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Monthly Archives: January 2012

In the 60 years since the summers of 1951 to 54, when I have come across animal tracks, I think of a boy whose naturalist skills once astounded me. The boy seemed to come with the primitive cabin my family used during those summers at an Adirondack camp on Lake Kiwassa. He ran though the woods. sometimes, as I recall, in nothing more than a loincloth. He would drop down on one knee to point out indentations in the forest floor that would tell him which animals had passed there. Those summers I wanted to know what he knew, but when we changed our vacation spots in the coming years, I lost sight of that goal.

Our cabin on the Turner Camp on Lake Kiwassa in the Adirondacks, 1953

This morning, I wished I could find the tracks of that guy. Yesterday’s snow was criss-crossed with animal tracks. Even I know White-tailed deer tracks. But who left the tracks that emerge from under the porch and don’t belong to a bird? At night, something bangs around outside the living room windows and around the porch but I have yet to get a glimpse of it. Porcupines lived under our cabin in the Adirondacks, but the early colonists ended their populations in these parts. The likely candidates for those noises are possums. One had been killed on the road a couple of month ago.

Frustrated by the absence of an authority and my inability to identify the tracks in the loose, deep snow, I checked the family photo album for a clue about the Lake Kiwassa boy. Maybe I could identify him. My Mother had carefully pasted and labeled photos from the 1940s until the 1960s into several large maroon books. In all the times I’ve shuffled around in the early 50s book, I had not noted that boy whose naturalist skills I idolized was there: in a photo with my mother, and another with my father, and still a third with me. He’s standing in a row boat holding a model sail boat while I clinging uneasily to the gunnels. There’s even a photo of his mother, Janet. I still don’t know what animal left the tracks around the porch but I rediscovered that the boy was Dick Merkle.

Dick Merkle and me, 1953

Dick Merkle and Mother, 1953

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An Eastern bluebird alighted on one of the nesting boxes in the meadow. It was 15 January.

Last year, I saw a bluebird on a box on 2 April. That’s more the season when it might build a nest. But no bluebird honored me with a nest in one of my boxes last year.

The Eastern bluebird who came last spring but did not stay to nest.

This year’s bluebird might well be roosting here for the winter but might fly north later for nest building. The bluebirds looking to nest will come up from somewhere further south in the spring. After this year’s bird had flown, which also happened to be before I could snap a picture, I checked the contents of the box. A House wren had left behind a layer of twigs from an unfinished nest that I had not yet removed. But the twigs now also had some small blue feathers on them. Was the Bluebird adding insulation to a roost?

I checked the 2 other boxes. The middle one still had a Tree swallow’s nest from last season. That nest, lined with magnificent owl feathers, was such a gem that I had not wanted to remove it. The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act prevents me from collecting feathers but I can leave them in the nest.

Owl feathers from a House wren's nest

The third box, with its special 1and a half inch diameter entry hole fashioned by a carpenter working on the house renovation of 2009-10, was empty. I had removed the wood chips that the House sparrow deposited last year when chiseling that special entry to a size that better suited him. If the House sparrows are gone, maybe a bluebird, maybe three bluebird families, will feel more comfortable and nest in the meadow come spring.

At least a dozen Dark-eyed juncos, the feathers on their backs and flanks darkened from overall slate-color to overall black by the determined snowfall, fed this morning on seeds of the Agastache. The White-tailed deer may have robbed the American robins of a treat of Winterberries, but another native plant has provided sustenance another native bird.

Dark-eyed juncos feed on Agastache seeds

Earlier this week (15 January) — the same day a Bluebird perched on a box I hope it will use in the spring to make a nest  — a sizable flock of European starlings descended on the many suet feeders much the way the robins came in for the Winterberries last year. The ground was frozen but not snow covered. Those waiting their turn at the suet feeders foraged with their powerful, straight, pointed bills for insects in the grasses at the meadow’s edge. With binoculars, I could see their larger finds: insects that looked like dirt covered grasshoppers. Were they shaking off the dirt or defrosting carcases as they shook their prey? Either way, I could see the advantage of the suet.

Starlings, fortunately, are not regulars at the feeders here. But on the 20th, the day of the second light snow of the season, the feeders were visited by the usual suspects in unusual numbers. The one usual bird I did not see that day was the Norther flicker. The birds who did show up included the Bluejay, the Downy woodpecker, the Red-bellied woodpecker, the Mourning dove, the Northern cardinal, the Tufted titmouse, the Dark-eyed junco, the White-breasted nuthatch, the Black-capped chickadee, and the White-throat sparrow.

A male Northern cardinal watches the snow all and waits his turn at the feeder in the branches of a Viburnum dentatum.

This year’s regulars no longer include the House sparrow in what appears to be a positive outcome of last year’s trapping program. The Grey squirrel population also has declined substantially but not quite to zero. The feeders stay full longer. Queuing up for a place at the feeders seems to work better without the House sparrows and the squirrels who took longer turns than the others.

Winter here on the 41-degree latitude brings chilling winds, mostly from the northwest. Vistas into the woods lengthen in the absence of leaves. The landscape’s pallet looses chroma and brilliance. Shadows stretch to their longest, even at noon. And that noon arrives at its annual earliest, daylight itself shortened to a brief nine hours.

The habit of seasons gives our trees the problem of provisioning for severe cold, on the one hand, and high heat of the other. The sweep of temperatures can be accompanied by too much or too little moisture. I empathize with our trees. A temperate climate keeps us living creatures a little out of balance or at least weighing tradeoffs.

And so it is with shadows and the length of the day. The longest shadows, the lowest arc the sun makes through the sky, the shortest day are the trademarks of autumn. The wind may pick up in winter, the temperature may drop precipitously, snow may fall but for sure the days start getting longer. This most reliable condition is, for me, the salvation of winter.

Earliest image

Earliest image, before color

Henning showed me how to use Google Earth. So begins a short satellite history of my meadow. This image from 1995 shows the hedgerow of pines and spruces that i planted as seedlings no bigger than pencils in the late 1980s as small shadows along the driveway to the north of my field. The buffer I planted along the road (at the left hand edge of this image) is less visible. Not sure why. Maybe I was still clearing that area of Japanese knotweed.

Thanks to the Google puzzle in the New York Times on 14 December, I know Rhode Island is 1,033.81 square miles small or 661,638.4 acres. My 2 acres represent 0.003125 square miles of the state.

Actually, thanks to Google, I found several measurements for this tiniest state. One figure was 1,044. Another 1,021. This is a state that changes size twice a day with the tides. Still, you’d think the mean tide line would be used in square footage calculations and that that could be a know line in the sand.

East Matunuck State beach

I am interested in the size of RI not only to see how tiny my holding is but also because I have designed a theme for the RI Wild Plant Society’s 25th anniversary, which is this year. I don’t know how much impact it will have, but with the square mileage numbers, we can sum even tiny efforts to see how large a state-wide garden we actually make in 2012 and beyond.

I’m also going to look into how many acres of farm land are decommissioned each year. Then there’s the matter of how much of the state is forest. Again the percentage varies by publication, but it may be around 40 percent. I hope to post of my simple arithmetic over time.

Here’s the RIWPS 25th anniversary challenge:

“This year, in celebration of the anniversary and to increase the number of Rhode Island landscapes flourishing with natives, we’ve planned a simple challenge: if each and every Society member will convert some plot of land from non-native plantings to natives, we will draw attention to the beauty and the utility of native plants and take steps toward creating a state-wide native garden.  After all, RIWPS members live from Woonsocket to New Shoreham and from Westerly to Little Compton to Gloucester. No one’s plot is an island. We can make a native garden, starting this year, unheeded by county boundaries, mean tide lines or stone walls, as big and wide as Little Rhody.

Here are a few ideas using 25 as the challenge point. Really, the list of possibilities is endless, as are the multiples of 25:

  • Reduce your lawn area by 25 percent
  • Replace 25 invasive species with 25 natives
  • Lower your fertilizer use by 25 percent by composting more
  • Save water by increasing your use of your own leaves to mulch
  • Plant 25 plants know to attract butterflies
  • Plant 25 plants that, in the winter, will feed birds
  • Install a 25-gallon water collector under a downspout”