Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Heart Went Pileat-Patter

Bird activity has certainly picked up here at Owl Hollow. This morning it was a flock of robins investigating the lawn that's becoming greener by the day.

I thought I'd seen it all here when it comes to bird sightings. Everything from rufous-sided towhees, lovely blue birds and Baltimore Orioles to wild turkeys, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, hummers, thrushes, yellow warblers and two that always wow me, the black and white warbler and indigo bunting.

For years, I volunteered with Project Feeder Watch, monitoring the population fluctuations and species diversity of North American songbirds in my own backyard. But after 15 years at Owl Hollow, I really wasn't expecting to see something new.

Until this morning.

As I watched the robins, my eyes caught a flash of something large coming to perch on a large branch of the giant sugar maple. Uh-oh, I thought, another Cooper's hawk come to pick off one of the birds at my feeders. The bird was partially obscured and appeared to be walking on the side of a horizontal branch. I caught sight of the red head. Oh, I said to myself, it's just a red-bellied woodpecker looking for insects. I often see them here. Then it took wing. It all happened so fast, but by golly, I do believe it was a pileated woodpecker. It was too large to be a red-bellied woodpecker, and I've never seen a hawk with a red head!

It flew to the rear of my yard and was gone. I feel so honored to have seen a pileated in my backyard! It makes all these years of working to create a suburban wildlife habitat worthwhile.

I saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers a few years ago not far from here; in fact, you might say it was an adjacent patch of woods, just over the hill from me near the dairy farm. At the time, I was taking a walk; the crow-sized birds seemed spooked by my presence.

In other news, I found the remains of what I believe was a skunk on the sheltered south side of the house.

(What else has a striped black and white tail?) The strange thing is that I found a similarly dead skunk a number of years ago very close to where I found this one. It was maybe 10 feet away on the same patch of lawn, under the shade of a large white pine. Is there something inviting about this sheltered spot that beckons the old or sick to lie and rest a while?

One of my spring rituals is hanging an onion bag full of cat hair outside for birds seeking to line their nests with something soft.

Luther is a prolific shedder and has, in fact, taken advanced coursework in the field. So I expect to find his soft orange hair lining the nests inside the bluebird and wren boxes later this year. Now that's the ultimate in recycling!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Late Winter Cedar Waxwing Sighting

I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink this morning when I saw a lot of flying birds flitting in and out among the maple leaf viburnums in the back. Since I've noticed the birds largely ignore those clusters of large, red berries all winter long, I was naturally curious who was finally going at those delectables with gusto.

I had a hunch, and once I grabbed the binoculars, I found I was right: a flock of cedar waxwings was gorging on those berries. They were moving around so quickly, it was hard to count them, but using my best Project Feeder Watch skills, I quickly guessed there were 7 or 8 of them.

Then something must have spooked them (could it have been me in my red flannel PJs peering through the window?) for they flew off to the upper branches of a nearby sugar maple. Downhill from their perch, their pale yellow bellies were illuminated by the rising eastern sun. I counted 36 of them! I feel as though I've won the lottery!

I've checked on them every 5 minutes or so, but they are still perched in the maple. Perhaps a neighbor's cat was attracted by all the commotion.

I'm really diggin' all the great weather forecast for the week Well, I haven't started digging yet. My yard and gardens are far too wet for any of that. Yesterday I loaded up my trunk with Honda-sized branches and headed for the landfill. It's a tedious process cutting everything up to 3-foot-long pieces, but being unemployed, well, let's say I have time to kill. I made a small dent in the growing mass of pruned mountain laurel, rhododendron, forsythia, butterfly bush, white pine and burning bush that have accumulated in the driveway during the past month.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere

The nor'easter that swept up the Atlantic coast arrived here yesterday morning. By late afternoon, light rain had given way to a steady downfall and the wind picked up as the storm collected itself into a force to be reckoned with. Wind-whipped rain pelted the house all through the night, and the wind gusts, up to 60 miles per hour, rattled the wood shutters and made it impossible to sleep.

I know that some people like storms, but I'm not one of them. Will I lose power? There were over 90,000 Connecticut residents who did. Or worse, will the wind send a white pine limb crashing into the house? These are the thoughts that go through my head.

Owl Hollow is situated toward the lower end of a hill. The front yard slopes downward and then levels out; the back yard is level for about 30 feet from the house; beyond that, the incline becomes much steeper and continues upward another 100 feet until leveling out. This topography, combined with a seasonal high water table, has always meant water "issues" here.

In the basement, I have French drains. (The concrete is cut out around the perimeter of the walls and gravel-filled to collect water.) I don't get a wet basement in the way that some homeowners do, as in, several inches of water on the floor.

The water in my basement infiltrates in two ways: 1. Through the porous cinder block walls, as high as three feet from the floor. To witness a dozen or so pinholes through which water streams, much like a faucet, during a storm is really quite shocking. (This has largely been addressed with Thoroseal and Thoroplug concrete products which plug up tiny pinholes in the cinder blocks.) 2. The high water table creates damp spots on the concrete floor, particularly in the garage, which is about 6 inches lower than the basement.

So over the years, I've tried to address these issues, first by installing a sump pump, which I might add has been cycling on and off regularly since last evening. It works quite well, but that alone is not enough to handle the incredible volume of water coming down the side of the hill.

I've also had an underground drainage pipe installed in the backyard. It was dug toward the rear of my backyard lawn, where the level lawn meets the uphill brushy area filled with brambles. The piping runs parallel to the house to divert water that would otherwise rush straight down the hill toward the house. The pipe carries the water along the north side of the house and the water exits the pipe at ground level in a brushy area.

That's the white pipe on the left. I noticed after the heavy rains we've had that the northeastern side of the front lawn is quite soggy due to all the water draining out that pipe.

Here's the area just down hill from that pipe. It doesn't concern me too much since it's a seasonal thing that occurs in March and April. By May, things are generally drying out.

Further down the front yard, though, where the "lawn" meets the woodsy area bordering the road, you can see some erosion occurring under the crab apple tree. Last fall, I'd dumped a few wheelbarrows full of pine mulch underneath the crab apple to prevent wild mustard from taking over, but you can see how the force of the water coming down through the yard carved little rivulets through the mulch. I'll have to try mulching again once the area's dry enough to work in.

The force of the water coming down the hill doesn't end in those woods you see beyond the yard. Although there's a culvert there, the water often washes out the road in spring and often collects in large puddles there. It's really amazing how damaging all that water can be.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Eggshells for the Birds and the Garden

Here's a winter's worth of eggshells, all ground up. I use a small soapstone mortar and pestle to do the job.

I'm saving them to sprinkle around my tomato plants to prevent blossom end rot.

I hear they're also a useful barrier for deterring slugs. Last spring was a banner year for slugs in my garden. (You remember all that rain, don't you?) I also like to save some of the eggshells for songbirds, who by this time are scouting for nesting sites and "hooking up," in today's vernacular. Birds especially need calcium during egg-laying season.

My sister has spoiled me with her farm fresh eggs, so I only resort to buying eggs in winter, when my sister's hens have slowed production. Once you've eaten truly fresh eggs with their bright yellow yolks, the store-bought eggs actually seem a little gross.

I've also saved a few of those soft cardboard egg cartons for my vegetable seedlings, which Dad says I should be starting soon. Truth be told, I've never had much luck starting seedlings indoors, probably because I've never invested in a heating mat or grow lights. My indoor temperatures are also on the cool side (64 degrees daytime) and I know many seeds need warm temperatures to germinate. The warmest room in the house is my upstairs bathroom, which is the only room with both south and west-facing windows, so I may have to relocate the houseplant that loves its spot on top of the toilet

The big rain event here in the northeast has only just begun, but I've already been out to secure a loose shutter that was banging against the house in the driving wind. I'd just as soon stay inside for the rest of the day, but split pea soup is on the menu mid-day, and I need to get some parsnips and celery. I've also had a hankering for coleslaw these last few weeks and will be making my own today.

Friday, March 5, 2010

It's Coming!

The snowdrops are up! First sign of spring!

And they've spread a bit as well. No more complaining! If the snowdrops are up, crocuses and daffodils can't be far behind.

Now, how do you think I discovered the snowdrops were up? Surely, I would go outside under the big white pine and have a look-see. Nooo, I didn't think they'd be this early.

So I was browsing through some older posts of the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension Service blog. The writer said she noticed that on a recent trip to Stamford she'd seen the snowdrops were already up. What? I mentally shouted to myself. I ran to my window and looked underneath the pine where, nine years ago, I'd planted a small clump of snow drops given to my by a former co-worker. Sure enough, there they were, plain as day. I grabbed my camera and ran outside to record the scene.

Yes, they've spread, but in nine years time, they still only occupy an area of a few square feet.

Garden Envy

Just as the most ambitious new diet proclamations are made right after consuming the most decadent dessert, so, too, late winter is the time I set an ambitious agenda for garden sightseeing in the months to come.

Today's sky is a milky shade of gray and the snow is largely gone. We've all kept a stiff upper lip to get through the coldest months of winter, and while nor'easters, colorless days and the biting cold have their charm, early March has me restless and impatient. Where are the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils that will signal spring at Owl Hollow? (Patience, dear Fern. Need I remind you that the average last frost date in this part of western Connecticut doesn't arrive until May 15?)

Some garden bloggers are putting the finishing touches on plot plans for this year's vegetable garden, and some have already started seedlings indoors. (That's hard for me to do with a Maine Coon adolescent who makes bits of dust, plastic wrappers and, yes, green things that grow, a regular part of his diet. No place is safe from the feline Hoover.)

But what really gets me going is the thought of all those gorgeous gardens I can visit this year. When the humidity becomes uncomfortable and the bugs are out, procrastination comes easily, especially if I can put off my own garden chores to become a voyeur of others' hard labor and sweat. Just let me poke around, photograph and otherwise gain inspiration to coax my own gardens to delusions of grandeur, and I'll call that a great day.

I was admiring the photos of Scotland's Drummond Castle gardens that Laurie over at My Weeds Are Very Sorry posted. (What exquisite symmetry.) It's safe to say that for as long as I'm dealing with a long-term bout of unemployment, trips abroad won't be on my itinerary. But by way of compensation, I happily commit to visiting as many local gardens right here in Connecticut that I can squeeze in.

Last year, my mother and I visited the lovely Hollister House Garden in Washington (shown above and below). The 25-acre garden, created in 1979 and today a Garden Conservancy project, has evolved into a portrait of formal versus natural landscape design, hidden walkways, nooks and crannies and 10-foot-high walls and hedges that define outdoor "rooms."

This year, I've added the following must-see gardens to my list:

  • Bellamy-Ferriday Garden in Bethlehem
  • Hill Stead Gardens in Farmington
  • Harkness Memorial State Park and Gardens in Waterford
  • Promisek at Three Rivers Farm in Bridgewater
I can't wait!