Saturday, November 18, 2017

Nesting Sunday

Last Sunday, ProfessorRoush was really wanting to rest and read, but the outside weather was so temperate (55ºF) and sunny that I just couldn't make myself stay put indoors.  I also knew that if I stalled cleaning out the bluebird houses any longer, it would only lead to the task being critical later when the temperatures were 20ºF and a blizzard was forming.  If you're responsible for a trail, you can't just let it go.  The bluebird houses need occasional repair and removing the old nests decreases parasite and disease incidence.  And I needed a walk, so the Bluebird Trail was calling out to me from the brown prairie. "Come out, Come out.  I need your care."  Perhaps, ProfessorRoush was just, himself, nesting for winter.

I always gain a nice warm fuzzy feeling as I find all those nests where happy little bluebirds and various other species have raised a family under my roof(s).  When you are walking a trail of houses, you can easily tell the ones that hold bluebird nests because their nests are thin and haphazardly constructed, usually of soft prairie grass, as pictured in the top photo.  Other birds, usually wrens, sometimes nest in my boxes, and those nests are formed of coarser twigs like the one at the left.  They are also loaded much higher, sometimes stuffing the box to the top except for the opening entrance.   This year, of my 19 self-designed, NABS-approved nesting boxes scattered over the edges of 20 acres with another 80 acres around them, I counted 10 bluebird nests, 6 wren nests, and 3 empties.  The empties were all houses laying on the ground where the donkeys had rubbed them off the posts.  Donkeys seem to have something against random bird houses around their pastures. 

Walking the perimeter of my land is always educational as well.  I was surprised to notice this small nest within a dried up Babtisia australis (Blue Wild Indigo) floating around the pasture.  These prairie legumes bloom early in spring and normally grow perhaps 2.5 feet tall and round alone or in clumps over the prairie.  In the fall, they dry up, break off, and blow all over the prairie like tumbleweeds, clogging fences and flower beds and becoming perfect tinder for prairie fires.  I've never known that they might serve as shrub hosts for low nesting birds, but here is the proof, a deep little cup formed within what was once thick green foliage. 

You can see, in the closeup at left, the careful construction and perfect form of the nest.  It seems a little big for hummingbird, but whatever was here was a pretty small little guy/girl.  I would put odds on it being a Dickcissel nest, since that species is ubiquitous on the prairie and nests on the ground or in low prairie shrubs.  Whoever the architect was, I hope it was a safe home, because birds and the prairie are meant to be together.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Round One; Advantage Me

ProfessorRoush has been busy and neglected his blog, but not particularly his garden.  It was a long, hot autumn, and I'm still diligently digging out Rose Rosette victims, which I can do in absent-minded fashion only while admiring how the grasses have bloomed.

I've put my garden away for winter, for the most part, and I'm looking forward to a long winter's rest.  One of my last chores, last weekend, was to replace a broken end-post on my vegetable garden's electric fence.  My rejuvenated strawberry patch has flourished this year and, last week, it occurred to me how delicious that tender green patch of strawberry leaves looked next to all the browned grass in the acres and acres around it.  Remembering the last time the patch looked so good, and remembering that the deer had, within weeks, chomped it down to the ground and destroyed the next season's strawberries, I resolved to immediately beef up my large-furry-rat defenses.

So I replaced the end post last week and fixed the electric fence where deer had already been through it, noting that its 10 year old charger was on its last legs. 

Lo and behold, I checked it again yesterday and discovered that the fence was again wrecked.  And, if you look closely at the picture at the right, you'll see that the varmints had eaten about half the leaves off, leaving naked stems, but thankfully they haven't yet eaten the crowns.

So yesterday, I replaced the charger with this brand-new, souped up charger pictured on the left, repaired the fence again, added a second line of twine strings to deter their attack, and baited the trap with the aluminum foil strips coated with peanut butter (see below).

My fiendish plan is for the deer to lick the peanut butter and get nasty shocks on their innocent little velvety tongues, providing a peanut-ty Pavlovian proselytism for their education.  I don't know how else to keep them away, short of chaining the intrepid Bella in the garden every night.

And yet this first morning, when I rose, I spotted the lone doe pictured at the top, from my kitchen window.   She meandered across the garden, joined two others in transit, and all proceeded to walk to the garden and stare at the new setup, the lush smorgasboard just beyond their reach.  Finally one reached up to the peanut butter, and then another, both reacting only slightly and then dejectedly moving away.  I suppose I won the first round, but I'm disappointed that they didn't get knocked off their feet and make a more hasty retreat.  More twine?  More fence?  Somehow, 25 quarts of homegrown strawberries at $4 a quart replacement value still seems worth it, don't you agree?   All this wire and plastic, though, isn't helping my carbon footprint.  Maybe it would be wiser to persuade my neighbor to take down his deer feeder.  Or to fill it with moldy corn.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Northeast Downtime

ProfessorRoush was away this week, visiting the Birthplace of Freedom;  Boston, Massachusetts.  Yes, I walked the Freedom Trail and I saw Plymouth Rock, and I crossed the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library off my bucket list.  For those who care, I've now visited 5 presidential libraries in my lifetime and JFK's is the best, although I think the image of JFK they chose for the 100th anniversary of his birth, showing him with fat jaws and in sunglasses, is unflattering and jowl-ey.  But I guess they didn't ask my opinion.

I didn't do any personal physical gardening this week, nor, I must confess, did I visit a single public garden.  But since the NorthEast has been well-supplied with rain, I did spend some time admiring the health and vitality of a number of gardens, including the perfectly-maintained alleyway garden I saw in Salem, MA that is pictured above. As moist as things were, I was interested that the phlox here showed no signs of mildew at all.

Private lots are small in all the cities there, so, in fact, alleyways and hidden gardens were the main attractions in the area.  Otherwise, I rarely saw more than a windowbox or container in most of the city.  This shady courtyard near Bunker Hill, however, was well sited for the hosta grown there as focal points.  

One of the reasons for the visit was to expose a precocious nephew to the possibilities of Harvard and MIT, so I spent time on both campuses.  I was, frankly, not that impressed by the tour of Harvard, which never bothered to verify if my nephew even showed up for his scheduled tour and never took us into a single building.  I am limited in my admiration of expensive architecture if I'm not allowed inside the buildings.  I did find, however, Harvard's use of boulders as a student gathering and sitting area quite innovative, however uncomfortable it might be in cold weather or for long sitting periods.

I was much more impressed by MIT, which seemed to actually care if we kept our tour date.  A wonderful admissions director, Mr. Chris Peterson, gave a lively and informative presentation on MIT and its programs, and then we were led on a tour by a complete nerd, an astrophysics student who hailed from Oklahoma, that included a look INSIDE the labs and buildings and provided a broad look at student life on campus.  Kudos to the MIT admissions team for putting together a great program and to the entire university for a unique atmosphere.  And further congratulations to the landscape designer who included these columnar Sweet Gum outside the student activities building at MIT.  They are fabulously healthy and the first ones I'd ever seen.  I was salivating about the fall coloring they must exhibit.  Where do I get one?

On Friday, I bid farewell to the Northeast and its strange set of quirks, which included labeling each "roundabout" as a "rotary."  I've heard of rotary as a noun referring to an old telephone, but the first time I saw one of these signs, I though I was lost and being directed to the local Rotary club.  To further confuse the issue, some areas were labeled as rotaries when I never really saw a complete circle emerge from the traffic pattern.  And what happened to the strong Bostonian accents I was wanting to emulate?  The entire area is so cosmopolitian and diverse these days that I only talked to one individual with a classic Bostonian accent in five days in the area.

Now, I'm back to the prairie, staring out the window at a dew-covered overgrown lawn bordered with weedy flower beds that both need attention.  And where else can I watch a pack rat playing blatently on my front steps at 8:00 a.m. in the morning.  Just another thing one my to-do list;  bait the pack-rat traps!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sensitive Brier

If I were a Native American child on the Kansas prairie, or perhaps if I were any current child who occupies these arid grassy deserts, my favorite plant might just be the Catclaw Sensitive Briar,  Mimosa quadrivalvis  L.  var. nuttallii  (DC. ), a low-lying perennial that is widespread over my native prairie plot.  It blooms in late May-June here, before the grass reaches high above it to blot out the sky, its pink puff-heads screaming for attention alongside the new shoots of bluestem and Indian grass, and its 4-foot long branches spreading through the prairie.  The yellow ends of mature flowers are the anthers.

Sensitive Briar is a member of the bean family, the Fabaceae, the latter scientific nomenclature sounding not so much like it describes a squat languorous legume as a pretentious ancient Roman dynasty.  Perhaps Sensitive Briar has a right to be a bit pretentious.  It is very nutritious for livestock, who seek it out and overgraze it, making the presence of Sensitive Brier an important indicator of overall range condition.  Some sources refer to it as a "brier" rather than a "briar," and after some searching, I admit that I will have to accept continued mystery about the proper form of reference. Perhaps Thomas Nuttall, the 18th Century English botanist honored by the subspecies name, could enlighten me if his spirit were to pass by this part of the continent.

The "sensitive" part of the name comes from the plants response to touch, an action scientifically termed "thigmonasty", although I don't know why it would be considered nasty unless one considers the impertinence of the touchers.  It folds its leaves from open, like the photo at the left, to closed, as seen at the right with the merest touch of child or wind, and also at night.  Other common names for the plant, Bashful Brier or Shame Vine, also refer to this thigmonastic action.  Thus, its attractiveness to children, who seem fascinated when they discover or are shown this little moment of cross-species contact.  I wonder, if such moments were the first introduction of many children to the world of plants, would ecology and Gaia be more prominent throughout life in our subsequent actions and thoughts?

The "catclaw" of the common name refers to the later pods of these flowers, their prickly nature making them far less attractive to children later in the summer.  These do not seem to cling to clothing so much as they scratch at anything in their vicinity, particularly any delicate little bare legs of children playing hide-and-seek in the tall prairie grass.  I suppose, like most of nature, one must always take the good with the bad, the rose with its thorns, the Catclaw Sensitive Briar with its pods.


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