fledglings become independent within a month. Both parents feed the young regurgitated pigeon milk. Four to six broods a year are common in southern areas.

 

I have at least half a dozen pairs living here in the cottonwoods along the river and early in the morning there is a cacophony of musical coo- COO –coos and fluttering of wings as the birds land on the ground both inside and outside my house!

The “Uncommon” Sagebrush Lizard

 

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Above: Leo

One of the reasons I love living in the desert is because I share half the year with lizards. Although the sagebrush lizard is “common” in that it can be found in most western states, I have had a couple of uncommon experiences with them.

The first occurred last summer after I moved into a (former) rental. One day about a week after we moved in a sagebrush lizard appeared in between the slats of the screen door on the inside. Had he been living in the house before we arrived? Each day he appeared in the late morning, seemingly from nowhere, to bask on the stone windowsill inside the house. He spent most afternoons on the inside of the screen door somewhat hidden behind its slats. A house lizard has come to live with us, I thought, with pleasure. I’ll call him Shadow.

My Chihuahuas were astonished by this small creature that snapped up ants, and moved at lightening speed from one end of the house to the other! Shadow befriended Hope and Lucy tolerating their curiosity when they nudged him on his stony plateau. Lily B, my dove kept a sharp eye on him too, sometimes flying down to inspect the floor after Shadow streaked by.

Whenever I saw the lizard during the day I would speak to him telling him how happy I was that he joined our little family. During our “conversations” Shadow peered me with bright almond shaped eyes, cocking his head from side to side and behaving as if he understood what I was saying. Perhaps he did. He certainly responded to my attention.

Researching Sagebrush lizards I soon learned that males had two bright iridescent cobalt patches on their undersides. When I went outside to peer at Shadow clinging to the screen from the inside, I saw the astonishing blue patches. Shadow was a male.

Alas, three short weeks later, the property manager who neglected to respond to my warning, twice, crushed Shadow in the door killing him instantly. I was totally bereft. After his death even the female lizard that unexpectedly bowed to me as I buried Shadow outdoors under his window made me sad… Later, I wondered if the little female had been Shadow’s mate because she stayed around the house and often basked in the same window that Shadow did (only on the outside) until the cool temperatures and a sun slipping low on the horizon sent her into hibernation in October.

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Above: Shadow on the inside of the screen

It was a steamy April afternoon four months later when I went out the back door of our little river house (having moved in February) to sit and to shell some Redbud pods.

When I sat down on a little wooden bench near the door a Sagebrush lizard appeared out of one of the wooden slats of a square slatted plank that served as a bottom step. I held my breath as I looked for blue patches and saw none. But he seemed like a male. When the lizard started bowing to me I stood up and bowed back while calling to him (?) softly. The lizard regarded me with one beady eye. “I’m glad to meet you” I said, delighted that my voice didn’t scare him. I had a sudden pure burst of joy as he and I conversed, me with words, him by using his body to respond by bowing to me after I spoke!

I recalled the little female who had made this apparently formal bowing gesture towards me as I buried Shadow under the window with some Prairie sage last fall…

This was the second lizard I had met that liked wooden slats I thought to myself, surprised by the apparent coincidence. I decided to bring him some water. After making sure he had plenty of stones to reach into shallow the water-dish, I bid him good day. “Please stay,” I finished, before rounding the house.

When I lay down to take a nap that afternoon a name popped into my head “Leo” I heard myself say. Perfect!

Later that afternoon I went out to see Leo, and sure enough, he was still basking in the sun. I saw a flash of blue although he disappeared when I took a picture. He’s going to stay, I thought, and believed it.

The next morning when I came around the corner there was Leo basking on one of the slats. “Hi Leo” I spoke softly. In truth I had no idea if this lizard was male or female (because a female could have pale blue patches too in some cases) and at that moment I didn’t care. I returned to the house for my camera and snapped a picture. Suddenly, A smaller lizard appeared out of the out of one of the slats and Leo bowed to the little lizard first, and then turned to bow to me! Absurdly happy but still stunned, I stood there gaping. I named the smaller lizard Liza.

Bursts of pure joy flooded me. Just knowing that I might have two lizards moving into this outside space was enough. My gratitude overflowed because their presence was also a healing experience that allowed me to fall in love with Sagebrush lizards again.

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Above: Liza and Leo – from left to right

Working notes:

After this second lizard experience occurred I did more in depth research on Sagebrush lizards, a common species throughout the Southwest. I was fascinated by the bowing behavior and wondered if it might be part of the sagebrush mating ritual. Sure enough, head bobbing (a single bob) and shuddering (repeated head bobbing) are part of the male’s mating behavior towards a female. (A male might do head bobbing 24 – 60 times an hour while courtship is in progress). Males are territorial and mate with more female, although they have a preference for certain females and court them frequently. Lizards also use chemical and visual cues to select a mate. The brilliant blue patches on the undersides of the male attract the females, and sometimes the female rejects a male suitor for unknown reasons. After the male impregnates one female she develops an orange belly indicating that she is carrying eggs. Her mate then moves on to another chosen female in his territory. Mating usually takes place in May or June, and one or two clutches of 2 -10 eggs are laid about an inch underneath the base of sagebrush in June or July. Incubation lasts for 40 plus days and sometimes the young appear as early as late July. I saw many very small Sagebrush lizards last August.

Sagebrush lizards are very eco – friendly eating ants, beetles, termites, grasshoppers, spiders and scorpions.

The males are bigger than the females.

Lizards are diurnal and are most active in the late morning and afternoon. They are fond of open spaces where they can bask in the sun, but are never far from some form of protection. Roadrunners love to eat them and many other animals and birds like the badger, snake, and hawk do too. If fortunate, a Sagebrush lizard will live about four years in the wild.

Although fascinating from a natural history perspective none of this information explains why any Sagebrush lizard would spend time “bowing” to me!