Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Cool, Damp Day

We've been getting so much rain lately, and this may explain why the toads and frogs are so noisy. Toads and frogs are supposed to bring on the rain, according to folklore. They have obviously been very busy with this task. It is a cool, damp day and we are supposed to have thunderstorms all evening. I'm sure the toads will be very happy.

My cousin in Florida has a much larger variety of toad on her property than what I've seen outside my door. She has Cane toads, which are native to South and Central America. Cane toads were introduced further north to help control bugs as they have a voracious appetite. They have poison glands and their tadpoles are also poisonous.

It is possible that I have a cane toad on the property, though I haven't seen one. My stepson was in the garage a few nights ago when he heard a banging sound on the door. At first, he thought someone was knocking, but since it was close to midnight, the thought of someone knocking on the door was a little curious. He slowly, carefully opened the door and found a large toad staring up at him. The toad quickly hopped away before he could get a good look at its color and patterns.

The squirrels don't seem to mind the rain. I've noticed that they use their tails like umbrellas when it's sprinkling outside. They don't stop nibbling on the corn cobs or the sunflower seeds, they simply flip their tails up their back so the tip of their tails cover their heads like hairy umbrellas. They rarely stop eating, unless the rain is heavy or hail starts to fall. They will munch and munch, even when thunder shakes and rattles the tree branches.

This morning, I saw two more painted buntings in the seed dishes. These birds are quite stunning with their green wings, blue heads and red bodies. Painted buntings are in the cardinal family and some people say they are the most beautiful birds in America. I believe that all the birds fluttering around my house are beautiful. Painted buntings are also supposed to be shy and secretive, and difficult to see. I have no problem spotting these birds lately. They seem to be very happy here, though they do fly away before I can get a picture. They have interesting eating habits. They like to climb into the seed dishes and stand inside to eat rather than leaning over the edge like the other birds, but they are smaller than the cardinals, too. They appear to be half the size of a cardinal.

My dogs chased a bunny through the yard this morning. I don't think they actually believe they will ever catch a bunny because they start barking and yipping long before they even get close to the poor little creatures, giving advance warning of their presence. I do not think we will have a rabbit's nest on the property this year, though. They generally prefer a large hole beneath one of the trees, and I noticed that the garter snake has taken over this hole as his new home.

The baby birds in the nest beneath the umbrella are beginning to stick their heads up. They are very quiet. Most of the time you can only see the fuzzy tops of their heads, but once in awhile their little beaks poke over the sides of the nest. I have posted a picture of the nest to the right. The baby birds aren't visible in the picture, but they will be soon. They are growing very fast!

A Toads Tale

I didn't get much sleep last night. There was a large American toad sitting outside my bedroom door. He was sending out a mating call, filling his throat with air then letting out a loud, deep, "brrrraaaaapppp!" He was one of the loudest toads I'd ever heard. I crept up to the screen door and tried to talk him into quieting down a bit, but there were too many other toads near the pond answering back, and he was obviously looking for a girlfriend. Every time he'd let out his "brrraaapp," another toad would answer, then another, and another. This went on for at least two hours.

I checked the pond for eggs this morning, just in case. The toads lay eggs in long strings draped around rocks and plants. When the eggs hatch, the pond fills with tiny tadpoles clinging to the rocks, munching on the algae. There is plenty of algae for the toads this year. The rocks are covered in green and I'm sure the little suckers will eat heartily.

Last year, we did not have the opportunity to see the tadpoles grow legs. First, the Southern Leopard frogs dropped their eggs into the ponds. These eggs are left in a nest-like shape. Then the toads draped their strings of eggs over the frog eggs. They all hatched at once. Some of the tadpoles were larger than others, but I'm not sure if these belonged to the frogs or the toads. They never grew large enough for us to identify their parents. The larger tadpoles ate the smaller ones.

About this same time, the dragonflies dropped their eggs in the pond and the water filled with little roach-like creatures that eventually creep from the water, shed their outer layers and turn into dragonflies. The baby dragonflies are called nymphs, or naiads. Some dragonflies stay in the nymph stage for as long as five years. Last year, I did not know about nymphs. When I realized the roachy-looking critters in my pond were eating the tadpoles, I cleaned out the pond and got rid of the roaches. If I had known they were dragonflies I would have let nature run its course.

I saw my first dragonfly of the season yesterday. It was large and lovely with stripes on its wings that gave it a rather graceful, spinning appearance as it moved around my head. I have a feeling the ponds will soon be full of eggs again. This year, when the toads and frogs and dragonflies begin to hatch, I intend to move some of the frog and toad eggs to a kiddie pool and others to the creek on our property to give them more of a chance for survival. In the mean time, I will be going without sleep. There is another toad sitting on my back porch.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Hug a Tree

My granddaughter, Layla, loves walks. It is her favorite activity. When she was a baby we went on daily nature walks. She sat in her stroller and stared at the trees in awe as I explained how they changed through the seasons and showed her leaves, needles, and fruit that had fallen to the ground. Eventually she started pulling herself up onto the couch, climbing onto the cushions so she could grab the windowsill and stare out the window. I assumed she was watching the birds, or even the chattering neighbors. When she started to walk I quickly learned what it was that had captured her attention just outside the window’s glass. When her parents took her outside for a tour of the lawn, the first thing she did was toddle over to the small apple tree in her front yard and wrap her arms around its trunk to give it a great big hug.

I share my granddaughter’s love of trees. My life would be naked without trees—cold and exposed. From the tiniest fruit tree to the towering oaks that grace my home, I am in awe of the beauty of these precious gifts from God. When I feel weak and afraid and in need of strength and stability, I wrap my arms around the trunk of a Live Oak, taking slow, deep breaths, reveling in its constancy and might. When the wind races past my home and the window glass shakes and trembles, it is the leaves of the trees that provide the soft, shimmering sounds to soothe my soul.

My little backyard menagerie would not exist without the sprawling oak with its long, thick branches that reach into each corner. The squirrels use these branches to leap onto the roof when they hear my noisy dogs. The younger squirrels use the branches as a jungle gym, chasing each other from one side of the tree to the other, sometimes hanging upside down, making chattering sounds, teasing and playing. These same branches, like giant fingers, hold the corn cobs the little squirrels use for their afternoon snacks. The cardinals, tufted titmouse and finches use the rough bark for landings and the leaves for shelter from the rain. And only God knows how many tiny bugs creep around the bark each day providing food for the birds.

We planted six fruit trees in our front yard. I am certain we will lose most of the fruit to the deer, and this feels right to me. Our many pecan trees already feed more than their share of little creatures with their thick, hard nuts and there is still plenty leftover for us. As for beauty, the crape myrtles with their pink and purple flowers are a favorite of Texans and in our yard they shade and shelter both ponds. When the wind blows, the delicate little flowers fill the pond like a lovely, floating blanket. The crape myrtles are favorites for the birds, as well as the large garden spiders that use the branches for their intricate and delicate webs.

As humans, we have found many uses for trees, from shelter to paper. Fortunately, with the current widespread use of the internet, we no longer have an excuse for destroying trees for bills and advertisements, but we do it anyway. Now, I’m not talking about cards that provide reminders of love that are passed on for generations, or watercolor paper used for works of art that provide immeasurable pleasure to all. Each day when I check the mail, I find my box full of paper that will simply end up in the recycle bin and it’s a ridiculous waste of trees and time. Today I received a large mailing from a local store that I already visit twice a week, a two page letter in an envelope with a return envelope from an organization I joined through the internet urging me to send them money that they could have saved by using the internet for their message, and a two page letter and envelope from a company that sends me “reminders” each month informing me that I will not owe them another payment until a year from now. I am taking the time this afternoon to write each of these organizations a letter on the internet, urging them to stop sending me paper in the mail. When I am finished, I will walk outside to my front yard, wrap my arms around a mighty oak, and give it a great big hug of appreciation. I urge you to do the same. The sense of peace to be gained from this simple act is truly indescribable.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Quiet, Rainy Day

It was a quiet, rainy day and at first I thought the birds and squirrels were all sleeping peacefully in their nests, then I noticed a large congregation at the food dishes. It seems they were waiting for breaks in the rain to fetch their snacks. I noticed some new, red birds on the table outside my bedroom door. They are not robins or cardinals. They are smaller than cardinals and have blue heads, green wings, and bright red chests. I believe they are painted buntings.

On the front pond, two mourning doves sat in the water beneath the pecan tree. They were bathing, dipping their heads in the pond then allowing the water to drip down their backs. They are a pretty gray color with black spots on their wings. I loved listening to their call, a soft "ahoo, oo, oo, oo." Some believe it is a sad sound, but I find it soothing. As I watched them through the window they did something I was not expecting at all. They began to swim! And they looked so happy swimming! They moved slowly, floating, enjoying the gentle warmth of the water.

Mourning doves can be found just about anywhere in the United States, and they love bird feeders, so of course they would be found at my house! They like trees, shrubs and water, and we have these in abundance. I don't remember seeing any in my yard last year, but I've seen many this spring. They spend a great deal of time beneath the sprawling Oak tree in our backyard. I hang corn cobs from the tree branches for the squirrels, and I think the doves eat the corn that falls to the ground.

Mourning doves build their nests out of twigs, grass and leaves, and it is constructed so loosely that you can sometimes see into the nest looking up from the ground. At first, I suspected the two afternoon swimmers were a mated pair, but if they were, one would most likely be on a nest this time of year, so it's possible they were just friends sharing a swim together. It's also possible that they don't have a nest yet. I do not plan to look for their nest. They will abandon their nest if they feel threatened by humans or animals.

It is dark now and I think I spooked the night bird in the vines. There is a bird nesting in the vines outside my sliding glass bedroom door. I do not notice the bird in the daytime, but when I step outside at night to look at the moon, the bird becomes nervous and flies away. I think the bird may have its nest toward the top of the house near the rain gutter. I know for certain there is a lizard living in this same general area. It scampers about whenever I walk past. Tonight, when I stepped outside to see how much rain had fallen, the bird flew away and the lizard scampered about. They must be friendly with each other as they sleep pretty close to each other and have both been there for many months now. The weather service is predicting thunderstorms for the rest of the evening and all day tomorrow. These particular little creatures will be safe, though, because the roof hangs over three feet. Perhaps this is why we have so many little creatures so close to our home--they know they can find protection.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bright, Flashing Cardinals

Springtime in the Hill Country brings an explosion of color to the fields and roadsides. In my yard there are bluebonnets growing between the rocks, beneath the trees, even amongst the thickest patches of grass. Giant, scarlet and pink and white amarylis crowd around my back door, their flowers as large as dinner plates. Bluebirds bathe each morning in the pond outside my bedroom window, perching on the branches, dipping their heads beneath the water then throwing them back so the droplets trickle through their feathers. Sometimes they leap into the shallow area of the pond and sit in the water, ruffling their feathers, washing away the winter grime.

As I walk through my house and glance out each window I see bright flashes of red fly past. The flashes belong to the brilliantly-colored feathers of the male cardinals. Sometimes the red looks scarlet with a faint hint of purple, and sometimes it is so bright it is almost orange. The males also have a black mask across their face, a patch of black that surrounds their eyes, goes across the bridge of their nose and beneath the chin. Their beaks are a glowing orange. The females are just as beautiful to me with their cinnamon-brown feathers brushed with red and their bright orange beaks. The softer color may be a type of disguise that helps her hide her children from predators. Both males and females have a crest on top of their head that looks like a little pointy hat.

Around my house, there are so many cardinals that sometimes it looks like a cloud of red when I step outside. It is mating season and I often see the males chasing each other through the gardens as they try to build their homes. The brightest colored males are generally the most successful in the chase--they get the girls and they get the sunflower seeds I leave on all the tables! The increased food is what keeps their colors so bright.

Once, last week, I saw a female sitting by herself on a branch in the crape myrtle tree outside my bedroom. There was a male perched on the edge of the table, digging through the seed dish. He grabbed a seed in his sharp beak then joined the female on the branch and fed her the seed. The female ducked her head demurely and opened her tiny orange beak to accept the gift. It was so sweet, so tender.

Both male and female cardinals love to talk and sing! The sounds of the cardinals fill the air from sunrise to sunset and sometimes in between. A few nights ago I was outside looking at the moon and I could hear a cardinal calling in a nearby tree. The make many sounds, but my favorite is one that sounds like "pretty, pretty, pretty." They repeat this sound five or six times, and if a cardinal is singing the pretty song nearby while I'm gardening, I answer back. Sometimes, when I answer, the bird will pause, and I imagine the young bird cocking its head from side to side, wondering what on earth I'm trying to say with my awkward, garbled sounds, but he or she will always continue a few seconds later. They will say the words, "pretty, pretty, pretty," pause, then repeat the words all over again.

Baby cardinals do not start to sing until they are at least two months old. Their feathers are brown and their beaks black, and they stay very quiet. This could also be a form of protection. Gradually, their beaks grow purple, then scarlet, and their feathers start to change. By the time they celebrate their first Christmas, they begin to resemble their colorful parents.

It is also during the winter time that the parents and babies join the rest of the flock, which can reach up to a thousand birds! In spring, like now, they spend most of their time chasing each other around, establishing their territory, building their homes where they can raise their young families and keep them safe.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bird Nest Season

This is bird nest season around our house. We move carefully as we do our daily outdoor chores in case we accidentally disturb a nest. So far, we have found one beneath the umbrella on the patio table and in my husband's toolbox in the garage. I am certain there is at least one other nest in the garage judging from the amount of birds coming and going and there may be one in the hanging planter by my bedroom window. I also suspect there is one in the shrubbery outside my bedroom patio door. I do not actively seek them out to avoid disturbing the mothers and babies.

Last year, a bird built a nest in a box of tile that a worker left on the back picnic table during a remodel. We did not move the box because the nest was there. I was concerned that it was low enough for a predator, but I didn't know if moving the nest would frighten the mother away from the nest. I also couldn't figure out how to move it without having the nest fall apart. One morning, when I stepped outside my back door, I knew something awful had happened because there were tiny feathers on the table. I glanced in the box and the nest was empty. However, the nest was tucked back beneath other items that were not disturbed. This bothered me for a long time. I couldn't figure out how a predator got into the box and ate the birds without disturbing any of the other items.

Today, as I was reading about squirrels, I learned that squirrels are notorious nest robbers and will eat small birds. This broke my heart, of course. We have many, many squirrels on the property and I encourage them with corn and sunflower seeds. I love watching them, particularly the young brother and sister who chase each other around the trees. One would think that with the amount of snackies I provide they would be too full to rob nests, but that's not the way nature operates. No matter how many times I declare my property a "no kill" zone, nature still has its way. The dogs still chase the squirrels as soon as I open the back door, the cat sits at the glass door, drooling over the birds, the large garter snake on the property continues to prowl for frogs and the road runner family--they have a new baby this year--continue to hunt for lizards.

I read an article last week about road runners and how they are so fast they can leap into the air and grab a hummingbird mid-flight. The hummingbirds are starting to hover around my back door, buzzing me as I perform my daily chores. I noticed the road runners strolling through the property yesterday, their heads jerking from side to side as they scanned the rock walls of my home, searching for anoles. They really are fascinating creatures, but I sometimes wish they would find another place to hunt. If they did, though, I would never see them.

The baby lizards are emerging, as well, which explains why my cat continues to try to sneak outside as soon as anyone moves toward the door. I found a baby lizard in the pond yesterday. It broke my heart. I tried to revive it, but it was obviously under water too long. I have numerous logs draped across the middle so the creatures can grab onto something if they fall in, but I still end up with casualties. They always drink from the smaller pond, most likely because the birds use the larger one for bathing. The snake, however, prefers the smaller pond, as well, because there is an overhang of branches with rocks tucked underneath. Apparently, garter snakes like to bathe, too, particularly when it's hot outside!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Butterflies in the Hill Country

It's butterfly time again in the Texas Hill Country, a time when thousands of Monarch butterflies descend upon us during their annual trip north. The butterfly migration coincides with the arrival of our spring flowers that sprinkle the fields and roadsides. The Monarchs return in the fall, which is when I'm generally ready for them. Fall is when most of my garden's butterfly plants tend to bloom.

Texas has more butterfly species than any other state in the U.S. and the Hill Country is home to more than 150 varieties. I've been blessed with the presence of Whites and Sulphurs--which are yellow--for many weeks now. They flit about my head when I am working on my plants. I also have a few pipevine swallowtails that seem to favor my yard. These are some of my favorites. They have a wingspan of about 3 1/2 inches. They are black with a bluish metallic color on their hind wings. They tend to favor the lantana I grow in the back yard, but we also have an unusual amount of bluebonnets blooming this spring, and the swallowtails like these, too.

My stepson spotted an interesting butterfly last week. It was white with black spots, like cow markings. It paused on our outdoor umbrella as if posing so we could take a closer look. It's markings were perfectly proportioned. It slowly opened and closed its wings, then flew off again. It wasn't very large as far as butterflies go.

I seem to attract butterflies and always have from the time I was a child. Once, when I was around six, a butterfly landed on the tip of my nose. I have never forgotten that moment. They frequently land on my hands, arms, clothing, and sometimes on top of my head.

I know more than a few people who do not like butterflies. They think they look too much like bugs, which makes sense considering they are bugs! The way I see it, all bugs have their purpose on our planet, and as long as the bug isn't trying to bite me or creep into my mouth when I'm asleep, then I am perfectly content sharing my space with it.