Day Lily Feast

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Orange day lilies in my garden

 

July is the beginning of the wild day lily feast in Maine. Orange day lilies are springing into bloom in every ditch, field, meadow, and at the edge of every forest glade. In my garden the hybridized lilies I planted years ago have reverted back to their orange relatives, as my friend Lois Day once told me they would…

 

When I think of Maine and the month of July, I think of orange day lilies. I was amazed when I moved to Abiquiu, NM to note that Bruce had so many growing around his house. Orange day lilies grow in the high desert too!

 

Up until mid-life I had a rather casual attitude towards these lilies. Orange was not my favorite color. Perhaps that’s why I ignored the profusion that grew wild around my little house on Southport Island. One day while talking to a woman friend who was then in her seventies I complained about having too many lilies. Eileen who loved wildflowers as much as I did was startled by my callous attitude, exclaiming, “Sara, those lilies are just as beautiful as all the other wildflowers you love. Maybe you have not really looked at them. I’ll take some if you like.”

 

My stomach heaved – Eileen was right. I had never given these lilies a chance. When I walked home to dig some for Eileen I followed the lines of a single flower noting the delicate variegated stripe that ran down each of its six petals, petals that opened like stars, the lemony yellow throat, the salmon color…I gently touched the velvety flower, silently asking for forgiveness. From that day onward I felt a kinship with ordinary wild orange lilies that has stayed with me all these years, and every July I remember my friend Eileen with gratitude. She opened my eyes.

 

Hemerocallis fulva, the tawny orange day-lily has many common names like ditch or outhouse lily that give the reader the sense of where these lilies thrive – in places where there is a source of water. However, it seems that they will also grow in the most inhospitable landscapes. Amazingly, like wild roses, these lilies are not native at all but originally came from Asia. The day lily is not a true lily but gets its name from the similarity of the flowers to the genus Lilium and the fact that each flower lasts only one day. True lilies have bulbs and day lilies have fibrous tubers. Many true lily bulbs are poisonous.

 

Originally this plant was grown in this country as an ornamental because of its ease of cultivation and its long flowering season – one that extends for about two to three  months lasting well into fall. Eventually the day lily escaped into the wild and now can be found growing almost anywhere in temperate climates. In Northern landscapes it needs no care at all. In areas like New Mexico it does not grow wild but can easily be cultivated. Just a little regular water and some shade will keep the fans green and blossoms coming throughout the summer. The fact that theses lilies are so drought resistant should not be taken lightly with Climate Change on our doorstep. I plan to dig up some of Bruce’s tubers to plant around the casita next fall. I will  add a nitrogen fixing ground cover – probably clover or vetch – to feed the tubers. Healthy tubers help with drought.

 

Initially, I was surprised to discover just how many sites on the internet were devoted to getting rid of these prolific lilies that are considered “invasive” until I remembered my own casual attitude towards these super adaptable plants that are also edible!

 

While there are many gorgeous hybrid daylilies that one can also eat, the ‘wild’ orange ones are said to be the tastiest. Start with steaming or stir-frying the buds, which are tender and delicious with a little butter and salt. Harvest some opened flowers and fry them in tempura batter or fill them with herbed ricotta and saute’ them in a little olive oil. It is also possible to remove all the green parts of the first green shoots to expose the tender yellow centers and use these in spring salads. Because the tubers spread so fast it is possible to dig the tubers and eat those either raw or steamed. They are quite delicious with a unique taste all their own.

 

Bon Appetite!

The Monarch Butterfly

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(Author’s photo of first Monarch butterfly seen third week in July)

 

In late May a friend of mine in Abiquiu told me that he saw at least 10 Monarch butterflies clustered together in one group, a sighting that warmed my heart because the year before I had seen so few.

 

Last year I was fortunate enough to have a milkweed plant seed itself by the casita. When the seeds ripened in the fall I scattered the silky airborne parachutes under the original plant hoping that the milkweed would re –seed. This spring I was rewarded. Three new plants emerged in a place that would be watered as long as we had summer rains. When I left Abiquiu the plants were doing well, but summer would tell the tale…

 

Milkweed is the one plant that Monarchs love and the only plant on which they will lay their eggs. I hoped that a small cluster of these plants might provide sweet nectar that would entice a few more of these butterflies to visit the casita during the summer and during fall migration.

 

It should be mentioned that milkweed also provides an intriguing form of protection for this butterfly. The milkweed juices make the Monarch poisonous to predatory birds. Additionally, the deep orange color of the butterfly alerts predators to the fact that their intended meal might be toxic.

 

Here in Maine I have a field that is covered in milkweed from early July onward. I have raised many Monarch’s to adulthood over a period of thirty years because it has been relatively easy to find the eggs which are laid on the underside of the milkweed leaves beginning in late summer. The scent of the flower is, to me, intoxicating, and the clusters of tiny blossoms are so beautiful to look at in their myriad shades of pale pink salmon.

 

Ever since the milkweed started blooming this summer I have been on the lookout for Monarchs. I saw my first butterfly at Popham beach on the coast where Milkweed plants are plentiful growing amidst the sand dunes, and in wild coastal fields. I then glimpsed two around my house this week, and remain hopeful that I will see more…

 

Monarch butterflies are perhaps best known for their migrating habits. No other butterflies migrate as far; this insect flies up to three thousand miles each year. Millions of these butterflies will fly from Canada to Mexico this fall.

 

More astonishing, this entire trip will take four generations to complete. The Monarchs begin their southern migration September to October. Eastern and northeastern populations, originating in southern Canada and the United States, travel to overwintering sites in central Mexico. They arrive at their roosting trees in November. When the butterflies reach their destination in Mexico they return to the same trees that their forebearers did sometimes roosting deep in the forest. They remain in their roosts during the winter months and then begin their northern migration in March. No individual butterfly completes the entire round trip. Female monarchs lay eggs for a subsequent generation during the northward migration. Four generations are involved in the annual cycle.

 

Western populations, which would include the Monarchs in New Mexico, follow a similar pattern migrating annually from regions west of the Rocky Mountains to overwintering sites on the coast of California.

 

Many folks know that the Monarch butterfly population has dropped 90 percent over the past 20 years (Center for Biological Diversity). The species has become ‘functionally extinct’, meaning that the numbers are so low now that the Monarchs have little hope of long-term survival. Scientists look to Monarchs and other butterflies as indicators of environmental health, since they are easily affected by air and water pollution, severe weather, pesticides, the presence of other toxins and, of course, Climate Change. It breaks my heart to acknowledge that most folks have not paid attention to the decline of these beautiful insects. Globally we are paying a huge price for our blindness and indifference.

 

When it comes to Monarchs the present is what we have, and I encourage anyone that gardens to create a milkweed patch for these wanderers in the hopes that we might extend their collective lifetime a few more years. It’s important to note that milkweed needs adequate water. Refusing to use lethal backyard pesticides and planting milkweed are two things we can do to help these glorious orange insects in the short term.

Luna

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This morning when I took the dogs out around 6 AM I saw a beautiful Luna moth lying on emerald green moss covered ground. By the looks of its antenna I surmised this one was male because its ‘feathers’ were so long. In the past the sight of one of these deceased moths would have made me sad because I know that this moth in its present winged state is birthed without even a mouth to eat, and as soon as it mates it dies. But now I see Luna in a different light, as one whose time to die has come…Besides, I knew that the female that this male had mated with had laid eggs that would one day hatch…

 

When I bent down to pick up the pale green four inch wide insect with its double set of eyes, I noticed how torn and tattered its wings were, perhaps a result of a would be predator that discovered too late how unpleasant these moths can taste. Or perhaps it was just old age.

 

As defense mechanisms, larvae emit clicks as warnings. Surprisingly, they also regurgitate intestinal contents that have a deterrent effect on a variety of predators. The double sets of eyes on the lime green adult wings are believed to confuse predators as well. The elongated tails of the hind -wings are believed to jam echolocation used by predatory bats, although I hardly think bats are a problem around here. I am always amazed that insects have such sophisticated means of protecting themselves!

 

I brought the moth in the house to look at more closely wondering just where around here on the ground the larva had hatched into its adult form. Females lay 200–400 eggs, singly or in small groups, on the underside of leaves. Egg laying starts the evening after mating is completed and goes on for several days. Eggs hatch in about a week.

 

Each instar – the period between molts – generally takes about 4–10 days. There are five instars before cocooning occurs. At the end of each instar, a small amount of silk is placed on the major vein of a leaf and the larva molts leaving its green exoskeleton behind. After the final instar, larvae stay on the same tree where they hatched until it is time to descend to the ground to make a cocoon. At this point the caterpillar will spin its cocoon around a shriveled leaf that is lying on the ground. When females emerge from cocoons they fly to a tree, emit pheromones, and wait there for males to find them. Males can detect these molecules at a distance of several miles, flying in the direction the wind is coming from until reaching the female. Luna moth females mate with the first males to find them, a process that typically starts after midnight and takes several hours. The entire Luna Moth cycle usually occurs in the space of one year. In the North Country one generation of moths is produced.

Luna moths are what are known as giant silk moths – some have wingspans of seven inches. This moth was the first to be recorded in American insect literature. These most magnificent moths have a range that extends from Canada to Florida, and like every other insect this moth is succumbing to habitation loss, pesticides, logging, light pollution and other pressures associated with Climate Change.

There was a time when I used to see these moths each summer… I remember so well the year one fell out of the sky onto my head while I was standing on the porch of my camp… but these days, the sight of each one, living or dead, is a gift to be treasured and written about.

Black Bear Intolerance in Maine

Living with Black Bears

 

As a Naturalist/ethologist I am compelled to keep on speaking out on behalf of Maine’s Black bears because they are so misunderstood.

 

A person has a million to one chance of being killed by a black bear. We are 32,000 times more likely to be murdered by another human.

 

Black bears are primarily vegetarians.

 

Black bears are maligned thanks to certain individuals, ans special interest groups like the NRA and state fish and wildlife agencies who are interested in perpetuating the myth of the “nuisance” or “killer bear” to foster their own agenda.

 

In reality, Black bears are extremely shy, intelligent animals that outperform chimps in many tests of learning. They have navigational abilities that defy scientific understanding. During hibernation Black bears are capable of healing themselves of life threatening wounds and are able to re-cycle toxic bodily waste without damage to muscle tissue.

 

Black bears co – evolved with trees as a prey animal. Black bears cannot live in areas where trees do not provide them with adequate protection.

 

Black bears are very nervous animals who convey their fear by moaning, slapping the ground, huffing, blowing, or in extreme cases, false charging when surprised or approached by humans.

 

If we want to co –exist with bears we need to learn their language – all they are asking is that we give them some space.

 

We also need to re- interpret bear behavior in terms of their fear and not our own.

 

Understanding a bear’s fear helps a person to re-evaluate what appears to be threatening/aggressive behavior.

 

A “nuisance bear” is a hungry bear and most human-bear conflicts occur late in the spring and early summer after bears have emerged from their dens in April/May. Initially, these animals are sluggish and have no appetites. Their hunger returns after metabolism returns to normal in about three to four weeks. After ingesting tender grasses they search out bulbs, corms, ants and larvae as they wait for the first berries to ripen.

 

The 40 – 70 pound adolescents are most vulnerable during this period. After their second spring Black bear mothers leave them to mate. The young are searching for territories, are immensely curious as well as being hungry and this is when they are likely to visit backyards for a snack. Sometimes adult bears do too. I am always astonished when people complain about bears destroying feeders when the solution is obvious: take bird – feeders in during late spring and early summer especially at night.

 

Well documented research by bear biologists (www.bear.org) reveals that given a preference, Black bears will choose natural foods over birdseed/garbage as long as it is available. There is a brief period during spring/summer when natural food is scarce. It’s worth repeating: if you don’t want bears in your backyard take bird – feeders in.

 

With an exploding human population we are taking over the land these animals have lived on in peace for millennia. Why can’t we learn to share resources without taking measures to destroy these iconic denizens of our forests? In Ely Minnesota for example, supplemental feeding keeps bears from visiting backyard feeders and reduces nuisance bear complaints to almost zero.

 

However, in areas like Minnesota people choose to co –exist with bears, and don’t insist that wild animals conform to human expectations. Maine is fortunate to have a stable black bear population, one that attracts many visitors – hunters among them – Why couldn’t we choose to do the same?

The Toads of North Pond

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I heard the astonishing hum around the second week in June coming from the bog on North Pond. The toads were singing – advertising that it was time to mate. I knew from earlier years that within a few days long strings of eggs would be laid in shallow waters, soon to hatch into wiggling “toad –poles.”

 

Unfortunately, a hand injury kept me from exploring the pond in my kayak for toads and eggs. I was so disappointed, and then a few days ago I was walking down by the pond, when I saw them. The eggs had hatched.

 

I returned three times in all to gather toad –poles to augment my toad population around the house, placing some in a vernal pool, and even created a small aquarium indoors to watch seven wiggling characters transform.

 

There is something magical about raising eggs that turn into terrestrial creatures, and although I missed the first stage I was excited to be able to participate in the rest of the process.

 

With all amphibians comprising the most endangered species on earth, assisting any frog or toad to adulthood seems like a worthy endeavor. But I began to raise frog and toad eggs as a child, and have been doing it ever since because it is so exciting! What follows is a bit of natural history:

 

Toad eggs hatch in three to twelve days and some studies suggest that the tadpoles have a reciprocal relationship with Chlorogonium algae, which makes the tadpoles develop faster than normal. Toad tadpoles are considered herbivores because they graze on aquatic vegetation; adult toads are carnivorous. Often entire groups of tadpoles reach the toadlet stage at once and a mass migration to higher ground takes place usually to shaded woodland areas with plenty of vegetation (this occurs around here early in August most years when tiny toads appear in the grass or dirt roads in profusion). Toadlets can be observed eating microscopic bugs; as they get larger they also love ants, spiders, snails, beetles, slugs and worms. Unlike most toads who wait for prey to come along American toads can shoot out their sticky tongues to catch prey; they also use their front legs in order to eat larger food. They grasp their prey and push it into their mouths. Some toads also wipe their mouths with their four fingered “hands” after eating. One American toad can eat up to 1,000 insects a day. Just one more reason to raise some toads!

 

It takes two to three years for a toad to reach adulthood and sexual maturity. Toads usually don’t live more than 3-5 years in the wild although they can live up to thirty to forty years in captivity.

 

I should add that the Eastern toad has a western counterpart. However, the Western toad has become ‘functionally extinct.’ This means that its numbers are so low that this identical species will not survive. Damning the rivers, ongoing drought, pollution, and agricultural pesticides are some of the culprits. In the spring it is eerily silent in the desert because toad trills are absent.

 

The disappearance of these amphibians has been noted since the 1970’s and we have yet to ban common but deadly pesticides. All toads breathe through their skin. These creatures are warning us that the air we breathe and the water we drink is polluted by dangerous chemicals. Frogs and toads are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine trying desperately to get our attention; if only we would listen…

April’s Frog Moon Resurrection

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The Frog Moon Mystery

 

April’s second spring moon was almost full as she rose through the cracks of the cottonwoods. The acequias were filling across/down the field and a small amount of rain had fallen two days earlier. Diminutive lime green leaves feathered the trees. I was just walking in the house when I heard the call.

 

I stopped dead in my tracks, stunned. Then wondered if I was having some kind of audio – hallucination. A paracusia, or audio hallucination is a form of hallucination that involves perceiving sounds without auditory stimulus.

 

After all, it had three years since I had heard one of the most beloved sounds that I associate with spring…I kept listening, sat down on the steps, my ears on fire. The unmistakable trill.

 

After a timeless pause, the practical side of me took over. I entered the house, got my recorder, and began recording the song.

 

I have been listening to the musical trill of tree frogs since I was a child, and I knew this song by heart. A gray tree frog was singing just beyond what I call the magic portal, a natural cathedral framed by bowed cottonwoods that opens into the next field.

 

After about an hour of listening and recording even the skeptic in me was forced to accept that this really was a gray tree frog. Sadly, I never heard a female’s answering call. It was also clear that this male frog was not being challenged by other tree frogs (who call out to establish territories as well as to attract females) because there apparently were no others in the area.

 

This latter fact did not surprise me. All frogs have been endangered since the 1960’s and many have become extinct.

 

“In Silent Spring” written in 1962 a brilliant and dedicated biologist, and true “mother of the environmental movement” warned us about the Great Silence that was about to descend upon us as a result of indiscriminate pesticide use, and no one listened.

 

Frogs and toads are the canaries of water, land and air. Because they breathe through their skin they are indicators of the massive amounts of pollution we are allowing to consume our planet “forgetting,” of course, that eventually these pollutants will kill humans too (the ultimate dis-connect).

 

Just before I went to bed that night I opened the door and heard the solitary tree frog crying out to the moon.

 

The next morning I compared my recording with the songs of grey tree frogs online, and of course they were identical.

 

For two days I researched every New Mexican tree frog and listened to about 50 recordings and came up with nothing that sounded like the recording I had.

 

How could this be? Grey tree frogs are denizens of the wetlands and forested areas of the northeast – east of the Rockies.

 

Meanwhile, my beloved gray tree frog is still singing his heart out even during the day, something I have never heard any of the Maine gray tree frogs do unless rain or heavy mist blanketed the mountains. At these times they sing periodically.

 

As of this writing, even in the wind my little friend is still calling – the voice of yearning crying out in the wilderness… Three days in a row.

 

At present I have no answer to this particular mystery and welcome any commentary the reader might have.

 

What follows is a little natural history on these one to two inch frogs that come in every shade of gray to green, depending upon the vegetation they inhabit.

 

The gray tree frog’s scientific name is Hyla versicolor. The frog’s ability to alter its skin color also changes with respect to the time of day and the surrounding temperature. When my brother and I were children we would capture these frogs and place them on leaves, lily pads, wild grasses, bark, lichen etc. just to watch how fast they could change color! Their skin becomes much lighter at night and darker during the day.

 

Gray tree frogs hibernate in the winter by taking refuge in trees. They survive sub -zero temperatures by producing glycerol to “freeze” during which time they also stop breathing while still being able to maintain interior metabolic processes. A virtual miracle, that.

 

Supposedly the gray tree frog’s range covers much of the eastern United States, from northern Florida to central Texas and north to parts of southeastern Canada but obviously, some of these frogs are moving west, or were here in the first place. Tree frogs are an arboreal species that occupies a variety of wooded habitats. They are most often found in forests, swamps, on agricultural lands and in wooded backyards.

 

All need access to trees and a water source. I don’t know when it occurred to me that I am surrounded by the perfect habitat here as well as in Maine. When gray tree frogs are young and newly metamorphosed, they usually remain near the forest floor tucked into bark, detritus, or high grasses; later they transition to the forest canopy. As an adult I have captured some that like to hide in the rough bark of the white pines next to my brook (Maine).

 

Adult gray tree frogs mainly prey upon different types of insects at night because they are nocturnal. Mites, spiders, plant lice, snails and slugs are common prey. They may also occasionally eat smaller frogs, including other tree frogs. They search for insects in trees, where they can climb vertically or move horizontally with their fantastic toe pads that cling like suction cups.

 

The males begin trilling in early spring, shortly after emerging from hibernation. In the mid-range areas males begin calling in late April to early May. In Maine I don’t begin to hear them until late May. Males call to females from trees and bushes that are usually close to overhanging streams or standing water.

 

The exact timing of breeding for gray tree frogs varies based on temperature and their location throughout the range. Most reproduction takes place early on, although the musical trilling lasts from late April to early August (May through September in Maine). Individuals may mate up to three times in a season.

 

Males are very territorial and will fight other males to defend their area. Fights may last 30 to 90 seconds and consist of wrestling, shoving, kicking and head butting until the subordinate male retreats. Females are sexually di-morphic (bigger) and initiate mating by approaching a calling male.1,000 to 2,000 eggs which are externally fertilized by the male. Since actual mating occurs while the frogs are floating in water, eggs are deposited into the water in small clusters, attached to a reed or some kind of floating debris. Tadpoles usually hatch after three to seven days, depending on the water temperature. As youngsters, these frogs are painted scarlet or orange-vermilion with black blotches around the edge of the crests, so unlike other species they are easy to identify. Bodies and tails are patterned with many specks of black and gold. Like most tadpoles, they eat algae and organic detritus found in the water. Tadpole development depends on water temperature and is variable, but vernal pools must have standing water for some time, a real challenge here in Abiquiu.

 

After three days of trilling this poor little frog must be exhausted. I can only hope that there is one female that will hear his call…

Personal Note:

I wrote the above piece for a publication after having what for me was and continues to be an extraordinary experience  with a tree frog that doesn’t even belong in the desert – a frog that is so dear to my heart.

My childhood memories are permeated with frogs. While most kids had dolls I befriended a large squealing amphibian which i took to bed with me at night. Additionally my little brother and I loved caught, and studied these remarkable amphibians and I cannot think about frogs without conjuring up my brother’s spirit from the deep. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day I finally buried his ashes on my land in Maine (just below the house), nestled against a glacial  granite boulder covered with lichen moss and ferns, the resting place situated just beyond the brook. This burial of his ashes occurred after a waiting period of 32 years… I had no idea at the time that it was Earth Day because i never celebrated it – every day is an Earth Day for a naturalist like me.

Each year around Davey’s burial day I have unusual experiences – usually with a hawk – and indeed one occurred yesterday when a Kestral landed on the porch and just hung out there for about ten minutes even though the bird could clearly see me moving around. I thought, oh, Davey’s spirit is moving close by. I don’t believe in god or any kind of after life, but my lifetime experiences have taught me that something of the person must live on – or can be accessed after death. For me, these apparitions occur as an encounter with some natural force – an animal bird etc and I am always moved from one perception of reality to another – beyond or outside time – this is what mysticism is all about.

It wasn’t until I wrote this article that I realized that the visit from the hawk was only part of this year’s Davey encounter and that another one was already in progress with the coming of Gray Tree Frog. The hawk is a visceral presence year after year reinforcing the power of the relationship between us. But the frog signifies  – dare I say the word? – resurrection from death to life, transmutation, transformation, rebirth, are all part of this creature’s animal powers and are inextricably woven into this story about Davey and me. So, something is shifting here on a personal level, although I don’t pretend to have any idea what it is.

Add to this “holy week”. I have been writing about Earth’s crucifixion every day – submitting a few articles for publication even though I knew how radical my ideas would be perceived. Not surprisingly, only one essay was published – silence – around the others.  Evidently to write about Earth’s Bodily crucifixion during holy week just doesn’t sit well with the DOMINANT christian overlay, the SPLIT OF MIND AND BODY, the SPLIT OF SPIRIT from the BODY OF THE EARTH and the power of its flow even in otherwise broadminded venues… oddly I am not upset – especially because this gives me insight into WHAT IS.

But there is something to the fact that this frog who doesn’t belong here in the first place and surely will not be able to breed here is still crying out on resurrection day.

The Walmart Birds : The Great Tailed Grackle

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I have developed a fascination and a deep respect for the Great Tailed Grackle as a result of making regular visits to Walmart. I began feeding these birds bread crumbs this winter because I like them so much and because I wanted to observe these clever characters hopping about dodging automobiles and people who apparently don’t have much use for them. Some always hang out on the roof with the fake owls that were put there to scare them.

 

I wonder how many people have actually looked at the Great Tailed Grackle because both sexes are quite stunning. The male is glossy black with an ecclesiastical purple iridescence. He has a long, keel-shaped tail, massive bill and yellow eyes. The female is about half the size of the male and looks as if she’s been dipped in brown oil; she has a smaller keel shaped tail. The visual characteristic that stands out the most to me is the brilliance of those bright yellow eyes. These birds radiate intelligence!

And, in fact, studies that have been done on these birds reveal that they are adept at problem solving (even from a human point of view).

For example, the Grackles problem-solving power was tested by posing glass cylinders full of water with bits of food floating just outside the birds reach. To grab the morsels, the birds had to drop in pebbles to raise the water levels. After a number of trials most of the Grackles figured out that dropping pebbles into the water raised the water level so they could feed. They also learned that it was usually more efficient to use heavy pebbles to reach the snack, but if provided with too large stones the birds turned back to small pebbles to reach their goal.

Another test done had even more dramatic results. Silver and gold tubes of food were presented to the grackles but only the gold tubes had peanuts and bread in them. The Grackles immediately chose the gold tubes, but when the food was placed in silver tubes the birds instantly chose them. These tests reveal not only problem solving ability but also the birds’ flexibility in terms of learning.

Its important to note that Grackles outperformed three species in the crow family (Corvids).

This desert-adapted bird doesn’t need much beyond food, trees, water, and its own wits for survival. Once confined to Central America, the species began moving north 200 years ago, and now covers an immense region from northwestern Venezuela up to southern Canada. In 1900, the northern limits of its range barely extended into Texas; by the end of the century it had nested in at least 14 states and was reported in 21 states and 3 Canadian provinces. This explosive growth occurred mainly after 1960 and coincided with human-induced habitat changes such as irrigation and urbanization.

Where people have gone, Great-tailed Grackles have followed: you can find them in both agricultural and urban settings from sea level to 7,500 feet that provide open foraging areas, a water source, and trees or hedgerows. In rural areas, look for grackles pecking for seeds in feedlots, farmyards, and newly planted fields, and following tractors to feed on flying insects and exposed worms. In town, grackles forage in parks, neighborhood lawns, and at dumps. More natural habitats include chaparral and second-growth forest.

Great-tailed Grackles are loud, social birds that can form flocks numbering in the tens of thousands. Each morning small groups disperse to feed in open fields and urban areas, often foraging with cowbirds and other blackbirds, then return to roosting sites at dusk. This evening routine includes a nonstop cacophony of whistles, squeals, and rattles as birds settle in for the night.

As near as I can tell Grackles forage almost anywhere and will eat almost anything. What this says to me is that these kinds of birds have learned to co – habit with humans in very ingenious ways that must include being able to deal with pesticides.

During the last month (March) I have noted that there are fewer Grackles hanging around the parking lot. One reason for this absence may be that during the day some birds are moving into more rural areas to feed. In addition to country foraging and prior to actual nesting, both males and females begin to collect material for the nest site about four weeks before actual breeding begins in April.

Nesting occurs in colonies of a few to thousands, with the nests often placed close together. The actual nest construction is done after this period of “gathering,” which although not mentioned in any of the sources I consulted, must be related to the mating process. The females choose the nest site, and often “borrow” nest-building materials from other females. The nest is made of grass, twigs, reeds, and mud and is woven by the female in about 5 days in a tree, shrub, or hidden in marshland vegetation placed anywhere from 3 to 30 feet off the ground or water. Nest size varies from four inches across to 13 inches deep.

The female will lay 4 to 7 eggs that are pale greenish brown with blotches. The young are ready to fledge in a month. Mother is responsible for brooding and feeding. During this period some male Grackles may guard the nest while the female forages. In contrast some others may pair with a second female during this time leaving the female to manage on her own.

Curiously, fewer male than female nestlings survive. Adult male survival may also be lower than adult female survival, which would result in a female-biased adult sex ratio.

Although there is considerable overlap in the distribution of the three species, the Common Grackle occurs throughout the eastern United States and Canada, the Great-tailed Grackle is found in the Midwest and south/western United States, and the Boat-tailed Grackle is confined to Florida and coastal areas of the Gulf states and the eastern United States.

The Grackle is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which as far as I can tell, means practically nothing. People routinely haze, shoot, or use pesticides to eliminate these birds but their numbers continue to increase.*

In this time of great uncertainty due to Climate Change and continued overuse of lethal pesticides I can’t help but feel reassured that some non – human species will survive, and whenever I spend time with the Walmart birds I feel flickers of hope rising. I am already looking forward to seeing the Great Tailed Grackles once again flooding the Walmart parking in Espanola by the middle of May.

* Last summer after returning to Maine I did further in depth research on these birds because I had one grackle nest around my house and discovered that NONE of the grackles are increasing anywhere. In fact just the opposite – although there are “pockets” – one is Walmart which is perched on the edge of a marsh, between the use of pesticides/climate change/loss of habitat these birds are disappearing too.

For Love of Cranes

IMG_0161.JPG

 

We know from fossilized records that the Sandhill Cranes are one of oldest birds in the world, and have been in their present form for 10, 30, or 60 million years (depending on the source). They have apparently maintained a family and community structure that allows them to live together peacefully and migrate by the thousands along a central flyway twice a year. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and in the spring the adults engage in a complex “dance” with one another. During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as “unison calling.” They throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating, but all year long (Even young birds begin dancing and throwing sticks and grasses into the air while jumping around enthusiastically).

In their northern habitat, the female lays two eggs a year in thick protected areas at the edge of reed filled marshes. Before nesting these birds “paint” their gray feathers with dull brown reeds and mud to reduce the possibility of being seen by a predator. Born a couple of days a part, the second chick rarely survives. The remaining fuzzy youngster, if it survives the first year, stays with its parents for about three years before reaching sexual maturity and striking out on its own, but even then the adult stays within the parameters of its extended family, and it is these families that comprise the small groups of cranes that we see flying together. During migration, a multitude of these groups travel together by the hundreds or thousands. There are no leaders and often it is possible to observe what looks like an unorganized random group (but isn’t) or diagonal thread made up of cranes flying (up to thousands of feet) above the ground.

 

In every watery roosting place there are a few cranes that remain awake all night alerting their relatives to would be predators, and in fact I have been awakened during the night by crane warning cries that sound higher pitched than normal. I think it’s significant that these very ancient birds have survived so long in their present form. Could it be because they understand the value of living in community, perhaps acting as models for humans who, for the most part, seem to have forgotten what genuine community might consist of?

 

Most recently these birds have been a presence in my life since last November when they first arrived, I believed for a brief stopover, before moving south to places like the Bosque del Apache to spend the winter. When I first came to New Mexico almost three years ago I was astonished and bewildered by their haunting collective cries even when I couldn’t see them which was most of the time during the month of November…

 

This year the cranes not only stopped by but many decided to spend the winter here much to my great joy, perhaps a result of Climate Change which is shifting their migration patterns and created conditions like the extreme drought that dramatically lowered the level of the river over this last year.

 

My hypothesis is that the resulting shallow riffles in Red Willow River (one of which just happens to be below my house) provided many cranes with the safety they needed to roost there all winter long. For three precious months I listened with awe and wonder to pre-dawn crane murmuring and on sunny mornings watched groups of cranes take to the air with their haunting br-rilling cries. Every night I would stand outside to listen to that same contented collective murmuring just before dark as the cranes settled in for the night. When they are all talking to one another (cranes need to be in constant contact with each other) it is hard to distinguish one voice from another because listening to the whole is a symphonic masterpiece. But this winter I slowly learned to identity various cries by listening to smaller groups as they took to the sky. The highest pitched belong to the youngsters, the lowest and most full bodied calls come from the males and the females speak in tongues from the middle.

 

Sandhill Cranes are omnivores and feed on land or in shallow marshes where plants grow out of the water during the warmer seasons. They prefer a diet of seeds and cultivated grains but also include berries, tubers, crayfish worms, frogs, small animals and insects. In the field next to me they fed on wild sunflower seeds and grasses.

 

As previously mentioned Climate Change is shifting migration patterns. Some groups are now spending their entire lives in one place like Florida (these are endangered), others are no longer migrating further south than Tennessee, although they also fly north in the spring. It is unusual to have cranes living in Northern New Mexico, although I understand from local fishermen that a few have occasionally remained here throughout the winter. I recently learned that Sandhill Cranes have even been seen in parts of Maine.

 

Their normal migration routes take them from Mexico as far northwest as Siberia into the Canadian Shield and Alaska to breed with one major stopover in Nebraska at the Platte river where 600,000 cranes meet to rest themselves before making the last leg of their arduous and dangerous seasonal journey (another group that settles further northeast makes a stop in Mississippi). In the fall all northern populations will make the trip south for the winter because of inclement weather and lack of food.

 

New Mexico and Texas have the dubious distinction of being the first states to legalize crane slaughter and now every state along their central flyway except Nebraska engages in spring and fall hunting. We can thank the state Fish and Wildlife organizations for “managing” the crane population by issuing licenses to kill these magnificent birds to bring in even more money when these organizations are already extremely well supported financially by the NRA and our taxpayer money. A Caveat to those that don’t know: All State Fish and Wildlife agencies, that purport to support wildlife have a deadly hidden agenda: to kill birds and animals at their discretion.

 

Although at present these birds appear to be maintaining a stable population the low survival rate of even one chick a year alerts us to the fact that uncertain survival rates and delayed reproduction factor into the difficulties inherent in crane conservation, and to that we must now add Climate Change – the ultimate unknown. It is prudent to recall that by conservative estimates we have already lost 50 percent of our non – human species.

 

When I first began to hear the cranes I never imagined that I would start to see them or watch them make gracious descents into a neighboring field at all times of the day, every day for months. Watching them cup their wings, drop their long legs and spread their tails as they parachute to the ground is a gift that I have never taken for granted. A solitary musical rolling rill, a haunting cry that raises the hair on my arms is a sound that now lives on in my mind and body.

 

Spring migration has begun and the largest aggregations of cranes are moving north. Some days the bowl of blue sky feels too empty, but some small flocks are still visible especially during the early morning and again at dusk. I noted the sudden loss of large flocks just before this last full moon and wondered if these birds also migrated at night. Further research confirmed that Sandhill cranes sometimes do migrate after dark during the week before and after full moons.

 

A few days ago the Core of Engineers opened the Abiquiu dam raising the river and the protected riffles below my house disappeared, so during this last week in February I am without the morning joy of listening to nearby pre-dawn murmuring, but can still see and hear some cranes flying by. According to my friend Barbara R. some flocks remain at the Bosque del Apache, so hopefully we will be hearing their haunting cries for a while. It isn’t until April that all Sandhills reach the Platte River …

 

Pueblo people say that humans were once Cranes who lived in the clouds… they came to earth and danced for joy in the rain… Cranes also watched over ceremonies and remain a part of some Indigenous rituals today. Sandhills also act as Guardians for the People easing transitions from life to death and beyond….

 

Cranes are Elders in every sense of the word, ancient relatives and they continue on, some adapting, others following unknown scripts or patterns that stretch back to antiquity. The way they live, migrating out of seasonal necessity, returning to home – places, celebrating through community and song in life and death is a way of being that embodies flowing like a river… And for that, their magnificent beauty and inherent wisdom, I thank them.

 

I close this narrative with a Zuni prayer about the relationship between Cranes, Water and the Rebirth of Spring.

 

“When our Earth Mother

is replete with living waters,

When spring comes

The source of our flesh –

All the different kinds of corn

We shall lay to rest in the ground.

 

With their Earth Mother’s

Living waters,

They will be made into

New Beings…

 

That our Earth Mother

May wear a fourfold green robe

Full of moss

Full of flowers

Full of pollen,

 

That the land may be thus

(S/he has made you)

I have made you into living beings.

The Amazing Scarlet Runner Bean

 

IMG_1503.JPG(Phaseolus coccineus) – photo from my garden

 

About 30 years ago I was visiting a neighbor for the first time early one August when I spied the most extraordinary vine of brilliant orange pea sized flowers cascading from an emerald climber that stretched across the entire wire wall of a huge vegetable garden. Eileen left an eight foot arch open by tying back some of the vines for an entrance. The vines were massive, at least 12 to 15 feet high and at least 100 feet long, and I could see and hear the sound of joyful ruby throated hummingbirds as they buzzed from one blossom to another as millions of bees, swallowtails, and monarchs swooped through the air lighting upon loose tendrils that were attempting to find purchase somewhere by climbing on the backs of their neighbors. To say I was transfixed by the sight is an understatement. I lost time in the blue and gold mountain field in Western Maine as I stood there astonished and bewildered by such abundance and beauty.

 

Returning to ordinary time, and gathering my wits about me, I asked my new friend about the vine and was only then I was formerly introduced to the magnificent Scarlet Runner bean. As we wandered down the fence line Eileen told me that she had grown up in the south and had been surrounded by these vines since she was a child; she was then a woman in her late sixties. As we peeked into the plethora of leaves I was delighted to see small green beans developing from the flowers and was told that these beans were delicious to eat, especially when picked while still young. I had been a gardener all my life – how had I missed learning about such a plant?

 

By the time I left Eileen’s house that afternoon I had a whole handful of shiny deep mauve and black kidney shaped beans in my hand for next year’s planting. These were heirloom seeds that Eileen had been given by her own mother. I was ecstatic.

 

This was the beginning of my love affair with Scarlet Runner beans, an affair that continues into the present. The first year I grew them they took over the entire back porch. I soon learned to plant even more vines like Eileen had so the deer could feast on the bounty too.

 

One spring a black bear watched me place my seeds into rich loam from behind his spindly screen of bushes, and that very night Little Bee came back and dug up every bean that I had planted (An endless curiosity is a fundamental aspect of friendly backyard bears)!

 

As the years passed my own wild unkempt garden was covered in more and more Scarlet Runner vines, flowers, and beans. I discovered to my surprise that black bears also loved to eat the blossoms and seed pods. Even with all the competition, I had plenty of fresh green beans and took endless joy out of watching so many bees, butterflies, bears, deer, and hummingbirds feast along with me.

 

About ten years ago when colony collapse devastated the honey bee population the bumblebees took over, but I couldn’t help noticing that overall there were less and less bees and butterflies drinking sweet nectar. Diminishment of various species is invisible to some. Only during the last two summers I spent in Maine did I have fewer hummingbirds…

 

Every year after the harvest I gathered and gave away seed gems to friends who seemed to appreciate them as much as I did – passing on the priceless gift of un contaminated heirloom seeds – seeds that held a future free of human manipulation within each be- jeweled skin.

 

When I moved to New Mexico I brought a few beans with me and my friend Iren was the first recipient of this precious bounty. She, in turn, passed some seeds onto others. Last summer her entire back fence was covered in gorgeous plants. Here in New Mexico the vines don’t grow quite as tall but they are still abundant, and during July deer and elk ate some of Iren’s blossoms (but there were plenty left for her to harvest).

 

Here, I planted my beans in a pot above ground. I do not recommend this practice. These beans need ample water and need to be planted in the Earth to thrive (mine had yellowing leaves). I also noted the effect the intense heat had on the beans. The plants didn’t start producing beans until August though we planted in mid – May, I believe. It’s important to know that Scarlet Runners will not survive frost. What I did notice is that butterflies (swallowtails) and a number of different bees flocked to the flowers. Hummingbirds loved them!

 

Imagine my shock when I discovered that the history of Scarlet Runner beans began in North America. These beans are native to the highlands of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years.

 

This climbing plant is one of the oldest documented beans known to humans!

 

Native Americans consumed almost every part of the plant including the starchy root. Some Indigenous tribes regard the Scarlet Runner bean as a sacred plant. The plants seem to pulse with the life force, at least for me.

 

Today, Scarlet Runner beans are usually grown as annuals for the obvious reasons – their showy flowers and their edible pods and seeds. I recently learned that they are unusual among bean species because they are perennial in places where the ground doesn’t freeze and they climb in a clockwise direction. In retrospect I wondered if they were grown as perennials in the south where Eileen once lived.

 

I remember Iren asking me if you could cook the dried beans. My friend Eileen had never mentioned the practice so I didn’t know until I did this research that here in the U.S. consumers, up until recently, were more likely to find the shelled dried beans to cook than seeds to plant! Mature dried Scarlet Runner beans are ¾ inch in length. They can be cooked like Pinto or Pink beans and used in dishes such as soups and stews. Scarlet Runner beans are less starchy than Lima beans with a nutty garden-fresh flavor. These beans are also known by the common names of Scarlet Conqueror, Fire beans, Mammoth beans, Red Giant beans, and Scarlet Emperor beans.

 

Today, of course there are many cultivars to choose from but I prefer the lineage I have because I know those seeds originated at a time that preceded spraying etc.; they also have sentimental value. If anyone is interested in the gift of a few seeds please contact me at Sara@megalink.net.

 

With that much said so much is happening with seed savers across the country that it is now possible to buy heirloom seeds from a number of companies. This year when I attend the Tewa Women’s Seed Exchange I plan to bring some of my Scarlet Runner beans from last year’s harvest. My guess is that Iren will do the same!

Snowy Comes to Maine

 

 

719e8726-ac9c-11e3-bdba-8d0644e09485-850x478$large.jpg“who whoo WHOOH…”

I will never forget the first Snowy owl I ever saw… I was living in Andover, Maine when a huge white bird appeared in January and soared over the lower fields. It was a very cold winter in 1993 and a pair of these birds became part of my winter bird watching. Their courtship call is quite distinct – three hoots with the loudest whooh at the end. I heard other sounds too but don’t remember the details. When I got my first close up look at one of these magnificent owls I was stunned by their beauty – intense yellow eyes, a black beak and oh, all those pearl white feathers. One had mole brown bars. The Snowy is one of the largest species of owl in North America, and is on average the heaviest owl species. The adult male is virtually pure white, but females and young birds have some dark spots; the young are heavily barred. I believe it was an adult male that I saw at close range. Occasionally one would fly ahead of the car as I drove out of my solitary mile long driveway, a behavior that intrigued me…

Well, Snowy owls are back in Maine! At the Portland Jetport, as many folks know, these owls and those that love seeing them are causing a “problem.” The owls are just trying to make a living but humans are apparently blocking emergency exits.

Many of us will recall that there was a boom in the Snowy population starting around 2011. One owl could be seen perched on a telephone pole between Bryant Pond and South Paris for much of the winter. Recently these birds are becoming uncommonly common! They have popped up in Aroostook County, the mountains of Acadia in Maine, and have been seen as far south as Florida and Hawaii and this year Snowy has made it as far south as New Mexico!

The Snowy owl is typically found in the northern circumpolar region, where it makes its summer home. However, this species is also nomadic because lemming population fluctuations force it to relocate to find food. Recently we have learned that the Snowy has been known to breed at more southerly latitudes

Snowy owls “normally” (is there such a thing today) nest in the tundra of Northern Canada and Europe. Snowy owls are attracted to open areas like marshes, open fields, coastal dunes, and prairies that appear somewhat similar to tundra. During the years when they are found in the Northeastern US, juveniles frequent appear in developed areas so keep your eyes out for a sighting. All ages spend a fair amount of their time over water in the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean, mostly on ice floes.

When perched Snowy owls often face the sun; Snowy owls appear to orient themselves into the sun or wind depending on prevailing weather conditions. No doubt they are happy to bask in whatever source of heat comes their way.

This species of owl nests on the ground, building a scrape on top of a mound or boulder. A site with good visibility is chosen, such as the top of a mound with ready access to hunting areas and a lack of snow. Abandoned eagle’s nests and even gravel bars are used for nesting. The female scrapes a small hollow before laying the eggs. Breeding occurs in May to June, and depending on the amount of prey available, clutch sizes range from 3 to 11 eggs, which are laid singly, approximately every other day over the course of several days. Hatching takes place approximately five weeks after laying, and the pure white young are cared for by both parents. Although the young hatch asynchronously, with the largest in the brood sometimes 10 to 15 times as heavy as the smallest, there is little sibling conflict, a fact that I find fascinating and somewhat unusual. Both the male and the female defend the nest and their young from predators sometimes using distraction as a ruse. Males also defend the nest by standing guard nearby while the female incubates the eggs and broods the young. Both sexes will attack approaching predators, dive-bombing them!

As previously mentioned this powerful bird relies primarily on lemmings and other small rodents for food during the breeding season. They are opportunistic hunters and prey species may vary considerably, especially in winter. Some of the larger mammal prey includes rabbits, hares muskrats squirrels (we could use lots of these birds) raccoons moles and mice. Birds preyed upon include ptarmigan, ducks geese shorebirds and songbirds as well as other owls and raptors. Most of the owls’ hunting is done in the “sit and wait” style; prey may be captured on the ground or in the air; fish may be snatched off the surface of bodies of water using sharp talons. Unlike most owls that hunt at night Snowy owls are diurnal hunting in darkness and in light.

Snowy owls, like other carnivorous birds, swallow their small prey whole. Strong stomach juices digest the flesh, while the indigestible bones, teeth, fur, and feathers are compacted into oval pellets that the bird regurgitates 18 to 24 hours after feeding. Regurgitation often takes place at regular perches, where dozens of pellets may be found.

Previous population estimates of about 200,000 individuals are now regarded as substantially overestimated, and a total population size of 28,000 individuals is probable.

Catastrophic Climate Change guarantees that unless we radically reverse carbon emissions in the next twelve years Life as we know it will be over. The absence of Snowy will become just one more statistic on a planet that has lost its animal populations. So, if you are fortunate enough to glimpse one of these magnificent owls, remember to say goodbye.