Friday, November 25, 2011

The Pileated Returns!

For the first time since March 2010, and for only the second time in 16 years, I caught sight of a giant pileated woodpecker here at Owl Hollow. He flew to an old apple tree and was inspecting a large crevice formed when a limb came down in a storm. A diminutive downy woodpecker was clinging to the other side of the tree trunk and flew off when the pileated became frisky.

My camera was right at my desk and as I went to turn it on, the woodpecker flew toward a white pine, out of sight.

So exciting! Love those birds!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Calculating the Savings in Growing Your Own Food

 Most will agree, a garden is not complete without tomatoes.

We all know that growing our own food offers multiple benefits—for our health, our taste buds, and our pocketbook. But how many of us know how much we’re actually saving?

For the past few summers, I’ve conducted a little experiment to see just how much I would save by growing veggies myself versus buying their supermarket counterparts. You may be surprised at the results!

Why Grow Your Own?

Before getting to the numbers, let’s review the many benefits of growing your own food. They include:

Personal satisfaction: When it comes to self-sufficiency, there is nothing more elemental than being able to feed oneself. I love the early-evening ritual of wandering down to the vegetable garden, colander in hand, to pick whatever has ripened and prepare it for my dinner that same evening.

Lessening your environmental footprint: By reducing your reliance on foods grown far away and trucked hundreds or thousands of miles to your local grocery store, your food consumption contributes less to smog and global warming. By growing your vegetables, you’re also doing your part to reverse the globalization of the food supply.

Superior taste and freshness: Homegrown fruits and vegetables simply taste better than produce that’s been allowed to ripen in trucks during transport and sit on store shelves before you’re ready to eat it. Even if you’re not a verifiable foodie, the taste, flavor, and freshness of homegrown produce is reason enough for many gardeners to devote a portion of their yard, patio, or terrace to growing vegetables.

Better nutritional value: Because less time elapses between harvest and consumption (say, about an hour when I harvest my own produce compared to days or weeks when I buy it in the supermarket), homegrown vegetables deliver higher nutritional value. And if you choose to grow your produce pesticide-free like I do, you’ll get the added health benefits of consuming organic produce at little-to-no extra cost.

Early September harvest
But for the budget-minded among us, a fifth important benefit of growing your own food is…

The ability to reduce your grocery expenses: In today’s challenging economy, nearly every consumer is looking to save a few dollars wherever they can. Growing your own vegetables can substantially reduce your grocery bill throughout the summer. If you freeze or can your surplus, you can extend your savings into the winter months. 

The Economics of Homegrown

This is the third season I’ve tracked my garden’s output, not only by the pound, but by its monetary value.

My garden plot is modest in size, about 120 square feet. It was not intended to feed a large family, although the inevitable surplus is freely given to friends and neighbors. In its current form, it’s L-shaped (to detour around a small juneberry tree) and located in my front yard, to take maximum advantage of sunlight.

Die-hard gardeners can spend lots of time experimenting with heirloom varieties, growing plants from seed, and researching the best soil amendments, fertilizers, compost, and mulch covers. Yet you can fumble along, make mistakes, and still wind up with a respectable harvest, provided there’s ample sunlight and adequate watering.

Due to my own laissez-faire attitude about plant diseases, my garden is succumbing a few weeks early to blight and powdery mildew. With the harvest about 95 percent in, I’ve tallied up my pickings for the season.
To determine their monetary value, I checked the prices of comparable produce at Shop Rite, my grocery store of choice. Whenever possible, I used prices of Shop Rite’s organic produce. But for about half of what I harvested, I couldn’t find organic equivalents and was forced to use the non-organic price in my comparison. Because produce prices fluctuate regularly, I used an average of Shop Rite prices I found throughout July and August, at the height of my garden’s production.

Here’s what I grew and harvested this year, ranked by its dollar value:
2011 total monetary value: $330.08
2011 total expenses: $21.78
Net savings: $308.30

How do these numbers compare to previous years? In 2009, I grossed $148 in produce from a somewhat smaller-sized garden, but ended up with -$222 after factoring in my ‘start-up’ expenses which included a pricey, six-foot-high roll of wire fencing and metal posts (essential to exclude deer).

In 2010, I enlarged the garden (since I had leftover fencing) and harvested more, growing $515 worth of food ($429 after expenses). I attribute some of the increase to a more concerted effort to harvest wineberries daily during the month of July, as they ripened. The wineberries, which grow naturally in my backyard, are an invasive Asian bramble that produces berries that look similar to a raspberry. Since you’ll never find them in a store, I’ve used raspberry prices for comparison when calculating their monetary value. (And you know how expensive raspberries are in the store!)

 Acorn squash on the vine
 Last summer, I hand-picked 39 cups of wineberries, which really boosted my ‘garden’ productivity.  I planned to do the same this summer, but lost my enthusiasm after finding a tiny tick embedded in the skin between my fingers. I don hip boots sprayed with DEET for wading into the brambles as protection against ticks (I’ve had Lyme disease twice) but hadn’t counted on picking one up on my hand. So I settled for about nine cups of berries picked from the relative safety of the periphery of the thickets.

This year’s garden is pretty much spent, but I take comfort knowing I’ll be enjoying my tomatoes, wineberries, kale, basil, and zucchini (in the form of soups, stews and quick breads, and on my breakfast cereal) in the cold winter months to come. I can’t wait until next spring, when I’ll be planting soybeans for the first time.

How long have you been gardening? Are you considering trying your hand at it for the first time? What’s the first thing you’d want to grow?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

International Coastal Cleanup Day at Milford Point

Today was International Coastal Cleanup Day, an annual ritual here along the Connecticut and New York coastline when dozens of volunteers fan out to pick up beach litter from some of our environment's most beautiful locations.

You may have heard about the continent-sized toxic stew of trash (twice the size of Texas)  that perennially floats between San Francisco and Hawaii. It's images like that which propel me to do my small part to clean up this planet.

Like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, probably 85% of the litter I found today was plastic, either soft plastic food wrappers or hard plastics like bottle caps, straws and many unknown objects. Along with that I found a shoe, a car tire, shotgun casings and a variety of unmentionables.

There was a disappointing turnout, but the three of us who did show up at Milford Point made up for our small number with determination. We trudged up and down the coastline with our bags of trash for nearly three hours and were rewarded with a glorious late summer day, bright sunshine and uplifting views of the coastline, marshes and estuaries.

  I love the warm, golden tones of beach grass in the sunlight.

This would be a great spot to explore in a kayak.

I was wondering if these purple martin houses were occupied earlier in the summer.

I would have liked to do some beach-combing right after Hurricane Irene. 
Perhaps there would have been some interesting seashell finds.

After picking up trash, I hung out at the Audubon Coastal Center, expecting to meet a new friend there for a get-together and picnic lunch. I spent some time chatting with an Audubon employee and her husband to pass the time. Then I lingered at the observation deck near the driveway that overlooks the marshes, taking snapshots. After about 45 minutes, I reluctantly left.

When I got home, there was a message from my friend. She had gotten a little lost, as I did, trying to find the sanctuary. I called her back, and she was still there at the center, wondering where I was. After we compared notes, it became apparent that we missed each other by about 5 minutes. Aarrgh.

It was such a beautiful day, and while I enjoyed my time there, I found myself thinking how much nicer it is to share that with another. Sharon, if you're reading this, let's try again! Hope you enjoyed the views!

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Clean-up Continues

Tropical storm Irene was not kind to Owl Hollow. She raged and roared, leveling a favorite tree, the snowball hydrangea, dropping the crown of a large hemlock tree on the tool shed my dad built and depositing several large tree of paradise branches in the backyard, not too far from the sun room.

Here's the collateral damage:

 The venerable snowball hydrangea, beloved by bees, stands no more. 
Amazingly, the hummingbird feeder that hung from it was not damaged.

 This is the crown of a large, single trunk hemlock; it remains exactly where it fell. 
I'm unsure whether it damaged the roof shingles or not but hope to find out soon.

 I have since cut up and hauled to the driveway most of these Tree of Paradise (ailanthus) limbs
except for a rather hefty 10-foot-long piece.

A friend had offered to dispatch with the largest limbs with his chainsaw. On Tuesday, the appointed day, he arrived with chainsaw oiled, sharpened and ready to go. Unfortunately, he managed to cut his finger even before he started up that chainsaw, making it impossible to do the tree work. You see, he somehow managed to nick his finger on something sharp at the top of my basement stairs (darned if I know what he grabbed) and his finger started bleeding. And bleeding. It just wouldn't stop. As he described it, "It's a gusher."

I am not a nurse, and the sight of an actively bleeding anything makes me uncomfortable. I suggested that since we couldn't seem to get the finger to stop bleeding using the usual pressure and holding his arm upright, that he should see a professional. Surprisingly, he agreed.

I drove my friend to a walk-in clinic about 15 minutes down the road, only to find the place closed due to a lack of power. Bummer. It didn't help that every 5 minutes Frank would cheerfully announce, "It's still bleeding."

We returned to my home. Frank said he'd drive himself to Danbury Hospital. I debated driving him there myself, but I was supposed to be driving my mother up to Sherman to do an art installation for an upcoming show. So we parted company at that point.

Frank got a tetanus shot and he is fine. Meanwhile, I set to work myself to cut up and then drag the many branches down my stone stairs and into the driveway until Frank (or someone else) could help me bring them to the landfill. If I left the branches where they fell, they'd kill the grass and their foliage would eventually shrivel up and fall off, making twice as much work for me. Using a broom, I reasoned, is easier than raking.

There's a large pile of debris that now occupies the driveway to the left of the garage. The storm solidified my desire to have a large white pine and the nearby Tree of Paradise removed in late fall. They both are situated to the south side of the house, within striking distance. Both trees grow way too fast and are prone to dropping their branches in a storm. The white pine is not ideally located since it blocks the winter sun from warming the house.

I have a tree guy in mind who seems to have fair prices. He's taken down a few others here in the past few years. It can be enormously expensive, and despite not really being able to afford it right now, I'd gain such peace of mind from having those two trees gone. I worry about tree limbs raining down on the house during every heavy rain or snow storm. There are several others that could possibly threaten the house, but the two I mentioned are, I believe, the leading contenders.  They could also take down power lines.

Irene was bad enough, but I keep thinking, what if all that had happened in winter? Six days without power was not pleasant, but in winter it would be disastrous. Can we say, frozen pipes, anyone?

Anyway, the tree cutting guy I have in mind tells me he works year-round, weather permitting. I am sure his business slows considerably in winter nonetheless as most people wouldn't think to have that kind of work done in January. So I will call him in November because I think I'll get a better price than if I called him when everyone else calls him. I am hoping it will be no more than $2,500 for the two trees, but I don't know. They will be a challenge, I am sure, because they are hemmed in on one side by telephone wires going to my house and on the other side by my neighbor's wires. There's not much margin for error.

Luther and Waldo will not appreciate the ear-splitting sound of a chainsaw so close to the house, but I think it still wouldn't be as bad as when the the old shingles from my house were pried off and new vinyl siding installed. It kind of made you jump out of your skin. They banged so hard on the walls that shelving and mini blinds fell down.

Ahh, the joys of home ownership.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Inspiring Thoughts at the Garden of Ideas

The day dawned bright with the promise of blue skies and sunshine. It seemed like the right time to revisit the Garden of Ideas in nearby Ridgefield, Connecticut. This private, 12-acre garden offers meandering walkways that bring visitors up close and personal with an unusual collection of plants, garden art and statuary. There's also a boardwalk extending into a marsh, meadows and woodland. There's a small art gallery and, if you're so inclined, you can purchase vegetables on the premises.

 Intimate walkways encourage exploration...

...or a restful break.

 Garden art includes an airplane propeller,

...a dozing, bald-headed man,

...a man balancing a teacup on his head

....and poetry.

I love this weathered Adirondack chair.

There were bee hives on the site, and plenty of pollinators.

A rustic tool shed with stained glass windows

 It was a tranquil respite to which I'm sure I'll return.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Return of 'The Blob'

Do you remember the old horror movie from 1958 called The Blob? It's an alien life form that consumes everything in its path, and nearly does in Steve McQueen.

Well, I came upon something in my vegetable garden that reminds me of that kind of twisted, uncontrolled growth:

Behold, the homely acorn squash.

Look at all that life, all the potential that awaits in the furled up future foliage and that massive, flattened out stem, the tendrils seeking something to clasp onto. Isn't that a bit twisted, grotesque and wonderful at the same time?

Fruit formation is no less amazing.

In other news, I caught a bobcat photo in last week's Voices, the free weekly covering the Southbury area. It was in someone's backyard, and it sounds like it wasn't the first time. What interested me was the fact that while it did indeed have the patterned coat I knew bobcats had, those markings were more visible on the underside. From the top, it appeared to be a solid tan.

Since I only really saw the animal crouching, and it was mostly its head, tail and backside I saw as it leapt into the woods, perhaps it WAS a bobcat. Ahh, save for that pesky fact that I saw a long, curved tail.

The mystery at Owl Hollow continues. does the vegetable pickins'. I am faithfully recording the weight and number of all harvested produce. At season's end, I'll also record the going price of corresponding organic produce at Shop Rite, so I'll be able to come up with a grand tally of the total value of this year's garden. What will be most fun is comparing this year's winners and losers to the previous two years' vegetable gardens.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mysterious (Very Exciting) Animal Sighting

OK, folks, hang onto your hats. I have quite a story to tell you.

Just a day ago, the workers finished installing vinyl siding on the house. It looks great, but for five days, there was quite a bit of racket here, especially sitting inside the house, which I did for the bulk of the time they were here. It was out of deference to my two cats. I mean, they were banging so hard on the walls that I had two small shelves in the kitchen fall off the wall, as well as some mini blinds in the bathroom. My one cat stayed holed up in the basement for most of the time, while Luther, the braver of the two, endured the noise with me in the office, but I could tell he was stressed.

But back to my story. Around mid-day today, I had just put a loaf of chocolate zucchini bread in the oven. I was comfortably ensconced in the sun room on my lounge and probably could have drifted off to sleep. My gaze was in the general direction of a large rhododendron shrub in the backyard about 20 feet from the sun room. All of a sudden, I see an animal face appear. It was crouched on a small branch of the rhododendron that was growing parallel to the ground, about 3 inches high off the ground.

There are a number of my neighbor's cats that wander through here regularly, but this cat was different. It was solid tan. While most of its body was obscured by the shrub, I could tell it was quite a bit larger than your garden variety house cat. It had a long, curved tail and a distinctly feline-looking face.

It was acting nervously, as if it might bolt at any minute. Again, its behavior was different than the cats I see around here, who prowl around and are obviously hunting, exploring, wandering. Then my cat, Luther, started meowing elsewhere in the house. He does that sometimes when he doesn't know where I am. Normally, I would call to him, but I was afraid any movement on my part would scare off this animal. I had the windows to the sun room wide open.

I think it was Luther's meowing that spooked the animal, and it bolted off the rhododendron branch and disappeared into the brambles and woods behind my house. There's a fairly large expanse of woods behind my house, up on the hill, and on the other side is a dairy farm. There's a coyote den somewhere in there; my neighbors and I see or hear them periodically, and in fact, they killed my neighbor's Golden Retriever.

I'm really mystified about what I saw. A coyote would not crouch on a tree branch like that. There have been bobcat sightings in my town, but bobcats have short, cropped tails and are usually spotted.

I called Wildlife Biologist Paul Rego at DEP and told him what I saw. He said the mountain lion killed on the highway in Milford was the first and only confirmed mountain lion sighting in Connecticut, so it would be an exceedingly rare thing if what I saw was a mountain lion. I did not really see the animal's full size because it was crouching, and then I saw it from behind only when it ran back into the brush. But I don't think it was larger than, say, a German Shepherd.  Paul said you would be impressed by the size of a mountain lion, and that while sizes vary, they generally are larger than a big dog.

He asked me how large the branch was that the animal crouched on, and whether it would likely support the weight of an actual mountain lion. I went out afterwards to check that branch. It only looked to be about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, growing parallel to the ground and about 3 inches off the ground. However, I was startled to see a good-sized crack in the branch. I put my hand on the spot where I saw the animal crouch and as I pressed down, the weight of my hand caused tension on the branch in the very spot where the crack was. The only reason it hadn't cracked further, I think, is because the branch touched the ground. So it supported the idea that the weight of the animal was great enough to bend the branch down far enough to crack it.

Paul was a little stymied about what else this animal could be. Could it be an immature mountain lion, I asked. He said yes, anything's possible, but the question is, how likely is it? While I can't be absolutely sure about the size, what I am sure about is that this was in the feline family. Its face was very cat-like and it had a long, curved tail. It also ran into the woods like a cat, not trotting like a dog. I don't think it was a housecat because not only was the body larger than a cat, but the head was larger than a normal-sized cat.

I guess it's unlikely I will ever see this thing again, and so I guess I may never know exactly what I saw.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New Family of Raccoons on the Premises

Oh, I know. Raccoons are a common enough sight when it comes to suburban wildlife. But in most of my 15 years here, I saw little evidence of raccoons, which seemed a mystery to me. Here and there I saw skunks, and of course, I'm awash nearly every year in woodchucks,deer and turkeys, red fox and gray fox, even coyote, but raccoons? Not usually.

Earlier this year, I noted the likely presence of a raccoon when I discovered a bag of corn seed ripped apart inside my garage. I have a bad habit of leaving the garage door open overnight, to save on wear and tear on the garage door opener. I've heard they're expensive to replace. I figure I'll be out there the very next day, so why not? (Wierd, I know.)

So I spotted the likely culprits this afternoon after a sudden summer downpour forced me indoors. I was relaxing in the sun room, listening to the steady pounding of raindrops on the roof and the sound of water funneling down the gutter leader.

As usual, Luther saw them first. He growled, and then I watched as a mama raccoon and her three juvenile babies nonchalantly made their way up the stone stairs to the backyard (aka, The Stairway to Heaven), and then disappeared into the single row of forsythia along the stone wall/property line. It's the very spot where there's an old, and I assume uninhabited, woodchuck burrow. (Animals often reuse other animals' dens. Guess it's always easier to move into existing real estate rather than new construction.)

Those babies were awfully cute. I don't mind having them around.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Kayaking the Cedar Creek

Amidst the long slog of unemployed life and a seemingly endless job search, I took a two-day break to zip down to visit my dad on the Jersey shoreline.

I strapped Little Minnow to the car roof the day before, feeling a bit of trepidation as I thought about the three-hour drive ahead of me on the Garden State Parkway. Have you ever noted the resemblance of a torpedo to a kayak? I had visions of that kayak going airborne at highway speeds. So I checked and double-checked my knots and fastenings and arrived in Ocean Gate perfectly fine this past Wednesday.

Our destination was Cedar Creek, a twisting, slow-moving and narrow river in Ocean County that terminates in Barnegat Bay at Berkeley Island County Park, although we didn't travel the entire length of the river. We put in at Double Trouble State Park (isn't that a great name?) and dropped off the other car at Dudley Park in Bayville.

Although the water was quite calm with a slow-moving current, it made for a challenging two-hour trip because of its many hairpin turns. When you're in a touring kayak or a 14-foot canoe, as we were, making those turns in such a narrow body of water was difficult, and we ended up frequently careening into the overgrown river banks. We weren't alone, judging by the various tree trunks scarred by countless paddlers attempting to fend off a collision.

Adding to our challenge were the many downed tree trunks that hung suspended over the water's surface. If you weren't paying attention and failed to duck at the right time, I'm sure you could be knocked out, or worse.

The river was largely deserted, save for a few small groups of swimmers at certain sections where the river widened out to a small, sandy beach. Cedar trees hugging the water gave the water an amber tint, exactly like black tea. The water's acidity, I'm told, makes aquatic life difficult. (This was also the case on South Carolina's Little Pee Dee River, though in that case, it was cypress trees that made the water tannin.)

There was an abundance of blue and black butterflies flitting about the river, as well as fragrant summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), or sweet pepperbush. We flushed a lone deer that had come to drink the shaded water.

I wanted to take more photos of the three or four scenic bridges we passed under, but I didn't dare take my hands off the paddle!

A good time was had by all, although our sore muscles will take some time to recover.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Candy Growing on Trees

As a gardener or naturalist, you may have noticed that certain plants act as a wildlife magnet, thanks to the food they supply, or perhaps the shelter they provide. I have four such magnets on my property.

1. The apple trees.
When I moved to Owl Hollow 15 years ago, I counted five apple trees. I'm down to just two producing trees now, as they were all quite old and somewhat diseased, but the two remaining trees produce little yellow apples that begin dropping in June. I've seen everything from a crow flying across the yard with a small apple speared in its beak to a hungry coyote pup going after these apples.

2. The mulberry tree.
I planted just one mulberry tree probably six years ago, but it's a volunteer tree, very close to one of those apple trees, that has really taken off. Just three years old now, it's already 20 feet high. Its berries are starting to ripen and the birds are going nuts. Cardinals, catbirds, robins and a Baltimore oriole, plus a little red squirrel, are what I've seen in its branches so far. I have a great vantage point for viewing all the ruckus as the tree is just outside my office window.

3. Brambles.
Whether it's blackberries, raspberries or wineberries doesn't really matter, but if you have thorny brambles that produce berries, it's a bird bonanza. The berries shown above are wineberries, another Asian interloper, I'm afraid, but I'm guessing they provide just as many antioxidants as native berries, so yes, I will enjoy them all winter long.

4. Viburnums.
I have a large double file viburnum in the front yard. Its berries are reportedly blue/black, but I have yet to see a single one (!) because the birds pick them off before they're even ripe! Not sure what it is about these fruits that make them so delectable, but the birds love 'em. The shrub in bloom, I might add, is magnificent.

Do you have any wildlife magnets in your yard?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Critter Sighting

You never know what you might see at Owl Hollow. Over the years, I've gotten into the habit of frequently peering out the window of whatever room I'm in whenever I happen to think of it. It's just an absent-minded way of keeping tabs on the out-of-doors as I go about my normal routine. And I've been rewarded with sightings of a lot of critters who are either year-round residents or just passing through.

Waldo and Luther do the same thing. Often, it's the cats' behavior that alerts me to something interesting on the other side of the glass.  Sometimes, it's a neighbor's cat on the prowl. Yesterday, my neighbor's big shaggy dog had gotten loose and he came ambling on by, apparently delighted to be on the lam. Other critters, like the deer, coyote and woodchucks, linger for a while, making a meal of the apricot-sized green apples that have begun falling from the apple tree.  At other times, the critters are just passing through like the wild turkey, or the raccoon that took recent advantage of my laziness to raid a bucket of bird seed left in an open garage.

Today, the early morning light woke me up early, around 5:30 a.m. After feeding the boys, I settled in at the kitchen table with a plate of blueberry pancakes and a morning news show. A movement outside caught my eye. This time, it was a gray fox acting like it was late for an urgent appointment. He was taking the narrow blue stone footpath that runs along the north side of the house, just five feet from the window, and with a waist-high picket fence garden on the other side.  He was gone in an instant; no time for photo ops.

I've only seen foxes here a handful of times, and not recently at that. And it was always red fox that I saw. So spotting the more elusive gray fox was quite a cool surprise. Especially given that, according to my reading, coyotes won't tolerate a fox in their territory. We have a coyote den in the area, and they make their presence known on occasion.

So, this was the second big critter surprise of the season, after the sighting of a large garter snake by the stone wall. (Not the usual pencil-diameter variety.) The snake hung out for at least part of one day because I saw him at two different times one day a few weeks ago, but seemingly left for parts unknown.

It was great to see the fox, though I worry for the many domestic cats that run around here all the time. They seem to prefer the unkempt environs of my property to the tidier lawns and landscapes of their owners' homes.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Paddling the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers Near Derby

I set out on the season's first kayak foray this morning, intent on exploring the Naugatuck and Housatonic Rivers where they intersect in Derby, Connecticut.

I put in at the Derby Greenway boat ramp and headed south on the Housatonic, then turned north on the Naugatuck River to see how far upstream I could get. I'd been warned about possibly shallow water and exposed rocks, but I'm guessing it was the recent heavy rains that made that a non-issue until I reached the Bridge Street overpass in Ansonia.

I was hoping to see some interesting urban landscapes, perhaps some old factory buildings hugging the riverbanks. Surprisingly, that wasn't really the case. In fact, the Naugatuck seemed like a very sterile river, cut off from the communities through which it flows.

While the sound of traffic is ever-present, there was little to see of the old manufacturing towns of Ansonia or Derby, mostly because of the high banks covered with rip rap to stabilize the shoreline.  This is, after all, the site of the infamous Great Flood of 1955, which devastated these communities and swept away many buildings.  If you look closely at the photo below, you'll see two white vertical rulers that measure the water's height.

For a while, the Naugatuck runs parallel to a new paved walking trail  in Ansonia. The trail, which actually runs along the top of a flood control dike, seems already quite popular, judging from the Monday activity. From a boater's perspective, though, there were little, if any views. The river seemed separate from the town. Perhaps one legacy of the flood was to turn the river into something that must be contained and managed than an integral part of the town.  Indeed, I was struck by the fact that none of the homes on the river maintained any kind of river access. Overgrown foliage shrouded a few long-abandoned docks, but it was clear that no one had much use for the river these days.  In my two-and-a-half hour sojourn, I saw not a single other vessel, docked or on the water.

I thought I might be able to paddle as far north as Seymour, but after passing under a series of railroad  and road traffic bridges, I approached what must've been Bridge Street in Ansonia. I was paddling against the current the whole time, but the going got progressively slower. I could see exposed rocks up ahead. I'd been paddling steadily for about an hour at this point, and feeling a little fatigued and fighting a strong current, I decided to turn back.

Now moving with the current, I returned to my starting point in half the time it took me to approach Bridge Street.  I swung right and continued north on the Housatonic, knowing my progress upstream would eventually be halted by the Derby/Shelton dam.  Numerous swallows skimmed the water's surface, searching for insects. I startled an extended family of ducks with little ones, and I watched with sympathy as they struggled to clamber over the rip rap rock until I passed.

Looking north on the Housatonic, Shelton side.

The highlight of my trip was spotting a group of seven large shorebirds perched on a  weeping willow tree branch protruding from the water. Two of the birds were great blue herons and two others looked to be cormorants. I was surprised the fishing was that good, but then, as if to emphasize the point, my attention was drawn to some splashing about in the water, and then a great blue heron swept into the water and emerged with a small fish in its bill.

I'm still curious to see what's further north on the Naugatuck, but I'll save that for another day.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Springtime Means Kayak Time

Geez, I'm really embarrassed to say that I haven't posted about a kayaking trip since 2009. It's not that I haven't been kayaking, but the last time I had a kayak partner was over 3 years ago, and 14.5-foot-long Little Minnow can be unwieldy to handle on my own. So I haven't been out paddling much, and when I do, I tend to take the easy route and head to the Lake Zoar boat ramp here in town.

But serendipitously, I met a friend last week to do a brief walk on the Derby Greenway trail. I was on my way home from New Haven, and the location was convenient to us both. The walk was nice enough, but what I really got interested in was the boat ramp I saw off Caroline Street on the Housatonic. While I have paddled north of the Stevenson Dam on the Newtown/Monroe border, and just south of the Stevenson Dam in Derby, there's a second dam south of the Stevenson that halts your progress a mile or so downriver.

Putting in near downtown Derby would give me three options to explore: 1. Heading north on the Housatonic to cover a section I haven't yet done, although that Derby dam would keep me from going too far up, 2. Taking a quick jog south, then left (north) up the Naugatuck River, which would wind through the valley towns of Derby, Ansonia and possibly Seymour, or 3. Heading south on the Housatonic toward Shelton, and possibly reaching the Charles Wheeler Wildlife Area near Sikorsky.

As I was researching these options today, I came across the blog of a longtime Derby resident and kayaking enthusiast, so I wrote him and was able to get his feedback on possible routes. He warned me of possible shallow water on the Naugatuck, which was a little disappointing, as that was my first choice route. I'm not into portage. Well, never mind, I can explore north and simply turn around and go south if the water gets low.  All a kayaker really needs is a good 12 inches of water. Maybe Friday's rainstorm will have helped.

After checking the weather forecast for next week, I decided to head out early on Monday. I have a very bad habit of always putting "fun" stuff on the back burner and end up not doing what I'd really like to be doing. Since I'm still not working steadily, what the heck! It's free, and I've got the time. I don't like to kayak in the heat of the day, because on the water, there's not often much in the way of shade, and sweating in a hot life vest detracts from the experience.

Monday's high will be just 75 and it should be partly cloudy, which I consider perfect for kayaking. Here's my list of what to bring, because I always seem to forget something:
1. Sunscreen
2. Camera
3. Water bottle
4. Water shoes
5. Plastic bag for collecting trash (hate to see stuff floating around)
6. My lunch
7. PFD vest
8. Watch
9. Map
10. Binoculars

And of course, better not forget this:
11. The kayak with paddle and paddle leash

You'll see my pix Monday night!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's Growing On in Your Garden?

The daffodils and hyacinths are spent, and my three crabapples put on a colorful, albeit brief, show of exuberant spring color. Serviceberry, dogwood and apple flowers still shroud the yard in white, and we await the main show of mountain laurel and rhododendron with bated breath!

In the meantime, here's what's growing in the garden.

Azaelas here come in three colors: chartreause.....

...salmon and....

pure white.

Here is some blue milkweed, which soon will offer up some lovely blue, star-shaped flowers atop grass-like fronds three or four feet high. This is a really under-utilized perennial; I'm not sure why, but I think it's lovely.The foliage reminds me very much of weeping willow leaves. Once established, I find it does slowly spread, but that just means there's more to dig up and plant in other places.

My massive doublefile viburnum always blooms in a way that enhances its distinct appearance, from the outside in.

This blue hosta pairs nicely with lungwort (pulmonaria).

Japanese black pine closeup. It's so rewarding to see a tree seedling you planted really take off.

The cones are much more attractive than the barrel-shaped cones of the Eastern white pine. It took 15 years for this pine to grow about 18 feet tall. That's more than a foot a year, which seems like a lot for an evergreen.

Here are some morels, growing right in my front yard....or are they the poisonous, false morel? Don't worry, I won't eat them!

What's growing in your yard?